Falklands war: Thatcher papers reveal clash over military strategy

Jun 19, 2015

Thatcher quarrelled with her foreign secretary over efforts to resolve the Falklands crisis diplomatically


At the height of the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher suspected that her foreign secretary, Francis Pym, was attempting to combine with the Americans to outmanoeuvre her, according to revelations contained in newly released memoirs.

The documents reveal that Thatcher clashed with Pym in two cabinet meetings, as the Foreign Secretary attempted to work alongside the US to resolve the conflict diplomatically rather than resorting to war.

The revelations were uncovered in previously unreleased memoirs written a year after the 1982 conflict. The papers have been "gifted to the nation" by Thatcher's estate in lieu of £1m of inheritance tax under an Arts Council England scheme, The Guardian reports.

The Arts Council England says the Falklands memoir is "probably the single most significant historical document Margaret Thatcher ever wrote".

The memoirs detail two separate clashes between Thatcher and Pym. The first was on 24 April, when Pym returned from a visit to Washington with a peace proposal he urged cabinet ministers to support. Thatcher wrote: "This was to be one of the most crucial days in the Falklands story and a critical one for me personally. Early on Saturday morning Francis came to my study in No 10 to tell me the results of his efforts. The document he brought back was a complete sellout."

Thatcher was unwilling to put the proposal to Cabinet, but Pym insisted. The plan was in any case rejected by Argentina.

The second dispute came ten days later, after the sinking of the General Belgrano and Argentina's attack on the HMS Sheffield. Pym tabled another peace proposal before the UK cabinet. The plan was received favourably, but the terms were again rejected by the Argentinians, "making Pym's 'victory' academic", the Guardian says.

Thatcher donated most of her papers before her death in 2013. The majority are held by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, which is based in Churchill College.

Argentina accuses Cameron of 'irate' reaction in Falklands row

12 June 2014

Argentina has accused Prime Minister David Cameron of bad manners after a row over the Falkland Islands broke out at a European Union summit.

Cameron reportedly stepped in to defend Britain's claim on the islands after Argentina's foreign minister Hector Timerman urged the EU to support his country's fight against the "colonialist" British.

During a dinner in Brussels, where more than 60 EU and Latin American leaders met to discuss trade links, Timerman condemned the drilling by UK companies for oil and gas off the disputed South Atlantic islands.

"Extracting natural resources that belong to the Argentine people is totally illegal," he said. "Colonialism still persists, relying on the logic of appropriation of natural resources."

In a move designed to "delight" voters back home, Timerman told Cameron that the islands belonged to Argentina, reports the Daily Telegraph.

According to Argentine media reports, he said his government expected countries from the EU to support a United States resolution that urges Argentina and the UK to open a dialogue over the disputed territory.

In a heated exchange, Cameron apparently ordered Timerman to stop "threatening" the people of the Falklands and to "respect" the referendum in which islanders overwhelmingly voted to remain a British Overseas Territory.

Later, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner described the Prime Minister's response as "irate, almost ill-mannered".

A spokesman for Cameron defended his intervention as "clear and robust".

He added: "It is completely unacceptable of Argentina to be threatening companies looking to invest in the Falkland Islands or in the waters surrounding there."

No direct mention was made of the 1982 war, in which 659 Argentinians and 258 Britons died after Buenos Aires invaded the islands.

Argentina: 'UK should remove troops from Falkland Islands'

29 October 2014

Argentina has called on Britain to wind down its military operations on the Falklands, insisting that it will not invade the islands.

Daniel Filmus, Argentina's special secretary for the Falklands, said Britain should withdraw troops from the South Atlantic territory, as it has done in Afghanistan.

"There is absolutely no chance of another invasion from the mainland," he said. "We as a nation – the government, the senate, the house of representatives – have repeatedly stated that we do not seek a military solution; all we want is a dialogue to resolve our differences."

Filmus, a close friend of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, said it was "extraordinary" that with so many conflicts going on around the world, the British government does not want to hold talks.

"Instead they have the garrison there and have created one of the most militarised zones in that part of the world," he said.

Britain's base houses 1,200 military personnel and costs £90m a year to maintain, says The Independent. Its assets also include Rapier surface-to-air missiles, Royal Navy ships, RAF Typhoon jets and support aircraft.

The Week columnist Robert Fox pointed out yesterday that Argentina plans to acquire 24 Saab Gripen fighter-bombers, its first major purchase of new military aircraft since the Falklands War. Fox said the new aircraft will be "more than a match" for Britain's present defences in and around the Falkland Islands.

Tensions resurfaced in the region two years ago when Prince William was deployed to the islands and the UK sent a new warship, HMS Dauntless, provoking anger in Argentina. Last year, Falklands residents voted to remain part of Britain in a referendum.

The islands, known to Latin America as Las Malvinas, were invaded by Argentina in 1982 – a war that cost more than 900 Argentine and British lives.

Falklands War 2? Argentina’s new fighters a serious threat

By Robert Fox

28 October 2014

Argentina’s announcement that it plans to acquire 24 Saab Gripen fighter-bombers caused scarcely a ripple in the headlines last week, and so far has produced no reaction from Whitehall.

It should. The purchase calls the bluff on Britain’s current stance on the Falkland Islands. This is the first major purchase of new military aircraft by the Argentine government since the Falklands War 32 years ago.

Buying the Gripen shows serious intent. It is more capable than any aircraft the RAF currently deploys – and could match anything the RAF is likely to have in five to eight years’ time, which is when the Fuerza Aerea’s new attack planes are expected to become fully operational.

The plan to buy the new generation of the highly successful Swedish-designed Gripen aircraft was revealed by Argentina’s defence minister Agustin Rossi on 21 October during a visit to Brazil. In a joint press conference with his Brazilian counterpart he said the details “are to be worked out over the next four months”.

But it is already clear that the terms of the deal are of a global interest that goes far beyond the Falklands dispute.

The 24 aircraft destined for Argentina are being tacked on to an order for 36 Gripen for Brazil’s air force. That contract, due to be signed by December, involves a joint venture between Saab of Sweden – the plane’s original designer and manufacturer – and Embraer of Brazil, who will make a number of airframes.

Argentina now intends to be part of that joint venture, and is setting up a production line to make parts for the aircraft. At a later stage, Argentina and Brazil say they hope to develop the new advanced twin-seater version of the Gripen. They expect to find markets in Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay. 

In other words, the partnership between Saab and Embraer aims to produce a Latin American advanced fighter for Latin American markets.

The Gripen is a highly agile single-seater fighter which proved itself in the air operations over Libya in 2011. “It was good to fly, reliable and easy to maintain – it was the automatic second choice for the allied air forces, barring the best of what their own nations had,” the RAF commander in the Mediterranean, Air Vice Marshal Edward Stringer, told me.

Brazil, which has a well developed civil and military aircraft industry of its own, chose the Gripen in preference to France’s Dassault Rafale and the US Boeing F18 Super Hornet. (Neither the Bae Typhoon nor the American Lockheed Martin F-35 reached the final round.)

The Gripen comes in several variants, including one for aircraft carriers, which raises the question – why was it not chosen for the two new Royal Navy aircraft carriers instead of the hideously expensive Lockheed Martin F-35 whose costs are still soaring?

For Argentina, the new aircraft will be more than a match for the present defences in and around the Falkland Islands. These consist of between four and five older-model Typhoon air defence fighters, and four or five Rapier air defence missile batteries, much like the ones that were first landed on the islands during fighting in 1982.

The garrison consists of a large company group of soldiers, and two or three hundred members of the RAF. The Navy has two inshore patrol vessels, with a frigate and a nuclear attack submarine visiting occasionally.

For Britain, it will be tough to beef up the Falklands defences at a time of increasing budget cuts: the Treasury has just informed the Ministry of Defence that it will be seeking a further 7.5 per cent cut in next year’s defence review.

The Tories are virtually committed to such a cut if they are re-elected next May. Yet the defence of the Falklands is part of the Margaret Thatcher hagiography and iconography. A Tory leader who bargains away sovereignty, allowing the Falklands to morph to the Malvinas, would be in trouble with the party, even today.

But it may be out of the hands of any British prime minister, whoever he or she may be, because Britain is more likely to be even more isolated than it was in 1982 if it comes to another scrap in the South Atlantic.

In 1982 Argentina was a military dictatorship with a terrible human rights record. Today democratic Argentina has the broad support of its Latin American allies, especially Brazil. 

Nor is any present or future US administration guaranteed to back Britain in a further spat with Argentina. In 1982, remember, some in the Reagan administration such as his UN ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick sympathised with Argentina.

American indifference - or worse - could matter in one crucial respect. In eight years’ time, when our principal advanced strike aircraft will be the Lockheed Martin F-35, the US will be vital for maintenance of these aircraft, including the management of critical software codes.

All of this should be a warning to the UK government to start doing something to resolve the Falklands issue with due haste – before it becomes another victim of Cameron’s foreign policy philosophy: just in time, but never just good enough.

Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands: the pros and cons

19 June 2014

Margaret Thatcher's three terms as Prime Minister brought enormous change to the UK. An objective assessment of her greatest achievements (and failures) isn't easy – opinions are still divided. But there is some consensus on her legacy.

The Falklands War: 

The 1982 war was one of the most controversial episodes of the Thatcher era. Her decision to send a task force to the South Atlantic - against the advice of many in her inner circle - earned the enduring gratitude of the islanders, who celebrate Thatcher Day every 10 January. At home, victory was marked with ticker-tape parades in London and Portsmouth. Much more importantly, it led to the landslide election victory of 1983.

The Big Bang:

The Big Bang was a wave of deregulation that blew away the "fusty" world of stock broking and ushered in the UK's globally competitive financial services sector. It was a "hugely significant reform that cemented the City of London's place as Europe's biggest financial centre and led it to challenge New York for global hegemony," says The Times. "The changes allowed international banks like Goldman Sachs to step in and attracted a river of foreign business," says Fox News.


In her memoirs, Thatcher describes privatisation as "fundamental to improving Britain's economic performance". It also "chimed with her political ideology," says the Daily Telegraph. During her times as PM more than 50 state-run companies were sold or privatised – including dozens from the power and water industries – raising more than £50 billion for the Exchequer.

Education reform:

Many people remember Thatcher as the Education Secretary who "snatched" free milk from 7 to 11 year olds. But her education legacy is more positive than that, says The Independent. Her Education Reform Act was responsible for introducing a national curriculum, setting up the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), bringing in regular school inspections and allowing schools to manage their own budgets. "She was responsible for many of the reforms now being built upon by the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove," says The Independent.

Helping end the Cold War: 

Thatcher stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Reagan to install cruise missiles in Europe and resist Soviet expansionism. According to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, his relationship with Thatcher "helped bring change and tear down the Iron Curtain". They first met in 1984. "In the end, we were able to achieve mutual understanding, and this contributed to a change in the atmosphere between our country and the West and to the end of the Cold War," he told Reuters yesterday.

The Right-to-Buy scheme:

Thatcher's decision to allow council tenants to buy the properties they lived in at a discount was smart politics because it "converted thousands of Labour voters into Conservatives". More than 1.25 million people signed up to the scheme which added £18 billion to government coffers. On the downside, the scheme depleted the stock of social housing.

Forcing the Labour Party to the right:

When Thatcher was asked to name her greatest achievement she reportedly said: "New Labour". The former PM defeated Labour at three elections and forced the party "to drag itself into the modern world" by supporting "market forces; privatisation; reform of employment laws and lower taxation for individuals and business".

Scepticism towards Europe:

Thatcher initially supported membership of the European Community. Later, however, she "passionately fought and won a number of battles against what she saw as the excessive powers of Brussels," says the BBC. The Independent says she "shocked other European leaders with her handbag-swinging negotiating style". But her hostility towards Europe also sowed the seeds of her destruction. Her opposition to the Exchange Rate Mechanism (a precursor of the single currency) and other, as she saw it, threats to British sovereignty, triggered the resignations of Thatcher stalwarts Chancellor Nigel Lawson and Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe, and eventually led to her own downfall.

The poll tax:

The Community Charge (popularly known as the poll tax) was a single flat-rate per-capita tax on every adult, introduced in Scotland in 1989 and England and Wales in 1990. Critics said the shift from a tax based on the value of a house to a tax based on the number of people living in it, discriminated against the less well off. Large numbers of people refused to pay and the tax triggered violent riots, notably the pitched battle between police and rioters in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, 31 March, 1990. The hated tax was abolished in 1993.


For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.