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Labour and the Falklands: what Foot got wrong

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.

5 Comments

  1. Angus Murray says:

    A nonsense piece.

    Michael Foot was right on the mood of the nation that Saturday, and right on the nature of the invasion. Retaking the islands, by force if necessary, was the only right thing to do.

    I was a minion cicil servant in the MoD that day, and since then have done 8 tours in the Falklands and have been on the left of the Labour Party for going on 40 years.

    This isn’t about oppressive colonialism as there is nobody to oppress. It is about self determination. You might characterise it as a accident of history, but it is where we are and rewriting history isn’t the answer.

  2. Matty says:

    I’m not totally sure what Dave thinks here but it seems that he thinks that Foot should have articulated pacifist anti-war sentiment and that not doing so was a miscalculation. Unfortunately, the war had huge support in the country and I think going pacifist would have completely annihilated Labour.

  3. Jim says:

    The war may have been popular when it started but I have always questioned if it could have been deterred altogether. The adventure and swift victory there has led back to militarism and of course the deadlock we have been in for the past 10 years. The part that nobody will admit to is the actual human and financial cost that we are paying in today’s adventures.
    I believe the use of foreign adventures is a easy diversion away from domestic issues such as unpopularity by a leader and if it is a swift decisive victory over a weak country then it is acceptable but adventurism usually lead to open conflicts with a lot bigger boys on the same block !

  4. Gary Elsby says:

    It isn’t about whether Labour comes out of it good or bad, as it has nothing to do with Labour.
    Sure, Labour Governing the Country at the time could have surrended to Argentina but what would that have done to Labour?
    This is not about withdrawing now the lease is up, it was about agression via military means upon British Islands.
    The Islanders could have expected nothing more than protection and they got it. British people responded accordingly and willingly offered that protection.
    It is a complete nonsense that Britain could not do it all over again at a moments notice.

  5. Chris says:

    “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.”

    No.

    They’re a few thousand people. What they want is irrelevant.

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