death of a salesman: the failure of leaseback, 1979-81
8 Mar 1982: MT demands contingency plans
The Carrington files contain a full picture of the FCO's dealings with Argentina, which were mainly conducted by the responsible Minister of State, Nick Ridley (May 1979-September 1981) and Richard Luce (September 1981-April 1982). Here too is the official advice submitted to ministers from within the FCO, despairing despatches from the Embassy in Buenos Aires and, couched in a rather different tone, telegrams and letters from the Governor's House on the Falklands. In outline the story is pretty familiar, not only from the Franks Report but from the massive two volume Official History of the Falklands Campaign by Sir Lawrence Freedman, who saw it all. But inevitably in a release of this scale, there is much that is new.
By the time the Conservatives took office in May 1979 the FCO's thinking had narrowed to the point that it could see only one way forward. Argentina demanded sovereignty over the islands, while the islanders utterly - virtually unanimously - rejected government by Argentina, a repressive military dictatorship. What then if sovereignty and government could be separated? What if sovereignty could be ceded to Argentina in return for Argentina granting us a lease to continue British administration? Thus was born 'leaseback'.
The concept was simple but unfortunately that was the only easy thing about it. For the idea to work, at least four groups had to be sold on it: the Argentinians, the islanders, the House of Commons and the British Government. Perhaps three of the four would have been enough, at least if they were the right three. But despite years of struggle, the FCO found no takers at all. They managed to avoid anyone turning it down outright at an early stage, for fear of seeming intransigent. As diplomatic achievements go that counts as a small one, and one radically insufficient as things turned out.
It is not surprising then that running through and behind these files one has the sense that the FCO found its own position threadbare and hopeless. It is often said that leaseback was killed off by the roasting Nick Ridley got in the House of Commons on the subject in December 1980. But the FCO had no better ideas and so leaseback lived on, after a fashion: it was undead. One particular draft record brings this out sharply. There was an all day conference of officials and diplomats chaired by Nick Ridley on 30 June 1981. Round and round, and up and down they went, trudging the well-worn paths, pursuing what was truly a tedious argument of insidious intent. The islanders were the chief target, the big thing that might be made to give. As one senior official lamented, "without pressure [the word 'persuasion' was tactfully substituted], the Islanders would never come to the decision we wanted". "... (W)e had been trading on Argentine good-will for a very long time. ... Time was running out; perhaps only a few months were left". Ridley agreed that the islanders' position was central. "The Cabinet had reluctantly agreed to let him try this initiative, but they would never sanction overruling the Islanders. He did not think that there would be any problem selling the leaseback proposal in the UK provided Islanders had endorsed it previously: there was no other way".
So how were the Islanders to be won round? The official head of the FCO, Sir Michael Palliser, summed up the FCO's problem with the Falklanders: "They were simple people and they clung to simple ideas". Options were limited. "We had to accept that we had very little carrot (money) and at the same time could not wield the stick in public". From this reasoning flowed quite the grimmest suggestion made at the meeting, not short of perverse: "The PUS [i.e., Palliser] remained of the view that we would only have a chance of improving matters once our inability to defend and support the Islands in any effective way had been exposed". The expectation was not of full-scale invasion but of pressurising moves from the Argentine side which Britain would prove unable or unwilling to counter. In the event that the Argentinians cut air links to the islands Palliser ruled out even exploring alternatives with Chile or Uruguay, deeming them unviable in advance. In this vein one official came up with the amazing thought "that it might be possible to cooperate with the Argentinians over this eg so that the Islanders could experience for themselves what would happen if their petrol supply was cut off". This was ruled out, however: "we could not risk charges of collusion with the Argentines".
The only voice raised in defence of the Islanders' viewpoint, in any sense, was that of their Governor, Rex Hunt. He pointed out that Argentina did not inspire trust, not least under a regime that suppressed opposition by force, but this embarrassingly powerful point was not pursued, its author presumably seen as having gone native. A consensus was stated by the minister: "we should do what we could to buy time from the Argentines and use it to mount an educational campaign". Conveivably there could be a White Paper on Defence of the Falklands setting out contingency plans, "plans that must be designed with inbuilt horrors".
big in no time: peace to war, 1981-82
Perhaps one should not be overly critical of the Foreign Office. A powerful strain in its thinking was the unwillingness of government to pay for an adequate defence of the islands and the resulting impossibility of finding palatable policies, particularly if Argentina chanced its arm, and here the Office had a case. The files set out very clearly the FCO's struggle to persuade the Ministry of Defence to reprieve HMS Endurance, Britain's principal military asset in the area, which the decision was made to scrap in the 1981 defence review, the author of which, Defence Secretary John Nott, was regarded at the time as the driest of Thatcherites. The Treasury saw the MOD as one of the most profligate of spending departments, chief among the culprits for the disappointing outcome of the 1980 expenditure round, and struggled to take the prospect of war over the Falklands at all seriously.
When Nick Ridley left the FCO to join the Treasury in September 1981 - a lucky escape from his point of view - his successor, Richard Luce, immediately suggested a last-ditch attempt to save the ship. FCO officials talked him out of it, reasoning that reopening the package of defence cuts would not necessarily work to its wider advantage (the Treasury might come back for more) and noting that the PM had gone on the record on the subject. Even as late as 29 March, days before the invasion, the Treasury was sniping at the FCO over the funding of emergency services for the islands if Argentina cut them off.
An area of near silence in these files is Britain's relationship with Chile. It is known from accounts of the Argentine position that one thing the Junta feared was a British rapprochement with its western neighbour, with which it had nearly gone to war over a territorial dispute as recently as 1978. Indeed, the Junta appears to have made the decision to move to outright invasion of the Falklands rather than ratchet up the pressure (as we had expected them to do) for fear that Britain would play the Chilean card, given warning. But one can say with some certainty from these files that it never occurred to the Foreign Office to do so. Although the FCO was not exactly free of cynicism, as its attitude to the islanders demonstrates, it seems to have been surprisingly innocent of realpolitik. If the reply is that the Chilean dictatorship was not one with which Britain could do business, one wonders how we could contemplate handing sovereignty over the Islands and their people to its Argentinian equivalent?
That a crunch was coming became apparent at the beginning of March 1982. There had been talks in New York at the end of February between Luce and his Argentine opposite number Enrique Ros, the records of which are released for the first time on this site. All went as predicted and expected in London, until the Argentine delegation returned home and the Junta issued a threatening statement, effectively overthrowing the agreed line its diplomats had just negotiated with Britain. London sat bolt upright. MT read the telegram and jotted across it: "We must make contingency plans".
Many more files are yet to come, of course, but it is clear from this release alone that the issue was never ignored or trivialised by Britain's diplomats. They fully understood its potential for harm, though the Foreign Office is as entitled as any other part of government to be shielded by the conclusion of the Franks Report that the war could not have been predicted or prevented.
links to foreign office files: falklands & argentina material, 1979-80
The links above carry you to an extensive selection of documents in the site database. The links below take you to whole files filmed from the FCO's archive deposited at Kew. The files are comprehensive, but include much that is comparatively trivial or minor.
This is work in progress: more files from 1979 and 1980 have yet to be filmed, as well as many more from 1981 and 1982.
FCO 7/3591 Argentina (1979 - security assessment)
FCO 7/3674 Falklands (1979 - Nick Ridley visit)
FCO 7/3682 Falklands (1979 - Falklands, papers for OD)
FCO 7/3726 Argentina (1980 - UK-Argentine relations)
FCO 7/3728 Argentina (1980 - Cecil Parkinson trade visit)
FCO 7/3800 Falklands (1980 - informal contacts with Argentina)
FCO 7/3801 Falklands (1980 - Falklands dispute, policy)
Page completed: 15 Dec 2012; revised 3 apr 2013