Could we liberate the Falklands again?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Liberating the Falklands was the right thing to do, says political editor Chris Fisher. It was not without controversy, however. And could we do it again if we needed to?

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

It's an inappropriate thought maybe, after the 25th anniversary yesterday of the liberation of the Falkland Islands, but what would happen if the Argentinians invaded again - tomorrow?

Our defence resources, already greatly stretched by commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly would not easily reach to another conflict 10,000 miles away in the south Atlantic.

And the despatching of a taskforce akin to the one sent in 1982 would be impossible in any case, given the changes in defence policy and reductions in ships since then.

What would we do? There has been significant investment in defence facilities on the islands since the liberation. The RAF base at Mount Pleasant can receive transatlantic aircraft, and the army garrison has about 500 men. So an Argentine invasion ought to be more difficult than last time, and there should be a chance for Britain to fly in reinforcements.

But what if an invasion succeeded? What else could we do? Using the Trident independent nuclear deterrent against a non-nuclear Argentina would be out of the question.

Most Read

We might send an aircraft carrier and carry out bombing raids on the Argentine mainland as well as that country's military positions in the Falklands. That would be fraught with military and political difficulties, however. How long could we maintain such an operation? Would it necessarily secure freedom for the islands again?

Fortunately, today's Argentina is very different from that of 25 years ago, with military dictatorship having given way to a democracy that recognises that the 1982 invasion by General Galtieri was a big mistake and which wants to be part of the modern world and to resolve the dispute by peaceful means.

It could be a different story, however, if democratic rule collapsed and the country once more came under the heels of a military junta.

The Falklands have a population of less than 3,000, and there is a geographical absurdity to British sovereignty. It's rather like Argentina having sovereignty over the Shetlands - a state of affairs that would no doubt be universally disapproved of in Britain.

Argentina's claim to the Falklands is not based, moreover, just on the proximity to its land mass. It also stresses that it inherited sovereignty from Spain in the early 1800s.

Having first had a settlement on the islands in 1766, Britain has been in possession of them since 1833. Our claim to sovereignty is based on long-term administration plus the right of the locals to self-determination.

The Argentinians are not much impressed by these arguments, and it should not be impossible for us to understand why.

If the Argentinians had settled some gauchos on the Shetlands in the 1830s, and they and their descendants wanted Argentine rule of the territory to continue for ever, would we gladly accept that?

This background did not, and could not, justify Galtieri's invasion, however. And when it happened, public opinion was united in this country to a degree I have not seen before or since. The nation came together, moreover, even though Margaret Thatcher was leading a deeply divisive government and both she and it were very unpopular.

It is often said that she was lucky in her enemies, and Galtieri was probably the one most useful to her (more so even than Arthur Scargill). Her response to the invasion transformed her reputation and political fortunes.

A year after the liberation she won a landslide majority in a general election. But had the invasion not occurred, it is quite likely that the Tories would have been denied a majority and that the Thatcher revolution would have been stopped after only four to five years. In that event, Britain would be very different, and less economically successful, today.

Notwithstanding their small size and great distance from this country, the Falklands have, therefore, been a big factor in the shaping of today's Britain.

But would there be the same response here tomorrow as in 1982 if the Argentinians went back in?

The atmosphere in Britain between April and June of 1982 was not merely patriotic but jingoistic. And it was epitomised when the Sun responded to the sinking of the Belgrano with a "Gotcha" headline.

There has been much social and demographic change in Britain since then, and I would expect the mood here to be quite different if the Argentinians decided to have another go - especially after the sourness and cynicism engendered by the war in Iraq.

After a ceremony in the Falklands this week, the mother of a Welsh Guardsman killed at Bluff Cove was asked by a reporter if it had been worth it. She replied without hesitation that it had, and that she was proud to have given her son to the cause of liberty for others.

It came as quite a shock after hearing so many relatives of soldiers killed or injured in Iraq indulging in political diatribes against that war and complaining that they had been required to serve in it.

Yes, the Iraq war was/is highly controversial. But in much of the world there were doubts and mixed feelings, too, about Britain's decision to free the Falklands. This country was largely on its own. Even president Ronald Reagan's US was pretty ambiguous.