The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

In my first year at university, the unthinkable happened. A foreign country invaded a piece of Britain. Now, that piece of Britain happened to be thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic but its inhabitants had no wish to be citizens of Argentina – the nearest mainland power that was now attempting to seize what it called the Malvinas. So – how did people view the Falklands War back in 1982?

I remember seeing the first news of the war broadcast on ITN and it was a bit surreal. There was the footage of Argentine ships heading towards the islands with some swaggering admiral on deck with his binoculars.This was truly like a bolt out of the blue.

We look back on the war from the post-1982 world where the Iron Lady looks utterly resolved to defeat the damned Argies. Don’t believe a word of it. The government was caught in headlights. Foreign minister Lord Carrington resigned. There had been warnings about Argentina’s intentions since 1977 and the British embassy in Buenos Aires had been alerting London for months. But when Argentina struck – the Tories initially reeled.

Tory plan to give the Falklands to Argentina

This might surprise you but two years before in 1980 – at the dawn of the Thatcher era – one of her closest ministerial chums, Nicholas Ridley, came up with a leaseback scheme where Britain would have nominal control over the islands. Ridley was Minister of State at the Foreign Office and tried to convince islanders this was in their best interest. They were not enthusiastic to put it mildly. Ridley was a Thatcherite prepared to think the unthinkable in line with his free market convictions. He had no time for the ‘Fortress Falklands’ notion and at a time of deep public spending cuts thought expenditure on this imperial outpost was unwarranted.

In one last ditch attempt to get the Falkland Islands on board with this – he emphasised the economic benefits including increased trade with India. His arguments were about as convincing as those of the average Brexiteer today telling us how many trade deals Britain will get after leaving the European Union. The islanders knew they’d be on their own and soon subsumed into Argentina – then ruled by a dictatorship.

Ridley may have failed in his endeavour – and was moved to another part of government – but some analysts believe Argentina interpreted his efforts as a lack of interest on the part of Britain in retaining this remnant of the British Empire. Effectively, it emboldened the Argentines to invade.

FIND OUT MORE: 1982 – looking back after forty years

Thatcher caught off guard

Papers just released under the 30 year rule show that Thatcher was completely amazed when Argentina invaded the Falklands. Even in newspapers back in 1982, it was reported that Thatcher had no idea until 30 March that the islands were under attack. Incredible when you think the invasion was underway five days earlier! Based 8,000 miles away, there was no way to respond instantly. The journalist and author Max Hastings who was embedded with UK armed forces as they retook the British dependency wrote later in the year that victory was a very close run thing.

We all became aware of something called an ‘Exocet missile’ in the early stages of the war. These lethal French-made weapons were used with deadly effect by the Argentinians. Nevertheless back in Britain, the Argentine military effort was frequently characterised as clownish and incompetent. Those useless conscripts up against our plucky professionally trained boys. There was a tinge of racism as well with the implicit view that Latino ‘Argies’ were no match for Anglo-Saxon might. The whole ‘Argie’ thing, promoted by the tabloid press, got so ridiculous that I was accused of being an Argie in the student bar because I’m half-Portuguese!

In 1982, Hastings detailed blunders and shortcomings on the British side that could have resulted in defeat for Thatcher. The Sunday Times reported that Britain had no idea the Argentines possessed air-launched Exocets. On 4 May, an Exocet was fired at HMS Sheffield and sunk the ship with significant loss of life. Hastings described Britain’s missiles as “tragically inadequate”.

The Battle of Goose Green has become one of those Dunkirk moments in British history that we love to memorialise. But in 1982, Major Chris Keeble who led the attack after Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Jones was killed, questioned whether Goose Green had to be taken at all. He told The Sunday Times: “Let’s be objective. To succeed in the Falklands, there was little point in attacking Goose Green, because the centre, the capital, is Stanley.” His doubts were drowned out by the fact that under his leadership, 450 British paratroopers captured 1,400 Argentines.

Latin America united on the Falklands War

Across south American, the war brought countries together. Cuba and Venezuela in particular. Though Venezuela was looking for friends in a dispute over territory with neighbouring Guyana. Before we celebrate this anti-colonial alliance, it has to be noted that most Latin American governments at the time were military dictatorships installed with American support, normally involving the overthrow of a democratically elected left-wing government. Brazil was under the heel of a military dictatorship that swept away a left-wing president in 1964 and would continue until 1985. The socialist government of Salvador Allende had been violently removed in Chile in 1973 bringing the murderous General Pinochet to power. The military in Argentina had seized power in 1976 terminating Isabel Peron as president and ‘disappearing’ many political activists.

Argentina’s generals called their dictatorship The National Reorganisation Process. It instituted what became known as The Dirty War, imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents. But the generals were a fractious bunch. In December 1981, President Roberto Viola was removed in a coup by another general, Leopoldo Galtieri. He was a truly dark character who ran a death squad called the Batall√≥n de Inteligencia 601. Anybody deemed to be ‘subversive’ could find themselves kidnapped and killed.

Galtieri wasn’t a hugely popular President of Argentina and months after taking the presidency, he embarked on his big, distracting foreign policy adventure. The invasion of the Falkland Islands. He calculated, wrongly but not without reason, that the United States would support an anti-communist ally on its doorstep as opposed to a decaying imperial power, Britain, with its claim on a bunch of islands far from London. That miscalculation would be his undoing.

The ultra-left, Galtieri and the Falkands War

The conflict in the Falklands created some very predictable but still unusual alliances. Supporting Galtieri were all the other tin-pot dictators in Latin America but also the Soviet Union waded in against the ‘imperialism’ of Britain – as did the non-aligned countries, those who claimed to be neither in the western nor the Soviet sphere of influence.

But you also had ultra-left groups in the UK and Argentina who lined up behind Galtieri. Incredibly some argued vociferously for an Argentine victory – how they expected that to land with the British working class is anybody’s guess. Their rationale was that any enemy of Thatcher was a friend. What they deliberately overlooked was that under any normal circumstances, Thatcher would have been best mates with Galtieri – as she was with Pinochet in Chile.

I remember arguing with a member of the Socialist Workers Party who refused to criticise Galtieri. I made the point back that as a Marxist-Leninist, his position shouldn’t be supporting the foreign policy distraction of a dictator dripping in the blood of left-wing opponents. He just made ‘jokes’ about the Falklands’ populations being ‘penguins’.

At the time, back in 1982, I was a ‘comrade’ in the Militant tendency. The Militant line was as follows:

We opposed the seizure of the Malvinas by Galtieri as a military adventure. If the junta had successfully taken long-term possession of the Malvinas, the dictatorship would have been strengthened for a period, which would have worsened the position of the Argentinean working class. At the same time, we opposed the sending of the military task force, which was to defend the power and prestige of British imperialism. It was predictable that a British victory would strengthen Thatcher and embolden her attacks on the working class at home.

No to Thatcher. No to the Argentine junta. But try arguing that on the doorsteps in a UK general election as I had to the following year when Thatcher went to the polls looking for a second term – which we got in no small part due to the Falklands.

US administration divided on who to support

The support of the US was not a given. Thatcher may have felt that Reagan was an ideological soulmate. But others in the administration had a more detached and cold-blooded view of the situation. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, became something of a hate figure in Britain at the time. Kirkpatrick had started out as a Democrat but switched to the Reaganite Republicans after criticising President Jimmy Carter over his belief that human rights should be prioritised in US foreign policy. Echoing and developing the Kissinger point of view, Kirkpatrick stated that any dictatorship opposing communism was a friend in need.

She publicly urged neutrality in the dispute and in when Kirkpatrick died in 2006, it was claimed that she had been passing on information to the Galtieri dictatorship during the Falklands War.

In June 1982, Reagan visited Britain where he famously went horse riding with the Queen and addressed both houses of parliament. He declared his intention to place “Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history”. And called for a global “campaign for democracy”. There was undoubtedly a divide opening up between those in the US administration who took the classic Cold War view that any thug who opposed communism should be supported. And those who reasoned that unless the US could put forward a superior proposition – freedom and democracy – then it wasn’t going to win hearts and minds. Uncle Sam would always appear to be the rapacious, immoral, dictator-supporting global monster as portrayed by the Left.

Reagan tacked between both positions with the only constant being his hatred of communism. So regarding communist-run Poland he could cheerfully call for free trade unions there – while bashing trade unions in the United States. On the Falklands, he told the British parliament in his speech that Thatcher had been right to stand up to aggression. However, it’s emerged since that early on he was urging a ceasefire and not a withdrawal – which dismayed Thatcher. He had to be won round to full-throated support for the British invasion.

A grim return

In November 1982, 63 slain British soldiers and one Chinese civilian were returned to the UK on board a transport ship. They had been buried where they fell in the Falklands but relatives had mounted a campaign to get the bodies back. The Chinese civilian – as I’m sure you’re curious to know – was a laundry worker on board HMS Coventry, sunk on 25 May. He worked for a Hong Kong based contractor to the armed forces – at a time when Hong Kong was still a British colony, like the Falklands. Needless to say, Remembrance Day in 1982 saw swelled congregations and an added poignancy.

Here’s some of the stuff that came out during the Falklands War from my extensive archive…

Liverpool Echo on the Falklands
Liverpool Echo on the Falklands
How Marxists viewed the Falklands
How Marxists viewed the Falklands
Students vexed over whether to serve
Students vexed over whether to serve
Students said view of Thatcher unchanged
Students said view of Thatcher unchanged
London Evening Standard front page
London Evening Standard front page
Carrington was about to go
Carrington was about to go

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: