IssueJune 2007
Feature by Tam Dalyell

PN : Do you see parallels between the current ``war on terror'' (and the war on Iraq in particular) , and the Falk? lands/Malvinas war in 1982.

TD: Two parallels strike me. The first is that in the Falklands, there was the Peruvian peace proposals [see box]. Knowingly, when Mrs Thatcher sank the Belgrano, she knew about the Peruvian peace proposals, and wanted to torpedo them. By that time, she didn't want peace. Years later, the same was to happen to Hans Blix. If he'd been given a little more time, I think they sensed that he would find there were no weapons of mass destruction. The parallel is that on both occasions, the chance of peace was spurned on purpose. That brings me to the second parallel, which was that leaders wanted military victory for reasons of domestic politics.

Galtieri certainly launched his attack on the Malvinas/Falklands because his junta had become deeply unpopular and he wanted something to restore his credibility at home with his people. Mrs Thatcher, certainly by the middle of April [1982], realised that in the absence of a fight, a military victory, her own position as leader of the Conservative Party would become very precarious. She was then lower in the opinion polls than any prime minister had been before that. [Tam Dalyell met Thatcher for a private meeting as the British naval task force sailed for the South Atlantic.] She got hotter and hotter. I thought , “This woman really wants a fight, she doesn't want to be deprived of battle.” From a very early stage, she really wanted military victory above all else for domestic politics. I think Blair suffered from the same thing. He realised that Mrs Thatcher had had tremendous political boosters from the Falklands war, and therefore these short , sharp victories abroad would create a great success. He also thought, I think, that wartime prime ministers are remembered more than peacetime prime ministers, and he'd always been an actor, very alert to his own strutting on the world stage. In a sense the Falklands gave an example of military success leading to political success, and I think this is a very dangerous lesson for British prime ministers to think they've learned.

PN: Why did you become concerned about the sinking of the Belgrano?

TD: I didn't complain about the sinking of the Belgrano to begin with. I thought it was the “fog of war”, and it was some submarine commander defending his fleet. I began to ask questions when Commander Christopher Wreford-Brown returned to the west of Scotland, and was asked by a reporter from the Scotsman why he sank the Belgrano. The reply came back, “I am a first-time submarine commander. I didn't do it off my own bat. I did it on orders from Northwood [Navy command headquarters].” That was totally different from what parliament, the press and people had been told by John Nott [the defence minister]. Where there are small discrepancies, one thinks there might be large discrepancies, as indeed they were. I was thrown out of the House [of Commons] twice, for having said that Mrs Thatcher had lied. The lie was very specific. The lie was that she said she did not know about the Peruvian peace proposals before she sank the Belgrano -- and of course the sinking of the Belgrano made war inevitable, and escalated the whole thing. I knew this wasn't true because at my own expense, beholden to nobody, I'd gone to Peru, talked to the then president Belaunde Terry, but more important than that, to the man who ' d been prime minister at the time, Manuel Ulloa Elias, who told me how he'd transmitted the message, typed on his own typewriter, to the British prime minister.

PN: In 1982 , the Labour leadership was supportive of war, and now it is at the forefront of the war party.

TD: I think that's right. The reason why I shall vote for John McDonnell in the Labour leadership contest if 45 members of parliament put their heads above the parapet [and vote for him to be in the contest -- which they did not] is this, that Gordon Brown was pleaded with by me, and others, to say “No” on Iraq, and had he done so as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Britain could not have gone, and if Britain didn't go, I doubt if the United States could have gone. Many Americans who might otherwise have been critical submerged their scepticism in the light of the British attitude. It was absolutely tragic. And Gordon Brown could have bloody well stopped this.

PN: Do you have any reflections on the role of the independent-minded MP, and how one person can have an impact?

TD: Uncovering the truth about the Belgrano did take a lot of hard work - and confidence, which a lot of people don't like - and the willingness to be a bore. I think you have to be willing to bore on, if you want to get the truth. Also I was for 36 years the columnist for the New Scientist, and there every week I had someone asking me, “How do you know that? Where is the evidence?” And that became a habit of mine. In the case of the Belgrano, I knew the facts, I was certain of the coordinates of the ship, and I proceeded from that.

Topics: Falklands