A Falklands Polemic

Tam Dalyell

Never underestimate the importance of fortuitous timing in the development of events. Governments and nations can get onto a motorway, and then find to their alarm that they are on a journey on which they never intended to travel, but from which there is no acceptable exit. We are faced with a shooting war in the South Atlantic that few British politicians thought could, should or would occur.

One day, historians will put under the microscope the events of Friday, 2 April 1982. The full truth may never be revealed. Who telephoned whom, to say what? The apparent ephemeralities of that morning may never be identified. What is certain is that within minutes of the news of the Argentinian military aggression in the Falklands – otherwise known as the re-integration of the Malvin-as – Opposition leaders were being hounded for instant comment. Crucially, Labour’s Defence Spokesman, John Silkin, went onto the important World at One radio programme, and seemed to commit the Opposition to a belligerent reaction. Uncharacteristically, I leapt to my telephone to ask what was going on, and was calmed down by Anne Carleton, his long-term personal assistant, who told me that my alarums had been overtaken by events.

The mould was set. The Prime Minister guessed that she could count on the Opposition’s endorsing strong measures. Ironically, this is one of those rare occasions when an Opposition, 50 Parliamentary seats down, could have had a decisive influence on events. Without the imprimatur of the Labour Shadow Cabinet, and against the backcloth of a disunited nation, a task force could not have been proposed. Yet Labour had appeared to signal green, before there had been an opportunity for reflection within the Shadow Cabinet as a whole, let alone the Parliamentary Party, or the Party in the country. Had the military occupation taken place on a Monday to Thursday when Parliament was sitting, I believe there might have been a different gut reaction. Once Michael Foot had struck an attitude, ‘loyalty to Michael’ became an element in a situation where the notion of actual gunfire in the South Atlantic was surrealist fantasy. People had some vague scenario, at worst, of a simple SAS operation, and, more generally, that, of course, a solution would be arrived at, long before any warship actually arrived in the South Atlantic. ‘Thank God, we have plenty of time!’

On the Government side, timing was also crucial. It so happened that the evening of Friday, 2 April, was the appointed date for a large number of Conservative Constituency Association Annual General Meetings. Normally, Tory MPs are allowed to ‘get on with the job’ rather than being held accountable as Labour MPs are supposed to be. (In practice, Constituency Labour Parties tend to take a generous view of their MPs’ deviations, if they are thought to be serious, on policy matters.) On this occasion, a significant number of Tory MPs were goaded into extreme bellicosity by the fresh fury of their Constituency Party men, and particularly women. Falklands, Belize, Gibraltar, Hong Kong are like some weird kind of umbilical cord with the end of the British Empire. Rage was further inflamed on the Conservative benches by what was perceived as either the incompetence or the perfidy of the Foreign Office in allowing the Falklands to be taken. The anti-Foreign Office attitude, constantly articulated by Enoch Powell, has been reinforced by the drip, drip, drip of anti-Foreign Office ‘briefings’ emanating from Downing Street. Many Tory MPs simply relished the humiliation of the Foreign Office. Besides, the political chief involved was Peter Carrington – a remote figure to the mass of newish Tory MPs, whom he had failed to cultivate. High and mighty, he was from the ‘other place’ and politically defenceless in the Commons. I shall always believe that he resigned because he imagined he had the acquiescence of the Prime Minister and other senior colleagues in responding to the Argentinian take-over of the Falklands with huffing and puffing, with words and no action, and that when those colleagues found that a political tempest had hit them, they double-crossed Carrington. Whatever surmises are possible, the fact is that Conservative MPs created a hysterical mood when they returned hot-foot to the Commons for the debate of 3 April 1982, the like of which I have not witnessed in twenty years as a Member of Parliament. The mechanics of that debate will be of lasting consequence. It was the first time for a quarter of a century that the Commons had met at the weekend. The usual channels – John Silkin being both Shadow Leader of the House and Shadow Defence Secretary – between Government and Opposition agreed on a three-hour debate: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. MPs had to come from their constituencies a.m. and get back to evening meetings p.m.! David Stod-dart (Swindon) had the foresight to see that a three-hour debate would keep out most backbenchers, and called a division suggesting it should be a five-hour debate. Defeated!

The end-result was two hours and 40 minutes. With four Front Bench speeches – from Mrs Thatcher, Mr Foot, Mr Silkin and Mr Nott – there was little time for any MP other than venerable Privy Councillors to put a point of view. With 55 minutes to go, I went to the Speaker’s Secretary, standing by his Chair, to ask him to call a dissenting voice. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire) was able to spatchcock into the debate some brave sentences of disquiet. When the Prime Minister in her opening speech spoke of Britain’s ‘many friends’, I asked who would be our ‘friends in South America on this issue’. She took refuge in generalities.

The central fact is that Mrs Thatcher has ever since claimed that the House of Commons willed the Task Force, and must live with the consequences of its actions.

The truth is that had there been the normal six hours, or indeed eight hours, of debate, all sorts of sobering objections would have surfaced. In the unusual circumstances of a Saturday meeting, the myth of the Commons all-party consensus gained credibility – and after it had gained credibility, a lot of honest MPs, for honourable reasons, were reluctant to shatter the myth, for fear of weakening the negotiating position of Al Haig and the UN. By endorsing the Task Force, they had mounted a tiger, from which they could not easily dismount.

Why, the editor of Encounter asks, did I dissent from the word go, making an hour’s speech to the West Lothian Constituency Labour Party on 4 April, which was fully reported on the front page of the Scotsman on 5 April. The report highlighted the assertion that not since the Duke of Buckingham had set sail for La Rochelle in 1627 had such an ill-conceived expedition left British shores.

Three sets of reasons intermeshed in my mind. First, experience of South America. Secondly, experience at sea. Thirdly, experience of the Falkland Islanders. There was also a fourth reason. Experience has taught me that when there is agreement between Front Benches on Great Controversial Issues (such as Kenyan Asians), they are more than likely to be united in being wrong.

I led the Parliamentary delegation to Brazil in 1975. Right, Centre and Left, not least among members of the MDB, the Brazilian Opposition Party, which did not like right-wing governments, had sometimes personally suffered at the hands of the military, and had no great love for Argentina, we found the unanimous view that the Malvinas Islands were an extension of the South American Continental Shelf, and self-evidently belonged to the South American state four hundred miles away, rather than to some European state eight thousand miles away. Subsequently, as a Member of the indirectly-elected European Parliament, I attended two sessions of European-Latin American Conferences, one in Mexico City and one in Strasbourg. Late into the night I sat chatting to delegates from Colombia, Peru, Venezuela. Quite clearly, congenial people, many of whom had personally experienced hardship in the rough world of Latin American public life, felt offended that my country should maintain a colonial presence – for that is precisely how it was perceived – in the South Atlantic. Though – wrongly, as it turned out – I never thought the United States would come off the proverbial fence, on Britain’s side, the fact that Washington has done so simply exacerbates the latent feeling of ‘us in the developing Spanish-speaking world being up against those technologically-advanced English-speaking Anglo-Saxons’. World-wide, there are pent-up combustible prejudices which could be dangerous. The United States will soon not be thanking the British for souring their relationship with their southern neighbours by smashing to smithereens the Rio Treaty of Intra-American solidarity of 1947.

I have not been to Argentina itself, but a number of my West Lothian constituents did go there during Scotland’s ill-fated quest for the World Cup four years ago. They have told me how hospitably they were received and I have been unable to square the perception of Argentina held by the rural Falkland Islanders with that of the communities of Scots, Welsh and English in Argentina itself.

At one level, I am open to the eloquently-phrased complaint of Michael Foot: that I ‘set too great store by General Galtieri’s good nature’. The human rights position, and that of the ‘disappeared people’, is tragic: but one does not dispatch an armada because one dislikes a form of government to which successive British governments have been only too willing to sell arms. What I predicted was that in the face of British military force, all Argentinians would sink their differences, and form up behind the White and Light-Blue Flag. So it has proved. Those who opined that by standing up to Galtieri we were doing a favour to radical, liberal, socialist elements in Argentina should ponder the statements by Peres Esquivel, Nobel Prize-winner for Literature, and by the Montaneros, that on the Malvinas issue, if on nothing else, they are shoulder-to-shoulder with their bitter opponents in the junta. Whatever the UN, Brazilians or anyone else said about the ‘original aggression’ – and I voiced the point on 7 April that Panama had voted against Britain in the Security Council – there are few people from Mexico City to Tierra del Fuego who approve of the ludicrous over-reaction of sending a task force.

Secondly, I once worked for two years on board a ship – as Director of Studies on the ship-school Dunera, the predecessor of Uganda, which is now a Task Force hospital ship. The very idea of sending a task force to the sub-Antarctic, at the beginning of winter, in the Roaring Forties, without a land-base, covered mainly by Sea Harriers off the factory floor, with pilots denied full flying experience by fuel economies, alighting on decks rising 30’-60’ in the swell, was preposterous. Moreover, it was repeatedly pointed out that missiles versus capital ships was a duel which had never been tested in earnest. Why were not these warnings heeded? For the simple reason that though MPs were entranced and mesmerised by the TV spectacle of the battle fleet getting under way, and ship after ship being requisitioned, few thought that diplomacy would fail to the extent that the Task Force would actually get near its intended destination. It was a celluloid, surrealist world.

At some length, on 7 April, I asked the special meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party: who was going to turn back the fleet, once it was in the Solent, and how? ‘If the fleet arrives near the scene of action, you can hardly then wring your hands and say that you did not mean it to get involved in fighting.’ As Dennis Skinner MP observed to me at the end of the meeting, ‘most of them know that you were speaking the truth, but it’s too awkward for the leadership to do much about it!’ Anyhow, three weeks is a long time, and, like Mr Micawber, the politicians collectively hoped that something would turn up. In the Labour Party, there were those who doubted whether the Prime Minister would ever wheel the Task Force round unless she achieved the, in our view, unattainable objective of reoccupying the Malvinas, without significant opposition. On the other side, there was the Secretary of State for Defence, the ex-Gurkha officer John Nott, frenzied to retrieve his political reputation, and a prime minister not averse to a fight for righteousness that would cause the name of Thatcher to reverberate round the planet. As I know from close-quarters experience of James Callaghan on Devolution, Ted Heath on the miners and Michael McGahey, Harold Wilson on Rhodesia and Harold Macmillan on Profumo, occupants of 10 Downing Street can come to see the world in highly personal and in gladiatorial terms. It may have been the personalised nature of the conflict that blinded the Inner Cabinet to the realities of Argentina: a well-educated and advanced industrial society, with 37 per cent of the GNP derived from industry – the same percentage as for the Federal Republic of Germany. Moreover, though Argentina has never in its history actually fought a war, its combination of Skyhawks, Mirages and R530s is exactly the mixture which has proved so devastating in the hands of the Israelis. This leaves out of account the MiGs which come from Cuba and Peru.

Thirdly, my attitude of dissent was underpinned by an urge to wince every time I heard the rights to self-determination of the Falklands extolled. In 1974/75, I was Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Foreign Affairs Committee, and sat in on a conference of Falkland Islands issues at the Foreign Office. The Archangel Gabriel could not have satisfied the representatives of the Falkland Islands who were present. But it did become clear to me, as the Shackleton Committee was to find a year or so later, that a quarter of the farms and 46 per cent of the land was externally-owned by people living in Britain. The Falkland Islands Company was a tremendous pressure group, who were in what Mill called ‘the deep slumber of a decided opinion’. Their decided opinion was that they did not want to be part of Argentina. Certainly their customs, interests and welfare should be taken into account, though most of the propaganda, such as the supposed hardship of driving on the left-hand side of the road, is humbug. Most of the Falklands roads are narrow dirt-tracks. To say that their views are paramount conjures up the spectre of the Falkland Islands tail wagging the dog of British Defence policy and contravening the sensitivities of 230 million South Americans.

The nostrum dear to the Prime Minister (and to Peter Shore in his latterday Churchillian moments) that we must set an example in resisting aggression is ill-conceived. On Belize, neighbouring Mexico is well-disposed towards us in relation to Guatemala. Nobody in their right mind would send an armada to evict a thousand million Chinese from Hong Kong, if Peking decided to take over. In the Malvinas, we are friendless where it matters.

What about the longer term? This is where the attitude of the representatives of the Falkland Islanders, though maybe not of the genuine Falkland Islanders themselves, is just plain silly. They are victualled by Argentina. They get fuel from Argentina. They get medical facilities in Buenos Aires. Let no one suppose that in an atmosphere of ill-will Montevideo or Porte Allegre or Rio de Janeiro would step in to co-operate. Santiago de Chile, some say! In the absence of overflying rights that’s a tenth of the way round the world – not to mention Cape Horn! What British government would underwrite the significant defence of the Falklands, and all services, in perpetuity?

If charges of cowardice are to be levelled at anyone – and I would rather they were not – then they would have to be directed towards those politicians who for a myriad of reasons have been unwilling to confront Falkland Islanders and the British public with the truth. The truth is that, as Julius Goebel, an American academic, argued in his The Falklands, published in 1927, the Malvinas belong, on the doctrine of uti possidetis, to Argentina. Let us hope that relations can be repaired – and, in particular, that the long-term work of the British Antarctic Survey can be continued on the basis of international good will.