Thursday, April 05, 2007

When Thatcher sank peace hopes

The 25th anniversary of the Falklands war is usually depicted as something that became inevitable once Argentina’s army had occupied the islands. Yet the real history is that Thatcher’s Tories rejected a series of peace deals because they wanted a war for political reasons. British officials had been trying to get shot of the islands, which were seized from Argentina – which knows them as the Malvinas - in the 19th century before the military dictatorship of General Galtieri launched a surprise invasion in early April. Thatcher despatched a naval task force, with the full support of the Labour Party under the then leader Michael Foot, to the South Atlantic. During the weeks that followed, US Secretary of State Al Haig tried to broker a deal but this ended in failure. The UN and the Peruvian government then stepped in and a further bout of peace-making was attempted. Britain was in a position to organise harsh sanctions on Argentina, already in a weakened economic state and run by a military junta that had used the invasion to counter its own domestic unpopularity. Negotiations could have led to a leaseback arrangement, which the Foreign Office had already contemplated. Thatcher would have none of it. Unemployment had soared to 3 million in Britain and massive public sector demonstrations and strikes were threatening the government’s future. Jingoism and patriotism whipped up by war with an unpopular regime would, it was calculated, divert the country’s attention away from economic misery.

All-out war became a certainty when on May 2, 1982 the Thatcher government ordered the sinking of the ancient Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. It was torpedoed by a nuclear submarine, with the loss of 368 lives. In the action that followed to recapture the islands, another 1,000 Argentine and British lives were lost. Thatcher and defence officials insisted that the Belgrano was sunk because it was posing a threat to the British fleet in the area. In fact, the 44-year-old ship was outside the exclusion zone set by the British and was heading for its home port when it was sunk. The Belgrano had been tracked for 36 hours by the British submarine before the captain was given orders to sink it. This information took years to emerge, mainly as the result of the work of the former Labour MP Tam Dalyell. He was also told by a senior Conservative that Thatcher was aware of a new Peruvian peace initiative and had given the order to sink the Belgrano in spite of this knowledge. A senior Ministry of Defence civil servant, Clive Ponting, was later arrested and charged with communicating classified information to Dalyell. Ponting was eventually tried at the Old Bailey and acquitted in a sensational case. However, in 1983 the Thatcher government was swept back with a huge majority, thanks largely to the eventual close-run military victory over Argentina.

In 2003, Blair’s New Labour also scuppered attempts at a peaceful solution to a potential conflict, this time with Iraq over alleged weapons of mass destruction. Blair and the White House had, as we now know, agreed a plan for regime change long before the invasion of Iraq actually took place and would not be deflected by weapons inspections or anything else. The consequences of the four-year occupation include the deaths of an estimated 650,000 Iraqis. Not only does Thatcher have blood on her hands, so does Blair. And whereas Thatcher may have been able to fool enough people in 1983 to regain popular support, there is absolutely no chance of Blair and New Labour pulling off the same feat.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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