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Release of MT's private files for 1982 - the Falklands War (2)

 

After the initial shock of the invasion, things gradually worked their way into a pattern, of sorts, and opinion began to settle.

The US mounted a mediation, headed by Secretary of State, Al Haig. The Task Force steamed south, the government reported regularly to Parliament and the whips did their work. Although the national mood was anxious and unstable, a sort of calm prevailed.

1982 apr 7-25: during the "haig shuttle"

14 Apr 1982: "unless it has all been resolved by then"

Most of the story of Falklands diplomacy is in government files: there are only fragments in her private and party papers. There are fascinating notes between officials and ministers passed back and forward during drafting sessions with Haig from 13 April, showing how intensively Britain worked on his proposals. This kind of material generally does not survive. MT probably scooped them up from the cabinet table when the meeting ended, saving them from the shredder. They show we were not just going through the motions in these negotiations, the British side acted on the prudent assumption that we really might have to live with whatever was agreed, to the letter. Argentina proved absolutely inflexible diplomatically, as it turned out, but that was not something we could take for granted. One exchange is especially revealing of our suspicions of Haig, and of a key problem in talking with him: asked by Robert Armstrong whether we could hold our forces at Ascension Island, Defence Secretary John Nott replied: "Yes - but they (Haig) are bound to come back again with other requests". And so it proved, over and over. Give an inch on points like this and you might very well end up having to give a mile, or many miles.

On 14 April MT made a note doubting whether she should take the salute from a Royal Marines band during a constituency visit the following month - "it might look 'gimmicky'" - adding the afterthought "unless it has all been resolved by then". Those few words, written casually in a trivial private document, only make sense if she thought there might be a diplomatic solution. Her rewording of the press release at the end of Haig's second visit shows her very keen to play down expectations of one, an altogether different thing.

By mid-April a degree of common ground was emerging across parties on the basis that the deployment of the Task Force was providing essential leverage by which to make diplomacy effective, an idea Haig several times endorsed. It was rather obvious that unity achieved on this basis might not survive actual contact with the enemy. The Chief Whip made another report on 21 Apr, this time addressed to MT, which showed opinion calmer: "The large majority of the Parliamentary Party will support you in any settlement which eventually emerges". But again, the impression is of a front that might not survive beyond the diplomatic phase and of real doubt as to whether recovery of the islands was possible. One observation stands out: Jopling noted that a significant section on the left of the Parliamentary Party "fears the consequence of a military disaster. They say we must be aware and start to prepare the public in case things go wrong".

Former ministers also made their views known. On Tuesday 13 April Ian Gow reported to MT a call from Richard Luce, one of the FCO ministers who had resigned with Carrington, who was apparently speaking for both of them, fearful that they were going to become fall guys. They acknowledged that there would be a full-scale inquiry into the war and its origin, but adamantly resisted its being a Select Committee, urging instead a body chaired by a big Establishment figure like Lord Home. Gow countered that the chairman should not be too establishment and suggested a judge instead. Luce reported that he had been told by an FCO official that George Brown, as Foreign Secretary, had told the Argentinians in 1968 that Britain "did not give a damn about the Falkland Islands". In a later speech Luce built on this idea that Britain had encouraged Argentinian aspirations to the islands over a long period and stressed that the inquiry should look at the history of policy over the last 15 to 20 years. And, of course, this was the approach taken when the Franks Enquiry was set up.

Deep tension with Haig is apparent from MT's notes on her conversations with him about the use of Ascension Island as a staging post for the Task Force (14 April 1982). The island was British, but the military facilities were American. A formula was agreed for public use, evidently after bargaining word by word. There is a cancelled section of the formula which reads "Use of Ascension has been restricted/governed accordingly", a potentially fatal step from the British point of view, given our reliance on US logistical support channelled through their Ascension base.

1982 apr 7-25: divisions in downing street

Conservative divisions about the Falklands went to the very heart of Downing Street. From the very first, some of MT's closest advisers were sceptical that the islands were worth a fight - John Hoskyns, David Wolfson and Alan Walters, Thatcherites to a man, in the terminology of the time. Wolfson and Walters both came up with proposals involving offers to buy out the islanders, an approach breathtakingly distant from hers. Walters persisted in this approach over the whole period of the crisis, despite repeated attempts at dissuasion from the No.10 Private Office "V. ingenious", Whitmore damningly told him on 19 May. "If only we had tried it 6 months ago".

Walters's diary shows that he was nervous of pressing his views, but courageously did so. From MT's point of view, on this topic he just did not get it, and so was ignored. But she bore no ill-will, much preferring people who said what they thought - as she did herself. He remained very much a friend, deeply trusted in his field.

Hoskyns himself left No.10 at the end of April 1982, resigning in protest at overall lack of strategy (as he saw it) rather than the war, but as his published diary records: "My fear on the Falklands is that we are about to make almighty fools of ourselves" (5 Apr 1982; Just In Time, p377). On 8 April he wrote a little note to self, reflecting the sense that an essentially minor issue was being allowed to hold everything else hostage: "It would sad if Falkland [sic] precipitated the downfall of the Thatcher Government and the long-run effect was that the country ended up with an economy unable to sustain proper defence for 56 million people rather than 1,800". Later he told Ingham that he thought it "rather unwise to talk about the islanders' wishes being paramount" and expressed his disagreement with the tone being struck. "If we talk about it as a combination of Stalingrad and Alamein, we risk looking absurd. This is not a battle for our homeland and civilisation. It is the very quiet, very calm, very firm imposition of international law and order. 'Ring out the bells' brings us to the edge of black farce for the South Georgia operation". He urged that the invasion be treated as a 'hijacking', on the suggestion of Tony Jay, one of the authors of Yes, Minister. MT politely declined Hoskyns's offer to help in the crisis, although she used the analogy on Panorama. After the war, evidently moved and full of praise, he wrote generously to Ian Gow (22 June 1982): "Not a foot wrong on Falklands - a superb performance by Mrs T."As with Walters, they remained friends.

Some other dry-as-dust Thatcherites outside No.10 also took a doubting line. Nick Ridley and Jock Bruce-Gardyne at the Treasury were Falklands sceptics, the former lucky to salvage his career after his encounter with Falklands diplomacy, the latter unlucky enough to hasten the end of his by writing a private letter questioning the war which found its way to the New Statesman. Bruce-Gardyne also sent a personal letter to MT on 5 April 1982, urging that compromise "should not, one feels, be beyond the wit of man". "More spectacular solutions may appeal to the gallery, but would they last?" Even a family friend of the Thatchers, John Murray, wrote critically of her policy, again with the idea that the Falklanders should just be moved on, "perhaps with our assistance", and he was writing on 18 June, after we had won.

Such sharp divisions in the party accentuated one important effect of the war, that it drove MT ever deeper into the heart of the government machine where only those with the highest security classification could follow, in practice no more than a handful of her most senior ministers and officials, plus military and intelligence. This bred deep mistrust, even paranoia, among some of those who had lost access, such as Alfred Sherman ("The Foreign Office is staking everything on a defeat for Margaret"). At this very moment she was actually becoming more admiring of the machine, which from her point of view was performing better than it ever had before, and, of course, as Walters noted (29 Apr): "PM loves the forces". It was an odd atmosphere at No.10. One of her closest staff recalls how quiet the place was during the war. Ordinary business fell away, while MT herself - somewhat stilled but not at all at peace - waited anxiously for news and read long into the night. "PM was opening boxes at 3.30am" Alan Walters noted with sympathy on 19 May. And that is when she opened the box, not when she closed it.

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Falklands documents (7-25 Apr 1982)