The great era for exposing government lying and ‘dirty tricks’ was in the United States more than a decade ago. But long after Richard Nixon disappeared, protesting, from the world’s televisions, the name ‘Watergate’ has stuck as a synonym for the shenanigans by which he is probably best remembered. And clearly it stuck in the minds of British government ministers faced with the aftermath of the Belgrano affair in March 1984.
Two years earlier, as the rest of the world looked on, half-amused, half-impressed by this anachronistic twitch of the imperial lion’s tail, a large British naval armada sailed south to recover the Falkland Islands by force of arms.
The British government, headed by the famously resolute Mrs Thatcher, said in public that their plans were to use ‘minimum force’ coupled with diplomatic negotiation, and thus to oust the invading Argentine junta from these remote and largely worthless islands, which were only occupied by a handful of British, or near-British, families. In the event, the affair rapidly turned into a full-scale shooting war. With considerable loss of life, the Falklands were re-invaded, the Argentines forced to surrender bag and baggage, and Mrs Thatcher reaped considerable short-term political benefits from a jingoistic public. The long-term consequences, however, left many political commentators aghast; they included not only a long-term garrisoning of ‘Fortress Falklands’, but also the enormous cost of doing so: so far, more than two billion pounds, plus another half billion every year, indefinitely.