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Thatcher and the British Military: A Champion of the Armed Forces?

Watching the funeral of Baroness Thatcher on Wednesday, I was struck not just by the pomp and pageantry of the event, but also the close connection consciously exhibited between the former Prime Minister and the military.

Each of the pallbearers represented the military units that had fought in the South Atlantic in the Falklands War of 1982, a conflict many have termed “Thatcher’s War” in recent years. There were also Falklands War veterans present at St Paul’s, both in the funeral party and the congregation.

One of the most recognisable veterans of that conflict, Simon Weston, was interviewed on Sky News shortly after the ceremony, he stressed that, for the veterans of the Falklands, even though people didn’t agree with her policies they respected her determination and commitment to the idea of sovereignty of the Islanders. As he said to Dermot Murnaghan, “She really did believe in what she was doing, it wasn’t just a political stunt.” Such action and decisiveness endeared her to the military, along with her long-standing committment to veterans in the 30 years since the war.

Does the modern military share the same affection and trust in the modern political governance? I suspect not. Indeed, there has been an almost complete shift away from political links as the public have once again embraced the military directly, with the charity Help for Heroes being the most visible spearhead of a new wave of popular support for the armed forces. Partly this is due to the long, drawn-out, politically and strategically ambiguous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq that have drawn public ire, with Britain’s political leadership, regardless of orientation to the Left or Right, being the main target for hostility.

It could certainly be argued that not since Thatcher has a British Prime Minister shared such an affinity with the armed forces, despite active attempts to emulate her and court the armed forces vote. Such behaviour is another legacy of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership.

This post is not going to enter into the debate about the impact of the Falklands War on Thatcher’s re-election in 1983 (this author is of the opinion that while it certainly helped, macroeconomic factors and the weakness of a divided opposition had a far more significant influence!). However, what it will explore is the nature of the relationship between Thatcher and the military that has characterised the years since the Falklands War, culminating in Wednesday’s ceremony and the accepted assumption.

The Iranian embassy siege of 1980 had already helped create an image of Thatcher as decisive and willing to act, but it was the Falklands War that was to ensure that this would be enshrined on the world stage.

While the deployment of British military might to the Falklands certainly helped seal Thatcher’s reputation as the Iron Lady, she did not view the military as being ring-fenced from public spending cuts. Indeed, she oversaw the 1981 Strategic Defence Review, which was explicitly about saving money and made several recommendations that would severely undercut the fighting strength of the Royal Navy and the conventional warfare capability of the armed forces in general. It did this by placing the emphasis firmly on a European and North Atlantic theatre, and with NATO-specific roles, an understandable strategic decision giving the international context, but a strategically limited choice nonetheless. This Soviet-centric thinking dominated naval policy and resulted in submarines, including Britain’s nuclear deterrent, anti-submarine operations, mine-sweeping being prioritised over a more flexible and expensive force across the armed forces.

Aircraft carriers and amphibious landing ships, the two types of vessel in particular that were essential in the campaign the recapture and liberate the Falkland Islands, were targeted for scrap. In 1982 the carrier Hermes was old and small, and it had been agreed that it would be sold to the Indian Navy. Invincible was similarly small, and primarily an anti-submarine carrier. It was due to be sold to the Australian Navy. The withdrawal of larger aircraft carriers also meant that the Navy could no longer launce and airborne early warning, hindering carrier operations further. There was also a massive reduction in Britain’s amphibious assault capability. Intrepid was to be de-commissioned and sold, and Fearless was to be mothballed. These decision were made as it was assumed that air cover for any conflict in Northern Europe could be supplied by the RAF from UK bases, therefore removing the need to generate organic air power at sea, and that any landing of troops on the continent could be done in friendly, fully developed harbour facilities.

Of course, the events of April 1982 transformed these plans and expectations of what the British armed forces could and should be able to do. One veteran of the conflict, Nigel ‘Sharkey’ Ward, described Thatcher’s decision to meet force with force over the Falklands as ‘a brave and an honest decision.’ Yet it was only the personal intervention of Sir Henry Leech that ensured a Task Force would even be sent, as he provided Thatcher with the necessary confidence and assurances that the operation was possible, counter to the prevailing opinion of the Cabinet. What followed is well documented.

Of course, after the Falklands War many of the planned cuts were reversed, which in itself points to Thatcher’s pragmatic political approach and led to the idea of her being the champion of the armed forces. However, had the Argentines delayed their invasion by even a year, it is highly unlikely Britain would have had the military capability, and therefore the political will, to respond militarily, and thus Thatcher’s reputation would have been very different. Thatcher’s respect for the armed forces is certainly not a myth, it is well documented, but for historical events such an aspect of her premiership may not have come to define her in the way it does today. Had it not been for the Falklands War, Thatcher would merely have continued the long process of military decline.

One final thought; cutting back on conventional military capability in order to prioritise Special Forces and smaller, cheaper alternatives is a debate currently being waged in today’s austerity agenda. In that regard, the current Prime Minister David Cameron continues in his desire to emulate Thatcher, though his cuts threaten to go much further. Thatcher’s cuts were based on a strategic choice, evaluating the then-threat of the Soviet Union. Cameron’s seem far more driven by financial constraints than strategic ones.

The question, however, remains; will he have her courage and convictions to reverse any mistakes when presented with need to do so? Perhaps then he too may be seen as a political champion of the armed forces, as Baroness Thatcher is today.

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