Thatcher on Falklands: ‘we cannot appease aggression’

By Chris McCarthy

Surely we, of all people, have learned the lesson of history: that to appease an aggressor is to invite aggression elsewhere, and on an every-increasing scale.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 26 May 1982

Territorial disputes have long been the cause of conflict and so it proved again in the spring of 1982 when Argentine forces invaded the long-contested Falkland Islands [known as the Malvinas to Argentina] where the British had claimed sovereignty since 1833. Located nearly 13,000 kilometres from Great Britain but less than 500 from the coast of mainland South America, covering less than 5,000 square miles and home to fewer than 2,000 inhabitants at the outbreak of the Falklands War,* it seemed an unlikely cause for which to risk British lives.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saw the situation very differently. She made the case for defending the Islands in a strident speech to the Conservative Women’s Conference at the beginning of May 1982 that exemplified her qualities as a leader and typified her oratorical style: forceful, resolute, logically constructed, with a hint of rhetorical flourish.

Pax Britannica had long expired and the remaining stump of the British Empire was broken up during the 1950s and 60s but the legacy of winning two world wars endured in the British psyche; the idea of acquiescence to a comparatively ‘minor’ nation was unpalatable and unacceptable despite the Islands’ strategic insignificance and sparse population. Thatcher would draw on Britain’s venerable military history to establish the parameters of her case for retaking the Islands; defending them was a matter of upholding freedom, justice, and the international rule of law:

The older generation in this country and generations before them have made sacrifices so that we could be a free society and belong to a community of nations which seeks to resolves disputes by civilised means.

The Argentine invasion of the Islands was a direct challenge to the rules that govern the international community and if allowed to go unchallenged the consequences would be “anarchy”, Thatcher warned. There was clearly no risk that Argentine forces would travel up the vast Atlantic Ocean to the shores of southern Britain, but to allow a “wanton act of armed by aggression” by a military dictatorship in “blatant violation of international law” set a worrying precedent:

If we…were to shrug our shoulders at what has happened in the South Atlantic and acquiesce in the illegal seizure of those faraway islands, it would be a clear signal to those with similar designs on the territory of others to follow in the footsteps of aggression.

Responding to critics of the government’s decision to recover the Islands by force, unconvinced by the argument that Britain should play the role of global policeman, Thatcher took each of their concerns in turn and rebutted them with devastating efficiency. We see a similar rhetorical device here that we recognise in several speeches by Tony Blair – establishing an unidentified figure to express an opinion or point that runs opposed to government policy, thereby enabling the speaker to counter them in turn and keeping the listener engaged with the rhythmic pacing and avoiding the disengaging ‘list format’.

In these two ‘exchanges’ Thatcher reproaches those “who speak lightly of a few islanders beyond the sea” and “other voices” who worry that Britain will be putting at risk her investments and interests in Latin America:

[To those who ask] “Are they worth fighting for?” let me say this: right and wrong are not measured by a head count of those to whom that wrong has been done. That would not be principle but expediency….

[Still others say] that trade and commerce are too important to us to put in jeopardy some of the valuable markets of the world. But what would the islanders, under the heel of the invader, say to that? What kind of people would we be if, enjoying the birthright of freedom ourselves, we abandoned the British citizens for the sake of commercial gain?

The case for military action was obvious and unavoidable, argued Thatcher, in what would be the first large-scale combat operation during her tenure as prime minister; British land and British citizens were the victims of an aggressor and the United Kingdom would not turn her back to her “own people” when they turned to us for help. Almost Churchillian at moments – “Despite these grievous losses, our resolves is not weakened…” – this was a speech to stiffen the patriotic sinews, to quell any doubts about Britain’s place on the world stage, and to reaffirm the principles of freedom and justice.

Thatcher herself selected the address as one or three most memorable speeches: perhaps because no decision to commit troops to war is ever taken lightly; perhaps because, with the power of hindsight, it was a defining moment in her political career that helped turn the Conservative Party’s fortunes around before the 1983 General Election; or perhaps because it best captured the qualities of steely resolve and firm principles that typified her as a person and a politician.

______

*Technically the United Kingdom did not declare war on Argentina or the occupied Falkland Islands. The last such declaration came against Thailand on 25 January 1942. In common parlance, however, the conflict has become firmly known as the Falklands War.

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