From the Falklands to Brexit: cut-price Jingoism

Thatcher’s cut-price Jingoism, which exploited new ideas about PR, is an inspiration to her successors, the hard Brexiteers. But there are lessons too for those who oppose them.

Edward Wilson
29 March 2018
falklands victory.jpg

Image: Falklands Victory Parade through the City of London, PA Archive, all rights reserved.

If you want to understand how British policy makers think; don’t go to Chatham House, go to Lewis Carroll instead. The current government’s Brexit strategies are straight from the White Queen: Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. A list of Brexit ideas emanating from Theresa May’s cabinet number far more than six impossible things – such as Boris Johnson’s ludicrous suggestion that the success of the London congestion charge showed how easy it would be to replace customs checks on a post-Brexit Irish border.

We have, however, been here before. Crashing Through the Looking-Glass seems to be a recurring pathology of British leaders. We saw it with Anthony Eden over Suez and with Margaret Thatcher in the run up to the Falklands conflict. But what distinguished Thatcher from Eden was good luck and skilful manipulation of jingoism.

Neither negotiation, nor a budget commitment to defence

Margaret Thatcher’s initial handling of the looming Falklands crisis was a case study in long-grass-ball-kicking and false economies. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 1979, Thatcher was presented with two options: a sovereignty deal with Argentina or a budget commitment to defend the Islands. She chose to do neither. The previous Labour government under James Callaghan were certainly not warmongers, but nor were they adverse to rattling sabres to prevent conflict in the South Atlantic. In 1977, after the Argentines covertly set up a military base on South Thule, Callaghan quietly despatched a nuclear submarine, two frigates and support vessels to the area which resulted in an equally quiet Argentine withdrawal following talks.

Such expenditure was not, however, to be part of Thatcher’s penny-pinching agenda.

The right-wing’s impossible mix of jingoism and penny pinching

The best solution to the Falklands/Malvinas question will always be a sovereignty deal, but such a deal runs the risk of jingoistic shouts of sell-out. When Nicholas Ridley, the ultimate Thatcherite ‘dry’, succeeded in getting his Argentine counterpart to agree to a hundred year ‘leaseback’, the deal was sabotaged by the predecessors of today’s hard Brexiteers. Once the Falklands sovereignty solution had been rejected, the only remaining option – other than losing the Islands by default – was budgeting for occasional sabre rattling.

But Thatcher would have none of that either. The ultimate nail in the defence option coffin was the announcement to scrap HMS Endurance, an ice patrol ship that was the UK’s only naval presence in the South Atlantic. The removal of that symbol, following Ridley’s sovereignty negotiations, was a clear signal to the Junta that the UK would not defend the Islands. Meanwhile, loud alarm bells were ringing from the region – including the arrival of scrap merchants on South Georgia who hoisted the Argentine flag – and yet the Prime Minister did nothing.

From a dog’s dinner to a triumphal feast – how Foot helped

Thatcher’s great accomplishment was to turn a dog’s dinner of incompetence and neglect into a triumphal feast – and she began doing so with the help of Michael Foot, the second most left-wing leader in the history of the Labour Party. (It now looks unlikely that Theresa May will find Labour’s most left-wing leader as helpful.) Foot’s speech was the most powerful and bellicose of the debate, which took place during Parliament’s first Saturday session since the Suez debacle. Foot’s plea, that we must ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world, was Churchillian. It backed the Prime Minister into a commitment from which there was no turning back. Foot’s speech also and depoliticised the forces of jingoism, just as neither left nor right has a monopoly on today’s Brextremism.

Margaret Thatcher enjoyed an advantage in her battle with the Junta that Theresa May does not have in her struggles against Brussels: the Junta were stupid. If they had kept to the original invasion date, late May, the Task Force would have been stymied by the South Atlantic winter. If the Junta had waited another year until Thatcher’s full defence cuts had taken effect, there would not have been enough Royal Navy ships left to form a task force.

How the Brits won the war of PR and psyops

The Argentines were also amateurish at PR and psyops. They may have offered free colour TVs to the Falkland Islanders for the World Cup, but nothing could make up for the gross blunder of allowing someone to photograph the Royal Marines as they were forced to lie prone under Argentine guns after they surrendered. It was an image of national humiliation that would rankle with the British public and fire demands for revenge.

The British government and their allies in the media played a much better PR game – although there were excesses. Supermarkets removed Argentine corned beef from their shelves and a patriotic wine shop owner in Chelsea ostentatiously poured his entire supply of Argentine vintages into the gutter. Whitehall followed suit. Argentine food was banned from canteens in Government buildings – lest tabloid journalists catch Government ministers wolfing down Argentine beef. In contrast, even the most jingoistic Brexiteer would never countenance torching German cars or pouring French wine down the sewer. Instead, the jingoistic attack has to be aimed at institutions and people.

From Jingo and “Just War” to “Gotcha!”

It is worth noting that Jingo first became linked to nationalism in an 1878 song popular among those who supported sending a British fleet into Turkish waters to resist Russian incursions in the region – all part of The Great Game. The chorus – “We don't want to fight, yet by Jingo! If we do, we’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too” – could just as well been a fond farewell to the Task Force as it set off from Portsmouth in April 1982. The opening line, “We don’t want to fight”, means it is a just war and whatever happens to the enemy as the result of their aggression is richly deserved.

The Gotcha! headline, celebrating the sinking of the Belgrano, was full of by Jingo self-justification. The fact that the sinking was a war crime didn’t begin to register with large numbers of the British public until a year later when Diana Gould, questioning the Prime Minister on BBC’s Nationwide, pointed out that the Belgrano was outside the Total Exclusion Zone, heading back to port and that Argentina had agreed to a peace deal fourteen hours earlier. Before the Belgrano was torpedoed, the conflict had claimed few casualties – only three dead. In one stroke, that number increased a hundred-fold.

Jingoism is expensive

In terms of cost-benefit analysis, jingoism is very expensive. The cost of the Falklands war and subsequent expenditure turning the Islands into a fortress has cost the British taxpayer at least three million pounds per inhabitant. The human cost, including Argentine casualties, was twice as many service personnel killed or wounded as the entire Falkland island population. Likewise, the renewal of Trident – a weapon that is obsolete and militarily useless – is another expensive homage to the irrational emotions of jingoism.

In contrast to the healthy patriotism of 1945 which led to the Attlee years and the creation of the NHS, the British victory in the South Atlantic ushered in an orgy of jingoism that was shamelessly exploited by Thatcher for personal power. The tactless triumphalism meant that – shockingly - disabled Falklands veterans were only invited to the London Victory Parade after a media outcry. Another breach of propriety was that Margaret Thatcher, rather than the Queen, took the salute of the armed forces as they marched past the portico of Mansion House. In the immediate aftermath of the war, no mention was made of the three Falkland Islands women who were killed by naval gunfire in the final days of the conflict. Their deaths would have been an embarrassing acknowledgement that some of those whom the Task Force was sent to protect were killed by the Task Force.

Likewise, mentioning Argentine war dead was forbidden. There was a public row between Mrs Thatcher and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, when she accused Runcie of a lack of patriotism in praying for Argentine as well as British dead during a memorial service. The incompetence that led to war in the first place and the Belgrano war crime were temporarily whitewashed out of history. In June 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party won an overall majority of 144.

The lessons for the hard Brexiteers – and those who oppose them

The political lessons of the Falklands were well learned – particularly by the Leave campaign and the hard Brexiteers. A sampling of recent headlines in The Times resonates with the language of Jingo: “Don’t Break Up Britain, May Warns EU Leaders”, “David Davis Threatens Brussels Over Irish Border Dispute”, “EU Arrogance Shows We’re Right to be Leaving”. Note the language of war: warns, threatens, border dispute. Elsewhere, Remainers such as Anna Soubry are demonised as traitors and saboteurs.

But there is also a lesson for the progressive left and those of us who are pro-EU. Although the long term future of jingoism is doomed by a cosmopolitan younger generation, it is still with us now – and can be tamed and manipulated.

Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to remain permanently in a customs union may well go down in history as the moment he despatched the Task Force. The emotions aroused by films such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour can be harnessed by the forces of progress instead of jingoism. It is no exaggeration to say that the UK and Europe are caught in a pincer movement between Putin's Russia and Trump’s America. Both men want a weak and collapsing EU: Putin, for geopolitical hegemony; Trump, for unregulated US capitalism to plunder the UK (NHS privatisation is already a target of US health insurance companies) and the bits of Europe not in Putin’s sphere. By Jingo, we must not leave the EU! This is our darkest hour and a time to stand shoulder to shoulder with our European allies.

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