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Britain and the World, 1979-84: A post-imperial postscript.   Leave a comment

Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s main supporter in her election as Conservative leader and in her early governments, once said that, in the past, Britain’s trouble had been that she had never had a proper capitalist ruling class. In 1979, the first Thatcher government sought consciously to put this right. The task it set itself was daunting – the liberation of British enterprise from a hundred years of reactionary accretions, in order to return the machine to the point along the path where it had stood when it was diverted away. It was helped by the fact that, with the empire gone, very little remained to sustain the older, obstructive, pre-capitalist values any longer, or to cushion Britain against the retribution her industrial shortcomings deserved. This movement promised to mark the real and final end of empire, the Thatcher government’s determination to restore the status quo ante imperium, which meant, in effect, before the 1880s, when imperialism had started to take such a hold on Britain. Thatcher looked back to the Victorian values of Benjamin Disraeli’s day, if not to those of William Gladstone. She itemized these values in January 1983 as honesty, thrift, reliability, hard work and a sense of responsibility. This list strikingly omitted most of the imperial values, like service, loyalty and fair play, though she did, later on, add ‘patriotism’ to them. Nevertheless, the new patriotism of the early 1980s was very different from that of the 1880s, even when it was expressed in a way which seemed to have a ring of Victorian imperialism about it.

Part of the backdrop to the Falklands War was the residual fear of global nuclear war. With hindsight, the Soviet Union of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko may seem to be a rusted giant, clanking helplessly towards a collapse, but this is not how it seemed prior to 1984. The various phases of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) were underway, but to well-informed and intelligent analysts the Soviet empire still seemed mighty, belligerent and unpredictable. New SS20 missiles were being deployed by the Soviets, targeted at cities and military bases across western Europe. In response, NATO was planning a new generation of American Pershing and Cruise missiles to be sited in Europe, including in Britain. In the late winter of 1979 Soviet troops had begun arriving in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev was an obscure member of the Politburo working on agricultural planning, and glasnost was a word no one in the West had heard of. Poland’s free trade union movement, Solidarity, was being crushed by a military dictator. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter had issued an ultimatum: the Soviets must withdraw or the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympic Games due to be held in the summer of 1980. Margaret Thatcher supported the call for a boycott, but the British Olympic Association showed its independence from government and defiantly sent a team, supported by voluntary contributions from students, among others. Two British middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett each won gold medals.


Western politics echoed with arguments over weapons systems, disarmament strategies and the need to stand up to the Soviet threat. Moscow had early and rightly identified Margaret Thatcher as one of its most implacable enemies. She had already been British Prime Minister for eighteen months when Ronald Reagan’s administration took over in Washington. He may have been many things Thatcher was not, but like her, he saw the world in black and white terms, especially in his first term to 1984. She was from a Methodist background, he was from a Presbyterian one, so they both shared a view of the world as a great stage on which good and evil, God and Satan, were pitched against each other in endless conflict. Reagan found a ‘soul mate’ in Thatcher. Already dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ by the Russians, Thatcher was resolute in her determination to deregulate government and allow the benefits of capitalism to flourish at home and abroad. Although the UK was committed to Europe, Thatcher was also a strong believer in Britain’s “enduring alliance” with the United States. Reagan and Thatcher saw eye-to-eye on many key issues. Their shared detestation of socialism in general and Soviet communism, in particular, underpinned their remarkably close personal relationship which was eventually to help steer the world away from Armageddon.

Of course, in a sense, the Falklands War of 1982 could be seen as an imperial war, fought as it was over a fag-end of Britain’s old empire: but that was an accident. There was no imperial rationale for the war. Britain did not fight the Argentines for profit, for potential South Atlantic oil reserves (as some suggested), or for the security of her sea lanes, or indeed for the material or spiritual good of anyone. She fought them for a principle, to resist aggression and to restore her government’s sovereignty over the islands in the interests of the islanders themselves. The war also served to restore to Britain some of the national pride which many commentators had long suggested was one of the other casualties of the empire’s demise. That was what made an otherwise highly burdensome operation worthwhile if that sense of pride could be translated into what Sir Nicolas Henderson had described three years earlier as a sense of national will. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher believed that if British Leyland could be injected with some of the same ‘Falklands spirit’ then there was no reason why British industry could not reverse its decline. The popular jingoism the affair aroused and encouraged showed that a post-imperial Britain would not necessarily be a post-militaristic one. But it was not an imperial jingoism per se, more one which expressed a national pride and patriotism. It did not indicate in the least that ‘imperialism’ proper was about to be resurrected, even if that were practicable; or that anyone intended that it should be.

However proud Britons were to have defended the Falklands, no one was particularly proud any longer of having them to defend. Most of Britain’s remaining colonial responsibilities were regarded now as burdens it would much rather be without and would have been if it could have got away with scuttling them without loss of honour or face. In her new straitened circumstances, they stretched its defence resources severely, and to the detriment of its main defence commitment, to NATO. They also no longer reflected Britain’s position in the world. When Hong Kong and the Falklands had originally been acquired, they had been integral parts of a larger pattern of commercial penetration and naval ascendancy. They had been key pieces in a jigsaw, making sense in relation to the pieces around them. Now those pieces had gone and most of the surviving ones made little sense in isolation, or they made a different kind of sense from before. If the Falklands was an example of the former, Hong Kong was a good example of the latter, acting as it now did as a kind of ‘cat-flap’ into communist China. The Falklands was the best example of an overseas commitment which, partly because it never had very much value to Britain, now had none at all.


Diplomatically, the Falklands ‘Crisis’ as it was originally known, was an accident waiting to happen, no less embarrassing for that. At the time, the defence of western Europe and meeting any Soviet threat was the main concern, until that began to abate from 1984 onwards. The British Army was also increasingly involved in counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland. Small military detachments helped to guard remaining outposts of the empire such as Belize. But Argentine claims to the Falklands were not taken seriously, and naval vessels were withdrawn from the South Atlantic in 1981. In April 1982, though, Argentina launched a surprise attack on South Georgia and the Falklands and occupied the islands.

001Even if oil had been found off its shores, or South Georgia could have been used as a base from which to exploit Antarctica, Britain was no longer the sort of power which could afford to sustain these kinds of operations at a distance of eight thousand miles. The almost ludicrous measures that had to be put into place in order to supply the Falklands after May 1982 illustrate this: with Ascension Island serving as a mid-way base, and Hercules transport aircraft having to be refuelled twice in the air between there and Port Stanley, in very difficult manoeuvres. All this cost millions, and because Britain could not depend on the South American mainland for more convenient facilities.

But it was not only a question of power. Britain’s material interests had contracted too: especially her commercial ones. For four centuries, Britain’s external trade had used to have a number of distinctive features, two of which were that it far exceeded any other country’s foreign trade and that most of it was carried on outside Europe. However, between 1960 and 1980, Britain’s pattern of trade had shifted enormously, towards Europe and away from the ‘wider world’. In 1960, less than thirty-two per cent of Britain’s exports went to western Europe and thirty-one per cent of imports came from there; by 1980, this figure had rocketed to fifty-seven per cent of exports and fifty-six per cent of imports. In other words, the proportion of Britain’s trade with Europe grew by twenty-five per cent, compared to its trade with the rest of the world. Of course, this ‘shift’ was partly the result of a political ‘shift’ in Britain to follow a more Eurocentric commercial pattern, culminating in the 1975 Referendum on EEC membership.

By 1980 Britain was no longer a worldwide trading nation to anything like the extent it had been before. Moreover, in 1983, a symbolic turning-point was reached when, for the first time in more than two centuries, Britain began importing more manufactured goods than it exported. It followed that it was inappropriate for it still to have substantial political responsibilities outside its own particular corner of the globe. British imperialism, therefore, was totally and irrevocably finished, except as a myth on the right and the left. I remember Channel Four in the UK screening a programme called ‘the Butcher’s Apron’ in 1983 which argued, from a left-wing perspective, that it was still very much alive, and that the Falklands War was clear evidence of this. Likewise, there were, and still are, many nationalists in Scotland and Wales who used the term as a metaphor for the ‘domination’ of England and ‘the British state’ over their countries. Of course, in historical terms, they could only do this because the British Empire was a thing of the past, and the sending of Welsh guardsmen to recover islands in the South Atlantic was an unintended and embarrassing postscript, never to be repeated.

The imperial spirit had dissipated too, despite Mrs Thatcher’s brief attempt to revive it in Falklands jingoism and whatever might be said by supercilious foreign commentators who could not credit the British for having put their imperialist past behind them so soon after Suez and all that and certainly by 1970, when they had abandoned overseas defence commitments ‘east of Suez’. But Britain had indeed left its past behind it, even to the extent of sometimes rather rudely ‘putting its behind in its past’ to emphasise the point. Scattered around the globe were a few little boulders, ‘survivals’ from the imperial past, which were no longer valued by Britain or valuable to her. There were also some unresolved problems, such as Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, as an independent territory in 1980. Britain had clearly dissociated itself from its white racist leaders even at the cost of bringing an ‘unreconstructed Marxist’ to power. After that, smaller island colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific continued to be granted their independence, so that by 1983 the Empire had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1984 Bernard Porter wrote, in the second edition of his book on British imperialism, that it was…

… unlikely that any subsequent edition of this book, if the call for it has not dried up completely, will need to go beyond 1980, because British imperialism itself is unlikely to have a life beyond then. That chapter of history is now at an end.

It was not a very long chapter, as these things go; but it is difficult to see how it could have been. The magnificent show that the British empire made at its apogee should not blind us to its considerable weaknesses all through. Those who believe that qualities like ‘will’ and ‘leadership’ can mould events might not accept this, of course; but there was nothing that anyone could have done in the twentieth century to stave off the empire’s decline. It was just too riddled with contradictions.

The Imperialists themselves were the first to predict the decline; that Britain could not help but be overhauled and overshadowed by the growing Russian and American giants. Britain did not have the will to resist this development and the empire was not, in any case, a fit tool for resistance. While Britain had it, in fact, the Empire was rarely a source of strength to the ‘mother country’, despite the attempts of imperialists to make it so.

A part of the narrative of the Falklands Crisis not revealed at the time was the deep involvement, and embarrassment, of the United States. Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan had already begun to develop their personal special relationship. But the Argentine junta was important to the US for its anti-Communist stance and as a trading partner. Prior to 1982, the United States had supported the Argentine generals, despite their cruel record on human rights, partly because of the support they gave the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua. Therefore, they began a desperate search for a compromise while Britain began an equally frantic search for allies at the United Nations. In the end, Britain depended on the Americans not just for the Sidewinder missiles underneath its Harrier jets, without which Thatcher herself said the Falklands could not have been retaken, but for intelligence help and – most of the time – diplomatic support too. These were the last years of the Cold War. Britain mattered more in Washington than any South American country. Still, many attempts were made the US intermediary, the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to find a compromise. They would continue throughout the fighting. Far more of Thatcher’s time was spent reading, analysing and batting off possible deals than contemplating the military plans. Among those advising a settlement was the new Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, appointed after Lord Carrington’s resignation. Pym and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads over this and she would punish him in due course. She had furious conversations with Reagan by phone as he tried to persuade her that some outcome short of British sovereignty, probably involving the US, was acceptable.

Thatcher broke down the diplomatic deal-making into undiplomatic irreducibles. Would the Falkland Islanders be allowed full self-determination? Would the Argentine aggression be rewarded? Under pulverizing pressure she refused to budge. She wrote to Ronald Reagan, who had described the Falklands as that little ice-cold bunch of land down there, that if Britain gave way to the various Argentine snares, the fundamental principles for which the free world stands would be shattered. Reagan kept trying, Pym pressed and the Russians harangued, all to no avail. Despite all the logistical problems, a naval task force set sail, and with US intelligence support, the islands were regained after some fierce fighting.

Back in London in the spring of 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s advisers looked into the new, younger members of the Soviet Politburo who had emerged under Konstantin Chernenko, the last of the ‘old guard’. He was old and frail, like his predecessor, Yuri Andropov. The advisors to the Prime Minister wondered with whom she, and they, would be dealing with next, and issued a number of invitations to visit Britain. By chance, the first to accept was Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited Thatcher in London. He arrived with his wife, Raisa, itself remarkable, as Soviet leaders rarely travelled with their wives. By comparison to the old men who had led the Soviet Union for twenty years, the Gorbachevs were young, lively and glamorous. The visit was a great success. After Thatcher and Gorbachev met, the Prime Minister was asked by reporters what she thought of her guest. She replied with a statement that, again with the benefit of hindsight, was to usher in the final stage of the Cold War:



David Killingray (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

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