Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

HC I: [Falkland Islands (Franks Report)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [35/924-33]
Editorial comments: 1700-1740.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 5421
[column 924]

5 pm

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

Whatever disagreements have been expressed so far in the debate, I think that there has been overwhelming agreement—indeed, if the Prime Minister does not mind my using the word, consensus—among Members in this place and in another place on two important issues. The first issue is that our armed forces performed with brilliant professionalism and courage in an operation which the chiefs of staff, we now know, judged to be highly precarious, and which in spite of the quality of our forces might have been a tragic defeat if all the Argentine bombs which struck our ships had exploded.

The second issue on which there can be no substantial dispute is that it was General Galtieri who started the conflict with an act of unprovoked aggression which was rightly condemned by the United Nations Security Council. That is as certain as the fact that Hitler started the second world war with an unprovoked attack on Poland.

The Franks committee was set up to examine events preceding the Argentine attack and to ascertain whether the British Government might have prevented it, as many believed the British and French Governments before the second world war might have prevented the attack on Poland. The Prime Minister rightly said yesterday:

“the real cause of the conflict was … the gross misjudgment of a military junta” .—[Official Report, 25 January 1983; Vol. 35, c. 804.]

I believe that that is true and that “misjudgment” is the seminal word. This was confirmed by General Galtieri 's interview, a report of which appeared in The Times on 3 June while the conflict was in its final stages. He said to the Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci:

“I'll tell you that though an English reaction was considered a possibility, we did not see it as a probability. Personally, I judged it scarcely possible and totally improbable. In any case, I never expected such a disproportionate answer.”

There is no reason to believe that when General Galtieri used those words he was misrepresenting his own views.

With respect to Lord Carrington, there is no reason to believe that the man was mad. We must all be impressed by a speech in another place yesterday in which the noble Lord gave a reasonable answer to many of the criticisms made of him. If in the course of a distinguished career as Foreign Secretary he made any mistakes, I think that they stem from his belief that anyone who did not share his urbane, moderate and civilised approach to diplomacy was totally unreasonable or even certifiable. That is what he said about General Galtieri a week ago. He said:

“No one assumed or even thought that we were dealing with a lunatic … You can't go about your business as a Foreign Secretary if you assume that everyone you are dealing with is a lunatic.”

Whatever General Galtieri was, he was not a lunatic. He was vain, complacent, stupid and badly informed, but there are other political leaders of whom the same might be said. Certainly he was far less irrational than Hitler or Mussolini, and he does not compare remotely with leaders such as General Idi Amin, Colonel Gaddafi or the Ayatolla Khomeini, with whom modern Foreign Secretaries have had and still have to deal. Foreign Secretaries have to make judgments about how such people may behave and how they may induce them to behave in ways that are more conducive to our interests. I believe that it was easier to make such judgments about General Galtieri than about many other Heads of Government and Heads of State. [column 925]

That was the central problem which the Franks committee was set up to explore—whether there was something which the British Government might have done to influence General Galtieri to behave more sensibly and to ensure that he did not make the crucial misjudgment about how we would react if he attacked the islands, on which his decision to invade was based.

It will not do for the Foreign Secretary to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who believe that things might have gone better and that steps might have been taken to influence General Galtieri to take different action, are acting for party reasons. That view, and other views which have been expressed in the House in that direction, have been stated by the Financial Times and The Guardian and by leading writers in The Times and The Daily Telegraph. There is a case for the Government to answer. It is deployed in the Franks report and I do not believe that in central areas we have had answers yet.

The Prime Minister naturally placed overriding importance on the last paragraph of the Franks report. I feel that that paragraph does not exonerate the Government from the real charge against it. It concentrates on whether the Government could have foreseen that General Galtieri would invade the islands on 2 April rather than at some other time. As this was decided only the day beforehand, the Government could not have foreseen it. If they could not have foreseen it, they could not at that stage have prevented it. However, I found the careful choice of questions and the even more careful choice of words used by the Franks committee in its report to answer the questions both perverse and disingenuous. As someone observed in a newspaper this morning, it is rather like someone saying that it cannot be predicted that it will snow on Christmas day. That does not mean that it is sensible to go around from November onwards without an overcoat in one's wardrobe and without anti-freeze in the radiator.

The real question that the Government have to answer—the report gives material on which reasonable men can make a judgment—is whether by different actions the Government could have led General Galtieri to regard invasion of the islands as something too dangerous to contemplate.

As the report rightly says, no one can be certain on this matter. In the end General Galtieri invaded and the Government acted as they did. If they had acted differently, no one can be certain what the situation might have been. I believe that the report provides enough evidence to suggest that the Government's sins of omission and commission were serious enough to raise the possibility that different actions could have led General Galtieri to reject invasion. We can learn important lessons of general application from studying the report, one of which the Government have already decided to implement. I refer to the appointment of an independent chairman to the JIC, which I think the Prime Minister will recall I recommended to her when we debated the matter last summer.

There are also some lessons of specific application to the policies that we still need to lead the Falkland islanders from a situation which has destroyed their peaceful, normal way of life. They are no longer a rural community [column 926]such as those in the Hebrides. They are now outnumbered five to one by a military garrison whose only purpose is to defend them.

Another matter on which there has been surprisingly broad consensus in the debate so far in both Houses is that we have finished up with the worst of all worlds. We are stuck with a Fortress Falklands policy, which all Governments thought was the least desirable, at a cost so far of £2 million per head of the adult Falkland islanders. The cost is falling entirely on the British taxpayer.

The first conclusion of the Franks report is that the Government did not give the Falkland Islands priority in the collective consideration that they deserved, given the enormous political, military and economic cost of getting it wrong. The cost of getting it wrong is already £2,000 million. As Lord Belstead, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office told us a week ago in another place, that sum has been spent or committed. There is still no explanation—the Foreign Secretary did not attempt to meet the point—why the Overseas and Defence Committee of Cabinet did not meet for 15 months before the invasion to consider the issue. According to the report, there was no formal consideration of the problem outside the Foreign Office for 15 months before the invasion took place. As the Prime Minister told us yesterday, the OD met 18 times in 1981 alone, but it did not discuss the Falklands.

I find it difficult to credit that the very Latin American section of the intelligence community, which was concerned only with affairs in Latin America, met 18 times in the nine months before the invasion without once considering the threat to the Falklands. That was in spite of the fact that the latest full JIC assessment, which was made in 1981, was that there might be a sudden attack on the Falkland Islands if Argentina considered that negotiations were getting nowhere. As we all know, the Government had decided as far back as October 1981 that it would be impossible to negotiate to any meaningful end.

It will not do for the Foreign Secretary to suggest that these are partial and artificial considerations being advanced by an Opposition who are trying to score party points. In paragraph 292, the Franks report says:

“We cannot say what the outcome of a meeting of the Defence Committee might have been, or whether the course of events would have been altered if it had met in September 1981; but, in our view, it could have been advantageous, and fully in line with Whitehall practice, for Ministers to have reviewed collectively at that time, or in the months immediately ahead, the current negotiating position; the implications of the conflict between the attitudes of the Islanders and the aims of the Junta; and the longer-term policy options in relation to the dispute.”

In a report, in the drafting of which my ex-private secretary Sir Patrick Nairne had a hand, those are quite tough words. For the Foreign Secretary to believe that that criticism of the Government does not even deserve consideration is utterly unjustified.

It is the Prime Minister herself who must carry the major responsibility for not giving the Falkland Islands problem the importance it deserved in terms of consideration in Cabinet. She must also carry a special responsibility because it was she who said in this House more than a year ago when she rejected the demand to keep HMS Endurance in the area:

“other claims on the defence budget should have greater priority.” —[Official Report, 9 February 1982; Vol. 17, c. 857.]

It would have cost £3 million to keep HMS Endurance in the area, out of a total defence budget for the year of more than £12,000 million. For the Prime Minister to suggest in public that there was no way, in a budget of more than [column 927]£12,000 million, that £3 million could be found to keep HMS Endurance on without damaging interests of greater priority was the clearest signal to the Argentine Government that we did not consider it to be an important matter. I do not believe that in the light of those facts the Government can seriously claim that they gave the Falklands adequate priority.

I shall now deal with whether we might have persuaded GeneralGaltieri out of invasion if we had sent different signals to him. This ground was well traversed in this House and the other place yesterday in some extremely penetrating speeches, especially from Opposition Members here and from both sides of the House in the other place. What has emerged is that the prime responsibility for any errors of omission or commission does not lie with Foreign Office officials or with the Foreign Secretary. Indeed, I noticed today that the Foreign Secretary is trying to turn the Franks report to the advantage of the Foreign Office, and in the same way as the Royal Navy tried to turn the Falklands war to its advantage. I do not blame him for that. He has suffered too much from some of his neighbours recently in that regard.

A real responsibility lies with other Departments of Government—it is itemised in the Franks report—and especially with the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister. Responsibility also lies with the Home Secretary because the decision to strip of British citizenship the very islanders on whom our claim to sovereignty rests, and whose families have been there for at least four generations, was extraordinarily ill judged. Moreover, it has still not been put right. There is a private Member's Bill on the subject that awaits time which the Government will not give it.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)


Mr. Healey

The Government have taken that line on the Falkland Islands because of the repercussions involved. If they do something for the Falkland Islanders, they must do the same for the citizens of Gibraltar and Hong Kong.

Mr. Shersby


Mr. Healey

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will let me finish this point. In committing herself to the Fortress Falklands policy that now prevails, the Prime Minister has taken no account of its repercussions on Gibraltar and Hong Kong. If she believes that she can treat the Falkland Islanders as a special case in this instance, there is no reason why she should not do the same and have done the same in the case of British citizenship.

Mr. Shersby

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I am the hon. Member who intends to promote the Bill to which he has referred? I voted against the Government throughout the passage of the British Nationality Bill and did my best to secure British citizenship for the Falkland Islanders, but the Opposition voted the other way. The Opposition did not support British citizenship for the Falkland Islanders, so it is no good the right hon. Gentleman trying to pretend otherwise. He should ask his hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley) and his right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) about that. Moreover, the Division lists will show how they voted.

[column 928]

Mr. Healey

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), through the osmotic process from which hon. Members on the Front Benches are able to benefit, has told me that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) did not vote against citizenship for the Falkland Islanders alone but against British citizenship for all the categories that I have mentioned.

My point is that, in view of the threat to the Falklands that successive Governments have reckoned to exist, there was a case for making an exception for the Falkland Islanders, despite the repercussions. There is no doubt—Franks makes the point—that the Government's decision to strip the islanders of British citizenship was seen as another sign of the extremely low priority that the Government gave the problem.

Mr. Shersby

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Healey

No, I have dealt with that point.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Healey

No, with respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I should like to deal with another point. I have given way a great deal. [Hon. Members: “Oh” .] Very well, I shall give way to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) whose views on this subject and others never cease to startle me.

Mr. Powell

As one who both moved and voted for amendments on the Bill to confer British citizenship on those inhabitants of the Falkland Islands who did not possess it, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that nothing happened in that Bill which stripped those islanders of any status in this country which they had under the existing law. The right hon. Gentleman is mistaken.

Mr. Healey

I am afraid that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, whom I was invited to consult on that matter, tells me that the right hon. Gentleman is again mistaken.

The major responsibility for the errors of omission that led General Galtieri to believe that he could invade the islands with impunity lies with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence. They decided, against the advice of the Foreign Office, the Falkland Islanders, our ambassador in Argentina and a substantial part of the House—both Conservative and Opposition Back Benches—to remove HMS Endurance, which was a symbol of our defence commitment. More important than that, they decided to get rid of those ships on which any effective military reaction to invasion must depend—HMS Invincible and two assault ships.

We could not have carried out the reconquest of the islands as in the end we did if it had not been for those decisions which were supported by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, but which were opposed by the Foreign Secretary.

In yesterday's debate in the other place, in as clear and cogent a speech as he always makes, Lord Carver said that HMS Endurance was the casualty of in-fighting in Whitehall. But it is the Prime Minister's responsibility to deal with in-fighting in Whitehall. The Foreign Office was right and so were the Falkland Islanders, the ambassador [column 929]and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) to say that that would be seen in Argentina as a symbol of disinterest—and so it was.

The central charge is that once the Government had retreated into what our ambassador called Micawberism, and had decided to string along the Argentines in talks without any clear objective, the risk of invasion without warning became real. It had been predicted by the last JIC report in 1981 and it was expected by the Government by the end of 1982. It is from that point—the last 18 months of the story—that the fecklessness of the Government passes belief.

There was no ministerial discussion of the problem. It emerges clearly between the lines of the Franks report, and from what the Foreign Secretary said in interviews, that the Foreign Secretary saw no point in having a meeting of OD unless he could first detach the Prime Minister from the Secretary of State for Defence. He sent a whole series of minutes in an attempt to change her mind. She did not do so, and in the court of the empress, if the empress is against one, there is no point in the grand vizier calling a meeting of the Privy Council.

A disturbing remark was made by Sir Michael Palliser, the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, in a television discussion involving himself, me, and the right hon. Member for Down, South a few days ago. Justifying the fact that there had not been any discussion, Sir Michael said:

“On … March 18th or 19th, events began in South Georgia, and I think it was that which actually helped to trigger an Argentine invasion, which would otherwise, more probably, have taken place later—not least because it would have been a much better time, to do it later, from their point of view, for obvious reasons” .

The “obvious reasons” were the withdrawal of Endurance, the disappearance of Invincible to the Australian navy and the withdrawal of two assault carriers.

Sir Michael was interrupted by the right hon. Member for Down, South, in a state of some excitment, who said:

“… would have taken place.”

Sir Michael said that they thought there would be a slow escalation of pressure from the Argentine Government. He added:

“And at that point it is quite clear to me that Lord Carrington would have had to say to his colleagues: We now have the option either in effect giving way to Argentina—which is politically, morally and in every other way unacceptable—or of sending a proper force down there to defend that place. And I think that that was probably what was in his mind, in waiting for the psychological moment to do it.”

If we are to believe Sir Michael 's account of the position a year ago, the Foreign Secretary saw no opportunity to change the Prime Minister's mind unless the Argentines first escalated the conflict. He hoped at that stage to achieve some collective consideration and a shift in the Prime Minister's position. The question we must ask ourselves is, supposing the invasion had arisen not in March but in September or October, what precisely did the Foreign Secretary plan to do about it? By that time we would have been unable to assemble the task force that the chiefs of staff judged necessary. That was made clear by Admiral Sandy Woodward in interviews not long ago. If we had waited until the end of the year, when the Foreign Office expected an invasion, we would have been unable to resist it. Certainly we would not have had a force [column 930]capable of repossessing the islands or of defeating a full-scale attack. And those are the only purposes for which the Government apparently considered it sensible to send a force.

Another point deserves consideration. A full-scale assault in the sense of a simultaneous attack by all arms of the Argentine forces was never the real problem. When the Argentines finally invaded the islands, they did so with a comparatively small force of marines. Yet at that time we did not even have sufficient explosives on the islands to crater the airfield. The result was that the Argentines used the intervening weeks before the task force arrived to build up a formidable force of arms on the islands. Our Harrier and Vulcan bombers—which were apparently sent there only to give Bomber Command a part of the action—wholly failed to deny the Argentines the use of the airstrip, even when the battle was engaged.

As a result, we faced a difficult and dangerous position when we had to reconquer the islands. It might have gone wrong. The chiefs of staff warned the Prime Minister that it would at best be a precarious affair, and so it proved. The Prime Minister misunderstood the nature of deterrence. She appeared to agree with me when I said in a debate last summer that an ounce of deterrence was worth a ton of defence. To deter an antagonist, we need a force sufficient to convince him that he will in any case suffer substantial losses if he attacks, with a significant risk of escalation. That could have been provided much more simply than the Government pretend.

The best witness of that is Lord Admiral Hill-Norton, who said last week, with all the authority of an ex-chief of defence staff and also ex-naval attaché in Buenos Aires:

“leaving aside the tragic loss of 255 lives and nearly 800 wounded on our side, while it might have cost possibly £10 million to deter that aggression, it has cost £2 or £3 billion to defeat it.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 1983; Vol. 437, c. 1208.]

That is the burden of the charge against the Government, which they have not made any attempt to meet in all the debates over many months.

Late in the day, after the landings on South Georgia, the Government at last began to act. Because there had been no prodding from the Prime Minister, it took the chiefs of staff from shortly after 3 March until 26 March to give the Prime Minister advice. She told us yesterday that she received that advice on 26 March. She did then act. I shall quote what the right hon. Lady said in yesterday's debate because it nowhere emerges in the report. She said:

“On 29 March we sent a nuclear submarine, and on 31 March we sent seven warships from off Gibraltar. They were not to act on their own. They were to await the full aircraft carrier force. In view of the chiefs of staff's advice that a deterrent force would require an aircraft carrier, and that to win would require a much bigger force, I was anxious that we should not put people in jeopardy. We should have sufficient forces to protect them the whole time.” —[Official Report, 25 January 1983; Vol. 39, c. 804.]

What does that imply? Is it that the Government had decided to send a task force—rightly so—on Monday of the week in which the invasion took place on the Friday?

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)


Mr. Healey

I quoted the Prime Minister's words.

The Prime Minister

It was decided to send the nuclear submarine on the Monday.

Mr. Healey

The Prime Minister said that she sent seven warships from off Gibraltar on the Wednesday, [column 931] which were to be part of a larger force and should not act on their own. It made no sense to send them unless they were to be part of a larger force that she was planning to send. She was right to do so.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Denis HealeyGentleman will remember that it was on the Wednesday night that we received the raw intelligence and on the Wednesday night that we decided to alert preparations for a task force. As ships were exercising off Gibraltar, we decided to send them on their way. They were not to act on their own. I think that that is mentioned in the Franks report. They would have had no function unless there had later been a task force. The decision to send a task force was taken by Cabinet.

Mr. Healey

The right hon. Lady confirms my point. I quoted what she had said, and she has just confirmed it.

The one part of the Franks report that is totally inadequate is paragraph 333, a “final warning to Argentina” . The first warning was given on 23 March by the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce). All that he was able to say—it was almost an invitation to invasion at that time—was that it was

“the duty of this Government and of any British Government to defend and support the islanders to the best of their ability.” —[Official Report, 23 March 1982; Vol. 20, c. 799.]

As we had no ability at that time, and the Argentines knew it, that was not a very formidable warning.

The next step was taken on 25 March, when the British ambassador warned the Foreign Secretary of Argentina

“that Britain was committed to the defence of … sovereignty in South Georgia as elsewhere.”

That was not terribly impressive either. Then, when

“a threat to the Falkland Islands themselves was perceived, the Prime Minister contacted President Reagan on 31 March”

By that time, the Prime Minister had had the raw intelligence and had, according to what she said yesterday, sent seven warships from off Gibraltar to be part of a larger force. She took no steps whatever to warn the Argentine Government that they would face such opposition if they attacked. She made no contact with them at all. She merely rang her friend, President Reagan, who at some stage telephoned President Galtieri. I believe that it took him 24 hours to make that telephone call. It did not take place until 1 April, although that is not stated in the report.

The President

“stated forcefully that action against the Falklands would be regarded by the British as a casus belli.

It was not wise to entrust President Reagan with that phrase. We do not know whether, at his end of the telephone 8,000 miles away, President Galtieri understood it. As, at that time, the Foreign Secretary had decided to send a task force, why on earth did the right hon. Lady not tell Galtieri so? If she had told him, it is overwhelmingly probable that, at the last minute, he would have ordered his ships not to invade.

That is the main burden of the case against the Government for fecklessness and irresponsibility in dealing with a threat that they knew to exist. Now we are stuck with the Fortress Falklands policy because there is no alternative, and everyone agrees that it is the worst of all worlds. There is no chance of the Falkland Islanders restoring even the semblance of normal peaceful life while they have to accept a garrison on such a scale. As Lord Shackleton pointed out, the islanders have no chance of leading a normal life unless, somehow, normal relations with the Latin American mainland can be restored. [column 932]

The Government's position on Fortress Falklands is somewhat obscure. The Prime Minister was unequivocal and absolute about it, as she always is when she knows what she thinks. Fortress Falklands is the policy; there is no alternative. The Foreign Secretary said in an interview on Friday, however, that Fortress Falklands was the wrong way to describe the situation, which is really like our situation in Britain. We have some forces to defend us, and so do the islanders. Our forces in this country, however, do not outnumber us by four to one.

The most interesting remark, which I fully applaud, was made by Lord Belstead in a debate in another place on 17 January. He said that the Government had no desire to keep a permanent military base in the south Atlantic. He suggested that, once Argentina agreed to renounce the use of force in pursuit of sovereignty, Britain would be able to reduce its forces. What he went on to say was wise, and has been said by many people in the debate. He said:

“I do not think that this is the time or the occasion on which to speculate about future political developments. The islanders themselves will have their own views, but at present they still need time to recover from the physical and psychological after effects of the Argentine invasion.”

He went on to say, using words that we often use when we are in government:

“We remain fully committed to consulting them in due course and to respecting their own wishes about their political future.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 1983; Vol. 437, c. 1267.]

Those are the words that the right hon. Member for Devonport recommended to the Government, and which were rejected by the Prime Minister in an exchange yesterday. There was no mention of paramountcy. Lord Belstead said that we were fully committed.

“to consulting them in due course and to respecting their own wishes about their political future.”

That phrase was always used by the previous Labour Government when they discussed those matters. It was hardened up to such an extent that it made negotiation extremely difficult over the past few years. None of us can pretend that the time is right for a new attempt to solve this problem by negotiation, but the time must come. When it comes——

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has made some remarks about paramountcy. The right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) in the famous cross-examination on 2 December 1980, speaking of the wishes of the Falkland Islanders, said to the Minister of State:

“Their wishes are surely not just ‘guidance’ to the British Government. Surely, they must be of paramount importance. Has the hon. Gentleman made that absolutely clear to the Argentine Government?” —[Official Report, 2 December 1980; Vol. 995, c. 129.]

Mr. Healey

The right hon. Lady is well aware that I do not share the views of my right hon. Friend on that matter. Nor did the previous Labour Government. However, the Prime Minister must not seek to evade her responsibilities about what her deputy Foreign Secretary said in another place eight days ago. That is an important matter. The right hon. Member for Devonport made that clear in his exchange with the Prime Minister yesterday.

What worries us most of all about this affair and what emerges most clearly from a study of the report and of the facts that I have put before the House is that on this, as on other issues, the right hon. Lady switches from feckless [column 933]Micawberism to an inflexible and bellicose rigidity and a rejection of consensus, which it is the aim of diplomacy to achieve.

That was well described by Lord Carrington in yesterday's debate when he talked about people who

“carry chauvinism and insularity to such a degree that one almost feels they disapprove of anyone in the Foreign Office talking to a foreigner.”

The Foreign Secretary is familiar with that. Lord Carrington went on to say:

“But the alternative to negotiation is confrontation. In general, confrontation is not in the interests of the country, is extremely expensive and very often in the long run leads to war.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 January 1983; Vol. 438, c. 160–1.]

The style and temperament of the Prime Minister is incompatible with the successful handling of our domestic policies. It is a total disaster when it is applied to foreign affairs.