The Falklands was just
a panicky gamble with
a toxic effect
The late Alex Cheyne, Edinburgh University's professor of ecclesiastical history, was the best tertiary-level 'teacher' I came across in three faculties and either side of the Atlantic. He was much exercised by the unlikely notion of the 'good war' which has its roots in the work of Christianity's two greatest theologians: Augustine and Aquinas.
Augustine addressed the use of violence to maintain public order and concluded that the only justifiable war was one that brought peace using the least possible amount of force. For Aquinas, war is justified only if the good it brings outweighs the harm it causes and this must include both sides since Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.
So, Cheyne asked, can a war in which 50 million perished, where terror bombing left Christian Europe in ruins with half of it enslaved, be truly celebrated as a 'good war'? The destruction of Europe's Jews was a consequence of the war, not a cause, and few Eastern European females of any age had not been raped by Red Army 'liberators'. He left it as a question which has haunted me all my days and my ambivalence about the second world war rose to the surface during the Falklands war a decade later. It happened at a time when I was doing a stint of religious education with the upper forms of Dundee High School but my 'good war' discussions only drew parental complaints.
Thirty years on, my doubts remain and it is clear Margaret Thatcher's diplomatic bungling caused Argentina to conclude that we were no longer willing or able to defend the islands. The sombre seventies was the decade we became an economic joke, our relentlessly second-rate leaders could do nothing right and we were tormented by anarchic unions. The wall maps showing one third of the planet in empire pink were removed from classrooms and our precipitate decline continued through Thatcher's first three years.
Dispatching a naval task force in the wake of the Argentine invasion was a huge gamble but if she failed to reverse this national humiliation, our first female premier was gone. The most unpopular prime minister since polling began, without the Falklands she would have lost the 1983 election and the 'Thatcher revolution' would never have happened. Today some suggest it was a strategic move over oil but it was simply a panicky gamble which had a toxic effect on both the Tory and Labour leadership which followed her.
Major and Brown were just time-servers but Blair and Cameron were both strategists who thought they got the Thatcher 'message': when in doubt, start a limited, foreign war. But as Max Hastings has repeatedly warned, that may be the wrong message and in fact the British only like warrior prime ministers who fight understandable, quickly won wars.
Iraq and Afghanistan are as much the outcome of the Falklands as Tony Blair's 'liberal intervention' baloney and bombing foreigners as a political distraction is not a just war.
The grammar school system was destroyed by privately-educated Labour ministers like Anthony Crosland on the ludicrous grounds that it was 'an obstacle to social mobility'. It was toxic nonsense because grammars were the engine of social improvement enabling bright children from poor backgrounds to enter the leading universities.
The success of these fabulous schools in the 50s and 60s resulted in many of today's leading professionals and captains of industry rising from very humble backgrounds. Since their abolition, social mobility has stalled and farcically Oxbridge now admits far fewer undergraduates from low-income backgrounds than it did half a century ago. In fact one result of comprehensivisation was the survival of the lesser public schools which were in a state of collapse because of the academic success of state schooling.
The coalition, which insists it wants to increase social mobility, should be delighted by Kent Council's decision to allow two grammar schools to expand - but it is not. In 2007, as a desperate but misguided electioneering tactic, David Cameron committed his party not to repeal Labour's law forbidding the founding of new grammar schools. Yet Kent exploited a loophole, introduced by the coalition, which allows existing schools to expand if there is overwhelming public demand.
So why does the coalition not just accept the will of the people and change the law to allow new grammar schools and thereby increase a much needed social mobility? The alternative is to demand that universities drop entrance standards for comprehensive pupils but that is contrary to the principle of academic merit as the only basis for entry.
Impervious to reason, the coalition continues to insist grammar school reintroduction is off the agenda in a spirit of intransigence we used to associate with Gordon Brown. Even Michael Gove, the secretary of state, encouraging the foundation of academies and free schools independent of local authority control, is under the lash of this daft policy. Because there is one exception to his increase of choice – the choice must not in any way resemble a selective grammar school. It is so obtuse you could not make it up.
It will even stymie the proposal of the Sutton Trust's Peter Lampl that places should be funded at leading private schools such as Westminster and Manchester Grammar. Lampl's idea would re-open the escape hatch for exceptionally able children from poor backgrounds which Brown slammed shut when he binned 'assisted places'. However the coalition will not accept the proposal because the entrance exams that independent schools require children to pass are more selective than the old 11-plus.
Whether one is for or against selective schools it is surely intolerable for the state to use taxpayers' money to enforce the preferred system of the 'bien pensant' on the nation. There is simply no need to impose anything from above and the state should withdraw from direct educational provision and fund pupils to go to whatever school they want.
John Cameron is a physicist and former Church of Scotland parish minister