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Mrs. Thatcher’s Case

It is not a new experience to find one’s friends in America or Europe expressing sympathy for the fact that the British government has gone out of its mind; but it is a new experience to have to tell them that the majority of the country think the government was right to send a task force to the Falklands. Intellectuals are often at their’ worst in interpreting international relations because in politics they tend to reason from stereotypes, and the intricacies of diplomacy and the complexity of negotiation do not comply with their belief that there are rational and logical solutions to all international problems which, if they are not adopted, must have been sabotaged by the folly, wickedness, or impenetrable stupidity of politicians. But even among intellectuals, whose normal role is to show why another more logical and rational policy would have been far superior to much of what their government does, there are many who, however much they deplore the events that led to the crisis and think it was mishandled, are not prepared to condemn Mrs. Thatcher for dispatching a task force and using it when negotiations broke down.

There are, of course, a number who are disgusted by the conduct of the British government. To them the issue of the Falklands is simple. Britain has for long been divesting itself of its empire; in nearly all its possessions independence has been made the easier by the colonial peoples throwing up leaders of political parties whose platform has been independence. Even Belize, which wanted to retain British protection, was compelled to become independent and has had to be content with the British leaving behind a token battalion to deter Guatemala.

This policy of disposing of the imperial remnants has been pursued by the Foreign Office through successive Conservative and Labour governments—and for an excellent reason. It is irresponsible and only asking for trouble for Britain to retain defense commitments which it cannot honor. That is why Britain abandoned its commitments east of Suez. That is why its whole defense policy and procurement of armaments is geared toward NATO. That is why Mrs. Thatcher, who came to power on a promise to increase expenditure on arms, nevertheless got rid of Francis Pym as secretary for defense for fighting cuts in defense expenditure too vigorously, and replaced him with John Nott. Nott’s policy was to prune the armed forces to the point where they would operate in really only two theaters: Europe and Northern Ireland.

To some intellectuals the Falklands fit into this pattern. What could be more absurd than to regard them as a British vital interest, like the Channel ports of old or the freedom of the seas? Did their economy not depend on Argentina and were they not “indefensible”? For years Britain has been exploring ways of settling the dispute with Argentina. Michael Stewart tried to do so as Labour’s foreign secretary in 1968 and Nicholas Ridley as the Conservative minister of state in 1980 came back from the islands with a solution which he put to the House of Commons. That solution envisaged Argentina’s acquiring sovereignty over the islands but leasing them back to Britain for a long period—though the islanders would have had first to endorse the settlement and be convinced that it preserved British law, administration, and their way of life. Even though that initiative failed, what was Richard Luce, the Conservative minister of state in the Foreign Office, doing at the time of the invasion but trying to negotiate terms for a settlement? If the government was so intent on the Falklands remaining British why did it grant the islanders only second-class British citizenship when the bill redefining British nationality went through Parliament last year? Why did it not allow them to benefit by the amendment made during the passage of the bill through Parliament—following the refusal of the king and queen of Spain to attend the Prince of Wales’s wedding—that granted full citizenship to the citizens of Gibraltar?

What then—so the argument runs—was Britain fighting for? The Argentinians may have thought fifteen years of negotiations long enough, and the British refusal of the lease-back offer to mean that the islanders (whose lobby in Parliament engineered the rejection of Ridley’s initiative) were unappeasable. Argentina was wrong to invade, but why could not the government have accepted the petty humiliation of an Argentine takeover, mitigated by the UN resolution condemning it, and used the good offices of the US or the secretary general to produce safeguards for the islanders? Surely it is hard to believe that some way could not have been found for both sides to withdraw their forces before fighting began.

And now what has happened? By extorting US support, the British have irritated the US government, which has lost the credit it had been trying to build up in Latin America. Russia has been presented with another pool to fish in—and Cuba too. The EEC has officially backed Britain but privately its members are irritated by yet another non-European British frolic. The Irish have discovered that the Falklanders are really Ulstermen, and that self-determination is unsuitable for small populations. Meanwhile, instead of looking for a way to avoid humiliating Argentina, the government demands unconditional surrender, seems determined to keep the Falklands, and now to pour money into them. All the odder for a government which, having firmly endured great unpopularity in reducing inflation and cutting public expenditure while unemployment rose, has now incurred costs of at least $2 billion.

Such an analysis omits all those imponderables in politics which transform a situation and which close options that were open only a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, too, the history of international relations and diplomacy shows that this way of reasoning—in which past failings and hypothetical consequences argue against action—is rarely ever followed and, if it is, is almost never effective. The writings of Thucydides and Machiavelli, and the recent memoirs of Henry Kissinger, show how complicated and tortuous are the processes by which states conduct their relations with one another. And it is precisely because this is so that many good people become disillusioned when they see peace-keeping initiatives or organizations fail, from the Truce of God in the early Middle Ages to the League of Nations.

The divestment of empire was a policy forced upon the politicians of Westminster by necessity and implemented through different governments by the mandarins of Whitehall. But in Westminster it has been implemented only spasmodically and with a good deal of grumbling by both parties. For instance, when Harold Wilson first became prime minister he shot off on a world tour making commitments east of Suez which appalled the mandarins. Labour governments have always feared to appear weak on foreign policy issues. What Labour likes to do is to make various high-minded foreign policy commitments and then cut defense expenditures and home investment to pay for them.

Conservative resentment against the mandarins is easier to explain. Conservative governments accept the policy but are harassed by a group of about sixty die-hard members of Parliament to whom any cession of British territory except to reputable and constitutionally sanctioned forces is anathema. The predecessors of these die-hards vilified Mountbatten for withdrawing from India; Ian McLeod for withdrawing from Africa (“too clever by half,” Lord Salisbury said of him); and Peter Carrington for withdrawing from Rhodesia, where power was transferred to one of the demons in their mythology, Robert Mugabe. After Michael Stewart’s initiative in 1968 a lobby in favor of British interests in the Falklands was set up in Westminster. In 1976, a former Labour Cabinet minister, Eddie Shackleton, son of the Antarctic explorer, issued a report pleading for substantial investment in the Falklands. So when Ridley, in December 1980, told the Commons the government’s plans for the islands, it did not come as a surprise when he was attacked from both sides of the House.

An excellent analysis of the speeches on Ridley’s statement was made by Michael Davie in the London Observer showing that among the MPs who rose to oppose the plan were Peter Shore and others for Labour, as well as a Liberal, a future member of the SDP, and a scatter of Tories.1 Ridley, like the islands, was virtually undefended. With the opposition ready to fish in troubled waters and its own backbench members restive, the government told Ridley to suspend the initiative. The Falklands lobby had scuppered the proposals. When Richard Luce this year began again, it is said that he insisted the partly elected legislative council of the Falkland Islanders play a substantial role in any settlement. These incidents show how all political parties were responsible for rejecting a transfer of power and sovereignty and how the islanders were willing to gamble high stakes for continuing to live as they wished to live. But the negotiations also reveal how the Argentinians were determined to change the conditions on the islands whether or not the present islanders liked it. It is by no means clear what bargain the government might have struck with the Argentinians if Ridley’s scheme to transfer sovereignty had not run into the sands. What is clear is that one possible avenue to negotiation was closed off, while in the two years that followed the government was not prepared to pour money into the defenses of the island.

It’s fashionable among the disaffected to say that straight political cowardice stifled the Ridley initiative. That is an error. There was one matter on which British public opinion felt strongly, and which came into play after the invasion. Not the act of aggression. The politicians make much of this and no doubt the UN resolution hung on it. But people have seen too many acts of aggression. They have seen too often how governments following the principle of resisting it, at Suez or in Vietnam for example, sink into a morass. But people certainly cared about self-determination. Even the political writer Bernard Crick, who expressed outrage at the government’s policy as well as it could be done (“We have bluffed with people’s lives, lost political support and…shamed ourselves in the eyes of the civilised world”), added, “If the Argentines want flags and ceremonies, let it be so; all that is unreasonable is if they want to colonise the islands or to govern the islanders the way [the Argentines] govern themselves.”2

Unfortunately for Crick that is precisely what the Argentinians showed they intended to do. Their first pronouncements after the invasion made that clear. Nor, inevitably, does the way an army treats occupied territory endear its country to the inhabitants. When people ask that the British should not humiliate Argentina, they forget that Argentina determined from the start to humiliate the British and to make life unendurable for the islanders. It is, of course, true that the Falklanders could have been sent to other parts of the world willing to receive them with dowries that would have cost a fraction of the present war. Did not the French have to give refuge to hundreds of thousands of pieds noirs from Algeria? But the cases are not parallel. The French were dealing with a genuinely colonial situation in which most Algerians wanted an independent government. Odd as it may sound to the apostles of reason, the argument about self-determination carries weight with the British public—and the islanders know it does. What also set Michael Foot and the Labour opposition chanting songs about negotiation but putting their shoulders with a will behind the prime minister’s war chariot was the character of Argentina’s military dictatorship. No one can deny that the Junta is an unsavory regime, though we live in a world of unsavory regimes and have to do business with them; and being a military dictatorship it invaded South Georgia for good measure, and chose this island 800 miles southeast of the Falklands and under separate jurisdiction as the casus belli.

  1. 1

    The Observer, Sunday, May 30, 1982.

  2. 2

    New Statesman, May 14, 1982.

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