Here Today Gone Tomorrow: Recollections of an Errant Politician
by John Nott
London: Politico’s, 2001.
The Falklands War of 1982 competes with the Suez intervention of 1956 for such adjectives as “small-scale”, “futile” and “unnecessary”. In the event, however, it turned out to be successful, to the extent of meriting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s order to “Rejoice, rejoice”; whereas the Suez venture finished in a fiasco that ended Anthony Eden’s career.
At the time of the Falklands crisis, John Nott had been moved from Trade to become Defence Secretary. The prevailing atmosphere in Parliament was against any attempt to use military force against Argentina’s threat to regain its colonial claim to the little group of islands, whose “population”, roughly speaking, consisted of 2,000 humans and 600,000 sheep. Most of the humans were British, plus a fair portion of Scandinavians.
Nott recalls United Nations manoeuvres in February and a number of Commons debates in April, supplemented by various interventions, notably from the No.10 spokesman, Bernard Ingham, who in Nott’s words “was a constant nuisance throughout the Falklands campaign — jumping up and down and causing no end of difficulty, criticising the Ministry of Defence on trivial issues”.
Things came to an emotive head in a special Saturday debate in the House of Commons. Exhausted by too many meetings, Nott had risen at 4 a.m. to draft his speech, having binned the draft written for him. By that time, in the early hours of 2 April, a contingent of Argentine troops had overwhelmed the 70 Royal Marines stationed on the islands in less than four hours. The British Governor, Rex Hunt, had been deported to Uruguay. Back in Britain on 5 April, he confirmed that there had been no British casualties, while five Argentinians had been killed and seventeen injured. Argentina’s governing military junta announced that “the armed forces today recovered the Malvinas, the Georgias and the South Sandwich Islands for the nation”.
Argentina’s President Galtieri addressed the nation on a triumphant note, trumpeting “the legitimate rights of the Argentinian people”. With strong backing from the United Nations Security Council, which had called for an immediate withdrawal of all Argentinian forces, Margaret Thatcher seized the opportunity presented. The opportunity was, however, less than perfect, in that the Council had called upon Britain and Argentina to seek a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Within hours, the U.S. State Department had issued a statement deploring the use of force and calling on Argentina to withdraw its troops. On Saturday, 3 April, the Commons met for an emergency debate. Nott tells the story with absorbing detail. Prime Minister Thatcher “opened the debate, wisely, in a low key, and expressed the government’s anger at what had happened”. Various M.P.s, Tory as well as Labour, expressed their indignation in contrasting ways. Michael Foot, then leader of the Opposition, wanted to know how there could have been such a failure of British intelligence and diplomacy. The maverick Tory Enoch Powell attacked the Royal Marines for surrendering, and Julian Amery fiercely attacked the Foreign Office.
With commendable frankness, John Nott quotes attacks on himself, not only in Parliament but later, notably from Alan Clark who, in his diaries, wrote: “poor old Notters was a disaster”. In Thatcher’s memoirs, also quoted, she wrote: “John Nott, who was under great strain, had delivered an uncharacteristically poor performance in his winding-up speech.”
Nott goes on: “It was understandable that I should be the scapegoat for the whole affair. The Foreign Secretary was in the House of Lords: I was the spokesman for the government. The anger of the House was bound to fall on my shoulders.”
Two days later, Lord Carrington, who of course could not attend the Commons debate, resigned as Foreign Secretary, succeeded by Francis Pym. As for Nott, despite his poor performance in the special debate he went on to distinguish himself, as Defence Secretary, by playing a key role in ensuring that Britain’s liberating contingent, not least in the Navy, was provided with the best available equipment to fight and reconquer the Falklands. For this, he was rightly praised by the Chief of the General Staff, General (later Field-Marshal Lord) Dwin Bramall.
John Nott tells his story in a highly readable (if occasionally irritating) style. He commits the odd grammatical and factual errors. For instance, on page 189 he refers to a meeting at No.10 between Reagan and Thatcher, “with Pym and I attending”. (What, “with . . . I”?) On the factual side, he refers several times to General Galtieri’s Argentinian government as “fascist”. It was a nasty military dictatorship, admittedly, but not a “fascist” one: non-ideological, owing nothing to Mussolini’s model.
The title of his book deserves praise, however. He appears to have been only temporarily interested in his political career, having served in the Gurkhas, read law at Cambridge, started a career in the City and opting out of politics a short year after his Falklands experience to join Lazard Brothers in London. Hence these “recollections of an errant politician”. Never mind: they are entertaining and highly readable.
National Observer No. 53 - Winter 2002