Is “The Falklands’ Factor” Still With Us?


It is 25 years this spring since the start of the Falklands War and the Government has announced four days of commemoration to mark the anniversary of the final victory in June. This seems extravagant for a war which was ostensibly one of the most pointless in modern history. All this attention underlines that this war has had an impact on British ruling class thinking which has never gone away. And given how the war ideologically helped the British ruling class step up their attacks on the working class we could even say that the “Falklands factor” lives on.

The capitalist crisis

No-one thought it very significant when on March 19th 1982 an Argentinian scrap metal dealer raised the Argentine flag on the almost totally uninhabited British protectorate of South Georgia, a lump of rock in the South Atlantic. No-one certainly thought it would lead to a war costing the lives of 255 British soldiers, 3 Falkland Islanders and 652 Argentinian sailors and soldiers. It was perhaps one of the most pointless conflicts of the twentieth century but its consequences are with us still.

We say “perhaps pointless” because the greatest lesson of this war is just how far two bankrupt ruling classes will go to divert attention from the problems created by the class struggle within their territory by engaging in military adventures. The demand for national unity on all sides in these situations is always overwhelming but this jeu des frontieres is a game of winner takes all. The state that loses faces certain social upheaval, as the failure of Tsarist Russia to defeat the Japanese in 1905 illustrated. The 1905 revolution that followed in Russia was the dress rehearsal for the proletariat’s more successful revolution during Imperial Russia’s next imperialist adventure in 1917. In the Falklands crisis, the background to the whole conflict was the economic crisis which opened up with the end of the cycle of accumulation around 1971. The cycle had begun with the period of reconstruction after World War Two. The massive devaluation of capital brought about by the war unleashed one of the longest booms in capitalist history, but, by the end of the 1960’s, this was running out of steam. The constant tendency for the organic composition of capital to rise (that is, the amount of capital invested in raw materials and machines for production, increases relative to that for labour - or variable capital in Marxist terms) brings about a general decline in the average rate of profit. This means that the capitalists eventually find it more difficult to sell to other capitalists and to a working class which creates the wealth of the world but does not get a large enough share of it to continuously, in all conditions, act as a market for capitalist commodities. The result is a slowdown in economic activity if not outright stagnation. Boom turns to bust for many individual capitalists. In this situation capitalist states are forced to find both economic and extra-economic solutions to the crisis. In the early 1980’s, this was the situation which faced many governments around the world and is the main motive for the actions of both sides in the Falklands conflict.

A Tale of Two Evils

In 1982 in Britain, the Thatcher Government was, according to opinion polls, the most unpopular government of all time. It had been brought to power in 1979 because the “winter of discontent” revealed that British workers were not prepared to take the brunt of the capitalist crisis, even when it was sold to them by the Labour Party. The Labour Government of Callaghan, which had implemented IMF demands for cuts in government spending since1977, was regarded as an enemy of the working class, especially as it had used troops to try to break strikes. If Labour could not carry out this role for the British ruling class it was not much use to the bourgeoisie. The Tories squeezed into power as a result but without having any plan substantially different to Labour. What they did recognise was that there was a need to restructure British industry. One of the easiest ways to do this was to trim loss making nationalised industries which had been subsidised throughout the crisis as they had been seen as the essential strategic prerequisites of a powerful state. It was a sine qua non of all governments of whatever type that coal, steel and transport represented the “commanding heights” of the economy. On them everything else rested and therefore they had to be supported. The Tories first attack, on the steelworkers in December 1979, resulted in a bitter 13 week strike which ended in massive layoffs, and the subsequent privatisation of British steel. But with inflation running as high as ever (it was 21% in 1980) and the workers still resisting (British Coal’s plan to close pits was abandoned in February 1981 in the face of united resistance from the miners), the Thatcher Government was in a fix. Two successive budgets had gone further than Callaghan in cutting spending and raising more taxes but inflation raged on. Tory claims to be the party of sound finance appeared extremely hollow. When unemployment passed three million in 1982, their 1979 slogan, of “Labour isn’t working”, set against a picture of a dole queue at a time when unemployment had tripled to one and half million, stripped the government of any credibility they might have had.

In Argentina, the brutal military regime was in an even deeper political and economic crisis. The military had taken over with yet another coup in 1976 and had attempted to eradicate all opposition through the “Dirty War” in which many of the young opponents of the regime were murdered or “disappeared”. It was a technique already perfected by Pinochet after the overthrow of the Allende Government in Chile in 1973. At the same time the military headed by General Videla virtually took over the running of every branch of the economy. They brought in an aggressive Friedmanite (1) free market economy which brought billions of dollars of investments and loans from international banks and multi-national corporations. Large tranches of this money ended up in the officer corps’ pockets as they saw no patriotic reason why they should not be substantially rewarded for saving the country from “Marxism”. Incidentally, the “Dirty War” against the young who were suspected of joining the urban guerrilla movement was called by the military bosses, ironically, “the war on terror”. No-one knows how many Argentinians died though most estimates suggest 30 000 would not be far from the truth. But, with inflation at 150% and the state debt at a gargantuan $32 billion, the military realised they needed to change course. Videla was sacked and replaced by General Galtieri as head of the armed forces junta in December 1981. Galtieri retained direct control of the army and did not appoint a new commander-in-chief so that he held unchallenged power. He attempted to repair the economy by slashing spending, selling off remaining government-owned industries, squeezing money supply and freezing salaries. In short he just stepped up the same Friedmanite polices but with a tighter control of spending. What was different was his attempt to institute limited political reforms which even allowed the expression of dissent. However, this did not win the Armed Forces any credit and soon anti-junta demonstrations became common. From the beginning of 1982, there were almost daily demonstrations demanding a return of an elected government. What the Armed Forces needed to prove was that they really were the representatives of the nation and what better way to do it than fight a” short victorious war” (2) against a foreign foe for once. (3)

The Falklands/Malvinas conflict (4)

Since the failed Falklands adventure Galtieri has been portrayed as a total incompetent but, brutal thug though he undoubtedly was, he had plenty of solid evidence for the idea that the British would not fight for the Falklands. In the first place, we now know, thanks to The Official History of the Falklands Campaign (5) (two vols) that the Thatcher Government had offered to hand over the Falklands in 1980. The plan was that the title to the islands would be handed to Argentina but Britain would lease it back for 99 years to guarantee the Falkland Islanders a continuity of “their way of life”. The plan was the brainchild of Nicholas Ridley who, as Foreign Office minister, had already agreed the sale of Lynx helicopters and naval missiles to Argentina. Ridley traveled to Geneva to agree the deal with his Argentine opposite number, Comodoro Cavandoli. The plan was well advanced when Ridley went to the Falklands Islands in November 1980. Ridley’s aristocratic manner made him instantly distrusted by the “kelpers” and, in the face of their opposition, and the general distrust of Ridley in Parliament (even from Conservatives), the plan was dropped. However, the British continued to discuss the situation with their Argentine counterparts at the UN and the diplomatic signal the Argentines received was that the British would like to get rid of the problem.

What clinched the idea that the British would not fight was the continuing cuts in the British Navy that were being made in order to afford the new updated Trident nuclear missile system from the US. On February 9th 1982 Thatcher defended in Parliament the decision (taken the previous June) to axe the armed South Atlantic survey ship, HMS Endurance. A month later on March 11th, she announced the deployment of Trident II to replace the outdated Polaris missile system, Britain’s almost “independent” nuclear deterrent. By this time, to pay for Trident II, many other ships had been scheduled for scrapping, and the largest aircraft carrier in the fleet, the Ark Royal, had already been scrapped. One week later our Argentine scrap merchant raised his flag on South Georgia and a fortnight after that, Galtieri launched the invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas which were taken with virtually no shot fired on April 2nd.

The embarrassment of the Thatcher Government was complete. In the debates in the House of Commons former Labour Foreign Secretary David Owen (by now a leading member of the Social Democratic Party) asked why there had not been a token show of strength such as had been done by the British Government in 1977 when a similar threat was perceived. Nott, the Tory Defence Minister, got up and blandly said no-one could have predicted the invasion. When asked about the warning in South Georgia he said that the 12 Argentine scrap dealers who had raised the flag on South Georgia had “a valid salvage licence” from the British Government to be there! The Thatcher Government was now in as tight a spot as Galtieri in Argentina. Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, resigned to take the blame for the diplomatic failure but Nott, architect of the naval cuts, kept his job and was told to organise a task force to go the 8000 miles to retake the islands. The logistics of this were, to say the least, difficult, especially as the nearest air cover would have to be based 3000 miles away on Ascension Island. The British were so short of supply ships that they even had to requisition the pride of the transatlantic cruise trade, the QEII and the Canberra.

What actually went on during the campaign we leave to the anoraks who enjoy such tales. The British, after a few alarms (which would have been even greater had the Argentinians known how to set the time fuses on their British-made bombs) recaptured the islands on June 14th. The consequences were historically predictable.

The consequences

In Argentina, Galtieri resigned three days after the surrender of the Falklands capital, Port Stanley. Within a month the military junta began to unravel and this would eventually pave the way for the restoration of the Argentinian version of representative government.

The outcome was also a relief for the Reagan Government in the US since they had tried to get the British to seek a negotiated settlement with Argentina in order not to have to choose between two Cold War allies. The US let Galtieiri know they were doing everything they could to get such a settlement which would have left the Malvinas as Argentinian (much to Thatcher’s fury) but at the same time they gave intelligence support via satellite surveillance to the British operation as well as supplying ammunition to the task force. Oddly enough, the French Government came in for a lot of criticism by the British ruling class at the time, but the Official History makes it clear that the Mitterand Government supplied the British with every detail of the numbers and specifications of the weapons previously sold to Argentina (including the Exocet missile which killed less than thirty men when it hit HMS Sheffield - because it also actually did not detonate).

In Britain some workers had opposed the war (but the trades unions called off strikes and overtime bans in key industries in order to support the war effort) and many we encountered at the time gave us a great deal of financial and physical support. This was because they understood, as we maintained at the time, that an easy victory for Thatcher Government would give them the green light to carry out the attack on the working class that they had had to postpone in 1981. Victory in the Falklands and its attendant patriotism gave the British ruling class an enormous degree of confidence. On a surge of jingoistic fervour, stoked by such tabloid papers as the Sun (see graphic), Thatcher called an early general election and the Tories won by a landslide in June 1983. The way was now prepared for a renewed attack on the working class. A pointer for this was that 61% of miners had already voted not to strike against pit closures in November1982. This gave the Tories the space in which to plan a strategy to attack the most solid body of workers left in Britain. The man given this task was... Nicholas Ridley. The details of this plan and how it was conducted was analysed in Communist Review 22 which we will reprint in a future issue. All we will say here is that the successful offensive against the working class that followed the Falklands War saw one sector of workers after another defeated. After the miners were defeated in 1985 it was the turn of print workers and very soon every worker was threatened with losing their livelihood. It was difficult to fight for jobs when the capitalists basically wanted to just liquidate loss-making industries. The fear of unemployment became a weapon disciplining the workforce in a way not seen since the 1930s. And this new threat led to the cuts in wages which workers had successfully fought off throughout the 1970s. Today’s increasingly low wage service economy is the consequence (see “The New Economy” in Revolutionary Perspectives 37-40 for more on this). The low level of resistance by workers in Britain to increased impoverishment partially dates back to this time.

British imperialism today

If history does repeat itself if in different forms (as Marx suggested in the opening lines of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon) then something can be said of today in relation to the Falklands. It is no secret that Blair has always admired Thatcher and her conviction politics but it is remarkable how some of the same features that were around in 1982 are back with us. Trident is being renewed, with little debate in the House of Commons about this new £25 billion expenditure (See the article “Trident and Faslane 365” in this edition). At the same time Blair’s government like Thatcher’s continues to mothball parts of the British Navy. And, despite fighting in three arenas at once, defence expenditure has risen by only 1.4% per year since 1997.

The consequences are that Army morale is low (as evidenced by the revelations about housing conditions) and several senior officers have gone public in criticising the lack of equipment. The National Audit Office has reported that with 13 000 plus troops in Iraq and Afghanistan the Army is 5170 below strength. With more leaving than joining every week, it seems as though even the military are voting with their feet against the foreign adventures of the Prime Minister.

Don’t mention Iraq

Blair’s response is a bit like Thatcher’s too. Instead of looking at his own failings over the imbroglio in Iraq he simply accuses the rest of the world of being out of step. In his speech to invited military guests on HMS Albion on January 12th Blair only mentioned the word Iraq once. Instead he gave a general speech outlining what the role of the British was in international affairs. After telling us that some nations “do peacekeeping and some do war making” he argued that Britain did both. By this he meant that Britain had to show it was still a great power. He said:

On the part of the public, they need to be prepared for a long as well as the short campaign, to see our participation alongside allies ... as a necessary engagement in order for us to protect our security and advance our interests and values in the modern world.

It could not be clearer. Britain has a new imperialist agenda. It also confirms what we wrote in 1982 that Britain would not rely on Trident alone but, despite all the cuts, retain conventional forces to fight for more immediate imperial interests. (6)

He also demanded that the generals who called for more resources should shut up in case it undermined public support for the long war (he meant in Iraq but did not say so). Like Thatcher, Blair too, despite enough insults from his US allies, has firmly tied British imperial interests to those of the US. Europe can be left to peacekeeping whilst Britain under the coat tails of the US carries out military invasion of countries whose government is regarded as a threat. This anti-European policy is very useful to the US as it ensures that the tendencies towards creating a strong European imperialist pole are held in check. At a time when China and Russia are already flexing their imperialist muscles in Africa and Central Asia this is an invaluable assistance to the US.

Blair’s lofty assertion of principle though fails to deal with the reality that is before his eyes. In the Falklands War the Thatcher Government had the excuse that the Argentine government had invaded British territory (even if the British claim to it was bogus). Blair cannot claim the same about Iraq which was invaded on the basis of a lie that it held weapons of mass destruction. And the other lesson he has not appreciated is that pleading with soldiers to die in the long term for no conceivable purpose, is not the same as a swift action which took less than three months. The war in Iraq was opposed by “the public” even before it started and Blair’s megalomaniac belief that he could convince everyone afterwards of the purity of his purpose has come dramatically unstuck. Now he is leaving office calling for rearmament in every direction. Not only is Trident to be renewed but he is calling for a “massive” shipbuilding programme worth around £14 billion over the next ten years. Already this has aroused opposition within the ruling elite as Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has come out to deny that there is a war on terror and that all the laws aimed at restricting liberty in the name of security are unnecessary. The debate in the House of Commons on January 25th also showed that wide sections of the ruling class reject Blair’s vision of a new task for British imperialism of joining the US as the world’s policeman. Blair, of course, was not there to hear it...


(1) After Milton Friedman, the US economist of the “Chicago School”. His “monetarist” polices have never been fully carried out in any of the central capitalist states even where there were fervent believers like Thatcher who used his rhetoric. In the most brutal military dictatorships of South America like Chile and Argentine it was easier to ignore the social consequences of his theories so long as murdering and torturing worked to hold the working class in submission

(2) The phrase is that of Plehve, Tsar Nicholas II’s Minister of the Interior suggesting an attack on Japan in 1904. See Revolutionary Perspectives 34 and 35 for this war and the 1905 Revolution which followed it

(3) Latin American military budgets are, per capita, the largest in the world outside the oil states. In two centuries since their independence from Spain they have hardly fought a foreign war but are used simply for the brutal oppression of the civilian population in the interests of the propertied classes

(4) The Falklands are called the Islas Malvinas by Argentina. According to the Official History (see below) the British seized them from Argentina in 1833 (Britain had recognised Argentina’s independence from Spain in 1825 and at the time the islands were governed by Argentina). The British had settled the islands in 1766 but then abandoned them in 1774. It was this earlier settlement that led to the imperialist claim that the islands were British

(5) Written by Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies at Kings College, London. It was published in 2005 by Routledge Taylor and Francis and costs a massive £90 for both volumes. This part of the story was repeated in The Guardian (June 28th, 2005) by Richard Norton-Taylor and Rob Evans, in an article entitled “UK held secret talks to cede sovereignty”

(6) What we obviously got wrong in 1982 was in seeing the Falklands War as a preparation for World War III. In 1982 the Cold War was in full swing and the global economic capitalist crisis was beginning to bite. In the year that followed the Falklands War some of the biggest peace demonstrations in British history took place as the situation appeared increasingly dangerous. However 1982 was also the year in which the KGB not only concluded that Russia could not win a nuclear war but that the attempt to match the US in the arms race would ruin the Soviet Union. It was for this reason that when Brezhnev died on October 10th 1982 Andropov the KGB boss was made head of First Secretary of the Communist Party. His sudden death delayed the implementation of the reform policy (glasnost and perestroika) associated with Andropov’s protégé Gorbachev who did not take power until March 1985. As Gorbachev attempted to manoeuvre the bureaucracy towards openness he made many enemies in the Communist Party and a Stalinist coup eventually led not only to the fall of Gorbachev in August 1991 but to that of the Communist Party. The Cold War thus did not end in World War III largely because the two major rivals after World War Two both had a vested interest in maintaining that post-war order. The implosion of the USSR was perhaps a unique event in history in that a ruling class trapped in a historical cul de sac destroyed itself rather than resorting to war. The collapse of the USSR has opened up a new period but as the articles in this issue demonstrates war is even more central to the defence of national interests than ever.

Revolutionary Perspectives

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