Was the Falklands War a Success or a Failure for Thatcher's Administration?

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Was the Falklands War a political success or failure for the - Thatcher government? -

On 2 April 1982, the British political system was rocked by news of an extraordinary event eight thousand miles away in the South Atlantic. A long-standing and thorny dispute with Argentina over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands – a tiny relic of empire proximate to the South American mainland – had erupted with a sudden and unprovoked invasion of British territory by Argentine forces. Britain’s Conservative government faced the greatest crisis in foreign affairs for a generation (Freedman, 1988). Behind this audacious Argentine manoeuvre laid the assumption that the British Government – struggling with union strife, plunging popularity and a faltering economy – had neither the strength nor willpower to defend remote islands which most of its electorate had never heard of. On the contrary, General Galtieri – the head of Argentina's military Junta – had made one crucial error: he’d seriously underestimated Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Dismissing pleas from her defence officials, Thatcher ordered a small taskforce to recover the Falklands in one of the most ambitious military undertakings in British history (Snow & Snow, 2007). Against all the odds, and spectacularly outnumbered, the British forces ‘yomped’ to a resounding and historic victory after only seventy-four days of war. On 14 June 1982, the poorly equipped and badly lead Argentine conscripts surrendered and the Falkland Islands were returned to British rule. In Britain, the glow of military success, decisive leadership from Thatcher, and fervent patriotic jubilation appeared to signify an unequivocal political success for the Government. Indeed, the Falklands episode is often regarded Thatcher’s turning point; saving her unpopular administration, facilitating her 1983 election victory and paving the way for ten more years of Thatcherism – which was to leave a lasting legacy. Additionally, since 1982 the Islands themselves have been economically transformed with revenues from fishing and oil pouring into the national purse. Indeed, on the surface, the conflict seems an unambiguous political triumph. However, such a simple narrative would distort the Falklands story. Critics have lambasted the conflict as an avoidable and tragic absurdity, arguing the huge physical, economic and emotional costs of war to be the consequence of unforgiveable diplomatic and political failings by Thatcher’s administration. Indeed, considering the burden of continued tension with Argentina and the task of rebuilding a stagnant economy on the Islands, the success of the conflict appears questionable. Because a quantitative method for measuring the effects of war on governments remains elusive, this paper adopts a clear successes vs. failures framework to explore and scrutinize the political, economic and historical factors associated with the conflict and its legacy before arguing that, whilst it’s by no means absolved of all political failure, the Falklands War must ultimately be considered a political success for Thatcher’s administration.

- The Falklands War as a Political Failure -

In an interview with Channel Four, Lord Callaghan – British Prime Minister from 1976-79 – is quoted as saying: “It’s the small issues, the pimples on the map; those are the issues that move quickly and cause a lot of trouble unless you keep a constant eye on them” (Falklands War, 1992). Indeed, Jenkins asserts the iron law of foreign policy to be that all crises arise from unexpected quarters (Jenkins, 2007). Thus, whilst Argentina is, of course, ultimately to blame for the Falklands War: no government can be condemned for the reckless aggression of another, Thatcher’s administration can be considered culpable to the extent to which it instigated the invasion and, moreover, for what more it might have done to prevent it (Sharp, 1999). Long before the...
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