Falkland Islands

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:04 pm on 13th May 1982.

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Photo of Mr Michael Colvin Mr Michael Colvin , Bristol North West 7:04 pm, 13th May 1982

I thank you for your advance warning, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have sat through all the debates hitherto on the Falklands crisis. Therefore, having listened to all the speeches, I can say with some authority that the vast majority have been supportive of the Government. As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said, the House has spoken for the nation to the Government. The speech of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) was much more in accord with the views of the people of Bristol than were those of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) who is reported as being off on a visit to the United States of America, whence I hope he will fly on to Argentina on a one-way ticket.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) took a slightly partisan line. The Falklands crisis is the result of the failure of successive Governments to grasp the problem during the past 20 years or so. Moreover, successive Governments in the past 20 years have sold arms to Argentina.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on his characteristically robust restatement of our objectives and the way in which, through a combination of diplomatic, economic and military action, they will be achieved. He said that we may vary our tactics. I hope that the strategy will not alter and we must never fail to maintain our aim.

I am surprised that more has not been said about the media. Yesterday, hon. Members were critical of the BBC's coverage of the Falklands crisis. I agree with the vast majority of my constituents who have written to me about the matter. They also think that the BBC got it wrong. Nevertheless, let us give credit where credit is due. The sight of 500 Scouses on the BBC last night, singing "There'll always be an England" on Merseyside, was welcome after weeks of pictures of howling, hysterical Argentines.

I will not follow the lead that has been given by some hon. Members and pretend to be a military tactician or attempt before the full facts are known to carry out an inquest on the mistakes that led to the Falklands crisis. They will not be known until some time after the matter has been concluded.

I welcome the Prime Minister's promise of an inquiry. I hope that it will be more than an investigation merely by two of our Select Committees. There will be plenty of opportunities for inquests once we have fully restored our administration of the Falkland Islands and other dependencies in the area, secured British sovereignty, and freed our people from the Argentine jackboot. We shall have freed the islanders from an oppressive regime which is in no way representative of the Argentine people, who should be our friends, not our enemies.

I cannot resist pointing out that most of the recrimination in our debates to date have centred on the failure of the Foreign Office to interpret correctly the intelligence reports that were received in the weeks preceding the Argentine attack. Much of the information came with the compliments of our American allies. Their intelligence gathering services in the Argentine are said to be even better than our own and are backed up by satellite reports.

Therefore, if we failed to assess the reports correctly, there must have been some very red faces in Washington, too. If the State Department had not made the same mistakes as we did and had thus been able to inform President Reagan of what was afoot, in anticipating the difficulties ahead, particularly for America, the President would have been on the hot line at once to warn the British Prime Minister of the impending invasion.

There were major miscalculations both in London and in Washington. I simply hope that our intelligence-gathering services are still able to feed us information and that we understand the signals better than we did before the invasion. Receiving intelligence reports is one thing. Interpreting them correctly is quite another.

The greatest miscalculation of all, however, was made by General Galtieri. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said, the junta never believed that Britain would use armed force to regain our possessions and to save 1,800 British subjects whose freedom, future security and wishes we regard as paramount.

There have been miscalculations all round. One may criticise the Foreign Office, as I have, but let us never forget the enormous success of our diplomats in achieving the passing of Security Council resolution 502 on which so much else now depends.

I am pleased that many hon. Members on both sides have praised the great efforts made by United States Secretary of State Haig to achieve the implementation of the mandatory Security Council resolution. No one else could have done the job at that time. As a supporter of the resolution the United States had condemned the Argentine invasion of sovereign British territory, called for the withdrawal of Argentine troops and sought a negotiated settlement to the dispute. Those remain our common aims and they must be restated time and again. Now it is the turn of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to negotiate. That is not a concession. It is mere common sense.

The United States has also shown by backing up talk with action that there is more at stake than just the Falkland Islands and their inhabitants. Nevertheless, I am sure that more economic pressure on Argentina by the United States is called for, simply because General Galtieri shows no sign of obeying mandatory resolution 502. He has had five-and-a-half weeks to make a move, and we have given him four or five special opportunities to do so, but he has failed to take them. There is no doubt that additional economic pressure by the United States would help rather than hinder our diplomatic efforts and those of the United Nations. It has been reported that some American banks may be vulnerable if the United States impose further sanctions on Argentina. Nevertheless, now that the United States is seen to be firmly on the side of the international rule of law in this matter, rather than continuing to play the game in an even-handed, honest-broker role, it must risk some economic damage to itself.

The United States administration knows that the Congress and people of the United States are solidly behind it, and this should encourage it to tighten the economic screw. I believe that the knock-on effect on the international banking system, to which reference has been made, has been grossly exaggerated, as was seen last year in the Polish crisis. Nor do I think that economic sanctions are an alternative option to military action, as the right hon. Member for Lanark (Dame Judith Hart) suggested. It is part of the three-fold strategy of diplomatic, economic and military pressure on the Argentine junta.

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to our Commonwealth and EEC partners for the way in which they have rallied to our side, and I applaud the way in which the Commission and the European Parliament have agreed to a renewal of economic sanctions for a further month from Monday. Some of them, as ex-colonial powers, understand the problem and appreciate that it may be their turn next. It is heartening that, at a time of acrimonious wrangling about the EEC Budget, good men will combine, at no little cost to themselves, to deny Argentina one-fifth of her export trade.

Argentina is already £22 billion in foreign debt and needs £2·8 billion annually to service interest payments. It desperately requires to borrow a further £5½ billion, but it cannot do so without Britain's agreement. Thirty major banks will not lend the money while the Prime Minister has the support of our EEC partners and the United States.

Economic and financial pressures on Argentina are building up steadily, but not fast enough. In the long term, the economic sanctions imposed will have a major effect, but in the short term the effect is likely to be too limited. To date, United States measures fall short of the trade and economic sanctions adopted by our Commonwealth and EEC partners. The United States has not put an embargo on trade with Argentina, which is worth about $3,000 million per year. Nor has it interfered with American private bank loans to Argentina. Japan, whose support we welcome, does not have significant trade with Argentina and has adopted a cautious approach to sanctions. It is still the Commonwealth and EEC actions to impose a trade embargo on imports worth some £1,000 million in 1980 with beef and oil seed derivatives amounting to two-thirds of total imports, which strikes a hard blow at the Argentine economy by closing a market that previously absorbed one-quarter of its exports.

We now want America to match what our other allies have done, and to do so fast, because the Argentine economic position could be boosted as soon as next month when revenue from grain sales begins to flow in.

The time for talk is rapidly running out. We must go on trying and pray that the crisis will eventually be resolved diplomatically, but diplomacy will not free the Falkland Islands unless we negotiate from a position of ever-increasing strength. That, at least, is agreed on almost all sides.

The Government will no doubt be sustained by the overwhelming support both within and outside Parliament for the action that has been taken. Public opinion in the United States, having overcome its original incredulity, now realises that the democratic freedoms and rights which are the hallmark of that great nation are at stake and has rallied behind us.

As what I see as the final days pass, the Argentine dictator will have to come to terms with three facts which should, as for a man going to the gallows, concentrate his mind wonderfully.

First, despite the Latin temperament, the morale of his teenage conscript forces will fall as it dawns on them that the most powerful fleet that Britain has ever put to sea in peacetime is sinking Argentine ships and shooting down their aircraft because of the intransigence of their military dictator leaders.

Secondly, the occupation forces will face increasing logistic problems which will be very difficult to overcome, especially in the face of a full blockade and deteriorating weather. I suggest that those are far greater problems than those facing our own fleet.

Thirdly, there will be mounting political trouble within Argentina as economic pressure from our allies begins to hurt the Argentine economy, which may eventually collapse.

As a member of an earlier expeditionary force—to Suez, 25 years ago—I was made aware of the danger of talking tough and acting weakly, and eventually having to climb down in the face of international political and economic pressure, some of it from people whom we thought were our friends. Today, we are talking tough and acting tough, but let us remember also that this crisis is very different from Suez in that world opinion is on our side and Her Majesty's Government have international support for the action that they are taking to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Let us also, for a moment, imagine ourselves between decks on HMS "Hermes" or HMS "Invincible", after weeks at sea in the Roaring Forties, with the constant threat of torpedo or missile attack, and the knowledge of friends already killed. The people in our task force know that time is Galtieri's best weapon. That is why I hope that the Government will continue to force the pace, and not flinch from ordering an assault on the Falkland Islands if Argentine troops are not withdrawn in accordance with resolution 502. Surely, the time is fast approaching when a sensible ultimatum should be issued.

I take this opportunity, as a Member who has the honour to represent part of the city of Bristol, to wish god-speed and a safe return to HMS "Bristol", the British Navy's only type 82 destroyer, which sailed last week to join the task force. The ship carries equipment made in my constituency, and its two Rolls-Royce Olympus turbine engines are maritime versions of the Bristol-made Concorde power plants. Alas, there is one Bristol product which she could have had, but does not, and that is the new lightweight Sea Wolf anti-missile missile. It is not ready. I welcome what was said by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) on this subject. We have already seen tragic evidence of the vulnerability of surface ships to missile attack. I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence has already taken the necessary action to step up the development and production of our mark II Sea Wolf, to ensure that our surface ships have the defences required for today's high technology warfare.

I hope that the Government have noted the speed of response of the major Ministry of Defence contractors to requests for help, and the ability of prime contractors to take rapid action to modify weapon systems to the latest standards. Much of that work is carried out without contractual cover, and the nation, and particularly our task force, have due cause to recognise the ability of our prime contractors to respond to the nation's call.

Finally, I want to look long term, and comment on the references in earlier debates to NATO. Unfortunately, the Falkland Islands are not covered by the North Atlantic Treaty. There has been some talk of setting up a similar type of organisation to cover the south Atlantic. Last summer, a conference was held—in Buenos Aires, of all places—to discuss it. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will give an undertaking at the end of today's debate that, when this crisis has been satisfactorily resolved, the Government will explore, as a matter of urgency, the possibility of establishing an international defence treaty organisation to fill the power vacuum created by the cancellation of the Simonstown agreement and the American ban on United States ships using South Atlantic ports.

Undoubtedly, there will be difficulties in establishing such an organisation. Argentina and Brazil are against the idea, and it raises the problem of how to accommodate South Africa and Chile, but think how much stronger our military position would be today if we still had the use of the Simonstown base. Think how precarious our position will be tomorrow if the Soviet Navy is established at Walvis Bay in South West Africa.

In a previous debate, I think it was my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) who quoted Drake's prayer. At that time, Drake spoke for England. Today, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister speaks not only for Britain and the British people, including the families of those who have already laid down their lives in defence of the international rule of law, but for every other person in the world, no matter where he or she is, who has lost or faces the loss of personal freedom and democratic rights. That is why I trust that the House will continue to give my right hon. Friend and her Government our wholehearted support for the cool-headed action that they are taking to restore those freedoms and rights to the Falkland islanders.