Friday, 15 June 2007

The Falklands War - A Retrospective (part 1)

Twenty-five years ago, British forces compelled a numerically superior Argentine garrison on the Falkland Islands to surrender thus restoring British rule to the islands and their dependencies which had progressively fallen under Argentinean control from late March culminating in the invasion of April 2nd.

Yet for many in Britain today the Falklands War is a dimly, if at all, remembered event. It seems to belong to another age, another time. Perhaps it was the absence of the 24/7 news networks or the fact that it was so distant from day-to-day life in Britain. Nonetheless, too many lives, both British and Argentine, were lost for this event to be allowed to fade from the collective consciousness.

As I look back, I am forced to re-evaluate:

Were we right to fight for these bits of rock so far away ?

Unequivocally yes. Where they were and what they were was of no importance. The central and undeniable fact is that the Argentine military junta instigated an unprovoked and wholly illegal act of aggression on the United Kingdom, invading and occupying British sovereign territory. Imagine, if you like, the French seizing Guernsey, Sark and Alderney or the Norwegians occupying Shetland. As the later invasion of Kuwait demonstrated, such acts have to be resisted and repulsed.

Did we have to fight alone ?

We weren't of course "alone". Many countries offered verbal support and others a deal more. We could not ask NATO forces to aid us as it was outside the NATO area. The concept of "collective security" exists only within the prescribed NATO area. The United States was of course in a hugely diffcult position. To his credit, Ronald Reagan saw the only correct course of action as to back Britain against aggression but I'm sure we appreciated the problems it would cause Washington in Latin America were American forces to become directly involved.

Could there have been a negotiated peace ?

IF the Argentine military had unilaterally withdrawn from the Falklands and the dependencies, then war would have been avoided. All the other diplomatic "options" were useless as long as Argentine forces remained in occupation of the islands.

Could we have lost the war ?

Yes, it was, to quote Wellington, a "damn close-run thing". Had, for example, one of the Aircraft Carriers been damaged or one of the landing ships lost or if the conflict had dragged on for a couple more weeks, it's highly likely the Task Force would have had to withdraw.

What about the future ?

As long as it is the clear wish of the Falkland Islanders to remain part of the United Kingdom, that's how it has to be. If that wish changes, then alternative arrangements will need to be set up. The democratisation of Argentina is and has been welcome. There is, I believe, a "claim" on the islands by Argentina much as the Irish Constitution "claims" Ulster. Were that to be unilaterally withdrawn, I believe it would allow the British military presence (about 1500 strong, I believe) to be restored to pre-invasion levels.

That said, there HAS to be a relationship between Argentina and the Falklands. That is dictated, if not by history, then by geography. It benefits both economically to have good transport links and to shre in what may be a considerable boom from tourism and other commercial activities.

Winners and Losers:

The biggest "winners", I believe, have been the Falkland Islanders themselves. That's not to say the experience of invasion was in any way pleasant but the years since the conflict have seen considerable investment in the islands and with the possibility of oil in the South Atlantic and a growth in eco-tourism, the economic prospects are good. The islands are clearly no longer the forgotten backwater they once were.

The next "winners" were and are the Argentinean people for whom defeat marked the end of dictatorship and the dawn of a new democratic era. As the Greek junta disastrously overplayed its hand in 1974, so did Galtieri and his junta in 1982. Argentina has had a quarter of a century of democracy and the road has not been smooth but it rarely is in democratic societies. The prospect of military intervention has been excised, however, and while those who lost loved ones in the conflict will continue to grieve, the overall result has been positive.

The next "winner" was Margaret Thatcher, whose political fortunes were transformed by the Falklands War. There are those who claim that "only" Mrs Thatcher would have sent a Task Force to recapture the occupied islands. I believe this to be false. I think the likes of Edward Heath and James Callaghan as well as Major and Blair would have done the same. Being a Prime Minister in times of crisis is easy as the voices of opposition are stilled. Had the Falklands War gone wrong, Mrs Thatcher might not have survived. The wave of patriotic acclaim which followed the successful liberation of the Falklands combined with a divided opposition to cause a huge Conservative election landslide in June 1983. The Conservative majorityof 144 laid the foundations for the radical second Thatcher administration.

More controversially, perhaps, the last "winner" was the Labour Party. This may seem strange given the election rout of 1983 when Michael Foot saw his parlimentary party reduced to a post-war low of 209 seats but, bad though the result was, Labour was still the official Opposition. The threat from the SDP/Liberal Alliance had been checked and the long journey back to credibility began with the election of Neil Kinnock as the new Labour leader. Undoubtedly, Kinnock laid the foundations for the later rise of Tony Blair and the 1997 Labour landslide would prove more emphatic than the 1983 rout had been.

So who lost ? General Galtieri and his colleagues in the junta gambled and lost spectacularly. Many would argue their time was almost over in the face of growing public discontent and the invasion of the Islas Malvinas was the last throw of the dice. Perhaps so but the clear and unequivocal military humiliation of the Argentine forces (notwithstanding some acts of conspicuous individual heroism by some Argentine pilots and by the conscript forces around Goose Green) left the military leadership broken. It is regrettable that Galtieri and his cohorts could not have been turned over to the UN for trial as war criminals.

The other "losers" were the SDP/Liberal Alliance. As a political activist at the time, I well remember canvassing in the weeks before the invasion in preparation for the 2002 London Borough elections. I lived in a strongly Tory area but the Conservative vote was in meltdown and almost all of it was coming to the SDP. The war and the patriotic fervour which swept the country re-energised the Tories and their supporters. The 1982 local elections were a triumph for the Conservatives and presaged the 1983 General Election victory. All those who had considered the Alliance in the early part of 1982 went back to the Tories and although flirting briefly with the Alliance again in 1985-86, never came back. From then on, it would be a difficult struggle for the Alliance parties and the Falklands really ended the dream of shattering the duopoly but it could have been different...

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