When history repeats itself, the first time is tragedy, the second farce. Despite its Marxist origin, the aphorism is now a received wisdom. Perhaps that alone is good reason to abandon the idea. Certainly we have gone beyond it. The British recapture of the Falkland Islands was obviously a repeat performance, although there is argument over precisely what was taking place again. It reminded some of the original eviction of Argentina by an English fleet in 1833, while Trevor-Roper compared it to the even earlier confrontation with Spain over the islands in 1770. The most apt and widely drawn comparison, however, has been with the Suez crisis of 1956. Indeed, when the British Parliament gathered on 3 April 1982 for a special Saturday debate on Argentina’s invasion, readers of that morning’s Times were told: ‘The emergency sitting of the Commons will be the first on a Saturday since 3 November 1956, over Suez.’ Yet the 1956 Anglo-French invasion of Egypt was itself a clownish attempt by the two European powers to recreate their colonial domination over the Suez Canal. Today, therefore, British history has entered a new stage. We are witnesses to the repeat of a repeat, and as befits the late modern world it was played out on television and in the press. If the first time is tragedy and the second farce, the third is spectacle: the media event that was launched when the British fleet set sail for the South Atlantic.
Will reality and spectacle eventually collide? It was remarkable how well the British public relations side of the Falklands affair stood up. It was helped, of course, by a quick and, in part, fortuitous victory. Nonetheless, the manipulation of opinion was at least as masterful (and as important) as the military operation. Initially a clear majority wanted to see no loss of life and, for some weeks after the task force had sailed, held that the Falklands were not worth a single British death. Yet 256 were killed on the British side, along with three Falklanders, and 777 wounded. Argentina suffered at least 1,800 dead, missing and injured.footnote1 This casualty list was found acceptable. It was even seen as agreeably ‘light’, given the intensity of the combat. The figures were glossed as a measure of British military prowess, for being so low. But they were based on a gross miscalculation, not of the incompetence of Argentina’s army—in which British estimates that it would fail to perform proved accurate—but in the persistence of its air force, predicted in the House of Commons by Tam Dalyell, a critic of the expedition. Indeed, if the ‘profusion’ of unexploded Argentine bombs had gone off, the story might have had another ending. Despite the skill of the British operation, ‘it would have been impossible to continue’, one officer commented, had the enemy ordnance been correctly fused.footnote2 Yet the British got away with it and now see this as a demonstration of their virtue. Britannia never shows remorse.
But if the British Government managed to ‘wrap up’ the Falklands War, and then to issue it on video, something else has been unwrapped in the process. For all the talk of truth being the first casualty of war, the Gothic excesses of conflict may clarify, especially as they bring domestic forces to a head. The glare of war can illuminate darkness just as the flash of lightning at night can reveal a white image of the surrounding landscape. When the darkness sets in again and the thunder rolls on, those who love the spectacle will talk about the lightning. I am interested in what it showed: in particular, what the Falklands war can tell us about Britain today.
In the postwar years when a welfare state of sorts was built in Britain and even pioneered in some respects, the country’s image was of a society in social peace. True, this was disturbed by poor industrial relations at times. But mass unemployment was regarded as a thing of the past, not only because Keynesianism supposedly made it redundant, but also because unemployment would rend apart the special fabric of Britain’s postwar consensus. In spite of all appearances, or indeed because of them, a classless sense of ‘fair-play’ was seen to preside over social relations within the uk. All loved the Queen, and the amusing antique ceremonies of monarchy thus unified classes and regions. The quiet sense of shared self-confidence was conjured up by the unarmed ‘bobby’; the police were like uncles who kept a kindly eye out for understandable misdemeanors, crimes of passion and the very infrequent villain. There was no country like it.
It was never clear to me what proportion of the population actually believed this vision they were all supposed to share. It was a ‘worldview’
But who could hold such a view today as the essential attribute of ‘Britishness’? The Falklands crisis coincided with the first anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands and the start of the campaign in which Thatcher linked the attitude of the government in Westminster directly to the death of prisoners in Northern Ireland. Riots followed in June 1981 right across England (significantly omitting the major cities of Scotland and Wales). A reaction to the brutal policing of blacks especially, the riots saw the full deployment of hit-squads by the police and the first mainland use of CS gas. The notable behaviour of British football gangs in Europe could now be seen as an expression of the ‘real’ England, rather than a youthful exception to it. Today, the Falklands expedition has completed this transfer of the British image in the eyes of the world—from phlegmatic bobby to enthusiastic commando.
In one sense its timing was accidental, determined by the troubles of Argentina and the strains within its military Junta. In another, the whole thing could not have come at a more convenient moment for the Thatcher administration. Her popularity rating, although recovering somewhat from a winter nadir, remained stubbornly low. The only bright spot on the horizon for Tory prospects was the intense division of opinion within the Labour Party that made it seem an improbable alternative. At the same time both the main parties are confronted by the liquidation of their duopoly. The rise of the Social Democrats in alliance with the Liberals threatens more than the usual challenge. For should they come even close to victory in the next election, proportional representation may be introduced and the structure and certainties of the old Parliamentary parties will be gone forever. After apparently faltering at the final gate, Roy Jenkins—the effective founder, ‘statesman’ and now leader of the sdp—won a critical Scottish by-election to return to the House of Commons on 1 April. The next day Galtieri’s forces stormed Port Stanley.