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.  

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