Dominic Lawson: Patriotism is why Thatcher's war won her the public's backing

The point is that the Falklands campaign was viscerally defensible on nationalistic grounds

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When the 28-year-old Tony Blair was selected as the Labour Party's parliamentary candidate for Beaconsfield, ahead of a by-election scheduled for late May of 1982, even his own supporters could not have believed that so safe a Tory seat would fall into their hands. On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher was deeply unpopular and her party's standing in the national polls lagged well behind Labour, even under the disconcertingly scatty figure of Michael Foot. A man can hope...

In the event, Labour and Blair – who was thought to have been an excellent candidate – were completely annihilated. Only 3,886 constituents voted Labour. The party lost its deposit. What had happened? The Falklands War, that's what. The Beaconsfield vote took place while that conflict in the South Atlantic was at its height. On Max Hastings's superb BBC2 documentary marking the 30th anniversary of that campaign, one of Blair's local party workers recalled that young Tony had been "anti-war" and had campaigned on the basis that "the islanders cannot be allowed to determine the future of the Falklands".

This was presumably based on the standard anti-imperialist version of history: that the islanders were the descendants of colonialist invaders, and a way must be found, through concessive negotiations, to hand the Falklands over to its rightful owners – Argentina. Anyway, this experience of overwhelming public rejection seemed to have seared into Blair's political soul (if there is such a thing). Michael Cockerell, who covered the Beaconsfield campaign for the BBC, revealed to Hastings that Blair subsequently told Robin Cook: "The thing I learned from Beaconsfield is that wars make prime ministers popular."

Cook, the only one of Blair's Cabinet to resign on principle over the invasion of Iraq, clearly had a motive for claiming this to Cockerell. It implied that "Blair's wars" – over Kosovo, and subsequently in the Middle East – were conditioned by a gut feeling, borne of earlier bitter experience, that they would boost his standing with the British electorate. Well, it would hardly be the first time a political leader sent men into battle for crudely electoral purposes; but if Blair really did think that Kosovo and Iraq were the political successors to Thatcher's Falklands campaign, then he had clearly learned very little, after all.

The point about the Falklands conflict was that it was viscerally defensible on nationalistic grounds – as well as justifiable under international law. British sovereign territory had been invaded – and invaded by a particularly nasty junta which had "disappeared" around 20,000 of its own citizens. It was all too easy to imagine the fate of any Falkland Islanders whom a triumphant Argentina military dictatorship might subsequently deem dissenters. By the same token, the people of the territory we were planning to recapture were, to the last man (and woman), supporters of the British invasion. That, to put it mildly, was not the view of the same proportion of Afghans or Iraqis about the legitimacy of British and American troops invading their country. There was, therefore, no equivalence – and, in the example of Iraq, no proper casus belli either.

In the case of Kosovo, many of those on the left of New Labour, such as Robin Cook and Clare Short, were in fact among the most adamant supporters of the bombing of Belgrade – even though it was done explicitly without the sanction of the UN General Assembly. This was not a nationalistic war at all – which was precisely what attracted it to Cook and Short: it was purely to defend ethnic Albanians from unconscionable oppression at the hands of Serbian nationalists.

Yet it was precisely because the British people did not – as the US Secretary of State James Baker used to put it – have a dog in the fight, that the highly successful Kosovo campaign made no political impact at home. I don't know of any serious political scientist who thinks for a minute that this triumph swung things Labour's way in subsequent elections (any more than David Cameron will derive any particular electoral benefit from the Libyan campaign). This is starkly different from the post-Falklands bounce, which saw a Labour advantage in the national opinion polls transformed into a 27-point lead for Thatcher in the immediate aftermath of the South Atlantic campaign, and an overwhelming victory (though not only for that reason) in the 1983 general election a year later.

 

Put bluntly, the Falklands campaign was a seismically successful vote-winner because it was a demonstration of military force in defence of solely British interests (or, at least, of a people who pledged their allegiance to Queen and country). Better still, this was a British military campaign in which we could not be seen as mere acquiescent appendages to US foreign policy. Quite the reverse, in fact. The US Government (which saw the Galtieri junta as a bulwark against Communism in South America) did everything it could to dissuade Thatcher from using military force to recapture the Falklands. Reagan himself was baffled that Thatcher would wish to risk a single life over what he called "that little ice-cold bunch of land down there".

Still, after all these years, there remains a visceral division in this country over the conflict. There are those – and I suppose I am one – who look at the footage of the return to Portsmouth of the British task force (minus 255 who never made it back) and are stirred beyond an ability to put those feelings into words; and those who see it as a nauseatingly bloodthirsty display of crass nationalism.

Those who feel that way are more than entitled to their view, especially over the sinking of the Belgrano. But they do remind me a bit of the old left that George Orwell discerned as deeply out of touch in 1940 (as he set out in his essay My Country Right or Left). As Orwell wrote then: "Patriotism is usually stronger than class hatred and always stronger than internationalism." It still is.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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