An Argentinian soldier on his way to occupy the captured Royal Marines base in Port Stanley, 13 April 1982. Picture Credit: DANIEL GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images

The first post-modern war

The Falklands conflict was no imperialist throwback


This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

When the Task Force set sail for the South Atlantic on 5 April 1982, the consensus was that an almost-forgotten Britain had awakened after three decades of post-imperial slumber and was reverting to, or at least imitating, past glories. Newsweek declared “The Empire Strikes Back”. Henry Kissinger remarked, “No great power retreats for ever”. But was the Falklands War, really the lion’s last kick, or was it perhaps the first hurrah of post-modern intervention?

Of course, there were anachronistic aspects to the patriotic upsurge, not least in the way that the still-traditional Royal Navy and Army unselfconsciously would end their reports of success with “God Save the Queen” as if the Sex Pistols had not raucously defenestrated the term among the young during the Silver Jubilee only five years earlier.

Small or weak states everywhere were now at risk

News of the recapture of South Georgia echoed countless reports of victory to the Queen’s father as the tide of the Second World War turned. When the assembled broadcasters outside Number Ten tried to query the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary, John Nott, about whether things were really going well down south, Mrs. Thatcher’s urging of them to “Rejoice, rejoice” became the ironic slogan of the defeatist lobby well after 1982. Edward Heath’s repetition of this injunction on the resignation of his nemesis in November, 1990, revealed how deep-seated was the resentment of her victory over the British establishment as much as the Argentinian junta.

Loath though I am to admit it as a dyed-in-the-wool backward-looker, nostalgia is not the best guide to understanding the legacy of the Falklands War. Precisely because all the usual suspects have been lining up every April since 1982 to decry the dispatch of the task force as an imperialist throw-back, it is time to look at what it foreshadowed.

Margaret Thatcher was a multi-faceted political persona, quite unlike her one-dimensional self-proclaimed admirers. She both drew on British traditional patriotism which — like the merchant navy — still had life in it in 1982, and foreshadowed the values-based assertiveness that has dominated Britain’s use of force since 1990.

Times change and Mrs T changed with them. Remember how vigorously she campaigned for “Yes” in the referendum in 1975 and then signed the Single European Act, only to go on to give her immense authority among the Tory faithful to the incipient Brexit campaigners? Similarly, her attitudes to the use of force evolved. Defending democracy, particularly the English-speaking variant, was as strong a part of her rhetoric as sticking up for Britain’s territorial sovereignty in the early years.

At the end of her premiership she was the staunchest Western proponent of reversing Saddam Hussein’s seizure of Kuwait and using the United Nations Security Council as the authority for military action. While simultaneously not being massively keen on the German right to sovereign unity.

A strange harmony emerged between him and Mrs Thatcher

Strangely enough, Michael Foot foreshadowed Mrs Thatcher’s 1990 stance on the Gulf War eight years earlier in his reply as opposition leader to her Commons speech after the Argentine seizure of the Falklands. The junta’s invasion was a threat to the United Nations and world order, he said. Small or weak states everywhere were now at risk if it was not reversed. Unlike Mrs Thatcher’s emphasis on British sovereignty over the Falklands and the rights of the 1,800 islanders as British subjects, the Labour leader’s initial response was robustly globalist.

Contemporary globalist emphasis on the “Right to Protect” and anti-imperialism has its roots in Foot’s type of grandee liberal internationalism which turned to the left in the 1930s. In 1982, Foot emphasised the dictatorial nature of the regime in “the Argentine” where “thousands of innocent people fighting for their political rights … are in prison and have been tortured and debased.” That fate threatened the islanders now.

Later, he reverted to his famous wartime denunciation of the Tory Guilty Men who had paved the way for Fascist aggression in 1939. But this was soon followed by another turn to an even earlier Thirties model: Against War and Fascism! This incoherent stance undercut Foot’s appeal to the still traditionally patriotic Labour working class.

In the 1983 general election, Labour lost millions of votes to the newly-formed SDP — which in Owenite form was pointedly patriotic and tough on defence as well as the Tories. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Foot’s immediate response prefigured his calls in the 1990s for intervention on humanitarian grounds in Bosnia and Kosovo when he characterised Milosevic as a “fascist” and “dictator”.

By then, Foot was out of parliament and in an active writing retirement. A strange harmony emerged between him and Mrs Thatcher, who had also become an advocate of intervention in ex-Yugoslavia from the red benches in the Lords. Foot and Thatcher coalesced in revulsion against Milosevic’s Serbia, as well as excoriating her successor’s timidity as appeasement, and looking across the Atlantic for the United States to lead where the EU was passive.

What is often reviled as old-school jingoism overlooks how far the potent mix of moralistic self-righteousness and the “we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too” voiced by music hall interventionists in 1877 was transmuted in our time into Something-Must-Be-Done crooned by aged rock stars. Why do we have a vast array of military power if we don’t use it whenever television, or now smartphone screens bombard us with selected images of a selective tragedy?

British Patriotism — a simple fact of life for Thatcher and those she spoke for in 1982 — is now only justified in defence of others, even by those who succeeded her on the right. There has been a marked rhetorical and intellectual retreat from anything that could be characterised as selfishness, or something as vulgar as just our own self-interest being pursued.

No doubt today, too, the rank-and-file would perform gallantly

After decades of shrinking to a carrier-less status by the time of David Cameron’s Libyan “humanitarian intervention” in 2011, the Royal Navy — now with two US-style aircraft carriers — probably could remount the Falklands expedition even if it remains less capable of basic coastal defence in home waters. Today our armed forces are primarily for the projection of the West and its values, not Britannia and her traditions. Back in 1982, the Mars-bar scoffing squaddies lounging in cramped quarters below decks on the task force were contrasted by snide Guardian and BBC types with the rugged gauchos waiting for these stiff-limbed pot-bellies — until the squaddies yomped to Port Stanley.

No doubt today, too, the rank-and-file would perform gallantly. But the brass hats and the civilian strategists at the MoD prefer to tweet about the availability of vegetarian dishes on “Steak Night” aboard HMS Prince of Wales rather than commemorate the fallen of earlier incarnations of the ship or its past glories. Yet, demonstrably, this does not make for pacificism. Today’s critics of Western interventionism are as likely to be old school Tories as radical leftists. The conformist liberal centre of British politics, media and academe is as belligerent as its Victorian forebears and concomitantly moralising.

The goody-goodies of the Peace Society suspended their statutes so they could wholeheartedly support the Crimean War while Richard Cobden excoriated his old friends for supporting a “war in which we have a despot [Tsar Nicholas I] for an enemy, a despot for an ally [Napoleon III], and a despot for a client [the Ottoman Sultan]”. This is the Fordism of our foreign policy: you can have any kind you want as long as it’s Gladstonian.

Contemporary empty rhetoric about the battle of freedom-loving people against tyranny also overlooks how brutal some of our friends are. This was as evident in 1982 when behind the anti-junta rhetoric there was Realpolitik at work. Just as there is now, when Britain courts head-chopping, oil-rich Saudis to reduce dependence on Putin’s energy supplies.

Forty years ago Britain’s victory owed a lot to the willingness of Argentina’s equally dictatorial neighbours to abandon tyrannical solidarity. Contrary to Tam Dalyell’s belief that Latin America would coalesce against Britain, military-ruled Brazil allowed RAF planes to land and take off again. Above all, there was the “Chilean Connection”. General Pinochet was the Left’s hate figure. His Argentinian counterparts had after all overthrown the Peronists — little better than fascists themselves — whereas Pinochet had martyred that rarest of birds: an elected Marxist in Salvador Allende.

Margaret Thatcher’s defence of Pinochet in old age, when he was arrested in Britain in 1998 on charges relating to his rule in Chile, reflected her sense of a debt to be honoured which the members of the Blair government never recognised. Playing a key role in saving British lives, whatever Pinochet’s domestic victims, was simply never a factor valued by the global human rights activists who had come to power in 1997 — and remain entrenched in Whitehall to this day.

Margaret Thatcher’s finest hour found her with one foot in the best of her country’s bulldog past. Meanwhile, her forward stride was spawning Blairites whose contempt for the pieties of her patriotism stems from the certainties of whatever justifies their precision bombing. She had values to defend in the Falkands; they had poses to strike abroad

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover