Thursday, 20 May 2010

A Falklands War might not repeat itself, but a conflict could

Once elected to govern, the Conservatives embarked on the unenviable task of resurrecting the British economy. A Labour Government headed by a former Chancellor, who had replaced the elected Prime Minister halfway through the parliamentary term, bequeathed an economy in ruins.  The nation was mired in strike action or threats of action.  The spending cuts that followed were so severe, and the dosage of economic medicine so distasteful, that the Government was at risk of decimation at the next election by a Labour Party that, although divided, offered a radically different vision for the country.

The only thing that saved the Government was a victorious campaign in the far-off Falkland Islands.  Swept along by a jingoistic tide, the Conservative Party was returned the following election by a landslide and the economic recovery continued apace.

Sound familiar?

If it does, that is because we are living through it.  It is happening around us.  Apart from the last paragraph, this refers to the 1980s only.  Or does it?

Actually, in these non-partisan times – with civil partnerships enacted on the steps of Number 10 – I feel compelled to be a touch fairer.  The economy was not bequeathed to Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe “in ruins” in 1979.  In fact, thanks largely to the straitening stipulations of the IMF, but also in no small part to Mr Callaghan’s recognition that the Labour Government “couldn’t spend its way out of a recession”, the Conservatives inherited a Britain in which all major economic indicators were on the up.  The painful recession of the early 1980s was almost entirely a result of the painful but necessary restructuring and rebalancing of the UK economy enforced by Mrs Thatcher and her ‘dries’.

I would also argue that the Conservative Party would have won the 1983 general election without the Falklands campaign (although not here, that can wait for another time).

Nevertheless, I concede that on that assertion I am in a minority.  It is the overwhelming academic consensus that it was the ‘Falklands factor’ – and not the stirrings of economic resurgence, nascently upward poll ratings, a split left-wing vote and “the longest suicide note in history” – that handed Mrs Thatcher a second term.

However much Mrs Kirchner and her beleaguered Argentine government wish to indulge in sabre rattling, she is no General Galtieri at the head of a murderous and inept military junta (actually, ineptitude they might aspire to).  Moreover, Hilary Clinton can play the role of impartial observer as much as she likes but the simple fact is this: the Falkland Islands are British sovereign territory, this is backed up by international law and for as long as the Kelpers wish this to remain the case it will be so.

Of course, there is always a modicum of possibility that Argentina will try to retake the islands by force.  After all, the British armed forces, waging as they are an energy and resource sapping war in Afghanistan and only recently disentangled from southern Iraq, are hardly in a position to respond.  Yet this simply is not going to happen.  In comparison to 1982, the islands are heavily protected by RAF Mount Pleasant with its 2,000 personnel, Eurofighter Typhoons, and Sikorsky and Sea King helicopters.

However, the recent discovery by Rockhopper Exploration of sizeable oil reserves in the North Falkland Basin has elevated the ongoing dispute from minor irritation to a potential flashpoint.  Rockhopper will provide an estimation for the size of these reserves within the next couple of weeks but advance expectations are high.

The possibility of finding oil in the area has been mooted as a factor in Mrs Thatcher’s decision to reclaim the islands in 1982.  If so (and I doubt it, the sovereignty and self-determination case is stronger) then large deposits will soon put the Falkland Islanders on a par with the Norwegians and begin to pay back Britain for the services rendered in blood and treasure during the war and since.

Now let us suppose that drilling and extraction begins midway through David Cameron’s first term.  Argentina, eyeing these oil wells as a last-ditch lucrative counter to their own fiscal woes, send in the gunships and blockade the North Falkland Basin.  This would be in direct contravention of international law but did that stop the junta in 1982?  Of course not.  Did the absence of a second UN resolution stop us joining the Americans in invading Iraq in 2003?  Not for a moment.

Let us return to this vision of the future.  Cameron and Clegg’s coalition government is fraying at the edges in the face of massive opposition from a British public disbelieving (or refusing to understand) the necessity of the rebalancing of the public finances, with “cuts deeper than under Margaret Thatcher”, to paraphrase another former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

An Argentine armada sets sail for the Falkland Islands, blockading Stanley, bombing Mount Pleasant, seizing an offshore oil rig and capturing a couple of vessels, inflicting a handful of unnecessary casualties in the process. 

Our troops and America’s had left Afghanistan a year previously, midway through 2011 as planned, freeing up regiments and materiel for another courageous expedition to the South Atlantic.  President Obama is fighting an uphill battle to be re-elected for a second term in the face of the belligerent, nonsensical populism of a Palin-led Republican Party.  The President does not want to be seen abandoning the Special Relationship amidst this hostile political climate so although remaining nominally neutral the US fights Britain’s corner in the corridors of the UN and its Latin American backyard.  Cameron is criticised by colonial apologists in some sections of the press but generally applauded for his strong and decisive action.

After a brief, tense stand-off between Argentine and British naval forces, with shots fired across bows but no fatalities, Argentina backs down under the weight of international opprobrium and Britain’s greater military strength and resolve.  “GOTCHA”, the Sun is delighted to repeat its famous front page of yesteryear.

David Cameron’s coalition government survives to complete its five-year parliamentary term and the Conservative Party is re-elected with a landslide majority.

Fanciful?  Time shall tell.

1 comment:

  1. Pretty fanciful. It all depends on Argentine capability and since they are sitting on mostly pre-1990 kit in all areas, pigs are more likely to fly in July.