Why Maggie was wrong

The Falklands war was impeccably handled: so said Andrew Roberts in last week's <em>NS</em>. <strong

A British "official history" is just that: an official history of the activities of the British state. So it was a trifle naive of Andrew Roberts to imagine that

the work on the Falklands campaign of Sir Lawrence Freedman would be anything other than an endorsement of the establishment view of that tragic and unnecessary conflict. Freedman was knighted for services to Blairism after drafting the Chicago speech of April 1999 that launched the doctrine of illegal interventionism on the world. An official history is a poor substitute for the publication of volumes of documents (let alone the Blue Books of yesteryear) that once illuminated the mysteries

of foreign imbroglios for the benefit of Britain's elite. Freedman's book is not "an establishment cover-up", as Roberts suggests his opponents might allege. Naturally, Freedman comes to conclusions acceptable to the establishment (as did the Franks report immediately after the conflict), but he is no lickspittle and he makes enough material available to allow different conclusions to continue to flourish.

Roberts concentrates his chortles on the Belgrano, the Argentinian cruiser sunk on 2 May 1982 with the loss of 321 (mostly conscript) lives, as it was sailing away from the total exclusion zone unilaterally declared around the islands by Britain. Captains and cabinet ministers were right to sink the ship, argues Roberts (following Freedman), doubtless saving "hundreds of lives on both sides by persuading the Argentinian fleet to stay in port for the rest of the war". Yet in practice we know that the Argentinians needed no such persuasion. They had only two large ships: the Belgrano, an old US cruiser that had survived Pearl Harbor in 1941; and the Veinticinco de Mayo, a British aircraft carrier commissioned in 1945. Both were highly vulnerable. The carrier scuttled into port at the first sign of Sandy Woodward's task force, while the Belgrano's commander made haste to put the Falkland Islands between himself and the British fleet advancing down the coast to the east of Port Stanley.

Roberts makes much of the fact that the Belgrano made "no fewer that three major changes of direction" in 19 hours, and implies that the ship might therefore have made more. Yet he fails to point out that in none of these changes had the ship moved in the direction of the exclusion zone. The Argentinian navy was in the forefront of the "dirty war" against its own people in the 1970s, but a coward when it came to the Falklands war, as doubtless British intelligence would have shown, had it not been so reliant on the cowards themselves. Indeed, one of Freedman's interesting reflections (in the light of current concerns) deals with the obvious inadequacy of the Joint Intelligence Committee at that time.

The JIC wholly failed to anticipate the seriousness of the Argentinian threat, and after the war it refused to permit any mention of its role in the Franks report. Franks did not accept the arguments for silence, although his concluding comments embodied the JIC's stated view: that "no criticism or blame" could attach to the government for Argentina's decision to invade. Freedman wryly records a note from the Cabinet Office saying that this had "a whiff of exculpation about it".

The sinking of the Belgrano left a bad taste at the time, both at home and abroad, and yet it is perfectly understandable for an "official history" to explain and justify - and excuse - a British decision to sink the cruiser for des raisons d'etat. Cabinet ministers had no experience of second-guessing their military advisers, as they might have done in the days of empire. But outsiders beyond the magic circle will continue to view that tragic decision as yet another example of the actions of Perfidious Albion, a country never to be trusted.

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