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.
Nearly two weeks into this standoff, Britain still has not warned Iran that the seizure of its crew in Iraqi waters represents a grave violation of international law. Despite threats that the hostages could be put on trial, despite evidence that they’re being coerced into making false “apologies,” the Blair government has set no date for their release. It has failed to secure a United Nations resolution condemning Iran, or a pledge from the European Union to impose sanctions unless the servicemen are freed.
Meanwhile, the BBC’s coverage of this crisis probably leaves the typical Briton more suspicious of his democratic government than of the Islamo-fascist regime in Tehran. We learn that there is a “dispute” over whether the British crew was found in Iraqi or Iranian waters while on patrol under a UN mandate. We’re told that Britain’s Ministry of Defense “claims” that its GPS system shows the crew was operating in Iraqi waters. But based on BBC reporting, the average viewer probably wouldn’t know that Iran “corrected” its coordinates when confronted with the GPS data. Neither would he know that the Iraqi foreign minister has told his Iranian counterpart that the British seamen were indeed in Iraqi waters when captured.
No wonder, then, that a recent opinion poll by the Telegraph suggests widespread public ambivalence about this crisis. If diplomacy fails, more Britons — 48 percent to 44 percent — would oppose military action against Iran than would support it. More than one in four respondents think Britain should apologize to Iran and ask for its captives back. The BBC’s “Have Your Say” comment blog was stacked with jibes like this one: “What is the way out of the Gulf crisis?” asks Asif of London. “Leave the Middle East and take America with you.”
I was at Westminster last week, watching Tony Blair field questions about the standoff with Iran during his weekly question time in the House of Commons. Unfortunately, there weren’t many questions to answer: Conservative-party leader David Cameron seemed almost embarrassed to raise the topic. When Cameron asked about the rules of engagement for the British seamen, Labor MPs moaned with indignation. Blair failed to make clear that under its severely restricted U.N. mandate, the British crew was lightly armed and not permitted to fire unless fired upon first. The House quickly moved on to more pressing matters — like treatment delays in the National Health Service and the condition of British seaside resorts.
“Admiral Lord Nelson must be revolving in his grave,” complained Melanie Phillips, conservative columnist for the Daily Mail. “There is no sense of urgency or crisis, no outpouring of anger. There seems to be virtually no grasp of what is at stake.”
Twenty-five years ago, during another act of lawlessness by a brutal dictatorship, virtually the entire political class of Great Britain knew exactly what was at stake. Led by Margaret Thatcher, they found the moral mettle to act on those convictions: the Argentine aggression did not stand. That Britain no longer appears to exist — an impression her enemies are putting to the test.