Sunday, 13 November 2016
536 The Falklands War
First viewed : April 1982
The news and political agenda was set for the next few months on 2 April 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands , one of the last remnants of the British Empire, 8.000 miles away in the South Atlantic. Argentina had a long-standing claim to the territory which it called The Malvinas and the country's military dictator General Galtieri had taken the fateful decision to boost his shaky regime, encouraged by the scaling back of Britain's military commitment to the region by Margaret Thatcher's parsimonious regime.
The clearly expressed wish of the 2,000 or so sheep farmers making a scrappy living on the islands was to remain British and the tabloids immediately whipped up a storm of outrage in the UK on their behalf. Urbane Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington fell on his sword immediately and it could well have been curtains for his boss too had she not taken the decision to send a naval task force down to the South Atlantic to wrest them back from "the Argies". The force included Prince Andrew , second in line to the throne ( though not for much longer ) then serving in the Royal Navy.
With a couple of BBC reporters on the ships, the nation followed the progress of the force on a nightly basis as they moved towards the islands with support from the rest of the world that was lukewarm at best . The biggest threat came from the Argentinians' French -made missile, the Exocet , a word that entered the English language at this point and is still in use today. Exocets took out some of the ships although not either of the two main aircraft carriers. For her part Britain torpedoed an Argentinian cruiser, the General Belgrano which kept their navy cowering in its ports for the duration of the war.
Each development was sombrely announced to the world by a Ministry of Defence official called Ian McDonald, an intensely serious-looking bloke whose dolorous tones made him something of a star. These pronouncements would often interrupt other programmes as news flashes.
When the soldiers reached the Falklands the fighting was over fairly quickly ( though it probably didn't seem like that to the boys on the ground ). Galtieri had kept his best troops at home for his own protection and the miserable conscripts on the islands were no match for professional soldiers. By the middle of June it was all over.
Thatcher's colossal gamble had paid off and it transformed her political prospects. Without the war, or if the expedition had ended in failure, she could well have been another Edward Heath, a one-term Tory failure. It's one of the great might-have-beens in political history. At the time of the Argentinian invasion unemployment was riding high ( having just past three million ) and so was the Alliance of the Liberals and Social Democrats. Just a week earlier Roy Jenkins had won the Glasgow Hillhead by-election for the SDP, the latest in a string of by-election triumphs.
The Falklands changed all that. Even before the real fighting began, the Conservatives won the Mitcham and Morden by-election caused by the decision of a high-minded Labour defector , Bruce Douglas-Mann, to re-fight his seat as an SDP candidate. This is still the last time a governing party has gained a seat at a by-election although perhaps that won't be the case for much longer. While the Falkland Islands hardly had much impact on peoples' everyday lives , the British victory cheered people up and secured Thatcher's position. In her own party, her position became unassailable . Even though it raised one of their number, Francis Pym, to Foreign Secretary, the victory completely neutered the Tory "wets" and Pym was immediately dumped after the 1983 election.
While the Falklands was bad news for the SDP in general, it was a godsend for one of the Gang of Four. Even as a Labour MP , David Owen's position in Plymouh Devonport had looked a bit shaky but his robust support for the task force in a naval constituency transformed his prospects. It secured the seat and won him a respect in Parliament that was denied to the returning Jenkins. In a little over a year, he would be the party leader.
I supported the task force and in my battered emotional state said some pretty stupid things about wanting to get called up and finished off gloriously. For all sorts of reasons this was never very likely and I cringe at the memory.