On April 2nd 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. The war Britain fought to recover them still colours domestic politics
WHEN Adrian Mole, a fictional teenage diarist of the early 1980s, tells his father that the Falkland Islands have been invaded, Mr Mole shoots out of bed. He “thought the Falklands lay off the coast of Scotland”. That Britain still had sovereignty over a clutch of islands in the South Atlantic did, indeed, seem odd. Sending a naval task force 8,000 miles to fight for a thinly inhabited imperial relic seemed odder still. In some ways the conflict has come to seem even stranger since 1982. Yet for all its eccentricity, the Falklands campaign still shapes the politics of Britain.
Among historians, the main debates about the war’s legacy concern Mrs Thatcher and her Conservative government. Could she have survived as prime minister had the Falklands not been retaken? (In her memoirs, she says not.) Would the Tories have won the 1983 election had Argentina never invaded? (Probably.) But the conflict also changed attitudes to foreign policy and war itself.
The dash across the Atlantic and subsequent victory—almost as much of a surprise to many Britons as they were to the Argentines—seemed to mark an end to Britain’s apparently inevitable international decline, a retreat epitomised by the Suez debacle of 1956. After the 1970s, a decade in which, Europe aside, British leaders had mostly been preoccupied with domestic woes—recession; industrial unrest; an IMF bail-out—the Falklands made foreign affairs, and Britain’s clout in the world, measures of successful leadership. That has remained the case ever since.
And if Britain took more notice of the world after the Falklands, the reverse was true, too. “Everywhere I went after the war,” Lady Thatcher (as she later became) wrote in her memoirs, “Britain’s name meant something more than it had.” Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer stationed in London in 1982 who subsequently defected, remembers that the KGB confidently expected Britain to lose.
As Hew Strachan of Oxford University puts it, America’s experience in Vietnam had made war seem messy and unpredictable. Lady Thatcher’s victory suggested that war could achieve political ends quickly and efficiently. Where a knee-jerk antimilitarism had once prevailed, Britain’s armed forces came to seem noble and professional: the “best in the world”, as British politicians’ constant refrain has it.
In 1982 the campaign looked like a strategic blip. The main job, during the cold war, was to defend Europe from the Soviet Union. In retrospect, observes Mr Strachan, it was the first in a series of short, sharp, expeditionary wars that Britain was to fight: later came the first Gulf war, Kosovo and the intervention in Sierra Leone. Consciously or otherwise, the triumph in the South Atlantic may have affected Britain’s appetite for those engagements.
That run ended in Afghanistan and Iraq— missions that have involved elusive opponents, changing rationales and disappointingly uncertain outcomes.
Little wonder that the Falklands war—which was fought against a state, for a simple cause and to a swift and absolute victory—still inspires pride and nostalgia in Britain.
Perhaps its most tangible impact has been on defence spending. Because of the war, the navy was protected from cuts for much longer than it would otherwise have been. Today the government estimates the cost of its commitment to the islands, including its garrison and air and sea links to Britain, as £200m ($318m) a year.
The navy now finds itself temporarily without an aircraft-carrier, which has led to febrile speculation that, if lost, the islands could not be retaken. That is scaremongering, for two reasons. First, as Sir Lawrence Freedman, the war’s official historian, summarises, Britain would indeed struggle to recover the islands if they were overrun again—but defending them in the first place would be much easier, because of the men and kit now deployed there.
Second, Argentina does not want to repeat the war, which triggered the end of military dictatorship and the advent of democracy. Subsequent governments have, however, retained their country’s claim to what Argentines call “Las Malvinas”. Cristina Fernández, Argentina’s president, has forsworn force as a tactic; yet as the 30th anniversary of the invasion approaches, she has energetically pressed the case by other means (in a bid, some argue, to distract voters’ attention from high inflation and other economic woes).
Recent steps by her administration have been designed to impede tourism—along with fishing, a mainstay of the islands’ economy—and even Argentina’s overall trade with Britain. In that context, the friendly inducements she occasionally dangles before the 3,000 islanders don’t wash. “Everything they’ve done makes us deeply suspicious of everything they’ve offered us,” says Dick Sawle, a member of the Falklands’ legislative assembly. Ms Fernández has striven to enlist other governments in the region to her niggly campaign—likely to intensify if oil is produced in the islands’ waters. Rockhopper, an energy firm, found oil offshore in 2010, and says it expects to start production in 2016.
For its part, the British government says it is absolutely committed to the islanders’ right of self-determination. They overwhelmingly wish to stay British, a desire that is the basis of the British claim to sovereignty. Compromise would anyway be impossible while the war is a living memory: polls suggest that public opinion in mainland Britain is firmly against any concession. Jeremy Browne, the Foreign Office minister responsible for Falklands policy, doubts that, say, Brazil or Uruguay has much interest in a regional economic blockade of the islands. He thinks Argentina would be overreaching if it tried to organise one.
That may prove optimistic, especially if an oil bonanza stimulates wider Latin American resource nationalism.
Mr Browne observes that tension over the Falklands has not followed a straight path: it is worse now than it was 15 years ago. The same may be true of the war’s emotional impact. Britain’s current leaders, who are mostly in their 40s, reached political consciousness in the early 1980s; the Tory half of the coalition, at least, reveres Lady Thatcher. Their views on the Falklands are noticeably firm. The war’s impact on Argentina was much more dramatic. But, quietly and enduringly, it left its mark on Britain, too.