Six months before the invasion of the Falkland Islands, British intelligence looked at the situation and – not for the last time – made a wrong call. “The Argentine government would prefer to pursue their sovereignty claim by peaceful means,” they reported.
That unhelpful advice from the spooks is one of many revelations in the latest batch of Margaret Thatcher’s private papers, released today, which also shed light on the political turmoil that the invasion created among Conservative MPs and the contradictory advice given to Mrs Thatcher – ranging from a demand for blood to be split, to a suggestion that the islanders should be generously bribed to accept Argentinian rule.
Top brass were happy to hear that they need not fear a military invasion of the islands, because they worried that they would not be able to get them back by force. “Such a deployment would be very expensive,” a secret memo from the defence chiefs warned in September 1981. “Their geographical advantage and the relative sophistication of their armed forces would put our own task group at a serious disadvantage.”
In January 1982, Mrs Thatcher wrote to the Tory MP Richard Needham, defending the decision to scrap the only British warship in the vicinity of the Falklands, HMS Endurance. The government needed to save money.
Three months later, with Endurance in the wrong place and the Falklands under Argentine occupation, her government was plunged into what contemporaries saw as the worst overseas crisis since the loss of the Suez Canal.
Over the next few days, Mrs Thatcher received three memos from the Chief Whip, Michael Jopling, keeping her informed of how Tory MPs were reacting to the crisis. They ranged from “my constituents want blood”, from the late Peter Mills, MP for Devon West, to “please no blood”, from another MP, David Crouch – whereas the late Robert Rhodes James, a historian turned Tory MP, was apparently “hopelessly defeatist, depressed and disloyal”.
Kenneth Clarke, then a junior minister, said he “hopes nobody thinks we are going to fight the Argentinians. We should blow up a few ships, but nothing more.” One of his aides said: “His actual view was that he supported the invasion and very much hoped that there wasn’t going to be a full-scale war with Argentina.”
Chris Patten, now chairman of the BBC Trust, promised to “write a supportive article in the press once the situation is clearer”.
Later Jopling supplied a breakdown of the various factions forming within the party, from the “no surrender group” headed by Alan Clark, to “the Falkland Islands are not worth all this trouble” and “do not fire a shot in anger” groups, whose leader was the former Cabinet minister Sir Ian Gilmour, and whose members included Stephen Dorrell, now a senior backbench Tory, who was described as “wobbly”.
Also among the documents released by the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust are 22 pages of near-illegible notes taken by her parliamentary aide, Ian Gow, during an explosive meeting of backbench MPs the day after the invasion.
The members vented their anger at the Foreign Office, particularly the hapless minister Sir Humphrey Atkins, who was accused of giving wrong information to the Commons. He mistakenly told the House that an attack was not imminent, hours after Argentinian troops had taken Port Stanley. “How could even an office boy at the FO say this?” the MP John Carlisle demanded, to “prolonged cheers”.
Under attack from fellow MPs and the newspapers, Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington and his two junior ministers promptly resigned. The papers show that Mrs Thatcher did not want to lose Carrington and had to battle to keep her Defence Secretary, John Nott, from resigning as well. One of the ex-ministers, Richard Luce, had a self-justifying session with Gow a few days later, during which he claimed that a former Labour Foreign Secretary, George Brown, had told his Argentinian counterpart that “Britain did not give a damn about the Falkland Islands”.
If that was the considered FO’s view in the 1960s, it was not all that different from the privately expressed views of some of Mrs Thatcher’s closest advisers. Alan Walters, her economic adviser, urged her to avoid conflict by getting Argentina to pay compensation to the islanders. “This jingo mood will pass,” he forecast.
A lengthy memo from her Chief of Staff, David Wolfson, suggested the islanders be given a “US-backed guarantee” that if they did not like living under Argentine rule, they could at any time take British, Australian or New Zealand citizenship, and receive a resettlement grant equivalent to $100,000 per family, index-linked.
Those closest to Mrs Thatcher also wondered how she could ever survive the crisis. Gow wrote to her on 8 April, six days after the invasion, to say that “whatever the future holds” he would always be glad he had the chance to work with her. “It would be sad if Falkland precipitated the downfall of the Thatcher government,” her chief policy adviser, Sir John Hoskyns, wrote on the same day.
Ten weeks later, the Falklands had been retaken, and Mrs Thatcher was riding a surge of popular adulation. Congratulations poured in from around the world – although oddly there were none from EU governments.
But she did receive – and seemingly appreciated – flowers from the Revolutionary Democratic Front of El Salvador, the political wing of a Cuban-backed guerrilla army fighting to overthrow a US-backed dictatorship. The Argentine junta had been the only South American government to lend troops to help suppress the guerrillas. The message that came with the flowers said: “You have succeeded where we failed. Since the dispatch of the Task Force to the Falkland Islands, 266 Argentine military advisers have been withdrawn from Central America. Thank you.”
Hawks and Doves: Where senior Conservatives stood on the eve of war
A note from the Chief Whip detailed the reaction of Conservatives to events in the Falklands as follows:
John Wheeler; MP for Westminster North
“Believes the moment of truth will come when the blood of our own troops is shed. Then he thinks the country will forsake us.”
Viscount Cranborne; MP for South Dorset
“Says his friends in Washington warned us last month. He is not sure how we can win outright victory quickly.”
Chris Patten; MP for Bath
“Will write a supportive article in the press once the situation is clearer.”
Kenneth Clarke; MP for Rushcliffe and junior minister
“Hopes nobody thinks we are going to fight the Argentinians. We should blow up a few ships, but nothing more.”
Peter Mills; MP for West Devon
“‘My constituents want blood’. He wants us to invade as quickly as possible.”