Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Falklands War, Corbyn and the Tory Plot

When the US invaded Grenada, a part of the Commonwealth,
Britain's only response was a phone call from Thatcher to Reagan
In the Sky News/Channel 4 Leaders Interviews, on Monday, Jeremy Paxman said that on the last occasion that British territory was invaded, in the Falklands in 1982, Jeremy Corbyn had been opposed to the war launched by Thatcher, having described it as a Tory plot. Paxman is technically correct that the Falklands was the last British territory to be attacked, but of course, Grenada which was a British territory until gaining independence in 1974, was a part of the Commonwealth in 1983, when the US invaded, and overthrew the government.

On that occasion, the US invasion was attacked by the United Nations, which condemned it as "a flagrant violation of international law" by a vote of 108 in favour to 9, with 27 abstentions. The United Nations Security Council considered a similar resolution, which was supported by 11 nations and opposed by only one — the United States, which vetoed the motion. But, rather than going to war with the US for this blatant act of aggression, and occupation, Maggie Thatcher's displeasure went no further than a phone call to her friend in the White House, Ronnie Raygun.

Obviously, Tories attitude to acts of aggression and their commitment to defending the principle of the right of self-determination for peoples is not actually determined by any commitment to principle, but only to pragmatic politics. The same was true in relation to their total failure to defend the right of self-determination for the Chagos Islanders. Instead, having separated off the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, prior to its independence, to form the British Indian Ocean Territory, Britain then forcibly ejected the islands inhabitants, on Diego Garcia to enable the United States to establish a military airbase on the island. No wonder that socialists then took the claims of Maggie Thatcher and the Tories in 1982, as the Tories languished in the polls looking likely to be thrown from government the next year, with a large pinch of salt.

The fact was that Britain's main interest in the Falklands was not the 3,000 islanders, any more than it had been for the Chagos Islanders, but was to retain a territorial claim on the island so as to be able to bargain for a portion of the oil and gas rights thought to be present in the territorial waters around it. Britain had in fact been in negotiations, prior to the war, with the US, Argentina and South Africa to establish a quartet, which would jointly undertake the exploration and exploitation of that mineral wealth in the South Atlantic. And, Thatcher's private papers from the time show that she was prepared to negotiate away the rights of the islanders.

As Chris Collins of the Thatcher Foundation says, about her testimony to the Franks Committee,

"She was concerned at the damage the report might do her, because there was much potential for embarrassment at the government's pre-war policy of trying to negotiate a settlement with Argentina ceding sovereignty while leasing back the islands for a period, plus suggestions that Argentine intentions could have been predicted and invasion prevented."

The fact is that, as Thatcher herself admits in the released papers, she was guilty of a political miscalculation. In short, she thought that Galtieri, who she had been negotiating with, and who she thought would settle for the deal been brokered via the US and UN, to cede sovereignty, and organise a lease back, was merely posturing for his own domestic political benefit. The Galtieri dictatorship in Argentina was coming under increasing pressure from the Argentinian working-class. Galtieri, like Thatcher and many more political leaders, knew that in order to distract from their domestic unpopularity, the easy solution is to whip up nationalistic fervour, to wrap yourself in the flag. That is what Galtieri was doing, and Thatcher thought that that was as far as it would go. Why would he go to war, when the likelihood was that Britain would negotiate to cede sovereignty, and organise a lease back so as to proceed with the exploration of the oil and other mineral rights of the South Atlantic along with Argentina, the US and South Africa?

But, of course, as Trotsky and others described long ago, this kind of sabre rattling, even when done purely for show, develops its own dynamic, which sweeps up those involved in it, and drops them down miles from where they originally intended to be. Having whipped up nationalistic fervour in Argentina, and yet still facing growing opposition from the working-class, he had to continually ratchet up the degree of sabre-rattling until eventually, either he had to back down, and face being overthrown, or else to follow through on the rhetoric, and undertake the invasion. He chose the latter, and undoubtedly made his own political miscalculation that Thatcher with whom Argentina had been negotiating would not go to war, especially as Reagan and the US were telling Thatcher not to go to war, but to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

But, in 1982 Thatcher was crashing and burning in the polls. Michael Foot had been elected Labour leader in 1980, and after his election as leader, he began to organise demonstrations across the country, in all major cities, where the Tories austerity policies had brought about mass unemployment at levels only previously seen in the depression of the 1930's. The economy was spiralling down out of control, with not just mass unemployment, but disappearing public services, and inflation running at around 29%! Thatcher looked like she was going to be removed from within her own parliamentary party, and the Tories were certain to lose the next election.

After Michael Foot became party leader, Labour soared to around 56% in the opinion polls. The Tories who had only just won the election in 1979, went from poll ratings of around 45%, to a low of around 27% in 1982, ahead of the Falklands War. They had continually lost support from the time of the previous election. The only thing that gave them any hope was the fact that the SDP split from Labour, at the height of Labour popularity, splitting the anti-Tory vote. But, the fact was that before the Falklands War, the Tories were inevitably going to be out of office, and Thatcher's Austerian experiment would have been finished.

Thatcher's position, therefore, was merely a mirror image of that of Galtieri. She, as much as him, saw the opportunity to distract from her massive unpopularity at home, and certain electoral defeat, by doing what he had done, what Lynton Crosby today would refer to as throwing a dead cat on to the table. She built up her own sabre rattling rhetoric over the Falklands, in the belief that Galtieri would never invade, because she knew full well that they were in the process of negotiating away the sovereignty of the Falklands anyway!

She ended up also in the same position as Galtieri that having built up all of this rhetoric, when Galtieri invaded and failed to back down, especially as he had the backing of the US, at least passively, Thatcher had the alternative of herself backing down, which would have meant that her unpopularity at home would be compounded by being seen as a “blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire” to use a more recent expression. The dynamic of war, therefore, led Thatcher equally into a war she did not really want, and did not expect to happen.

In substance it is quite right that the Falklands War was really the result of a plot, or more correctly two plots. It was the result of a plot by Galtieri to try to distract attention from his domestic problems, and an almost identical plot by Thatcher to distract from her own domestic problems. Neither began expecting to go to war over a chunk of rock, which both countries only wanted for the surrounding mineral rights, and over which both had, in any case, being negotiating.

And, the fact is, given those previous negotiations, and the willingness to throw over the rights of the islanders themselves, as they had done with the Chagos Islanders, there was no real reason for such a war. Had the British government handed over £1 million to each of the 3,000 islanders, as compensation (£1 million then is the equivalent of around £10 million today) it would have more than adequately compensated them for either accepting Argentine sovereignty, or relocating elsewhere. The war itself cost Britain over £1 billion, and the on going cost of defending the Falkland Islands is running at £61 million a year, or around £2.25 billion since the war. Indeed, the cost is so great, and Britain's military capacity so diminished, that many think that an agreement with Argentina will have to be negotiated in the end. Meanwhile, an avoidable war, fought mainly by combatants who were merely posturing for their own domestic political benefit, cost the lives of nearly 1,000 soldiers, with a further 2,500 wounded, some of them seriously wounded and disfigured.

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