Next Thursday, the 14th of June 2007, will be the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands. In celebrating that date, we will be remembering the ingenuity, heroism, the world-beating professionalism, and of course, the sacrifices, of the British armed forces, whose people were then, and are today, the best in the world. That it was possible to mount so successful a military campaign, 8,000 miles from home from a standing start and often in bad weather and on difficult seas, is testimony to their extraordinary efforts. That such an effort was made to restore freedom to 1,800 Britons is further testimony to our strong British sense of right and wrong, our support for international law and our fundamental belief that those who have lived under the protection of Britain should have the right to determine their own future, rather than have it dictated by anyone else.
And furthermore, that all of this was done, and that it was done with an unwavering sense of leadership which combined the necessary application of military force with the great advantage of moral force, is a tribute above all to the extraordinary resolve and clear sighted determination of our then Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher. As she said on the 20th of May that year, "Britain has a responsibility to the Islanders, to restore their democratic way of life. She has a duty to the whole world that aggression will not succeed and to uphold the cause of freedom." It was a time when the world held its breath and when much of it then breathed the long sigh of relief that a leader who said such things turned out also to mean them. That is why the liberation of the Falkland Islands will always be more than just another one of the countless military engagements of history: the manner and purpose of their recovery are no mere details in the historical record, but a lasting inspiration that showed that freedom can be defended, and a lasting reminder that we must always retain the strength to do so. So while tonight we are celebrating this event 25 years on, we can be confident that we or our successors will be doing so 50, 75 and 100 years on and that what was established beyond doubt in 1982 will not be forgotten.
General Galtieri's attempt to exploit nationalist sentiment by invading the Islands was a staggering miscalculation in two ways. For one thing he underestimated British military capability, but for another he also underestimated the will of British people, and their leaders, to stand up for what was right. From the first invasion on the 19th of March when 50 Argentines landed on South Georgia and raised their flag, it was clear that Britain would need military measures to strengthen diplomatic efforts. It was important, of course, that these diplomatic paths were explored, despite their ultimate failure, culminating in the resolution introduced to the Security Council by Panama and Spain calling for an immediate ceasefire, a resolution that was vetoed by the United Kingdom and the United States.
Not every Prime Minister would have cast that veto, and not every Prime Minister would have been able to persuade the President of the United States to do the same. But as Lady Thatcher recognised at the time, what incentive would there have been for the Argentine Generals to have given the diplomatic settlement even a second glance, had Britain not dispatched a military force to underpin its efforts and been prepared to use it? In the House of Commons on the 29th of April she stated, "gentle persuasion will not make the Argentine government give up what they have seized by force."
The consequences of failure would have been very serious. As Sir Henry Leach, then the First Sea Lord, was meant to have told the Prime Minister on the 31st of March 1982, failure to retake the Islands would have left the United Kingdom impotent on the world stage. I do not think she needed much persuasion that he was right. The naval task force launched to engage the Argentine forces was impressive, and it demonstrated the superb training of our servicemen along with an astonishing ability to improvise in a campaign that had never been planned. In the words of General Paul Gorman, the Assistant to the Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, the work of our forces represented "the triumph of ingenuity in adversity."
258 Britons, of which 3 were Falkland Islanders, lost their lives during the conflict. This evening we should remember their ultimate sacrifice and recall the heroic efforts of so many others, for it was a campaign characterised by countless examples of raw courage: the determination of the Royal Navy not to be defeated by missile attack despite the absence of any land-based air cover of their own, the determination of ground troops to get ashore while under bombardment and then to storm positions held by an entrenched enemy. Such were the deeds involved that it is not surprising that the Falklands campaign resulted in the posthumous award of two Victoria Crosses.
These achievements left a deep impression on the British public, including on me as a undergraduate at the time, listening anxiously to the radio bulletins, and have done much to remind and persuade the British people that our armed forces have never let us down, and that we must therefore never let them down. The scenes at Southampton docks of the refitted cruise liner Canberra departing with 2,000 paratroopers and commandos on board, and the great scenes of jubilation as each part of the task force returned later in the year demonstrated the intensity of public anxiety, public enthusiasm, and public support for the position taken by the government of the day. I remember going down to the Oxford Union to join in the cheering when it was announced that the white flag was flying over Port Stanley, and I remember listening to the statement of the Prime Minister to the House of Commons on the 15th of June, which included the memorable words: "The Falkland Islands are once more under the government desired by their inhabitants. God save the Queen."
British pride in what was achieved in 1982 will always be there. It is not something to be ashamed of, all the more so because the consequences of the victory that June were do far reaching and so beneficial. They were beneficial first of all for Argentina itself, where the loss of the war led to ever larger protests against the junta in Buenos Aires; British victory gave the conclusive push to driving out the military government. Galtieri was forced to resign and democracy was returned to the Argentine people, with elections held in December of 1983.
For much of the time since that date many British and Argentine people have worked on improving relations between the countries. There is a strong British cultural influence in Argentina and a large Argentine British community around Buenos Aires. A large number of Argentine football players play for British clubs and there are strong links between the Argentine and British equestrian communities. And, of course, as my wife never ceases to remind me, there is a strong Welsh speaking community in Patagonia, whose local governor was made welcome in Wales in March this year.
Although the last two years have seen some increase in rhetoric about the Falkland Islands from the Argentine authorities, no support has ever been voiced there in the last 25 years for any further attempt at a military endeavour. The next Conservative government in Britain will maintain the view that there is much to be gained by improved economic co-operation between the Falkland Islands and Argentina. We will always make the case for closer and friendlier links.
In the Conservative Party we take a close interest in the welfare and situation of the Falkland Islands. I visited the Islands two months ago, and my colleague Liam Fox will be travelling there next Monday to attend the anniversary celebrations on the Islands themselves. And as I made clear while I was there, the next Conservative government will continue the commitment, shared by every British government over the last 25 years, to the right of the Falkland Islanders to determine their own future. There will be no negotiations over sovereignty unless that is ever the wish of the Islanders themselves, and the Islands will therefore be British for as long as their inhabitants wish them to remain so.
What is immensely encouraging to a visitor to the Falkland Islands today is to see how the Islanders too have moved on dramatically in the last 25 years, in population, in economic prosperity and in sense of purpose. The population of 2,900 is more than 50% larger than it was 25 years ago, with several hundred people moving there from St Helena. The economy of the Islands has boomed, with an income per capita that is now actually higher than that of Britain: very much one of the highest standards of living in South America. Other than in defence, the Islands are now comfortably self sufficient, with a sizeable income from fishing licences and the visit of tourist cruise ships. They have received no aid from Britain for the last 15 years. The arrival of a large cruise ship, sometimes containing more people than the Islands themselves, can pose a challenge to the local population, particularly if they all simultaneously demand a taxi, but it is excellent to see the visitor and heritage centre recently built in Stanley, and there are now prospects for a luxury hotel on Sea Lion Island to be completed by 2009. There are plans to capitalise on the Islands certification as an organic country in agricultural products and, of course, there is the continuing prospect of finding oil in Falkland Island waters.
What was so encouraging to me, meeting the Island Councillors and other people in Stanley, was the determination to make the most of the opportunity that history has now given them. People are conscious that the lives of others who they had never known or met were lost in ensuring that they could decide their future for themselves. The biggest thank you they can give is to make a great success of their own economy and quality of life, and that is something they seem very determined to do.
Such were the consequences for Argentina and the Falkland Islands of the events of 25 years ago. But, of course, the psychological and political consequences went much further than that. The Falklands conflict took place at a time when the debate about the domestic policies of the Thatcher government was vigorous to say the least. To think that the Falklands conflict changed the political scene in Britain and brought about the re-election of the Thatcher government would be a mistake, but to remember that it illustrated the determination, the patience and the resolve of a government committed to doing the right things for the long term would be correct. Nothing that happened in the Falklands proved that the Conservative government of the time was correct and the 364 economists who famously opposed its policies were wrong. Only economic events could do that, and sure enough they did. But what had happened over the Falklands certainly encouraged British people to see their government in a new light: the events illuminated the qualities of an exceptional leader; British people came to the conclusion that they had a Prime Minister who would stick with things through thick and thin; and they were right, for with the perspective of history and the knowledge of what was to happen afterwards, we can say confidently at the beginning of a new century that this was the Prime Minister who, put very simply, saved our country.
The grip and determination which led to the recovery of the Falkland Islands, led too to the outright defeat of industrial blackmail, the bringing of trade unions within the rule of law, the vast extension of ownership and the fundamental changes which made this country once again what it ought to be, one of the greatest centres of opportunity and freedom on earth.
This transformation of Britain would have happened anyway under the Thatcher government. But victory in the Falklands removed any doubts people might have harboured that she was determined to bring it about. Further afield, there were international consequences too. Our allies were impressed by a country that stood by its people and its word. From Mitterrand to Reagan, the leaders of the other leading nations of the world would thereafter never fail to treat our Prime Minister with great respect. As the tensions of the Cold War tightened once again, and as the West had to display confident determination and strength in the face of what would turn out to be the last blustering of European communism, no ally would ever doubt that the resolve of Britain was certain. And as the Labour opposition in this country conducted their weak and foolish retreat into the politics of unilateral disarmament, the call of the Conservative government for people to once again support resolution and strength was heeded and understood. The need for Britain to play its role in maintaining international peace and order enjoyed strong emphatic public support.
In a justified war, however brief, a country is reminded of who its friends are. International co-operation with Britain was one of the hallmarks of the Falklands campaign. The then 9 members of the European Community banned all Argentine imports, as did Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Indeed, New Zealand banned exports too, with their own Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, saying: "With the Falkland Islanders, it is family." Many other members of the Commonwealth joined with Britain in their condemnation of the Argentine invasion. This was not always easy for these countries, given the commercial interests at stake, but they recognised that if aggression were allowed to succeed in one part of the world, it could also happen elsewhere.
It is not often then, that an anniversary brings together so many causes for celebration. The victory of 25 years ago brought democracy in Argentina, prosperity in the Falklands themselves, unity in Britain and a solidarity with the upholding of international law. It is, of course, a reminder of the need for vigilance and strength in international affairs and of the need to maintain our own defences in good times as well as bad. Today, the Royal Navy is at a point where many are questioning our ability to conduct the type of naval operations we conducted 25 years ago. Our frigate and destroyer has been reduced from 35 to 25. Our attack submarine fleet is being reduced to 8. Our navy is in such a state that First Sea Lords are now reduced to speaking out publicly in fear that the Navy will no longer be capable of effectively carrying out its mission and ultimately protecting the United Kingdom's interests. There are actually now more attack aircraft in the RAF Museum at Hendon than in the RAF itself. Our army is overstretched and its commitments rarely match with its resources. There is, therefore, much work for a future Conservative government to do.
That is for the future, but we are here this evening to celebrate the achievement of our former leader and former Prime Minister, who inspired a country to support a war we did not seek, but in the end had to fight, and to help people few in number, but who are as British as all of us here.
Margaret Thatcher sliced through the official opinions of many mandarins at the time, not to mention a few Ministers, and brought a diplomatic and military campaign into being through sheer force of personality. In doing so, she ensured respect for Britain in the world, as a champion of freedom and law. She set the tone which allowed her to strengthen alliances which confronted the global threat of that time, alliances which the United Kingdom still holds dear.
Her passion for liberty, her respect for the rule of law, her willingness to confront regimes who pose a threat to liberty and law, and her determination to do what was right, are part of an enduring and precious legacy not only to the Conservative Party but to the whole country. Whenever in the future we need to safeguard Britons at home or abroad, or confront those who threaten us, or defend the right of a people to decide their own future, the events in the Falkland Islands will always set a standard and the name of Margaret Thatcher will forever be an inspiration.