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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

To what extent did the Falklands war contribute to the Conservative


Partys landslide victory in the 1983 election?
In the 1983 general election the Conservative Party won a landslide
victory with a 144 seat majority. This outcome was not predictable
given the poor Conservative standing in the polls in 1981. The
Falklands war has often been forwarded as the principle reason for
the Conservative Partys remarkable turnaround in popularity. It
revived national pride at a time when Britains international status
was coming into question. Moreover, it made defence policy a
central issue of the 1983 election by coinciding with an increasing
Soviet threat. Labours policy of nuclear disarmament could not
compete with a government associated with military success.
However, such a consequential relationship between the Falklands
war and the 1983 election result has been overemphasised.
Statistical evidence, though not invulnerable to criticism, has proven
the impact of the war to be more moderate than previously
assumed. An alternative explanation for Conservative victory is the
effect that improving macroeconomic factors had on the electorates
perception of government. The significant divisions within the
Labour Party and the weaknesses in their leadership and election
campaign were also highly influential upon the 1983 election. To an
extent the election was not won by the Conservatives but lost by
their opposition. Hence, it will be argued that the Falklands war was
not the crucial factor in the Conservatives 1983 victory, though it
undeniably had an impact on popularity.
The Falklands war was central in allaying fears of continued British
decline by momentarily resurrecting the jingoistic patriotism of
Britains imperial past. Howe, though deliberately avoiding a
discussion of the wars relation to the 1983 election, highlights its
importance as a key psychological turning point in Britains self-

Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

perception.1 The character of the conflict was suited to evoke


popular reaction, being brief and successful. Hobsbawm describes
the conflict as the kind of war which existed in order to produce
victory parades and one that improved the British political mood to
the Conservatives direct benefit.2 In light of this, Ivor Crewe placed
great emphasis on the fact that the Conservative victory in 1983
was not a consequence of the partys campaign but of events
preceding the election. He has labelled the effect of the Falklands
war on the governments popularity as electric and notably
durable.3 Indeed the war had a radical and abrupt impact on
approval ratings, with approval for the Conservative party increasing
by fifteen per cent and approval for Thatcher herself rising by
seventeen per cent. Even after its formal conclusion the Falklands
war remained in public view, with Thatcher visiting the islands in
January 1983. Furthermore, Gallup polls show popular approval of
Thatcher to drop by just one per cent between June 1982 and May
1983, suggesting that a Falklands factor was central in determining
the outcome of the election.4 Crewe has forwarded the idea that by
providing a national triumph to a nation starved of international
success the war put the Great back into Britain and in 1983
Thatchers government reaped the benefits of being responsible for
this change.5 More recently Marr has argued similarly that a revival
in national pride gave Thatcher an attractive political image that
facilitated electoral success.6 However, the findings of statistical
studies on the conflicts impact on Conservative popularity have
1 S. Howe, Decolonisation and imperial aftershocks: the Thatcher
years, in B. Jackson and R. Saunders (eds.), Making Thatchers
Britain (London, 2012), p. 246.
2 E. Hobsbawm, Falklands Fallout, in S. Hall and M. Jacques (eds.),
The Politics of Thatcherism (London, 1983), p. 261.
3 I. Crewe, How to win a landslide without really trying: why the
Conservatives won in 1983, in A. Ranney (ed.), Britain at the Polls
(London, 1983), pp. 157,161.
4 Ibid., pp. 158-159.
5 Ibid., p. 159. r
6 A. Marr, History of Modern Britain (London, 2005), p. 381.
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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

been varied, indicating that caution should be taken not to


exaggerate the electoral influence of the Falklands war.
One study by a collection of Historians forcefully argued that the
Falklands crisis has been given too much credit for fuelling
Conservative success in 1983, proposing that macroeconomic
factors were the root cause of the election result. 7 It is not denied
that the Falklands war improved the standing of Thatchers
government but the extent of this improvement is set at a
substantially lower level: the Conservative popularity boost was at
most three percentage points for a period of only three months. 8 It
is forwarded that he government was in fact re-elected by more
optimistic

personal

economic

expectations

originating

from

improvements in macroeconomic conditions.9 Geoffrey Howes


March 1982 budget was also less harsh than expected propagating
a feeling of economic optimism about the future. 10 Furthermore,
Gallup polls recorded weeks before the outbreak of the Falklands
crisis display a significant and growing Conservative lead, further
evidencing that increased popularity was due to a combination of
factors, not just the Falklands war.11 Nevertheless, the validity of the
statistical model used to emphasize the role of macroeconomic
factors has been questioned; Clarke, Mishler and Whiteley, having
revised the macroeconomic thesis, have stated that the argument
that the Falklands war was inconsequential, although intriguing, is
quite simply incorrect.12 In agreement with Crewes viewpoint that
7 D. Sanders, H. Ward and D. Marsh, Government Popularity and
the Falklands War: A Reassessment, British Journal of Political
Science 17 (1987), p. 281.
8 Ibid., p. 281.
9 Ibid., p. 290.
10 Ibid., p. 305.
11 P. Cosgrave, Thatcher: The First Term (London, 1985), pp. 145146.
12 H. Clarke, W. Mishler and P. Whiteley, Recapturing the Falklands:
Models of Conservative Popularity, 1979-83, British Journal of
Political Science 20 (1990), p. 80.
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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

the war played a significant role in the Conservatives 1983 success,


they have demonstrated using an improved and more sophisticated
statistical model that the Conservative party felt a sustained eleven
per cent popularity boost as a consequence of the conflict.13
The indirect consequences of the Falklands war must also be taken
into account when assessing the crisis impact on the result of the
1983 election. The direct influence of the war seems less significant
when it is recognised that under a third of Conservative election
candidates made any reference to it during their election campaigns
in 1983.14 However, Richard Vinen has proposed that, although the
war was not specifically used as a campaigning platform it
highlighted wider issues that portrayed the Conservatives in a
positive light and brought the Labour Partys policies into question. 15
For example, as the Falklands war coincided with the intensification
of the Cold war it helped to make defence policy a salient issue and
drew attention away from persistent domestic problems such as
unemployment. Butler and Kavanagh, commenting on the 1983
election, stated that not since 1964 had defence loomed so large as
an election issue.16 British victory meant that Thatcher was
positively associated with military success and the effect of this was
augmented by the Cold War context. In comparison, the Labour
Partys campaign policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament was
deemed inappropriate and was electorally damaging more than
half of the electorate felt the country would not be adequately
defended under a Labour government.17 Freedman has stated that
the Falklands war crowded out consideration of all other issues by

13 Ibid., p. 71.
14 R. Vinen, Thatchers Britain (London, 2009), p. 151.
15 R. Vinen, Thatcherism and the Cold War, in B. Jackson and R.
Saunders (eds.), Making Thatchers Britain (London, 2012), p. 204.
16 D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, The British General Election of 1983
(London, 1984), p. 282.
17 R. Vinen, Thatcherism and the Cold War, p. 217.
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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

bringing defence policy to the forefront of the 1983 election. 18


Therefore, policies around which Labour traditionally rallied support
were suffocated by the shortcomings of their defence policy,
something put in the spotlight by the Falklands war.
However, the weaknesses of the Labour party in the 1983 election
ran deeper than just their stance towards nuclear weaponry. Riddell
has argued that the Conservatives landslide victory did not
showcase the merit of Thatchers government but was a direct
reflection of opposition divisions.19 Changes made to the Labour
Partys organisational structure meant that those in positions of
parliamentary leadership became divided with the rest of the party
because of policy constraints placed upon them. One major
consequence was the formation of the Social Democratic Party by
several more right-wing politicians.20 Furthermore, such changes
allowed radical policies to be passed that proved unpopular with the
electorate.21 In the 1983 British election study it is notable that just
8.1 per cent of respondents perceived the Labour Party to be united
and this only discouraged voters. 22 Election statistics to a large
extent confirm that it was the oppositions weakness that created
the illusion of Conservative dominance the Conservatives
received fewer votes than in 1979 yet increased their majority by
111 seats.23 Additionally, it has been shown that the joint platform of
the SDP and the Liberal Party was far more damaging to Labour
than the Conservatives for every vote the Alliance gained from the
Conservatives it sourced two from Labour. 24 The disunity of the
Labour Party must be considered as a major determinant of the
18 L. Freedman, Britain and the Falklands War (Oxford, 1988), p.
104.
19 P. Riddell, The Thatcher Government (Oxford, 1985), p. 4.
20 J. Allan, The Labour Party in Opposition, 1979-1997: Structures,
Agency and Party Change (1997), p. 30.
21 Ibid., p. 30.
22 Ibid., pp. 30-31.
23 D. Childs, Britain Since 1945 (London, 2005), p. 231.
24 Ibid., p. 232.
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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

outcome of the 1983 election, devaluing the political significance of


the Falklands crisis.
Areas of policy besides defence were also damaging to Labours
election

prospects.

Allan

notes

that

Labours

1983

election

manifesto was a document filled with radical left-wing policies and


forwarded

programme

of

socialist

reconstruction. 25

Gerald

Kaufman, a member of the shadow cabinet in 1983, most famously


described the manifesto as the longest suicide note in history. The
policies

included

Community,

withdrawal

abolition

of

the

from
House

the
of

European
Lords

and

Economic
the

re-

nationalisation of industries that had been recently privatised.


Labours proposed economic policies definitely harmed their election
campaign. Gallup polls noted that over half of the electorate felt
that inflation, significantly reduced under Thatcher by 1983, would
rapidly increase if a Labour government were elected. 26 Moreover,
just twenty-two per cent of the population believed a Labour
government would make the economy more prosperous. 27 However,
Allan has argued that it would be an overstatement to take the view
Labours radical left wing policies as solely responsible for its
defeat.28 Polls show that Labours approach to unemployment and
the welfare state were highly favourable and as unemployment was
one of the central electoral concerns this should have rallied
support. Although, in opposition of this viewpoint, Crewe believes
that Labour set unrealistic goals and the public were profoundly
sceptical of its ability to carry out its promises. 29 A salient example
of this was the utopian target of cutting unemployment from 3.5
million to 1 million. Hence, the Labour Partys policies in the 1983
election were both overly radical and to an extent implausible. This
25 J. Allan, The Labour Party in Opposition, p. 35.
26 I. Crewe, How to win a landslide, p. 179.
27 Ibid., p.
28J. Allan, The Labour Party in Opposition, p. 179.
29 I. Crewe, How to win a landslide, p. 179.
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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

furthers the argument that Thatchers re-election had little to do


with

her actions

but was

largely determined by opposition

weakness.
A final area of weakness for the Labour Party was its leadership. Not
since the Second World War had the leader of a major party been
regarded as so implausible a prime minister as Michael Foot. 30
Thorpe is especially critical of Foots leadership ability stating that
he was a liability, looking uncomfortable on TV, rambling when
interviewed, and lacking press confidence.31 His inability to solve
Labours disunity also harmed his image. The press launched
multiple attacks on Foot on the basis of his image, further damaging
his credibility as a potential Prime Minister.32 Thatchers leadership
style was in stark contrast to Foots, conveying conviction,
competence and decisiveness and winning her the respect of the
electorate.33 Kavanagh notes how Thatchers leadership style
thrived on crises and the Falklands war allowed her to showcase her
leadership abilities.34 In this way the Falklands conflict could be said
to have aided Thatcher and made Foot seem even less credible as a
leader. Additionally, Thatchers adroit handling of the war itself can
be seen to embody government rhetoric about the need for
resolution, sacrifice and staying the course concerning economic
policy, allaying electoral concerns.35 However, Foot was certainly
more of a liability to Labour than Thatcher was a source of support
for the Conservatives, as she was not exceptionally popular

30 Ibid., p. 181.
31 A. Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party (Basingstoke,
2008), p. 212.
32 A. Crines, Michael Foot and the Labour Leadership (Newcastle,
2011), p. 149.
33 P. Riddell, The Thatcher Era and its Legacy (Oxford, 1991), p.
214.
34 D. Kavanagh, Thatcherism and British Politics: The End of
Consensus (Oxford, 1990), p. 275.
35 D. Butler and D. Kavanagh, The British General Election, p. 294.
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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

compared to previous Prime Ministers.36 Nevertheless, victory in the


Falklands war transformed Thatchers position within her party and
provided a great deal of unity, minimising the split between the
Conservative wets and dries. Vinen has noted how before the
Falklands crisis she was an oddity: she was a woman, she came
from outside the traditional ruling class and she had held no great
office, and that the war itself helped to silence her critics within the
party.37 Thus to an extent it can be argued that by providing further
contrast between Thatcher and Foots leadership abilities the war
indirectly influenced the 1983 election result.
In conclusion, the impact of the Falklands factor on the 1983
election

was

overshadowed

by

the

weaknesses

of

the

Conservatives opposition. The formation of the Alliance as a


consequence of divisions with the Labour Party split the opposition
vote. Additionally, the radical character of Labours campaign
policies discouraged many to vote for them and also led to
scepticism of their ability to achieve their proposed goals. Though,
the Falklands war did exacerbate Labours policy flaws by bringing
issues of defence to the forefront of the election. Moreover, it helped
to highlight the disparity in Thatchers and Foots leadership abilities
and associated the Conservatives with a feeling of national pride.
Despite this it would be invalid to view the Falklands war as the
main determinant of Conservative victory. Though it helped to boost
popularity, the duration of its impact has come into question and
the fact that Conservative approval ratings were already on the rise
before the crisis suggests that other issues, such as macroeconomic
change, were at the root of the partys changing fortunes.
Ultimately, the 1983 election was not won by the incumbent
government but lost by their opposition and in light of this the

36 I. Crewe, How to win a landslide, p. 188.


37 R. Vinen, Thatchers Britain (London, 2009), p. 150.
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Joe Williams

War and Political Change

Dr Matthew Johnson

Falklands war contributed to Conservative victory to a limited


extent.