Remembering the Falklands War

Mike Phipps looks back at the conflict on its 40th anniversary

Forty years on, the Falklands War is back in the news.  Last month Channel 4 aired a new documentary (Falklands War: The Untold Story) which focused, according to one reviewer,  on the “dysfunctional command chain and numerous logistical and strategic failures that led to British casualties and put the entire campaign in jeopardy.”

“Dysfunctional” scarcely describes it. If the selective recollections of those interviewed are accurate, there seems to have been an almost casual disregard by those in charge for the lives of the ordinary soldiers and sailors under their command. Here, as at the time, there is much sorrow about the killing of one high-ranking officer, whereas fatalities in the ranks are just dry statistics. As for the Argentinian casualties, they are barely mentioned.

But while the military aspect of the conflict may make for good TV and feed the vanity of the armchair generals, there are other reasons to take a fresh look at the Falklands War. It revealed a lot about the true face of the Tory Party and the paralysis that grips Labour in the face of aggressive Conservative nationalism.

The Conservative Party’s response to the Argentinian invasion was a bloodthirsty search for traitors within the ranks of its own government. The entire Foreign Office ministerial team was forced to resign for its complacency and for sending misleading signals to the Argentinian government in the long round of diplomacy that preceded the invasion. Defence Secretary John Nott, whose 1981 White Paper proposing to withdraw Britain’s naval presence from the South Atlantic could have been seen as equally culpable in green-lighting the Argentinian invasion, kept his job, however, and became an integral part of Thatcher’s War Cabinet.

In his Diaries from the time, Labour’s leading left parliamentarian Tony Benn gives a flavour not only of the mood among MPs in Parliament but of the political disarray into which the Labour Party plunged under the leadership of former leftish firebrand Michael Foot.

On Saturday 3rd April, Benn records, the House of Commons was “in the grip of jingoism”.  Speakers from both sides tried to outdo each other in aggressiveness with only George Foulkes speaking against war. Foulkes would later become a fervent supporter of the war on Iraq, a Labour peer and a constant carping critic of Labour’s Corbyn-supporting Scottish leader Richard Leonard.

It’s clear from the debate two days later in the then left wing Tribune Group that most left MPs completely underestimated the determination of the Thatcher government to retake the islands by force and how that would fundamentally change the political landscape. Some even supported the government sending a military Task Force, including Stan Newens, despite his being a conscientious objector during National Service and a strong opponent of NATO.

Labour’s National Executive Committee, of which Benn was a member at the time, fudged the issue. At a meeting of its International Committee on 6th April, the left and right – motions from Eric Heffer and Denis Healey – agreed a common form of words around “an honourable settlement that has the support of the Falkland Islanders.” Benn’s addendum opposing the sending of the Task Force was defeated six votes to five: “Eric Heffer didn’t support it.”

At the regular meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party the following day, leader Michael Foot said that Labour would be “wrong to oppose the dispatch of the Task Force.” But as time wore on, Labour’s official position of “send the Task Force but don’t use it” became increasingly less credible.

“The Labour leadership has absolutely failed the Party and the nation,” concluded Benn. “It has not used its leadership to check the jingoistic spirit as it might have done.”

Labour’s failure to confront Tory jingoism at the outset stored up major problems for the Party. It meant that the worst public outpourings of militaristic patriotism faced no real opposition at the top level of politics – after all, if Labour wouldn’t challenge Thatcher’s manufactured bellicosity, why would the mainstream media, whose coverage of the conflict was unprecedented in its fawning support for the government?

If you thought the public mood was toxic after the Brexit referendum or excessively feverish at the time of the death of Princess Diana, you should have been around during the Falklands War. I remember my union shop steward coming up to me at work and saying, “At last! At last we are standing up for ourselves.” A friend in Swindon told me that when in May 1982 it was announced on the news, which he was watching in his local pub, that the Task Force had taken the village of Goose Green (population: 40) in East Falkland, the entire pub stood up as one and sang “Rule Britannia”. Another’s friend’s elderly grandfather said he hadn’t seen anything like it since the Boer War (1899-1902), which had been notorious for its domestic jingoism – the song Land of Hope and Glory was composed in its immediate aftermath.

Labour has always struggled when it comes to resisting such moments of manufactured patriotism. It doesn’t help when large sections of the left can’t see clearly, something all too apparent in the current war on Ukraine. The Militant Tendency, for example, hugely influential in Labour’s youth wing in the early 1980s, refused to call for the withdrawal of the Task Force, or for Britain to end hostilities.

The conflict lasted 74 days and ended with Argentina surrendering and Britain reasserting control over the islands. In total, 649 Argentine military personnel and 255 British, as well as three Falkland Islanders died during the hostilities. In a model for future conflicts, the media on the ground was entirely dependent on the Royal Navy and there was heavy censorship on site.

After the Argentinian surrender in June, Michael Foot congratulated Margaret Thatcher in a manner that Benn described as “odious and excessive”. Little good would it do Foot, who led Labour to a historic defeat at the general election a year later. Labour scored a record post-war low of just 27% of the vote.

By the time Shadow Foreign Secretary Denis Healey decided that Thatcher had been “glorying in slaughter” – a remark which in any case he later withdrew – the damage had been done. The war was considered a great victory in the UK – Michael Foot’s congratulation of Thatcher confirmed that.

Thatcher went from being one of the most unpopular prime ministers on record following her savage cuts to public spending in 1981 which precipitated a recession, mass unemployment and social unrest, to being one of the most popular. Not for the last time, the Tories milked British patriotism for electoral advantage.

The nature of the Argentinian military dictatorship taking offensive action against seemingly defenceless Falkland Islanders threw many on the left into confusion. But the dispute had a clear underlying character: an imperialist country seeking to cling on to a colonial possession, to which it had never had a legitimate claim. In fact, the Falklands had been seized from and were adjacent to Argentina, 8,000 miles from Britain.

So why the mobilisation of the fleet and the ongoing creation of ‘Fortress Falklands’ at the cost of millions of pounds? Was it really about the right of the islanders to self-determination – a right ruthlessly denied to the people of Diego Garcia, a British colonial possession in the Indian Ocean with a similar sized population, who had been forcibly removed from their homeland a few years earlier to make way for a US airbase?

Britain’s global prestige was undoubtedly at stake, and, despite Thatcher’s denials at the time, oil was also a significant factor in the conflict. The reserves in the South Atlantic are not unimportant and drilling expanded rapidly at the end of the century. Recent research confirms that oil played a role in Thatcher’s calculations and became a central concern subsequently.

According to Grace Livingstone, who has researched this extensively: “On 22 November 1991, the Governor of the Falkland Islands, instructed by UK ministers, issued a proclamation, which provided for the British Crown’s rights over the sea bed and subsoil of the Falkland Islands continental shelf, extending to a maximum of 200 nautical miles or to such other limits prescribed by international law, including those concerning the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction between neighbours. Britain did not define the boundary with Argentina.”

Today oil exploration in the ocean around the Falklands has uncovered some significant discoveries, the largest of which is the Sea Lion oil field. It is estimated to hold the equivalent of 1.7 billion barrels of oil, of which about 580 million barrels are thought to be recoverable.

While Labour politicians at the time wrung their hands and claimed that sending the Task Force would strengthen Britain’s hand in negotiations, Thatcher’s determination to pursue a military outcome to the dispute was never in doubt. This was underlined much later when the full circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Argentinian warship the Belgrano emerged.

The ship was sunk on May 2nd 1982 with the loss of 323 Argentine lives. It was the first major act of aggression by Britain in the conflict and scuppered any hope for peace negotiations that were taking place in Peru.

A year later schoolteacher Diana Gould steadfastly questioned Thatcher on live television about the ship’s sinking, pointing out that it was outside the Maritime Exclusion Zone that the government had imposed around the islands and was in fact sailing away from them. Thatcher looked distinctly uncomfortable: her husband subsequently lashed out at the producer of the show in the entertainment suite, saying that his wife had been “stitched up by bloody BBC poofs and Trots”.

The recent Channel 4 documentary makes some reference to the difficulties that service personnel had in readjusting to ‘normal’ life following their participation in the military campaign. In fact, the Ministry of Defence dismissed the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder at the time and for many years afterwards. But it is estimated that more veterans of the Falklands War killed themselves in the years since the conflict ended than died during hostilities.

A similar situation afflicts veterans on the Argentine side, many of whom have similarly suffered from psychiatric disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and a sky-high suicide toll. When we remember the Falklands War, we should think of them too.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Image: British war graves Falkland Islands 1982. Author: Ken Griffiths,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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