Monday, 12 January 2015

Thatcher confidential: The untold story of the Falklands War

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.
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