Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC I: [Falkland Islands (Franks Report)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [35/809-16]
Editorial comments: 1708-1736.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3880
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5.8 pm

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Listening to this debate, I wondered what people outside, and perhaps particularly those who went down into the southern Atlantic and risked their lives, and some of those who came back severely injured, must have thought. The Prime Minister did not seem able to concede at any stage any error, any possibility of any misjudgment. Nevertheless, listening to the Leader of the Opposition, one was driven to conclude that he seemed to believe that the Franks report did not exist. He virtually gave the impression that the Government were responsible for every aspect of the situation. The right hon. Gentleman launched a vitriolic attack on all aspects of the judgment, ignoring the fact that two of his right hon. Friends were signatories to the report.

I do not agree with substantial parts of the Franks report, but anyone who pretends that the issue in 1982 was easy simply has not lived through such experiences. When I read the Franks report, I think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The attempt to try to make political polemic out of the issue is useless. The Leader of the Opposition can make criticisms—there are serious criticisms to be made—but the temper of the debate and the way in which we criticise is important.

The Prime Minister would have carried more conviction if she had admitted that she was wrong about HMS Endurance, and that when her Foreign Secretary asked three times for a reconsideration of the previous Cabinet decision on it she should at least have insisted that the issue went to the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee. It cannot be right that, on an issue of such importance, a Foreign Secretary should be overridden purely by an exchange of letters. The report found that the Prime Minister was wrong about that. It is to the credit of the former Prime Minister that when he was faced with a conflict of opinion on this matter in similar circumstances, he found decisively and repeatedly with the Foreign Secretary and against the Defence Secretary.

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Mr. James Callaghan

I wish to get the facts right. I know how tempting it is constantly to interrupt, but it would be absurd if the view of the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) were to catch attention, as I am sure the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) would agree. The Ministry of Defence's proposal, made during the lifetime of the Labour Government, to pay off HMS Endurance was never made public. The decision to continue using HMS Endurance was made well before the attack by the Argentines on the Bulgarian trawlers. The hon. Member for Stretford was wrong on both those facts.

Dr. Owen

The right hon. Gentleman will make his own speech tomorrow, but he is quite right. The decision to continue HMS Endurance was made on repeated occasions. Such a decision was made in October 1977 and in 1978 we made a further decision to continue HMS Endurance for two years into the first year of the life of the present Administration. I believed in 1977, and I believe now, that withdrawal of HMS Endurance would be substantially misread by the Argentines. That was a consequence of the decision to discontinue HMS Endurance's operations, but it would be pushing the point to far to claim purely that that action precipitated the invasion.

We should focus on the crisis that existed following the breakdown of the talks in New York. Franks was right to say that there was not a strong enough case to deploy a naval force to the south Atlantic before the talks in February 1982. That judgment was right. The crucial moment when the position changed was when the Argentine negotiator, the Argentine deputy Foreign Minister in New York, was disowned, a unilateral communiqué was put out in Buenos Aires and our ambassador there drew attention to the press interpretation of the report. [Interruption.] It is the tone of the speech that will be listened to outside. The right hon. Lady then faces the question——

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be possible for you to bury the rules of the House to allow the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) to stand in the middle of the Chamber to facilitate him facing both ways?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that this serious debate will not have trivia like that.

Dr. Owen

In passing, Mr. Speaker, I may say that I have long believed that cross-Benches in the House would make for a much more informed and balanced debate. I look forward to the day when they are introduced.

To return to the Prime Minister's responsibility, the ambassador's report triggered a response from her. However, the argument for putting the whole weight of blame of this point on the Prime Minister falls down. I admit that I was surprised to read in the Franks report that the Prime Minister had responded by saying:

“We must make contingency plans.”

I am even more amazed that, the right hon. Lady having made that comment, no contingency plans were made. It is extraordinary that Franks has not revealed what happened within the Government apparatus at that point. We are not told the terms of the Prime Minister's private [column 811]secretary's letter or whether there was a follow-up procedure when letters of the Prime Minister were not responded to.

It is amazing that any period longer than five days could go by without the Prime Minister's private secretary going to the private secretary of the Foreign Secretary and asking him for a reply. Franks does not reveal any of the exchanges that took place over the proposed meeting on 16 March. The Franks report did not even mention that it was postulated that there would be a meeting on that date. My memory of the report may have served me wrong on that point, but the reason why that meeting did not take place was certainly not examined.

The Foreign Secretary must take some burden of responsibility at that stage. The fact that he resigned honourably and rightly does not exclude the right of the House to examine why, when on 5 March he, as Foreign Secretary, was told by his officials that a naval deployment had been made in 1977, he did not follow up that matter more carefully. Why was the matter only mentioned to him by officials and a detailed paper on the circumstances of the 1977 deployment not presented? The extreme relevance of those dates—5 and 8 March—is also related to the Prime Minister, because she spoke to the then Defence Secretary on 8 March and asked him how long it would take to get ships down to the southern Atlantic.

The Prime Minister has a misconception about the use of nuclear submarines. The House, and indeed the world, needs no reminding of the strength and power of the nuclear submarine after the sinking of the Argentine vessel Belgrano by HMS Conqueror. It is a fact that in 1977 the chiefs of staff were insistent upon having surface ships as a means of communication to the submarines. When I objected to surface ships being in and around the Falklands, they were content for them to be deployed to the south Atlantic where the ships could communicate with the submarines out of range of Argentine aircraft. The Prime Minister spoke of not wishing to send surface ships for fear of what would happen, but no one asked that our surface ships should be deployed around the Falklands within the range of Argentine aircraft. The key question is what would have happened had a nuclear-powered submarine been deployed.

It was said that the submarine was impossible to deploy quickly, but that was exactly what was done in 1977. The news of its deployment was never leaked, which is surprising. Many believed that the information would be leaked. We had whole ships' companies away in the south Atlantic, missing Christmas at home, and still the news did not leak upon their return to port. It is a credit to the Navy that that was so.

The fact that that submarine was deployed should have been brought forcefully to the attention of the Foreign Secretary by the Foreign Office. One reason, I suspect, why that did not happen was that the Foreign Office was unenthusiastic about the initial deployment in 1977. It had to be extracted from the Foreign Office that there was even a deterioration in the then military position. That point should have been brought out in the Franks report. The way that the report deals with the position in 1977 is a disgrace and one wonders why one bothered to give evidence to it on what happened then. There were important facts on the way that decisions were made at that time.

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Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

As he was Foreign Secretary in 1977, can the right hon. Gentleman answer two questions? First, how does he deal with Lord Franks' point that the Argentines did not know that this submarine had been deployed and that, therefore, it could hardly have been much of a deterrent? Secondly, how does he answer the points in paragraph 53 of the report that HMS ‘Endurance’ discovered that Southern Thule had been invaded by the Argentines on 20 December 1976, but that it did not become known in Britain until May 1978?

Dr. Owen

My predecessor took the decision not to announce it. It was the right decision and I maintained it through 1977 on the ground that it would provoke the negotiations—[Hon. Members: “Oh!” ] That was the feeling. It was believed better to present the Southern Thule incident as part of a scientific endeavour and to persuade the Argentines to present it in that way. They eventually agreed to do that.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)


Dr. Owen

It is not an untruth. They were extremely complicated negotiations and we were trying to reach a settlement, knowing how vulnerable we were in the south Atlantic. However, it may have been wiser to make that known. That is an open argument.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

More truthful.

Dr. Owen

It is not a question of being more truthful. Many decisions are not made public for sound and sensible reasons. One of them was the decision to deploy naval vessels in November 1977.

It is well known to the House that there is minor disagreement between myself and the former Prime Minister about whether the Argentines knew. I believe that they did not know. They were not told. I gather that a book will shortly be published by Simon Jenkins and Max Hastings which states that Sir Maurice Oldfield might have told them. He was then head of MI6, but has since, sadly, died. I do not believe that he would have told the Argentines when he knew it to be in contradiction to my policy. Although he was answerable to the Prime Minister, he was under the executive authority of the Foreign Secretary. I do not know the circumstances, but I made every effort to ensure that the operation was covert. I do not believe the Argentines knew. This is a side issue that has often tended to draw attention away from the real significance of deploying a nuclear-powered submarine below the surface so as to be in a position to intervene if matters deteriorated. I regret some of the clouding that has taken place.

Sir John Nott (St. Ives)

If we leave aside for the moment the question whether the Labour Government at that time would, had the bluff been called, have given rules of engagement to the submarine that would have entitled it to sink an Argentine ship on the high seas before a shot had been fired, did the Labour Government consider how they would deter an airborne invasion of the Falkland Islands, which was wholly within the capability of the Argentines? They were only 400 miles from the islands. How was that threat to be deterred in 1977?

Dr. Owen

The right hon. Gentleman poses two important questions, but it should be understood that the Labour Government acted throughout in fullest consultation with the chiefs of staff and often implemented papers presented by the chiefs of staff. As to the right hon. [column 813]Gentleman's specific question, on 21 November a meeting was held, under the chairmanship of the then Prime Minister, consisting of the then Secretary of State for Defence, myself as Foreign Secretary and the chief of the defence staff. Detailed rules of engagement were drawn up for that submarine.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

What were they?

Dr. Owen

I shall reveal them to the House since I have been challenged by the former Secretary of State for Defence. The rules were quite explicit: if Argentine ships came within 50 miles of the Falkland Islands and were believed to have displayed hostile intent, the submarine was to open fire. It was to torpedo the ships. I did not criticise the decision on the General Belgrano—it was a difficult decision—because when one is faced by a threat to a vital national interest there is no point in having armed forces if one is not prepared to use them. That was certainly the view of the four people who met and took that decision.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's point about an airborne invasion, he is of course quite right. However, at the time we believed that we were more likely to face a naval invasion. The signs were that the Argentine navy was pushing military action in order to strengthen its position in the junta, which is what happened on this occasion. The advantage of a submarine is that one need not declare it. Had the Prime Minister deployed a submarine, when President Reagan telephoned General Galtieri, he could have said, “There are serious forces deployed in the area and Britain will not hesitate to use them.” The Prime Minister might even have decided to hold her hand, not to inform President Reagan and wait. As the ships started to come towards the Falklands, she could have issued a serious warning—when they were 200 miles away from the islands—that they would enter an exclusion zone of 100 miles, or 50 miles as we projected, where their ships would be sunk. Had that happened, I believe that the Argentine vessels would have turned round. A mistake was made in not deploying a submarine.

I wish to try to get away from a party political battle about the issue and to debate the wrong decisions that were taken. If the former Prime Minister had been Prime Minister in 1982, he would have deployed a submarine in March. I make that judgment of a man whom I know and respect. Like the Prime Minister, he would have responded on 3 March. He would have asked for immediate contingency measures and I hope that I too, would have responded fairly smartly. The Defence and Overseas Policy Committee would have met—with much the same people—and it would have come to the same conclusion, to deploy a force in the south Atlantic.

However, not every leader of the Labour party would have responded in that way. There is not the slightest chance that the present Leader of the Opposition would have responded in that way. That is only my judgment, but this needs to be said. Had the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) been Prime Minister, he would have deployed the ships. However, some hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench would not have deployed them. Some hon. Members on the Conservative Benches might have handled the crisis better than the Prime Minister. She has received much praise during the past few months—deservedly so—for her conduct of the war. But to try to pretend in the debate that this national humiliation [column 814]had nothing to do with her and that there was no fault is nonsense. What a difference it would have made if she had admitted just once in her speech that she had made a mistake, even on HMS Endurance. That is the real indictment of the Prime Minister. We often wonder whether she believes that she ever makes a mistake. She believes that she alone governs this country, but the Cabinet is there. Why did not the Foreign Secretary go to the Cabinet? He knew that once the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence had made up their minds, he would be overruled yet again.

The most important issue is winning the peace. The Prime Minister earned praise for her role in the war, but let us examine her record on the peace. Not one millimetre of magnanimity nor one centimetre of sensitivity has come from her. She has flounced around the world, damaging and criticising those who came to our aid during the war. Her reaction to the American decision at the United Nations was hysterical. Her lack of support for the French in their decision to sell arms again to Argentina, and her scant regard for the remarkable support that we received from the French throughout the crisis, is not designed to win friends and influence people.

Then we come to Fortress Falklands. The Prime Minister rejected Fortress Falklands in 1979, 1980 and 1981. She even rejected it during the negotiations before the events that led up to the war. Yet now that victory is won, without the slightest magnanimity, she embraces Fortress Falklands, embraces paramountcy and refuses to negotiate. What is she landing us with—a massive military commitment, millions of pounds and more. If this course is pursued, she will land Britain with another humiliation. One day the forces of Latin America—not just Argentina—will be sufficient to inflict a humiliation on us. Argentina also has in-flight refuelling. It can interfere with flights from Ascension Island to the Falklands. It can interfere with shipping. It had two diesel submarines that went around the area throughout the war, presenting a constant threat to HMS Invincible let alone many other ships. It is a fool who believes that we shall be able to withstand the present stance of no negotiations, Fortress Falklands and paramountcy for the Falkland Islanders.

It is the role of the House of Commons to defend the real interests of the Falkland Islanders. Throughout our support for the Prime Minister during the war in the Falklands, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I reminded her of the need to negotiate. The only area of major disagreement was that I did not believe that enough effort was being given to negotiation. At least I had the grace to admit that the final negotiation position was reasonable. We started to differ again when I said that it was unwise so quickly to take those suggestions off the negotiating table. The Prime Minster would have been wiser in the first few weeks of victory to have said to Argentina, “Let us put this behind us and look to the future.” That is what magnanimity in victory means. The Prime Minister says that all those people could not lose their lives and be scarred for us to reopen negotiations.

It was a fundamental principle that the cross-party support for the war came from the determination to resist aggression and to act under the United Nations charter in self-defence. The Prime Minister quoted that charter often, but she forgot it the day that the Union Jack was again raised above Port Stanley. She has paid scant regard to the other responsibilities in the charter such as that to pursue a negotiated settlement. She had only to say before [column 815]the United Nations debate that she was ready at some future date to open discussions with Argentina and our friends would have stayed with us. She would not have had the United States voting as they did. I know that because I was in the United States shortly after the debate took place.

The Prime Minister refused adamantly to countenance any commitment to any future negotiations at any future date. I agree that the time was not right then, that the wounds had not healed and that the state of war still existed, but the Prime Minister has never yet shown that she believes that there will come a time, not too long in the future, when she will be prepared to discuss the long-term future of the Falkland Islands, not only with Argentina but with Latin America. If she says that now, I and the world will be delighted. Something of lasting value will have come out of this debate.

The Prime Minister

May I make sure what the David Owenright hon.Gentleman is proposing? As I emphasised in my speech, for years the House has taken the view that the wishes of the islanders are paramount. They wish to remain British. It seems that the right hon. Gentleman is proposing that we enter negotiations to hand over sovereignty.

Dr. Owen

The Prime Minister must speak for herself. [Hon. Members: “Answer” .] I shall answer. I may do many things, but I do not duck questions. I have never used the word “paramountcy” although I frequently answered questions about the Falkland Islands for two and half years from the Dispatch Box. The Conservative Opposition spokesmen then adopted an hysterical stance similar to that of Labour Opposition spokesmen when the Financial Secretary to the Treasury spoke from the Dispatch Box on the Falklands. I have never been committed to paramountcy. I always talked of the best interests or the long-term interests of the Falkland Islanders. I said that we must pay the greatest respect to or have the fullest regard for the interests of the Falkland Islanders. The commitment to paramountcy is already around the Prime Minister's neck in regard to Gibraltar and Hong Kong. I beg her to be careful about her use of that word.

It is important to reflect the interests of the Falkland Islanders, but they are 1,800 people. There are parish councils in Britain with a larger population. We respect the views of parish councillors, we take them into account, but Parliament has not yet given up its responsibilities to parish councils and others, although the Prime Minister dictates to metropolitan county and borough councils. She has not the slightest hesitation in overriding the views of the Cabinet. [Hon. Members: “What about sovereignty?” ] I am prepared to discuss sovereignty. I have never backed away from it. We should be prepared to discuss it. I urged the Prime Minister to examine the three-flag proposition during the war.

The Prime Minister

As far as I can see, the right hon. Gentleman will substitute his judgment of the islanders' interests for their wishes.

Dr. Owen

No, not at all. [Hon. Members: “Yes” .] It would not be my judgment or even that of the Government but that of this House. I would never put the [column 816]judgment of the House in hock and say that it could not judge what it thought, having listened to the Falkland Islanders and having considered all the facts. I used to say to the Argentine Foreign Minister that, to persuade the House of Commons, it was crucial to persuade the Falkland Islanders, because if 90 per cent. of them opposed any move so would this House.

The Prime Minister talks about sovereignty as though she has never offered it. The Minister offered it in 1980 and it was withdrawn. The withdrawal confirmed the Argentines' belief. They always used to say that any British Government, whether Labour or Conservative, would offer sovereignty until either the Falkland Islanders or Parliament said “No” .

If anything good can come out of the debate—I am not sure that much good will come out of the Franks report as it is a dismal report—I hope it is that the Government will not box themselves into a “no talks, Fortress Falklands” stance. That would be folly. It is a folly that has been rejected by successive Governments.

The House has a duty to say to the British people that we fought against aggression, not for a flag. We fought for principles of freedom and for respecting the views of the Falkland Islanders. Nevertheless, the judgment lies in the House of Commons. It is here that the extremely difficult decision about the future of the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and Hong Kong will have to be taken. The sooner the Prime Minister forgets this word “paramountcy” the better.