Riots, union bashing, privatisation, attacks on our public services – just like Tory Governments of old. Now the Coalition seems determined to emulate Thatcher in foreign policy as well.
As the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands War approaches, the UK Government is ratcheting up the tension with Argentina. It has sent a nuclear submarine — yes, a submarine armed with nuclear warheads — to the Islands, along with a warship destroyer armed with the latest hi-tech Sea Viper aircraft. This may be a response to the announcement that several Caribbean and Central American states are joining Mercosur, an economic union of South American countries, in barring from their ports any vessel flying the Falklands flag.
Behind the bluster, the British Government are deeply embarrassed by this development. As well as Cuba, Nicaragua and Dominica, the Commonwealth countries of Antigua-Barbuda and St Vincent-Grenadines have also joined the action. Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa went further, saying:
It is time for Latin America to decide sanctions against this mistaken power that pretends to be imperialist and colonialist in the 21st century.” The aim of the action is to put pressure on Britain to comply with UN resolutions that call for a negotiated settlement on the sovereignty of the Islands.
Britain has responded with warships – and Prince William. Many on the left will regard these spasms of British militarism as a diversion from the big issues we face. In fact, the Tories in government have a long record of using imperialist adventures abroad to change the conditions of struggle at home. We should not underestimate the appeal of such jingoistic posturing, especially in a diamond jubilee year when the media is awash with fawning coverage of the monarchy.
The Falklands War in 1982 was a turning point for the Thatcher Government. From being the most unpopular administration in post-war history, the Tories got a huge boost in the polls and went on to win the following year’s election by a landslide. They were boosted by the unwavering support the Labour front bench gave them over the conflict. Deputy Labour leader Denis Healey called the bombing of Port Stanley “common sense”. Michael Foot, possibly the most left-wing leader of the Party ever, fully backed the sending of a fleet of warships. The left-wing Tribune Group of MPs split down the middle on the issue.
Nor was this a fine moment for the extra-parliamentary left. The Communist Party called for a solution based on “full consultation with the inhabitants and protection of their interests.” One of the larger socialist weeklies succumbed to the prevailing mood so much that it called for a trade boycott against Argentina.
In Latin America, these confusions have long been regarded as laughable. The Islands have been a British colony since the 1830s. Their inhabitants are settlers, whose ancestors displaced existing Argentinian inhabitants. All of Latin America supports the Argentine claim to the Islands – the Malvinas – and the UN’s position is in favour of a resumption of bilateral negotiations.
The 1982 War cost the British £2.7 billion and 255 servicemen. The Argentinian losses were much greater at 649, nearly half of whom were killed when the British sank the Argentinian warship Belgrano. It was not even within the 270 kilometre exclusion zone that the British had unilaterally imposed around the Islands.
The public mood in Britain during the conflict was bizarre, almost hysterical. I remember one very old comrade admitting he had seen nothing like it since the Boer War. Younger activists may remember the feverish outpouring of emotion around the death of Princess Diana. This was similar – a time when saying the wrong thing in the wrong place could get you physical attacked. The media played a role unprecedented since World War Two in stoking patriotic sentiment in support of “our boys”.
The Daily Star, for example, ran a front page headline “Whose Side Are They On?”, alongside pictures of Tony Benn and other critics of the war. Tony Benn’s diaries for this period (20 May 1982) make depressing reading:
The Labour leadership has absolutely failed the Party and the nation. It has not used its leadership to check the jingoistic spirit as it might have done.”
Even after the public hysteria subsided, senior Labour figures refused to break the consensus. The following year, the Franks Commission into the conduct of the war issued a unanimous report, supported by its Labour members, saying that “the Government could not be faulted on any of the decisions they had taken.” This was despite emerging evidence that the Belgrano had been sunk on the direct instructions of Thatcher at a critical moment in the negotiations sponsored by the Peruvian Government. It had the effect of torpedoing any peaceful outcome to the conflict.
Little was said publicly at the time of how useful owning the Islands would prove to be for claiming oil reserves offshore. At the end of last year, British oil exploration company Rockhopper announced that its large oil reserve eighty miles off the Falklands coast was bigger than expected and that it had also found a new oil and gas field. Its Sea Lion field could recover a minimum of 844 million barrels of crude, double the company’s earlier estimate.
Argentina is a very different country today from the military dictatorship that Thatcher was able to mobilise against. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s Government, re-elected last year, is popular and her stand on the Islands has continent-wide backing. Even the right-wing government of Chile is supportive, a far cry from 1982, when Pinochet’s military dictatorship entered into a secret alliance with Britain.
This was the start of a long, close relationship between General Pinochet, who killed 3,000 of his country’s citizens following his military coup in 1973, and Margaret Thatcher. It led to arms deals between British companies and Chile at a time when the regime was internationally isolated.
In 2005, it emerged that Chile had received half-price military aircraft in return for supplying Britain with intelligence about Argentinian troop movements. Britain’s biggest arms firm, BAE Systems paid more than £1m to Pinochet in secret commissions. If the Blair Government had not shut down the police investigation into BAE’s payments to Saudi Prince Bandar in 2006 — which the Campaign Against the Arms Trade unsuccessfully challenged in the courts — then the Serious Fraud Office was expected to broaden its inquiry to include the payments to Pinochet.
President Fernandez has challenged Britain’s oil drilling from the Falklands as an attack on the environment’s finite resources. This chimes with attempts by other governments in Latin America to reassert control over their natural resources. When oil was discovered beneath the land of the indigenous Yasuni people in Ecuador – a zone with the highest biodiversity in the world – President Correa proposed it be left where it was. His idea is to get the international community to contribute to this expensive national decision. By doing this, his Government aims to recover 50% of the income it would have obtained by extracting the crude oil.
Meanwhile, David Cameron’s claim that Argentina is guilty of “colonialism” over the Islands has been greeted with derision across Latin America. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said:
If it should occur to the British Empire to attack Argentina militarily, Argentina won’t be alone this time.”
So in Latin America, things look very different to 1982. For socialists, the continent is a real beacon of what can be achieved in countries that have suffered from neo-colonial distortions to their development. The threat to Argentina is a threat to all those countries providing a good example and proof that other ways are possible: Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, Nicaragua and elsewhere.
Will this be recognised by the leaders of our movement here? If Cameron seeks to further militarise the situation, possibly to get a boost in the polls, will Labour’s leadership stand up to such manoeuvring? Or will history repeat itself, with the front bench waving the flag and going down to electoral defeat?