That sinking feeling
A new paperback reveals that when Margaret Thatcher attacked the Belgrano, she was more interested in oil than islanders
07 May, 2020 — By Leo Garib
NEARLY 40 years ago this month, a Tory leader turned catastrophe into political gold. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher was languishing in the polls amid social unrest but grabbed the chance of Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands to rally public opinion behind the flag.
On May 2, she ordered the sinking of the retreating Argentinian warship the ARA General Belgrano, killing 323 sailors. The Sun celebrated with the headline “Gotcha” and her popularity soared. A total of 907 died in the 74-day war, including 649 Argentinians, 255 Britons and three islanders, but Thatcher was remade as the iron-willed defender of the plucky islanders.
Newly unearthed government papers, however, reveal a murkier truth. Thatcher was in fact much more interested in oil than the interests of the few thousand residents of the windblown outcrop off the Argentinian coast and had tried handing back the islands to Argentina in exchange for rights over offshore oil deposits.
The papers, sealed for years in government archives, also detail years of British collusion with the Argentinian junta and General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in neighbouring Chile. Both were internationally condemned for murdering tens of thousands of political opponents, including British ex-pats.
They were discovered by Cambridge University expert and journalist Grace Livingstone, who spent three years researching them under freedom of information laws. They include minutes of top ministerial meetings, intelligence reports, diplomatic cables, business lobbying, and Thatcher’s private calls with US president Ronald Reagan.
However, many documents remain heavily redacted while thousands of others thought to detail clandestine meetings between British ministers and members of the dictatorships have been shredded, she warned.
Dr Livingstone, who lives in Holly Lodge, Highgate, said destroying the papers was a “crime”.
The islands, occupied by Britain since 1833 and claimed by Argentina for more than a century, were an insignificant outpost until the oil price rocketed in the early 1970s and small offshore deposits were discovered. Still low on Foreign Office priorities, Labour government policy was nonetheless to settle the dispute by swapping the islands for British rights over the oil, an idea rejected by Buenos Aires.
The islands remained a footnote for Thatcher too, but she was keen to step up support for the junta and in 1980 sent her foreign minister for secret talks with his Argentinian counterpart in a Swiss Chalet and New York hotel. A swap deal was on the cards until Thatcher, faced with a Labour-led backlash against surrendering territory, opted to shelve the plan.
Though Thatcher’s Falkland’s victory helped collapse General Galtieri’s Argentinian dictatorship, her support up to then had been steadfast. Labour and the Tories had sold warships, aircraft, tanks, missiles and small arms to the dictatorship, and arranged cash and diplomatic cover when the international community recoiled from reports of tens of thousands of its opponents being tortured and dumped in mass graves or dropped from helicopters into the sea. But Thatcher scrapped Labour’s open-door immigration policy for Argentinian refugees, relaxed export controls on weapons, and reinstated Britain’s ambassador. Weapons were still being shipped right up to the eve of war.
“Argentina is a very interesting market, as British businessmen are coming to realise,” the ambassador wrote to London. Later he opined the junta had made Argentina a “much more possible country to deal with” and regretted the “continuing, though minor, irritation” of public opposition to its abuses back home.
Thatcher’s government rolled out the red carpet, regularly hosting the junta’s ministers and officers directly involved in abuses.
Dr Grace Livingstone
Regulars included economics minister, José Martínez de Hoz, and Emilio Eduardo Massera, naval chief and head of a notorious torture centre. Both were convicted of human rights crimes.
Much more personal, was her relationship with Chilean dictator General Pinochet. Labour had blacklisted his dictatorship, one of the bloodiest in Latin American after ousting the country’s socialist government in 1973. Thousands were tortured and disappeared, including British doctor Sheila Cassidy and William Beausire, abducted on his way to London.
In Downing Street, Thatcher quickly burnished relations and the documents show a trail of secret arms deals, counter-insurgency training, and meetings with the General’s ministers in London hotels.
The relationship never faded. Pinochet aided Thatcher during the Falkland’s war with intelligence and in 1988, when he was arrested under an international warrant by Tony Blair’s government, she visited him and helped secure his release.
The documents shine an important light on the Falkland’s war and British relations with the dictators, said Dr Livingstone, exposing years of Whitehall plotting to secure the oil – now thought to be worthless – and the scale of its support for the regimes.
Dr Livingstone hoped the documents would finally expose the scale of Britain’s long involvement with the dictatorships:
“The book presents new evidence that the British government and British oil companies were very interested in the oil around the Falklands, but this wasn’t the main reason Britain went to war.
“British politicians wanted sovereignty over the Islands because they feared a political outcry – in parliament, the media, among the public – if they ‘abandoned’ the Islanders. When Argentina invaded, Thatcher sought to defend British territory and assert British military power, but she was also acutely aware her government had ignored warnings about a possible invasion. It would have been a political catastrophe for her if she ‘lost’ the Islands.
“She also believed the Falkland Islands had geopolitical value in the Cold War. Britain aimed to transfer sovereignty of the Falklands to Argentina in return for British administration of the Islands – to try to satisfy the Islanders’ wish to remain British. However, declassified documents show the Foreign Office, the Department of Energy and the Treasury examined in great detail how such a ‘leaseback’ deal might affect British rights to oil in the waters around the Islands.
“At every stage of the negotiations with Argentina in the years before the Falklands war, the British government considered how its access to oil would be affected. Oil was not the main reason Britain went to war in the Falklands, but it was certainly part of the story.”
• Britain and the Dictatorships of Argentina and Chile, 1973-1982. By Grace Livingstone, Palgrave Macmillan, £22.99