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Lord Chalfont OBE, MC, PC


Lord Chalfont, as a Minister of State in the Foreign Office, played a small but important part in the history of the Falkland Islands, when he visited the Islands in November 1968 to try to persuade the Islanders to accept a closer relationship with Argentina. He was the first British Minister of the Crown to visit the Falkland Islands but failed in his mission and left with a flea in his ear.

The UK had, in secret UK negotiations with the Argentine Government, already drafted a Memorandum of Understanding which promised a transfer of sovereignty on “a date to be agreed”. This was to have been accompanied by a separate UK statement that this would depend on the wishes of the Falkland Islanders. Forewarned by Governor Haskard, the Islanders made their firm opposition to any such agreement crystal clear – and a hardening of Argentina’s negotiating position and strong opposition to the proposed deal in the UK Parliament led to its abandonment with the Labour Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, giving an explicit assurance to the House of Commons on 11 December 1968 that the UK would not transfer sovereignty to Argentina without the agreement of the Falkland Islanders.

Personally committed to the policy, Lord Chalfont thought the change of plan wrong. Writing in 2000, he maintained that “the position of the islanders is politically and economically untenable in the long term. It is as clear today as it was when I left the Foreign Office in 1970 that some accommodation with Argentina will one day be necessary.”

Lord Chalfont had a distinguished career in the military and in politics in the Labour Government (1964-74), then as an independent crossbencher before retiring from the House of Lords in 2015, and also as a businessman, political and defence commentator,  and author.

Born Arthur Wynne Jones in Llantarnan in Monmouthshire on 5 December 1919, he took a commission in the South Wales Borderers (24th Foot) in 1940, aged 21, and gained the nickname ‘Alun’ which he retained. He served in India and Burma  during the war before entering military intelligence in the Middle East, Germany and France. He attended Staff College and became fluent in Russian. In 1951, he returned to active service in Malaya, earning an MC in 1957 for his role in combating the Communist insurgency. In 1958, he served in Cyprus in operations against EOKA guerrillas before taking up a staff job in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) from which he retired in 1961 with an OBE.

From 1961-64, he was defence correspondent at the Times before, to his surprise, he was appointed Minister of State in the Foreign Office by the newly elected Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and elevated to the peerage, taking the title Baron Chalfont of Llantarnan, and to the Privy Council. He covered various portfolios in the Foreign Office under the the mercurial Foreign Secretary, George Brown, including arms control and disarmament and then for the UK’s attempt to achieve entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), vetoed in December 1967 by French President Charles de Gaulle. Lord Chalfont then reverted to defence issues which included responsibility for UK relations with the Americas. In 1968, he accompanied HM the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on state visits to Brazil and Chile and on their return journey, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office announced that Lord Chalfont would visit the Falkland Islands.

The Falklands Issue

The Wilson Government faced serious difficulties: economically, the UK had to cope with a  huge balance of payments deficit which led eventually to the devaluation of the pound in November 1967. This together with the cost of developing nuclear weapons forced the announcement in January 1968 of Britain’s gradual withdrawal from military commitments east of Suez.

It was also a time of post-war decolonisation pressures in the United Nations (UN), with the grant of independence to many former colonies of colonial powers and, for the remaining smaller territories, the formation of the UN Special Committee on Decolonisation in 1962. The UN General Assembly passed two resolutions – Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960 which set the goal of eliminating all forms of colonialism through independence and Resolution 2065 (XX) of 16 December 1965 recognising ‘the existence of a sovereignty dispute between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands and inviting the parties to find a peaceful solution to the problem bearing in mind the provisions of resolution 1514 and taking into consideration the interests of the inhabitants of the islands’.

At the time, the Falkland Islands were economically vulnerable with a tiny population of about 2,000, with poor communications (travel to/from the islands was by ship only) and reliant on wool exports. The UK Government was deeply aware that the islands were indefensible and it was only the landing on the racecourse of Miguel Fitzgerald, flying his Cessna aircraft from Rio Gallegos on 8 September 1964, when he raised the Argentine flag and left a note claiming Argentine sovereignty, that the UK Government decided to send a small but permanent detachment of Royal Marines to the Islands. A similar escapade by Miguel Fitzgerald in November 1968, coinciding with Lord Chalfont’s visit, resulted in his plane being damaged on his landing on a gravel road near Eliza Cove; he and his plane were transported back to Montevideo on the Darwin.

A similar but more aggressive instance – Operation Condor – highlighted the Islands’ vulnerability. On 28 September 1966, a small group of Argentine nationalists hijacked an Argentine aircraft flying from Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia and forced it to fly to the Falklands where it landed on the racecourse with 34 passengers including the military governor of the Argentine Province of Tierra del Fuego and journalists (which suggested a degree of pre-knowledge by some). The hijackers proclaimed Argentine sovereignty and took seven local hostages. After protracted negotiations, the hijackers, passengers and crew left the Islands on 1 October 1966 on an Argentine navy transport vessel and were taken to Ushuaia. On 8 October, the plane was flown back to Argentina.

Against this background, secret discussions were held between the British and Argentine  Governments with a view to a transfer of sovereignty. The problem was to ensure sufficient guarantees for the Islanders that were acceptable to the Argentine Government. Much discussion centred on how long a period would be necessary for the Islanders to be brought around to accepting a transfer of sovereignty to Argentina. Initially, the UK sought the inclusion of a proviso that any change in sovereignty would have to be acceptable to the Islanders but that was thrown out by the Argentine side. The UK then proposed that the text of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which stated that “The Government of the United Kingdom will recognise Argentine sovereignty over the islands with effect from a date to be agreed”, be accompanied by a unilateral statement to be attached to the MoU stressing that sovereignty would not be ceded without the Islanders’ consent.

Governor Haskard was informed of these discussions (and permitted to take members of the Executive Council (ExCo) into his confidence  but under terms of strict confidentiality). His warnings that the Islanders would never accept sovereignty change fell on deaf ears in London, even when he received support from the UK Ambassador in Argentina. A meeting with the Foreign Secretary, George Brown, in February 1968 had little effect. On his return to the Islands, Governor Haskard privately encouraged the Islander Councillors to make public their concerns. They wrote an open letter to all MPs which was taken up in Parliament and the British press. The formation of the Falkland Islands Emergency Committee (which eventually evolved into the Falkland Islands Association of today) helped to generate public support in the UK for the Islanders’ cause.

Briefing papers submitted to Michael Stewart as the first Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs following the merger of the old Commonwealth Relations Office with the Foreign Office on 17 October 1968 showed that officials were still committed to sovereignty change, despite Islander opposition viz.  “When we publish our intention to cede sovereignty of the islands to Argentina, albeit on conditions, there will be violent adverse adverse reaction among the Falkland Islanders. The plan we have worked out to counter this involves a Minister arriving at Port Stanley a few days before.” The intention was to present the Falkland Islanders with a fait accompli.

The Minister was Lord Chalfont, who arrived in Port Howard from Montevideo accompanied by journalists on HMS Endurance on 23 November 1968. At first, he thought that the people gathered at the jetty were waving Union Jacks in welcome but this was quickly dispelled when he saw placards saying “Chalfont go home” and “Keep the Falkland Islands British”. Lord Chalfont visited nearly all the settlements on the Islands and had various public meetings in Stanley and with ExCo during his stay. He sought vainly to persuade the Islanders that it was in their political and economic interests to have closer relations with Argentina and that better communications and understanding could lead to  a rapprochement which would make  a transfer of sovereignty to Argentina seem more acceptable. But the Islanders were having none of it and Lord Chalfont made a farewell broadcast saying that no change in sovereignty could take place without their agreement, ultimately safeguarded by the UK Parliament.

Returning via Buenos Aires, Lord Chalfont called on the Argentine Foreign Minister, Costa Mendez to find him even more intransigent than before. Not content with refusing to incorporate language into the MoU making a transfer of sovereignty subject to Islander agreement, the Argentine side now insisted that the UK drop drop its guarantee of Islander consent from its unilateral statement. Lord Chalfont argued that this would put an end to the agreement. But Costa Mendez would not be moved.

In London, the atmosphere had changed and in the face of media criticism and strong parliamentary opposition, the Cabinet rejected the MoU, saying that any future agreement with Argentina must include Islander consent or have such consent specifically linked to it in some other way. On 11 December 1968, the Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart gave an explicit assurance to Parliament that the UK Government would not transfer sovereignty against the wishes of the Falkland Islanders. Similarly, the Conservative opposition spokesman  for foreign affairs, Alec Douglas-Home, promised that a Conservative Government when returned would strike sovereignty from the agenda of any negotiations with Argentina.

Lord Chalfont disagreed with this about-face, whilst accepting it reluctantly. He commented that, in the immediate term, it would be important to find a way to disengage from the discussions with a minimum amount of damage to Anglo-Argentine relations. Later on, he commented: “I think that we should have pursued this. Looking back, it was one of our big foreign policy and political errors”. He was not sympathetic to the Islanders’ point of view.

In the general election of February 1970, the Labour Government lost to the Conservatives led by Edward Heath. Lord Chalfont was appointed Opposition Defence spokesman in the Lords but he left the post in 1972 when Wilson made a u-turn against joining the EEC. Never a real socialist,  Lord Chalfont finally resigned from the Labour Party in 1974 to sit as a cross-bencher in the Lords. He developed his business interests, becoming a director of IBM (UK) and of Lazard Brothers, the merchant bankers. He also became chairman of Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd (1987-95) during the construction of Britain’s Trident submarine fleet (despite his previous concerns about the nuclear arms industry). He was a member of the Worshipful Company of Paviours, one of the oldest Livery Companies in the City of London.

Strongly pro-NATO, he chaired the European Atlantic Group in the 1980s and because of his media interests was appointed by Mrs Thatcher to the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in 1989 and in 1990 to the Radio Authority. His tenure at the Independent Television Commission (the IBA’s successor organisation) was cut short in 1991 because of a conflict of interests. He was an honorary Fellow of the University of Aberystwyth and president of the Llangollen International Music festival. Between 1973 and 1989, he wrote several books on defence issues and on military leaders and Waterloo, and in 2000 published an autobiography “The Shadow of My Hand: A Memoir” . He retired from the House of Lords in 2015.

In 1948, he married Dr Mona Mitchell who died in 2008; their only child, a daughter, also predeceased him He died on 10 January 2020, having just celebrated his 100th birthday.

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