Festival review: Tam Dalyell at the Book Festival

THE sinking of the Belgrano – Falklands war crime or military necessity? At first, as Tam Dalyell admitted yesterday, he thought it was the latter. Only when he realised he was being lied to by officialdom did he change his mind.

At that point, everything seemed to fall into place. A high-up source he has promised never to reveal told him he was on the right track; Conservative MP Alan Clarke seemed to confirm it. The Peruvian prime minister told him there was no doubt the British knew about his country’s peace proposals before they sent out the order to sink the Argentine battle cruiser.

So there you have it: Mrs Thatcher deliberately torpedoes peace to give war – and her political survival – a chance.

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I’d like to think I’m a neutral on this one, but I have my doubts – and not because of anything I heard from this platform, where the redoubtable Tam appeared alongside Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, who seemed to accept Dalyell’s thesis. No, it was the audience’s questions that swayed me more. Ian Gardiner, who commanded a Royal Marine rifle company in the conflict, pointed out that Sir Lawrence Freedman’s exhaustive official history of the conflict didn’t show the slightest evidence supporting Dalyell. And what about the 40 Argentine warplanes that had tried to sink three British ships the day before the Belgrano was attacked? What indeed – there was no answer from the platform to that one.

Again from the floor, Magnus Linklater said he was “shocked” by Dalyell’s position – essentially that the Falkland islanders should be sacrificed in favour of the British need for good relationships with South America. And what, I couldn’t help wondering, if Dalyell’s source had his or her own reasons for wanting to bring down Thatcher? Few, if any, in the audience would doubt Dalyell’s integrity; but ultimately this was an event that failed to cut through the fog of war.

Amid such uncertainty, the ever-reliable joviality of Alexander McCall Smith came as a balm. His next door-but-one neighbour Ian Rankin didn’t disappoint either, giving an exclusive reading from his next novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave (out in November) in which Rebus makes a hesitant, but welcome, return.