Skip to Content

Coffee House

From the archives: Defending the Falklands

2 April 2012

11:40 AM

2 April 2012

11:40 AM

To mark the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War,
here’s Ferdinand Mount’s column from the time:

The last armada, Ferdinand Mount, 10 April 1982

A debacle speaks for itself. All things that inescapably follow — the humiliation, the indignation, the ministers hurrying in and out of Cabinet, the spectacular sitting of Parliament on a
Saturday, the calls for the resignation of Mr John Nott, Lord Carrington and anyone else standing in the line of fire — are not only themselves part and parcel of the debacle; they help to
explain why it happened.

The Falkland Islanders are the last victims of our refusal to be honest with ourselves; we have clung to the rhetoric of empire long after we have lost the desire or the ability to maintain its
reality. The easy refuge in these circumstances is to blame the ‘appeasers’ in the Foreign Office. It was undoubtedly the Foreign Office which is to blame for the misreading of Argentina’s
intentions and for Britain being caught napping. Lord Carrington and his juniors had to go, and they duly went — in Lord Carrington’s case, with remarkable candour and dignity —
providing a respectable herd of scapegoats for a demoralised government. Mr Nott survives, I think rightly, but his survival surely depends on a successful out- come to what may be the last great
naval task force Britain will ever launch.

This column has rarely found much to admire in Lord Carrington’s style of diplomacy, except in Rhodesia. But apart from the immediate and crucial misjudgment over the Falklands, it would be unfair
to pile all the blame on him or even on to the Foreign Office collectively for what has been the undeclared ambition of every British government for the past generation; somehow or other to
disembarrass Britain of the Falklands.

Back in 1968, Lord Chalfont, then Minister for Peace and Disarmament at the Foreign Office (one of Sir Harold’s masterly fancies), was nearly debagged by the islanders when they gathered the
impression that Britain intended to discuss a transfer of sovereignty with Argentina. Under this present government, Mr Nicholas Ridley had a scarcely less frosty reception from the islanders when
talk of a ‘leaseback solution’ was in the air. The islanders were and are determined to stay British, and they know how to shame British politicians into giving pledges which they would rather not

After all, didn’t the islanders have British public opinion firmly behind them? So they did, and do. But opinion is a relatively painless, cost-free commodity. When it comes to paying for the
maintenance of a permanent naval force in the South Atlantic sufficient to deter any invader, British public opinion seems to be less ardent.

Year by year, for 20 years now, successive British governments have given Argentina the impression that they would not be prepared to pay for any major project which would help to secure the
Britishness of the Falkland Islands. The runway was never lengthened to take direct flights from Europe. A commercial agreement was signed in 1971 which gave Argentina a virtual monopoly of air and
fuel services. Britain gave up her nearest deepwater base, at Simonstown, because of apartheid. Almost more important than the lack of arrangements to secure the islands’ defence was the absence of
colonial enthusiasm. The Falklands were left to fend for themselves.

Most of the islanders are tenants of the Falkland Islands Company. Ultimate control of this company has changed hands several times. Recently, it belonged to the Charringtons Coalite empire; at one
moment, it almost fell under Argentinian control, via Sir James Goldsmith. Since the islanders rarely own their own homes, many of them find themselves obliged to leave when they become too old for
work; they tend to emigrate to New Zealand or Britain. The young often leave too. The result is that the population has dropped by about 15 per cent in 15 years. Whatever the final outcome now,
many more will surely leave when and if they can.

Britain’s contribution to the islands has been ancestors, a governor, a flag, a few marines, an occasional gunboat — and the rhetoric. Last Saturday it seemed that almost every British MP was
personally prepared to shed his last drop of blood for the Falklands. Extremities of heroism were promised by all sorts, from Mr Patrick Cormack, doubtless to be remembered as Boy Cormack by
readers of the next edition of the British Book of Heroes. ‘The defence of our realm,’ Mr Edward Du Cann told a hushed house, ‘begins wherever British people are.’ We should start, I suppose, by
bombing Buenos Aires where there are ten times as many British people as there are in the Falklands.

How much would it have cost to protect the islands securely against Argentina in perpetuity? Mr Keith Speed, the Navy minister, who was sacked for disagreeing with Mr Nott, believes that it could
be done for £20 million a year — on the analogy of what it costs for three British frigates to patrol the Straits of Hormuz. That sounds like an underestimate for patrolling waters
8,000 miles from home.

But even if his figures are correct, the costs of protection would come to £40,000 per island family per year. For half that sum, most of them would be quite pleased to emigrate to New
Zealand. But if the safety of the islanders is not the sole concern, if British possession of the Falklands is militarily necessary and commercially valuable, then why have we not lengthened the
runway? Why are we not busily drilling and leasing?

But Mr Speed is one of the few people in the whole business who is utterly honest. He believes that the Royal Navy ought to continue to patrol the world and the South Atlantic in particular and
that if we will the end, then we must will the means.

The other form of honesty — and 1 think the preferable one — is to say that if we cannot provide the means, then we had better stop pretending that we can secure the ends. That was the
logic behind Christopher Mayhew’s resignation from the Nary ministry when Denis Healey — now the most zealous of gaucho-biffers —scrapped Britain’s great aircraft carriers. A few years
later, the next economic crisis proved Mayhew right by forcing the government to withdraw Britain’s frontiers from the Himalayas, where Sir Harold Wilson in one of his most exuberant moments had
drawn them, and redraw them distinctly West of Suez. That sort of honesty comes hard to politicians. The cost of gunboat diplomacy creases at a prohibitively expensive rate. Even for superpowers,
it has long lost the cheapness and effectiveness it had in the days of the huge technological gap between the imperial power and the natives, when whatever happens,

‘We have got
The Maxim gun and they have not.’

What they have now is our second-hand warships, plus some new French aircraft. In 1833 we gained the Falklands from Argentina with a single sloop. We are attempting to regain them with
two thirds of the Royal Navy. In the case of the Falklands, the moral right is indisputably on our side. Is the British government really prepared to fight to regain its rights? Mr Enoch Powell
insistently poses this question as the only one ultimately worth asking. But it is not the only question, and the answer to it is not settled by the despatch of this great British armada. How much
force is to be used? At what point should Britain regard herself as having gained her point and retrieved her self-esteem? When the last Argentinian marine leaves the island? When Argentina begins to
negotiate? Mrs Thatcher’s undertaking to return the islands to British administration is less specific than it sounds, but it could not stretch to include total failure to dislodge the Argentinians.

The immediate causes of the debacle are of the Government’s own making. To despatch a task force to see what can be retrieved, by blockade or marine landing s or both, is the only way to deter
similar acts of aggression in other parts of the world. This last British Armada is a quixotic but necessary enterprise. The position of the British Government remains at best a highly undignified
one. But then discarding an empire tends to be a succession of indignities.

Show comments