This article is from the April issue of Total Politics. Find other columns in Nik's series on the parliamentary debates that made history here
“We are here because, for the first time in many years, British sovereign territory has been invaded by a foreign power,” Margaret Thatcher announced, as MPs gathered in the Commons for the first Saturday session since the Suez crisis. Many have watched the dramatisation of this moment in The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep’s Thatcher fought a battle akin to the one she, as a woman, had fought all her life. The fierce personalisation has some basis in reality.
Enoch Powell (UUP, South Down) originated the prime minister’s “soubriquet” – the ‘Iron Lady’ – and suggested, “in the next week or two this House, the nation and the right honourable lady herself will learn of what metal she is made”. It is said this peroration steeled Thatcher’s resolve – it became 'Maggie’s war'.
The Falklands war pulled the nation out of the early 1980s doldrums and elevated Thatcher to heroic status. It didn’t win the Tories the 1983 election, as some claim, but it helped.
However, as MPs gathered on that sombre Saturday, the tone was more febrile than ferrous. Edward du Cann (Con, Taunton), chairman of the 1922 committee, lamented, “we appear to have been so woefully ill-prepared”.
Failure to guard against Argentine aggression was a common refrain. Dr David Owen (SDP, Plymouth Devonport), a former Labour foreign secretary, protested that forces should have been sent a month ago. Russell Johnston (Lib, Inverness), a member of the Falkland Islands Association, called it a “shameful day”. Britain had been “humiliated”, said two former colonies ministers, Julian Amery (Con, Brighton Pavilion) and Sir Nigel Fisher (Con, Surbiton), and the bellicose George Foulkes (Lab, Carrick, Cumnock & Doon Valley). Amery blamed the government’s recently proposed cuts to the Royal Navy: “The consequences of our defeat yesterday will be a good deal more expensive.”
The Falkland Islands today are guarded by RAF Mount Pleasant and the recently deployed state-of-the-art destroyer HMS Dauntless. However, the latest round of defence cutbacks have been received with similar dismay to that expressed by defence secretary John Nott in 1981.
Ted Rowlands (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), a Foreign Office minister when Southern Thule was occupied in 1976, blamed weak military intelligence and the “massive misjudgement” of the defence and foreign secretaries. The latter, Lord Carrington, resigned two days later.
Some lonely voices spoke out against rash and forceful retaliation. Raymond Whitney (Con, Wycombe) was sceptical of Britain’s ability to retake the Islands: “It is not defeatism but realism.” He was mostly shouted down. The House stood resolute: it was wounded and truculent, but determined to do what it believed was right.
Patrick Cormack (Con, Staffordshire South-West), avowed: “Every Member looks upon the Falkland Islanders as he or she looks upon his or her constituents. In a sense, this is what they are.” And what they remain.