Thatcher confidential: The untold story of the Falklands War

Newly released papers reveal a startling lack of unity in Government circles over how to respond to the 1982 Argentine invasion

Six months before the invasion of the Falkland Islands, British intelligence looked at the situation and – not for the last time – made a wrong call. “The Argentine government would prefer to pursue their sovereignty claim by peaceful means,” they reported.

That unhelpful advice from the spooks is one of many revelations in the latest batch of Margaret Thatcher’s private papers, released today, which also shed light on the political turmoil that the invasion created among Conservative MPs and the contradictory advice given to Mrs Thatcher – ranging from a demand for blood to be split, to a suggestion that the islanders should be generously bribed to accept Argentinian rule.

Top brass were happy to hear that they need not fear a military invasion of the islands, because they worried that they would not be able to get them back by force. “Such a deployment would be very expensive,” a secret memo from the defence chiefs warned in September 1981. “Their geographical advantage and the relative sophistication of their armed forces would put our own task group at a serious disadvantage.”

In January 1982, Mrs Thatcher wrote to the Tory MP Richard Needham, defending the decision to scrap the only British warship in the vicinity of the Falklands, HMS Endurance. The government needed to save money.

Three months later, with Endurance in the wrong place and the Falklands under Argentine occupation, her government was plunged into what contemporaries saw as the worst overseas crisis since the loss of the Suez Canal.

Over the next few days, Mrs Thatcher received three memos from the Chief Whip, Michael Jopling, keeping her informed of how Tory MPs were reacting to the crisis. They ranged from “my constituents want blood”, from the late Peter Mills, MP for Devon West, to “please no blood”, from another MP, David Crouch – whereas the late Robert Rhodes James, a historian turned Tory MP, was apparently “hopelessly defeatist, depressed and disloyal”.

Kenneth Clarke, then a junior minister, said he “hopes nobody thinks we are going to fight the Argentinians. We should blow up a few ships, but nothing more.” One of his aides said: “His actual view was that he supported the invasion and very much hoped that there wasn’t going to be a full-scale war with Argentina.”

Chris Patten, now chairman of the BBC Trust, promised to “write a supportive article in the press once the situation is clearer”.

Later Jopling supplied a breakdown of the various factions forming within the party, from the “no surrender group” headed by Alan Clark, to “the Falkland Islands are not worth all this trouble” and “do not fire a shot in anger” groups, whose leader was the former Cabinet minister Sir Ian Gilmour, and whose members included Stephen Dorrell, now a senior backbench Tory, who was described as “wobbly”.

Also among the documents released by the Margaret Thatcher Archive Trust are 22 pages of near-illegible notes taken by her parliamentary aide, Ian Gow, during an explosive meeting of backbench MPs the day after the invasion.

The members vented their anger at the Foreign Office, particularly the hapless minister Sir Humphrey Atkins, who was accused of giving wrong information to the Commons. He mistakenly told the House that an attack was not imminent, hours after Argentinian troops had taken Port Stanley. “How could even an office boy at the FO say this?” the MP John Carlisle demanded, to “prolonged cheers”.

Under attack from fellow MPs and the newspapers, Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington and his two junior ministers promptly resigned. The papers show that Mrs Thatcher did not want to lose Carrington and had to battle to keep her Defence Secretary, John Nott, from resigning as well. One of the ex-ministers, Richard Luce, had a self-justifying session with Gow a few days later, during which he claimed that a former Labour Foreign Secretary, George Brown, had told his Argentinian counterpart that “Britain did not give a damn about the Falkland Islands”.

If that was the considered FO’s view in the 1960s, it was not all that different from the privately expressed views of some of Mrs Thatcher’s closest advisers. Alan Walters, her economic adviser, urged her to avoid conflict by getting Argentina to pay compensation to the islanders. “This jingo mood will pass,” he forecast.

A lengthy memo from her Chief of Staff, David Wolfson, suggested the islanders be given a “US-backed guarantee” that if they did not like living under Argentine rule, they could at any time take British, Australian or New Zealand citizenship, and receive a resettlement grant equivalent to $100,000 per family, index-linked.

Those closest to Mrs Thatcher also wondered how she could ever survive the crisis. Gow wrote to her on 8 April, six days after the invasion, to say that “whatever the future holds” he would always be glad he had the chance to work with her. “It would be sad if Falkland precipitated the downfall of the Thatcher government,” her chief policy adviser, Sir John Hoskyns, wrote on the same day.

Ten weeks later, the Falklands had been retaken, and Mrs Thatcher was riding a surge of popular adulation. Congratulations poured in from around the world – although oddly there were none from EU governments.

But she did receive – and seemingly appreciated – flowers from the Revolutionary Democratic Front of El Salvador, the political wing of a Cuban-backed guerrilla army fighting to overthrow a US-backed dictatorship. The Argentine junta had been the only South American government to lend troops to help suppress the guerrillas. The message that came with the flowers said: “You have succeeded where we failed. Since the dispatch of the Task Force to the Falkland Islands, 266 Argentine military advisers have been withdrawn from Central America. Thank you.”

Hawks and Doves: Where senior Conservatives stood on the eve of war

A note from the Chief Whip detailed the reaction of Conservatives to events in the Falklands as follows:

John Wheeler; MP for Westminster North

“Believes the moment of truth will come when the blood of our own troops is shed. Then he thinks the country will forsake us.”

Viscount Cranborne; MP for South Dorset

“Says his friends in Washington warned us last month. He is not sure how we can win outright victory quickly.”

Chris Patten; MP for Bath

“Will write a supportive article in the press once the situation is clearer.”

Kenneth Clarke; MP for Rushcliffe and junior minister

“Hopes nobody thinks we are going to fight the Argentinians. We should blow up a few ships, but nothing more.”

Peter Mills; MP for West Devon

“‘My constituents want blood’. He wants us to invade as quickly as possible.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before