frontline volume 2, issue 5

Blood in the South Atlantic

The Falklands/Malvinas war took place twenty five years ago. It was a conflict which cost the lives of hundreds of Argentinean and British soldiers and sailors and whose effects are still felt today among those suffering from post-traumatic disorder and war-related disabilities. In this article Bill Bonnar looks back at the conflict and its effects on British politics and the left.

Twenty five years ago Britain took part in an imperialist adventure right out of the days of empire when it invaded the Falkland Islands to ‘liberate’ them from the Argentinian ‘fascist yoke’. It was an episode that raised all sorts of difficulties for the Left which while clear in its opposition to Britain’s aggression and that Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) was entirely justified, had to negotiate its way around some complex issues. These included the fact that Argentina provoked the crisis by invading the Falklands. The country was at that time ruled by a brutal military dictatorship which hoped to extract itself from a deepening internal crisis by uniting the country around an issue which had huge popular support. A by-product of the Argentine defeat was that the regime collapsed leading to a return of civilian government. It also paved the way for a second term of the Thatcher Government which prior to the Falklands was deeply unpopular and heading for certain election defeat. By wrapping itself in a giant union jack and invoking the spirit of Rule Britannia it won a landslide election victory in a country swept by patriotic fervour. It also showed the difficulties in building an effective anti-war movement in a country where most people supported the war. This writer can remember while as a student at Stirling University taking part in an anti-war demonstration through Stirling which met a very hostile response from passers-by if the things thrown at us were anything to go by. It also posed a basic question. When fighting broke out; who did we want to win?

British Colonialism

British rule in the Falklands has its origins in the colonial period. Argentina was colonised by Spain in the 16th century, however Spanish rule was regularly contested by both Britain and France who mounted a number of rival expeditions to build their influence in this part of the world. It was within this context that the Malvinas Islands were seized by Britain. In 1816 Argentina won its independence from Spain and in the next 20 years successfully defeated a number of British attempts at recolonisation. Of course, Argentina laid claim to all the former colonial territory including the Falkland Islands something which Britain actively resisted. In 1833 Britain formally annexed the islands driving out what remained of the Argentine population and replacing them with British settlers. Britain could then claim that they were simply defending the rights of the Falkland Islanders against aggression; an age-old colonial tactic used also in places like Gibraltar. The recovery by Argentina of the Falkland Islands has been a key demand ever since and in fact is contained within the country’s constitution.

In the post colonial era at the end of the Second World War Argentina made frequent attempts at achieving a negotiated transfer of sovereignty back to them. This included negotiations with the United Nations and numerous third parties. Proposals even included the Argentinian Government buying a Hebridean Island for the Falkland islanders and resettling them with highly generous compensation. By the 1960’s the case for ending British rule was overwhelming with most countries backing Argentina’s claim. At this time the islanders were a dwindling band with most people on the islands guest workers for British companies. While few British people cared much for the islands and most would have had difficulty finding them on a map; the issue remained a central one in Argentine politics where it was seen as an affront to the country’s identity and sovereignty. This appeared to have its effect on the British Government and we now know through the publication of secret government papers that between 1966 and 1968 the government was in active negotiations with Argentina over the transfer of sovereignty. This was thwarted by a high profile ‘Defend the Falklands’ Campaign, led by various right wing newspapers and leading Tory politicians. Very much the same people who campaigned in support of Ian Smith’s government in Rhodesia, in support of apartheid South Africa and for British involvement in the Vietnam War.

Military Junta

By the early 1980’s Argentina’s military junta was in trouble. A combination of a deepening economic crisis characterised by high unemployment and rampant inflation, growing political opposition led by the Left and increasing international isolation had backed the regime into a corner. Interestingly one of its key remaining international allies was Britain, ever ready to supply the regime with whatever military and diplomatic support it needed; something which would shortly come back to haunt the British Government.

The regime saw the ‘liberation’ of the Malvinas as the way out of its crisis. Strong action would prove popular in the country and wrong foot the Left who while leading the opposition to the regime also took a strong stand on the return of the islands. It would also divert people away from domestic concerns. Internationally they felt the time was right with most countries either sympathetic or frankly disinterested. Key, of course would be the reaction of Britain and the United States. The regime thought that the United States would be an ally. America played a major role in bringing the Generals to power in 1967 and in supporting their regime and with one eye on its huge Latino population they thought they would receive a sympathetic response from Washington. As for Britain the calculation was that an initial military gesture would bring them to the negotiating table and that a deal on sovereignty would be hammered out. Both calculations proved to be disastrously wrong. The Thatcher Government opted for a military solution. That they did was a reflection on how much the idea of Britain as a great imperial power still infected the party and more cynically they saw war as a diversion from their own domestic problems. In 1982 Britain was in deep economic crisis with mass unemployment and the collapse of manufacturing industry. The government was deeply unpopular and heading for certain election defeat. What better than a war against ‘Johnny foreigner’ from which the government could sail into the next election on a wave of patriotism. As for the United States; faced with a choice between supporting their key European ally and support for what was in effect a client regime; they choice the former confident that they could rebuild their influence in Argentina in the future.

War Begins

The war started inauspiciously when on the 19th March 1982 a group of hired Argentinian scrap metal merchants raised the Argentine flag on the neighbouring island of South Georgia. This was followed in 2nd April when Argentina formally occupied the Falkland Islands. As stated earlier the Argentine strategy was to force Britain to the negotiating table and always viewed their occupation as temporary. Papers released by the post-military government and in the memoirs of Argentina’s President; General Galtieri showed that little thought was given to a potential war because they simply didn’t believe it would happen. Britain’s response was to reject negotiations out of hand and go for a military victory. The government did so; confident in its overwhelming military superiority and in the political benefits it would reap at home when successful.

The hostility of Britain to a negotiated settlement was best demonstrated by the sinking of the General Belgrano. This was an ageing, Second World War battleship which at the time of its sinking was heading away from the exclusion zone Britain had put round the islands. The timing was crucial. Peace talks were about to convene in Peru aimed at ending the conflict. The sinking of the General Belgrano with the loss of 323 sailors was calculated to wreck the talks and make future negotiations impossible. By any standards it was a war crime.

On 14th June, 73 days after hostilities began, Argentina surrendered in the face of overwhelming odds and heavy casualties. In all 649 Argentinian and 258 British troops were killed.

Political Consequences

The political fallout both in Britain and Argentina was spectacular. In Britain or more accurately in England the Tories soared to new levels of popularity resulting in a landslide victory in the general election. This, for a government whose poll rating immediately prior to the conflict could not have been lower.

In Argentina what was to follow was more spectacular. The military government which had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1967 was swept away in a mass movement of popular protest with literally millions of people taking to the streets all over the country. For them the defeat was the final straw for a government whose entire rule was characterised by repression, corruption and economic mismanagement.

For the Left at the time the war raised some complex issues. On the question of sovereignty there was no problem. The Falklands were clearly part of Argentina and should be returned. This remains the case today. Britain’s claim to the islands then and now was spurious; defending the rights of a relative handful of settlers on islands seized as part of an earlier colonial venture. A more relevant factor was the establishment of oil and mineral rights in the South Atlantic and Antarctica and the need for Britain to have a base in this part of the world to exploit those rights.

Who Did We Want To Win?

However, in defending Argentina’s claim to sovereignty and by extension its actions in taking back the islands; weren’t we also supporting a military dictatorship which was using the dispute for its own ends? And the thorny question, if Argentina had been successful would this not have strengthened the hand of the regime and helped it remain in power? This was certainly a claim repeatedly thrown at the anti-war movement and the Left at the time. And the hardest question of all. Once the war had started; who did we want to win?

The anti-war movement’s position was always clear. It favoured a return of the islands to Argentina through a peaceful, negotiated settlement. As for the regime the movement took its lead from the Argentinian Left who by and large supported the war effort but with the proviso that when the war was over they would deal with the regime. Lastly, most people on the Left in Britain wanted an Argentine victory although, for obvious reasons, rarely stated this in public. To do so would be to split and isolate the anti-war movement and allow the government and media to portray them as traitors.

Today the issue of sovereignty is still there and it remains a central political issue in Argentina. The current British government would probably have little difficulty in negotiating a deal on sovereignty as long as British commercial rights were guaranteed. The problem is that having fought a war to defend British rule in which hundreds of British troops died the government has effectively backed itself into a corner.

A New Latin America

However, two factors have definitely changed. One is the biological factor. Twenty five years on the Falkland Islanders are an ageing and diminishing population. In fact most of the people on the islands are guest workers on short term contracts with British companies. The case for upholding the British way of life on the islands was spurious 25 years ago. It is even less so today. The second is that the movement for radical change which is sweeping through South America is having an impact on Argentina. At its heart this is a movement against neo-colonialism and the vestiges of colonial rule. If conflict was to break out again over the islands Argentina would find itself with very powerful allies.