Steve Richards: Will nobody challenge the Falklands War myths?

Leaders insist on the islands' right to self-determination. Scotland's right to it is less clearly stated
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The Independent Online

At a time when many assumptions formed in the 1980s are being challenged, the Falklands is the source of renewed tension, another issue that can't just be confined to the recent past. The Falklands War was a defining event during that decade, the subject of instant mythologising and one of the few episodes in Margaret Thatcher's career highlighted in the film The Iron Lady.

What it defined is no longer quite so clear. As the ongoing economic crisis places an intense critical spotlight on the light regulation that began in the Thatcher era, there is a sudden wariness about the Falklands. What seemed to be a decisive military triumph for the Iron Lady is not so decisive as it seemed.

The tensions arise partly because the 30th anniversary of the conflict is only a few months away. In Argentina, the planned events here are seen as an act of provocation, so much so that the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has stressed they are a commemoration rather than a celebration. But in Argentina, other initiatives, such as the assignment of Prince William to the Falklands, are seen as part of a pattern in which the UK becomes more assertive while Argentina – with indications of robust support from nearby countries – feels the need to renew its claims to the islands .

Britain's victory, always more ambiguous than it seemed, leads to uncertainty now, raising questions about entitlement and legitimacy that appeared to be wiped away by Thatcher's will. She had no choice but to be wilful. The Falklands War began as a cock-up and had grave consequences for domestic politics. The Conservative cabinet in 1982 was much more experienced and substantial than their counterparts today, but made the same mistake of hailing spending cuts in general without always thinking through the specific consequences. Strains on the defence budget led to significant cuts in defending the Falklands at a point when ministers were proposing a leaseback arrangement to Argentina. Sensing an opening, the ruling dictatorship made its move.

Thatcher was not heroic. She had heroism thrust upon her. The only alternative to military action would have been her resignation.

Another powerful myth, often repeated, is that the victory in the Falklands helped her win a landslide in the subsequent 1983 election. She would have won anyway, and by as big a margin. Her opponents were split in two. Neither the SDP nor Labour was in a position to win. That left only her. In the immediate aftermath of British politics, the Falklands was irrelevant.

But the distorting sense that she was "strong" on defence and Labour was "weak" had consequences. Tony Blair was Labour's candidate in Beaconsfield, the first by-election to be fought after the Falklands. He was slaughtered. Robin Cook told me later that he believed the post-Falklands popularity of Thatcher in that by-election, and Labour's near-fatal unpopularity, was part of Blair's calculations as he headed towards Iraq. There is much evidence to suggest Cook was right.

Does anyone remember the "Baghdad Bounce" – the comically fleeting attempt to portray Blair as the popular, brave war leader in the immediate aftermath of Iraq, the equivalent of seeking a "Falklands Factor"? Take out the Falklands War from the UK's recent history and Blair would have felt less pressure to appear "strong" as he stood (weakly) "shoulder to shoulder" with President Bush.

Now Britain's claim to sovereignty over the Falklands is called into question by the arguments that rage over independence for Scotland, a debate that highlights how complex and awkward are issues relating to legitimacy and power. No one in favour of the union can argue that England and Scotland are close politically or culturally. The arguments in favour have more to do with geography – that a united island pulls more weight than a formally divided one.

But over the Falklands, no one in the UK can claim geographical ties. Instead, leaders here insist that the islanders have the right to self-determination, however much that impacts on the UK. In contrast, Scotland's right to self-determination is not as clearly stated. The impact on the rest of the UK is much more part of the story and perhaps a defining one.

Britain will celebrate its recent past in several forms over the next few months, while current events act as a potent counter to the indiscriminately euphoric raising of glasses. As Nick Clegg rightly pursues his attempts to reform the House of Lords, there will be endless vacuous tributes to the Queen and her Diamond Jubilee. The non-elected Lords appear threatened as reform is attempted once more. The non-elected monarch, who few know and who never utters a significant public word, will be hailed with an uncritical deference.

At the same time, Westminster-based leaders will defend the geographical entity known as the UK while celebrating the recapture of islands thousands of miles away that the Government at the time had contemplated handing over. The early plans of the Thatcher government to lease back the islands were sensible. The current government should take a look at them or find an alternative of its own, but will not do so. The whirl of events challenges the mythologies of the Falklands War but no party leader would dare to do so.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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