Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Falklands Factor

I've seen a very large number of people in different fora suggesting that Cameron, in his over-eagerness to get into Libya, is seeking a repeat of the Falklands, a prelude to a khaki election in which he can strut about under the bunting with the spectacle of victory rallies unfolding in the background. This may be true. But if so, it suggests that Cameron has both misunderstood that particular imperial jubilee and misread the current situation.

Such allusions correctly estimate that the primary importance of the Falklands was domestic, rather than international. Geopolitically, there was no sense in what Thatcher did. The islands were of little strategic importance, the British claim to them was far weaker than Argentina's claim, and at any rate a negotiated settlement was certainly both available and the logical long-term solution. The idea of Britain holding on at great expense to these purloined territories in the South Atlantic was bizarre. (And yet, there they still are, hoisting the Union Jack over someone else's Shetlands, no negotiations even plausibly in sight despite polite entreaties from Kirchner and Fernandez). Until 1982, no one knew anything about the Falklands, or cared. Their importance was solely symbolic.

Amid a generalised sense of British decay and decline, the loss of empire followed by a series of deepening economic crises, the seeming stalemate of industrial relations, the disorientation of the Left, the widespread sense of a crisis of public order, everything seemed to be going to the dogs - and then these Argentinians think they can walk onto British territory and take it over, just like that? Thatcher successfully took control of this furious resentment and used it to sideline her critics inside the Conservative Party, including the Foreign Secretary Francis Pym (who was a bit of a 'wet' and was apparently in serious, nearly successful, pursuit of a negotiated settlement). Determinedly seeking one outcome, that of a bloody victory, she mobilised the forces of jingoism the better to hammer the Left. Eric Hobsbawm, writing at the time, suggested that the war was like the world cup with guns, providing a victory as purely symbolic and spectacular as that which comes from a football match. (Unfortunately, Hobsbawm's wider argument was in favour of a leftist appropriation of 'patriotism', a tactic drawn from the Popular Front tradition whose virtues he always, in my view, wildly overestimated).

But the Falklands factor has always been overestimated if it implies that this won the 1983 election. Yes, the Tories' vote increased by about 15% between the invasion and the British capture of Port Stanley:

But deeper psephological research showed that this increase was already under way due to macroeconomic factors. With the revival in the global economy beginning, and flush with North Sea oil money, the government began a process of investment and stimulus that was intelligently and cynically designed to make people feel better about their prospects. In contrast to the hawkish, deflationary budgets since 1979, it was expansionary, increasing pensions and personal allowances, reducing stamp duties, etc. People accustomed to being hammered by the government were now being given some relief, after the hurricane of mass unemployment. At last, the decline was over. One study found that the Falklands added about three percentage points to the government's popularity in the three months of the war, and that this added popularity was short-lived and was not a major factor in the 1983 election. It's striking, reading the left literature from the time, that people expected the Falklands to resonate for long years, decades, after the war itself finished. It did not. But what it did do was provide a temporary rallying cry for the hard right amid the general economic recovery, giving Thatcher a little caesarist moment in which she could stand aloof from bourgeois opinion (and it does seem that bourgeois opinion was largely sceptical of the war), and rearticulating the various themes of British renaissance that underpinned the Thatcherite project. It gave Thatcherism a macho virility, with paras, SAS and ghurkas animating the drama of British resistance to decline, and soldiers returning home with the sign: "Call off the rail strike, or we'll call an air strike". And then, it was over, the wholy noisy hysteria and the choruses of 'Rule Britannia' (a tribute to the British navy's imperial adventures, long forgotten until the Falklands) drowing in egoistic calculation. What won for Thatcher in 1983 was what was always going to win for Thatcher - the historic split in the Labourist bloc and the revival in the global economy.

Were Cameron seeking a replay of the Falklands, he would be misreading today's situation quite dramatically. There is no latent passion for another round of blood-letting, and post-colonial melancholia is mainly expressed in hostility to 'multiculturalism'. Even the reactionaries have turned antiwar these days. And whereas the Falklands war was a lone adventure that the Americans didn't particularly like, a costume replay of Suez with a redeeming outcome, Cameron has no desire or ability to lead Britain alone into any conflict. Overstretched in Afghanistan, making deep cuts to the military budget, Britain can barely maintain its current imperial commitments. And, as he has discovered to his cost, the US is not overly keen to give Cameron a chance to strut about in front of the troops in the standard issue white shirt with open collar and rolled up shirt sleeves. There is also the obvious problem that were he to drag Britain into a war now, even were it popular the pay off wouldn't last until he next intends to stand for election. Perhaps, he may calculate, a war would be a good way of ratcheting up the government's control of the media narratives, creating an atmosphere of patriotism and 'supporting our boys', such that it would demobilise the Left and kill off any chance of mass strike action and protests bringing his government down prematurely. But this would imply either that he has lived under a rock for the last ten years or that he is desperate enough to try anything.