For ever Falkland?
‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ I suggest that this is an appropriate motto, not of course for the unfortunate men of the Task Force, but for those who sent them to the South Atlantic. It characterises the whole operation – an operation, as I have tried to show in this journal,[*] which was conceived in an emotional spasm, by the injured pride of the House of Commons, on that hysterical Saturday morning, 3 April 1982. A task force had to be assembled, because it had to be assembled, to do something about the dreadful Argentine Junta, who had taken advantage of our negligence in withdrawing the survey vessel, HMS Endurance, with her peashooter of a gun. No blow-mouth, that Saturday morning, had the remotest idea of what he, or more particularly she – and there was not only Mrs Thatcher, by a long chalk, in this latter category – wanted to do, once the task force had arrived, and, by appearing on the horizon, had automatically shunted the dago intruders out of our island. No one had the haziest notion of what their rational, long-term objective should be. When I interrupted Mrs Thatcher’s opening speech to inquire who our friends were in South America on this issue, she could not name one, even then. But MPs collectively were in no mood to care.
Alas, the situation has not improved in eight weeks. Our leaders totter from step to step. Ask Pym about long-term objectives and he replies to you in the House that it is all very difficult, and in a convoluted way suggests that awkward buggers like me are indecent, in putting such questions to him when he is so busy with the here and now. Ask Nott the same question, and he tells you that the prime task is to evict the Argentinian troops. At least that is his attitude for House of Commons consumption: on TV, our Defence Secretary has allowed himself to be carried away into suggesting that never, if he has anything to do with it, will the men of Argentina have any say in the governance of the Malvinas. Ask the Prime Minister, and she will reply in honeyed tones to you, me or Jimmy Young in terms of repossession. The incredible part – or is it so incredible? – is that no rational thought has been applied to the long-term future of the islands. Had there been any cerebral action in the matter, what began as comic opera in South Georgia, became rather less comic farce, developed into an episode in British History, and is now a raging calamity, would never have occurred.
There are two alternative long-term solutions. Either the islands are supplied from eight thousand miles away (London to Port Stanley 8350 miles), or they once again depend on Argentina for fuel, fresh food supplies, general victualling and hospital services. After the events of the last eight weeks there is not the remotest possibility that any South American nation would allow her ports to be used as a substitute for Buenos Aires. Montevideo, Porte Allegre, Rio de Janeiro are out – and, incidentally, a long, long way from Port Stanley, compared to Southern Argentina. Whatever its reservations about Argentina, Chile will not recklessly offend its continent on this issue. The truth lies with the Argentinian assertion that if a flag, light blue and white, is to be struck in Port Stanley to make way for the Union Jack, it will be the Latin American flag, not just the Argentinian, that is hauled down. For a South American state to victual the Malvinas would be tantamount to handling the most politically explosive blacked goods.
Consider – and I fear that this is precisely what the House of Commons may have to do for many hours in the coming months, and, heaven help us, years – the hazards and logistics of supplying the Falklands from Britain. It would not be a question of the occasional supply ship. There would have to be convoys. Why should we suppose that Argentina/South America, even if some sort of truce is spatchcocked together, will meekly allow a succession of British ships blithely to go on supplying the islands? With weaponry doubtless even more sophisticated than the two Kiel-built diesel electric submarines which are lying doggo somewhere in the Atlantic at the time of writing, Argentina could strike at any time. Would you like a sailor relative to be on a ship bound for Port Stanley, if there were still tensions between Britain and Argentina? I would fear a disaster every night he was away. (The sheer tension of a war where, for perhaps the first time in human history, you don’t know you are missiled until you are missiled is enormous.) How long would the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement permit a regular Port Stanley Convoy? I suspect little longer than the political lives in office of those who took their political careers to be bound up with their support of the South American war folly. Actually, this might not be a very long period, since those politicians who are in at the start of a war that goes unsuccessfully are generally not there to see the finish, other than from the sidelines. Though the cost of building hospital facilities etc would be dwarfed by the costs of the South Atlantic conflagration, the fact is that there wasn’t the £12 million available that the Shackleton Committee of 1976 thought necessary for the proper sustenance and development of the islands’ economy. Future governments, of whatever political hue, will want to shed any such commitment.
At this point, it is necessary to deal with what has become an ever more resilient Aunt Sally. Why can’t we finance by the economic development of the islands all the outlays in the Falklands which we will have to make in future? It sounds seductive. Probably there could be some kind of alginate industry, from the massive seaweed or kelp which gives the Islanders their nickname. Possibly, some cold storage could be developed for the meat, which is now left to rot after the wool has been harvested from the sheep: though I am warned that Malvinas meat is extremely tough compared to the succulent lamb chops which we have come to expect from Border Leicester or even the so-called EEC ‘Sheep Meat Regime’. Possibly there is oil round the Falklands, though it is more likely to be nearer the continental coast. What is manifestly preposterous is the idea that one could exploit oil in the sub-Antarctic, in the Roaring Forties, in that swell, in those conditions, in the face of South American ill-will. As a Member of Parliament whose constituency supplies one of the major landing points for North Sea Oil, and who knows something about winning oil from the sea in inhospitable conditions, I say that those who talk about British Exploitation of the Falkland Islands Sea-Bed, in the face of South American non-co-operation, to put it politely, are indulging in idiotic, ill-informed wishful thinking. But then idiotic, ill-informed wishful thinking is a general feature of this affair. (The future of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, as geologically more important than the Malvinas, is bound up with their position as Gateways to Antarctica, and should be a matter for the combined responsibility of the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty.)
The reality of the matter is that sooner rather than later the Malvinas will become dependent once again on Argentina. In the event of an outright British military victory which is by no means clear at the time of writing, ‘sooner’ will probably be just after the next British general election. Mrs Thatcher could hardly go to the electorate and admit: ‘we fought this war, at great cost, and with the sacrifice of lives, for nothing!’ But, of course, in the mood of ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,’ few people in Britain care to contemplate the dangers of an outright British military victory. It would create more of a legacy of burning resentment in Latin America than would British military failure. Sensible people in Washington simply dread the scenario of Argentinian humiliation, at the hands of a British colonialist aggression – for that is how it is portrayed among the peoples stretching from Mexico City to Cape Horn, where Britain is virtually friendless.
This impression is reinforced by what we might think of as an irrelevancy. If the Queen’s son is a junior naval officer, attached to Invincible, and Invincible is a member of the Task Force, clearly it would be intolerable to his contemporaries if Prince Andrew did not sail with his ship. Yet when General Menendez makes speeches telling the ‘English Princeling’ to ‘come and get us’ it strikes a chord round Latin America, where school-children’s history is all about the struggle for delivery from European princes. Andrew’s very presence on board gives fodder for their worst suspicions. The ultimate determinant of the future (in the absence of a British military defeat of the first magnitude) will be the dwindling of international support. Sir Anthony Parsons could assemble a majority at the UN to condemn aggression: but there is no majority at the UN or anywhere else for a British-inspired holocaust. The Hispanic world is shocked. The Indians are representative of the Third World in being appalled. The Russians, the Chinese are contemptuous of us. The Italians and Irish won’t entertain sanctions. The French ignore them, including the makers of Exocet, Aerospatiale, who are supplying their lethal wares to Venezuela without regard to end-users’ certificates. And the Germans dispatch my European Parliament friend, Peter Corterier, now Minister of State at the Foreign Office, to Latin America, to repair, if he can, the damage to German trade and relations. The Americans, nominally supportive of Britain, are beside themselves with anger at Thatcher’s intransigence, which has bitched their relations with the Organisation of American States, and, worse still, with the peoples who are their southern neighbours.
Do the 84 per cent of people in the United Kingdom who allegedly support the policy not care if the day after tomorrow we are friendless in the world? Or is it again a matter of sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof?
[*] Vol. 4, No 9.