Downing Street took everyone by surprise. Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, it stated on April 10th, will be thematically linked to the 1982 British-Argentinian war in the Falkland Islands. British soldiers who had key roles in the conflict will play an integral part of the ceremony. Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was purposefully not invited. AFP reports that even the gun salute will be done with weapons used in the war. The significance of this propaganda is enormous.
Thatcher’s supporters argue that the main highlight of her legacy is that she “helped make Britain great again.” Examples are usually tied to domestic British politics, with the achievements of her neoconservative economic policies being the main focus. However, Margaret Thatcher also revived the idea of the British Empire – at least as an ideology. The Falkland Islands were the main theater.
The United Kingdom found itself in an identity crisis during the 1970s, largely as a result of decolonization. The British Empire had ceded most of its global influence to the United States. It also found itself humiliated by events such as the 1956 Suez Crisis and a 1963 insurgency in South Yemen, which declared independence four years later.
For nearly three decades, a sense of uneasiness prevailed in British politics. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was astute to remark, just after the 1956 Suez Crisis, that “Britain [had] lost an empire, but not yet found a role.” Only eleven years on from the Second World War, for the country’s political echelon, that aimlessness would only grow with time, cultivating resentments about a lost national raison d’etre that would eventually be mobilized to great effect by Margaret Thatcher.
Indeed, part of the appeal of the Iron Lady’s Tories was the nostalgia the party promoted for a bygone era of British power. Foreign policy was a crucial vehicle for giving legs to these fantasies, fuelling, however temporarily, the idea that Britain’s former imperial self could somehow be restored. Two less-remembered events come to mind, which exemplify this period. In May 1980, SAS commandos retook the Iranian Embassy from Khuzestani nationalists, by force. Around the same time, the British military initiated a new campaign against the IRA in Northern Ireland, which included a shockingly brutal shoot-to-kill policy.
Though these actions were relatively insignificant, they helped point to a very public reminder about the importance of British military power, that would help make it easier for the country to go to war two years later. Following a civilian occupation of South Georgia Island on March 19th, 1982, Argentinian forces occupied the Falkland Islands in a shock action on April 2nd. Thatcher capitalized on the opportunity to defend the Falklands, which had been under de facto British control since 1833. Following a British military campaign, Argentina surrendered on June 14th.
Little did the military junta in Buenos Aires know what a perfect storm it had granted its counterparts in London. Unemployment and inflation were skyrocketing. Public anger against Thatcher’s policies were so intense that riots broke out in Liverpool and the south London neighborhood of Brixton less than a year before. The Falklands conflict helped conveniently divert attention from the UK’s dreadful domestic problems, and drive up the Tory government’s approval ratings. Unsurprisingly, buoyed by Britain’s triumph over Argentina, Margaret Thatcher was able to secure a comfortable victory in the 1983 elections.
More broadly, the Falklands victory revived a sense of British entitlement in global affairs. Thatcher most certainly understood that, proclaiming at a Conservative rally in July 1982 that the country had “ceased to be a nation in retreat,” going on to state that “Britain found herself in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she won.” She went on to write in her memoirs that she could not allow “that a common or garden dictator should rule over the queen’s subjects.”
The message of the rhetoric was clear: the Falklands conflict was a British journey of post-colonial self discovery. It was a trend that would play out for the United States nearly a decade later, when President George H.W. Bush proclaimed at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” A new era of Western interventionism had begun. Bush’s victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces was partially underwritten by British troops, dispatched by Thatcher, in one of her final acts as Premier.
What does it therefore mean that Fernandez was not invited to Thatcher’s funeral? Why is it still important to protect the narrative that the war was in defense of Britain’s alleged obligations? Over a decade after the first Gulf War, the United Kingdom also contributed troops to U.S.-led occupations in two of its formerly-controlled territories: Iraq and Afghanistan. What will the effect be if this type of propaganda is allowed to continue?
In its fifth year of economic decline, Britain is ruled by a Conservative-led coalition eager to continue the political program first pioneered by Margaret Thatcher. Unable to muster enthusiasm for its performance, (which thus far has included another military deployment to the Middle East, during the Libyan War) it seems more important than ever for the Tories to promote imperial fables, such as Thatcher’s heroism in the Falklands, to prop up their miserly market share.
Might we remind them that the conflict remains nothing more than a clever propaganda coup? Argentina was never a serious threat back then, and it most certainly isn’t one now. It is our responsibility to condemn them for what they are– weirdly Roman death rattles of a late imperial age. A military victory here and there notwithstanding, that is.