This article, written by the then New Statesman political editor Peter Kellner, was first published in May 1982. It has been republished on 2 April 2023 to mark 41 years since Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands. On 5 April 1982 the British government, which had ruled the islands for almost 150 years, dispatched a naval task force. The conflict lasted 74 days, ending with Argentina’s surrender. Britain’s victory brought a resurgence of support for Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister at the time.
If the Falklands crisis simply concerned the fate of 1,800 people, 8,000 miles away, who have been denied the right to call themselves British unless at least one grandparent were born here, then the scale of the military task force that Mrs Thatcher sent to the South Atlantic would, of course, be wholly disproportionate to the problem at hand.
As Duncan Campbell shows, the cost of a wholly successful invasion to recapture the islands, followed by the stationing of a military garrison to keep the Falklands secure from a future invasion, would be around £1.7 billion. It would have cost the same to have given every Falklands adult and child one million pounds to resettle elsewhere; and no lives need have been lost in the process.
Mrs Thatcher has not, however, attempted to defend her policy on the grounds that the military effort is proportionate to the problem. Instead she has constructed two issues of principle which are valid – if they are valid at all – irrespective of numbers. The first is that aggression must not be allowed to pay; the second is that the Falklanders deserve to live under the wing of a democracy, not under the heel of a military junta.
There are a number of half-answers to these points: that these are not Mrs Thatcher’s real reasons for her military adventure – she just thought them up as she went along; that no principle, however noble, can be wholly detached from the practical costs and benefits of applying it; that there are other violations of the principles that we happily ignore (such as the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus).
As this issue of the New Statesman goes to press, it is not known whether the talks at the United Nations will conclude in peace or war. If peace breaks out, then Mrs Thatcher will claim that diplomacy backed by the threat of force has vindicated her principles: from now on aggressors will be deterred and dictators humbled.
[See also: Why Britain is in the wrong over the Falklands]
If, on the other hand, the UN talks fail and an invasion starts, the presentation of the Falklands war as a matter of principle will continue. Indeed, Mrs Thatcher will wheel out her sacred principles more loudly and more often than ever before. The longer the war, and the higher the cost in lives lost (especially on the fateful day, if it ever arrives, when the number of deaths exceeds the population of the islands), the more the principle will be insisted upon, as the main justification for the whole enterprise.
Then the half-answers will not be enough. Let us suppose that in the end – by diplomacy or force or a mixture of the two, and with lesser or greater loss of life – the Argentine troops withdraw, will not the principles have been vindicated? If Mrs Thatcher is right, then the price of ejecting the Argentines from the Falklands, however high, will have been worth paying. The issues of principle deserve to be confronted head-on: are they valid, or not?
At the heart of the aggression-mustn’t-pay argument is a strangely simple fallacy: the equation of moral with military supremacy. As in the last reel of all bad westerns, might and right are seen to triumph together. The necessary logic of Mrs Thatcher’s principle is that a Falklands victory for Britain will a) demonstrate that determined goodies will always defeat determined baddies, and b) therefore persuade future potential aggressors of the futility of their ambitions.
Imagine the scene in the offices of some military junta in a few years time when they are pondering an act of war. According to the Thatcher aggression-cost principle, they will say to themselves something like this: “Look what happened to Galtieri in the Malvinas. His troops committed an act of aggression. The British government responded resolutely and with right on their side, and defeated the Argentines. It no longer pays to start a war. Let’s not do it.”
I have an alternative, more pessimistic scenario of how the future junta will weigh up the odds: “Look what happened to Galtieri in the Malvinas. Had he waited another year the British would not have had enough ships to mount a successful re-invasion. As it was, the Argentines came within a whisker of holding the islands. Slightly better preparation, more highly-trained troops and a few more Exocet missiles and the Argentines would certainly have won. If we are going to start a war, the lesson from the Malvinas is: do it properly. Admiral, could we speed up the delivery of those Type-42 frigates from Vickers… ?”
[See also: The Falklands War revisited]
If that, or something like it, is the way future dictatorships behave, then Mrs Thatcher’s policy towards the Falklands will demonstrate exactly the opposite principle from the one she preaches: instead of learning that aggression doesn’t pay, juntas will be able to estimate more accurately how aggression can pay.
What is more, it has been, and still is – in the absence of any announcement of a change of policy – the British government’s active wish to assist unpleasant regimes the world over to acquire the means of aggression. In September 1980 Mrs Thatcher delivered a speech at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel to the Society of British Aerospace Companies. She said:
Overseas sales of British defence equipment will this year earn £1.2 billion in foreign currency. That’s a handy sum. That’s quite a large sum. I want to pay tribute to those who earn it. But, ladies and gentlemen, it is not enough.
When the help Britain gives to undemocratic countries is analysed more closely, the hypocrisy of Mrs Thatcher’s claim to uphold the principle of implacable opposition to dictatorships becomes a thing of true wonder.
Britain’s supplies to Argentina itself have been widely noted. But Britain has also sold missiles to Libya, ground attack aircraft to Indonesia, helicopters to Pakistan, a frigate to Bangladesh and tanks to Jordan, to take just a few examples. Had the Shah of Iran not been overthrown, he would have been supplied with a galaxy of tanks, missiles and warships. In addition, Britain trains troops from all these countries, and many more, where the only true democrats are in jail or in exile.
Mrs Thatcher’s defence of her Falklands adventure on the grounds of principle is, then, ridiculous. But the principles themselves are not. It is a good thing to resist aggression and a good thing to side with democracy against dictatorships. And perhaps the only way to remove the Argentines from the Falklands is to use force.
If that is so, then Mrs Thatcher could only use the argument of principle to justify a costly counter-invasion if she met two conditions. First, she would have to demonstrate widespread international support for – and preferably participation in – a military response. Second, she would have to renounce her policy of arming and training dictatorships.
She will, of course, do neither. She has not sought active United Nations, Nato or Common Market support for the task force. Hardly any country in any of those institutions would give it if they were asked. Nor have Mrs Thatcher or her ministers given the slightest indication that, on mature reflection and in the light of recent experience, Britain should be a little more careful in selecting which countries it helps to arm.
If, for all that, the task force succeeds, Mrs Thatcher will doubtless proclaim the triumph of her principles more loudly than ever. In truth, all she will have proved is that, at a particular time, in a particular place and in particular circumstances, British forces can defeat Argentine forces. She will have proved nothing more. And the price of even trying to prove that is already too high.