THIRTY-SIX years is a long time in politics, and it is interesting to look back to 1982 to observe the differences between the first big feat in foreign policy by Margaret Thatcher and, as we have now seen it unfold, the first by Theresa May.

Falklands and Syria: the two feats are, of course, quite different in scale. Thatcher was able, with no help from any allies, to assemble and equip a fleet of more than 100 vessels all told, then send them one-third of the way round the world from 55 degrees north to 51 degrees south. Nowadays we could not even begin to contemplate such an action because we lack the ships, we lack the people, we lack the money too. The UK has meanwhile sunk from being still a naval power of some importance to being one of virtual insignificance. Rule Britannia? We do not even patrol our own shores – for instance, Scottish shores – let alone anybody else’s.

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The UK contribution to the Syrian air strikes was four planes. They flew as part of an operation orchestrated by President Donald Trump in Washington DC, with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris scarcely less eager to flex his own and his country’s military muscle. Of the three powers taking part, the UK seems to have been the least eager. But then the two presidents are also commanders-in-chief of their armed forces, while May is not. So any prime minister would have faced some lapse of time before squaring the Parliament at Westminster. It was something she could not afford unless the operation were to go ahead without her, or rather without “global Britain”.

In 1982, Parliament was top of Thatcher’s priorities, after the decision to take back the Falklands by force had been made in principle, straight after the Argentine aggression. The UK was far from ready, materially or mentally. Though for months beforehand signs of trouble had been mounting in the South Atlantic Ocean, nobody in London took them seriously, not while desultory negotiations were also going on in New York for an eventual (very eventual) peaceful handover: the Falklands were far away, expensive to hold, worth little. The problem lay in guarantees for the 1500 islanders, in the perhaps unlikely event they would want to stay and live under Argentine occupation. For these and other reasons, UK diplomats failed to understand an invasion was about to happen till it did happen.

On the arguments May has been using, Thatcher need never have recalled Parliament – yet she did. She had to if there was going to be a war, for wars are not to be won by governments being less than straight with the people they rule. It was easy to recognise in the Argentine junta a bunch of military brutes trying with a foreign diversion to evade scrutiny of their many crimes. If hardly in the league of Hitler and Mussolini, they were all the same starting off in the same way with their violations of individual human rights.

In 1982, our own wartime generation, those who could recall Dunkirk and the Blitz, or indeed Clydebank and the Arctic convoys, were still alive and voting. They could also recall appeasement, and its eventual consequences.

I still remember the electric debate in the House of Commons. I listened to it on my tranny (which in those days meant a portable radio) while I tidied my flat on a Saturday morning. Over the airwaves, the Government was audibly teetering. MPs, including some of its own, spoke of its humiliation. The leader of the opposition, Michael Foot, saved its bacon. In a great peroration, he said this: “Even though the position and the circumstances of the people who live in the Falkland Islands are uppermost in our minds – it would be outrageous if that were not the case – there is the longer-term interest to ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world. If it does, there will be a danger not merely to the Falkland Islands, but to people all over this dangerous planet.”

So on the main point, Labour and Tories were united (as were speakers for the small parties, the Scottish Liberal Russell Johnston and the SNP leader Donald Stewart).

Whatever Thatcher’s faults, and they were legion, she won from all sides the support she desperately needed. Thirty-six years on, the practical certainties of that parliamentary moment seem perhaps less sure. What stood out clearly then, however, is that we could all talk about and affirm our common values without self-delusion or cynicism, or indeed fear of what they might involve us in – above all, war. It appears that by 2018 we have lost that capacity.

Foot was an old leftie, editor of Tribune before he got into Parliament, and always unsparing of capitalism and imperialism. What marked him out from his present successor in charge of Labour was a far clearer moral sense. On Syria, Jeremy Corbyn said at the weekend: “The Government should do whatever possible to push Russia and the United States to agree to an independent UN-led investigation of last weekend’s horrific chemical weapons attack so that those responsible can be held to account.”

We know these are weasel words because the Russians will veto any such move at the UN, as they have vetoed all such previous moves for the past seven years. So there is nothing the Government can do to push Russia (which, of course, anyway accuses the UK of having mounted the chemical weapons attack). Corbyn’s call is in effect a call for inaction in the face of horror.

IT would be music to the ears of an exultant President Bashar al-Assad, now the victor in a civil war that started with the Arab Spring. Popular aspirations for democracy have been crushed in Syria, like almost everywhere else – here with the help of Russia and Iran, so guaranteeing this cruel despot his power and position for the rest of his life. Looking on from the sidelines, discomfited Western governments will need to get used to him and can only hope to take him down a peg or two, now and again. His attack with chlorine gas on Ghouta, in clear breach of international law and Syria’s own undertakings, offered one of the rare opportunities that will come our way.

It is like having an ill-trained dog in the house. If it fouls the carpet, the owner needs to make clear such laxity will not be tolerated, and he must do this at once – if he should wait while the circumstances are fully investigated, the cur will have forgotten all about it and become even harder to discipline in future.

That is why I can support the UK’s part in Friday night’s air strikes. They were limited in their declared aim, to degrade Assad’s capacity for mounting chemical attacks. As far as we can see up to now, they are not the prelude to any wider military action, to any new invasion or occupation of Syrian territory, or to any attempt at regime change. If they were, I would change my mind.

But, as Theresa May’s statement to Parliament last night made clear, the UK no longer has noble purposes, only shared tactical objectives. A diminished country is doubtless better with these lesser aims.

Yet for the moment, what sticks in my craw are the awful pictures of children in a suburb of Damascus, “thrashing in pain and gasping for air”. The words are Trump’s: for once he does truly trump the spineless quibblers on the left. We can’t do that much but, if we can at least deter such atrocities, we must.