How the Falklands War fired up Britain

The British victory in the South Atlantic in 1982 was a transformative moment for a nation that had lost its empire, its industrial base and its mojo

Margaret Thatcher surrounded by British soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Royal Hampshire Regiment, during a surprise visit to the Falkland Islands, January 1983. Britain has "ceased to be a nation in retreat," declared the prime minister in the wake of the victory over Argentine forces.

Dawn on Monday 14 June 1982: a damp, gloomy morning in the South Atlantic. On the hills above Stanley, the tiny capital of the Falkland Islands, the gunfire had finally died down. After hours of savage fighting overnight, Major General Jeremy Moore’s troops had broken through the Argentine lines on Wireless Ridge and Mount Tumbledown. At last, 10 weeks after the Argentines had seized the Falklands, the drama was approaching its climax.

Advertisement

On Wireless Ridge, the journalist Max Hastings trudged past the abandoned Argentine positions and sat down to type his latest despatch for The Standard. Of all the reporters embedded in the task force, none had identified more closely with Britain’s fighting men. Now Hastings paid a tribute to the paratroopers celebrating their latest victory. “Their morale is sky-high,” he wrote. “Their certainty that they have won and that the enemy is collapsing is absolute. They are very cold, very dirty, but in their mood this morning, they could march to London.” Then he heard shouting: “They’re running away! It’s on the radio! The Argies are running everywhere! Victory!”

Hastings hitched a lift on a tank to the lip of the ridge, and looked down on to the road leading to Stanley, its little houses laid out like a train set. “There was a chance, just a chance,” he thought, “that we could be first into Stanley. It would be the greatest scoop of my professional life.”

The troops moved on. Then, at the little racecourse on the outskirts of the town, the exhausted paratroopers halted for a cup of tea. Hastings kept walking, and before he knew it, he was in the town itself. He raised his hands in the air, one clutching a white handkerchief, and kept going. He passed lines of Argentine soldiers, “cowed, drained of hostility”. Then, at last, he saw what he was looking for: the Falklands’ lone hotel, the Upland Goose.

He went inside, and found some 20 people in the bar. “I’m from the task force,” he said, and they burst into applause. “We never doubted for a moment that the British would come,” the landlord said. “We have just been waiting for the moment. Would you like a drink?”

Thousands of miles away, Margaret Thatcher, who had staked her political survival on the bid to recapture the islands, was in 10 Downing Street, waiting for news. A few hours later, she got the call. On a scrap of notepaper she scribbled the time and date, and then a few sketchy but momentous words: “Gen Moore pressed forward – Enemy retreated… White flags flying over Stanley.”

Then she went across to the Commons. It had gone 10 in the evening, and the mood was electric. When she announced the news of the Argentine surrender, the cheers were deafening. Upstairs, surrounded by well-wishers in her Commons office, she wept. Her husband, Denis, put his arm around her. “Well done,” he said. “Have a drink.”

Almost 40 years on, the importance of the Falklands War, not just for Margaret Thatcher but for modern Britain, can scarcely be exaggerated. On 2 April 1982, the day Argentine forces captured the collection of tiny islands 300 miles off the South American coast, most people could not have identified them on a map. Britain might have ruled the Falklands for nearly 150 years, but many of the British servicemen who sailed south a few days later had genuinely assumed they were off the coast of Scotland.

And there were always those who thought the conflict ludicrous, the stuff of some deluded tragi-comic-opera. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges remarked that the combatants looked like “two bald men fighting over a comb”, while the children’s author Raymond Briggs caricatured them as the Tin-Pot Foreign General (a reference to Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri) and the Old Iron Woman. The war was “xenophobic militarism”, declared Salman Rushdie, who thought it reflected “the politics of the Victorian nursery; if somebody pinches you, you take their trousers down and thrash them”.

But that was not how most people saw it. Right from the beginning, the Falklands War was one of the most popular conflicts in modern British history. On 5 April, the day the task force sailed south, one poll found that 88 per cent of voters thought Britain had an obligation to support the islanders, while 70 per cent would sink Argentine ships if necessary and 41 per cent wanted the government to use force right away. Two weeks later, another survey found that one in three people wanted to bomb the Argentine mainland, while one in five thought British troops should invade Argentina itself.

And every time another ship left for the South Atlantic, crowds poured onto the dockside, weeping and waving Union Jacks. One paper interviewed a veteran of the First World War, Tommy Mallen, who had come to watch the fleet sail from Portsmouth. “I thought England was done for, spineless, a doormat for the world,” he said. “I’d pass the war memorials or see Nelson’s Victory and wonder what it had all been for. But I was wrong, thank God. We are still a proud country, and we’ll still protect our own.”

So why did the war matter so much? And why does it still matter today? As so often, context is everything. At the beginning of April 1982, Britain was a weary, divided, unhappy place. Almost three years after Margaret Thatcher had come to office, her campaign slogan – “Don’t just hope for a better life. Vote for one” – rang horribly hollow. The economy had nosedived into the deepest recession since the Great Depression, unemployment had soared to a record 3 million and many factories had closed forever.

In the summer of 1981, the headlines had belonged to the rioters who tore apart Brixton, Toxteth, Southall and Moss Side, as well as the IRA hunger strikers starving themselves to death in Belfast. By Christmas, Thatcher was the most unpopular prime minister since the Second World War, while her party was running a poor third behind the new SDP-Liberal Alliance and Michael Foot’s Labour. And at the beginning of 1982, few people would have bet against her becoming just another failed one-term leader, an accident of history whose radical experiment had merely hastened Britain’s post-imperial decline.

Behind all this lay a much deeper story. For more than a decade before 1982, the headlines had been unremittingly bad. The empire was gone, the economy was struggling, the old industrial base was crumbling and the old certainties had vanished. Inflation, strikes, unemployment; riots, bombings, scandals; failure, shabbiness, disappointment: this had been Britain’s narrative since the mid-1960s.

Abroad, the New York Times told its readers that Britain, a “country that simply doesn’t work very well”, was “likely to keep getting poorer for years to come”. People said much the same at home, too. In a leaked despatch from the British embassy in Paris in the summer of 1979, the diplomat Sir Nicholas Henderson reported that other Europeans now saw Britain as “a model not to follow if economic disaster is to be avoided”. “You only have to move about western Europe nowadays,” he wrote sadly, “to realise how poor and unproud the British have become in relation to their neighbours.”

And Henderson’s compatriots agreed with him. When the American travel writer Paul Theroux travelled along Britain’s coastline in the spring of 1982, the locals queued up to disparage their own country. “We’re awful,” they told him. “This country is hopeless. We’re never prepared for anything. Nothing works properly.”

The Tory MP Alan Clark told his wife: ‘We’ve lost the Falklands. It’s over. We’re a Third World country, no good for anything’

The irony, of course, was that most people were actually better off than ever, leading lives of unprecedented comfort, variety and opportunity. But perhaps never before in Britain’s history had people held their own country in such low regard. This helps explain why, despite their doubts, they had voted by two to one in 1975 to remain in the European Community, into which Edward Heath had taken them two years earlier. To put it bluntly, many believed that Britain, as a unique, self-reliant national project, was finished. Even Margaret Thatcher’s predecessor, Jim Callaghan, once told his Labour colleagues that if he were a younger man, “I would emigrate”. He was only half joking.

For all Mrs Thatcher’s promises, this did not change after she took office in 1979. Two years into her tenure, national morale was probably worse than ever. The riots, in particular, dealt a savage blow to Britain’s self-esteem. “People are bound to ask what is happening to our country,” lamented the Express. “Having been one of the most law-abiding countries in the world – a byword for stability, order, and decency – are we changing into something else?” “WHERE ARE WE GOING?” asked The Times a few days later. “We may no longer have an empire. We may no longer be the workshop of the world. We may even have difficulty in paying our way.” But at least, it said, the country was renowned for its “tolerance and gentleness”. Not any more. For “now that too seems to have been exposed as a false dream”.

Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands – the culmination of decades of growing tensions as Buenos Aires disputed British rule of the islands – seemed the crowning humiliation, a crushing confirmation of Britain’s insignificance. “We’ve lost the Falklands,” the Tory MP Alan Clark told his wife on 2 April. “It’s all over. We’re a Third World country, no good for anything.”

Yet almost as soon as Mrs Thatcher announced that the task force would sail, the mood began to change. Even the writer Jonathan Raban, who was horrified by her decision to go to war, wept when he watched the ships sail from Portsmouth. “The families on the shore, the receding ships, the bands and streamers,” he admitted, “had me blubbering with silly pride in Queen and Country.” And while shopping in Lancaster, one woman, who was personally deeply opposed to the war, overheard a group of elderly men talking about the crisis. “She’s a grand lass,” one said of Mrs Thatcher, to general approval. “We’ll show ’em we’re British, eh?”

Ten weeks later, Mrs Thatcher’s admirers had the result they wanted. For the prime minister herself it was a decisive moment. “If things had gone wrong it would have been known as Thatcher’s War,” said the Mirror, which had spent the last three years damning everything she stood for. “But now things have gone right nobody should deny her the credit… The scale of her triumph, in both military and political terms, is amazing.” Many ordinary voters said much the same. “I have always voted Labour,” a Birmingham shop steward said in the autumn of 1982. But “I am an admirer of Margaret Thatcher as a leader. She impressed me over the Falklands. She said it was ours and we were going to defend it… I have never seen my way clear to voting Conservative. It is only what Maggie has done that has made me waver.” He was not, of course, alone.

Yet the significance of victory went well beyond the electoral fortunes of a single woman. “We have seen in these weeks of crisis and battle a remarkable resurgence of patriotism,” wrote the columnist George Gale, the day after the Argentines surrendered. “It has welled up from the nation’s depth. We have undergone a sea-change.”

Indeed, whatever they thought of the war itself, almost everybody agreed that victory had brought a profound shift in the national narrative. For the Daily Mail’s Robin Oakley, the war was one of those “moments which can lift a nation’s mood and alter its history”, marking the “restoration of Britain’s pride and self-confidence”. Even the left-wing Tony Benn recognised that there had been a dramatic change in the way that people thought about their country. “I feel somehow that we are at a real turning point in politics,” he wrote that summer. “I can’t quite describe it… I feel we have just come to the end of an era.” Another controversial prophet of national decline put it more bluntly. “A change has come about in Britain,” wrote Enoch Powell. “We are ourselves again.”

Powell’s words could hardly have been more telling. Those who opposed the Falklands War often dismissed it as an exercise in nostalgic nationalism. But nostalgic nationalism was precisely what many people craved. Max Hastings, for example, was tired of reporting on “one aspect or another of national failure”, and was itching “to record a national success”. “We British had been kicked too often,” agreed one paratrooper, who had been traumatised by his experiences in the Falklands, yet felt proud to have fought “for our country and its beliefs”.

But nobody captured the mood better than Thatcher herself. Britain, she said, had “ceased to be a nation in retreat”, and had “rekindled that spirit which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to burn as brightly as before. Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won.” And whatever they thought of her, millions clearly agreed.

The Falklands, then, was a genuine turning point, the first for 40 years. In practical terms it changed nothing. Psychologically, however, it changed everything. In the public imagination, it marked the end of an era defined by post-imperial introspection, providing a new national myth to rank alongside Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain.

Indeed, the look and feel of the con flict might have been designed specifically for a generation weaned on The Dam Busters and Dad’s Army. The great spectacle of the task force ploughing through the Atlantic was perfectly calculated to stir the hearts of a seafaring people who had grown up with stories of Drake and Nelson. And the pictures of the little green figures with their enormous packs, trudging stoically across the windswept moorlands, played perfectly to the self-image of an indomitable island race, never happier than when the weather was miserable and the odds were against them. Once again, Britain had been written off. Once again, Britain had prevailed.

In the public imagination, victory in the Falklands provided a new national myth to rank alongside Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain

But it might not have done. The logistical difficulties of sailing halfway across the world and landing in horrendous conditions, without proper air cover, meant the war could easily have gone the other way. And if it had, there is a good case that Britain today would look very different.

Defeat in the Falklands would probably have brought a swift end to the Thatcher experiment. More profoundly, it would surely have confirmed for good the impression of national decline. There would have been no cheering crowds on the quayside, no flag-waving parade in the City of London, no tub-thumping tabloid headlines, no impassioned rhetoric about the spirit of the South Atlantic. Humiliated in the eyes of the world, the British might well have viewed their own country very differently: a nation in decline, reeling from the loss of empire, the collapse of industry and their humiliation at the hands of a South American junta. Perhaps they might even have reconciled themselves to a new role, as just another member of the European Community.

But that is not what happened. The task force returned in triumph. The flags waved, the crowds cheered and Margaret Thatcher basked in the applause of her admirers. “Today,” said the Standard, in an observation that perfectly captured the public mood, “the Great is back in Britain.”

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and broadcaster. His latest book, Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979–1982, was published by Allen Lane in September. He’ll be discussing the Falklands War at our History Weekend in Winchester.

Advertisement

This article was first published in the November 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine