Commentators have been quick this week to point out how lucky Margaret Thatcher was 30 years ago, but she was also strong.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher examines a minefield during a postwar visit to the Falkland Islands
Britain and Argentina's leaders celebrated the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the Falklands war in their own distinctive ways – albeit both far from their capitals, in distant Ushuaia and Staffordshire. Simon Jenkins was quite right when he asserted that Britain was changed by the war. And so was Argentina, where rioters attacked the British embassy, for old times' sake.
But Simon is far too smart to add, as so many counter-factual writers do, that anything less than outright victory over the Argentinian invaders in 1982 would have finished off Margaret Thatcher. It is a comforting thought and many of the protagonists – and their heirs and successors – are often comforted by it.
Labour, led at the time by Michael Foot, likes to point to rising inflation and unemployment in the early Thatcher years that would have restored its consensual approach to popularity in the coming 1983-84 election, much as it had against Ted Heath 10 years earlier ("We wuz robbed"). When he predicted in Sunday's Observer that David Cameron is leading a one-term government, Ed Miliband seemed to be clutching the same comfort blanket.
As for the SDP – which had broken away from Labour in 1981 in protest at Foot's election and the party's drift towards the Bennite rocks – Shirley Williams, David Owen, the late Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers (all but Owen ended up Lib Dems) had been on a roll with their Liberal Alliance partners until the war. But for the war, we'd have made the breakthrough and "broken the mould," they still say over their dry white wine ("We wuz robbed too"). In Luton pubs obscure Trotskyite sectarians probably feel the same.
Well, maybe. But I doubted it in 1982-83 and I doubt it now. Fortune usually favours the bold and, for all her private hesitation and doubt, Thatcher had already proved herself an unusually courageous politician. A woman standing for the Tory leadership? A woman winning? A woman slashing spending in a recession and ending exchange controls on sterling that stopped us taking more than £50 on holiday abroad? Remember (as Simon does not), she had already presided over a dummy run for Port Stanley: the Iranian embassy siege of 1980.
There might have been a US-brokered compromise, like the British leaseback under Argentinian sovereignty proposed by her loyal ally, Nick Ridley, the previous year. There might even have been military defeat. She had it in her to turn either to her advantage against lesser and divided opponents. Instead, as the Iron Lady, she marched on to defeat Arthur Scargill and impose her will for four or five more years until it all started falling apart.
After all, she'd already brazened her way out of trouble. It was her rash defence cuts (the Thatcher groupie Liam Fox has just repeated the trick) that gave the Argentinians (my generation still says 'Argies') the idea and the opportunity to invade. That awkward detail was hardly remembered in the flush of victory.
Nor was the Tory government's shameful obfuscation on the day of the invasion, blustering and misleading MPs (I was there) until after the Commons rose in mid-afternoon. They'd ignored the warnings and been caught out. The House sat again on the Saturday – the first time since 1945 – and the Task Force was dispatched.
Yet once the war had started it was unlikely it would ever get as far as compromise or outright defeat against such incompetent adversaries as the junta. Yes, the project – 40,000 servicemen and women sailing 8,000 miles into a South Atlantic winter – hovered close to disaster several times. As Jenkins, who wrote (with Max Hastings) The Battle for the Falklands – still an excellent instant history of the conflict – pointed out, Thatcher was lucky from day one. Reckless elements within the Argentinian armed forces – including a "dirty war" veteran called Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz – had jumped the gun and invaded too soon in the storm season.
Militarily and diplomatically, the whole venture was appallingly handled by the junta in Buenos Aires. As a result of defeat the Argentinian people got their democracy and elections back. Indeed, the BBC's John Simpson (could we swap John for undisputed title to the Falklands, I wonder?) reports from the Falklands this week that Christina Fernandez de Kirchner's government started whipping up the latest Malvinas storm (she was at it again on Monday) last June, just as its decade or so of strong growth was slipping back into stagnation and inflation.
Sounds familiar in recession-battered Britain, doesn't it? And yes, one of the best remarks about the war at the time was made by Jorge Luis Borges, the distinguished (and difficult) Argentinian writer who likened Britain and his homeland fighting over the windswept Falklands to "two bald men fighting over a comb".
You can get a flavour of this week's Argentinian press coverage on the London embassy website – and read William Hague's conciliatory comments.
Since 1982 Britain's place in the world has slipped. How could it not when the world's two sleeping giants – China and India – have woken up and embraced modern economics? As Argentinians are pointing out this week, their neighbour and rival Brazil has just overtaken Britain as the world's sixth largest economy. With nearly 200 million people, that's not too surprising. From the standpoint of 1982 what is surprising is that Britain still has a thriving car industry and a slightly larger manufacturing sector than France, whatever Candidate Sarkozy was claiming the other day.
"It's reasonable to think that in 15 years Britain will do with the Falklands as they did with Hong Kong," one urbane Argentinian told John Simpson. There speaks the recognisable voice of calm rationality. If only the world were ruled by such people we would all be living peaceably – though possibly in caves. But it isn't.
As Simon points out, key players in the "keep calm" school of life were away from London when the crisis turned serious, so that Admiral Sir Henry Leach, then in charge of the navy, became the man of the hour. He took a decisive attitude to retaking the islands in the face of familiar defeatism from the Foreign Office, and other usual suspects. Incidentally, they included the cabinet's holders of the Military Cross, Lord Carrington (who resigned over the diplomatic fiasco), Willie Whitelaw and Francis Pym – men who had seen battle and knew it was nasty.
Compared with the existential threat Churchill faced in May 1940, the Falklands crisis was Ruritanian. But such moments serve as a reminder that in crisis individual character and resolve do matter: Thatcher knew she was in trouble, but she rose to the challenge and, in Admiral Leach, she found someone of similar outlook.
Events of the next 80 days – the surrender occurred on 14 June – were gripping and bizarre. The Guardian's star columnist, the late Peter Jenkins (aka Mr Polly Toynbee), was puzzled and outraged. Unlike Michael Foot he joined the Trots in opposing this post-imperial folly. Nothing like it had been seen since the Doge of Venice sent a fleet to tackle the Barbary (Algerian) pirates shortly before the Serene Republic collapsed like rotten fruit in the 1790s.
Yet, Thatcher won a famous victory against a satisfyingly villainous junta. The experience must have accelerated her emergence from chrysalis to iron butterfly with all the consequences – good and bad – for Britain and its citizens. But my hunch remains: it would have happened anyway. The postwar social democratic settlement had been tested to destruction in the turbulent 70s, globalisation was starting to emerge and most people knew things had to change. Quite what to, we are still struggling to resolve.
As for the future, Jenkins is surely wrong to say "the war resolved nothing". It did: the Falklands remain British. But those military experts who say Britain could no longer retake the Falklands (no aircraft carriers for a start) if the postwar airport had first been seized by invaders must be right.
As I reported in February, the sovereignty issue is messy. The islands – so Andy Beckett reported for the Guardian last month – are in much better shape and oil finds may also have stimulated President Fernandez's appetite.
Fortunately, the Argentinian armed forces have suffered even more grievously since 1982 than ours and have had a great deal less military experience in the interval. Defeat dims the urge to arms, as the near-pacifist modern Germans remind us. Britain has suffered much human loss and military humiliation, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Simon loves to point out pretty regularly.
But no British government can afford to "do a Hong Kong" in the foreseeable future. Alas, a willingness and capacity to fight in defence of the perceived national interest still strikes me as a core component of effective national sovereignty. That capacity has not yet atrophied entirely among the British.
The irony for Thatcher's heirs is that her wider legacy – more economic and social than military – remains so toxic for many people that their party is still barely electable. The late General Leopoldo Galteieri may have lost the Falklands – and his country is now ruled by a woman too – but from beyond the grave he may be having the last laugh.