The last time the House of Commons sat on a Saturday

I remember the last time the House of Commons sat on a Saturday. It was in the immediate aftermath of Argentina invading the British Falkland Islands. The British Government had pretty much neglected the islands and their inhabitants, who didn’t want to find themselves under Argentinian rule.

I was 14 years old.

I spent the 1982 Easter holidays decorating my bedroom under instruction from my Mum with the new radio station Moray Firth Radio playing in the background. On the hourly news programmes, syndicated from Independent Radio News, Anna Soubry gave us up to the minute accounts of what was happening 8000 miles away. It was the first time I was conscious that our troops could be fighting far away. I was used to it in Northern Ireland.

My bedroom was a mess. I don’t know what on earth had possessed the previous occupants of our house to paint the room the most vibrant purply blue. So I spent most of the holiday with scraper in hand preparing the walls for the application of a fresh white wallpaper with pretty blue flowers on.

To be honest, I didn’t care that much what the room looked like. I’d much rather have spent the time listening to Radio 4 and reading books without having to do the hard graft with the scraper.

I remember thinking that the Government had let the people of the Falklands down, but I was pretty scared of war and the loss of life that would entail. I was more up for solving things by diplomatic means, which put me well out of line with most of our politicians. While critical of the Government, they didn’t demur from the suggestion that the islands should be regained by force.

Parliament was recalled in the immediate aftermath of Argentina’s invasion, sitting on a Saturday.

Here are some of the highlights of the then SDP Liberal Alliance contributions:

Russell Johnston:

The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) must face the fact that this is without doubt a very shameful day for this country. The sort of view he put echoed in a strange way what I found, to my horror, in the editorial in The Guardian today. I shall quote it: Reality number two is that the Falkland Islands do not represent any strategic or commercial British interest worth fighting over (unless one believes reports of crude oil under its off-shore waters). It is shocking that in a great newspaper such as The Guardian the view should be put that the only things worth fighting over are commercial matters and not the rights and freedoms of individual people. Every newspaper that I saw today showed pictures of President Galtieri with his thumbs up. To see that barbarous man rejoicing made me both depressed and angry—depressed that he had been given the opportunity, and angry at our neglect of a small group of people who unquestionably have trusted us and to whose trust we have not responded.

I shall say nothing at this stage about the Government’s lack of preparedness, as that ground has been well covered. I add just one point to the constructive intervention of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands). It is not just a matter of our apparent inability to sustain an effective intelligence-gathering operation. What about the Americans, our allies? Surely the Americans have an effective intelligence-gathering operation in the Argentine. Surely, too, they should be in a position to tell us what is happening. If they do not do so, that is a matter for anxiety within the alliance.

I am a member of the Falkland Islands Association. I also have several constituents who have lived in the Falkland Islands and have families there. One knows of the islanders’ loyalty and also of the sustained low profile adopted by successive British Governments in relation to the Falkland Islands. We have looked weak in the Falkland Islands for a long time. The Foreign Office has not been the friend of the Falkland Islands. As the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) said, they have been starved of money, with the result that a situation has now arisen in which vast amounts of money will have to be spent and in which results may be very difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, this is where the buck stops.

David Owen, former Labour Foreign Secretary now in the SDP.

The Government have the right to ask both sides of the House for the fullest support in their resolve to return the Falkland Islands and the freedom of the islanders to British sovereignty. They will get that support and they deserve it in every action that they take in the Security Council and elsewhere. However, the Government must restore the confidence of the country and the House in their ability to carry out that mission.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that this is not the time to have an examination. There will come a time when an inquiry will be necessary and we must examine in great detail all that has happened or not happened during the past six weeks. However, it is necessary to examine a central question: why was no preparatory action taken a month ago? It cannot be said that this is a question of intelligence. Our own newspapers were carrying major stories. On 25 February The Guardian carried a story entitled: Falklands raid hint by Argentine army. On 5 March there was the headline in The Times: Argentina steps up Falklands pressure”. There was ample warning that the position was deteriorating. We knew of the horror of the military junta in the Argentine and we knew of its actions. Only a few days ago, 3,000 political prisoners were taken, only to be released amid the euphoria of the invasion of the Falkland Islands. We knew that the military were jockeying for position in the navy, the army and the air force. We have known that for many years. It was for that reason four years ago, when a similar position developed, that naval forces were sent.

The Secretary of State for Defence, in his press conference with the Foreign Secretary yesterday, said: If we had made an earlier move to prepare the task force we would have precipitated, quite possibly, a military response—the very kind of thing by the Argentinians that we tried to avoid.The question that the Foreign Secretary, more than the Secretary of State for Defence, must answer is why no action was taken. On the precedent of the past, it was possible to deploy a naval force and to bring it back without any publicity. It was possible to use it in negotiations with the Argentines, knowing full well that we had behind us a naval force and the capacity to stop invasion.

I say to the Prime Minister—the Leader of the Opposition fairly mentioned this fact—that the Prime Minister of the day took complete control of that issue. On my recommendation, the Secretary of State for Defence deployed the forces, but that small Cabinet meeting discussed the rules of engagement and the possibility of having to intervene were a naval force to come on to the Falkland Islands. That is the reality that the Prime Minister must now face.

Enough of the past. This is not a moment for censure. The reality is that our naval forces will set sail, which I support. I say to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that I am sure that the Royal Marines conducted themselves in the Falkland Islands in the best spirit of the Royal Marines.

The question that we must now ask is how we can restore confidence. There have been rumours in the newspapers that the Secretary of State for Defence tendered his resignation, only for it to be refused. I would have expected no less of him, because he is a man of honour. Ministers must now consider their position and the quality and strength of the Government during the next few critical weeks.

Absent from the debate have been any positive suggestions. The Prime Minister is entitled to know where the House hopes she will now guide the country. There is much to be said for declaring our right to a 200-mile limit round the Falkland Islands. It would be perfectly compatible with international law to declare that no Argentine vessel should appear within that limit and that, if it did, the British Navy would take action.

The precedent for the use of peaceful military action is the Cuban missile crisis and the use of a naval blockade. We still have a very strong Navy, but only just. We have the capacity to put a naval blockade on that 200-mile limit and to enforce it as long as we have hunter-killer submarines there. I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence can breach one aspect of security and let us know that there is a hunter-killer submarine in the area. If not, the House and the Argentines should assume that it is very nearly there. The hunter-killer submarine could effectively take action, if necessary. The Argentine Government should have fair warning to remove their vessels from the area. It is necessary to back up our diplomacy with the resolution and the capacity to deploy our forces.

We all know that there will be great difficulties in a resisted offence against the Falkland Islands. There are massive forces on the islands, but nothing said in the House should exclude any possibility of repossessing them. I believe that they will be repossessed by a combination of firm diplomacy backed by the use of the Navy. They are far away and there are logistic difficulties, but we should not make too much of those. Perhaps we can call on some of our Commonwealth friends in New Zealand and Australia to help us—at least with refuelling.

The Prime Minister misjudged the atmosphere of the House most seriously. It is now necessary for the message to come from the House that we are grossly dissatisfied with the conduct of the Government during the past month. We shall sustain them despite that, because we recognise that our service men’s lives might be put at risk.

I remember thinking  that it was all a bit too supportive of the Government. Despite her Government’s failure, Thatcher was basically given the go-ahead for military action. The eventual victory blotted out the failures that led to the crisis.

Today’s sitting is much more powerful and much more knowledgable than their 1982 counterparts. They know how even the most benign sort of Brexit would damage our economy irreparably. Will they put that knowledge to good use, and block Boris Johnson’s deal. It’s too scary to tell at the moment.

By the time you read this, I’ll be on my way to London to march for a People’s Vote. I hope to see some of you there.

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 19th Oct '19 - 9:24am

    This was before the televising of Parliament. which started with an experiment in the House of Lords. Enoch Powell emerged and was asked whether we had declared war. He replied that “We are at war”.
    This was also before the 1983 general election. The SDP leader was Roy Jenkins. Dr Owen had come second. A journalist had analysed a speech by Dr. Owen which contained the phrase “When I was Foreign Secretary” 77 times.
    The PM he served was Jim Callaghan (Labour) whose memoirs show that he had found enough money to deter the Argentinians. One old ship was cruising around the area. Spending cuts by Mrs Thatcher’s government had ended that, which the Argentinian military junta took as a signal that the UK did not care about the “Malvinas”.
    Mrs T’s Defence Secretary said that sending a fleet to the South Atlantic was risky because we lacked air cover.
    Dr Owen misjudged the Americans. Ronald Reagan wanted to be friends with both sides. The UK needed their help with satellite intelligence. All Reagan wanted from the UK was a televised lunch at Buckingham Palace for his re-election. The Queen spoke first and made her views clear. Mrs T took her face off camera, into her empty soup-plate.
    Spending cuts and technological changes had demoralised the Navy. Dr. Owen MP might have known from his constituency in Plymouth Devonport. To address their low morale the Navy had done a survey. If a war were to occur anywhere what would happen? They decided that the ideal opponent was Argentina, big enough to matter, not too big to defeat the UK.

  • Richard Underhill 19th Oct '19 - 9:28am

    Spending cuts and technological changes had demoralised the Navy which Dr. Owen MP might have known from his constituency in Plymouth Devonport. To address their low morale the Navy had done a survey. If a war were to occur anywhere what would happen? They decided that the ideal opponent was Argentina, big enough to matter, not too big to defeat the UK.
    Dr. Owen made no mention of France, which was not then a member state of NATO, having been withdrawn by President De Gaulle. France had a powerful missile called Exocet, which they continued to sell into world markets.Mrs Thatcher overruled her Defence Secretary. He made the unexpected comment that she liked “men in uniform”, which he repeated on the Radio 4 Today programme. Later she paid for an airport, spending much more than the initial saving
    Dr Owen was right about submarines. HMS Conqueror sank an Argentinian weapons platform, which Mrs T. denied, but was later confirmed when in it sailed into a port in England flying the Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones.
    (Using submarines had been considered cheating.)

  • Richard Underhill 19th Oct '19 - 6:08pm

    Mrs Thatcher’s foreign secretary (Pym) tried to negotiate, so she sacked him. The Argentinian junta wanted the land. We wanted the people to be safe (and might have needed to move them to comparable terrain in, say, New Zealand).
    For Mrs T. the issue was one of principle and, unlike many other Tories, she said what her principle was. She decided to fight (although when Ronald Reagan invaded Grenada she did not fight the USA).
    New Zealand noticed that they were/are also a long way from the UK and lent us a warship, which was one more than the USA provided under Reagan. The NZ ship was deployed in the Caribbean and an RN warship was transferred to the South Atlantic.

  • My memories are that the Falklands war took place at about the same time as our withdrawal from Hong Kong. Surrender might be the best word. I remember that while giving out our leaflets I was accused by an elector of being a traitor. I did not realise he knew who I was.
    On the general issue there have been very few years since the war when we have not sent troops to be killed somewhere or other.
    Now the serious point. If we are to attain some form of sustainable society, we cannot afford the toys that we call weapons. It is time we followed St Paul and put away childish things.

  • Not so much oil and gas near the Falkland Islands after all.

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