‘Some impertinent Argentinians’

To mark the 40th anniversary of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands, here’s an extract from Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s

Situated three hundred miles off the southern tip of Argentina in the South Atlantic, the Falkland Islands had long been the subject of rival claims to sovereignty. Britain had been in unbroken possession since 1833, and the couple of thousand inhabitants in the early 1980s unanimously wished to remain British, but Argentina had inherited a claim on the territory when gaining independence from Spain and was growing increasingly vocal in its demands.

Recognizing the difficulty of defending the place militarily, given the huge distance from Britain, Whitehall sought a diplomatic solution that involved the handing over of ownership of the Islands to Argentina in exchange for being allowed to lease them back. Nicholas Ridley, as a minister in the foreign office, twice visited the South Atlantic, produced a plan along these lines and proposed it in parliament in December 1980, only to be met with the fury of the Tory backbenches. Having recently seen the former colony of Rhodesia transformed into Zimbabwe in a deal sponsored by Britain, they saw the voluntary relinquishing of one of the last remaining trophies of empire as being a step too far, and the Ridley plan fell. Argentina began to express impatience at the collapse of the talks.

Six months later, a review of the defence forces – by which was meant an attempt to find spending cuts – saw the announcement of the withdrawal of HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy vessel that had been stationed in the South Atlantic as a token symbol of Britain’s obligations to the Falklands. The scale of the economy was so small as to be trivial: Endurance cost £3 million a year, set in the context of a defence budget that allowed £8 billion for the Trident nuclear programme. Several elder statesmen, including Lord Carrington, the foreign secretary, and James Callaghan, cautioned against the withdrawal of the ship (‘I beg you, prime minister, not to scrap the Endurance,’ urged Callaghan), but to no avail. If the move was considered to be without significance by the British government, Argentina read it as a lack of commitment.

None of this registered with the general public, very few of whom had then heard of the Islands. When the Central American state of Belize finally got full independence from Britain in September 1981, for example, the Daily Mirror helpfully provided its readers with a list of what remained of the British empire: Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Diego Garcia, Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena and the Turks & Caicos Islands. It forgot even to mention the Falklands.

Even many of those who regarded themselves as being reasonably well-informed about the world would have struggled to identify the location of the Islands, though some might have recalled that when a dissident in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World is being sent into exile, so that he might write poetry without disturbing the stability of society, he asks for the most remote, forlorn and uncomfortable conditions, the better to inspire his work, and is promptly despatched to the Falklands.

The attention given in government to the issue was scarcely more substantial; there were so many more pressing domestic matters to be addressed. Margaret Thatcher herself had no particular interest in the Falklands (she didn’t like the Ridley plan, but did nothing to stop him proceeding, and it was her insistence on cuts that had caused the Endurance decision – ‘a military irrelevance,’ she declared in her memoirs), and she subsequently faced considerable and reasonable criticism for allowing the crisis to develop. But ultimately none of that really mattered. When things began to go wrong, the British people were hardly surprised to find that their government had been incompetent and had taken their eye off the ball – such was only to be expected; what was entirely unforeseen was the ruthless determination to put the matter right, once the mistake had been discovered.

In December 1981 General Leopoldo Galtieri became president of Argentina at the head of a junta in a coup against the existing military president, Roberto Viola. Faced with an economic recession that put Britain’s in the shade, he saw the unresolved dispute as a way of deflecting public hostility towards the government. The first move came in March 1982 with the raising of the Argentine flag by civilians on South Georgia, part of an island group east of the Falklands. Again it provoked little interest in Britain: ‘The news was all rubbish,’ wrote comedian Kenneth Williams in his diary, ‘apart from a scurry in the Falkland Islands where some impertinent Argentinians are pinching scrap metal or something.’

On 2 April Argentine troops landed on the Falklands themselves to seize control of the Islands, and suddenly it became impossible to ignore what was happening. The foreign office, however, did its best; lacking up-to-date information, one of its ministers, Humphrey Atkins, issued a flat denial in the Commons, and when the press desk was contacted by the BBC for confirmation of the news, the night duty officer laughed off the suggestion of an invasion: ‘Believe me, if anything was happening, we would know about it.’

The response in Westminster was to reinforce the differing perceptions of where Britain now stood in the world, as seen in the entries made that day by the two principal political diarists of the time. ‘It’s all over. We’re a Third World country, no good for anything,’ despaired Alan Clark, the right-wing Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton, who had once looked like he might become a serious military historian. ‘I have a terrible feeling that this is a step change, down, for England. Humiliation for sure and, not impossible, military defeat.’ From the other end of the political spectrum, Tony Benn was unconvinced that any of it really mattered: ‘Some 1800 British settlers do not constitute a domestic population whose views can be taken seriously, or rather whose views can be allowed to lead us into war.’

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