Margaret Thatcher had no particular animus against the average Latin American military dictatorship. So long as the lideres maximales confined themselves to the workaday torture and execution of leftists and strict implementation of Chicago School economics, they could always count on her enthusiastic support.
So when Argentina’s ruling troika of Galtieri, Lami Dozo and Anaya ordered the occupation of the Falkland Islands 30 years ago today, it may be that Labour leader Michael Foot was expecting some sort of conciliatory stance on the part of the British government.
Certainly the rhetorical tone of his speech to an emergency recall session of parliament put many observers in mind of his days as a campaigning radical journalist of the late 1930s, when he distinguished himself by repeated attacks on the Tories who appeased Nazi Germany.
Rereading his words today, his position comes across as less jingoistic than it was perceived to be at the time. There are, for instance, frequent admonitions that the dispute would best be settled by peaceable means.
But what struck home, at least as far as the media were concerned, was explicit support for the decision to dispatch the task force, and his guarantee that Labour would not seek to articulate pacificist anti-war sentiment in the country at large.
What he said was well received on the Tory benches. The next speaker – the ferociously rightwing Edward du Cann – personally thanked Foot for the way he ‘spoke for all of us’.
Perhaps Foot may also have been attempting to appeal to the patriotic mood that was apparent in the working class, at a time when the tabloids were doing all they could to outdo one another as ‘the paper that supports our boys’.
The trouble with his strategy is that the analogy with the run up to world war two was invalid. What Britain was getting into was the first of what has since become a succession of comparatively minor and short-lived conflicts, and Thatcher was entirely ready to outflank any military commitment Labour could possibly have made.
Some Labour MPs understood that. Both Tony Benn and Denis Healey called for a negotiated settlement, while Tam Dalyell was unstinting in highlighting the way in which the prime minister utilised the sinking of the Belgrano to derail peace proposals tabled by Peru.
The result of Foot’s miscalculation was a swing to the Tories in the local government elections after the sinking of HMS Sheffield, and a general election that following year that gave the Conservatives their best result since 1959.
Mutatis mutandis, dilemmas such as those that arose out of the Falklands War raised have faced the democratic left ever since. On the one hand, it is beyond dispute that the invasion was an act of aggression by a brutal regime.
It is also true that the wishes of the inhabitants – who do not repress an indigenous population – should have been accorded more weight than most of the left accorded it in 1982.
Yet then as now, colonialism remains an anachronism, and the permanent settlement of this ongoing dispute requires a reversion of sovereignty to the Falklands to Argentina, at least in the long run.
Ironically, Tory foreign minister Nicholas Ridley in 1980 proposed a sale and leaseback deal that would have given the islanders 50 years to wind up their settlements. Had it been implemented, we would be 32 years of the way there by now.
Instead, the stupid deadlock persists.