On Friday 2 April 1982, Argentinian forces landed on the Falkland Islands, a British territory, and occupied the islands. This crisis led to an emergency Saturday sitting called for both the House of Commons and House of Lords the following day. On Saturday 3 April 1982 both Houses sat for the first time since the Suez crisis over 25 years earlier. The calling of the Saturday sitting was a significant event. Only 5 Saturday sittings have been called since 1939, with the most recent being in 2019.
This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.
Beginning the conversation
To begin both discussions in the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, announced the news of the current situation in the Falkland Islands. They also explained some of the surrounding context with Argentina, their previous aggressions and events leading up to the attack.
“We are here because, for the first time for many years, British sovereign territory has been invaded by a foreign power. After several days of rising tension in our relations with Argentina, that country's armed forces attacked the Falkland Islands yesterday and established military control of the islands.”
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 3 April 1982, c633, Commons Hansard
In February 1982, there had been peaceful talks between Britain and Argentina during discussions in New York. On 19 March, a small Argentinian ship landed without permission on South Georgia, a dependency of the Falklands, and refused to leave. On 22 March 1982, the ship departed but left some of the people behind on South Georgia and they still refused to leave. On 28 March the Argentine Foreign Minister sent a message to restate Argentina’s claim of sovereignty over the Falklands.
In the House of Lords, Lord Shackleton, son of Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, gave a brief history of the Falkland Islands. Shackleton had a great level of knowledge of the Falkland Islands as he was the author of a detailed parliamentary report on the Falkland Islands published in 1976, later updated in 1982 as a result of the conflict.
“the Falkland Islands were discovered several hundred years ago by the British, and that they were first occupied by de Bougainville in the East Island in 1774 and by the British in 1775. […] France then ceded their interests to Spain; […]. There was quite a large Spanish garrison at one time; then the Spaniards withdrew; for a time it was uninhabited; […] and then the British came in again and reasserted their rights, 150 years ago.”
Lord Shackleton, 3 April 1982, c1583, Lords Hansard
Shackleton also provided a wider geographical picture of the situation. He highlighted that this did not just concern the Falkland Islands but also the broader South-West Atlantic area, which also included the British Antarctic bases.
Mrs Thatcher continued her speech to explain what actions they had taken so far: restraining from using military power, not wanting to unnecessarily exacerbate the situation with Argentina and first exhausting every diplomatic option before taking any military actions. They had also discussed, or planned to discuss, the situation with as many different allies as possible. This included the United Nations Security Council, NATO and the then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.
She also announced their current plans and decisions, although still hoping to seek a peaceful diplomatic solution, a task force and HMS ‘Invincible’ would be prepared and leave as soon as possible. However, as the Falklands were over 8,000 miles away these forces would not arrive at the islands any time soon.
Michael Foot, leader of the opposition, agreed with Mrs Thatcher for bringing the matter to the United Nations but questioned many of the other actions the government had done or not done. He went on to ask, “What has happened to British diplomacy?”. Mr Foot stated that “this country has the power to act” and that “the purpose of having some military power is to deter”, which should have been used in this case. He concluded his speech demanding that the government needed to prove themselves through deeds not words.
“We are paramountly concerned […] about what we can do to protect those who rightly and naturally look to us for protection. So far, they have been betrayed. The responsibility for the betrayal rests with the Government.”
Michael Foot, leader of the opposition, 3 April 1982, c641, Commons Hansard
Support for the Falklands
Throughout the entire Falkland debate in both the House of Commons and House of Lords, there was a universal agreement in condemning the aggressive actions of Argentina and in support of the people of the Falkland Islands.
“The people of the Falkland Islands, like the people of the United Kingdom, are an island race. Their way of life is British; their allegiance is to the Crown. They are few in number, but they have the right to live in peace, to choose their own way of life and to determine their own allegiance.”
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, 3 April 1982, c638, Commons Hansard
“there is the longer-term interest to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world. If it does, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland Islands, but to people all over this dangerous planet.”
Michael Foot, leader of the opposition, 3 April 1982, c641, Commons Hansard
“Our hearts go out to the people in the Falkland Islands, who must have suffered terribly within the last few days, and also to that small and gallant force of our men—some 80 of them, we are told—who tried to defend them against overwhelming force”
Lord Aylestone, 3 April 1982, c1588, Lords Hansard
Questions and Disagreements
There were many questions and disagreements regarding the government’s decisions. People in both Houses highlighted the failure of British intelligence services, questioning how Argentina could plan and prepare a large invasion of the Falklands without the UK knowing. Lord Byers neatly summed up these sentiments: “What happened to our intelligence services? How did they miss what was happening?”.
Lord Buxton of Alsa responded to some these questions and explained why recent events had not been foreseen by intelligence:
“having been in Argentina, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands in the past month, I would like to say that I myself can attach no blame to the Government for not anticipating or expecting this massive invasion on such a huge scale. I have to concede and admit that I did not expect it. […] The reason why nobody expected it, I believe, was that we are, after all, in the midst of honourable, diplomatic negotiations with Argentina, and that the last session only took place in February.”
Lord Buxton of Alsa, 3 April 1982, c1596, Lords Hansard
Within the House of Commons, several people referred to previous altercations with Argentina and the Falklands under different governments and compared how they had been dealt with in the past to the situation in 1982. The main past event discussed was from 1977 under former Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan. Although he did not speak during the Saturday sitting himself, he was quoted from a debate on the Falklands from only a few days previously:
“on a very recent occasion, […] Britain assembled ships which had been stationed in the Caribbean, Gibraltar and in the Mediterranean, and stood them about 400 miles off the Falklands in support of HMS "Endurance", and that when this fact became known, without fuss and publicity, a diplomatic solution followed?”
James Callaghan, 30 March 1982, c168, Commons Hansard
Some members used this as evidence to question why there had been no attempt at military action, and how it may have helped with diplomatic negotiations to have a nearby military deterrence. However, Lord Carrington pre-emptively countered these arguments during his opening speech in the Lords.
“it is argued, again, that ship deployments somehow resolved a similar problem in 1977. […] The only effective deterrent would have been a large force in the immediate area; and it is a fact of life that the collecting and despatching of such a force would have become known to the Argentines long before it got near enough to the Falkland Islands to do any good. Once again, such a decision would have risked precipitating just the step we are seeking to avoid.”
Lord Carrington, Foreign Secretary, 3 April 1982, c1580-1, Lords Hansard
John Nott’s was the last speech of the Commons Saturday sitting and, as Secretary for State for Defence, he tried to respond to some of the main questions and criticisms that had been presented throughout the debate. One of the criticisms Mr Nott identified was that they had been caught off-guard and were unprepared militarily, but he countered this:
“If we were unprepared, how is it that from next Monday, at only a few days' notice, the Royal Navy will put to sea in wartime order and with wartime stocks and weapons? That force will include the carriers HMS "Invincible" and HMS "Hermes", the assault ship HMS "Fearless" and a number of destroyers and frigates armed with anti-surface and anti-air missiles”
John Nott, Secretary of State for Defence, 3 April 1982, c667, Commons Hansard
Mr Nott also responded to the criticisms comparing events to those of the Callaghan Government in 1977 and if they should have similarly deployed deterrence ships. He supposed that “with the wisdom of hindsight, the despatch of a large surface task force sufficient to deter or destroy the Argentine navy might have given pause to the Argentines” but reminded them that the initial incident in South Georgia had only begun 14 days before and a task force would not have arrived at the Falkland Islands in time to do this. Mr Nott continued to hypothesise in reference to the 1977 argument and how it would not have been useful in this case:
“The other option would have been the deployment of a small force insufficient to resist the Argentine Navy, as was done in 1977. […] If this were a covert deployment, which I believe that it was, it could not have deterred if its presence was not known; and even if the size of the force had been revealed, it could have provided nothing more than a tripwire of exactly the same kind provided by HMS "Endurance" and provided by the Royal Marine garrison on Port Stanley.”
John Nott, Secretary of State for Defence, 3 April 1982, c666, Commons Hansard
The Falklands Saturday sitting was a significant event and parliamentary debates remained of great importance during the Falklands Conflict. It was the first and main source of information and updates on the situation. The sittings were only broadcast over the radio as they were not yet televised. The House of Commons sittings would not be regularly broadcast on television until 1989. The first-hand information of the conflict came through debates and statements to the House rather than through media and newspapers, like it would be today.
House of Commons Saturday sitting debate https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1982/apr/03/falkland-islands
House of Lords Saturday sitting debate https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1982/apr/03/the-falkland-islands
House of Commons, Sittings of the House https://www.parliament.uk/globalassets/documents/commons-information-office/p04.pdf