As Britain continues with a suicidal, farcical disaster I thought that it would be a good time to learn more about the Suez Crisis of 1956, the last major disaster to hit Britain. By coincidence rather than design I’ve finished Barry Turner’s readable (and often tragically amusing) book Suez 1956: The Inside Story of the First Oil War on the day of the “meaningful vote” on whether Parliament should accept the deal to leave the European Union negotiated by Theresa May and her government. I plan to go to Parliament Square this afternoon to attend a rally for a People’s Vote and be there when the result of the vote is announced.
Turner summarises Suez thus: “It has often been said of the Suez war that it was a military success and a political failure. Rather, it was a military failure and a political disaster.” There is a direct link with the European union, which I get to at the end of this blog.
The crisis was prompted by Colonel Nasser, the leader of Egypt, nationalising the Suez Council, which had been built by the French and was owned by an Anglo-French company. Both Britain and France were outraged.
Britain had until the rise of nationalism in Egypt run the country in a high-handed way as if it was part of its empire. The British, who continued in their colonial manner, failed to understand and head off what was happening in Egypt. The Americans understood much better. President Eisenhower, who was commander-in-chief during the Second World War and knew first-hand the “cruelty, wastefulness and stupidity of war’, was always against any military action–and made this very clear to Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, whose name will be for ever bound up with the disaster of Suez. (Theresa May talked yesterday in Parliament of the judgement of history: I can’t think that she feels sanguine about how history will treat her, although, as Eden showed, our powers of self-deception are vast.)
Right from the beginning Eden intended military action to overthrow Nasser, and his motivation was in part, as with Brexiters, his misplaced conviction on the importance and power of Britain and its then empire. The empire, he said, “is our life; without it we should be no more than some millions of people living in an island off the coast of Europe, in which nobody wants to take any particular interest.” Or as a Tory delegate to the 1948 Conservative conference said, “We are an imperial power or we are nothing.”
There was also a collection of conservative MPs called the Suez Group, who could not accept Britain’s decline and insisted on military action. This group (and I’ll post a blog on them tomorrow) fills the same space with many of the same ideas that European Research Group fills in the Brexit debate.
This was 12 year after Britain “won” the Second World War (actually the Russians and Americans had won it), and another part of Eden’s motivation was to show that he was just as strong a leader as Winston Churchill. But ‘We are in the hands of a weak man who is trying to prove that he is a strong one,” said a recently retired civil servant. Yet, like the military, Churchill, the great man, “was seemingly unable to understand that Britain no longer had the capacity to play the world power.” And of the “18-strong cabinet, nine were Etonians and 16 had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Those, like Eden, who had served in the Great War, six in all, were given to tiresome monologues on Britain’s glory days.” If “we accept Nasser’s refusal . . . Britain is finished,” said Harold Macmillan, the next prime minister.
Yet after the war Britain was nearly bankrupt–and its priorities were wrong: “By the end of the Second World War, Britain was spending more on law and order in Palestine than on domestic health and education combined.” The NHS had begun eight years earlier and was not costing less, as its founders insisted it would, but more.
Another motivation was access to oil, which came through the Suez Canal from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But much to Eden’s frustration, as it might have provided the excuse he needed to start military action, Nasser didn’t block ships from coming through the canal. And this was also the time when large tankers were appearing, which could not pass through the canal anyway but could bring oil round the Cape in not much longer than it took to travel via the canal.
The Americans were strongly against military action and forced the British and the French to hold an international conference and then seek a resolution from the United Nations. Knowing that the longer military action was delayed the less successful it would be, the French resorted to double-dealing. In great and successful secrecy they hatched a plot with the Israelis for the Israelis to invade the Sinai peninsula–the French and British would then issue and ultimatum for the war between the Israelis and the Egyptians to stop otherwise they would intervene. The French very much wanted rid of Nasser because they believed wrongly that he was the driving force behind the rebels in Algeria, their country. The Israelis wanted more territory. Eden and the British were brought into this plot late in the day but seized it as providing a route to military action.
At the end of October the Israelis invaded. A resolution was brought to the United Nations calling for peace, and a resolution for military action was vetoed. Eden acted without UN agreement: “Pierson Dixon [British ambassador to the UN] could hardly bring himself to believe that it had come to this, that Eden, one of the principal architects of the UN, should now be seeking to destroy its legitimacy.”
“The [ultimatum issued by the British and French] seems,” observed a private secretary to Eden, “to have every fault. It is clearly not genuinely impartial, since the Israelis are nowhere near the Canal; it puts us on the side of the Israelis; the Americans were not consulted; the UN is flouted; we are about to be at war without the nation or Parliament having been given a hint of it. We think AE has gone off his head.’
Others thought that Eden had “gone off his head,” and Chicken and I reflected that that phrase that we heard often when younger has disappeared. Eisenhower called Eden, skipped the small talk, and started with “I can only presume that you have gone out of your mind.”
Action began with a drop of paratroopers and looked “uncannily like the last throw of old-fashioned colonialism,” which in retrospect it was.
The Labour Opposition, which had not been consulted (just as Theresa May has not consulted them over Brexit), was appalled. Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, said in Parliament: “a tragic terrible week . . . by far the worst week, for the world and for our country, since 1939.”
Much of the press was not impressed: ”The Economist referred to a ‘strange union of cynicism and hysteria’ in government; the Spectator warned of a ‘terrible indictment’ that Eden would face; while the Observer spoke of ‘folly’ and ‘crookedness’. ‘Not since 1783’, thundered an Observer leader column, ‘has Britain made herself so universally disliked.’”
The military action had a farcical element to it, which I’ll describe in another blog, and under condemnation by the UN, pressure from the Americans, and a dive in the value of sterling, which at the time was seen as sacred, Eden called off the action, to the annoyance of the French.
A sick man, Eden insensitively went on holiday to Jamaica. Later he lied to Parliament (saying there was no plot with the French and Israelis) and resigned, a disgraced and broken man. Malcolm Muggeridge called him ‘a grisly parody of Churchillian war leadership; a Benzedrine Napoleon and pinchbeck Foreign Office Machiavelli all in one’. Eden’s friend Noël Coward said he was ‘a tragic figure who had been cast in a star part well above his capabilities’. (Theresa May as well is doing a job beyond her capabilities.)
Turners’ judgement is that “The real indictment against Eden was not so much that he was devious or dishonest but rather that he did not understand the country he was governing.” That too might be said of Theresa May.
The Suez Crisis had many consequences–the hastened decline of Britain, continuing unrest in the Middle East, and to bring the story back today the failure of Britain to play a more positive role in Europe.
During the build-up the Suez War, John Foster Dulles, the clever American Secretary of State, argued that for Britain worried about being a declining power ‘their answer is to be found in increased European unity so that they will have together the strength which they need to be a powerful force in the world comparable to that of the Soviet Union and the United States, and more able to carry out their own policies’.
‘Europe will be your revenge,’ the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer told the French prime minister on the day the Suez operation was halted. The failure in Egypt and in Algeria brought General de Gaulle back to power in France. Never keen on Anglo-Saxons, whom he saw as duplicitous, de Gaulle turned to Germany and creating what became the European Union.
The British were unimpressed by these developments, although Churchill was one of the first to argue for European union, and turned away. This is the judgement of Noel Annan, one of the wisest civil servants of the time, who described the British rejection of Europe as ‘the most ruinous diplomatic decision taken by my generation’.
“Many were the excuses that were made. Ministers spoke of our nuclear alliance with America; our devotion to free trade with all, not just six, European countries in the OEEC; our devotion to GATT; our commitment to the Commonwealth; and the doubts of the chiefs of staff . . . The Foreign Office thought nothing would come of Messina [one of the conferences to create the union]. To the despair of [Belgian foreign minister Henri] Spaak Britain sent an undersecretary of the Board of Trade to represent Britain at the conference. Spaak came to London to see Rab Butler: the warmer Spaak became, the colder was Butler’s reception. ‘I don’t think I could have shocked him more when I tried to appeal to his imagination if I had taken off my trousers,’ Spaak said to his directeur du cabinet Robert Rothschild. At the eleventh hour the Europeans tried again and sent the Dutch foreign minister to Butler. To be lectured on Britain’s moral responsibility to lead Europe by such a little nation was too much. ‘I got very bored with him,’ Butler later told Michael Charlton.”
The Foreign Office didn’t perceive this for what it was, the formation of an immensely important thing in Europe, from which we were voluntarily excluding ourselves.
All this will be in my head as I stand in Parliament Square this evening waiting for the result of the “meaningful vote.”