My specific purpose was to pay tribute not just to the living but to the 252 British servicemen who did not return from the campaign and the 775 who were wounded in a campaign with I am intimately acquainted. This was not a cost-free conflict. They never are and the Argentinians who fought and died for their country were ever present in my mind and I honour them as well.
However, I also spelt out a warning to Britain’s leaders; the aura of power which Britain will need in what is going to be a big and dangerous century is itself in danger of being lost. London is daily retreating from sound national strategy into a ‘recognise only as much threat as we can afford’ view of the world. Given that warning what was achieved back in 1982 is as relevant to today’s Britain as past Britain.
My theme was British élan - the determined pursuit of a just strategic goal with a style and assurance that is itself power. Élan is something more than men and kit. It is a strategic brand that can change things even before a bullet is fired. 1982 saw a Britain that like today had retreated into a muddled foreign and security policy with strategy made elsewhere. 1982 saw a country in conflict with itself with many of the same doubts and tensions as today. And yet somehow the British armed forces defied the all-pervading sense of national decline of the time and lifted the country above the management of decline so beloved of so much of the political and bureaucratic elite.
Thirty years ago through valour and sacrifice three invaluable victories were won. First, a fundamental principle was defended which was far bigger than the islands or the Islanders – the right of self-determination and the use of great power to that end. Second, ally and adversary alike was shown that the spirit of Britain pertained and that an old great country still understood how to exercise strategic influence. My friend Professor Gwyn Prins told me that when he was in the Advisory Group to former Soviet President Gorbachev back in 1990 Gorbachev told him that it was the Falklands campaign that in part convinced him that the Soviet Union could never win the Cold War. Gwyn also told me of a senior Russian who recently remarked that, “the things we once admired about Britain are today the things that you despise”. Third, a tired and fractious British people at the end of a long, tired and fractious decade were reminded that Britain was more than a place, it was an idea in which still to believe. No post-imperial basket-case but a powerful modern country that could when push came to shove distinguish between values and interests; principles and parochialism.
Where next for British influence? Today a very new idea is needed; an all-national unity of effort and purpose. That will mean inviting all in these islands to be British, rather than trying to turn Britain into what my old friend Lord Glasman calls a mini-United Nations. This is mission critical as we sink ever deeper into the swamp of political correctness that is eating government and society from within with self-doubt.
Strategically and militarily, as Britain move towards a 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review ‘strategy’ will need to be put back into ‘strategic’. For Britain’s armed forces that will mean a modest but nevertheless global role alongside a maritime-strategic America, those Europeans still able and willing to face up to their security responsibilities and the rebuilding of old relationships in the Commonwealth. Central but by no means exclusive to British influence will be the creation of truly joined-up armed forces in which no one service owns land, sea or air and which are themselves part of truly joined-up security policy led by a national strategy worthy of the name. State-of-the art armed forces that are projectable, deployable and sustainable built of a tight concept of fighting power for which the British armed forces are renowned.
Above all, Britain’s leaders must hold their nerve, just like Margaret Thatcher back in 1982; all the basic components are in place for a powerful modern navy, army and air force. This century is not going to get any easier and like it or not whatever happens in there is no hiding place for Britain. Britain will need its capable armed forces.
Thirty years ago the mission was not simply to rescue the Falkland Islanders from a brutal dictatorship, critical though it was. It was to save Britain from a visionless self and to make a proud people feel again the right to be proud by being on the just side of right.
As Europe crumbles and America stumbles Britain is thus faced with a choice: to retreat into irrelevance and put up with whatever an unjust world throws at it; or to galvanise itself as back in 1982 and set out to shape the world for the better. “For God’s sake, act like Britain”, former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk once demanded of George Brown. In 1982 Britain’s armed forces did just that and showed the world a great country that could rise above the daily grind of party game and blame to which today the British people are too often subject.
There is no greater honour I have ever been or will ever be accorded.