Denis Healey nearly lost us the Falklands War.
In the mid-1960s, facing stiff competition from the USSR, France and the United States, the UK’s share of the arms market was on the slide. In 1965, Harold Wilson appointed Sir Donald Stokes, managing director of car manufacturer British Leyland, to advise on an arms export promotion strategy. Stokes’s remedy for dwindling sales was a proposal to create a new organisation in the Ministry of Defence for selling military equipment abroad under the direction of an industrialist.
The following January, Defence Secretary Denis Healey told Parliament: “While the Government attaches the highest importance to making progress in the field of arms control and disarmament, we must also take what practical steps we can to ensure that this country does not fail to secure its rightful share of this valuable commercial market.” Despite the glaring contradictions in this statement, he proceeded to implement the findings of the Stokes Report.
In his memoires, Harold Wilson described Denis Healey thus: “He is a strange person. When he was at Oxford he was a communist. Then friends took him in hand, sent him to the Rand Corporation, where he was brainwashed and came back very right wing.”
By July, Raymond Brown, chairman of Racal, was seconded to run the new organisation, the Defence Sales Organisation (DSO), which effectively used public money to support Britain’s private arms trade. An arms contract with Argentina was rapidly drawn up. The package involved the supply of two Sea Dart frigates, nine Canberra bombers, two Oberon-class attack submarines, a nuclear reactor and a dozen Sea Harrier fighter-bombers (with Sidewinder missiles). How different might the Falklands War have turned out if the Galtieri junta had had all that firepower at its disposal? The RAF would not have been able to close Stanley airport to fast jet operations and the Task Force’s position would have been tactically untenable.
It was only through sheer luck and coincidence that the deal fell through. In 1967, Britain experienced a foot and mouth epidemic resulting in the slaughter of nearly 450,000 animals during a nine-month period. Before long, the outbreak was attributed to pig swill containing infected Argentine lamb. The Ministry of Agriculture imposed a ban on Argentine meat imports and Buenos Aires retaliated by cancelling the arms contract. In an effort to salvage the deal, Healey did his utmost to support the Argentine cause, effectively imploring the Cabinet to defy British and international health legislation, but Harold Wilson was ultimately persuaded by Fred Peart, the agriculture minister, and Sir Solly Zuckerman, the Cabinet scientific adviser, to uphold the ban. Consequently, although the sale of the Canberras went through and two Type 42 destroyers were eventually substituted for the frigates, the Argentine military capability failed to match that of Margaret Thatcher’s Task Force a decade and a half later.
Some might say this kind of conjecture is just a load of pig swill, but, truly, it could so easily have been another salutary chapter in the sorry saga of Western governments doing business with despotic regimes. The fact is, the UK is still violating international arms treaties today (ironically, the UK lobbied hard to get these treaties into law). For some time now, the UK government has been engaged in a series of lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson rejects claims that British-made munitions are responsible for the rising civilian death toll in Yemen’s brutal civil war and insists the UK will go on selling weapons to Riyadh. Plus ça change.