The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts: PM’s papers released

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Leach

Image via Wikipedia

Some of you may have seen that Prime Ministerial Papers relating to John Nott‘s 1981 cuts to the British Armed Forces were made available to the public on New Years Day, under the 30 year rule. As I am sure you are aware I have long had a strong interest in British Military History in the post war period, and especially in the 1982 Falklands War.

The 1982 war is irrevocably tied up with the Defence cuts of 1981, steered by the Defence Secretary of the time, John Nott. The cuts – which proposed to do away with aircraft carriers, amphibious vessels and the ice patrol ship HMS Endurance – are thought to have spurred the Argentine military junta into action. Ironically, if only they had waited another six months the Royal Navy would never have been able to respond. And not only that, but thousands of Dockyard workers who had redundancy notices hanging over their heads were critical in getting the task force ready to sail.

Clearly, if we are looking for lessons of how to do Defence cuts in challenging economic times, the Nott cuts are a valuable example. The file runs to 200+ pages, and consists of ministerial notes, correspondence, memos and speeches. Many of them have handwriting scribbled on, including in the hand of Mrs T herself. I have had a cursory glance through them, and whilst the general thrust is already well known, the files do demonstrate just how far the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach (above), went to try to protect the Navy. He took the very unusual step of asking to see the Prime Minister personally on the issue. Although each of the three service chiefs have the prerogative to see the PM, in practice 99% of the time they raise queries through the Chief of the Defence Staff or the Defence Secretary. Of course, we now know that in that fateful meeting in the House of Commons in April 1982, Leach claimed one of the greatest ‘told you so’s of modern history.

What is new about these documents is the depth they go into in explaining the thinking, the rationale between cutting the Royal Navy, whilst enhancing the RAF and maintaining the Army at the status quo. It is an interesting case study of the defence priorities that Britain had in 1981, and there are also some insights into procurement, costs, and the inventory of equipment that the armed forces had at the time.

I’m going to have a look through them and post up some snippets and my analysis. Keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

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17 Comments

Filed under Falklands War

17 responses to “The John Nott 1981 Defence Cuts: PM’s papers released

  1. x

    Are these online? If so can you save me some googling please and supply a link?

    On a tangent but related,

    http://en.mercopress.com/2011/12/30/how-the-gibraltar-naval-dockyard-was-saved-from-the-axe-back-in-1981

  2. But today’s politicians and civil servants are much smarter – right?

    • James Daly

      If anything I think they’re a lot less savvy than 30 years ago. Even I have to grudgingly admit that many in Thatchers cabinet had active military experience, either in WW2 (Carrington) or places like Malaya (Nott). And even those that didn’t had some kind of life experience, or intelligence, or SOMETHING. Now, they’ve all done Politics, Philosophy and Economics at one of the Oxbridge Unis, followed by a bit of interning for a PR company or something.

      • x

        You can just imagine Ed Miliband outside No10,

        “Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our negotiating team that the managed to transfer the sovereignty of the Malvinas without it costing us more than £10billion in aid to Argentina.”

        He would probably apologise for the war deaths of the Argentines in 82 and put it down to less enlightened times.

  3. Bah!

    Sadly none of the political parties has much to commend them…

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