This article is from the April 2012 issue of Total Politics
“The Falklands marked her soul and mine.” Denis Thatcher’s words perhaps state more eloquently than any number of military or historic tomes the profound seriousness of the Falklands conflict.
It is easy now to look back 30 years and somehow see the events in the South Atlantic as part of some seamless inevitability in the evolution of one of Britain’s most remarkable and powerful prime ministers of the twentieth century.
Yet as Argentina contemplated invasion of the islands that had seen a continuous peaceful British presence since 1833, even the most optimistic forecaster would have been foolhardy to predict that the episode would profoundly enhance Margaret Thatcher’s reputation.
Writing many years later in her memoirs, Lady Thatcher remembers it thus: “Much was at stake: what we were fighting for 8,000 miles away in the South Atlantic was not only the territory and the people of the Falklands, important though they were. We were defending our honour as a nation, and principles of fundamental importance to the whole world – above all, that aggressors should never succeed and that international law should prevail over the use of force.” She could easily have added that she was fighting for the right to remain prime minister.
It is informative to remember the extent to which doubt – about whether it was even right, let alone practicable, to regain the Islands by force – dominated debate. The shadow of Suez still cast itself long over British national pride, decision-making and military prowess. Tony Benn was far from alone in predicting, in the House of Commons in April 1982, that: “The task force will cost this country a far greater humiliation than we have already suffered. The attempt will fail.” That same month Francis Pym hinted from within Thatcher’s own cabinet at real doubt when he said: “Maybe we should ask the Falklanders how they feel about a war.”
Perhaps the strongest expression of doubt came in the superbly crafted words of Enoch Powell, delivered in the Commons chamber: “The prime minister, shortly after she came into office, received a sobriquet as the ‘Iron Lady’. It arose in the context of remarks which she made about defence against the Soviet Union and its allies; but there was no reason to suppose that the right honourable lady did not welcome and, indeed, take pride in that description. In the next week or two this House, the nation and the right honourable lady herself, will learn of what metal she is made.”
This was a high-risk adventure taken by a new prime minister without previous military experience or grounding and against the advice of many of her key advisers. It was an adventure in which even Thatcher’s closest ally President Reagan found himself unable to side unequivocally with the United Kingdom, providing a useful caution to those who got too easily misty-eyed about Thatcher’s mythical influence over the US.
And it was an adventure, it’s worth recalling, that many felt was caused by home-grown mistakes in both diplomacy and military policy. Thatcher was asserting as late as February 1982 that: “Our judgement is that the presence of the Royal Marines garrison is sufficient deterrent against any possible aggression.” While giving its actions no legitimacy or excuse, it’s certainly arguable that the UK gave no decisive signal to Argentina that an invasion would be met with a military response.
It is interesting to speculate whether these matters and perceived errors of Thatcher’s government may have gained more currency and stimulated more widespread political debate had not Peter Carrington’s resignation as foreign secretary provided Thatcher with much-needed political cover. With Carrington absorbing that blame, Thatcher was quickly able to move from blame to action. And she soon began to display the characteristics in war that have become her defining hallmarks. Firstly, she knew her mind, and resolved to bend others to it. She intended to recapture the Islands by force and her indulgence of peace plans was just that – an indulgence, allowing her to be seen to explore all other avenues while vigorously planning her preferred one.
Also, she was prepared to resign rather than yield, as she demonstrated when she told her ministers in May 1982: “Gentlemen, I have spent the night thinking about this Peruvian [peace] initiative and I have to tell you that, if it is your decision to accept, then you will have to find another prime minister.” Increasingly, few doubted that she meant it.
Cecil Parkinson recalls one of the first times the war cabinet met, and how politicians reflected afterwards that the military had “better be up to it”. Later, the military told the politicians that it had been thinking exactly the same of them. Yet mutual doubts evaporated, as Admiral Terence Lewin later recalled: “She was a decisive leader, which, of course, is what the military want. We don’t want somebody who vacillates, we want to be able to put the case to her, the requirements to her, and say this is how it is, this is the decision we want, we want it now and we want it quickly and we don’t want a wishy-washy decision, we want a clear-cut decision. She was magnificent in her support of the military.”
However, her public robustness – later successfully characterised by her opponents as an absence of compassion and feeling – often belied her vulnerability. Speaking in 1990, Sir Michael Havers recalled: “[Admiral] Lewin would come in and give the bad news straight away. He said he was sorry, but the Sheffield had been sunk. That was one of the occasions when she would put her head down and stare at the table and I felt had really withdrawn herself from the war cabinet, for about a minute. Then she’d shake herself and come back in again, tears running down her face.”
Thatcher herself remembered the intensity with which she lived the period: “You were thinking every moment of the day about it. It was at the back of your mind no matter what else you were doing. You were thinking of what was happening down there and the decisions that had to be taken. When the telephone went or one of the duty clerks came up with a piece of paper in his hand, you always braced yourself as the thought raced through your mind, ‘is this bad news?’”
Thatcher’s fear of bad news ultimately gave way to the news of victory, which helped secure her reputation for the rest of her premiership and beyond. In the South Atlantic she did not just vanquish an Argentina invasion; she saw herself as vanquishing so much more: the spirit of decline, the lingering humiliation of Suez, the decline of Britain and the restoration of its role in the world. The Falklands conflict was vital to Thatcher’s mission for her country, and it gave her domestic programme an added zeal. Indeed, she often tied the two together in speaking of the Falklands victory. Her post-war comments were characteristic: “We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence – born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8,000 miles away. And so today, we can rejoice at our success in the Falklands and take pride in the achievement of the men and women of our task force. But we do so, not as some flickering of a flame which must soon be dead. No, we rejoice that Britain has rekindled that spirit which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to burn as brightly as before. Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.”
So as we remember these events crucial to her premiership, what lessons remain for us today? Perhaps most important is that the Argentine invasion was made more likely with the looming anniversary of 150 years of British rule over the Falklands. Anniversaries are potent. Secondly, just as Thatcher could not depend on President Reagan, so, not least given recent US statements on the subject, can Cameron depend on President Obama for any support. But perhaps most importantly, for all the talk of the rights of self-determination, legal rights, international law and UN charters, what saved the Falkland Islanders was the unbreakable political will of a single British PM to be on their side. These events once more show why history and biography are so utterly bound together.
And perhaps it is worth busting one important myth. The ‘Falklands Factor’ has gone down in history as being the decisive factor in why this unpopular prime minister went on to win a landslide majority in 1983. Yet objective analysis of the polls of the time shows that support had begun to shift decisively in the Conservatives’ direction well before the conflict, and was tied to rising living standards.
So, what then of some real myths that remain intact? As someone privileged to have seen Lady Thatcher regularly to this day, there are two periods of her time in Downing Street that she remembers well. One was the Brighton bomb, which she survived. The other was the Falklands conflict, which she ‘lived’ with an intensity she says she never experienced before or since. It – and how it changed her – came to define her.
Enoch Powell answered the question he had posed on the cusp of war: “It shows that the substance under test consists of ferrous metal of the highest quality. It is of exceptional tensile strength, resistant to wear and tear, and may be used with advantage for all national purposes.”
From the victory in south Atlantic, in a very real sense, the Iron Lady herself truly emerged and Thatcherism became real. For that reason alone it deserves its place in history.
Conor Burns is Conservative MP for Bournemouth West