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Release of MT's private files for 1982 - the Falklands War (1)


On 2 April 1982, Argentinian forces invaded the Falklands and Margaret Thatcher faced the most testing crisis of her career.

Her private papers for the year are now being released at the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge, two months after the opening of her official files for the year at the National Archives in Kew. All have been digitised and the best will go online, including ALL of her official files for the year.

1981-82: pre-war & background

Map of "Operation Corporate", 21 May - 14 Jun 1982

The Falklands War was such a central event in MT's life, and in British politics at the time and since, that the scarce pre-war references to the islands in her papers have a kind of poignancy, anticipations of an unglimpsed, almost unimaginable, future. Even among the planners, who examined all contingencies, did anyone really suppose that Britain could find itself at war with Argentina?

There was a deterioration of relations between the two countries in late 1981 which led the Chiefs of Staff to produce a paper "Defence implications of Argentine action against the Falkland Islands". MT's copy survives here virtually unannotated, a sign that she did not sense a critical situation. Lack of focus is also evident in Jan and Feb 1982, when she employed two very different formulas on the islands in routine correspondence, in one letter asserting that "the wishes of the Falklands Islanders are paramount" [italics added], in another declaring "the Government's determination to see to it that the interests of the Falkland Islanders continue to be upheld" [ditto]. Only months later she was treating the distinction between the two as of fundamental importance and would never willingly have endorsed the latter form, which was virtually Foreign Office (FCO) code for not taking account of the islanders' wishes. The FCO view was that it was not in the islanders' interests that their wishes should prevail - or in Britain's interests as a whole, more to the point.

The papers show signs of Conservative backbench unhappiness with the 1981 defence review, which involved the sale of our newest aircraft carrier, HMS Invincible as well as the withdrawal of Britain's only permanent naval presence in the South Atlantic, the iceship HMS Endurance. MT was lobbied by the editor of Jane's Fighting Ships via her PPS, Ian Gow, who happened to be his next-door-neighbour. She passed the criticisms to John Nott.

There are documents on the South Georgia-Argentine scrap metal incident of March 1982 - a slip of paper by her Foreign Affairs Private Secretary, John Coles, summarising a tough response from the FCO to Argentina and a note by another Private Secretary, summarising a tough response from the Commons to the FCO Minister of State, Richard Luce, neatly encapsulating the pressures from both directions.

Six hours before she was given intelligence that the Argentinians were likely to invade, she was reading a lesson at the memorial service for Sir Ronald Bell MP, a famous and strikingly warlike passage from Ephesians 6: 10-18, aligning virtue with resistance and struggle. These words meant a great deal to MT. She chose them for her own funeral thirty years later at St Pauls, where they were read with memorable force and composure by her grandaughter Amanda.

Confirmation that invasion had actually taken place came first from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) on Friday 2 April 1982.She kept the FCO note and felt a lasting debt to BAS.

1982 Apr 3-6: First reactions to the invasion

The House of Commons met on Saturday 3 April for the first time since the Suez crisis to hear the government give an account of itself, an ominous historical echo. MT drafted her own speech, and in it she referred to Argentinian "aircraft carriers", plural, when in fact there was only one. The error was corrected before delivery. Within weeks she had acquired much greater expertise on all things naval.

Following the debate, which ended with a disastrous speech by the Defence Secretary and was full of hostile comment on the performance of the Foreign Office in particular, Nott and Carrington appeared before the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee. Ian Gow made 12 pages of notes, a far fuller record than any previously available, on the basis of which he reported back to MT when the meeting ended (ministers attending only by invitation).

Gow's notes show Nott giving a belligerent performance - a wise approach given the mood of his audience - explaining that the conventional navy budget had increased by £500m in real terms since the Government took office and pointing to a £2bn contract for torpedoes, with the words "Shd 'use some of them'". Told that the islands should be repossessed, Carrington firmly replied: "We will re-possess". But belligerence was not his style and for much of the time he seemed defensive. When a backbencher suggested that the FCO saw the Falklands as an embarrassment, he unconvincingly responded: "Have never met anyone in F.O. who wants to get rid of Falklands". And after Carrington's deputy, Humphrey Atkins, was attacked for his statement to the Commons the day before, which many MPs thought misleading ("How could even an office boy at the F.O. say this?") Gow noted "PROLONGED CHEERS".

The tenor of this meeting was one of the biggest factors in deciding Carrington to resign. There is no detail in these papers of the great efforts made to dissuade him during Sunday 4 April, save MT's appointment diary which show her seeing him twice, at 1000 and 1930. Carrington seems to have agreed to sleep on it and wait for Monday's press. When Monday came, he resigned immediately and John Nott also sought to go. A note survives explaining that Nott only agreed to stay on condition that MT published his letter offering his resignation alongside a letter of her own refusing it. He was evidently well aware of the political fragility of his position once Carrington had gone. MT kept some of the newspapers from that day, including the Daily Mail leader asking "Has she got the stomach for it?" and Andrew Alexander's assault on Carrington, "Sack him and his whole rotten gang!"

Francis Pym became Foreign Secretary on Monday 5 April, after asking for time to think about it. MT's relationship with him was poor, and things between them deteriorated further during the war, predictably enough. She seems to have felt she had little choice but to offer him the job and it has generally been assumed that no other candidates were even thought of. In fact she did consider an alternative. This seems clear from a note she passed to someone in a meeting, probably Gow: "It was either Francis or George Younger and the latter was just not well enough known. I realise your worries". Younger was her instant choice when Heseltine resigned as Defence Secretary in January 1986.

Carrington sent her a personal letter on Tuesday 6 April explaining his decision and offering warm support for the future. There is little doubt she deeply regretted his going. On 4 May she wrote to him: "Your old Cabinet colleagues continue to miss you very much", adding the touching postcript: "And me most of all". They met several times later in the year, as her appointment diary shows. Later she played an important part in securing his appointment as NATO Secretary-General.

1982 Apr 6-8: "it will make suez look like common sense"

The mood of the Conservative Parliamentary Party was very troubled in the first two weeks after the invasion, stabilising a little perhaps after the Commons debate of 14 April. It is hard to point to much solid support for the Government, with widespread reservations and doubts as to what could and should be done, critics on right as well as left.

There are reports from the Chief Whip, Michael Jopling, on 6 and 7 April (addressed, interestingly enough, to Pym, himself a former Chief Whip and Leader of the House, and merely copied to MT). The reports show that critics of economic policy tended to be critics of war policy but the converse was not quite true. Among critics were junior ministers Tim Raison and Ken Clarke: "Hopes nobody thinks we are going to fight the Argentinians. We should blow up a few ships but nothing more". Among the so-called 'wets' outside the Government the most prominent was Ian Gilmour, until the previous year No.2 at the Foreign Office. His comment? "Gilmour: 'We are making a big mistake. It will make Suez look like common sense.' He will not say this publicly." "Stephen Dorrell. Very wobbly. Will only support the fleet as a negotiating ploy. If they will not negotiate we should withdraw". Chris Patten said he would write a supportive article in the press "once the situation is clearer".

Overall the reports suggest that strong supporters were in the minority in the Conservative Party. The Liberals on the other hand were quite supportive. Alan Beith told the Conservative whips: "Says the Liberal Nationalist Executive [sic] support military action with one dissenter. They will support us provided diplomatic pressure is exhausted. He would like to be kept in touch". Labour was not formally approached but Callaghan: "Says that now the Government is committed, it must be supported".

On Tuesday 6 Apr MT met Harold Macmillan for advice on handling the war: there was no official minute, but her notes survive. It has long been known that he advised her not to have the Chancellor of the Exchequer in her War Cabinet, so that money would not be an issue when making military decisions, or be seen to be. The notes show he also talked about the possibility that we might need access to the Simonstown naval base in South Africa, for ship repair, suggesting his son-in-law as a possible intermediary with the South African Government, and that he advised her how to handle war correspondents, essentially in a restrictive sense.

The press were misled, probably inadvertently, at a Lobby Briefing on Wednesday 7 April where it was clearly implied that Nick Ridley had not been discussing leaseback with the Argentinians when he had been the relevant Foreign Office minister, 1979-81, the islanders having rejected it. ('Leaseback' refers to an arrangement by which sovereignty would be ceded to Argentina in return for a long-term lease being granted to Britain.) Of course, he had been discussing it - Ridley met his Argentinian counterpart Cavandoli in Geneva in September 1980 to float the proposal, well before the islanders were told anything - but the fact of the meeting was kept in deep secrecy within government and it is entirely possible the No.10 Press Office knew nothing of it at this point.

On Thursday 8 April Ian Gow wrote MT an emotional letter of encouragement and support, a little on the lines of the one he produced at the end of 1981, released here last year. He reflected that she was living through the worst crisis since Suez, and in some respects a worse one, since she had lost two cabinet ministers while Eden kept his cabinet intact. It was not perhaps a wholly reassuring letter to receive, for all the kind intentions of its author.

Next page - Falklands (2)

1981-82 Falklands documents (till 8 Apr)