At a dinner during the recent Blackpool Spring Conference, members of the ConservativeHome team discussed which major event first sparked their interest in politics.
This lead, unsurprisingly, to a discussion of how old we were and where we had been when we had heard the dreadful news on September 11 2001.
“I was eight, and at school”, came one reply. “I was at university, writing an essay”, came another. It was my turn. I looked a little sheepish. “Erm, I don’t really know where I was. I was 1.” Silence from the assembled team. “I was probably in my nappy.” I helpfully added.
They were incredulous. Various comments went around about my making them feel ancient. But there was also interest and astonishment at that central revelation – that there are people now working in politics who can’t remember a world before 9/11.
In fact, as someone born in 1999, several big political events penetrated my young consciousness. I can remember watching unemployment tick up in 2008, David Cameron and Nick Clegg waving from Downing Street in 2010, and Russian tanks rolling into Crimea in 2014.
I only really got into politics later that year, with the Scottish independence referendum. Since then, things have hardly been quiet: three general elections, Brexit, pandemics, wars, and Love Island. Certainly, all these referendums and elections and moments of historical importance have shaped my outlook and prevented me from junking my political interests for something more worthy.
But as we mark the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands War, it strikes me that that conflict had a similarly crucial affect on the young psyches of my parents as the various events of the last few years have had on mine.
Both were teenagers in 1982. Mum wanted to join the SAS. We still have a letter from Downing Street politely declining her request to enlist on the basis they took neither girls nor 13-year-olds. Dad wanted to be Ian Botham. Or, erm, Gary Numan.
Nevertheless, both were wise enough not to be teenage politicos. Having grown up during the 1970s (“Brown.” according to Dad. “Everything was brown.”), their experience of the news was limited to strikes, inflation, and a scary lady in blue becoming progressively more unpopular. Britain was a miserable country, where the memory of the Second World War acted as an immediate reminder of how far we had fallen.
So when the Argentinian junta – enthusiasts for sunglasses, inflation, and attaching electrodes to dissidents’ unmentionables – occupied those soggy little faraway islands, it was naturally a shock. And quite exciting, for a pair of teenagers still coming down from the highs of the Iranian Embassy siege and Bob Willis taking 8-43 at Headingley.
They both followed the war obsessively. Dad can still remember listening on the radio as Port Stanley was liberated. For both, they understood it as a turning point. This supposedly clapped-out, impoverished, relic of a country actually wasn’t actually any of those things. Britain was still Great, and we had found ourselves in the South Atlantic.
Today, 40 years on, those few weeks still hold an important place in my parents’ imagination. The Sheffield, Goose Green, Lieutenant Colonel Jones, Exocet, ‘Rejoice!’, and all the rest – words and images that sum up the moment when this country changed.
Yes, there was still more to do with reforming the unions, staring down Scargill, and falling out with Geoffrey Howe. But the impression I have always been left with is that is when you could tell the rot had stopped.
Of course, that afterglow wasn’t permanent. We may be far from the ‘sick man of Europe’ today – indeed, one would make the case we have long been its healthiest member – and the reforms that Thatcher introduced have lasted. But we are once again a country that has lost its pride.
My generation doesn’t really go in for patriotism. We may like a street party, enjoy the Olympics, and fervently believe that “it’s coming home” every time Harry Kane scores on the international stage. But the Falklands is as ancient for us as the Second World War was for my parents. We can’t imagine that world anymore, especially as lives pass and memory becomes myth.
For those of us worldly-wise enough to be young Conservatives there is a natural longing to recreate those halcyon days. The popularity of Liz Truss amongst teen Tories is not just down to her disco-dancing talents. Her aping of Thatcher, upsetting Russians and posing in tanks, appeals to those yearning for a figure of the stature, willpower, and magnificence of Grantham’s greatest daughter.
Having dated a few strong-willed OUCA Presidents and female Oxford chemists in my time, I can certainly understand the appeal. Freud would have a field day. We Zoomers are looking for our Falklands moment and for our Margaret Thatcher. After years of financial crises, Covid, austerity, and war, we are in desperate need of a victory to prove to us there is something to rejoice for.
The Ukraine Crisis and President Zelensky’s slightly scratches this itch. But it is someone else’s war. All the wars Britain has been involved in since the Falklands have been international interventions done in the name of highfalutin causes like human rights, fighting terrorism, and keeping in with the Americans. British lives have not been fighting for British soil.
Similarly, the pandemic saw many comparisons made with the Second World War. Whether through the V-E Day anniversary, Captain Tom’s deification, or the genuine sense of a combined national effort, it was our chance to ape the Home Front that every English schoolchild had studied. And since I was dishonourably discharged from my school RAF section for being rubbish at marching, it is the closest I will likely get to realising my dream of recreating the Battle of Britain.
But still. The pandemic was not a victory. It produced no heroes, however often we may have clapped. It did not prove to us that Britain was still brilliant. Instead, it saw the state rob us of our freedoms for two years whilst racking up a lot of debt, to protect us against a disease that largely affected the old and vulnerable. I want to forget it.
One of the reasons I backed Brexit as a 16-year-old was that I thought it could be a springboard to national revival. Three years of wrangling and the Government’s underwhelming approach to our new freedoms has ended those illusions. Britain may no longer be a nation in retreat, but it is hardly one heading for any sunlit uplands.
Perhaps I am being too gloomy. After all, Thatcher had been a teenager during the Second World War. For her, the task force’s endeavours were an opportunity to recapture the spirit of her beloved ‘Winston’, and prove Britain still was the country it had been. And it must have been the same for millions of others.
So. there might be something permanently nostalgic in the national psyche. I’m a particularly bad offender: with a young fogey wardrobe, passion for Bowie, and well-thumbed copy of Brideshead Revisited, I am as lost in the early 80s as DI Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes. Maybe I’m just pining for my own fantasy of what the Falklands War meant.
And yet I can’t help yearning for proof that Britain still has it in her, and for a Prime Minister willing to make tough but necessary choices. Sometimes, conflict is unavoidable, both in international relations and domestic politics. The Falklands proved the former, and Thatcher’s triumphs at home certainly proved the latter. Re-reading John Hoskyns’ Just in Time recently has reminded me of both the battles she had to fight and just how worthwhile they were.
Whether on Ukraine, housing, the NHS, or a half dozen other topics, we could do with some of her Iron today – and with some of her victories. Unhappy the land that has no heroes? No, unhappy the land that needs a hero.
Or, in this case, heroine.