An Interview with Nigel Phillips CBE

Nigel Phillips CBE

Governor of the Falkland Islands

When did you attend Durham University, which course did you take and how has this impacted your career? 

Well, I attended Durham University Business School in the early 90s when I undertook a four-year Master’s in Business Administration by distance learning. The programme was a modular based system where the first three years were academic lecturing and notes and then the final year was a project. How has it affected my career? It’s always very difficult to answer these questions, isn’t it? You cannot say with certainty that a particular course or activity led to certain outcomes later in life, but I would say with some confidence that the course expanded my horizons, providing me with a whole bunch of resources that I’d not had before, upon which I could draw as I went through my career. At the time I took the MBA I was a junior officer in the Royal Air Force and I would say that it kickstarted a lifelong commitment to evidence-based decision making and learning. Now those two concepts have become rather mainstream in the UK Government in recent times, but at that point it really was not part of the lexicon of how we discussed progression as a professional officer. I was an engineering officer at the time, and that commitment has become a core to how I’ve done business since. I think it would be fair to say that that, together with a degree of luck, never forget luck, although of course the harder you work the luckier one seems to become, it has helped a career that has developed in ways I’d never foreseen. It has been a wonderful journey and I’m deeply grateful for it. Was that directly down to taking the MBA? I can’t say it was directly down to the MBA, but did it assist? Oh yes, it most certainly did. 

What are the principal responsibilities of the Governor of the Falkland Islands, and how are these balanced against those of the elected representatives of the Legislative Assembly? 

The term Governor really could be considered, to some extent, as a misnomer. I don’t ‘govern’ the people of the Falkland Islands; I have a role which is described as the Governor and is defined in the Constitution of the Falkland Islands. I think I should start by saying that the reason there is a Governor here is because that is the wish of the people of these Islands. They have voted to remain a member of the UK Overseas Territories family of nations, they’ve done so in an overwhelming way in the referendum that was held in 2013, and that comes with a constitutional structure which sets an executive that is chaired by the Governor. But the Governor is not there to make the law, that is the responsibility of the elected representatives of the people, the Governor is there really in several guises. First, in being a member of the UK Overseas Territories family there are a number of international obligations that need to be complied with and part of the role of the Governor is to ensure that compliance is maintained. Although I have to say in a well-functioning democracy, and the Falkland Islands are a well-functioning democracy, compliance is not onerous, it’s basically executed through the normal process of government which takes great care to look after the citizens of the Falkland Islands. A second element of the role is the assurance of good governance, and what I mean by that is the structure of government here is that the elected representatives make law, as I have said, but those laws are implemented by the public service. It’s a professional public service that’s headed by a chief executive who reports to the Governor and the Governor’s role really is to make sure that in the delivery of the services, as set by the elected representatives, is actually happening. Whilst the public service here is small, it is well-functioning and I’m pleased to say that the Falkland Islands have a very good track record of good governance in its various states. It also has a real commitment to transparency and as we are aware, transparency is a key component of a government that’s working well on behalf of its people. 

I think the final point I would make is regard to the role as the Her Majesty The Queen’s Representative. Her Majesty appoints Governors, the actual recommendation is made by the UK Government, by the Prime Minister in fact, but Her Majesty appoints and as such you are Her representative in the territory and that comes with a number of representational and ceremonial aspects which, in the Falkland Islands, are significant. It’s a vibrant community, there’s an awful lot going on, and the Governor has the privilege of being invited to much of that and to participate in various ways. We also, of course, have the commemoration of the conflict in 1982, and there are a number of aspects where the Governor, on behalf of the people of the Islands, together with the elected representatives and other groups are basically involved in the process of remembering and giving thanks for those who gave so much to ensure the liberation of the Islands – something which I have to say in the 39 years since, the Islands have made fantastic use of and have really driven forwards as a society and as a country in providing a really good quality of life for their citizens. 

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the Islands and what measures have been taken to alleviate these pressures?

Well, you don’t need me to say that it’s a global pandemic and, you know, whilst there have in history been pandemics before, I think in the modern era this is by far the most significant that mankind has had to deal with. For the Falkland Islands, 8000 miles from the United Kingdom, limited resources, off the coast of South America which sadly has become, in many ways at the moment, the epicentre of the virus, it’s been a pretty challenging time insofar as the lack of resilience that is here to deal with the virus had it entered the Islands. Thankfully, through a degree of luck at the outset, but then good policy making since, we have been spared community transmission of coronavirus. For that everyone here is deeply grateful and it means actually, other than for a period, life for many Falkland Islanders in terms of normal day to day living has been largely normal. Where there has been an impact has been the severe reduction on international links. All our air links to the continent have been suspended for the entire duration of the pandemic and whilst we have maintained our link through the UK Military Air Bridge to the United Kingdom, that too has been restricted. This is understandable given, together with our measures, our ambition and very firm intent to ensure that the virus does not get into the community. Now, one of the big game changers, of course, was vaccination and, with real gratitude to the United Kingdom, the population has now been largely entirely vaccinated – two doses – which gives us huge, huge confidence that we are able to proceed in a responsible way, but we must still take account of the risks. I am not an epidemiologist, so I won’t go through the technical detail of variants of concern et al, but it’s something where continued caution is required. It is for the elected representatives to make the decisions as to when and how the measures should be adjusted in light of the prevailing evidence, noting that there is a balance to be struck in making sure we are not inflicting unnecessary damage to the economy and of course being mindful of mental health for those who are required to go into quarantine. 

Looking at the economy, the pandemic has had a direct impact insofar as we have lost an entire austral summer tourist season. The Falkland Islands, unbelievably perhaps for some, but in a normal tourist season will receive over 60,000 cruise ship passengers. There has been none in the last austral summer and who knows what the next austral summer will bring, but it’d be a brave person to say that we’d have anything that resembles a normal season. I just don’t see that being possible. And, of course, with the air links being reduced, we’ve reduced all air passenger tourism as well. Now I have to say the government has responded really well to this. A number of measures have been put in place to support the economy and one of which was an internal travel scheme known as the TRIP scheme and its permitted Islanders, in many cases for the first time in their lives, to travel the sites and the outer Islands that tourists come to visit, but they never have. They’re expensive to get to, you have to take a small aircraft flight to get out to them, the lodges are wonderful but again, there’s a degree of expense involved in this. They are remote locations and so logistics are expensive but the TRIP scheme, which allowed a sum of money for every adult and child normally resident in the Falkland Islands, has been an absolute boon and has allowed Islanders to really appreciate the beauty of the Falkland Islands because the wildlife here is stunning and whilst literally minutes outside of Stanley you can see whales breaching, and indeed I was doing that myself just last weekend, when you get around to the Islands we’ve got globally significant populations of albatross, of various penguins and a multitude of seals, in various guises, and it’s just extraordinary to be able to get as close as you can to them, obviously in a responsible way. But to be able to get out there as somebody who perhaps has never done that before in their life, even though they’re Falkland Island born and bred, has been a wonderful, wonderful opportunity and one of the real silver linings. Naturally in all of this we have not lost sight of the fact that for so many the coronavirus has been a really dreadful thing. And let me just finish by saying none of us, none of us here has anything other than compassion for all those on the mainland of South America, and of course in the United Kingdom and more widely, who are suffering to such a dreadful extent with coronavirus. But obviously the mainland is our closest neighbour and when we look at what’s happening across the continent one can only feel for them and hope that things will improve soon, and the vaccination programmes will facilitate their recovery. 

A bit of a change now, how British is the political and cultural identity of Falkland Islanders? 

The Constitution evolves in what is required to become what’s known as a Falkland Island status holder, but one of the prerequisites in the Constitution of 2009 is that you be a British national, that you have a British passport. So, the Falkland Islands culturally have been British for almost their entire populated existence. There have been other nationalities settled here, and I don’t want to go through the whole history of the Falkland Islands, but from 1833 it’s been an unbroken line of British administration. But we are, as I said earlier, an island off the east coast of the mainland of South America, 8000 miles away from the United Kingdom. So whilst it is British in its political mindset it has obviously adapted to the local environment and Falkland Islanders are distinctly Falkland Islanders. Their families may have originated in the West Country or Scotland or from Wales, or indeed from Chile, but they are Falkland Islanders. There’s a very strong rural aspect, which is the cultural heartland of Falkland Islands, and whilst there are few people involved directly in the rural economy today, it is still something which drives much of peoples’ identity as Falkland Islanders. Economically, agriculture, farming, particularly of sheep, and you’ll be aware that we have a ram on our flag, has been replaced by fishing, which is without question the wealth of the nation. But for many Islanders, the dream of owning a farm and raising stock is something to aspire to and the government puts in place significant measures and assistance packages, but also good policy and good practice, to facilitate growth in that sector. And indeed, the development in fleece quality, so basically Merino-type sheep, making the fleece microns ever smaller so that you can wear the wool closer to the skin which gives it greater value, has been something that the owners have been really successful in, which is no mean feat actually, because it’s a pretty challenging environment for sheep here and so you’ve got to get the balance right. If you go too fine in the microns, then the animal is unable to survive the winters. If you go too course, where they’re more robust and hardy and have a better percentage opportunity of weathering winter, then the fleece is less valuable. So that balance of getting it right has been something that farmers here have worked on for many, many years and they really are doing well. Falkland Island wool commands a very good price. But it would also be fair to say that farming represents less than 3% of GDP, whereas fishing represents more than 65% of GDP, so you can see where the economic drivers are. 

Going further, how do Islanders view Argentine claims to sovereignty over the Falklands? 

One of the principal tenets of the United Kingdom’s approach to the Falkland Islands, which as I’ve said has chosen to be a member of the UK Overseas Territory family of nations, is the right of self-determination. This principle is protected by the UN Charter, and it’s something that is fundamental, really, in the right of a people to decide for themselves to whom they wish to be affiliated and how they wish to be governed. Argentina’s claim on the Falkland Islands is deeply unwelcome and deeply flawed. It’s one which every year gets played out, and indeed has just been played out in the UN yesterday in something called the C-24 Committee, which is a committee that considers decolonization in the aftermath of the Second World War. Argentina, every year, makes its demand to commence discussions to address the question of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. There is no question on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, the Falkland Islands are British for as long as Falkland Islanders wish them to be British and frankly, it is deeply, deeply frustrating, disappointing, saddening that Argentina continues on this path where it seeks to deny the right of people to choose for themselves how they wish to be governed. 

It’s very difficult to see a resolution in any short order. It is part of the Argentine Constitution that the President of that Republic continues to progress the sovereignty claim. It’s not just about the Falkland Islands, it’s also about South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and indeed Argentina has extensive claims in Antarctica as well. These claims too are equally flawed. It’s something we just have to deal with frankly. When we turn to Islanders themselves, how do they view it? It is impossible to discuss this without being mindful of the consequences of 1982 and the conflict. I think for many Islanders it’s left deep emotional scars. Understandably, you would struggle to trust a nation that has invaded you. Despite Argentina’s protestations that it will only pursue, now, a diplomatic course to take forward its agenda, it’s very hard to believe that. There are many Islanders still in the Islands who went through the occupation and experienced what occurred. It’s an emotive topic, understandably. Clearly the aim is to continue with life here, to continue to develop the economy and the services for people, to ensure that families have a home that they can live in and develop their society as they so wish. Argentina, from time to time, seeks to make that more difficult through one means or another, whether that be connected with flights or shipping, or other types of economic impediments to the development of the islands; it is something which is obviously going to be in the background of all political thought, but it does not stop progress. It is to the Falkland Islanders great credit that, despite everything, there has been a commitment to a humanitarian project to identify Argentine soldiers killed in 1982 in the war, who were unidentified. Some 122 soldiers previously lay in graves marked ‘known only to God’, but now through a project plan that’s been administered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC, we have been successful in identifying 115 of them. It is a real credit to the Falkland Islands that they’ve allowed this to take place. It’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter what your nationality, if you are the relative of somebody killed in war it is a traumatic experience and for their final resting place to be known is hugely important at a human level. Indeed, the Islanders, with the support of the British military here, have facilitated several direct flights to allow the families of those soldiers who’ve recently been identified to come to the Islands on several occasions to visit the graves of the newly identified remains. That generosity of spirit does not in any way give up the view that I’ve expressed that the Falkland Islands are British for as long as they wish them to be British and it’s for Islanders to exercise their right of self-determination – there is no weakening of that commitment, but there is also a commitment to do the right thing by human beings, whatever their nationality. 

Just expanding again, how is the Falklands War remembered on the Islands and do its lasting consequences still impact daily life? 

Well, I’ve touched on in my earlier response the emotional impact, but in terms of the conflict and its effect on political life, whilst it is there, Falkland Islanders quite rightly seek to get on with their lives. There’s a real sense of gratitude to for the British forces who fought to liberate these Islands. Any returning veteran is treated, rightly, as a hero; they are a symbol of that resistance and that commitment and that determination to move forward. And interestingly next year, which will be the 40th anniversary, the motto is ‘Forward at Forty’; it’s about what have we done as a consequence of the conflict to make life better for Falkland Islanders and those who come here. And I think that’s absolutely right. It’s interesting, in a way, the conflict was something of a catalyst. It led to a number of significant developments which may have happened anyway, but I doubt they’d have happened in quite the same time frame. They were profound changes – the start of a journey to where we are today in the 2009 Constitution. There were significant changes to the operation of governance, much more control passed from the Governor to the elected representatives of the people. Land reform accelerated, where there had been significant absentee landlord ownership many, many more farms are now owned by locals. But one of the key things that happened was the transition to an exclusive economic zone which allowed the licensing of fishing. Hitherto that had been uncontrolled and we had significant fleets from Eastern Europe and the then Soviet Union who came down here and fished really without any control with a concomitant impact upon the oceans. By licensing and regulating that activity, the Islands were able to derive an income which far exceeded that that had occurred before the conflict. To give you an example, in 1981 GDP was around £6 million, in 2020 it was some £250 million, which actually, whilst in total terms is not a significant sum, in terms of the size of the population – roughly 3500 – GDP per capita is in the top ten in the world, which explains to a large extent the quality of services that are enjoyed here. But the other thing that the declaration of that exclusive economic zone permitted was the ability to bring in sustainable fishing as a way of going forward, in terms of the management of the fisheries, to the long-term benefit of Islanders. 

Returning slightly to the Argentine approach, the Islands have sought scientific cooperation with Argentina because science must underpin any effective fisheries management policy, but unfortunately the current Argentine administration has chosen not to continue with that cooperation which shows the silliness of their approach because that’s to their own detriment – their own fishing stocks are similarly impacted by large fleets on the high seas and so cooperation would have been to the benefit of both. But yes, the conflict was a catalyst, certainly, to a development pathway which has really seen the Islands prosper. Yet the conflict will never be forgotten here and neither will the sense of gratitude for those who fought for and won the freedom of the Islands. 

In 2018, following an extensive demining effort, you personally removed the last warning sign from the perimeter of the Goose Green minefield. How successful have the attempts to demine the Islands been and what obstacles of these efforts faced? 

So, there were a range of minefields across the Islands actually, the Argentines had, quite understandably from the military perspective, put minefields where they thought there may be an axis of advance for the British forces. They knew we were coming, and they had time to prepare those minefields. Now clearly the Argentines had intended to keep the Islands so actually they’d kept very good records of the minefields. Unfortunately, some records were lost in the immediate post conflict period which made things rather more challenging than they could have been, but in the main there were good records and so the UK government appointed contractors who undertook this work had a pretty good starting point. As long as they could work out the orientation of the minefield they could then work out where the mines should be. One of the challenges faced was that in the immediate post conflict period, UK forces had begun some demining activity but that was ceased when we started to take a number of casualties; it was subsequently realised that this needed to be a much more structured project. But this meant that some of the minefields were partially cleared, and whenever that was the case, unless you had positive confirmation that a mine had been removed, you had to work on what’s known as a missing mine protocol, which meant you basically had to look for that mine to a degree of confidence that if you couldn’t find one that there wasn’t one there. That was a challenging piece of work which was exacerbated by the weather. The Falkland Islands have maritime weather systems and at times the weather was something else. So mainly former British military were leading the team but the guys on the ground doing the digging were largely Zimbabwean and, I have to say, everybody here takes their hat off to them for doing what was a dangerous job, but a job that was also undertaken at times in some really challenging conditions. That was not always the case, the weather here can be absolutely glorious and there were times when I was extremely jealous of them being outside enjoying an incredible environment, but the job they did was superb. 

The Islands are now entirely mine free, in compliance with the Ottawa Convention. One of the challenges that is always going to be the case is that mines that were laid in beach areas. Mines can be washed away and sometimes, depending on the currents, they can be washed back in. 

Now, whether or not that’s going to happen, it’s a pretty small fraction, whether or not the mine that’s washed back in is still functional is an even smaller fraction and then the chances of somebody actually stepping on one of those mines is an even smaller fraction still, but it’s still a risk and it’s something we have to manage. 

It’s one of those interesting things that Falkland Island children, rather than being taught to beware of strangers, which perhaps may have been the case in certain places in the UK, were being taught, ‘look out for mines’. Mine recognition, I have to say, has been a significant element of life growing up here. And, of course, I’ve really not mentioned them previously, but I will just briefly now, there’s also significant cooperation with the continuing British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI), present here. We have a lot of UK service personnel here who continue to defend the Islands and that cooperation is something that’s been a real part of community life and one that continues to this day. Without question it’s a fantastic situation that we’ve declared the Islands mine free, albeit one has to remain vigilant for some of those very rare occasions when we might have some washed back in. 

A number of the Zimbabwean demining team have recently decided to relocate permanently to the Falklands. How diverse are the Islands and to what extent could they be considered globally interconnected? 

Well, I think a lot of people will be staggered, but in a population of just 3500, we have over 60 nationalities represented here, which is just fantastic. It’s an incredibly diverse community and one that is enriched by the various elements of it. We have significant diasporas from Chile, from Saint Helena, from the Philippines but also a growing diaspora not just from Zimbabwe but also from South Africa. Further afield, Australia and New Zealand are well represented. By far the largest diaspora is British from the UK, noting by the way that Falkland Islanders are British as well. I’m also pleased to say the Falkland Islands are extremely tolerant of the LGBTQ+ community; we have a vibrant scene here, which includes an annual event called the Dragstravaganza, which is something to behold I can tell you, but it’s absolutely brilliant and it’s just a joy to be in a community that embraces diversity in all its forms. It is something which I think marks out the Falkland Islands. We spoke before on what is the unique nature of Falkland Islanders, well tolerance of others is definitely part of it and the desire to make people valued members of the community is something that I’ve seen in abundance. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are not challenges. Income inequality was highlighted by the pandemic but I’m pleased to say that this has been recognised by the politicians here and a lot of thought is going into how that might that be addressed. In fact, recognising the spirit to learn and move forward that is so evident here is probably a good place to close this interview.