This is not 1982, and it is foolish of David Cameron to start making wild statements about the Falklands as if it were
As soon as I heard David Cameron suggest at yesterday’s PMQs that Argentina’s latest squeeze on the Falkland Islands was “far more like colonialism” than Britain’s stance on the subject I knew there would be trouble. Sure enough, 8,000 miles across the global village in Buenos Aires, the home secretary denounced the remark as “totally offensive”.
We can expect more of this on both sides as the 30th anniversary of the Argentinian junta’s invasion approaches. Sabre-rattling may be fun for the armchair generals of Fleet St and their Latino counterparts, but it will be a waste of energy. Nothing looks like changing – and if it does, Britain is in a far worse position to do much to prevent it than it was then.
Yet today’s Times devotes the whole front page and a page inside to claims and counter-claims. In a curious echo of Labour veteran Tam Dalyell’s warnings in 1982 that Prince Andrew’s role as a helicopter pilot would unite Latin America against an attack by European royalty, the Times reports that Prince William’s imminent stint there – also as a helicopter pilot – “will be seen as an act of aggression.”
No one ever got fired from a Murdoch paper for embarrassing Pom royals, so the editor’s job is secure. But is it true? Is this row going to splutter and fade when both governments have so much else to worry about ? Or will the Argies – a bit of Sun-speak I admit I always enjoyed last time – win a rematch and get hold of Falklands oil, gas and valuable kelp? Will it be helped by a very different mood in the international community today?
Even at the time the Falklands War, which I witnessed from the Commons press gallery as the Guardian’s sketchwriter, was a pretty odd business. I later likened it to the last fleet sent out by the ancient Venetian Republic to tackle the Barbary (North African) pirates in the 1780s a few years before the maritime empire of Venice finally collapsed – the last hurrah.
In cutting defence spending and withdrawing the Falklands guardship, HMS Endurance, in an ill-considered round of defence cuts, Margaret Thatcher’s government had more or less invited the discredited and brutal junta of General Leopoldo Galtieri to try to ingratiate itself with its own people at our expense. The cunning plan: to reclaim their “Malvinas” islands which the Spanish colonialists had never inhabited, but were just 400 miles from their shore – a sort of Latin version of the Channel Islands, an anomaly.
Ignoring noisy hints from BA, as the Labour government of ex-Navy man, Jim Callaghan, did not in 1977 (Callaghan quietly dispatched a nuclear hunter-killer sub to the South Atlantic, then leaked the fact), Thatcher and Co looked prime idiots on invasion day – Friday 2 April 1982 – and spent it denying that an invasion had happened. Meryl Streep does not convey this bit very well in Iron Maggie. The decision to sent a 40,000 strong task force was taken by the cabinet on the rebound next day.
Mad, or what? I could see it both ways, but Mrs T had the UN charter behind her – Article 51’s right to self-defence – though not, of course, the UN, which is never fond of ex-colonial powers throwing their weight around, especially not to displace (which, in effect, she did) a tyrannical local regime, UN member etc etc.
The previous year, Maggie had tried to do a lease-back deal with BA only to have patriotic Westminster MPs, Labour ones included, say no to such a shocking sell-out. That isn’t in The Iron Lady film either, but Mrs T was much more cautious and indecisive than Ms Streep has been told. In the event, the Falklands re-conquest was the making of her reputation. It was risky – and took some guts.
Britain’s historic legal claim is shaky. But Argentina’s is nothing special either, resting on a French concession to Spain (Spaniards did not occupy the islands, but a Frenchman briefly did). Since the UN proclaims the right of self-determination (except when inconvenient) the Falklanders should be able to make a decent case, just as they cunningly fly the British merchant flag – the Red Ensign – when entering South American ports which are now banning the Falklands own flag.
And, of course, in the small matter of colonialism, it has to be noted that the Europeans who dominate politics in most Latin American republics – but much less so than 30 years ago – are as much heirs of colonialism as the government in Port Stanley. As Tories never cease reminding progressives – it’s a tease – even Fidel Castro is the son of a Spaniard who emigrated to Cuba.
But gung-go attitudes in the Fleet St press in 2012 are a nostalgic echo of 1982, which strike me as both foolish and delusional. Yes, after the 1982 war we spent a lot of money building a proper airfield to resupply the islands in a military emergency and the Royal Navy too has its own port.
But the latest round of hasty defence cuts, made by Liam Fox at the behest of the Treasury in 2011, have left the armed forces weaker than before. Even in 1982 Britain was lucky to have two carriers at its disposal – having planned to sell one off. The US, which proved a loyal ally under Ronald Reagan once the diplomatic options failed (were sabotaged, say some) is not the US it was then. Latin America, richer and more confident, is a different region too.
One does not need to be either unpatriotic, spineless or a reader of the London Review of Books, to conclude that next time the PM wants to tease someone at noon on a Wednesday he might be wiser to stick to Ed Miliband.