Piracy has always driven our policy in the Falklands

Today the Falklands war looks more like a shoddy little adventure to save Thatcher's govenment
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The Independent Culture
THE IRONY of having a visit from the President of Argentina while the former president of Chile is under arrest has already provoked Mrs Thatcher into another of her increasingly deranged outbursts. Coupled with the embarrassing debacle of President Menem's on-again off-again apology in his Sun article (ghost writer, A Campbell), it reawakens all the questions that still remain unresolved 16 years after Mrs Thatcher's South Atlantic war.

Conrad Black's Daily Telegraph relieved the uneasy among us by informing its readers that while Pinochet had indeed overthrown the elected government of Chile this "statement, while literally accurate, is misleading". The mitigating factors appear to be that the government did not have more than about 36 per cent of the vote, and did not stick to its manifesto commitments.

For those too young to have lived through the Falklands war and the jingoism it reawakened, reading about those events must seem quite bizarre. What earthly reason possessed Britain to go to war over two remote islands, populated by just 2,000 people (half of whom were Ministry of Defence employees on general monitoring duties)? Although the rest of Europe looked on in bemused amazement at the gun-boat politics, here in Britain critics of the war were never in any doubt about just how small a minority of the British population we were representing.

In those years I was endlessly speaking at Labour and trade union meetings, and whereas I always found overwhelming support for the GLC's transport and anti-racist policies, and even for our negotiations with the leaders of Sinn Fein, whenever I spelt out my opposition to our war in the Falklands, 80 per cent of my audience would recoil in shock. How on earth could a socialist not resist a Fascist military junta that had tortured and murdered so many thousands of Argentinian socialists and trade unionists?

Of course, it would have been so much easier for the critics of the war if Argentina had been led by humane democrats, but in times of international crisis that is a luxury few politicians are ever likely to have on their side. In such circumstances the debate could have focused solely on the record of our colonial history in the area. Indeed, that is precisely what happened when, shortly before the Second World War, Neville Chamberlain's government commissioned a secret report, which still remains classified to this day.

The conclusions of the report devastatingly revealed that Britain had no chance of winning its case for ownership of the Falklands in an independent international judicial tribunal, given our history of piracy and aggression against Argentina, which was the only basis of our occupation of the islands. The report showed that the first settlement of the islands was by France in 1764, but after protests from Spain, the French withdrew and handed them over to the Spanish, receiving cash compensation for so doing.

Almost immediately Britain established a small settlement on the main western island, but she was rapidly expelled by Spanish action in 1770. In the negotiations that followed Spain allowed Britain to return, in exchange for a secret undertaking that Britain would quietly withdraw once the dispute was no longer in the public eye; an undertaking which was honoured by British withdrawal in 1774.

In 1776 Spain transferred the administration of the Falkland Islands to Buenos Aires and, following the declaration of independence in 1816, Argentina appointed a governor of the islands who continued in control until 1832, when Britain invaded and expelled the local Argentinian population. From that time until the present day, Argentina rather understandably has never accepted Britain's seizure of the islands.

Of course, these facts were not relayed to the British people either by the parliamentary opposition to Mrs Thatcher, or by the mass media. Indeed, even Britain's political moves towards Argentina shortly before the war were rapidly airbrushed from the record.

It was far too embarrassing for Mrs Thatcher's government to admit that following her 1979 election victory she dispatched Nicholas Ridley to negotiate with the Argentinian generals a joint sovereignty deal aimed at finally ending this long-running source of conflict with an otherwise sympathetic state.

He was sent to negotiate a deal in essence because Britain has no real long-term interest in the Falklands. Ironically, it was the Labour Party front bench that led the attack on Ridley's proposed deal and, in alliance with Tory right-wingers, forced it off the political agenda.

Mrs Thatcher's fondness for General Pinochet is not simply because he was able to deal with his trade union leaders with a finality that Mrs Thatcher could only dream about. Without the help of the Chilean regime, there is every possibility that Mrs Thatcher's task force could have been defeated. In such an event it is unlikely that she would have survived as prime minister. This is why she stalled all the way through the American brokered compromise, and then authorised the sinking of the Belgrano.

In rejecting the American-brokered compromise and insisting on a military victory, Mrs Thatcher saved her political career, but at the cost of 250 British dead. As Neil Kinnock memorably put it in 1983, when told that Mrs Thatcher had guts: "Yes, but it's a pity that others had to spill out their guts on Goose Green in order to prove it." The Argentinians, of course, lost at least 750 of their troops.

If anything, the argument that Pinochet's helpful role in saving Mrs Thatcher's skin during the Falklands war is a reason for letting this "frail" old man go in fact undermines not the case for extraditing him, but for the war itself. The Telegraph, and Mrs Thatcher herself, have admitted that their war was waged with the help of a man whose repression was staggering, even by the standards of a continent that has had more than its fair share of political violence. There are around 4,000 documented murders under Pinochet's dictatorship, which in all probability represent just the tip of the iceberg.

In retrospect, the Falklands war looks more like the shoddy little adventure to save Thatcher's government than it seemed to be at the time. And if I were a senior Tory politician, I do not think that the focus groups would be likely to be telling me positive things about my party's association with the old brute. Or even General Pinochet.