Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Thatcher’s Falklands War got hundreds killed due either to incompetence or cynical manipulation – Callaghan avoided a war in identical circumstances 5 years earlier by sending a small fleet to the South Atlantic

The attempt to present Margaret Thatcher as a great war leader based on the Falklands War, with 800 members of the military to be present at her funeral, is bizarre once you know the historical facts.

When the Argentinians began talking of taking the Falklands in 1977, Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan and Foreign Secretary David Owen were persuaded by military chiefs to send a Royal Navy fleet to the South Atlantic to signal Britain would fight any invasion. In a similar situation in 1982 Thatcher’s government withdrew the last Royal Navy ship – the HMS Endurance - from the area during spending cuts, leading the Argentine military junta to believe Britain would not fight for the islands (1) – (2). They invaded – and then Thatcher declared war. Hundreds died as a result.

Some suggest that Thatcher, then the most unpopular Prime Minister in British history to that point, after increasing unemployment by over 50% to over 3 million after promising to reduce it during the 1979 election campaign, wanted a war to restore her popularity (3).

It’s impossible to know whether the decision to recall HMS Endurance was the result of blind ideology in imposing spending cuts and incompetence in not caring where they were made;  or whether Thatcher wanted the Argentinians to believe Britain wouldn’t fight in order to get a war to restore her political fortunes. If the latter she was betraying members of the British armed forces just as much as Blair with Iraq. Either way she was responsible for an easily avoidable war and all the deaths in it. By any rational standard she should be condemned for not preventing war as simply and easily as Callaghan did rather than lauded for winning a war against an inferior military that could have been avoided.

In the case of the 1990-1991 Gulf War against Iraq, which Thatcher committed British troops to shortly before her party got her to resign over the poll tax, there is no such doubt. The Bush (senior) administration and the Kuwaiti monarchy duped Saddam into war with the US over Kuwait. Bush and his advisers sought to repeat Thatcher’s feat of going from unpopularity on domestic unemployment and recession to election victory on a tide of war fuelled nationalism ; they failed.

(1) = BBC News 01 Jun 2005 ‘Secret Falklands fleet revealed’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4597581.stm

(2) = Freedman, Lawrence (2005) ‘Official History of the Falklands Campaign Volume 1’, Routledge, 2005, chapters 8 – 9

(3) = Lenman, B. P. (1992) The Eclipse of Parliament: Appearance and Reality in British Politics since 1914 (London: Edward Arnold)

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