If Galtieri’s junta had prepared for war in 1982, even to the minimal extent of equipping Argentinian fighter-bombers properly, Mrs Thatcher’s Enterprise of the Falklands would almost certainly have failed, thereby ensuring that Argentina would still today be ruled by a triumphalist military élite, inept mismanagers of a decaying economy, impotent spectators of the country’s social disintegration, and of course both cruel and corrupt. As it is, defeated Argentina is undergoing a profound economic reconstruction and making unprecedented progress towards democratic governance, while Britain has paid a large penalty for a very small war.
By the standards of Desert Storm, the scale of the fighting was minuscule, the technical level of the encounter primitive and the physical objective of the war, control of the Falklands, exceptionally insignificant. Accordingly, victory could only yield a momentary rush, the functional equivalent of a national snort-in. Defeat, by contrast, could have had vast consequences, by demolishing the prestige of the institutional, social and mythic superstructures of Britain-as-a-Semi-Great-Power. The country’s disproportionately huge military, diplomatic and intelligence bureaucracies would have been the first thing to be cut down, on grounds of having failed the brave lads in blue and green. But very soon Britain’s especially bellicose military vocation would have been questioned in its turn, then inevitably renounced as absurdly outdated in the age of the DM and the Yen, against which no nuclear submarine or Royal Marine bayonet charge can prevail. It is unthinkable that an entire British armoured division would have been sent on its wop-bashing errand to Saudi Arabia in 1990, along with the RAF’s sadly under-equipped Tornados and the warships that added to the idle overcrowding in the Gulf, if the wop-bashing expedition of 1982 had not been such a stirring adventure crowned with success. And all that would have been small beer compared to the inevitable next stage of a post-Malvinas perestroika, for British military institutions are inseparable from the monarchy and its aristocratic under-structure.
Defeat at the hands of mere Argentinians could therefore have most belatedly broken the gravitational pull of aristocratic values on British society, manifest in the façade-over-substance, breeding-over-ability, titles-over-jobs preferences that form the impeding medium in which the citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are fatally trapped. George Walden’s Tory Reform Group pamphlet of 1990, ‘Blocked Society’ – blocked by the ‘national vice of deference to irrational institutions, obsolete political structures and absurdist conventions’ – could have been unblocked at long last, liberating both Walden’s ostensibly classless young-man-in-the-Tube who nevertheless fails to pursue ambition in deference to others’ definition of his ‘station in life’ as well as his own lack of education, and Walden’s free-marketeering Taipans, whose ‘talk is of a modernised Britain’ but whose ‘dreams are of the Lords’.
To be sure, even before the transmutation of the sub-working-class Mr Major into a Tory prime minister, to insist on the crippling effects of class distinction upon British society was the mark of a sociology excessively superficial even for that trade, of a naivety excessively American even for Americans. All sorts of statistics no doubt prove the abundance of social mobility in post-war Britain, while the deference to obsolete aristocratic values denounced by Walden cannot be demonstrated statistically. E pur non si muove, one can only protest: almost every time I have had dealings with live specimens of homunculus Britannicus in the course of my consulting business, I have seen their conduct deformed by the gravitational pull of that slice of society whose house organ is Field and Stream, and whose apex is Fergie’s ex-mom-in-law. My former client X is an entrepreneur whose company could have expanded to dominate the world market for its narrowly specialised products, if only he had invested a few million pounds in product development some ten years ago, before a Japanese company pursued the same path. Had he done so, a dozen electronics engineers and two hundred highly-skilled workers would have been well employed, and the British balance of payments would have relied that much less on the trades which employ only the uneducated, in hotels, restaurants, escort services, curio shops, and such. Instead X acted exactly as Walden’s ‘Blocked Society’ model would have predicted.
He purchased a country house with large grounds two hours from London, in which he promptly installed a butler to serve occasional quite good dinners in style – a derivative aristocratic style, that is. On a sunny day the place is splendid to look at. Every day it is damnably uncomfortable: X must endure an atrociously long, albeit chauffeur-driven, commute, and he, his family and house guests must all suffer unheatable bedrooms and precariously hot baths, for of course behind the splendid façade there is the usual array of decaying pipes – an excessively accurate metaphor for the state of the country. When visiting in turn, X breaks off his commendation of the comforts of suburban life in the US style, to tell me of the titled personages who have been round for dinner of late. Is X a grotesque throw-back and most unrepresentative? British investment statistics suggest that the country is full of grotesque throwbacks, and so does any comparison between the British and French real-estate markets. The French, having used the guillotine to good effect long ago, do not feel compelled to buy all-façade-and-no-comfort country houses, which could accordingly be bought for a song in places like Brittany – until the British came along, and found the façades irresistible.
Admiral Woodward convincingly estimates in his efficiently co-authored memoirs that because of the Royal Navy’s electronic incapacity, it was only for want of a few dozen Exocets that the Argentinians failed to wreck either HMS Hermes or HMS Valiant or both, thereby forcing a withdrawal: it had been agreed beforehand that the reconquest would only be possible if both light carriers remained in fighting order. Think of it! Argentinian air power could finally have achieved Britain’s inordinately delayed liberation from the iron grip of its myths. Woodward himself (or his co-author) pathetically testifies to the strength of those myths: after the suitably exciting opening chapter (‘The Day They Hit HMS Sheffield’), the recounting of the protagonist’s pre-Falklands naval career begins with an apology for the obscurity of the Woodwards:
Ambition has never been a particularly strong suit in the Woodward family. My late father, Tom, ended his modest banking career happily enough as Head Cashier in the Launceston Branch of Barclays Bank ... My mother was prepared to go along with that ... in all the (300-year) traceable history of my family, there is only one personage of any real substance – one of the 18th-century allies of Bonnie Prince Charlie, a General Forster, whose surname I bear between the ‘John’ and the ‘Woodward’. That relationship comes via my father’s mother, and is, I have to admit, fairly tenuous.
These words might in themselves be merely ironic: the self-made man proud of his personal achievement who stresses the obscurity of his origins is an American stereotype. But Woodward is not American, and we know that he means no irony from the way he commends others among his colleagues: Captain Paul Hoddinott of HMS Glasgow was ‘a real sea-dog, going back generations, and he believes some branches of the family served in the Spanish Main ... His father was an engineering commander in destroyers in the Mediterranean during the Second World War. One of his grandfathers had been a naval lieutenant in the First World War, and the other, Lieutenant Kens DSC, RNR, a submarine officer, was lost at sea.’ And again: ‘Captain David Hart-Dyke was another of my officers from a family with dark blue naval blood. His father Commander Eric Hart-Dyke fought the U-boats in the Second World War ... David’s wife Diana bore the well-known naval name of Luce, both her grandfathers being admirals ... her uncle was Admiral Sir David Luce, and her brother Richard Luce, Minister of State at the Foreign Office.’
Lineage is of course the defining preoccupation of any aristocracy, and of non-aristocrats captive to aristocratic values, once a common type throughout Europe, now common only in Britain, although usually in disguise. Predictably, in recounting Woodward’s experiences at the Britannia Royal Naval College, the text contains the standard ‘modern Britain’ declaration: ‘I remember well having, from the very first, a rather personal viewpoint – this was that the very first thing you should do when you see a tradition is to ask what relevance it may have today, to query it, to ask why, to wonder whether the good reasons of two centuries ago still apply now.’ Yes quite – and that no doubt is why the text tells us of the grandfathers, the uncle and the brother of the wife of one of his officers. Incidentally, the first photograph in the book is captioned as follows: ‘Midshipman Woodward, at 19, dumbstruck in front of the late Duchess of Kent’. There is no photograph of Mr Tom Woodward or his wife.
That all the nonsense evoked by the gravitational pull co-exists in the text with ample evidence of great bravery by a great many, highly skilled seamanship by virtually all, and the protagonist’s own outstanding talents of command, is not at all contradictory. The ‘Blocked Society’, with its self-assured aristocratic or would-be aristocratic leaders, is well-suited to the conduct of war and diplomacy – in other words, the endeavours of geopolitics, once the central activity in the main arena of international life but now confined to the world’s strategic slums, where they still run around with guns. In the present era of ‘geo-economics’ (as I call it), in which the winners design, develop, finance and manage, while the losers only have menial jobs on assembly-lines, the Blocked Society becomes a society of losers, for it is the meritocratic and not the aristocratic virtues that are needed.
Before the fighting started, Woodward was dubbed the ‘Burma Star’ by fierce armchair warriors back in London who were disgusted by his insistence on keeping the Task Force well to the east of the wretched islands until the eve of the landings – the Burma Star being the decoration awarded for service in the most easterly of Britain’s theatres in the Second World War. While that was mere prudence – characteristically unappreciated by the grandsons and nephews of admirals lost at sea, generals overrun by Afghans and others such – Woodward certainly has much to answer for: he might have saved his country by losing the silly-billy Falklands.