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Falklands: war and lies

This article is over 16 years, 11 months old
It is 25 years since Thatcher launched the Falklands War to save her career. John Newsinger looks at what this meant for British imperialism
Issue 2042
Contemporary cartoon by Leon Kuhn
Contemporary cartoon by Leon Kuhn

On 19 March 1982, the Argentine military junta seized control of the Falkland Islands – also known as the Malvinas – plunging Britain’s Tory government into crisis.

The government had unwittingly precipitated the attack by scaling back Britain’s already minimal military commitment in the South Atlantic, and now it faced disaster.

The Falkland Islands are 8,000 miles from Britain. They are a relic of empire and it was – and still is – crazy that they are ruled by Britain.

Nobody in Britain was remotely interested in the Falklands before the war. Two years previously hardline Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley had even proposed a deal to share control of the islands with Argentina.

In 1982 the Argentine military regime was facing widespread internal opposition. It decided to retake the islands to boost its prestige and its claim to control large parts of South America.

British Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher saw a chance to reverse her own declining political fortunes.

Thatcher faced a choice between a humiliating acceptance of the Argentine occupation – followed by her resignation and the collapse of her government – or risking a military expedition to an area of no strategic importance to Britain simply to save herself and her government.

The decision was never in doubt. Cheered on by the Labour leader Michael Foot, a task force was sent to supposedly “liberate” the British settlers in the Falklands.


To justify the war the Tories suddenly started raging about human rights and “despicable Latin American juntas”. These same MPs had done nothing when Argentine leader General Galtieri launched a military coup in 1976. The “disappearance” of some 30,000 people provoked not a whimper.

By the time the Argentinians surrendered on 14 June, over 250 British soldiers, sailors and airmen had died to keep Thatcher in power, along with over 1,000 Argentinians.

The British government, of course, lied at every stage of the proceedings, most infamously over the sinking of the Belgrano cruiser on 2 May, when it was steaming away from the British imposed exclusion zone.

While this was only a small scale war, it had a disproportionate impact. The conflict was amplified by a jingoistic media, led predictably by Rupert Murdoch’s jackal of a newspaper, the Sun.

The war certainly played a part, but only a part, in the Tory election victory the following year. It also made Thatcher’s personal position within the Conservative Party unassailable.

Many, including Thatcher, argued the war had at last laid to rest the “Suez syndrome” – removing the inhibitions that had supposedly paralysed British governments since Britain’s disastrous invasion of Egypt in 1956. This was a myth that became one of the cornerstones of Thatcherism.

The failure of the invasion of Egypt in 1956 had long been lamented by many Tories. They saw it as a humiliating symbol of Britain’s imperial decline.

In fact, the invasion was one of the most scandalous episodes in modern British history, involving lying and dishonesty on a scale that put even George Bush and Tony Blair to shame.

Despite the undoubted humiliation of Suez, the “Suez syndrome” was really little more than an invention of the Tory right wing. It was a myth concocted by reactionary imperialists who could not come to terms with Britain’s decline. They still fantasised about Britain reasserting its imperial destiny and standing up to the US.

The reality was very different. After Suez, British governments, both Conservative and Labour, willingly subordinated themselves to the US. This so-called “special relationship” became the touchstone of British foreign policy.

The reason for this is quite clear. British capitalism had global interests, but now that the empire was gone, it no longer possessed the military power or political influence to protect them. Instead the British ruling class looked to the US to protect its interests.

This is, of course, still the case today. When Blair’s ambassador to the US was told that his job was “to get up Washington’s arse and stay there”, this was really just business as usual.

Even after Suez, however, far from being paralysed, Britain continued to wage colonial wars. In the early 1960s, British forces were fighting a guerrilla resistance in Aden and South Arabia.

This ended in a humiliating withdrawal in November 1967 for which the Tories blamed Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. This led elements within MI5 to conspire to bring the Wilson government down.

Much more significant was the “Confrontation” with Indonesia that began in 1963. At its height, this involved 59,000 British military personnel, much of the navy (some 80 ships) and even a visit by V-bombers to Singapore. It was intended to indicate to the Indonesians that nuclear attack was not ruled out.

The war ended in the late summer of 1966. Not only was the Indonesian challenge defeated, but the war helped precipitate a military coup in Indonesia. This saw over half a million people slaughtered and the destruction of the Communist Party with the secret encouragement of both the British and US governments.

Another important colonial war was fought in Dhofar, a province of the sultanate of Oman.

Communist rebellion

The British supported the sultan against a communist rebellion that lasted into 1976. What is interesting about both the Confrontation and the Dhofar war is that these conflicts were conducted in comparative secrecy and without publicity. There was not even any great celebration of success.

Both those wars were of strategic importance. The Falklands War was completely different. It was fought to keep Thatcher and the Conservatives in power. Her demand that people “rejoice” was right from the heart.

Thatcher had made the celebration of British military prowess an important part of her government’s public profile even before the Falklands.

In May 1980, for example, she had ordered the SAS into the Iranian embassy with instructions to summarily execute terrorists holding the embassy staff hostage. Throughout the rest of her time in office, she took every chance to identify herself with the SAS.

Her government, it is worth remembering, was also engaged in a “war against terrorism” – indeed they used those exact words.

Thatcher’s government tried to take advantage of the war in Northern Ireland to stoke up public fears for their own domestic political purposes.

The biggest march against the Falklands War was only 7,000 strong. But the public was not wildly jingoistic either. An opinion poll after the Belgrano was sunk showed that 60 percent did not believe the Falklands were worth the loss of a single life.

Global order

The Falklands War was about Britain’s place in the global order. Thatcher and her supporters wanted to send a clear message that the British state was ready, willing and able to defend its property and British companies abroad.

At the time it seemed an anomaly, but it heralded in a period in which war returned to the centre of the system.

Thatcher’s attempt to resurrect a wartime patriotism was intended in part to disguise her subordinate relationship with the US.

The Falklands Task Force was only despatched because the US, after some argument, agreed. In return, Thatcher did US president Ronald Reagan’s dirty work for him.

The SAS helped train Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge forces – followers of the country’s genocidal former leader Pol Pot who were now in exile in Thailand. While the US Congress would not allow the CIA to train them, the British parliament had no problems with this.

Unluckily for Blair, his time in office has coincided with the beginning of the breakdown of US domination.

While the US still possesses an overwhelming military supremacy over the rest of the world put together, this is not sustained by a similar economic superiority. In the long run, this means that US military domination will be unsustainable.

Even in the short term, while the US military has an overwhelming technological superiority, it has not got sufficient troops to impose its will on a determined resistance movement with popular support – as is being shown in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whereas in the 19th and early 20th centuries the British state could draw on the empire, particularly India, for manpower (indeed the British army today still relies on the Gurkhas and is increasingly dependent on Commonwealth recruits), the US has no such reservoir of cheap, expendable cannon fodder.

What this means for Blair is that instead of sharing in the glory of US triumphs, he is sharing in the shame of US failures.

Blair dresses his militarism up as humanitarianism. His particular combination of dishonesty and sincerity worked for a while, but in the end came unstuck when he came up against popular opposition to war in 2003.

Blair and his cronies resorted to lying and dishonesty on a historic scale. The result has been disaster – because while the US has an extensive reach, it only has a weak grasp.

The consequent catastrophe in Iraq sees the US presiding over increasing sectarian strife in a vain attempt to defeat the resistance.

Unchecked by the most contemptible collection of MPs in the Labour Party’s history, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown remain absolutely committed to the US alliance.

If they think they can get away with it, they will support a future US attack on Iran. This is, of course, where the anti-war movement comes in.

John Newsinger is the author of several books including The Blood Never Dried – A People’s History of the British Empire. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop – phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

Bombs destroy HMS Antelope
Bombs destroy HMS Antelope

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