Why Blair can’t get no ‘Falklands Factor’

The twenty-fifth anniversary of Thatcher’s triumph in the South Atlantic throws some light on Britain’s current crises over Iraq and Iran.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It’s a long, long way from the UK to the Falkland Islands. But the 8,000 miles the British task force sailed to retake those islands from Argentina seem like nothing compared to the distance between now and 1982. As the UK marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Argentine occupation of the Falklands that sparked the conflict, it seems we are living not just in another century but on another planet.

Nowhere is that gap clearer than in the contrast between the British role in and reactions to the Falklands crisis back then, and the war in Iraq and the Iranian crisis today. It is worth recalling the events of 25 years ago to throw some revealing light on the state of affairs today.

It is little wonder that some in the British elite should now look back in nostalgia at the mood of 1982. They might well pine for the days when patriotic war fever gripped the nation, and national celebrations of the armed forces’ triumph boosted the Tory Party’s public standing and led to a landslide victory for Margaret Thatcher in the 1983 General Election.

When Tony Blair recently announced that the Falklands War had been right, and that it had taken ‘political courage’ for the Conservative government to send the task force, he was clearly hoping to associate his own Iraq adventure with Thatcher’s South Atlantic expedition. Some hope.

In 1982, Margaret Thatcher sent her task force to retake the Falklands (the Malvinas, to give them their historical Spanish name) with the overwhelming support of the political class. Michael Foot, the leader of the Labour Party and supposed left-wing firebrand, was cheered to the rafters of the House of Commons for giving the task force his blessing. Support remained solid through the conflict. Anti-war demonstrations were small and faced public hostility (as those of us old enough to have marched on them can well recall). By contrast, enthusiastic flag-waving crowds lined the docks to see the task force off, and far bigger ones turned out to cheer them back.

By contrast, support for Blair’s Iraqi invasion was always muted and has since collapsed – despite the fact that the Coalition’s victory in the 2003 war against Saddam Hussein proved considerably easier than retaking the Falklands. The huge anti-war march in London on the eve of the invasion of Iraq was many times larger than all of the protests against the Falklands War put together. Few politicians of any party would now praise Blair for his ‘political courage’ in launching what is widely seen as the Iraqi debacle.

The Falklands fighting itself was kept sanitised for public consumption. The media were largely controlled by the military. The word ‘yomping’ entered the language, because a few seconds of film of squaddies yomping across the bleak landscape of the islands was the only footage of the conflict we ever saw on the television news.

Back home, much of the media indulged in a carnival of jingoism. The infamous ‘GOTCHA!’ headline in the Sun, celebrating the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, actually only lasted a few hours; the front page was altered as news of the scale of casualties came in. But the tone of full-blooded support lasted across much of the media throughout the conflict. There were no attempts to ‘expose’ the alleged brutality of British forces until years later, despite plenty of rumours (such as those about the rucksack of ‘souvenir’ Argentine ears).

Two decades on, much of the media has taken every opportunity to stick the boot into Blair and the British forces over events in Iraq. Where Thatcher could stand in Downing Street and order reporters to stop carping and ‘Just rejoice’ as British forces advanced in the Falklands triumph, now it is more likely to be journalists suggesting Blair should ‘Just resign’. And it seems as if everything that happens in the Iraq war can now be ‘exposed’ as a possible war crime. This week Channel 4 is broadcasting a drama depicting British army sadism towards Iraqi prisoners, even while the conflict is still continuing. That would have been unimaginable during the Falklands.

Then there is the contrast in the domestic political impact of the wars. The Falklands conflict galvanised the Tory government, which in the midst of an economic recession and mass unemployment had been deeply unpopular. Thatcher forged the ‘Falklands Factor’ which, in her own words, she used to defeat first the ‘enemy without’ and then the ‘enemy within’ – the trade unions. This amounted to the militarisation of British politics. It led from the memorable image of a warship returning to port in 1982 displaying a banner warning ‘Call off the rail strike, or we’ll call an air-strike’, to the war against the striking miners two years later. The Falklands Factor also caused a wave of chauvinism that led, among other things, to Argentinian footballers being driven out of Britain.

No doubt the Blair government hoped that the Iraq war would have a similar effect, pulling New Labour out of the doldrums, giving it a sense of purpose and uniting the nation as previous wars had done. But it quickly became clear that the opposite would be the case. The Iraq adventure has laid bare and made worse all of New Labour’s woes. If the Falklands launched Thatcher towards electoral triumph and a place in history, Iraq will be recalled as the conflict that sunk Blair as surely as she did the Belgrano. The current crisis over Iran’s seizure of British seamen has only emphasised the changed climate; there has been no real wave of public outrage in support of the government, and the authorities and media have been reduced to depicting Britannia as the helpless victim of nasty foreigners.

This brings us to the contrast in international reactions to those crises. Britain certainly had problems winning international support for its Falklands mission; to many in the developing world it smacked of old-fashioned colonial gunboat diplomacy, and even the US secretary of state was worried about alienating Washington’s Latin American neighbours. Eventually, however, with the quiet support of President Ronald Reagan and the Chilean dictator General Pincohet, Thatcher secured sufficient backing. The key United Nations Security Council resolution did call on both sides to cease hostilities; but it began by demanding the withdrawal of Argentine forces from the Falklands. That gave Britain’s task force the green light to re-invade. More importantly, Britain came out the other side of the Falklands crisis with its international standing enhanced, having boosted its fading status as a global power by winning the first war of its kind fought for decades.

Today, we are witnessing British foreign policy unravelling and its prestige plummeting over the Iraq war and Iranian crisis. The problems the US-UK Coalition experienced winning wider support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq have come back to haunt Blair over the Iranian seizure of the British seamen. The world has looked on as, far from taking back a group of islands, the British authorities seem to have great difficulty in securing the return of a few sailors.

What can explain these striking differences between then and now? The media focus on the contrasting personalities of Margaret Thatcher, the ‘iron lady’, and Margaret Beckett, the chocolate foreign secretary, miss the bigger point about what has happened to British politics and Britain’s power in the past quarter-century.

It is worth clarifying that the differences certainly cannot be put down to any contrast in the legitimacy of Britain’s wars. The arguments about protecting the Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination were just as flimsy as those about destroying Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. British forces had no more ‘right’ to re-occupy the Malvinas than they have to occupy Iraq.

Two centuries ago, Britain invaded what is now Argentina. Although it failed to colonise the emerging nation state, the British empire did establish its political and economic domination over the region – and occupied the barren Falkland Islands as a colonial outpost. Settlers were then planted, in a classic imperialist manoeuvre to manufacture a ‘majority’ loyal to the Crown. But this did not alter the historical and geographical fact that the Malvinas are part of Argentina, not the UK – as a glance at the atlas might suggest. British sovereignty over the Falklands thus became a barrier to the Argentine people’s national self-determination.

Nor did the British give a damn about the Falklands or the islanders before the war. As the USA usurped Britain as the dominant power in Latin America, Whitehall lost interest in those rocks. Empowered by royal charter, the Falkland Islands Company (FIC) ran the place as a wool-farming fiefdom. Lord Shackleton’s 1976 Economic Survey of the Falkland Islands found that relations between the FIC and the islanders who had to work for it were ‘paternalistic…sometimes feudal’. The serfs lived in tied cottages (which they had to quit on retirement) and ate company mutton, reportedly known as ‘365’ because of the number of days each year they got to enjoy it.

Even these dubious benefits of the British connection were put to question by 1982, however, when the London government withdrew naval protection from the islands and left the ruling Argentine military junta to believe that there would be no response if they staged an invasion as a political stunt. It was only after the invasion that the Thatcher government suddenly discovered the importance of ‘self-determination’ for the Falklanders, invoking the alleged rights of 1,800 Falklanders to refute the claims of 27million Argentines. It used this high-minded issue as a pretext for a war to protect and project its standing at home and abroad, just as Blair has tried to use noble-sounding aims about WMD or Iraqi democracy to justify his war.

The reason why Thatcher got away with it and Blair has failed so dismally to do so has to do with the transformation of both British society and Britain’s standing since the early Eighties. Thatcher’s flag-waving Falklands Factor was based on mobilising the remains of traditional nationalist sentiment for political purposes, to militarise British society. Within a few years, however, that British nationalist current no longer had the same purchase on popular opinion. Instead we have experienced a long period of national uncertainty about what Britain stands for, or even what ‘Britishness’ might mean today. Blair’s attempt to paper over these cracks by unifying the nation around the war in Iraq has only served to bring out the divisions and the lack of purpose in political life all the more clearly.

On the international stage, the Falklands marked the last show for Britain’s delusions of imperial grandeur. The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s was hailed as a triumph for leaders like Thatcher and the West. But it was soon to expose the UK’s problems in projecting a nineteenth-century superpower as a global player in the post-Cold War world. Blair joined President Bush’s crusade in Iraq, as just about any British PM would have done, in a desperate attempt to maintain the UK’s place at the top table and give his government a sense of mission. In the process, however, the British government has burnt so many diplomatic bridges that it now stands internationally isolated and exposed, as well as militarily and politically incapable of launching any Falklands-style go-it-alone operations. The recent clashes with Iran over Iraq, nuclear weapons and the captured seamen have revealed the present-day gap between Britain’s big talk and its paralysis when it comes to practical action. The best Blair’s government has been able to manage over the seamen is to engage in a phoney PR war with the Iranian regime, each firing off pictures and press statements to fight its cause.

Little wonder, then, that some in high places now experience a yearning for the certainties and clear-cut conflicts of yesteryear. Those of us who opposed the Falklands War are unlikely ever to share their nostalgia for the national conceits and small-mindedness of British politics circa 1982. But the anniversaries do serve as a reminder of what it was like to be up against opponents who had principles for which they stood and fought, rather than governments who get involved in wars they don’t really believe in themselves.

As for the anti-war movement at the time of the Falklands compared with today – it might seem that it, too, was more principled, but in fact it was sowing the seeds of all the political problems we see now. Thus it was never anti-interventionist or anti-imperialist. The demand from Labour left leaders such as Tony Benn was that UN sanctions should be used to strangle the ‘fascist’ Argentine regime, rather than military force to blow them out of the Falklands. Benn’s colleague Michael Meacher, later a member of Blair’s government and now the Labour left’s putative candidate for party leader, favoured economic hanging, arguing: ‘The noose on Argentina could clearly be tightened.’ They were in basic agreement with the aims of the task force, but merely disputed the forceful tactics – a ‘war-without-guns’ argument that was always unlikely to win in the heat of battle. Meanwhile the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), leading organiser of the anti-war protests, was banging on in typical style about how British ships should not carry nuclear weapons – a total irrelevance in a real war being fought with an arsenal of ‘conventional’ weapons.

Those of us who took a firm anti-interventionist line were in a small minority within the small anti-war movement, whose leaders sought to exclude us from some of their marches, with the cooperation of the police. I recall one demonstration where, while marching behind the Revolutionary Communist Party’s banner that declared ‘Malvinas are Argentina’s’, we revolting students were threatened with arrest for treason – something unlikely to happen to those who made the defeatist and rather pathetic personal plea ‘Not in my name’ at the start of the Iraq war.

I suppose the Malvinas still should be Argentina’s today. But the important issue highlighted by the twentieth-fifth anniversary no longer concerns sovereignty over a few rocky outcrops in the South Atlantic. It is more about the shifting status and standing of some other islands – the United Kingdom itself.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume explained why he’s anti-intervention, but not anti-war. Philip Cunliffe reviewed five books that reveal the political atrophy of foreign policy today. Jennie Bristow asked whatever happened to the anti-war movement? and predicted that despite getting away with the Iraq war, Blair and New Labour would not experience a ‘Falklands factor’. In spiked‘s coverage of the 15 British seamen captured by the Iranians, David Chandler discussed what the crisis reveals. Brendan O’Neill said TV footage of Seaman Faye Turney exposed Britain’s impotence after Iraq and that there was no ‘Iranian hate mob’. Or read more at: spiked issue Iran.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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