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Unfinished Business

When Michael Foot rescued Margaret Thatcher

Place yourself for a moment in April 1982. Margaret Thatcher is a deeply unpopular prime minister. Unemployment has risen to over three million for the first time since the 1930s. Trade unions have staged strikes and protests against her government’s policies.

Labour has a narrow lead in the polls and people are talking about Michael Foot becoming prime minister one day. A section of Labour’s right wing has departed to form the SDP. Labour’s left is influential. Tony Benn was only narrowly defeated in a ballot for the deputy leadership.

Suddenly, a political escape route presents itself to the beleaguered Thatcher government. On April 2, the Argentine military dictatorship launches an invasion of islands known to them as the Malvinas and to much of the unsuspecting world as the Falklands.

A special session of the British parliament is convened for the next day, to take place on the Saturday morning. Thatcher announces that a naval task force is being assembled and will set off the following week with the intention of forcibly removing Argentine troops.

Patriotic fervour consumes the House of Commons. No matter that the islands historically were part of Argentine until seized by Britain in the last part of the 18th century. No matter that the Foreign Office ignored several indications that the Argentine junta was preparing a military adventure.

Argentine, like Britain, was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis and any kind of diversion would come in handy.

In London, Thatcher desperately needed the support of the Labour opposition. She needn’t have worried. Foot, originally from the left-wing of the party, rose to his feet and said: “There is no question in the Falkland Islands of any colonial dependence or anything of the sort. It is a question of people who wish to be associated with this country and who have built their whole lives on the basis of association with this country. We have a moral duty, a political duty and every other kind of duty to ensure that that is sustained.”
Foot was carried away on a tide of outrage, adding that “we are determined to ensure that we examine this matter in full and uphold the rights of our country throughout the world, and the claim of our country to be a defender of people's freedom throughout the world”. Talk about a whitewash of British colonial/imperial history.

Labour could have urged caution and the opening of negotiations with Argentina. In fact, these had been going on for months and the Foreign Office was basically stalling in the hope that the problem would go away.

But Thatcher’s decision to assemble a task force and send it down to the South Atlantic to “liberate” a few hundred settlers who claimed British citizenship went through without a vote that Saturday. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The fleet sailed the following week, with bands playing and Union Jacks flying. From that moment, a war with Argentina was inevitable. The UN secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar tried to broker a deal between the two countries, but was thwarted by Thatcher who had given the go-ahead to sink the aged cruiser General Belgrano on May 2. The boat had been sailing away from the area at the time and many consider its sinking a war crime. 

Languishing at under 30% in the polls before the war, the Tories soared to reach 50% in May 1982. This put them on course for a decisive victory in the general election held in 1983. No small part in the resurrection was, as you can see, played by Foot and the Labour leadership on that Saturday morning in April 1982.  

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
16 April 2013

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