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.

The next distortion put about by the dissenters is that the initial fault lay with the British. Rather like those historians who suggest that Britain was responsible for the Second World War by misleading Hitler about its intentions, so the failure to make clear to Argentina what the British reaction to invasion would be is now cited as a contributory cause. (There is a variant; it was largely the fault of the Reagan administration since its support for the Junta led to Galtieri’s believing he had American acquiescence in his venture.) It now seems unlikely that there was a “failure of intelligence”; both foreign and military sources gave warning of Argentinian action, but it seems that the ministers concerned, realizing that Britain had no naval forces near the Falklands, and, fearing that to dispatch some would turn a threat of invasion into reality, simply sat tight and hoped against hope that the Argentinians would not move. Carrington himself had his eyes glued on the intricate EEC negotiations and on Israel. But if the British are to be blamed for failing to signal how hard they would react, the Junta never seems to have considered that to invade the Falklands while still at the negotiating table would be regarded as treacherous. What did they think the British would do when in the middle of negotiations they launched an invasion?

The day after the invasion, and for one day only, Michael Foot held the initiative in the Commons, and the government recoiled before the recriminations of MPs from both side of the House about the failure to anticipate the attack and protect the islands. Only two back-benchers braved the explosion and spoke against taking military action. When the Commons reassembled two days later on Monday, the opposition was put on the defensive by the announcement of the dispatch of the task force and the Conservatives rallied. Nearly all political observers believe that had that not been done, the government would have fallen. There is no parallel with Suez. Then the country was split on whether war was an appropriate response to Nasser’s act of aggression; it soon became evident that the government had miscalculated and had to withdraw; and Harold Macmillan with adroit leadership beat a retreat in a bad cause. On April 2 the cause was so palpably good that acceptance of the Argentinian fait accompli was politically impossible.

Then again the dissenters declare that the peace negotiations failed through British intransigence. It is interesting to listen to the stories of the terms which it is said were available to the British. Was it not common knowledge that America had guaranteed to launder, through Mexico, funds for transmission to Argentina that would have enabled all the Falkland Islanders to be resettled in comfort in a land of their choice so that Mrs. Thatcher could thump the table and demand that Argentina could make good the wrong that had been done to them and General Galtieri could comply without losing money or face? Such stories multiply when well-meaning people desire a good end and become exasperated when they are denied it. Raymond Aron thinks it clear that the British were never prepared to negotiate: from the start Mrs. Thatcher was determined to wipe out the stain on the Union Jack with blood.

It is true that Mrs. Thatcher did not flinch from the prospect of fighting and that the dispatch of the task force was not bluff. But in fact the British offered withdrawal by both sides and the appointment of a UN administrator in place of the British governor so long as he consulted with the legislative and executive councils of the islands (set up in accordance with Article 73 of the UN Charter). The Argentinians insisted, however, that the UN administrator should not be compelled to conform to the laws and practices of the islands.

But the Argentinian proviso that upset the British more than any other was this: that on withdrawal of the Argentinian troops, their nationals should be free at once to reside and work on the islands. Since the Argentinians had invaded while negotiations were still in progress, the British no longer accepted Argentine good faith. They believed that proviso proved that the Argentinians were determined to flood the islands with their nationals and make any referendum go their way. Those who blame the British for breaking off the negotiations ignore the madness of the Junta in refusing not only the British proposals but also those made by the secretary general. It was the publication of those proposals which, perhaps more than anything else, quelled the doubts of those who were for prolonging negotiations in the hope of avoiding bloodshed. It is interesting that the Commonwealth countries—even Grenada, which usually follows a Cuban line—are solid behind Britain; and this may be because they hope that the action over the Falklands could deter those in Venezuela or Guatemala who are making claims against Guyana and Belize.

There are, of course, some who welcomed the fighting. Enoch Powell, the supreme logician of the right, seems to believe it is part of the process of national moral regeneration. R.A. Butler used to tell the story that during the communal massacres at the time of Indian independence, Powell urged Churchill to demand that the British should use the Indian army to replace Nehru and Jinnah and establish a firm government. “Is the fellow all right?” asked Churchill, no lover himself of Indian independence. It is true that some British ask themselves when, if not in this dispute, a professional army and navy would ever be used: why do they train if not in the last resort to fight? They are not conscripts. For most who see brave Argentine pilots die and British sailors and soldiers lost who knew well that ships would be sunk, the fighting was a calamity. But most thought it a calamity that must be endured.

Many intellectuals resemble Hamlet when he asked Fortinbras’s captain why their troops were going to fight in Poland. “We go,” was the reply, “to gain a little patch of ground, / That hath in it no profit but the name. / To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it.”

“Why then,” says Hamlet, “the Polack never will defend it.”

“Yes, it is already garrisoned.” Hamlet calls that war an abscess caused by too much wealth and peace. But left by himself Hamlet changes his mind. Or rather, he still thinks it is after all justifiable to fight even for a straw. In other words people suddenly realize that other principles come into play.

Certainly this is felt by the politicians. One event has burned itself into the consciousness of British politicians even when, like the prime minister, they were barely teenagers at the time. For them it has an emotional appeal such as no American can feel. That is the shame and disaster of Munich. The British have not recently had the word dinned at them as a justification for such a war as the one in Vietnam. They remember that they actually betrayed their ally France and behaved as a nation dishonorably to Czechoslovakia when their prime minister referred to the issue as a “quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Britain, Europe, the Jews reaped a terrible harvest. It was partly the memory of Munich that made Eden adopt the policy he did over Suez, and it is the memory of Munich, with Galtieri in the role of military dictator, that has again incited a British government, backed by the opposition, to take this step.

The argument runs as follows. If you do not show that you oppose injustice now, and awaken your fellow citizens to share that view, you may not be able to awaken them if danger ever threatens their own shores or their independence; and you will not have done what could be done to inhibit the invasions across borders that other dictators will be contemplating in the years ahead. Give in to every threat so long as it is not crucial, treat the lives and liberty of even 1,800 dependent people as negligible, and you may find that the will of the nation is not to be counted on when the crucial moment comes—as happened to the French will to resist in 1940.

Mrs. Thatcher was quite right when British troops were on the eve of battle not to sow doubts in their minds by speculating about the future of the islands. She is not Golda Meir, still less De Gaulle, but she has made her name as a leader, and leadership is a quality that has been missing in British politics for a generation. She declares that the aggressors had their chance to back down; they had a further chance before the final battle; they ignored both. Are they now to enjoy negotiating on the terms available before they were responsible for the loss of life? She is determined to prove that aggression does not pay and she may well intend that Argentina will have to wait perhaps for years before the matter can be reconsidered. The runway on the airfield will be extended to take large troop-carrying planes so that reinforcement of the Falklands could take two days rather than three weeks; anti-aircraft defenses will be built up and guns and stores left on the site. In whatever settlement ensues, she says, Argentina will have no role to play. The islanders must not be betrayed.

In her bones the prime minister probably believes that the British public doesn’t take kindly to disembodied principles. Principles are expressed in results: and the result is possession of territory. To give up the Falklands to a UN administrator or any other form of condominium would, she seems to think, produce bewilderment and cynicism.

Whether Mrs. Thatcher can go on indefinitely saying this now that Britain has regained the islands is another matter. South American states are rearming Argentina. The losses in Mirages are already being replaced. The members of the Junta may admit that they have lost a battle, but they will not find it hard to persuade their countrymen to fight a war of attrition. Why should Galtieri negotiate even after his forces surrendered? Israel has shown how to ignore demands to negotiate. The British have already suffered heavy losses in ships. Will they be prepared to accept losses month in, month out? Will they be prepared to implement Shackleton’s report and invest in oil rigs and a fishing fleet for the Falklands to make them independent of the mainland—is penguin tourism feasible? Much as the islanders hate the Argentinians they may come to realize that the days of peace are past and that, without a settlement, turmoil and fear of attack will be their lot.

Britain will also have to deal with its allies. The US abstention on the last cease-fire resolution of the Security Council was a shot across the prime minister’s bows. There was no doubt of Reagan’s genuine desire to back the British, but it is not surprising to read recent reports that he privately recommended diplomatic compromise in early June. Most observers would bet that the State Department will be adamant that peace in the South Atlantic is a prime objective in American foreign policy and the prime minister will come under heavier and heavier pressure to make a settlement that brings lasting peace. Nor will the Senate Foreign Relations Committee remain silent. Loyalty to a European ally as the victim of aggression at a given moment is one thing, but long-term policy in South America is another. The conservative politicians who still see in regimes such as that of Galtieri a bastion against communism will be only one of the American pressure groups demanding that a modus vivendi be reached, and they will insist that Argentina be a party to that settlement, for otherwise there can be no settlement.

Meanwhile in Britain there will inevitably be second thoughts. The minority on the left of nuclear disarmers, militant Trots, and Marxisant trade unionists, who form a considerable part of Tony Benn’s power base and who also hate the Conservatives far more than any foreign enemy, will harass Michael Foot, who is already demanding that the terms that were being offered before the landings should be put on the table again.

There will be conservatives who will ask why, if during the past two years the government was engaged in serious negotiations about the transfer of sovereignty in the islands, the Falklands have now become a bastion of national security. Palpably they are nothing of the sort. They will ask why, when public expenditure is being cut in health, education, and welfare, a vast continuous commitment, which no one would have dreamed of incurring six months ago, should be added to the national budget. Its size must destroy the targets for reducing public expenditures and borrowing set by the chancellor of the exchequer. Will it not appear paradoxical that the favored industry for huge public investment will be that of the far from healthy shipbuilding industry to replace the naval and maritime tonnage lost in the Falklands? Some people are sure to ask whether Britain’s economy will not be sapped by a hit-and-run war in the South Atlantic. It is not merely the planes, the submarines, and the troops needed to provide a permanent defense for the Islands. It is the construction needed on them—the barracks, communications, post facilities, and airfields. What would happen to NATO’s North Atlantic fleet, nearly three-quarters of which Britain provides?

Let no one imagine that these sentiments will be endorsed overnight. The British will first establish joint civilian and military rule to clear up the wreckage and rebuild the looted homes of the islanders. They will be in no hurry to act upon the advice that will be gratuitously offered to them on how to conduct their affairs. The islanders will need time to take account of the past three months and to judge what is best for themselves.

But, although the philistines on the Tory back benches will sneer at the Foreign Office and join hands with the loony left to whom diplomacy is inexplicable and power relations between states immoral, the foreign secretary will have to come into his own again. Britain can still retain the initiative if, but only if, it declares after a decent interval that it desires to keep no troops on the islands and that other ways of maintaining their security are acceptable to it.

The Foreign Office can make mistakes like any other department. The opposition of its chiefs and those at the Treasury after the Second World War to accepting the leadership in the European Community was a disaster. But in relation with other powers its record is far from bad, whereas the record of those prime ministers such as Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden, who swept aside the advice of the Foreign Office machine, is not encouraging. The longterm future of the Falklands should lie in the hands of those who wear striped pants, not those in combat fatigues.

—June 15

This Issue

July 15, 1982