Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

HC S: [Falkland Islands (Franks Report)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [35/984-90]
Editorial comments: 1135-2200.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3449
Themes: Executive, Defence (Falklands War, 1982), Trade, Foreign policy (USA)
[column 984]

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

Throughout this two-day debate there has been total agreement on both sides of the House that the campaign itself was brilliantly conducted and bravely fought. One was grateful throughout that time for the total support of hon. Members from all parts of the House.

We listened with particular interest to the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Atkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce), who both resigned when the invasion occurred because they believed that it was the right and honourable thing to do.

I shall comment on one or two of the things said by the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin). At the beginning of his speech he commented upon selling arms to Argentina. I can only remind him that both this Government and his have been responsible for that. I have a list: eight ex-RAF Canberras were sold to Argentina in 1968, two type 42 destroyers were contracted in May 1970 and two Lynx helicopters in January 1976. Both Governments sold Sea Dart surface-to-air missiles. We have both been guilty of selling arms to Argentina. Both of us tried to cultivate friendly relations with the Argentines. Franks said that he thought that that was part of a signal to the Argentines, but we were both trying steadily to get closer relations with them and to co-operate more with them.

The right hon. Members for Deptford and for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) referred once again to HMS Endurance. [column 985]The right hon. Member for Leeds, East quoted what Lord Carver said about Endurance. I shall complete that quotation. He said:

“Let us remember that ‘Endurance’ was not withdrawn. ‘Endurance’ was there and had not the slightest effect upon the invasion” .—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 January 1983; Vol. 438, c. 178.]

That is the fact of the matter. The right hon. Member for Deptford has spent a great deal of time talking about Endurance. Obviously, I wish that we had kept it. In fact, we have kept it. I wish that we had said that we would keep it, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence indicated, and as I thought I had indicated when I opened the debate yesterday.

We were not the first Government to say in a defence review that we would no longer keep Endurance in deployment. Having made that decision, nor were we the first Government to go back on it and say that it would stay. The fact was that Endurance was always going to stay until the end of that summer. She would always have been deployed until the middle of April. There was never any question of her leaving before then. The fact is also that Endurance is there for only about four months of the year, after which she comes back to this country and goes down again for the summer months. As Lord Carver said, Endurance was there when the invasion occurred. It was there previously when shots were fired across the bows of the RRS Shackleton. She was not a deterrent. However, she will remain deployed during those months of the year.

The right hon. Members for Deptford and for Leeds, East commented that the task force could not have been assembled by the end of the year. It is not the case that the task force could not have sailed by the end of 1982. HMS Invincible would still have been in the Royal Navy. She was not due to be handed over to the Australians until late 1983, so she would still have not been handed over and the task force could still have sailed this year. The assault ships HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid had already been reprieved, as the former Defence Secretary told the House on 8 March, by the time of the Argentine invasion. By the time that HMS Invincible would have been due to go to the Australians, HMS Illustrious and HMS Hermes would both have been on station, with HMS Ark Royal coming in later. It is not true that the task force could not have sailed later.

The right hon. Member for Deptford made some comment, as did the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), about the paramountcy of the islanders' wishes. I hope that there will be no change in policy about this, because the policy has been the same for many years. At the beginning of the Franks report it is said that the then Michael Steward, now Lord Steward, made a statement in the House following the end of the first round of negotiations in which Lord Chalfont was involved. Those were terminated, but fresh ones had started and Mr. Stewart made a statement to Parliament

“which announced the decision to continue negotiations and which confirmed that the British Government would continue to insist on ther paramountcy of the Islanders' wishes.”

That was in 1968.

The right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), in his cross-examination of my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary on 2 December 1980, made it clear that he, and I therefore assume his party, still believed in the paramountcy of the islanders' wishes. He said: [column 986]

“The Minister was asked a few moments ago whether, if the islanders were to opt for the status quo, that would then be the Government's view on the matter and they would sustain it. He did not give clear reply to that. If the Government are to honour their commitment that the views and wishes of the Falkland Islanders are to be paramount, which is the word which has been used hitherto, he must assure the House and the Falkland Islanders that the principle of paramountcy of their wishes about their future will be sustained by the British Government.” —[Official Report, 2 December 1980; Vol. 995, c. 134.]

I think that the right hon. Member believed that, and when the campaign began I think that I heard the right hon. Member for Leeds, East say that the Labour party still believed in paramountcy. I hope that no one is trying to slide out of it now. It is fundamental to the islanders' belief.

I noticed that there was one occasion on which the right hon. Member for Devonport did not use the word when he made a statement to the House, and used the word “consult” instead. When the islanders rejected the scheme to have joint co-operation on scientific work on another dependency in addition to Southern Thule, saying that there would be Argentine occupation of South Georgia and Southern Thule, the right hon. Gentleman accepted that, and the negotiations broke down. That was not the only time that the negotiations broke down. Sometimes Labour Members have spoken as if there have been negotiations all the time. That was not so, and there were times when they broke down completely.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, East quoted Lord Hill-Norton as saying that £10 million would have been sufficient to deter. I cannot imagine what anyone thinks £10 million would have bought in terms of deterrence, compared with the enormous number of things that were needed on the islands, and which we are now having to carry out to deter properly.

Both the right hon. Member for Deptford and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) referred to the warning to Galtieri and suggested that I might have done something stronger than get on to the President of the United States. However, by the time that we did that, diplomatic relations had virtually broken down because of the incident on South Georgia. The relationship between our ambassador there and Costa Mendez was such that Costa Mendez was saying that the diplomatic channel was closed.

The right hon. Gentlemen will also know, and the evidence is cited throughout the report, that the Argentines attach enormous importance to their relationship with the United States, which they had continuously been cultivating for a considerable time. It seemed to be obvious to get on to the most powerful President in the world, of whom they thought highly and with whom they were trying to achieve closer relations.

It was absolutely right, under those circumstances, to get on to President Reagan. The sequence of events was very interesting. After putting representations through the United States' ambassador in Buenos Aires, President Reagan himself tried to telephone President Galtieri. It is interesting that President Galtieri refused to take that telephone call for some four hours. It was thought afterwards, as information reached us, that this was the four hours in which the junta was meeting and deciding, come hell or high water, that it was going to invade. It was only after that that Galtieri took the telephone call from President Reagan who was on to him for nearly an hour and told him in no uncertain terms that Britain would [column 987]regard this as a casus belli. The right hon. Member for Leeds, East had fun with that. I doubt whether there is anyone who does not know, in that position, what a casus belli means. Galtieri knew full well what it meant.

President Reagan also said that it would have a great effect on Argentina's relations with the United States, which Argentina valued, as we now know that it did. It was only the headlong determination of the junta to invade that caused Galtieri to reject President Reagan's pleas and also caused him to reject President Reagan's offer to send Vice-President Bush down there to try to find a solution to the problem. The junta was absolutely determined to invade. Nothing, but nothing, would deflect it from its course of action.

A number of hon. Members have analysed carefully the position as it was in early March long before the South Georgia incident. The South Georgia incident started on 19 March. It was not serious for some time because, after Argentina had put its people on to South Georgia at Leith, the next news was that it had taken a large number off. Many hon. Members have focused on the period in early March as the turning point. They have tried to show that there was clear evidence that a crisis was upon us, that Argentina had given up hope of negotiation, that it should have been assumed that Argentina was turning to the military option then and therefore that immediate military dispositions should have been made.

That has substantially been the argument. It seems to me that those who mount the argument fall headlong into the trap that Lord Franks wisely avoided—the trap of hindsight. Those who use that argument start from the point that the invasion occurred on 2 April. They have looked for any sentences in the report that could possibly bear on that point. They cite selectively the final paragraph of the JIC report in 1981 to build up a picture suggesting that the Government should have known that an invasion was imminent and that they should therefore have dispatched ships. The argument simply does not hold water.

The true sequence of events is clear from the report. Talks had been held in New York in February 1982. The report, as many hon. Members have noted, compliments my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham on his conduct of the talks. There was first a joint communiqué recording that the meeting took place in a cordial and positive spirit and that both sides reaffirmed their resolve to find a solution to the dispute. Then a unilateral communiqué was issued in Buenos Aires upon which much comment has centred. Undoubtedly, this represented a hardening of Argentina's attitude. I gave many instances yesterday of previous hardening of Argentine attitudes. The Government fully recognised that at the time. The Buenos Aires communiqué recorded the proposal made in New York to establish a system of monthly meetings. The unilateral communiqué described the system as an effective step for the early solution of the dispute. That does not sound like negotiations breaking down.

Mr. Dalyell

If it is a matter of hindsight, why did the Prime Minister in her own handwriting—according to paragraphs 152 and 147—write on the telegram to the ambassador in Buenos Aires:

“we must make contingency plans” ?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am coming to that precise point. [column 988]

There was a press campaign in Buenos Aires, as there had been on several previous occasions, and it is that to which the hon. Gentleman is referring. Again, using hindsight selectively, that has been portrayed as another clear warning of imminent invasion. It was not so. An Argentine Government source was quoted

“as saying that parallel plans had been formulated in case the proposed meetings did not produce sufficient progress towards a solution”

—again a reference to negotiations. [Interruption]. This is what the report says in paragraph 139, and the hon. Gentleman should read it:

“These included recourse to the United Nations and the breaking off of economic and political relations. The source preferred, however, ‘at the moment’ to discount suggestions of Argentina's using force to resolve the dispute” .

The famous article in La Prensa

“speculated … that, if present tactics were unproductive, a first step might be to cut off services to the Islands followed by a progressive cooling of bilateral relations” .

The report went on to say that in the longer run

“There would be no flexibility in Argentina's minimum demand for restitution of sovereignty before the 150th anniversary” ,

and that is why I wrote on the top of the telegram

“we must make contingency plans” .

Let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. It seems that a number of hon. Members think that just because one writes to the chiefs of staff and says that we must make contingency plans they could overcome all the fundamental geography or the fundamental fact that the islands are 7,000 miles away and that one can only reinforce them from Ascension.

Mr. Dalyell


The Prime Minister

No. The fact was—[Interruption].

Mr. Speaker


The Prime Minister

The fact was, and the report refers to it, that

“no Government was prepared to establish a garrison on the Falklands large enough to repel a full-scale Argentine invasion, or to provide an extended runway for the airfield, with supporting facilities”

and without that it was not possible to have a rapid contingency plan that would have overcome all the geography. The right hon. Gentleman's Government did not. We did not. We needed a full airfield, a full airstrip, fully defended, fully equipped with aircraft, and a full garrison in residence to have effective contingency plans. It is absolutely a travesty and thoroughly misleading to suggest that merely by sending a nuclear submarine and a couple of frigates one could have overcome all of the difficulties to which the chiefs of staff referred time and time again—time and time again—in the four papers that are referred to in the report, which were all similar, and which all had the warning “If you are going to deter without that you will have to send a full aircraft carrier force and that might not be enough when you get there. Therefore you need a very much larger task force.” That, eventually, is what we had to send. I said yesterday that to make effective contingency plans we should have had to send 104 ships and 26,000 men, but I doubt whether Opposition Members would ever have accepted that. [Interruption].

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. Foulkes


[column 989]

The Prime Minister

I want to say a word about the future. [Interruption]. That is totally and absolutely untrue, and I must ask the hon. Member to withdraw. [Hon. Members: “Withdraw” .]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I did not hear the hon. Gentleman's remark.

The Prime Minister

I think that I, too, then can turn a deaf ear.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made use of the phrase “Fortress Falklands” as if it were a policy in itself. It is not. If the Falkland are at present a fortress it is purely and simply a state of affairs caused by the Argentine aggression of 2 April and by our determination that that aggression will not be repeated.

Our policy is to create conditions in which the islanders can live happy, prosperous and free lives under a Government of their choosing. Much time is needed in order to fulfil that policy in all its aspects. There is a great deal to be done to restore normality to the lives of the islanders after the brutal shock of invasion and occupation. From my visit to the islands I can testify to the extent of the disruption and the time and effort that will be needed to re-create normal life and enhance the community's prosperity.

First and foremost, the Argentine Government must commit themselves formally and unequivocally to a cessation of hostilities. That has not happened. Even in the past few weeks we have been exposed to contradictory statements from Buenos Aires and New York, some bellicose and threatening, some denying hostile intent—again, the same double-sided approach. That does not create confidence either for me or, I suggest, the House and the islanders. If and when Argentina makes a clear declaration that hostilities are at an end, there will have to be a period in which I hope that they will be prepared to work towards full normalisation of our bilateral relations. That, too, is bound to take time. Meanwhile, it is obviously premature for either the islanders or ourselves to speculate, as has been done both in the House and in the media, about specific policies for the long-term future.

At this stage I shall say only that I have been urged by certain Labour Members to enter into negotiations with Argentina. About what? It is obvious that the Argentines see negotiations solely as a means of achieving the direct transfer of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands and the dependencies to Argentina. That is totally unacceptable to us and the islanders and no amount of pressure will induce me to enter into negotiations on that basis.

In opening the debate yesterday I reminded the House that within a week of the Argentine invasion I announced that a review would be held of the way in which the Government discharged their responsibilities in the period that preceded 2 April 1982. The Government wanted an inquiry of absolute integrity and independence. Therefore, I sought one of our most distinguished public figures, Lord Franks, as chairman. His name was agreed with the Opposition parties. The right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) described him as a man of outstanding ability and experience. I suggested a former permanent secretary, Sir Patrick Nairne, who was also agreed by the Opposition parties. I suggested two Privy Councillors from each of the main political parties. The Leader of the Opposition named two and I proposed two former Conservative Cabinet Ministers. I then suggested [column 990]terms of reference and they were agreed by the Opposition. No Prime Minister has ever gone further in submitting a Government's record to scrutiny and investigation.

I always believed that the Government could not have foreseen the invasion and that they could not be blamed for the unprovoked aggression of the Argentine Government, but I was prepared to put that belief under the microscope of an inquiry. No one who has spoken in this debate, and that applies to me as well, has seen or heard more than a fraction of the evidence that was available to that committee. Its composition, its deliberately wide terms of reference, the mass of evidence available to it, and the thoroughness with which the inquiry was conducted give to the Franks report a unique authority. That report exonerates Her Majesty's Government on the two central issues. The invasion of the Falkland Islands could neither have been foreseen nor prevented.

In effect, the Opposition reject the report's findings. They reject a unanimous report which their representatives signed without reservation. Of course, for the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) the report is a bitter pill to swallow. He pointed out that his noble Friend Lord Lever of Manchester and his right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) retained

“the right to make their own independent assessment and to produce their own report if they so wish.” — [Official Report, 8 July 1982; Vol. 27, c. 477.]

By its amendment tonight, the Labour party is condemned. Just think what the Opposition would be saying if the position were reversed. Just imagine if the Franks report had turned against the Government and I was standing at the Dispatch Box rejecting the findings and quarrelling with the conclusions, refusing to accept the referee's decision. Like the Leader of the Opposition, I agreed the members of the committee and the terms of reference so that an impartial judgment could be made of all that we had done. We placed our reputation in the committee's hands and the Government accept the verdict.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 240, Noes 292.