Falkland Islands (Franks Report)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:21 pm on 25th January 1983.

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Photo of Michael Meacher Michael Meacher , Oldham West 9:21 pm, 25th January 1983

The Prime Minister again quoted the conclusions of the Franks report today, but it is now widely accepted if press reports are to be believed that Franks' conclusions are greatly at variance with its own evidence. If that is so, the real question is what the conclusions should be.

The answer to be found in the fundamental political realities that have underpinned the Falklands crisis in the past 17 years is that there have been only two ways out of the Falklands impasse. The central question then is, if the preferred route became blocked, was sufficient effort made to unblock it? Even if it were, was the second option fully and properly adopted, whatever may have been the implications in terms of cost and commitment? The case against the Government and for reflecting what many people regard as the whitewash of Franks' bland exoneration is that careful reading of Franks' own narrative makes the answer to both questions in the negative.

The first of those options was always to encourage the self-sustaining economic development of the islands. The Shackleton report made it quite clear that a precondition for that was some type of negotiated settlement with Argentina. Any serious long-term investment in the islands, especially the exploitation of their main resources—oil and fish—could not be brought about unless there were an end to the continuing political uncertainty. For that, the lease-back solution was the only serious runner.

The only other option was to face up to the continuing military threat that Argentina was bound to pose, which could be met only by a sizeable diversion of military resources, with implications—however regrettable—of a massive and permanent subsidy from the British taxpayer.

It is not surprising that both Labour and Conservative Governments have opted for the former alternative. As we know now, Lord Carrington did so and remained of that view throughout the end of 1979 and 1980. There is a serious political charge that must be levelled at the Government and it is one that the Franks report glosses over complacently. The charge is that the Government backed off from lease-back far too readily and failed to launch a major public education campaign against their critics as they should have done. Having backed off from lease-back and failed to grasp the nettle, they failed also to meet the requirements of the other alternative.

Indeed, as anxiety grew over the mounting confrontation, it was decided to withdraw Endurance. Thus the Government decided simultaneously to continue to negotiate yet to concede nothing, and at the same time to drop their guard. I suggest that that is the source of the muddle and the drift that led ultimately to war.

In the light of what we all know, the responsibility for this calamitous slide cannot be lightly brushed aside as the Prime Minister might like. First, there is the allegedly fearful mauling which it is said the right hon. Lady gave the then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at the OD Committee in November 1980, which emasculated his brief and prevented him from going on the important visit that he paid to the Falklands with a clear mandate and firm Government support for a settlement of the sovereignty issue. Had the Minister been given a firm mandate and reasonable terms by the Prime Minister, many islanders have said to friends that they believe that he might have gained even majority endorsement on the Falklands at that time for lease-back. That was one extremely important opportunity for a negotiated political solution that was spoilt.

Secondly, there was ministerial failure to respond to advice which we now know was given clearly by the Foreign Office in the middle of 1981. The Franks report states: the only feasible option was lease-back preceded by an education campaign both in the Falklands and at home". Why was that not done? Why did Lord Carrington, who favoured that option himself, believe that there was no prospect of carrying the lease-back proposal at home? Was that because he knew that if he carried it to the Cabinet it would run straight into the flat opposition of the Prime Minister? A Mr. Ure, the senior Foreign Office official, added that if an education campaign was unacceptable, consideration should be given to preparing fuller contingency plans for the defence and development of the Islands". We must ask again why that was not done either. Was that because the Prime Minister was not prepared to expend any political or military capital on what she then regarded as a marginal issue? We understand that if she had gone for lease-back she would have run straight up against her own party. On the other hand, if she had gone for Fortress Falklands at that stage it would have made a pretty bad dent in her public expenditure cuts. However, neither of those considerations can possibly condone the political failure to choose neither one nor the other, but instead to adopt a high-risk non-policy drift which led to war, and which at that time was predicted to lead to war.

Thirdly, there was no Cabinet or OD Committee reappraisal of this astonishing state of drift for a whole 15 months after the collapse of lease-back in January 1981. That is almost unbelievable for those of us who read about these matters now. Why did that reappraisal not take place? The reason is clear—that the Prime Minster did not want the subject on the agenda and the responsible ministerial chairman knew that it would be a waste of time because it would run straight up against the Prime Minister's opposition.

This is a serious charge. Such an erosion of Cabinet government would not matter if the results were not serious. They were extremely serious. Ever since September 1981, the chiefs of staff had contingency military plans in the event of aggression by Argentina. According to Franks, they were never considered by Ministers at any stage. It is useless for the Prime Minister to write, as has been mentioned several times in the debate, in March 1982, We must make contingency plans", if, at the same time, she runs her Government in a manner that results in contingency plans already made never being considered by Ministers. That is surely the main point.

Franks says: Officials were looking to Ministers to review the outcome of the contingency planning they had done". The failure to accomplish this, with all the enormously serious consequences that flowed from the failure to consider those plans, can only be placed at the door of the one Minister who was directly responsible for the OD Committee—that is, the Prime Minister. For these reasons, I believe that the cause and responsibility for the events that led up to the Falkland conflict derive ultimately from political failures that go far deeper than simply misreading signals in the last month beforehand, serious though that may have been.

Even at that stage, in March 1982, culpable political mistakes were still made. Had they not been made, contrary to the received wisdom of Franks, there is reasonable expectation, although not, as Franks wants, absolute certainty—there never is that in this world—that war would have been averted. One must ask why, in particular, the invasion was brought forward by Argentina when we know now that it was intended for later in the year. Instead of an unprovocative public front to Argentina, combined with the dispatch of a deterrent submarine when the Argentine negotiator, at a crucial point at the beginning of March, was repudiated, which was clearly what was needed, along the lines of what happened in 1977, the politics of the situation this time was handled completely wrongly. We had a submarine—