How I Failed to Bring Down Margaret Thatcher

1982 and I was teaching at Ilfracombe College, what some might later have described as a “bog standard” comprehensive for 1100 children 11-18.   It had the dubious distinction of having a foundation stone which declared that it had been opened by Margaret Thatcher at the time when she was Secretary of State for Education, only for some long forgotten reason she did not actually turn up for the ceremony, still the stone forlornly remains in the foyer of a spectacularly ugly and jerry built building perched on the top of the highest hill in Ilfracombe.

The school was however in many ways a good one. Morale was high. We had a fine head and many excellent and dedicated teachers who would have performed well and been at home at my previous school, Bristol Grammar for at that time many in teaching believed like me in the comprehensive ideal and that we were trail-blazing a step forward in education. We rejected as socially divisive and inefficient the old system of grammars and secondary moderns.

Our new purpose-built building was however, when I look back on it, a disgrace. It signalled in its brutal, shoddy construction the simple fact that if education is starved of adequate funds for staff, buildings and facilities, all ability “comprehensive” schools can never compete effectively, either with academically selective schools or high fee independent schools.  Tory lead Devon County had been against the change to comprehensives anyway and so scrimped and saved on construction costs against – we later heard – the architect’s advice.  This was done to such an extent that concrete rot soon set in and asbestos was discovered in several ceilings.

By 1982 Jim Callahan’s Labour government had come and gone and in 1979 Margaret Thatcher made it to number ten.  There she put her record at Education behind her as she faced tough economic times. Society was deeply divided, she had a small majority, she was not popular in her own party or in her cabinet and public opinion polls showed support for her as PM was the lowest ever registered. Her future looked very uncertain.

Enter General Galtieri, Argentina’s very nasty military dictator whose army since wresting control of the former Peronist government imposed a vicious rule with over 30,000 “disappearing” into police and army custody – never to be seen again. In addition his running of the economy was a disaster so he looked for a foreign policy that would bring him popularity – just like the present ruler of Argentina is doing – and he launched a campaign to get back the Falkland Islands, claiming they were really the Argentine Malvinas.

British policy at the time was to station a platoon of Royal Marines on the island to protect its 3,000 inhabitants. A young relative of mine was then a sergeant in the Army and he was sent on a course where they discussed possible places where military conflict might erupt, including the Falklands. I remember him saying that when the question was asked, “What would happen if the Argentines invaded”  he was told, “We would surrender.”  The idea of sending a task force to retake the island once successfully invaded was considered far too difficult, problematic and expensive to contemplate.

It was however thought that such an action as invading the Falklands was highly unlikely for Britain had a potent deterrent available. It had a nuclear submarine, HMS Conqueror, that could sink with impunity any Argentine fleet and threaten any city in Argentina with its weapons. It was not however in the South Atlantic just then.

Blinkered by his Cold War fear of Communist Cuba, and beguiled by Galtieri’s right wing rhetoric, President Reagan and his Secretary of State Al Haig were cautious about defending Britain’s claim to the Falklands. Galtieri, faced with what he thought was a weak and indecisive government lead by a mere woman, took his chance and launched a surprise invasion before our nuclear sub was in place. This was a massive blunder on the part of the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington resigned.

Faced with overwhelming force the Marines on the island surrendered after a skirmish and the world waited to see what would happen.

We now know that the Defence Secretary, John Nott, as the Guardian has reported believed “there was no way of stopping the imminent Argentinian landing, and that, once made, it would be impossible to reverse it from a starting line 8,000 miles to the north. He saw diplomacy as the only means of limiting the damage”.

The Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Henry Leach however, who hated Nott for planning Navy cuts, argued “we could and should send a task force” to retake the islands and Margaret Thatcher quickly became determined to do so. and her intention was announced. That struck me – teaching in Ilfracombe at the time – as barking mad and I was not alone. Post the Argentine invasion it was just too late. Surely it was obvious that the risk to our troops, to our navy and to our air force was huge. To go so far to take on an army, navy and air force, all well trained and equipped (by us, the US, Israel and the French) and close to their own bases, seemed to me a recipe for disaster.

More than that the population of British citizens in Argentina at the time was I heard around 50, 000 so a MUCH greater number than the tiny population on the Falklands and their future at the hands of Galtieri looked pretty uncertain. It seemed to me the best that could be done would be to try and extract compensation from Argentina for the islanders, and even if that were not forthcoming, a generous grant to each of them to resettle in the UK would cost a tiny fraction of the expenditure needed to cover the task force, – and none of our troops would lose their lives in what struck me as a futile campaign of misplaced patriotism.

So what did I do? I wrote a letter to Mrs Thatcher and attached to it a petition against sending a task force and passed it around the common room at Ilfracombe College. Rather to my surprise virtually everyone signed it.  I also sent a copy of my letter and news that I had sent off a petition to the local press who duly reported it. (my HM supported me)

The local Tory MP actually came to the school to see me, listened thoughtfully and politely to what I had to say, but pointed out that our reaction was most untypical.  Everyone he heard from was supporting her. The petition never received any acknowledgement from No 10 and in the general hysteria following the launch of the task force it was completely forgotten.

Was I right? Lord Craig, the retired Marshal of the Royal Air Force, talking about the Argentine use of French Exocet missiles which successfully sunk HMS Sheffield  is said to have remarked: “Six better fuses and we would have lost”.

If the task force had been defeated Margaret Thatcher’s government would have fallen and she would have been accused of reckless warmongering. Labour was already discredited and would not have swept back. The SDP Liberal Alliance, now the Liberal Democrats, would have had a real chance to form a government and bring into place the vital trade union and other economic reforms needed – which were the reason Shirley Williams and co had left Labour. (Imagine her as PM)  Reform would have come, but far less brutally than Margaret Thatcher post Falklands carried it out and the bitter polarisation we see today might have been greatly reduced.

The Falklands victory however turned an unpopular PM into an unbeatable patriotic icon and Margaret Thatcher’s popularity surged to new heights. She called a General Election and swept in with a new Conservative majority and a new cabinet of her choosing. This made her able to carry out many of the radical neo-liberal economic policies which can be seen in Milton Friedman’s book Capitalism and Freedom, policies which she developed and executed with a divisive Tory twist into the legacy we now call Thatcherism.

In reading and watching the mountains of media coverage her passing has provoked I have been amazed at how little recognition there has been of the fact that the Falklands campaign was – as could be seen at the time – an irresponsible and potentially catastrophic misuse of our armed forces in a campaign which threatened them with disaster and defeat.  The risk that the fleet, and we now know the Vulcan bombers, would end up at the bottom of the Atlantic despite the skill and bravery of our forces, was a much more probable outcome than the victory their actions secured. (the American military assessment also was that we could not win)  As it was our losses were high, particularly when you take into account not only the 260 who died, the 264 Falklands veterans who have committed suicide since the campaign, and the 777 living on with serious physical and mental injury.

This was not the battle of Britain or the fight against Al Qaida. Our national security was not threatened, only our national pride – a pride humiliated as a result of a failure to use our navy properly as a deterrent. Yes, Galtieri was a monster, even worse than we then thought, and his defeat lead to his overthrow, but Margaret Thatcher did not send the troops out to topple him, and yes, she was simply very lucky.


John Baxter 10/4/13


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