Palmerstonian

Bernard Porter

  • The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. I: The Origins of the Falklands War by Lawrence Freedman
    Routledge, 253 pp, £35.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 7146 5206 7
  • The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. II: War and Diplomacy by Lawrence Freedman
    Routledge, 849 pp, £49.95, June 2005, ISBN 0 7146 5207 5

In 1982 Britain’s continued possession of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands was ridiculous. Even at the British Empire’s height they had been one of its least important and favoured colonies. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 they were represented by a showcase containing some tufts of wool and dried grasses. Dr Johnson’s famous description of them in 1771, which Lawrence Freedman uses to open this history, has scarcely been challenged:

a bleak and gloomy solitude, an island thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, and barren in summer; an island which not even southern savages have dignified with habitation; where a garrison must be kept in a state that contemplates with envy the exiles of Siberia; of which the expense will be perpetual, and the use only occasional; and which, if fortune smiles upon our labours, may become a nest of smugglers in peace, and in war the refuge of future buccaneers.

That last bit, about ‘expense’ and ‘use’, remained the gist of the objection to them by British policy-makers (the people at the Foreign Office, for example); together with the fact that, as they knew full well, but didn’t always let on, Britain’s legal title to the islands was highly dubious. It was anomalous that they remained colonies (or ‘overseas dependencies’) long after most of the rest of the empire had gone. It wasn’t because Britain valued them, even for their potential. (Offshore oil was a rather desperate and unconvincing rationale for them at the time of the 1982 war; it has never been found. Were it to be, Argentine co-operation would be needed to exploit it.) No particular pride was attached to having the Falklands. They were ‘a nuisance’; the situation was a nonsense.

In 1982, when Argentinian troops landed on the Falklands, it looked more nonsensical than ever. There were only two thousand people living there. They wanted to be British, but could remain so only at huge cost to the Treasury (which was already subsidising them heavily), or by reaching some accommodation with their Argentinian neighbour. Alternatively, they could be shipped off somewhere else, which would be very much to Britain’s advantage. It would be cheaper than securing them in the Falklands, which nearly all military experts believed would be impossible to defend were they to be invaded. Britain was 7000 miles away: taking the islands back seemed ‘barely militarily viable’, or at least prohibitively expensive. It would also dangerously divert Britain’s forces from their more urgent Cold War role in Europe. That was why the main goal of FCO policy in the twenty or thirty years before the war had been, reasonably enough, to negotiate some form of transfer.

A condominium was mooted; or a ‘lease-back’ scheme; or an arrangement rather like the one the Åland islands had with Finland. (The Swedish-speaking islanders had been ceded against their will, but with special privileges internationally guaranteed, which seemed to work satisfactorily.) Any of these solutions would have been better than Britain simply hanging on, in deference to a few settlers whose right to have the last say just because they lived there was at least questionable. One British ambassador in South America thought it was

ludicrous that the interests of less than two thousand persons … should be allowed to be a thorn in the flesh of Anglo/Latin American relations, damaging the interests of the more than 50 million population of the United Kingdom. This seems to me to be a case where our principle of self-determination ought to take second place behind the principle that in a democratic society the minority have to bow to the majority.

But the islanders weren’t having any of this; and so successive British governments, clearly frightened of the public (or press) outcry were they to hand patriotic Britons over to foreigners against their wishes, chickened out. Perhaps – some of them reasoned – it might be easier to settle later. The British population of the islands was in decline. The young people were leaving. (One visitor – a Fabian, and clearly jaundiced – pictured them bored out of their minds by ‘an unending diet of mutton, beer and rum, with entertainment largely restricted to drunkenness and adultery, spiced with occasional incest’.) If current trends continued, their ‘fragile economic and social structure’ would collapse. That would force them to come to terms with the logic of their situation: either a compromise, or what one governor called ‘euthanasia by generous compensation’ – i.e. paying them to leave. That’s probably the best one can say for Britain’s foot-dragging. It was the way to get shot of what James Callaghan called this ‘poisoned chalice’ with least fuss.

It depended, however, on Argentina’s patience. In 1982 that finally snapped. Confused, perhaps, by the FCO’s subtle diplomacy; sharing the British military’s assessment of the difficulty of defending the islands; taking the wrong signals from the Thatcher government’s defence cuts, and from decolonisation elsewhere (Zimbabwe); convinced of their own case for sovereignty (although, in truth, it was not much better than Britain’s); and fired by local nationalism – or maybe exploiting it to divert attention from Argentina’s domestic problems – Galtieri’s junta decided to force the issue. The invasion started on 2 April. We know what the British government’s response to that was: the Task Force; ‘Rejoice!’ (Thatcher’s order to the nation when South Georgia was recaptured); Goose Green; and the eventual Argentinian surrender on 14 June. All this took Galtieri by surprise. That was the short-term sequel. Medium-term, the result was actually to strengthen Britain’s hold over the islands (‘Fortress Falklands’), increase the determination to hold them, and also, as it happens, to produce an economic plan (based not on oil but on fishing licences) that made them more self-sufficient than they had ever been before. It also helped to topple Galtieri and restore democracy to Argentina. That must make the invasion one of the most counter-productive actions in a long time.

Some critics saw the clock as having been put back to the days of the empire, which is partly what Galtieri had been banking on, in order to gain (anti-colonial) support. He had sent a ‘liberation’ force to the Falklands: by despatching the Task Force, Britain had reverted to imperial type. There may be something in this. Obviously the root of the Falklands problem was imperial. The islands were still colonies of Britain – though no longer in name and without the degree of direct rule over their inhabitants that ‘imperialism’ generally implies. The Task Force inevitably brought Palmerstonian gunboats to mind and the tabloid ‘jingoism’ that accompanied the whole event was redolent of ‘Mafeking night’ in the (very imperialist) Boer War. Some imperial nerves were certainly touched – among old Tory pro-Rhodesians smarting from Britain’s having just caved in to Mugabe, for example, and now from this humiliating tweak that Galtieri was giving to the mangy lion’s tail. Much of Thatcher’s later rhetoric – the ‘putting the Great back into Britain’ stuff – may have reflected this. Later, in her memoirs, she professed to admire the empire, though there’s little evidence that she knew much about it. For foreigners, whose main historical perception of Britain was as an empire (it was how it had mainly related to them, after all), it was natural to see the old monster looming out of the historical mists again.

Strictly speaking, however, the imperialist charge can’t easily be made to stick. Imperialists seek to expand, grab, exploit, rule; Britain wasn’t motivated by these things. There was, to repeat, nothing for it in the Falklands. For the broad mass of the people this wasn’t an imperialist war. Freedman quotes Anthony Barnett on some of the ‘symbols’ that surrounded it: ‘an island people, the cruel seas, an Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator, and finally the quintessentially Churchillian posture – we were down but we were not out.’ These essentially defensive tropes go back further, and have always been far more powerful in the British popular historical consciousness than ‘imperial’ ones. This was why government propaganda favoured them, whatever their own motives may have been; and why Labour came on board too: remarkably, in view of their detestation of Thatcher. It helped that Galtieri’s government was a murderous right-wing one, which also explains why so many ex-colonies – and not only the ‘old Commonwealth’ – lined up behind Britain at the UN and elsewhere. That was another surprise to the Argentinians, who had expected the ‘anti-colonial’ card to trump all.

The reason for this degree of support is clear. Whatever the original merits of the dispute, Argentina was trying to solve it by force, and Thatcher responded as she did because of the affront it represented to British dignity (itself perhaps an imperial hangover); and because of the principle that international disputes should not be settled in this way. Freedman is aware that this might seem naive. ‘Scholars of international relations are often sceptical when it is suggested that countries can go to war for the sake of principle – but democracies find it difficult to go to war for anything else, especially when national survival is not directly threatened.’ Of course, ‘principle’ is often used as a cloak for more disreputable motives (Suez? Iraq?); but that doesn’t seem to have been the case here. There were disreputable reasons on the British side for the dispute culminating in an invasion – all that diplomatic prevarication, for example – which Argentina’s invasion conveniently blotted out. Thatcher also milked the whole thing shamelessly for domestic political advantage. But that wasn’t a motive at the beginning. It was just too risky: no one could be at all confident that Britain would win the war. Thatcher, Freedman says, was ‘taking an enormous gamble’. The reasons she gave were, first, the ‘principle’ of self-determination, which neutralised the ‘anti-colonial’ argument, though it had its flaws; and second, anti-appeasement – ‘aggression should not pay.’ It was this latter argument that marshalled most of the international community on Britain’s side; even the large majority who thought that on the issue itself – sovereignty – Argentina was probably right.

Much of that support was predicated on the assumption that a resolute response by Britain would persuade the Argentinians to think again. Apparently most of those on the ships that sailed south in April 1982 expected to be ordered to turn back long before they reached the Falklands. During this whole period (six weeks from embarkation to arrival) negotiations continued to try to get the two sides together, brokered by the UN, the US (Alexander Haig) and latterly Peru. They foundered on intransigence from both sides, though part of the game was for each to try to make the other seem more intransigent. ‘It is rapidly becoming a question of who wrong-foots whom when the negotiations break down,’ as Anthony Parsons, the UK ambassador to the UN put it. Parsons, one FCO man Thatcher had time for, was consummately skilful here. One of the negotiations is particularly controversial: it was claimed at the time that the British had deliberately sunk the Belgrano, with huge loss of life, in order to scupper the talks brokered by the Peruvians. Freedman is certain that this can’t have been the case, and argues that the sinking was strictly justifiable under the current rules of engagement, though he also confirms that the MoD lied about it, so had only itself to blame for the conspiracy theories.

In the end, Thatcher was undoubtedly relieved that she didn’t have to compromise. Both pride and principle came into this. Whatever the situation before the invasion, Britain could not give in to force; and when British soldiers started getting killed, they could not be seen to have died in vain. ‘We were prepared to negotiate before but not now,’ Thatcher told her ambassador to Washington at the end of May, in irritated response to an appeal from Reagan to bend a bit. ‘We have lost a lot of blood and it’s the best blood. Do they’ – the Americans – ‘not realise that it is an issue of principle? We cannot surrender principles for expediency.’ To be fair, however, Freedman believes the Argentinians were even stiffer. ‘We would rather die on our feet than live on our knees,’ said Galtieri (possibly drunk) to the Peruvians on 3 May. Machismo was a factor on both sides.

It was Thatcher’s machismo that eventually triumphed, though these volumes confirm that the actual fighting was fairly close-run. Generally, Freedman is impressed with the professionalism and bravery of the officers and men involved, though he is not convinced that the most celebrated example of heroism – Colonel ‘H’ Jones’s gung-ho charge at an Argentinian trench at Goose Green on 28 May – did ‘completely undermine the will to resist’ of the enemy, as his posthumous VC citation claimed. It probably did more for his own side’s morale. Overall, Freedman concludes, superior firepower made the difference between victory and defeat. That was despite frequent failures of tactics, matériel and (especially) communications, which could have been more serious if the Argentinians had not suffered similarly. (Several more British ships might have been sunk if the bombs that fell on them had been properly fused.) One gets the impression that the Argentinians could and possibly ought to have won.

Freedman’s account corroborates the popular picture of Thatcher: hard, determined, workaholic, fast-learning, in control, impatient of doubt or compromise, supportive of her admirals and generals, dismissive of the clever and reasonable FCO (its memos peppered with her angry ‘No!’). Only once does he show the mask slipping, and this may have been a mis-observation by the UN secretary-general:

The prime minister appealed to me to keep ‘her boys’ from being killed. I sensed that this was the woman and the mother who was speaking to me – a very different person from the firm, seemingly belligerent leader of the British government. From this call I was certain that Margaret Thatcher was not, as so much of the press was reporting, hell-bent on war.

Well, maybe. But she soon got over it.

This is an ‘official’ history, so one would not expect it to be too critical. It is also by Sir Lawrence Freedman: why did he or his publisher feel the need to emblazon his knighthood on the jacket? Other knighted historians don’t. For some readers it is likely to add to their mistrust. In fact, modern ‘official’ histories are not usually the apologias they used to be, and Freedman insists that he was not constrained in what he was allowed to see. I’m inclined to trust him on this, but more because of his reputation as a historian than because of the ‘sir’. He is pretty kind to nearly everyone on the British side (not so much to the Americans). Even ‘poor old Notters’ (Alan Clark on the defence secretary John Nott) comes out of it quite well. This is a highly empathetic account of the British campaign, but Freedman doesn’t pretend otherwise. ‘It has expressly not been my task,’ he writes at the start of the second volume, ‘to highlight the failures of individuals, sensationalise events, or take the opportunity to get as many secrets as possible into the public domain.’ If readers want that, they can go elsewhere. On the other hand, here they will get a full account of the tactics and the fighting (Freedman fears that this may be found ‘tedious’, but it is no more so than it needs to be), plus much more on the diplomatic and presentational aspects than one finds in the usual official war histories, which is right and proper, because these were just as important to the ‘campaign’. (It is interesting, incidentally, to see how continually sensitive the military were to this wider context.) There is some criticism: Colonel ‘H’ Jones’s VC citation is a minor instance, the Franks Report on prewar intelligence, which gave the government a soft ride, a much bigger one; and even some amusing passages – the picture of the dean of St Paul’s suggesting Thatcher read out Micah 4.1-4 at the postwar ‘thanksgiving’ service is priceless (look it up).

The history is more sketchy on the after-effects. Thatcher was of course a major beneficiary – after the islanders. Her margin of victory at the next election was surely boosted. (Freedman discusses this.) Beyond that, what else did it do? A total of 253 British and 655 Argentinian lives were lost, and many others blighted by injury, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Half of the British combatants reported experiencing some form of this; between 250 and 300 (Freedman can’t find the exact figure) later committed suicide. Was it worth this suffering? The basic problem of the islands – their post-imperial incongruity – remains. A ‘rational’ solution is as far away as ever; further, probably, than if the Falklanders had been left to wither away. So it remains ‘a time bomb for future crises’. Thatcher claimed that standing up to Galtieri would make other dictators pause before attacking their weaker neighbours, but it didn’t seem to make any difference to Saddam Hussein.

On the other hand, as Freedman points out, the conflict did not do the lasting harm to Anglo-American relations with South America that the ‘Latinos’ in the US administration had feared. Nor were the Soviets able to make much hay. One thing it did do was heighten the reputation of the military in Britain, which was something comparatively new. It also put a premium on a new kind of ‘leadership’, which again had been rather alien to the main British tradition: one that emphasised strength and single-minded determination over, for example, consensus and compromise – or, by another way of looking at it, over democracy. (‘If you are guided by opinion polls,’ Thatcher famously said, ‘you are not practising leadership – you are practising followship.’) That has remained. Thatcher also believed that her Falklands victory had breathed a new confidence into the British people, after all those years of demoralisation and decline under ‘socialism’; and had engendered a new respect for Britain abroad. Both these effects are difficult to measure. Many Americans were impressed, and took on the ‘leadership’ thing too. In the case of other countries, the effect was spoiled by the apparently ludicrous nature of the conflict: a struggle, as Borges famously put it, between two bald men fighting over a comb; and by its seemingly anachronistic aspect. It harked back to the days when Britain had hair. It was of no relevance to Cold War times.

Connected with the Cold War was the row over ‘colonialism’, which both sides in the Cold War were keen to exploit. It was these two great conflicts that confused and bedevilled the diplomacy of the Falklands campaign, especially in the case of the US, most of whose vacillation over what Thatcher regarded as the ‘principle’ of the conflict derived from its obsession with Communism, and its anxiety not to put itself on the wrong side of the ‘imperial/anti-imperial’ divide. With the end of the Cold War, however, this situation obviously changed. Freedman’s last word (in a short Envoi) is intriguing. He points out that as early as 1982 he suggested that the war in the Falklands ‘might turn out to be a precursor of things to come’, by virtue of its independence from the old East-West and North-South dualities, and also in ‘the role allotted to the United Nations’. He was mocked then, he says, but no longer. Further, he claims, the ‘traditional military virtues’ which he believes were displayed in the war seem to have more relevance now than in the old days of nuclear stalemate.

What he seems to be suggesting is that the Falklands conflict, marginal and old-fashioned as it undoubtedly was, can also be regarded as the first postmodern war. Whatever the truth of this, it’s a shame – for Thatcher’s poor ‘boys’, and for the ultimate peace of Dr Johnson’s ‘bleak and gloomy solitude’ – that reason did not prevail.