Max Hastings: we couldn’t fight the Falklands War today

Thirty years after the conflict ended, the journalist and historian presents BBC2's The Falklands Legacy

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On a July afternoon 30 years ago, the huge, rust-streaked liner Canberra sailed majestically into Southampton Water, crowded with exultant Royal Marines and paras, returning from war in the South Atlantic. She was greeted by hundreds of small craft and tens of thousands of cheering people ashore, launching victory celebrations such as Britain had not seen since 1945.

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The Falklands crisis had burst upon a nation in dejection. The 70s were a miserable decade, when Britain’s economy and self-confidence touched bottom. The early years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule were divisive, marked by harsh economic medicine, sky-high inflation and bitter industrial disputes. There was speculation that the Tory government wouldn’t get re-elected. 

The Argentinian military junta launched its invasion of Britain’s remotest colony on 2 April 1982. The occupation, after only token resistance by a tiny Royal Marine garrison, was branded a national humiliation. Some thought it might be the straw that broke the government, whose diplomatic bungling made it possible. Most people, including senior service officers, thought it would be impossible to reverse the occupation. The islands lay 8,000 miles away. Defence cuts were emasculating the Royal Navy, which no longer owned a fleet carrier or airborne radar. 

But one man saw his chance. Admiral Sir Henry Leach, First Sea Lord, was convinced that the crisis offered the fleet a unique, historic opportunity to prove it could still play a critical role. In a dramatic encounter at the House of Commons, he told Mrs Thatcher he could muster a task force, and urged her to give the word. Leach’s intervention was decisive in persuading the PM to fight. She launched an extraordinary gamble, which many thought would fail, designed not only to recover the Falklands, but also to rescue her government. 

I sailed among a handful of reporters with the task force, much mocked by old colleagues, among them war correspondents, who simply could not believe that a South Atlantic war would really happen. They expected a UN-fudged settlement, especially when the Reagan administration showed itself desperate to prevent hostilities between Britain and one of Washington’s key South American allies.

But I thought that if war came, it would be one of the most extraordinary adventures in modern history. So it proved. Britain snatched victory against the odds. Though the Argentinian air force inflicted painful losses on our warships, the 20,000 enemy troops ashore were no match for the Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment. Our worst enemies were terrain and the icy, sodden cold. I marched nowhere near as far as the fighting units, but until I die I shall remember those “yomps”, and nights of relentless shivering on windswept, snow-powdered mountains.

Like more than a few soldiers and sailors, I experienced moments of wondering whether those godforsaken islands were worth the pain and the lives. But when it was all over and we saw the beaming faces of the liberated islanders – and especially when we came home to a Britain transformed by victory – doubts melted away. 

The nation’s self-confidence seemed to revive almost overnight: we had seen the armed forces do something very difficult very well. Margaret Thatcher became a star. Her sagging poll ratings leapt; in a few short weeks she became a major global figure, the Iron Lady. She went on to win the 1983 election, and the rest is history. 

The Thatcher revolution cannot solely be attributed to victory in the Falklands. But the war marked the start of an amazing change in her fortunes, and those of the country. Victory conferred a personal authority within her own government and across the country such as she had never attained before.

Three decades on, in The Falklands Legacy, I explore the war’s place in Britain’s modern history, together with its impact on the armed forces, our politics and more recent conflicts.

Young Labour hopeful and opponent of the war Tony Blair lost the Beaconsfield by-election by a landslide while it was being fought. He later said the Falklands convinced him the British people like war prime ministers. With the end of the Cold War and threat of nuclear armageddon, Western powers began to see force as a more readily usable tool than it had been since 1945.

The US, with strong British support, won quick, cheap victories to liberate Kuwait in 1991, to drive the Serbs from Kosovo in 1998. Tony Blair as prime minister committed a small British force in Sierra Leone to suppress a rebellion – and succeeded with only a handful of casualties. The Falklands factor, it seemed, held good: the armed forces could deliver swift results. Tony Blair used them ever more enthusiastically.

Yet Iraq and Afghanistan changed everything. “Wars among the people” – fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban – proved much harder than beating the Argentinians. Public opinion, increasingly risk-averse, became bitterly sceptical about “Blair’s wars” and the sacrifice of lives on faraway battlefields. Even governments that liked sending our forces to fight became unwilling to pay the bills. All three services shrank dramatically in size: it would today be unthinkable to deploy another task force to recapture the Falklands, if a newly belligerent Argentina occupied them.

I believe successive governments have cut defence spending to an irresponsibly low level. I did not support most of Tony Blair’s military adventures, but we surely should have armed forces capable of defending our vital interests at home and abroad – as now they are not. 

Three decades on, it seems to me a last romantic surge of British imperial spirit. Revisiting the story for this film, examining the war’s implications for Britain with the help of veterans and experts, has been a fascinating, moving experience. Former helicopter pilot Chris Parry laughs at the memory of how, in a ship’s mess early in 1982, he and fellow officers decided over a few beers that only a war with a country like Argentina might save the Royal Navy. 

Royal Marine Lt Col Ewen Southby-Tailyour recalls the amazing welcome the task force received in July, when many felt themselves returning to a different Britain from the one they’d left – a country with a renewal of confidence. And a string of modern strategists emphasise that successive governments’ defence cuts ensure that Britain’s armed forces will never again be capable of staging such a campaign as the Falklands. 

Get the latest issue of Radio Times magazine, on sale now, to read more on the Falklands conflict, including the View from Buenos Aires by Fergal Keane and the View from Port Stanley by Alan Little

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The Falklands Legacy with Max Hastings is on Sunday 1 April at 9pm on BBC2