OK, part three of the Falklands 25th anniversary series. The others are here, dealing with command, and here, dealing with Margaret Thatcher.
It's been quite a common idea since the war that the Falklands represented some sort of throwback to the empire, or alternatively a rejection of Europe in favour of it. This is usually coded as being an atavistic endeavour, trying to return to an imperial past associated with warmongering and jingoism, which the people who say this implicitly romanticise in a nice paradox, or else a return to an organic tradition. The determining factor is, as usual, partisanship - the left, especially the pro-European bits, assign values of modernity, realism, and pacifism to "Europe", and irrationality and warmongering to not-Europe. The Right, meanwhile, seems to conflate the Falklands War with the maritime tradition and the Atlantic alliance (we'll come to this in part 4, by the way).
It's a question of meta-narratives, clearly. One of the enduring ones of British politics is the tension between Europe and America, with the Commonwealth being shared between the American side (as leftover empire) and the European side (as the object of internationalist concern). This overlies Basil Liddell-Hart's notion that British military and political strategy fluctuates between "continental commitments" and "blue water". He strongly favoured the latter.
After 1968, when the decision was taken to withdraw from the Singapore base, British defence policy swung sharply towards European NATO (even though the Heath government reversed the decision and British forces stayed in Singapore and Malta up to 1976), and a role centred on the British Army of the Rhine, nukes, and the NATO Northern Flank for the Marines and Navy. Theoretically, a world-wide reach was still envisaged under various promises extended to Australia, Malaysia, and the UAE, but nobody took it seriously.
Much of the big navy had been decommissioned by 1982, and this didn't change with the Conservative government - which resumed Navy deployments out-of-area, but wanted to cut one of the carriers and both the Fearless-class assault ships, thus ending the amphibious capability. The Falklands war caused some changes in this, reversing these decisions and leading to some upgrades in Naval equipment, although no new ships.
It must have felt pretty imperial, though. Canberra and Elk refuelled at the Queen Elizabeth wharf in Freetown on the way south, where they were met by bumboats trying to sell things aboard. The task force took its drinking water south aboard a Canadian Pacific Line tanker, Fort Toronto. New Zealand lent the UK a frigate to cover a NATO task. The RFA's six Landing Ships Logistics had Hong Kong Chinese civilian crews, aboard ships that had been operated up to 1970 not by the RFA but by the British India Steam Navigation Company. In a broader sense, the Argentine invasion was certainly the sort of frontier crisis John Gallagher noted could cause dramatic political shifts at the centre.
But what was the political-strategic upshot? Even if the Navy was essentially saved, there was no great reorientation of total strategy. The next 20 years, in fact, would turn out to be the most European ever. A lot of people didn't think so - François Mitterand, for example, thought this showed Britain would always choose its "vieux comptoirs du Commonwealth" over Europe. The Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, the ERM episode, the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, the Saint-Malo agreement on European defence cooperation, the Convention - it was all in the future, as was the Conservative Party's collective breakdown over the issue, and the 1987 Labour Party Policy Review that flipped their position on the EU under pressure from the unions. Only the rush to war with Iraq in 2002 would stop this trend. (Remember that Tony Blair had called the Laeken conference as late as the autumn of 2001.)
As far as the armed forces went, cold-war status went on right up to 1997/8. The Conservative government carried out two major defence reviews, neither of which altered very much except for cutting the whole establishment. The first new amphibious-warfare ship post-Falklands was delivered in 1996. The explanation is of course structural. The persistence of the Cold War, very simply, entrained a north European and North Atlantic strategy, next to which anywhere else was an extra tour, only to be considered in so far as the Soviet Union moved that way under the influence of Admiral Gorshkov.
Today, nothing seems more anachronistic about the Falklands than the notion that Soviet long-range aircraft were once based in Conakry.
Coming soon: part four, an American war?