London – To measure the political and moral terrain traversed since Great Britain’s Falklands War against Argentina — last Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the conflict — recall the debate in the House of Commons on April 2, 1982. The BBC just aired an audio version of the event, and it is riveting stuff: It reveals a democratic government fully awake to the dangers of unchecked aggression.
The scene is the day after the neo-fascist regime of General Leopoldo Galtieri seizes the Falkland Islands, a British dependent territory in the south Atlantic. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher calls an emergency meeting of Parliament to denounce the invasion in no uncertain terms. “It has not a shred of justification,” she says, “and not a scrap of legality.” Despite warnings that a military response could prove unworkable, the Iron Lady vows that the islands will be liberated by the British Navy.
The mood in the House is one of outrage, not surprising given the fact that 1,800 British nationals have lost their freedom overnight. What startles the listener, though, is that the anger turns quickly from the Argentine junta to the British prime minister: The administration should have discerned Galtieri’s intentions and acted preemptively to protect British citizens. Julian Amery, a Conservative MP, accuses the Thatcher government of relying naively on diplomatic gestures despite early signs of Argentine belligerence. The administration, he says, “confuses diplomacy with foreign policy.”
Even more astonishing is the response of the opposition party. Labor MPs, one after another, complain bitterly that the government failed to muster an appropriate show of force at the crucial moment. Edward Rowlands calls it “reprehensible” that military action was not taken despite “a number of telltale signs” of imminent aggression. Michael Foot, the Labor-party leader, goes even further. “So far, they [the hostages] have been betrayed,” he says, “and the responsibility for their betrayal rests with the government.” The House, it seems, grows red hot with its reproach.
Though there’s political posturing afoot, the net effect is to help marshal national resolve. Parliamentarians of all stripes berate the Argentine dictatorship as a regime of torture and mass executions. They agree that a failure to use force to protect British interests would signal impotence to the agents of lawlessness and terrorism. “If you tolerate one act of aggression, you connive at them all,” warns Conservative MP Edward du Cann. “We have nothing to lose now, Mr. Speaker, but our honor.” Labour MPs are no less hawkish — or jealous for British sovereignty. When Margaret Thatcher tells House members that Britain has taken the matter to the U.N. Security Council, for example, opposition members can be heard howling in disgust.
In view of Britain’s slavish diplomatic response to Iran’s seizure of 15 of its sailors and Marines, the Falklands debate sounds like a surreal tale of a nation that existed a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.