Churchillism: from Thatcher and the Falklands to Blair and Iraq

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
29 March 2007

The Falklands war of April-June 1982 was a shaping moment in the current history of Britain. It may seem a less strange episode now, after Iraq. Tony Blair made the connection between the two wars in his interview on the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Britain's recapture of the south Atlantic islands (called Las Malvinas in the Hispanic world) after their swift invasion by Argentinean forces. In all probability he had looked forward to a heroic increase in his own stature, standing and influence, similar to that gained by Margaret Thatcher when she become a victorious military premier.

If so, this was a further appalling misjudgment. What Britain needed, and still needs, from New Labour is a different international direction to the one set by Thatcher. Instead Blair has embraced her inheritance - with the extra ingredient of uncritical subordination to the doomed myopia of the White House.

The mother and father of the Falklands war was British decline. Thatcher, three years into her first government, was failing - but this was part of a larger system failure. Both her capture of the leadership of the Conservative (Tory) party in February 1975 and her election victory in May 1979 were responses to the decomposition of the country's post-1945 settlement. Britain's political class, and most especially its Labour component, was steeped in the narcissism of gentlemanly incompetence later captured by the world-famous TV sketches of Yes, Minister, while its economic policies were crippled by what was known as "stop-go". Thatcher's cry was clear and, as important, was warranted: "Something must be done!"

Anthony Barnett is openDemocracy's founder

His book Iron Britannia: why Parliament waged its Falklands War - first published as a special edition of New Left Review (July-August 1982) – was released by Allison & Busby in 1982.

The full text is becoming available on www.IronBritannia.net

Her "something" was to demand a strong state that would take government "off the backs of the people", to release the forces of market enterprise. She stood for what Stuart Hall termed reactionary modernisation. The fact that she was a reactionary is obvious enough. What needs emphasis is that she was also a moderniser, a force for change who attacked the immediately inherited past and sought to face up to life in the contemporary world.

In most accounts, Thatcher is patronised as Margaret Roberts, the daughter of a small shopkeeper in an English provincial country town, who did chemistry at Oxford and made little impression on her more illustrious contemporaries. But her husband, Mr Thatcher, made his fortune in an international family business later purchased by Burmah Oil. His global revenues gave her financial support and a larger outlook that sustained her through the years when she had to endure the vile sexism and patronising contempt the Tories reserved for women.

Thatcherism was to become a combination of the embrace of globalisation (before that term was current), free-market monetarism and the celebration of inequality with an intense nationalist stamp that permitted her to defy and start to dismantle the welfare state. Was there - to adapt one of Thatcher's most renowned declamations - an alternative way of reversing Britain's economic decline and moral malaise? Could there have been a progressive form of modernisation in the circumstances?

There was an alternative. It can be summed up in a word: Europe. Edward Heath, Thatcher's predecessor as Tory leader, had seen clearly enough that this was the terrain of reality for Britain. He negotiated Britain's economic and legal entry into what is now the European Union. But joining it in spirit - becoming European - demanded an inner change in the country at large that he was incapable of articulating. Meanwhile, the Labour party and its trade-union support remained politically and culturally much the more conservative. After Labour turned to the romantic leftist Michael Foot as its leader, or rather its curator, in 1980, a small but high-powered group broke away in March 1981 to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Their cry too was "Something must be done!"

The SDP's progenitor was Roy Jenkins, who had been the first British president of the European commission; the three other members of the "gang of four" - Shirley Williams, David Owen, and Bill Rodgers - were fellow former Labour cabinet ministers. The party was self-consciously progressive, modernist, pro-market, anti-statist - and pro-European. Buoyed by a supportive press, the SDP quickly became a significant electoral force.

Had the Falklands war not happened, it is quite possible that Shirley Williams not Margaret Thatcher would now be seen as the outstanding woman prime minister of the United Kingdom and Britain would today be as prosperous, but also a more equal and more European country with its own constitution. To be sure, the SDP had its own sovereignty freak in David Owen. Nonetheless, with Thatcher losing popularity, it would almost certainly have beaten Labour in the 1983 election and then consolidated its evolving progressive alliance with the Liberal Party and pro-European elements among the Tories and Labour.

A magical resurrection

Instead, General Leopoldo Galtieri ordered the invasion of the Falklands.

The entire political class rose to the bait. Here at last was a something that could be done! Parliament met for a special session on Saturday on 3 April 1982, broadcast live to the nation. It became a witches' Sabbath in which civilised men and women transformed themselves into animals demanding blood.

Many were astounded by the force of military nationalism unleashed by parliament and press. I asked what was it about my country's political culture that created the urge to war, when this was manifestly unnecessary. The answer was - and perhaps still is - an intoxicating all-party mixture of imperialism, anti-fascism and welfare liberalism, born in the "finest hour" of May 1940, which set the stage for Britain in the post-war world. I called it Churchillism.

I wrote a short book, Iron Britannia: why Parliament waged its Falklands War. It was published shortly after the Argentinean surrender on 14 June. It was an instant critical success but is now long out of print (though it was recently saluted in the official, two-volume history of the war by Lawrence Freedman).

Now, helped by openDemocracy, I am posting the book on the web at www.IronBritannia.net. The two opening chapters summarise the parliamentary debate and set out the nature of Churchillism.

Thatcher gathered the legitimacy of Churchillism around her as she emerged triumphant from the war. It gave her the authority over her party and the media to impose her vision, confound her political opponents and break the influence of the trade unions. She set this out in a post-war victory speech at Cheltenham on 3 July 1982 - which Iron Britannia reproduces in full.

In it, she proclaimed: "When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthearts. The people who thought ... we could no longer do the great things which we once did. Those who believed our decline was irreversible - that we could never again be what we once were ... People who in their heart of hearts had their secret fears that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world.

Well they were wrong. The lesson of the Falklands is that Britain has not changed ...

Yet why does it need a war to bring out our qualities and reassert our pride? Why do we have to be invaded before we thrown aside our selfish aims ...  This really is the challenge we as a nation face today. We have to see that the spirit of the South Atlantic - the real spirit of Britain - is kindled not only by war but can now be fired by peace ... Britain has found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won."

Thatcher's sentiments echoed across a quarter-century in Tony Blair's speech on the deck of HMS Albion on 12 January 2007.

Paul Rogers has reported on the vision for Britain which Blair here proclaimed (see "Tony Blair's long war", 18 January 2007). The prime minister argued that the country must not allow its "imperial strength" to slip quietly away. He criticised those who saw Britain's role as one of leading "the fight against climate change, against global poverty, for peace and reconciliation". No, all that is not enough! The country must not, he insisted, "leave the demonstration of 'hard' power to others".

In the 1990s it was to the credit of Blair, Gordon Brown and the creators of New Labour that they understood that their party had finally to modernise and respond positively to globalisation not deny it. But far from this necessitating a fatalistic acceptance of market solutions and American hegemony (Thatcher's "there is no alternative"), globalisation opens up possibilities for intelligent government, social investment, better democracy and a fairer world. Instead, Blair has increasingly embraced the reactionary modernisation of his Falklands-branded predecessor, nowhere more so than abroad, above all in Iraq.

But Iraq carries none of the defensive symbolism of the Falklands or the larger fight against fascism. Rather, the craven submission of the prime minister's deployment of "hard power" to the malevolent incompetence of the war's American architects is unravelling the patriotic legacy of Churchillism. This always presented itself as the expression of honourable British self-interest and, however hypocritical, was accepted as such by majorities across all parties. Twenty-five years ago it was celebrated and renewed. Now, with Europe suffering its own malaise is there an alternative way forward? Or are we witnessing the endgame of the United Kingdom itself, as Thatcher's redefinition of Great Britain dies as it was born, in an overseas adventure?

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