Now today the Falkland Islands flag flew over Number 10 Downing Street and the Union Jack flew over Port Stanley, and that is the way things should be. It was 30 years ago today that the Union Flag was hoisted above Government House in Port Stanley. The Falkland Islands were liberated, a people were freed, and a war was won.
We all have vivid memories of those weeks in the spring of 1982. In this room, we’ve got those who fought on land at places like Goose Green and Mount Kent in the South Atlantic and in the skies above. We’ve got islanders who saw their homeland occupied, and we’ve got many British people who watched anxiously from afar. I was a 16-year-old schoolboy at the time and I remember today rushing back to the radio, trying to find the latest news and listening to those calm unflappable tones of that famous Ministry of Defence spokesman.
Above all, I remember those questions hanging over the war: wasn’t going more than 8,000 miles to defend less than 5,000 square miles an act of folly? Was it worth it? Were we still up to it? I may have only been 16 but I had no doubt that it was the right thing to do. That victory smashed all of those questions out of the water. It showed that Britain wouldn’t be intimated; that we could defend our interests; and that, above all, we would always stand up for what is right, whatever it took.
This anniversary today is a chance for us to do two important things. To look back at what happened and remember those who fell; and, as they would have wished, to look forward to what the future holds for the Falklands. Now first, looking back on this conflict, there is one thing that shines right through, through all the years, and that is the courage that Britain showed against the odds at every level, right from the top. When Margaret Thatcher was told that an Argentine fleet was closing in on the Falklands, she was surrounded by a chorus of caution. Advisers told her not to be rash, not to take risks; and if there was a diplomatic compromise to be had, then she should take it. But of course, she was having none of it, because she knew what was at stake. Not just the wellbeing of the islanders; not just Britain’s self-respect; but liberty itself. So she gave the order.
Admiral Sir Henry Leach sent a message to every ship he could find, to make ready to sail in 48 hours. Civilian ships were requisitioned, a taskforce of more than 120 vessels was put together and sent to the South Atlantic. In retrospect, all of this can seem inevitable but let’s be clear that it wasn’t. It needed guts, will and determination, and the Prime Minister had all three in spades.
Retaking the Falklands was, logistically, a nightmare. I think the US Navy called it ‘a military impossibility’: an amphibious assault in terrible conditions many thousands of miles away from home. But from the first landing, British troops showed astonishing courage. We think of those RAF and Navy pilots who, despite being outnumbered, managed to secure the skies over Port Stanley. We remember the valour of the Royal Navy, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and other merchant seamen on many commercial ships. We remember the courage of the Royal Marines, the skill of the Paras, the Guardsmen, and many other army units who recaptured the islands. But most of all we remember those on all sides who were killed in the conflict, and especially the 255 UK servicemen and the three islanders who lost their lives. Freedom is only won and peace is only kept because there are exceptionally brave people willing to travel to the other side of the world and to lay their lives on the line. So to everyone who served in the Falklands, those who are here today and those who aren’t, I say on behalf of the British people that we are proud of you, and we will salute you. We will always, always be in your debt.
And for all those who fought, it is right that today we don’t just look back, but we look forwards. There were those who said the Falklands would only have a kind of half-future after the war; they could not have been proved more wrong. Against an incredibly difficult global picture, the Falklands’ economy is growing. Industries like fisheries and tourism are thriving. I’d like to let the Chancellor of the Exchequer know there is a healthy fiscal surplus.
Indeed there is only one shadow on the horizon, and that is the aggression from over the water. We have seen the President of Argentina trying to restrict the movement of Falklands’ vessels, banning charter flights to and from Argentina, and today escalating the debate at the United Nations. Now in the face of this, I want to be absolutely clear: this government’s long term goal for Latin America is not bickering and hostility, it is partnership. We’ve been expanding our missions, sending more ministers on trade visits; we’ve been increasing the number of Spanish and Portuguese speaking diplomats. With Argentina in particular, there are so many things we could and should be working on together: managing fish stocks, increasing trade, environmental issues. This is the kind of cooperation we need, and that is why we want to have a reasonable, sensible relationship with Argentina.
But let me be equally clear on this. When it comes to the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, there will be absolutely no negotiation. This is not some game of global monopoly, with nations passing a territory between them. It is about the islanders determining their own future. This has been their home for almost 180 years. There are children whose ancestors have lived there for generations. The roots go deep and they will not be ripped out. So my message for the government of Argentina is this: the UK has no aggressive intentions towards you; accusations of militarisation and nuclear threats are hyperbole and propaganda; but do not underestimate our resolve. Threats will not work. Attempts to intimidate the islanders will not succeed because Britain stands ready and willing to stand up for the Falklanders at any time. As long as they wish to remain a British territory that is the way it will stay.
And in order to clarify the situation beyond any possible doubt, I am right behind the proposal to hold a referendum. This is going to be observed by international, independent parties. It is going to establish the definitive views of the islanders once and for all. I hope the international community, including Argentina, will get behind this. I will be seeing her at the G20 and I will enjoy saying to the President of Argentina, the people of the Falkland Islands are going to express their own wishes. If you believe in democracy, if you believe in self-determination, if you don’t believe in colonialism, you will support what they say.
I want to thank everyone for coming here today - some of you, an extremely long way. I want to express again our huge debt of gratitude to the servicemen in this room and those who still serve there today. For you and your comrades who fell, I want to reiterate the government’s commitment to the cause you fought for. We will always do our duty by the Falklands, and we will never ever forget the sacrifices that were made there. Thank you.