Gerry Hassan: An island nation that tries to exist in isolation
THE battle for the Falklands still casts a long shadow over political life in Britain, but it’s not great
The 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Falklands war is next week, a conflict that matters to this day. Like many at the time, I had to first find the islands on a map, then put them into my leftist anti-Thatcherite view of the world, and then observe the mood of a Britain I barely recognised.
The Falklands war raised so many questions then and now. Was this a war of principle or pride? What did this say about Britain’s self-image and who “we” were as a “people”? Would Margaret Thatcher have survived without retaking the islands? And would the Tories have won in 1983 without military victory? Definitely not and arguably; Thatcher herself concedes the former in her memoir.
The Falklands changed domestic and international perceptions of the UK. Pre-war, the UK political classes and elites saw management of decline as their goal; afterwards with Thatcher’s triumphalist “we put the Great back into Britain” things would never be the same again; that Thatcher phrase would resonate down the decades, from the Sun to Tony Blair and David Cameron.
Britain, some argued, put the humiliation of Suez and imperial retreat and apology behind it. Home and abroad there was admiration for the professionalism of Britain’s armed forces. The war seemed a throwback to perfidious Albion, but it actually foreshadowed a whole new era of short, expeditionary wars from the first Gulf War to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
A few months after the conflict I read Iron Britannia: Why Parliament Waged Its Falklands War by Anthony Barnett. It had a deep impact on my which has lasted to this day. Barnett identified and then critiqued the wider mood of Britain and in particular what he called Churchillism, the national coming together in those dark days of 1940. Churchillism spanned most of the political spectrum, from One Nation Tories to Liberals and Labour, and was founded on a sense of this country’s place, according to Barnett, of being, “an island people, the cruel seas, a British defeat, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator”.
The Britain we know began in 1940 remembered in national folklore, films and Boys’ Own Stories. The UK began the Second World War as an imperial “we” and ended it as a national “we”. As Barnett writes, “a country that emerged from a war that an Empire had declared”. Churchillism was about accepting British declinism while pretending otherwise. The Falklands war aided the invention of a new myth of late Churchillism, of believing that decline has been defeated and that Britain had a magical place in the sun, aided by the legacy of Empire, skills of our armed forces, and relationship with the United States.
Barnett returns to his argument in a 30th anniversary edition of his book to be published next month with a new introduction, Time to Take the Great Out of Britain. With evident disdain he surveys British politics three decades on.
The early 1980s were crucial in shaping the future direction of Britain: the scale of deindustrialisation, the defeat of the Tory wets, division in Labour, the lack of radicalism in the SDP. All of these when combined with the Falklands war produced a fundamental realignment of politics which still influences us today. Through New Labour’s military adventures to Cameron’s Libyan intervention and the invented history of the military covenant and Armed Forces Day, we live in the shadow of Port Stanley.
The Thatcher Cabinet had eight ministers who fought in the Second World War, four of whom had been wounded and four of whom received medals. That generation were mostly reluctant warriors. It isn’t an accident that the generation who have taken power subsequently are more enthusiastic armchair militarists.
The Falklands told us an island story, mostly, but not exclusively English. Thatcher’s victory speech said that Britain was still “the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. The lesson is that Britain has not changed”. Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP, said recently that we must leave the Argentinians “in no doubt that we are still the people we were” 30 years ago.
The conflict began the deception that we still had the military equipment, prowess and most crucially, national will. Many believe we don’t have that now without any aircraft carriers. But we didn’t then either. The Task Force triumphed not on its own, but with US logistics and intelligence support. The Falklands, as in 1940, heralded the mirage of Britain alone and magnificent.
The Falklands war was my first insight that I might not live in an entirely rational country. Here was the defence of self-determination being propagated for a group of people who lived 8,000 miles away and who were a settler community. The shape of any compromise with Argentina around shared sovereignty was obvious then as it is now. But it is even more unrealisable today.
That feeling I had all those years ago has been reinforced by the tragedy of Britain over the past three decades – a golden era of rhetoric, triumphalism about “the British economic miracle” and hectoring and lecturing Europe about its supposedly out of date social order.
This truly is the house Mrs Thatcher and her foreign adventure built. A land of illusions and make believe which has invented a rather myopic and ultimately dangerous sense of who “we” are meant to be and how we see ourselves.
The Falklands war gave voice to an intolerant British nationalism which most people never believed in or voted for, but which won over our political classes and elites.
It also made more problematic any sense of an anti-Tory, progressive patriotism, witnessed in Labour’s embracing of militaristic and nationalist ideas. Thirty years on we are no further forward in articulating, post-Cold War, post-war on terror, a counter set of stories to those which have proven so persuasive and entrapping.
Britain still in its heart, in its institutions and elites, is not a modern country, and we need to remember that.