Falkland Islands (Franks Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:26 pm on 25th January 1983.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 7:26 pm, 25th January 1983

I have not commented in public on the Franks committee or accepted television or radio interviews as I believe that this debate in the House is the proper place for witnesses, who were asked to give oral evidence to Franks to put their view. I should like to comment on the courtesy of Lord Franks and his colleagues when I gave oral evidence before them on 22 October and to comment on the exceptional and exquisitely skilful drafting of the report. I do not know who did it—whether it was Lord Franks, Sir Patrick Nairne, or the Secretary of the Committee, Mr. Rawsthorne. It persuades me that the committee's work is worthy of far more than instant comment the day it was published.

I should like to put it on record that I do not in any way share the criticism that has been made of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) or Lord Lever in their work on the committee by some sections of my party who, on other matters, have agreed with me in this issue. I have no doubt that they both worked extremely hard and conscientiously, although I had doubts as to whether a member of the shadow Cabinet should be a member of the committee. However, any doubts that I had I should like to withdraw. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South worked jolly hard on the committee. It may be that the committee's terms of reference should have been different and that they should have included the conduct of the war but that was Parliament's decision and not a fit subject for criticism of Lord Franks.

Before I embark on what some will see as a rather cynical and unpleasant interpretation of events, but none the less one which goes some way to explain the astounding lack of ministerial meetings, and explains paragraph 147 and why on 5 March the Prime Minister's request for contingency plans was not followed up, and why this unpleasant explanation that I offer about paragraph 152—the Prime Minister's reaction to the ambassador's letter of 3 March—was not pursued, may I tell the House that I have given notice to the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) that I shall refer repeatedly to what I see as his key role in the events. First, I register a query of fact in connection with page 92. Assertion number 7 to which the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Atkins) referred, saying that the assertions had been dismissed, says: On 11 March 1982 an Argentine military plane landed at Port Stanley to reconnoitre the runway. The incident was reported by the Governor as suspicious". I have no means of knowing what other witnesses said to Franks, but when I went before the committee on 22 October I referred to the Hercules incident, and suggested that it had been reported to London on 12 March, although, to my knowledge, by others than Governor Hunt.

Let us consider how the Franks committee dismissed that assertion—incidentally, reported in the clear by "Latin American Weekly Report" of 19 March, specifically in terms of a try-out for the invasion. Franks says: He"— that is, Governor Hunt— has subsequently confirmed that the landing was preceded by a 'May Day' call and that, after the aircraft landed, fuel was seen to be leaking from it". If you, Mr. Speaker were in the crew of an aircraft and you had a genuinely leaking fuel tank, would you take off that very afternoon to the south Atlantic without waiting for repairs or doing something about it? I suspect that anyone would try to strip the engine, or at least wait for repairs. I say that because I have first-hand evidence from Patrick Watts, who shares few of the views that I have put forward, who actually saw the crew of the aircraft go to the house of the Argentine superintendent, Mr. Gammon, have coffee and cakes, or whatever, and two hours later go back into the aircraft and take off. That is not exactly the action of people who have serious leaking tanks.

I knew also at the time that I gave evidence that the Hercules had landed in 1981 at Port Stanley, but I am also told that the Hercules which landed in March was fully laden and far heavier than any previous plane. I simply give that as an example of some dismissals in the report which are too easy and which have been truncated to the point of distortion. The fact is that the Hercules incident was one of a number of serious warnings that had been given in early March. Franks is wrong to dismiss it.

There is another matter that needs some explanation. On page 82, paragraph 300 says: 5 March was about the last moment at which, given that the invasion took place on 2 April, it would have been possible to sail a deterrent force to be in place in time". As Franks himself says, the SSNs could have got down there at a speed of 28 or 29 knots in 13 or 14 days. Is it suggested that, had they been there, the invasion would have taken place by Hercules and not by sea? I know that there are references to airborne landings, but, after all, airborne landings presumably would have needed the airstrip, and the marines who were there could easily have blocked that or used the mines that they had available. Therefore, explanation should be given about a number of rather important details in the Franks report. The suggestion is that there were all sorts of warning signals.

I say bluntly to the Prime Minister that, if nothing else, the Franks report reveals the extent to which, in some respects, she has misled the House and the country.

On Tuesday 26 October, in answer to question No. 1, the Prime Minister confirmed what she had said to George Gale in a major interview in the Daily Express that the Falklands crisis—not South Georgia, or anything of that kind—had come out of the blue on Wednesday 31 March. She put that on the record. She said "out of the blue". On page 43, paragraph 147, referring to Friday 5 March 1982, says: Mr. Ure"— that is John Ure, the superintending Under-Secretary for North America and South Americarecorded that the Cabinet Office had said that the Prime Minister would like the next Defence Committee paper on the Falklands to include annexes on both civil and military contingency plans". A Prime Minister who claims that the crisis came out of the blue on Wednesday 31 March was asking for military contingency plans 26 days earlier. By what semantics of the English language can that be explained? I hasten to add that if there is an explanation for joint theatre plans and paragraph 109, either the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister, in winding up, should give it. I ask that as a direct question. If I am wrong, there should be an explanation. If the Prime Minister did not follow that up, by negligence, it would be entirely out of character.

Why did the right hon. Lady not put the Falklands in the first week of March on the agenda of the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee of the Cabinet? Certainly that needs to be explained, because the Prime Minister's harshest critics could hardly say that she was lazy in such matters. Moreover, she knew from the very week when she entered Downing Street that the Falklands presented one of the most potentially dangerous situations that she inherited. I understand that the Cabinet Secretary—the late Professor John P. Macintosh, and others have told me—briefs every incoming Prime Minister on the really thorny issues, and it is inconceivable that she was not briefed on this matter.

Was the Falklands a subject of which the Prime Minister knew nothing? The charitable explanation would be that a busy Prime Minister could hardly be expected to know about every crisis. However, the Prime Minister has had an all-pervasive, ever-present human reminder of the critical nature of the Falklands issue ever since she crossed the threshold of Downing Street. At the last reshuffle of Ministers, it was widely reported that the hon. Member for Eastbourne would become a Minister of State, if not propelled into the Cabinet itself. When no such event occurred—I gave the hon. Gentleman warning that I would refer to this matter—one of the Prime Minister's senior colleagues gave an explanation in public print on 9 January: Why on earth should he move—he is at the moment the most powerful MAN, repeat Man, in the Conservative Party". If no one else knew very much about the Falklands and the dangers lurking in the situation, the hon. Member for Eastbourne knew a great deal about them, because he went there in the autumn of 1978, in the congenial company of my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie), and he knew the importance and significance of the situation. And she knew full well.

The Falklands may have been a faraway, peripheral issue even for the right hon. Member for St. Ives (Sir J. Nott)—the then Secretary of State for Defence—the chiefs of staff, the Foreign Secretary and many of the officials in the stratosphere of the Foreign Office, but the hon. Member for Eastbourne and the Prime Minister knew exactly what the score was. If there was one thing on which those two were not ignorant, it was the Falklands.

The Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Eastbourne must have been sensitive to the position described in paragraph 95 of the Franks' report. The final paragraph of the JIC assessment of 9 July 1981 stated: If Argentina concluded that there was no hope of a peaceful transfer of sovereignty, there would be high risk of resorting to more forcible measures against British interests, and that it might act swiftly and without warning. In such circumstances, military action against British shipping or a full scale invasion of the Falkland Islands could not be discounted. I do not share the views of some speakers about the supposedly incompetent actions of the Prime Minister and her Cabinet. With the hon. Member for Eastbourne at her side, the Prime Minister knew exactly what she was doing from an early stage. He and she had that litany of information, described by Franks that never reached the Cabinet.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was right to draw attention to paragraph 291 of the Franks report, which uses the words "never formally discussed".

My right hon. Friend said that that was unbelievable. The paragraph also referred to "no meeting until 1 April". The cynical view that I advance at least has the merit of explaining why the subject was not discussed for 15 months with Cabinet colleagues.

There are two possible reasons for that, or a combination of both. The hon. Member for Eastbourne and the Prime Minister turned their Nelson's eye to the warnings in the belief that it was too expensive and impracticable to maintain a substantial garrison and that, come the inevitable exhaustion of Argentine's patience, they would have to negotiate on behalf of the Falkland Islands as best they could, whatever the taunts of their own Right wing, abetted by the cynical support given by both parties when in opposition to the Falkland Islands committee lobby during the past 17 years. That would have been a reasonable position if they had not launched a task force.

The alternative scenario is that the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Eastbourne decided early in March that they were not averse to lying "doggo" and letting things run, to savour the discomfiture of the Foreign Office. The Foreign Secretary need not look disbelievingly at me. I spent the 1960s as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the late Dick Crossman and I know only too well how one major Department can conspire against another in government. That happens in all Governments.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne and the Prime Minister were not over-concerned about the discomfiture to Lord Carrington but if things went wrong they did want to ensure Britain would appear as an injured party if Argentina took military action.

I am not alone in that view. Hugo Young of The Sunday Times perceptively reported: A Cabinet Minister had explained that the purpose of the apparently intense search for peace was to make the British understand why they had to go to war. Later he said: On the whole, the Minister said it was a great relief to the Cabinet that by the time the British settlement offer was made, the Argentinians were in no mood to talk. The question that arises throughout is how serious and sincere were the Government in their efforts to avoid having to regain the Falkland Islands by force? From a very early stage, the Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Eastbourne—[Laughter]—perceived an opportunity, having established Britain as an injured party, to test our military preparedness. No other explanation of 5 March exists.

Before hon. Members laugh again at the important role that I ascribe to the hon. Member for Eastbourne, may I say that I was one of the few hon. Members to take the trouble to visit the Prime Minister and went on 21 April at her invitation. She said, very courteously, that she would see the awkward squad right away. Who was there? The hon. Member for Eastbourne—[Laughter]. Do not underrate him, because he knew exactly what was happening in the Falklands.

Even the Franks report wonders aloud why the Prime Minister's note of 5 March was not followed up. Whatever explanation is given—it may be different from that which I put forward—some explanation must be found. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has asked that question, as did the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) in The Observer. They have not received any reply. At least I am giving a coherent, if cynical, explanation. If it is wrong, let there be an answer in the speech in reply to the debate.

In the Franks report, which for its drafting skill, unlike many of its critics, I have come on fourth reading greatly to admire, there is a litany of occasions when Franks reveals that, knowing what they did, there is no other explanation why the Prime Minister—with the hon. Member for Eastbourne at her side—failed to warn or to act and was content to allow nothing to be done. It might have been fine had they not contrived to give the impression of taking a malleable attitude and then adopting the astonishingly hard attitude of dispatching the task force. In life and diplomacy it is accepted that one can take a compromise position after a hard line. However, it is bordering on the criminal to take a hard line having given the impression that one will take a soft line. That, to borrow the phrase that I used to the Franks committee, and which I pinched from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), is "luring the Argentines on to the punch." Let us examine paragraph 152 on page 45. On 3 March—the day after the breakdown of the talks—the British ambassador in Buenos Aires reported further comment in the Argentine press on the unilateral communiqué. When the Prime Minister saw that telegram, she wrote on it: We must make contingency plans. Let it not be said that paragraph 147 or 152 was the usual business of the Cabinet Office wanting something and asking for it in the Prime Minister's name. The point is that, the Prime Minister, in the first week of March, was personally involved or she would not have written notes asking for contingency plans. Is that the action of a Prime Minister for whom the crisis was to "come out of the blue" on 31 March? Hardly! Paragraph 153 states that on 8 March the Prime Minister—the same Prime Minister for whom the crisis was to come "out of the blue" on 31 March as she confirmed to the House—spoke to the then Secretary of State for Defence and asked him how quickly Royal Navy ships could be deployed to the Falkland Islands if required. A Prime Minister who supposed that there was no possibility of an invasion in the near future would not have asked her Defence Secretary that question. However, we should consider the reply. Incidentally, it took four days in the middle of the week. It was: Passage of time for a frigate deployed to the Falklands, which would require Royal Fleet Auxiliary support, would be of the order of 20 days". Twenty days would take her up to 28 March. The Prime Minister, solemnly warned of the need to make contingency plans which she had accepted three days before, on 5 March could have had frigates and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in the Falklands by Sunday 28 March.

In a perceptive article in the News of the World on 23 January, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) said: I have not noticed any reluctance on her part previously to impose her political will on the Civil Service". That is an important and accurate statement. By doing nothing, she is acting out of character.

That brings me to another of the Prime Minister's untruths. On Sunday 28 March Jim Slater and Jim Jump gave my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and me photostats of letters from Michael Flockhart, the shop steward on the RFA Fort Austin that complain of the decision to send his crew to the south Atlantic after five and a half months in the sweltering Gulf. How did the barpersons of Gibraltar have better information than the Prime Minister about the destination of the fleet, some of the ships of which were carrying nuclear weapons to a potential theatre of fighting, according to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Speed) in an interview on "Newsnight"? The answer is that the Prime Minister knew everything that the barpersons of Gibraltar knew and more. She should be challenged for misleading the House by telling us that the invasion came "out of the blue" on 31 March. The barpersons of Gibraltar, the crew of the RFA Fort Austin and the submarines knew about it three days earlier.

In my oral evidence to the Franks committee, I told Lord Franks that he had a duty to make it clear whether he believed that the Prime Minister, to use a phrase which I told Lord Franks that I had borrowed from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover, not being averse to a fight, should such a situation develop lured the Argentines on to the punch. This is a question which Franks did not face.

But references to the Franks report, which I shall telescope for reasons of time, give substance to that cold view of the Prime Minister's behaviour, that she was not averse to a fight. It is up to her to answer these points if I am wrong. Paragraph 157 concerns personal messages from Lord Carrington to Alexander Haig that were sent on 8 March. Did she know nothing about that? Paragraph 155 refers to the draft telegram from Lord Carrington to Senor Costa Mendez on 18 March. Did she know nothing about that? Paragraph 169 refers to Foreign Office and Defence Ministers agreeing, on 20 March, that HMS Endurance should sail to South Georgia. Paragraph 187 refers to Lord Carrington's minute to the Prime Minister on 24 March. In a major interview with Mr. George Gale, the Prime Minister was asked: Did the Falkland crisis come at you more or less out of the blue?