A number of events, commemorations and television programmes have recently marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands islands. Received wisdom seems to have it that the "Falklands Factor" was the political making of Margaret Thatcher, but data from the Ipsos MORI Public Affairs Archive says something quite different.
It is true that four months before the invasion of the Falklands, Mrs. Thatcher was the least popular prime minister in polling history and that after the invasion her approval ratings rose from 41% in April and to 56% in May. In June after British troops had taken back the islands Mrs. Thatcher reached a healthy 59% and while her ratings did slip back a little after then, the Conservatives still won a landslide victory in 1983.
At that election, our polling evidence showed a shift in the shape of the Political Triangle. First developed by MORI's Bob Worcester in the 1970s, this describes the emphasis people themselves place on leader image, party image and issues in shaping the way they vote. It had initially assumed equal weights (i.e. an equilateral triangle) but in 1983 our data showed that leader image had become more decisive factor than the other two. This showed the extent to which a major event could shape the triangle and played into the hands of Mrs. Thatcher who was seen more in a more positive light than Michael Foot.
While this would suggest a strong 'Falklands factor' a closer look at the data suggests a less clear-cut legacy. Mrs. Thatcher's ratings and the Tory poll share had begun to climb in advance of the invasion not least because of the perceived improvement in the economy. Also, public support was steadfastly behind the deployment of British troops to recapture the islands: our panel survey for The Economist found 83% of the view that Britain was right to send the naval task force, then 85% a week later and 85% again in early May (as a by-line, we found that one in twenty supported nuclear attacks on Argentina). In short, the then Prime Minister was seen as doing what was wanted and expected.
This flat-line in support for naval deployment contrasts sharply with the so-called "Baghdad Bounce" during Tony Blair's premiership. The bounce was short-lived and turned out to be something more akin to a boomerang. At the time our polls found a strongly held view that the commitment of British troops to invade Iraq was the right thing to do but, over time, support gradually slipped away and largely turned negative especially following the suicide of Dr. David Kelly.
Rewind to the Falklands in 1982 and while the legacy of the conflict for Mrs. Thatcher's ability to ride out first term problems seems beyond doubt, its effect in terms of the British public's political attitudes is probably overstated. History ought perhaps to recall the Labour Party's 1983 manifesto ("the longest suicide note in history") as being more decisive in shaping 1980s British politics, but one suspects that the images of the British-Argentine war in the Atlantic will linger longer in our collective memory.