Mad Margaret's voyage of dishonour

In this week's selection from the New Statesman archive former editor Bruce Page opposes the sending

The New Statesman 9 April 1982

On 2 April 1982 Argentina's military junta invaded the British colony of the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to liberate the islands and their people from what was fascist rule - by war if necessary. In a number of passionately argued editorials, Bruce Page, then editor of the New Statesman, rejected the sending of the British expeditionary force and the support given to its departure by the Labour Party.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The owl of Minerva, said Hegel, flies only at dusk. By this he meant that human societies take a dangerously long time in learning from history.

In the case of Britain and her post-Imperial pretensions, the owl trundles down the runway again and again. But she never shows any sign of getting into the air.

It is not easy to believe that even a government as stupid and amateurish as Mrs Thatcher's can actually be sending some of the Navy's costliest and most elaborate warships to take part in a game of blind-man's-buff at the other end of the world. The revenue cost of the enterprise can't be less than £50 million, which would be more than enough to give the Falkland Islanders the fresh beginning in life that this country certainly owes them. The capital cost, if ships and aircraft start going into action, and taking casualties, could make the revenue cost look trivial.

And the cost in blood? One is not talking here of using a few highly-trained SAS men to knock over a captured embassy with its garrison of half-demented terrorists. The task is to take and hold a group of islands defended by some 5,000 professional soldiers, who have air and naval support from a tolerably-handy home base – while our people have to operate at the end of an 8,000 mile ocean supply line.

Some other late flutters of the post-Imperial heart – notably, the Anguilla episode – had their comic side. But if any serious shooting starts in the Falklands, a lot of young men, British and Argentinian, are likely to get killed and maimed. And in what cause will this be done?

If you read the Daily Mail, or listen to Tory MPs, you might imagine that the cause was liberty and democracy. (These are the same people who became passionate trade-unionists when Jaruzelski's army crushed Solidarity.) If you believe The Times, you are committed to thinking that the cause is the rolling back of aggression more evil and portentous than Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. WE ARE ALL FALKLANDERS NOW says The Times, having apparently failed to notice that the government on which it now fawns went to some trouble, last year, in its Nationality Bill, to ensure that we are not Falklanders – and to ensure that no such colonial bounders could be mistaken for members of the homeland club.

Certainly the Argentine Government, in spite of changes of regime, hasn't for many years been off any sensible observer's short-list of the world's most noxious regimes. But until the weekend's rhetorical orgy swept leader-writers and Parliamentarians into its embrace, no Labour or Tory ministers had found any serious inconvenience in that fact. Till now, British government have gone out of their way to truckle to Argentina – and if that means abandoning the Falklanders, okay; if it means turning a blind eye to torture and fascist repression, fair enough. There was a brief tiff in January 1976, when Buenos Aires broke off ambassadorial relations after Lord Shackleton paid a visit to the islands. But by March 1979 the Labour Government had agreed to exchange ambassadors again.

The truth is that relations between Britain and Latin America are dictated not by ministers, but by the Foreign Office and by an assortment of business-oriented lobbyists like Lord Chalfont and Viscount Montgomery. When Mr Nicholas Ridley was supposedly in charge of our Latin American affairs in 1980, he gave a touchingly honest account of the government's actual expertise: complaining of the whole continent, he said “it's very far away, it's very expensive to get there, and what's more they mainly speak Spanish or Portuguese.”

Labour ministers have not been better than Tories at taking a detached view of the “advice”offered to them. A letter sent from Edmund Dell, Trade Secretary, to David Owen, Foreign Secretary, in 1978 deserves quotation in some detail:

“Even Luard may have told you of the dinner given by the Lord Mayor recently...for the purpose of bringing together those with significant interests in Latin America. There was a free exchange of views, during which several speakers expressed concern about the effect which our stance on human rights was having and would continue to have for some time on our trade interests there.

Since then, George Nelson of GEC has written to Fred Catherwood, who as you know is chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board, following up their discussion at the dinner. Apart from reiterating his concern over our long-term trade interests generally, he has particularly drawn attention to GEC's and British Aerospace's interest in selling the Hawk aircraft to Argentina (worth about £100 million)...I understand that you are at present considering whether or not General Agosti, Argentine Chief of Air Staff, should be invited here and received at the appropriate level. Nelson and Catherwood both urge that we should invite him...”

No surprise, then, that during the 1970s Britain provided nearly one-third of all major weapons purchased by Argentina – including ship to air missiles and ship-to-ship missiles which could be used against our own fleet in the event of Mrs Thatcher's somewhat hysterical “diplomacy” going adrift.

In October 1979 William Whitelaw received hearty Argentine congratulations on ending the visa programme for Latin American refugees. In August 1980 Cecil Parkinson Minister for Trade, visited the Argentine and enthused about the trading possibilities, and was followed by Peter Walker in 1981. Meanwhile in all sorts of penny-pinching detail, the social infrastructure of the supposedly-treasured Falkland Islands was steadily handed over to the Argentine regime: as the British Government never followed-up Shackleton's recommendation for a long-range airstrip on the island, the Falklanders' communications go via Buenos Aires, and via a small airstrip built by Argentine soldiers who no doubt made the most of their reconnaissance opportunities.

Supposedly, the emphasis is now on "diplomacy", in which Mrs Thatcher's chum Ronald Reagan is expected to play some part. The likelihood of the double-act's success should be assessed in terms of its immediate past performance – which is the remarkable one of driving the Argentine dictatorship into the arms of Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Until last week, Buenos Aires backed Reagan's anti-Communist crusade all the way: sending “advisers” to the Salvadorean and Guatemalan armies, and to the Somocieta camps in Honduras; withdrawing ambassadors from Havana and Managua in support of American aims.

Only last November the Americans gave General Galtieri a banquet in Washington and described him as a "majestic personality". Demented by flattery, Galtieri appears to have concluded that the Americans would support him in his Falkland Islands, and was thunderstruck to receive a long, distinctly hostile phone-call from Reagan just before the invasion went in. “Whose side are you on?” he is reported to have asked Reagan, in understandable puzzlement.

But the Soviet Union – which will take 80 per cent of Argentina's grain exports this year – has been carefully cultivating the General for some time, and there is excellent historical precedence for hasty marriages of convenience between totalitarian regimes of “left” and “right”. Already the Argentine ambassadors are on their way back to Cuba and Nicaragua. And next month Galtieri's foreign minister will go to Havana to discuss ways in which Argentina might become more active within the “non-aligned” movement of which Fidel Castro is president.

To support Britain's dubious, irrational enterprise, the whole armoury of patriotic rhetoric and flim-flam has been deployed. The Times, predictably, reached out for one of the two literary passages which even Fleet Street leader-writers know (the other being Yeats's remark about things falling apart when the centre fails to hold), and in which by endless repetition even John Donne's prose has acquired the overtones of cliché:

"No man is an island, entire of itself... therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

A slightly wider acquaintance with Donne's works might have yielded this, from the Verse Letters (and the title, To H.W. In Hibernia Belligeranti, ought to remind us that amid all this mimicry the Secretary of State for Northern Island is trying to transact some serious business):

"Went you to conquer? And have so much lost

Yourself, that what in you was best and most,

Respective friendship, should so quickly die?"

The puzzle that the thing we call "Britain" presents to the world is that of a community of peoples perhaps as civilised, and humane of temper, as any who may be found – yet which is led, again and again, into enterprises which are as self-defeating as they are dishonourable. The reason, of course, is that the thing we still have to call our government – the United Kingdom state – was never designed to rule a group of democratic, European industrial nations such as the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish are capable of being. It was brought into existence to run, by bluff and cheapskate contrivance, a shabby world-wide empire that was assembled by blunder, force and fraud in varying proportions. Like an old, mangy lion, it knows no other trick, and so long as it has dominion over us it will betray us – and make us pay the price of betrayal in our own best blood.