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Lord Heseltine tries to rewrite history over Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands

By Jonathan Isaby

Lord Heseltine 2011 On last night's BBC Question Time, in the context of the U-turn over forests, former Cabinet minister Lord Heseltine was asked by David Dimbleby what Margaret Thatcher's biggest U-turn had been as Prime Minister.

He proceeded to claim that Mrs Thatcher had done a deal with General Galtieri over the sovereignty of the Falklands and only overturned it after pressure from the Tory Right.

Viewable via the iPlayer for the next week here (39 minutes and 20 seconds in), here is a transcript of the exchange with David Dimbleby:

Dimbleby: What was the biggest U-turn Mrs Thatcher did?
Heseltine: Oh, I suppose on the Falklands.
Dimbleby: What, she wasn't going to go to the Faklands?
Heseltine: No. There was a deal with Galtieri and the Right wing of the Tory Party overturned it in 1982, was it? Or 1981? Whenever it was, it was very early in the...
Dimbleby: But they did actually invade the Falklands, it was slightly different.
Heseltine: Not at all. Mrs Thatcher, through the voice of Nick Ridley announced a deal with the Argentinians and that was her policy. A group of Right wing Conservative MPs said "we won't put up with this" and Mrs Thatcher gave in. 

The context for this claim can be traced back to discussions in November 1980, as the following extract from a Times article from November 28th 1980 (and reproduced on the Margaret Thatcher Foundation website) explains:

There is good sense in some of the options which Britain is putting forward on the Falkland Islands, particularly the lease-back formula. Under this plan, sovereignty over the islands would be ceded to Argentina but Britain would lease back the islands, either without a time limit or for say, 99 years. It remains to be seen whether the islanders will agree with this or any of the other ideas which the British Government is canvassing after having taken soundings with the Argentines. The dispute over sovereignty has gone on for more than a hundred years.

Mr Nicholas Ridley, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, who is having talks with the islanders, apparently believes that a solution may be achieved by outright transfer of sovereignty, by transfer and lease back, by freezing the dispute for 25 years, or by taking what would be a drastic step and breaking off talks altogether. An outright transfer would be politically unacceptable. The lease-back idea, on similar lines as for Hong Kong, is the one Whitehall has been suggesting behind the scenes for some time.

Margaret Thatcher But the suggestion that a deal was done, as claimed by Heseltine last night, is a fiction, as explained by Lady Thatcher in her memoirs, The Downing Street Years (pp 175-6). She wrote of the lease-back idea:

"I disliked this proposal, but Nick and I both agreed that it should be explored, subject always to the requirement that the islanders themselves should have the final word. We could not agree to anything without their consent: their wishes must be paramount."

"As I rather expected, none of these diplomatic arguments in favour of lease-back had much appeal to the islanders themselves. They would have nothing to do with such proposals. They distrusted the Argentine dictatorship and were sceptical of its promises. but more than that, they wanted to remain British. They made this abundantly clear to Nick Ridley when he twice visited them to learn their views. The House of Commons too was noisily determined that the islanders' wishes should be respected. Lease-back was killed. I was not prepared to force the islanders into an arrangement which was intolerable to them - and which I in their position would not have tolerated either."

I hope that sets the record straight for Lord Heseltine.


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