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The Falklands Syndrome: the 30 year legacy of Iron Britannia

Preparing a new introduction of his Iron Britannia, Anthony Barnett is appalled at how relevant the book has become after 30 years. The combined impact of the 2008 financial crash and its economic consequences, alongside defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, expose once again the foundations of Britain’s peculiar political culture, which was the main focus of the original 1982 edition. A vivid account of the start of his own political journey becomes a sober warning for the future: they will do it again if they can unless the ‘Great’ is taken out of Britain.

As it was, over ten thousand British soldiers were landed. Supported by naval artillery and US satellite intelligence they fought to the death with more than thirteen thousand Argentinian conscripts, on almost uninhabited rocks. How could this have happened with the support of all the political parties and no serious opposition? Many merely blamed (or praised) the determination of Margaret Thatcher. Yet there was clearly more to it. An enraged House of Commons and a howling media were bellowing for a fight as she announced that the Navy would set sail. There had to be something in the water here in Britain (and therefore in my waters too) for the whole country to willingly risk the sacrifice of hundreds of young men and the crippling of many more, the devastation of their families, the even larger number of likely enemy casualties, the staggering costs, and the possibility of a military catastrophe, to embrace with such enthusiasm a war for nowhere.

The war was unexpected and the victory a nice surprise (‘We weren’t sure we had it in us’). But what was then revelation has now become expectation. The Falklands War is not, as I hoped it would be, merely an exhibit of how we were. It is the starting point for what we have become. The victory did not just ensure a decade of Thatcher’s direct hegemony, impressive enough though that was. It has inspired what can be called a Falklands Syndrome.

This Falklands Syndrome means two things. First, our rulers feel entitled to demonstrate military superiority whenever possible. (The sub-text is that they believe such a demonstration will enhance their popularity, renew their personal can-do spirit for application to domestic matters, and elevate their standing abroad. While it helps to know that the war can be easily justified, it is the urge to win against the odds that matters.) Second, any defeat or setback vindicates the need for the Falklands Syndrome, not its mistaken nature. It is a classic case of an irrefutable mindset, sanctified by frustration as much as it is vindicated by victory.

After he became Prime Minister, Tony Blair turned the Falklands Syndrome into what he pretentiously described as his ‘Chicago Doctrine’.[1] He later defined it as a call to be "bold, adventurous even" in considering the need to intervene by force. The influence of his ‘doctrine’ survives Iraq and is being toughened by the experience of our soldiers and their high losses in Helmand. They may be defeats but this can never defeat the need to be ‘bold’; on the contrary, you can feel the back stiffen, the voice raised to a higher pitch of conviction. Pioneered by the Falklands, the long-range exercise of high-tech military power, justified by the proclamation of principles rather than the need to defend oneself, has come to mark the post-Cold War world.

When Iron Britannia was written, the Falklands campaign appeared to be a colonial throwback, sending forth a show of force, all flags flying, to a remote, watery corner of the planet, and a nostalgic re-enactment of the Second World War. The larger part of my shock when I re-read Iron Britannia was the realisation that the throwback was in fact a harbinger: three decades ago the Falklands War welcomed us to the future. And now, looking back, I begin to see how it was done.

The Task Force of 1982, far from being old-fashioned, became a model for modern interventions, from Kuwait in 1991 to Afghanistan; and also, to the delight of the arms industry, a test-bed for high-tech conflict.[2] At home, the Falklands Syndrome inspired New Labour even more than the Tories to seek military forms of popularity and renew the country’s martial spirit. Unless it is stopped, the Falklands Syndrome will infect or, if you must, inspire a fourth decade.

For as we know, the Falklands Syndrome can win elections and shape British politics. We can see its potential to do so more clearly now than, say, ten years ago because the combined impact of the 2008 financial crash and its economic consequences, alongside defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, are exposing once again the foundations of Britain’s peculiar political culture, which is the main focus of Iron Britannia.

Once again, we confront the same toxic mixture – of economic failure, high unemployment, the threat of permanent ‘decline’ , a defiant national sense of self-worth, and a pathological ache for global influence – which marked the seventies in Britain. Yet again, a backbench and media chorus is preparing us to seek strength through leadership, in the belief that the example of the Falklands is the best way to renew ourselves in a crisis. Once more, the legend re-emerges in the South Atlantic of a defiant underdog who deserves to influence the world.

I attempted to demystify this marvel at the start of the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher seemed to become both a reincarnation of Boadicea and our Roman Emperor at one and the same time. Our government and media are not just looking back to the spirit of that moment on its thirtieth anniversary: they would love to repeat it if they can. So I have turned this introduction in large part into a warning. Don’t think of the Falklands as an exception, as I did. Contemplate what happened thirty years ago as the norm. Look out for the preparations to do it again.

When the Task Force set sail thirty years ago, it was only thirty-six years from the end of the Second World War. It was understandable that a painful, inspiring mixture of emotions should have gripped Thatcher’s generation – Labour and Liberal as well as Tory. They lived through the war as teenagers or had served as young soldiers. In 1982, eight of Thatcher’s Cabinet had fought, four had been wounded and four had received medals. The revealing account of Thatcher’s imperial sentiments quoted at the start of this introduction dates from the general election campaign of June 1945, when the war in the Pacific was still underway. She was a third-year student at Oxford, speaking for the local Tory candidate in a Lincolnshire constituency near her home. It was forty-eight days after the German surrender and forty-two days before Hiroshima opened the nuclear age.

The current generation of Britain’s political leaders are half the age of Margaret Thatcher. Their memory of the Falklands campaign is as adolescent as Thatcher’s was of Hitler. Apparently unable to propose an alternative patriotism, they have become offspring of the Falklands Syndrome – the remade form of global Britishness that condemns to inner deterioration that which it succeeds in renovating by the injection of ‘greatness’ – and have adopted militarism in insidious forms.

Principles or fantasies?

In 1982, as soon as the Buenos Aires Junta seized Las Malvinas, as the Falklands are called in Latin America, it was obvious that the British government had screwed up. Clearly the UK should not have held on to, and then left undefended, islands so remote from us and so close to Argentina; a country whose own claim to them was generally recognised around the world, even by our own sensible diplomats. Certainly Britain should not have done so while hiding behind the ‘wishes’ of the occupants of what was barely more than a company settlement, in a way that provoked and gave a pretext to an unstable dictatorship in Argentina. In such circumstances, to retain control of the place but not defend it was reprehensible – a posture Thatcher herself had personally insisted on and which made her culpable of having failed to protect the dependency. While no one doubted the Junta’s resort to force was a crime in international law and a despicable manoeuvre to gain domestic popularity, everyone in British political circles, above all Thatcher herself, knew that she would carry the can if the Falklands were ‘lost’.

When the Junta seized the islands, however, the sole casualty was a single Argentinian soldier, killed as some of the sixty-nine Royal Marines in situ resisted before they were overwhelmed. The few hundred Falkland families should therefore have been massively compensated – and offered domicile anywhere in the United Kingdom if they did not wish to stay under Latin rule. We had messed up on their wishes but we had an obligation to protect their interests (the distinction is important and I’ll return to it). The defeat was a humiliation for Britain, although not our first. We should have faced up to it, asking ourselves ‘What are its causes and how do we cure them?’

Hold on, new readers may be thinking – even if our politicians deserve little but scorn, what about the innocent islanders themselves, who are not sheep or squid and did not want to live under a torturing Junta? Don’t they deserve to be protected, and now just as in 1982, so they can live in their chosen home?

It was never a war for this principle. For pride, yes; but that takes us into self-perception and what kind of a country we are, which is what I set out to examine. As for principles, such as the right of the islanders to self-determination, these are important. I address them at some length in the book and will return to them later in this introduction, as they have emerged in an altered form. But humans only die for a principle with reluctance and as a last resort. In 1982 the world saw a United Kingdom that was priapic for a battle.

Also, the idea that the principle of the self-determination of the Falklands mattered to those who decided on the war was manifestly implausible. They talked about the islanders ‘being British’ but not about their human reality. I estimated there were about six hundred families settled across the islands, and this proved accurate: ‘There were in total 589 residential buildings in the islands, 363 of them in Stanley.’[3] In the 1970s, at the behest of the United States, we had forcibly removed about the same number of British dependents from their homes in the island of Diego Garcia and dumped them on another country, offering the host government £650,000 in costs and the people nothing at all. It was a far more brutal fate than anything that would have befallen the Falklanders if their islands had been taken over by the cravenly snobbish and anglophile Junta, keen to make a good impression on world opinion after their unprovoked use of force. Just days before the Argentine invasion in 1982 the British finally agreed to give the people of Diego Garcia £4 million. Was there a whisper of support for their right to self-determination? Of course not. But then they were not ‘from British stock’ as Thatcher winsomely put it. Among the established commentators only Peregrine Worsthorne had the languorous self-confidence to make the point in public as the Task Force braved the oceans: we would never have gone to such trouble had the Falkland Islanders been black or brown.[4] No one gainsaid him. So much for principle.

As my friend Fred Halliday said in a conversation, the talk in Britain was as if the Nazis had invaded Ambridge.[5] Laugh? One has to laugh. But no one else around the world has any idea what the joke means. We were indulging in a national fantasy. Where did it come from, and why was it so strong that it would take us to war?

Like many, I listened to the radio-broadcast House of Commons debate on Saturday 3 April (analysed in full at the start of Iron Britannia) which began the war on the British side as the dispatch of the Task Force was announced. I thought the MPs were in a time-warp, as they acted out an incongruous dance of bygone sovereignty. I didn’t think there would really be a war. I thought it was a joke.

It’s War

”

The Conqueror returns after sinking the Belgrano

Then, a month later, on 2 May 1982, they sank the Belgrano.

The moment I heard the Belgrano had been torpedoed I thought of Eleanor Herrin. When I had ridiculed Parliament’s jingoism Eleanor had shaken at her head at my gullibility. I felt a need to rectify my shallow misjudgement.

Her husband, the father of my partner Judith, was in command of a Lancaster bomber when it went down over Germany, near Cologne in 1943. If I write with feeling about the families of those who are killed, it is because I have witnessed the loss so closely that it has become a shared experience – the terrible charge on loved ones of the life-long impact of the missing. Did Eleanor suffer and Philip Herrin die for this ludicrous parliamentary huffing and puffing? Would more families now have to endure the loss that goes on for ever, for the want of compensating the islanders and in order – for so it seemed – to keep Thatcher in office? These MPs, dribbling righteousness, were laying claim to patriotism and values of the war against fascism, were they? "Right then, we had better see about that. This is my country too".

Such was my mood as I set about going through the Commons debate, line by line, with the knowledge that hundreds would die because of these speeches. Before my eyes a mountain range emerged, one that shapes the entire landscape of British politics, including my own. I call it Churchillism.

I use the present tense. What Britain really needed then, at the start of the eighties, was to shed the influence of Churchillism. Instead, the Falklands fixed it – one could almost say fixated it – into the system. It looms over us still, even if its craggy features are eroded and crumbling.

My analysis of it at the time was swift and spontaneous. It needs to be strengthened, not least thanks to David Edgerton’s authoritative history of the ‘warfare state’ that accompanied the welfare state. I had accepted the myth that we fought the Second World War from the outset as the weaker power to Nazi Germany. In fact, as Edgerton shows, the British Empire was the stronger, and we went to war in 1939 confident of victory. This certainly changes the way I’d write my chapter today, but not decisively. For I would argue that the myth of being defiant and alone in 1940 was the shared experience – part of the structure of feeling of what it meant to be British – in 1982.

May 1940 saw the birth of Britain, as we know it. Every variety of British patriotism goes back to it, and was formed or reformed then. All the now growing national patriotisms currently within Britain – Scottish, English, Welsh and Irish within the northern six counties – must, if they are to last, take their own measure of the moment that shaped the modern British union. The simple way to describe what happened under the forge of that war (which makes it so different from 1914–18) was that it saw the transformation of the world’s wealthiest and most extensive empire into a European nation state: from the British Empire to Britain. In a brilliant passage Edgerton identifies the all-important rhetorical shift from the 'imperial we’ to the 'national we’ in Churchill’s speeches. In 1940 it was the British Empire that found itself alone; in the 1945 general election it was Britain that stood alone.[6]

This was not just a transition imposed from outside by the United States and our reduced circumstances: many organised for it from within, especially the Labour movement. In 1939, its leader, Clement Attlee declared his party’s support for the declaration of war explaining that democracy was an ‘ethical principle’ for Labour:

we believe that every individual should be afforded the fullest opportunity for developing his or her personality . . . The German workers have lost all their democratic rights. Wherever Nazism is, there is cruelty, tyranny and the rule of the secret police . . .

Later, when he took Labour into coalition under Churchill, he told his party,

We have to stand today for the souls in prison in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, yes, and in Germany . . . Life without liberty is not worth living. Let us go forward and win . . .

At the same time in setting out Labour’s support for the war in this way he was clear about the decisive change that accompanied it,

I think the majority of people in this country have now abandoned the old boastful imperialism . . . it was not so long ago in my own lifetime when our Press used to be filled with the same kind of arrogant boasting which one hears from Hitler . . . We must rid ourselves of any taint of imperialism.[7]

Historically, a staggering conversion was compressed into seven years. A decisive victory took place but the entity that emerged victorious had changed its skin, sinew and body. By 1947, with India’s independence ordered by Attlee, Westminster’s ‘Imperial Parliament’ was no more and its King-Emperor was reduced to a mere common-or-garden King. A ‘British nation’ took to the stage. Of course, it would have more than a taint of imperialism about it as it clung to what colonies it could. But it was a country that emerged from a war that an Empire had declared.

Britain and Churchillism – that ‘Great’ feeling

The question that has preoccupied its subject-citizens ever since is, ‘What kind of country are we?’ There are two things that need to be said about this as we look back to the crucial ‘moment’ of the Falklands, at a point nearly half way between 1945 and today.

As is the case with any country, many different people, classes, regions and interests inhabit Britain. Just as diverse is the phenomenon of Churchillism that founded Britain (one that I define and whose components I analyse in Chapter 2). It was an exceptional collaboration of different traditions, drawn through the eye of 1940. The first generation of post-war leaders were unable to manage its legacy, leading to the enervating crisis of the seventies. Prime Minister Harold Wilson, confiding in the middle of the decade, ‘I have nothing new to offer’, summed up their uselessness.[8] It wasn’t just the Prime Minister. The whole edifice of the Establishment and its consensus politics was morally broken. I was thinking of this when I wrote in 1982 that Churchillism condemned to a slow death the British state that it saved from catastrophe in May 1940, structurally disabling it for the future while ensuring that our rulers are obsessed with magical resurrection from the past.

Thatcher conjured her solution to this decline in the starkest fashion: in terms of personal behaviour, the economy and the state. Denying her recipe was magic, she insisted there was ‘no alternative’. Many are still entranced, and believe as much. But there were alternatives, both within the Conservative Party and without. Others would have dealt with the crisis of the seventies differently and better. They were confounded and dispersed by Thatcher’s Falklands victory.[9] It gave her an unrivalled capacity to lay claim to the mantle and legitimacy of Churchillism. But at the same time, by insisting on her claim in the way she did, she betrayed it. To take just three examples: her view that the Conservative supporters of consensus, not to speak of socialists, were ‘traitors’; her willingness to abolish municipal government; and her attempt to drive people from the electoral register with the Poll Tax,[10] all demonstrated her tyrannical impulse. Thatcher assaulted the broad, inclusive nature of Churchillism – and in so doing set about destroying what Britain had once stood for in the war against fascism.

This claim, while obvious to some, might seem controversial to others and could be puzzling if not incomprehensible to younger readers. So I will try to evoke what I mean as concisely as I can. Shortly before the Falklands, Edward Heath, who was Prime Minister from 1970–4 and whom Margaret Thatcher had defeated to become Tory leader, criticised both her economic policy of savage cuts and her assault on consensus. She was giving a special lecture in Australia and, immediately, she tacked her response onto it:

To me consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects . . . What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ‘I stand for consensus’? [11]

To which the answer is, ‘The Second World War.’ As applied by the Westminster Establishment, the ‘consensus politics’ that followed over the next thirty years did degenerate and needed to be replaced. But it could never have succeeded in the first place without its co-architects on the left, and their profound commitment to the principles and values of peace-loving, democratic patriotism.

In ‘The Post War Dream’, the mournfully titled opening song of Pink Floyd’s magnificent response to Thatcher’s Falklands politics, The Final Cut (1983), Roger Waters asks, ‘Oh Maggie, Maggie what have we done?’ Waters’ father died at Anzio in Italy. Edward Heath, also a serving officer, could have appreciated the legitimacy of Waters’ claim to that post-war dream. Thatcher rejected it. She appropriated Churchillism, which in her hands became a narrow self-righteousness. That is why it is not too strong a word to say that she betrayed it, even while she perpetuated it in a morbid fashion.

She got away with it, however, because she did indeed draw on a central aspect of Churchillism. Rather than celebrating the painful transition of turning an empire into a country, Churchillism made it psychologically bearable by denying that Britain is merely normal. It carried this off in a particularly toxic, entrancing way. To start speaking on behalf of the existing British state and its Churchillist structure of feeling stimulates two different parts of the political psyche in a heady combination. Separately, each would be banal or embarrassing. Together they create an irresistible, addictive elixir.

The first is: we are the ‘underdog’. Britain is a victim, beset by Nazi-Argentine-fascist-fundamentalism (the list does grow). The fact that they are evil proves we are good. Add to this the knowledge that we are just a small island, and it makes us almost pure. Sure, we have done some bad things historically, but they were not that bad – just look at the Belgians in the Congo. Our honestly admitted imperfections merely illuminate our essential goodness. At least we are not and were never fascists. It is a nasty world and, surrounded by it, we are but a modest, embattled island nation.

Yet we are also great! We may be the underdog but we are not small fry, no sir. Our goodness gives us an inner strength and integrity which, with our long experience, means we can suggest with all due modesty that the world needs our leadership, if we may say so – speaking in the polished, careful diplomatic way for which we are famous – as none had a finer hour than our finest hour. Small and beleaguered underdog though we are, it is time (it is always time) for us to put the country ‘back’ on the world map (because the world needs us) and thus we can ‘put the Great back into Britain.’

If we claimed only a world role, it would be boastful and implausible. If we said only that we are the underdog, it would be pathetic. But if we say both at the same time, then the two falsehoods seem to permit one another.

They also recall – or they did for those in power and in their middle age in 1982 – the actual delusion of Britain’s Churchillist establishment at its height. After the Falklands War an inquiry was established to investigate its cause. Lord Franks, as the nearest thing to God in Whitehall, was chosen to chair it. His report is definitely part of the politics of the war. It was more than a whitewash. From its great height it concluded that Thatcher bore no responsibility for provoking the conflict through her deliberate neglect to defend the islands from a despicable dictatorship. Thus was culpability turned into morality by victory, as Franks in effect admitted.[12] A more familiar way of putting this is that might is right. It gave birth to the Falklands Syndrome. When the report was published I responded in the New Statesman (republished at the end of this book). I discovered that Franks had given the BBC Reith Lectures in 1954 and took world affairs as his theme. To his own satisfaction, and doubtless that of his fellow mandarins, he demonstrated ‘very simply . . . Britain is going to continue to be what she has been, a Great Power’.

‘Today has put the Great back into Britain.’ They were Thatcher’s own words, after the Union Jack was raised over Port Stanley. When Sir Lawrence Freedman published The Official History of The Falklands Campaign in 2005 he felt obliged to record that there was some dissent, or at least a lack of ‘enchantment’ as he put it, with the way the House of Commons committed Britain to war in its special debate on 3 April 1982. So he quoted my description in Iron Britannia of all the symbols of Churchillism that were present:

an island people, the cruel seas, a British defeat, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator and finally the quintessentially Churchillian posture – we were down but we were not out. The parliamentarians of right, left and centre looked through the mists of time to the Falklands and imagined themselves to be the Grand Old Man. They were, after all, his political children and they too would put the ‘Great’ back into Britain. [13]

It did not occur to me that I would return to this argument thirty years down the road. Spoken by Thatcher the slogan is belligerent, thrusting and apparently forward-looking. Thanks to her vision of greatness, trade union closed shops were bust open, the independence of the Civil Service was undermined, and the occult self-government of the City and its financial services demolished with a big bang. At the same time, nostalgia was as integral to her vision as openness; Stuart Hall shrewdly termed the combination Thatcher’s ‘regressive modernisation.’

Back Again and again and again

Once the Great is back, how do we keep it, especially when to prove that we have it we must let it loose on the world? The Sun, especially, has become addicted to the catchphrase. ‘David Cameron today pledges to Sun readers he will put the Great back into Britain’ was the opening to an interview by the paper’s Political Editor George Pascoe-Watson. (It took place when the Murdochs switched to back Cameron and the Tories against Labour.) At any rate that is what they hoped Cameron was pledging. But what once felt audacious has become a tiresome cliché, now attached to its coverage of the Olympic games. Any UK sporting win can call forth the dream: should British runners, swimmers or rowers cross the line first, or our footballers win a game against Germany, out comes the Union Jack as The Sun celebrates their having personally, in that brief moment of success, put the Great back where it belongs (yet from which it serially escapes). I am giving a final polish to this introduction in Delhi. If you drive into town you can see occasional advertising hoardings encouraging the Indian middle-class to visit Britain, the GREAT country. The letters are huge, woven into images of the countryside or the Olympics, the imperial self-regard rebranded to appear as an attraction that can be shared by booking into a country-house hotel.

There were three ‘moments’ spanning the last thirty years when it seemed that the stupidity of the longing for greatness was being put aside. The first came soon after the Falklands War. In 1982, despite very long odds, close calls, massive US material assistance, and with only two days of ammunition remaining,[14] the enemy surrendered and we won. A burst of books, mostly celebratory or military porn, followed. Set-piece spectaculars fed the tabloids and TV (leading up to a general election in June 1983, its timing manipulated to coincide with the first anniversary of the various battles, ensuring Thatcher’s re-election. I describe this in an additional supporting essay published here for the first time.). And yet a larger Establishment wisdom still survived then, to reject triumphalism. For its service to commemorate the fallen, the Church of England insisted, to the Prime Minister’s fury, on praying for the enemy dead and their families, as victims like our own.[15] She was denied a full-scale state triumph and had to persuade the City of London to pay for the victory parade. Despite all the efforts of Thatcher’s team and their control of the timetable, in the 1983 general election her popular vote fell by 700,000. The reason my essay on that election was unpublished is that interest fell away and no further edition of this book appeared after the reprints in early 1983.

It was not censorship. Military interest in the campaign remained high but a process of wilful forgetting, or mild repression, took place with respect to the demonstration of a martial political culture. It is the Second World War that matters, with its civilian support; a somewhat idiotic Falklands reprise threatens to damage this reputation. Repression, however, is a form of preservation; the hardcore of what had become Thatcher’s military-political culture went unchallenged. It had precipitated an all-party orgasm over the Falklands. The consequence was Thatcher’s supremacy. What followed was the belligerent crushing of the miners and the triumph of market fundamentalism. Meanwhile her military-triumphalist nationalism was re-embalmed and placed back into its neo-gothic locker: out of sight, but with the door left ajar so that its gruesome atmosphere could wrap itself around the brain cells of the denizens of Westminster. To this day it retains its addictive claim on the underlying ‘narrative’ of Britishness.

If the first moment when there was a move away from defining ourselves in terms of the Falklands followed hard upon the war itself, the second arose a full twenty years on. In 2002 Tony Blair was riding high on New Labour’s form of ‘modern modernisation’ – global, young, de-regulating and dismissive of institutions and history. Even though Blair was processing Thatcher’s Falklands example in his initial response to 9/11, this fatal calculation had not yet done its work. He had prepared the ground in Chicago, he had decided to back Bush at all costs. But there had not yet been the illegal invasion of Iraq. Instead, Britain was a country that had just re-elected a Labour government, which began to invest in schools and hospitals after saving the NHS and education from the locust years of Major.[16]

It would have seemed ungenerous, back then, ten years ago, to regard Blair as addicted to war overseas when he had played such an important role in the Good Friday agreement.[17] The intelligent negotiation of power sharing in Belfast, the concession that the Dublin government had an interest in the sovereignty of part of the UK itself, the explicit inclusion of human rights and the framework of the EU, together ended the UK’s local civil war. Whatever its faults, today it seems all the more important to emphasise that this saw the UK dropping the rhetoric that ‘terrorism must be defeated’, or that there can be no negotiation with a nihilist ‘other’, or that the enemy must concede absolutely on principle. All this was a break from Thatcherism. The IRA were brought in despite the fact that they had not yet completely disarmed, had only promised to stop killing and work inside the structures. There was a relentless flow of warnings that it was all a ploy, a pause before the terrorist campaign could be resumed; so it did take some nerve and it built on patient work under the John Major and Dublin governments. The agreement stopped most domestic terrorism and made us look civilised rather than hungry for battle and intransigence. In comparison, the Falklands seemed to fade into a ridiculous, atavistic episode.

Evidence of the extraordinarily opened-minded nature of Britain – back then, ten years ago and before Iraq – was also noted recently by John Harris: 68% of respondents told pollsters that the country should stay in the EU and only 19% wanted out. Today half the country wants to leave the EU altogether, while supporters of staying in have halved, slumping to 33%.[18] In part this may be a healthy reaction to European leaders who behave with ineptitude and unaccountable arrogance. The wish to walk away from them is not without democratic self-confidence. However, those of us who resist this tide are not talking about joining the euro but retaining a place within the larger EU, whose influence is inescapable. The driving spirit behind the growth of populist attitudes is once again regressive – it feels to many people as if collaborating with other countries is sapping our vital fluids. The fact that we have neighbours who exercise an influence over us could hardly be more natural but apparently stops us being ourselves – traders and swashbucklers in the free-market global planet. This attitude, increasingly prevalent, is anti-immigrant, hostile to human rights, belligerently defiant and seeks to defy the world by a ‘return’ to what we once were.

You think I’m exaggerating? Open the locker. In her 1982 victory speech on the lesson of the Falklands, Thatcher proclaimed that Britain was still ‘the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world . . . The lesson is that Britain has not changed . . .’ Today, Daniel Hannan MEP tells Daily Telegraph readers we must leave the Argentinians ‘in no doubt that we are still the people we were’ when we defeated them in 1982.[19]

But who are the people being addressing by Hannan and many like him? Who is it that must be “in no doubt” that we are still, in 2012, the people we were in 1982, when we proved that we are the people who built an Empire and have not changed?

Ourselves. The rhetoric is addressed to ourselves not the Argentinians: to the public as a whole, the Telegraph reading centre-right (especially to strengthen their patriotic resolve), and to our political class, our politico-media-public-relations-policy-elite, who fear the UK returning to the years of failure and humiliation that marked the 1970s. Years when the demoralising, perpetual ‘management of decline’ took the joy out of power in Britain. Thatcher and the Falklands war rescued us from this fate - we need something similar now.

This is still an argument that is underway, not a course that has been set. The nature of Cameron’s leadership is as yet unresolved, and in its absence of conviction it appeared to offer the third reason why the days of the Falklands Syndrome might be over, as he set about ‘detoxifying’ the Tory ‘brand’. In his first speech as Prime Minister to his Party Conference it is true he struck a Kitcheneresque note with, ‘Your country needs you’, yet he continued, describing his ‘Big Society’:

It is government changing its role . . . helping to build a nation of doers and go-getters . . . This is not about a bit more power for you and a bit less power for central government – it’s a revolution . . . We are the radicals now, breaking apart the old system with a massive transfer of power, from the state to citizens, politicians to people, government to society. [20]

The description is disingenuous to the point of being misleading. (When he says ‘society’ he means the market – the transfer of power that results will favour corporations not citizens.) Nonetheless, it is a civilian and consensual programme, not a divisive, militaristic or jingoistic one.

The Cameronian approach was conceived at the height of the boom, as a continuation of Blair’s pro-market mindset. In 2012 the financial crash and the vast overhang of banking debt taken over by the state promises years of flat-line growth and austerity. What if this undermines the glorious bonus culture of the City and its global role, as both the best offshore set-up on earth and the organiser of Cameron’s marketisation of the British public sector? Thatcher’s remedy was an injection of military prowess to compensate for any such loss. Alas, here too the Coalition has inherited a crash. An ongoing, little-publicised military defeat of British forces is taking place. The UK has broken a fist trying to ‘punch above its weight’. Instead of the UK’s military prowess decorating the financial supremacy of the City of London, we will have to eat austerity without the psychic compensation of winning in Iraq’s Basra or Afghanistan’s Helmand.

Cameron’s Falklands Syndrome

A cold-eyed, well-organised observer of what works, Cameron is also preparing the ground for a Falklands-style operation if the opportunity arises. Back in June 2010, he flew to Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. There, he told the troops, ‘I want you to help me create a new atmosphere in our country where we back and revere and support our military.’ Revere? I’m not sure even Margaret Thatcher would have said that. According to Tim Shipman of the Daily Mail, Cameron had already told them (my emphasis),

During the first and second world wars and during the Falklands War, there was real support in our country for the military. We want to put you front and centre of our national life again . . .’ Speaking in the midst of a sandstorm, Mr Cameron quoted poet Charles M. Province: ‘It’s not the politician that brings the right to vote it is the soldier, it is not the poet that brings free speech, it is the soldier. [21]

With those final scandalous words our Prime Minister militarised our democracy and liberty of speech, explicitly appealing to the Falklands Syndrome. It is inconceivable that Churchill and Attlee, the wartime premier and his deputy, both battle-hardened front-line officers, would have suggested putting the military ‘at the front and centre of national life’ – they would never have recognised Cameron’s ‘again’. The idea that they would have quoted with approval a ridiculous American poet making the false, shameful and wretchedly contrived allegations that soldiers have given us free speech and the right to vote, defies belief.

It is, therefore, important to do more than understand how the Falklands worked in 1982, when an apparently sophisticated society actively permitted itself to be taken over by a militaristic leadership. That was the original purpose of Iron Britannia. But today the Falklands needs to be read as the start of a new kind of militarism. The glow of a thirty-year-old triumph inspires our current Prime Minister to pledge that he will embed the military into the centre of British life. True, it is only one card that he is playing in a wider game – who knows what else he has up his sleeve? But whereas his call to release the genie of the Big Society leaves civil-society organisations baffled and their funding gone, a forty-billion-pound annual defence budget, an ongoing war, celebrity-led lobbying by the Royal British Legion and other rich NGOs, along with the networks of the corporate-security state, have a vested interest in the celebration of the military.

The ease with which their influence seems to be growing, and the lack of resistance to it, stems in part from the punishment the old Establishment culture received at the hands of Prime Minister Thatcher. She was a stickler for formal procedures and the protocols of parliamentary rule. But she broke any sense of an inner respect for opponents as she bent them to her will. She really did create an ‘elected dictatorship’. True, it led the most imperial of rulers to be politically assassinated by her humiliated senators, in a move that could have graced the Roman forum. Yet the way she was purged by them both short-circuited democracy (disgracefully so in my view as it was a conscious attempt to pre-empt an electoral verdict), and privatised still further a process of transformation best described as a transition from government by an Establishment to rule by a political class. While this has been identified and debated, outstandingly so by Peter Oborne, the role of Britain’s deep state, and the military-high-technology complex within it, has not yet been recognised as one of the forces driving the process.[22]

The Falklands Syndrome is now a norm, a baton every Prime Minister has to run with. In her memoirs Thatcher describes how she and her War Cabinet had to decide on the rules of engagement for the opening phase of the campaign. She writes, ‘This was the first time any of us had had to make such decisions.’ She also tells us, I think truthfully, ‘When I became Prime Minister I never thought that I would have to order British troops into combat.’[23]

Thatcher never expected to give such an order. John Major inherited the need to do so from her, as British troops were already stationed to go into Kuwait in 1991. And Tony Blair looked forward to the prospect of it. Today, David Cameron is at ease with issuing such orders; it has become ‘part of the job’.

Over Dead Bodies

You can’t put your troops into the same war twice. What was an atavistic exercise in armed nostalgia thirty years ago was to morph into a pioneering exercise for the use of armed forces in a localised but ‘full-spectrum’ conflict on land and sea, in the air and using space. In Britain, a reworking of the relationship of the military with the public is needed for exercises of this kind to be sustainable, especially following the failure of Blair’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A contest over the bodies of the dead and the wounded plays a defining role in this reshaping of military ideology. The Falklands was the last war where the bodies of those killed were buried where they lay, then taken to a dedicated Military Cemetery in the country where they died; for the tradition was ended there after one family requested the return of their son’s body to the UK. Before the Army acceded, The Sun – ever eager to Americanise British culture – made it a tabloid issue, splashing BRING BACK OUR DEAD BOYS across its front page. Most families asked, and a gruesome cargo was brought back to the UK by ship. It seems that only fourteen now lie within the walls of the Falklands memorial on the islands. I feel this is an important change. Soldiers were buried ‘in some corner of a foreign field’ (sometimes very large corners) because that is where we were. The cemeteries continue to make this claim on the world, even if the nature of the claim alters over time. With the Falklands a new relationship to war and the armed forces begins: the killed come back home to us.

As Vron Ware shows, ‘The image of the flag-draped coffin remains a site of intense struggle, not just over the meanings of military sacrifice but also the perceived value of the war in which the individual soldier “gave” their life.’[24] I want to contribute to this ‘struggle’ briefly because our democracy is being shaped by it. Thanks to the Falklands a new kind of post-war celebration of soldering begins, that should be borne in mind when we look back. It has become one of British society’s willed consequences of that war.

The military learnt the need to create and orchestrate a patriotism that supports ‘our boys’ in ‘doing their job’ and being ‘professionals’ (with all the latest high-tech equipment this entails) independent of any political judgement of the conflict itself, its importance, or public support for its supposed objectives. It seems paradoxical that this should start with the Falklands, which was so popular. But the military is especially aware of how contrived and potentially controversial was the South Atlantic Campaign. They understand, for example, as the public does not, that we do not have today’s Navy with its global reach in order to defend the Falklands. We retain the Falklands in order to hang on to a global navy.

Without the Cold War to sustain them, the armed forces need wars to justify their budgets. But as the wars themselves are dislocated from a core defence of the homeland a new approach is needed to ensure their legitimacy. The military are keen to be used in far-flung conflicts to ensure more money and resources. But as the politics becomes dodgier they also need to know that they will not be hung out to dry. They demand that their legal position is protected, and especially that funding is guaranteed for those who return injured, for as troops become deployed as armed policemen under the flag of humanitarian adventures, they are increasingly seen as humans. That is no bad thing. Rather than this enhancing our own humanity, however, it permits our democracy to be manipulated into support for dubious wars and military values. In short, an attempt is underway to update and lodge ever more explicitly military values into what it means to be British.

For every corpse sent back by a conflict there are many living wounded, physically and psychologically damaged and often permanently disabled. In 1982 there were only rundown facilities available, no preparation for casualties and no understanding of their needs when they returned. The issue was dramatised by Tumbledown, a compelling film of what happened to Robert Lawrence MC, a twenty-two-year-old captain in the Scots Guards, who was partially paralysed after his brain took a sniper’s bullet in the last violent clash of the campaign, the battle for Mt Tumbledown. Starring Colin Firth, written by Charles Wood after striking up a friendship with Lawrence (who advised on the film’s production), and directed by Richard Eyre, its viewing figures were between ten and fourteen million when the BBC showed it in 1988. The film has two outstanding features, apart from a compelling performance from the young Firth struggling with rehabilitation and trauma. Up till then the human images of the Falklands War had been completely sanitised. Photographers were kept well away from the front line to prevent a Vietnam-style public revulsion [25]. Tumbledown brought into living rooms the gruesome nature of the hand-to-hand combat that the troops were thrown into, and the real conditions of the war (and there is at least one report of The Sun being burnt for its jingoism by the squaddies themselves). More important, and with understated originality, Tumbledown exposed the appalling indifference and incomprehension that awaited the wounded when they came home. The Ministry of Defence did everything it could to stop a film being shown that showed that Lawrence was wildly indignant at his treatment and felt he had been betrayed. Most alarming for the authorities, the stricken officer turns to his parents and delivers the most chilling judgement of all: "It wasn’t worth it, Mummy" to which she replies, "I know, darling, I know". His gather (an ex-RAF officer) says nothing, a silence that speaks volumes.

The Second World War was filled with gratuitous and accidental deaths. But the war as a whole could still be defended with Churchill’s rhetoric or Attlee’s "Life without liberty is not worth living". Not so a war of choice in the South Atlantic,

I am proud of my son – but not proud of the fact that he died for his country in a war that was not necessary. I accept that it is a serviceman’s duty to fight. But in a futile situation like this, I think it’s evil to put men’s lives at risk when negotiations around a table can save so much heartbreak. [26]

This mother’s sentiments could be swept aside then, as the war finished and the dead came back in one ship. The threat of such feelings becomes more of a challenge this century when the bodies have been coming back regularly, one by one, week after week from an illegal war in Iraq since 2003 and from an arguably undeclared war in Helmand, since 2006.

Returning coffins were at first flown in to RAF Lyneham. From there the bodies were driven to the morgue at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital before being taken to their resting place. The route went through the small town of Wootton Bassett. As they were driven through, almost weekly, people in the town started to stand to attention, then throw flowers at the cars and salute the dead. Few were confident of the reasons why the young were dying, but none wanted their sacrifice to be treated with indifference. The authorities were nervous. The public’s attitude to each fatality’s cortege threatened them with a loss of control and might even turn to open protest as the media moved in.

A comparison comes to mind with the outpouring of dignified but palpable mass anger at the coldness and indifference displayed by the Queen and her family towards Diana, Princess of Wales, after she died. Where there is genuine and authentic public feeling there is an opportunity for cynical exploitation. The protest over Diana was skilfully manipulated into a re-establishment of public support for the monarchy and its system.

Likewise, the potential for Wootton Bassett to become an unofficial protest was circumscribed by laudatory coverage, the mobilisation of the Royal British Legion and the fact that the Army had been looking for ways to turn back public hostility to the wars. A desire to honour the fallen was nudged into a celebration of British power. Then, in early 2011 RAF Lyneham stopped being used as the point of arrival as Brize Norton replaced it. The drive through ceased and Wootton Bassett was wrapped in ermine to be known henceforth as Royal Wootton Bassett, in gratitude for its loyalty.

Despite this, the endorsements of the British Legion and the Army, and media laudations, the silent gatherings retain an eerie force still, as an insistent public acknowledgement of the cost of war, and a reminder of what was going wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the town may be wrapped in loyal fur, its name also symbolises a reproach to the politicians and generals. Meanwhile, though deprived of a high-street salute, the coffins continue to return week after week.

At the same time that Wootton Bassett was honouring the dead in 2007, Help for Heroes was founded (it has now generated over £100 million for the wounded) and Steve McQueen’s conceptual art response to Basra was exhibited. [27] Robert Lawrence, the hero of Tumbledown now in his fifties, founded Global Adventure Plus to "help ex-servicemen get back on their feet" by "rekindling enthusiasm for life". He notes on its website,

It is startling to learn that in comparison to the 256 British killed during the Falklands conflict over 370 have since committed suicide, it is believed that over 25% of our homeless are ex military and the largest occupational group within HM prisons are ex military.

It is not clear if these figures are accurate or, if they are, whether they are due to the experience of combat, the failure of aftercare, the way the Army treats soldiers,[28] or because a relatively high proportion of young men who are already unstable are drawn to the Army in the first place. However, there is anger among a significant number of British veterans. The costs they pay for active deployment are celebrated in purely human terms as a job done heroically, while their heroism is disassociated from a cause that clearly demands such sacrifice.

What better, what more human way to smother such anger, than a love song? Who could object to the Military Wives Choir ‘capturing’ the Christmas’ number one of 2011, selling over half a million copies of ‘Wherever You Are’? To do so risks appearing to be a hard-hearted cynic or a snob. Of course I cheer the humanity of those expressing their love at a distance, and share their trepidation. But these emotions are being exploited. "Wherever you are . . . may your courage never cease". Fighting men are being backed irrespective of the cause. Helmand is currently the source of most British losses, in a campaign that has seen nearly as many British killed as the Falklands and Iraq combined. As Henry Porter has pointed out, it is likely that the UK forces’ occupation of Helmand created the conflict there – and certainly made it worse.[29] What’s the point of that? But would the choir have received the same support from the BBC had the military wives sung "Whatever you do", or if they’d included the immortal line, "Is it worth it?", from Elvis Costello’s response to the Falklands, ‘Shipbuilding’?

That old Military Covenant (fooled you)

There was a small, but outspoken, protest against the treatment of soldiers and their families. Its authentic, passionate and justified nature threatened to grow into a larger objection to the misuse of the armed forces that connected to the various anti-war movements and become a challenge to the way we are governed. It could even have given lasting force to the huge demonstrations against the Iraq war. This danger to the regime was pre-emptively disarmed – by being appropriated. The generals themselves led the protest movement against the treatment of their men.

I discuss this here as an essential introduction to Iron Britannia in 2012, because this is how they are preparing for the next Falklands war. They need to prevent soldiers saying ‘Mother, it wasn’t worth it’ – and this is how they are going about it. The so-called Military Covenant is the signal of future war: wherever it is, it will be worth it for the boys. The Independent on Sunday launched a massive campaign for it in 2007 backed by the British Legion and others, headlining it: ABANDONED - THE DISGRACEFUL TREATMENT OF BRITAIN'S FIGHTING MEN AND WOMEN

The Independent on Sunday wants soldiers to have the right to expect any war to be lawful, to have adequate resources, the right to be properly cared for in the event of injury and the right to know that, in the event of their death, their families will be properly looked after.

Early in his premiership, on 25 June 2010, David Cameron addressed troops aboard HMS Ark Royal and told them,

It’s time for us to rewrite the military covenant to make sure we are doing everything we can. Whether it’s the schools you send your children to, whether it’s the health care that you expect, whether it’s the fact that there should be a decent military ward for anyone who gets injured. I want all these things refreshed and renewed and written down in a new military covenant that’s written into the law of the land.

As the Daily Mail put it, the Covenant will "include rights to prioritised NHS treatment, decent housing and proper education for service families’ children". Everyone agreed. Labour spokesmen were furious when the government tried to wriggle out of its commitment. But in the Second World War, British forces had the Beveridge Report in their pocket. They fought to create the NHS and the welfare state for all and voted in Labour to create it; they shared the war aim of decent housing and proper education for all citizens. Today it seems that, on the contrary, joining the Army is not just about fighting for your country: its purpose is to get out of the regular NHS – you fight also for better education for your children and housing for your family than ordinary folk. You sign up for life-long privileges, as what is good enough for us is no longer good enough for our soldiers. [30]

On its website the Army claims that the Military Covenant is (with my emphasis):

an unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility which has sustained the Army throughout its history [31].

The suggestion is floated that it dates back to Henry VIII, although he did not have a standing army, rather than William the Conqueror, who did; and were those press-ganged into serving in the eighteenth century comforted by the military covenant? Despite the lone but eloquent protest of Dan Hodges in the New Statesman that,

In a democracy there is no mutuality of obligation between the armed forces and the civil power. The former is subservient to the latter. That is the founding principle on which all democracies are based, [32]

the lobbying of the British Legion and General Sir Richard Dannatt, then Chief of the General Staff, overwhelmed all resistance and the Covenant was recognised in law with the Armed Forces Act of November 2011.

The year before, the Prime Minister had already asked the Ministry of Defence to set up a Task Force on the Military Covenant "to help rebuild the covenant" across the country in an era of cost-cutting. The Task Force’s number-one recommendation was to create a "community covenant" based on a "successful US scheme" to conscript local government into mobilising support for the military through their families. Being a MOD document it defines its terms and the document states: "The Military Covenant was coined as a term in 2000". [33]

In other words, the apparently quasi-religious so-called Military Covenant and its influence cannot be ‘rebuilt’ at all. It is a PR concoction counterfeited in the period of Millennium Dome high-Blairism; designed from its conception to have a deep heritage branding – a historic aura that would make it appear intrinsic to British life.[34] It worked – it certainly took me in – for who could believe that anyone would be so cynical as to exploit the ultimate sacrifice they claimed to honour? Yet, far from being intrinsically ‘British’ it undermines the country’s long-held tradition, dating back to the founding of the parliament monarchy after 1660, that, while their victories could be celebrated and their sacrifices regularly honoured, the armed forces must always be firmly kept in their place. The rise of Napoleon was seen as a never-to-be-forgotten vindication of this stance – until our new enfeebled century.

The Dance of Death

A key point in the process was the BBC’s December 2006 Dimbleby Lecture by General Sir Mike Jackson, Dannatt’s predecessor. The young who ‘put their lives at risk’ for the benefit of the country, Jackson thundered, are owed "the tools to do that job",

The Armed Forces’ contract with the nation which they serve and from which they very largely recruit is to take risks, if need be, the risk of life. But this must be a two-way contract, it has to be reciprocal. Military operations cost in blood and treasure . . . It is our soldiers who pay the cost in blood; the nation must therefore pay the cost in treasure. [35]

Like the Covenant, Jackson’s claim to a contract is entirely novel. In the era of the great mobilisations of total war, when millions served and bombers destroyed cities, any talk of a ‘contract’ that presumes different ‘interests’ would have been regarded as bizarre. In the era of the Cold War that followed there was no difference between soldiers and civilians should it go hot – all would be irradiated alike and there was a common purpose to it as two different world-systems supposedly confronted each other. Now, Britain expects to ‘project force’ in a fashion pioneered by the Falklands. In the era of market fundamentalism war becomes a higher form of mercenary activity and you go to die for your country thinking of contracts and whether the deal is reciprocal. The market also demands new, less deferential forms of public support than displays of Trooping the Colour in its exclusive Whitehall setting, guards in funny bearskin hats, imperial uniforms and elite bling. They are fine for tourists. We need something less status-ridden. The answer, after suitable payment to public-relations consultants, is the United Kingdom’s ‘Armed Forces Day’. Britain celebrated its very first on 28 June 2009. It replaced ‘Veterans Day’, itself launched only in 2006 (both once again being Americanisms).

The most ghastly expression of this process is the ‘Millies’, the celebration concocted by The Sun, patronised by the young officers William and Harry and apparently to be held annually unless News International is finally closed down as a criminal conspiracy. ‘Millies’ is a generic, tabloid term for all personnel in the military forces of the UK. THE SUN MILITARY AWARD: THEY CRIED WITH PRIDE was the headline in The Sun on 20 December 2011, over a picture of Kate (‘holding back tears’), Duchess of Cambridge. The strapline below it: Royalty and celebs so moved by heroes. Kate was shown presenting Murdoch’s ‘The Most Outstanding Soldier Award’, a large silver phallic object, to a young man who had lost his legs in an act of bravery. The paper had the audacity to tag the story as ‘the latest from the frontline’. Medals? How yesterday is that? Private ceremonies between monarch and subject no longer suffice; ‘our boys’ need to become reality TV to renew the military covenant for the twenty-first century. I must add that the glittering occasion was held ‘in association with BAE Systems’, for the arms industry should not be denied our appreciation of its support for a valuable PR opportunity. [36] Poor old General Jackson was well out of date. In order to claim their treasure, soldiers must now pay in spectacle as well as blood.

The Falklands started this too. The Sun and its sickening, circulation-boosting headlines defined the war’s public relations as it bullied and shaped opinion. The Murdoch machine did more than urge on Maggie. gotcha – the headline on the first editions’ report on the torpedoing of the Belgrano – became the expression of what Thatcher did to the Tory Party and the country and what The Sun did to us British as we were recruited to become tabloid patriots. I pointed out how a Task Force that was welcomed as a spiritual throwback to Britain’s imperial pomp became a forerunner of high-tech warfare. It also initiated a new relationship between the public, the media and the armed forces. Still in its beta phase, as internet developers might say, media sensationalism around ‘human interest’ stories serves to legitimate military autonomy, permit their open lobbying and even encourage the direct criticism of government policy by serving generals, who once would have been dismissed for such insubordination.

The American Dimension

American norms exercise a baleful influence. The idea that veterans must be accorded a special civilian status because public welfare is so poor belongs over the pond, not here. It’s odd, how those most enthusiastic for this loss of our distinctiveness and our becoming spiritually the fifty-first state of the union can also be ferocious in banging the drum of British independence. Whether it is bad faith or self-deception, insolence towards Washington alongside actual dependency reached an extraordinary intensity during the Falklands conflict. The full extent of US logistic and material support emerged only after I wrote Iron Britannia – there was massive, secret US backing from the outset, ordered from the Pentagon by US Secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger, with President Reagan’s private support. Formally, Washington was neutral through the first month with openly pro-Argentinian sentiment in the State Department expressed by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s Ambassador to the UN. But Weinberger had ordered that,

all requests for military equipment . . . or other types of support, short of our actual participation in their military action, should be granted immediately. [37]

Weinberger shifted Reagan’s scepticism into support, until the President tried to make peace after the British landed and Thatcher thwarted him. But from the outset he permitted the vital US material support essential for victory. Without millions of gallons of US-supplied fuel the Task Force would not have got to the islands; US satellite intelligence provided the pin-point location of targets for the naval bombardment of Argentine positions when the final land battles took place, and ‘Without . . . the latest version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missiles supplied by Casper Weinberger, we could not have retaken the Falklands’, Thatcher notes in her memoir. Freedman’s Official History says the importance of Weinberger’s support ‘is hard to overstate’.[38]

For when it left Portsmouth the Task Force did not set sail for the Falklands, it headed for Ascension Island. Only 34 square miles but right in the middle of the Atlantic, it is a British possession housing an American airbase and intelligence facilities. Here the Task Force was secretly fuelled and armed by the US from the start. Today, as the cuts to the UK’s military budgets are criticised, you can often read that they could leave Britain unable to take back the Falkland islands if there is another attack. Britain was never able to take them back on its own. The Falklands confirmed rather than defied the material dependency of the UK on the US for any exercise of global power.

This should be an important, even a profoundly important, psychological fact about the kind of country Britain actually is and the chimera of an independent ‘world role’. Instead it has reinforced fantasy and self-deception. A comic example came in a contorted attack on Iron Britannia by the ultra-Thatcherite Alan Clark writing in the Guardian on the first anniversary. A year after 1982, when the scale of US aid was public knowledge, he presents the Falklands victory as a defiant challenge to US power, celebrates the way it was diminished and accuses me of ‘lining up’ with Reagan and Kirkpatrick, as if the President opposed Thatcher.[39] Clark could not have been more wrong, not just about me but about the somewhat more important question of the might of the USA. Far from being diminished by the Falklands it was enhanced by Thatcher’s expedition. The Task Force it fuelled in no way upset the Monroe Doctrine, it gave the Pentagon much useful experience, tested logistics systems, pioneered managing the media by ‘embedding’ journalists, and locked the UK into the US network as never before, allowing the Pentagon to win a war it didn’t declare or have to fight.

The Thatcher She

A justified criticism of the book came from Neal Ascherson in his review. He is generous about my discussion of Churchillism but points out that I treat Thatcher too lightly, blaming Michael Foot and Parliament more than her for what transpired.[40] The accounts we now have strengthen Ascherson’s point. I was concerned with resisting a facile left-wing blaming-it-all-on-the-Thatcher, as if the responsibility was not shared. When the Belgrano went down most of the left were speechless with disbelief. They lost their voice when I found mine. To make my stand I had to identify with Churchillism, in the sense of recognising it as the foundation for my oppositional patriotism: my claim upon a country whose capacity for oppression I also recognised. I was prepared for this by quite different circumstances.

From the mid-seventies, I had been immersed in a study of Vietnam. This drew me into examining the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and the role of China. In 1979 the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping ordered a massive invasion of Vietnam in support of Pol Pot. I analysed what happened for Bruce Page’s New Statesman and continued to cover developments in Indochina. The experience qualified me in two crucial ways to respond to what then happened in my own country. I had learnt how to write fast about quite complicated current affairs, and I was no stranger to violent nationalism. Indeed. I had learnt an even more valuable lesson about the dark forces harboured on one’s own side. This helped me to recognise rather than disavow in myself the full panoply of Churchillism. It means that Iron Britannia is not written from the point of view of any ‘ism’. (Alan Clark tried to suggest otherwise, but the effort defeated him.) Instead, it became the starting point for a journey towards an English republican democracy that is neither reformist in the Labour sense of working within Churchillism, or revolutionary in the Leninist sense of refusing all patriotism as false-consciousness.

As for Margaret Thatcher, there can be no doubt of her singular management of the Falklands campaign. She administered it exceptionally well, handling the Cabinet, the US, the UN, the media and Parliament, giving the military everything they wanted. She proved that should could ‘run things’ under immense pressure. She opens the two chapters on the Falklands in her memoirs saying, ‘Nothing remains more vividly in my mind, looking back on my years in No. 10, than the eleven weeks in the spring of 1982 when Britain fought and won the Falklands War.’ [41] She knew at the time those weeks would make her or see her destroyed.

The degree to which she succeeded in the war against her own party was not clear to me. Philip Whitehead, who was a Labour MP, told me much later that when he was on his way to the special Saturday debate in the Commons he fell in with a friendly Tory colleague, who rubbed his hands with anticipation and said ‘Now, we have got her.’

And how about this for urinal intelligence, from her successor John Major? He describes his astonishment at the way the Commons ‘resembled mob rule’ on the Saturday and the utterly savage treatment of ministers by Tory MPs in the subsequent private meeting of the party.

If the Cabinet had not sent the Task Force, Margaret Thatcher would not have survived as prime minister. She took a great risk requiring huge nerve, but the alternative was certainly catastrophe. I overheard a washroom conversation in which two Cabinet ministers denounced the expedition as ‘ludicrous’ and ‘a folly’ due to the lack of air cover for the fleet. It gave me a glimpse of the tensions that existed at the heart of government. [42]

Thatcher was fighting for her political life against her own party colleagues while the mass media and a significant, vocal section of the public, their passion for hooliganism aroused, was up for a bigger fight, air cover or no. She delivered it. She describes her greatest crisis of the war being when Francis Pym, the then Foreign Secretary, came back from the UN with a peace offer.[43] She persuaded the Cabinet to reject it.

We’d be a better country if the Argentinian Junta had never invaded the Falklands, betraying the Argentinian people by their ‘diversion’, as Sean Penn puts it.[44] Things would have been much better still if voters had then ejected Thatcher from No. 10 and her frittering away the extraordinary opportunity of North Sea Oil revenues had been reversed. It would also have been better if, after the Junta’s occupation, there had been a peaceful settlement based on the equality of forces made possible once the US had ended its neutrality (which it did subsequent to the failure of the deal Pym proposed).

However, Thatcher did not see it like this, although many did. She wasn’t just fighting to survive: she grasped at the opportunity to dominate against the odds in London. She saw it was worth risking everything for this – and after all, with Cabinet colleagues like hers, figuratively pissing on her loudly in the loos of Westminster, what was the alternative?

Her Cheltenham victory speech got little publicity, perhaps because it seemed so embarrassing. In the days long before the web it was an effort for me to get hold of the transcript, which is why I reproduced it in full at the end of Iron Britannia in 1982. It deserves to be read, as it is a clear enough declaration of her intention to bring the war home. At the end of that part of her memoir she simply quotes in full the section, ‘We have ceased to be a nation in retreat’ which concludes: ‘Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.’ It is said that Thatcher knew how to play her gender in a man’s world. Clearly, we are meant to understand that the ‘she’ in ‘the victory she has won’ refers to both Britain and the Prime Minister and that the victory is hers.

What should Britain do now?

There are two issues any reader of Iron Britannia today may want to bear in mind: about the Falklands and the state of British politics with respect to its Churchillist inheritance.

David Jones visited the Falklands two years after the conflict as a journalist and was so alienated by the ‘grim depressing place’, the scorn of UK troops for the locals and the fighting between them; he thought the war not worth it. He returned this year to report in the Daily Mail that it is becoming an island paradise. The big, decayed estates once controlled by absentee British landlords have been broken up and are worked by local owners. Huge Antarctic cruise ships dock and spill out avaricious souvenir hunters. Japanese demand for squid, and proper control of the sea around the Falklands, brings in over £100 million a year in fishing permits. The population has doubled as support for the thousand-strong British garrison, tourism and oil exploration brings in new families.[45] Also reporting for the Daily Mail, Caroline Graham painted an even more extraordinary picture last summer. Seven families have become millionaires thanks to the fishing bonanza. The average household income is £45,000 (the UK’s is £25,000),

Islanders enjoy free healthcare and education up to university level. A new secondary school teaches children up to GCSE level. Pupils are then offered free flights, have all tuition fees paid and get £8,000 a year to study at colleges and universities in the UK.[46]

And this is before the oil begins to flow.

In an amusing passage Simon Jenkins recounts how after the Falklands War,

I once heard her iconoclastic adviser Alan Walters, at a Downing Street lunch, suggesting that it would have been cheaper to give every islander a million pounds to vote to resettle in Switzerland or anywhere. Thatcher was incandescent, shouting at him about Judas and ‘pieces of silver’.[47]

It would, of course, have been a far more humane as well as much more economical solution, with no loss of lives, and anyway Argentina should have paid. Today, however, Buenos Aires will find it hard to raise enough money to make an attractive offer to buy the islanders out of their privileged toehold. It seems that the Junta’s invasion has lost the country a valuable archipelago.

That’s before the oil, apparently discovered in very large quantities, tens of billions of barrels’ worth. I was interviewed on the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC’s 5 Live on 10 February this year, along with the Honourable Jan Cheek on the line from Port Stanley. She is a member of the seven-strong Falklands ‘legislative assembly’. She said, ‘If there is oil in the Falklands . . . then like the natural resources of any overseas territories it belongs to the Falkland Islands.’ (The well-named Cheek recently sold her late husband’s Fortuna fishing company to a fellow Falklander for £8 million.[48]) I replied that it is dangerous nonsense to think that British lives should be put at risk to claim all the oil for 200 miles around the Falklands in the deep South Atlantic. This should be negotiated with Argentina. Mrs Cheek replied that the people of the Falkland Islands have the right to self-determination like New Zealand. I pointed out that they are not a people.[49]

There are two critical points here. The Falklanders are natives of a British dependency covered by the UN Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories (Articles 73 and 74 of the UN Charter). Article 73 stipulates, ‘the interests of the inhabitants of the territories are paramount’. But ‘interests’ are not the same as their wishes. These interests include taking account of their ‘political aspirations’ as well as the need to ‘further international peace and security’. Article 74 states that policy must be based ‘on the general principle of good-neighbourliness, due account being taken of the interests and well-being of the rest of the world, in social, economic, and commercial matters’.

In Chapter 7, as the reader can see for him- or herself, I develop the argument that the lesson of appeasement in 1938 is that where a well-founded territorial dispute exists the inhabitants of the territory do not have the sole right to determine the outcome as they wish. A people have the right to self-determination but that is different from determining between sovereignties. The Falklands may be the size of Wales but they are not a country, they are a settlement. As such, the settlers cannot themselves alone decide that Britain must spend millions to defend their cashing in on the all the oil revenues of their Atlantic pastime. This is also up to us.

The real argument will be here in the UK between those people of sense and the lobbyists for the army, navy and air-force, slavering over the opportunity of all the new kit, live training and extra funding that conflict in the South Atlantic brings with it.

In principle, then, the UK government can insist on making peace with Argentina and reaching a negotiated agreement about the rights to the oil resources, as the government in Buenos Aires has requested, bearing in mind the duty to protect the interests of the islanders but, if necessary, going over their heads. Argentina cannot possibly mount an invasion without losing many thousands of lives against the well-entrenched, state-of-the-art British emplacements. More important, all Brits should want to reach such an agreement. We should want to demilitarise the South Atlantic and withdraw, with everyone’s interests secured. It is bad for British politics to have the Falklands implanted in our leaders’ brains, so that it matters far more to them than the fate of, say, Birmingham, England’s second city.

Most important of all, the Falklands Syndrome needs to be extracted from our leaders and from public life and values, rather than having concern for the Falkland Islanders projected on the screen of the national-popular back in Blighty. Achieving such an extraction may require a mighty effort. In After Empire, Paul Gilroy observes the melancholia that underpins British culture and notes, ‘we are returned time and again to the instrumentalization and trivialization of war . . . primary symptoms of this whole cultural complex’.[50] Instrumental trivialisation neatly encapsulates the Prime Minister’s Camp Bastion rallying cry, to revere the military and place it at the centre of our national life. Behind its flaccid ideology and bad poetry lies an altogether more serious securitisation of the state in cahoots with corporate power. Gilroy calls for ‘conviviality’ to take over from such melancholy late-Churchillist pretentiousness. It sounds easy enough but it will need a sweeping and seriously organised democratic patriotism, commitment to modern liberty and international solidarity to replace it – drawing on traditions that were preserved yet also locked away in Churchillism after 1940, and freed from its integument.

That whole ensemble needs to be honoured – and buried. We need to grow in its place a democratic constitutionalism that calls on the tradition of Blake, the author of England’s anthem, and the Leveller Rainsborough, to take just two examples from a much larger conversation. The latter famously claimed that ‘the poorest he that is in England has a right to live as the greatest he’. He said this when he spoke in the Putney debates of 1647. Sixteen words, seventy-two characters (half a tweet), they are the first, compressed expression of modern democratic politics: asserting the moral equality of all while recognising difference, emphasising life and location not race or essence, and making a claim of right in a shared society. Spoken by a soldier in a debate within Cromwell’s army, at a turning point in our Civil War, they were and are profoundly civilian, and so are we.

A year after the end of the Falklands War, in June 1983, I gave a twenty-five-minute illustrated ‘Opinions’ talk on Channel 4 setting out why it was "Time to take the Great out of Britain". As it carries forward a theme of Iron Britannia I have added it as a third additional text in this new edition. I was still at the beginning of a journey and I asked simply that the country become a normal democracy and drop its destructive illusions.

The day after it was transmitted, as I was collecting my daughter from school, a man came up to me outside the gates.

He looked at me closely and asked, "Did I see you on television last night?"

"Yes".

"I recognised your glasses".

He stood even closer and stared at me quite hard. I braced defensively. Then he spoke with emphasis, 

"I said to myself, I am not alone".

 

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[1] After the speech he delivered in Chicago, 24 April 1999, calling for international intervention. Ten years later he revisited Chicago and told its Council on Global Affairs that the spirit of his ‘doctrine’ was ‘Be bold, adventurous, even’.

[2] See Nigel West, The Secret War For The Falklands: SAS, MI6 and the War Whitehall Nearly Lost, London, 1997

[3] Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Vol. I., London, 2005, p. 2

[4] Quoted in Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, London, 1992, p 54

[5] That’s how I recall it; the exact quote is in the book.

[6] David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine, London, 2011, p. 48.

[7] Kenneth Harris, Attlee, London, 1984, pp. 169-70 & 178.

[8] Francis Wheen, Strange Days Indeed, London, 2009, p. 218

[9] The main alternative outside the Tory party was the SDP, a new party founded by a breakaway group of senior Labour politicians headed by Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and David Owen. Looking back, we can see there were two might-have-beens had the Falklands not happened. First, an actual hung parliament in 1983 with Tory voters defecting to the SDP in as many numbers as Labour ones did, whereupon Heath and a group of about twenty supporters could have joined a ‘national coalition’ (See John Campbell, Edward Heath, London, 1993, pp. 725–33). Right-wing Labour MPs would have then followed, an alliance prefigured by the 1975 referendum on remaining in the European Union. Or, second, the SDP would have gained the larger number of popular votes and significantly more seats, whereupon with massive media support and Labour defections it would have become the second party and won in 1987. Of course, the Argentinian regime might have waited three months and seized the islands in their winter making any Task Force impossible and Thatcher would have fallen, perhaps to be replaced by the thrusting Heseltine. All three, Jenkins, Heath and Heseltine, would have given industrial renewal much greater priority (not to speak of Tony Benn – the City and the US would have prevented him from being Prime Minister but he represented an anti-European ‘Norwegian’ alternative).

[10] When the Poll Tax was under discussion, ‘the Home Office produced a Cabinet paper expressing its concern that it would be seen as a “tax on voting”. When the Conservatives’ narrow victory became clear on election night in 1992, Margaret Thatcher was quoted by the Sunday Telegraph (12 April 1992) as saying, “the Poll Tax worked after all”.’ Anthony Barnett, This Time, London, 1997, p. 179.

[11] Robert Menzies Lecture, Monash University, 6 October 1981, (wording from Thatcher Foundation archive), see Edward Heath, John Campbell, London, 1993, p. 734.

[12] Simon Jenkins, who sets out clearly how Thatcher was culpable for the Falklands fiasco in the first place, interviewed Franks and put it to him straight that his report was a ‘whitewash’. Apparently, ‘he paused a long time and told me to remember that he was addressing a nation in the aftermath of victory. “There is a time and a place for blame,” he said. He then did what whitewashers always do and asked me sternly to . . . read between the lines. But politics never reads between the lines.’ Thatcher and Sons, London, 2007, pp. 73–4.

[13] Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Vol. II, London, 2005, p. 20.

[14] The naval shelling of Argentine positions was critical for the success of the attack on the well-dug-in Argentinian forces around Port Stanley. In the final advance ‘5,500 rounds were fired at 40 targets’. ‘When the campaign ended there was barely enough ammunition left for a further two days’ bombardment, and further supplies weeks away.’ Freedman, Official History, Vol. II, p. 632.

[15] ‘A crescendo of rage was registered at the time of the Falklands Thanksgiving Service when the Archbishop of Canterbury courageously refused to recognise that God was British. Sir John Biggs-Davison spoke of “cringing clergy” who were “misusing” St Paul’s to call the war into question . . . The Prime Minister was variously reported as “hopping mad” or “spitting blood” at the insult to national honour.’ Raphael Samuel, ‘The Tory Party at Prayer’ in Island Stories, Theatres of Memory, Vol. II, p. 324–5. There is also a dry account of the negotiations over the service in Freedman, Official History, Vol. II, pp. 663–4.

[16] For example, my younger daughter started in a north London school in 1996 to find there was a new national curriculum but no budget for text- or course-books.

[17] On the addiction, see John Kampfner’s responsible and farsighted Blair’s Wars, London, 2003.

[18] John Harris, Guardian, 12 December 2011.

[19] Daniel Hannan, Daily Telegraph, 22 December 2011.

[20] Taken from different parts of David Cameron’s first speech to a Conservative Party Conference as Prime Minister, Birmingham, 6 October 2010, his Kitchener moment.

[21] Tim Shipman, at Camp Bastion, Daily Mail, 11 June 2010.

[22] See Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class, London, 2007; Anthony Barnett, ‘After Murdoch’, in OurKingdom/openDemocracy, 17 July 2011, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/anthony-barnett/after-murdoch.

[23] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, London, 2011, pp. 173, 202.

[24] Vron Ware, ‘Lives on the Line’, Soundings, 45, London, 2010.

[25] I make this point in the book as someone who simply followed the media. Six years later the Tumbledown team searched for human images and photographs to authenticate their filming and found none. I’m grateful to Richard Eyre for talking to me about its production. One book did graphically illustrate the horrors on both sides, Raymond Biggs’ The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, a raw graphic novel (in which those crippled by their wounds are excluded from the victory celebrations), London 1984.

[26] Mrs Sambles, Bridport News, 18 June 1982.

[27] See Ware, ‘Lives on the Line’.

[28] As the novel The Skinback Fusiliers implies, by Unknown Soldier, UK, 2001, see http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/collections/skinback-fusiliers.

[29] See Henry Porter, Observer, 5 July 2009, ‘This is a good moment to recall the theory of Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wrote in January: “The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban.” That same point was hinted at by a British commander quoted in Patrick Bishop’s book, Ground Truth. Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who led 16 Air Assault to Helmand, made an odd aside in a report back to London before the real trouble began: “There is not to my mind an insurgency in Helmand. But we can create one if we want to.” ’

[30] Matt Chorley, Independent on Sunday, 15 May 2011; James Chapman and Katherine Faulkner, Daily Mail, 25 June 2010.

[31] http://www.webcitation.org/5bDqxkYo3.

[32] Dan Hodges, ‘Why the Military Covenant should not be made Law’, New Statesman, 16 May 2011.

[33] Report of the Task Force on the Military Covenant, chaired by Professor Hew Strachan, Ministry of Defence, September 2010.

[34] Thus, backed by market research, a supermarket might launch a product line of ‘Traditional Covenant Biscuits’, including Henry8s ‘The oat flapjack men ate when Elizabeth I was just a girl’.

[35] Mike Jackson, ‘Defence of the Realm in the 21st Century’, 2006 Richard Dimbleby Lecture, http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2006/12_december/07/dimbleby.shtml. 

[36] Report by Virginia Wheeler, The Sun, 20 December 2011.

[37] Freedman, Official History, Vol. II, p. 000.

[38] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, London, 2011, p. 226; Freedman, Official History, Vol. II, pp. 155–6 and Chapter 26 on ‘American Support’.

[39] Alan Clark, ‘The Falklands Triumph that Confounded the Pessimists’, Guardian, 4 April 1983.

[40] Neal Ascherson, ‘By San Carlos Water’, London Review of Books, 18 November–1 December 1982.

[41] Margaret Thatcher, Downing Street Years, p. 173.

[42] John Major, The Autobiography, London, 1999, pp. 76–7.

[43] Margaret Thatcher, Downing Street Years, p. 208.

[44] Sean Penn, ‘The Malvinas/Falklands: Diplomacy Interrupted’, Guardian, 23 February, 2012.

[45] David Jones, Daily Mail, 28 January 2012.

[46] Caroline Graham, Daily Mail, 2 July 2012.

[47] Simon Jenkins, Thatcher and Sons, p. 77.

[48] Caroline Graham, Daily Mail, 2 July 2012.

[49] For the transcript of the exchange see http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/anthony-barnett/falklands-rising

[50] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London, 2004, p 128.

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Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness


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