Suez: why I blame it on Ike

By William Rees-Mogg (THE TIMES, 24/07/06):

THE Suez Crisis, which occurred 50 years ago, was the full stop at the end of the British Empire. In 1945, at the close of the Second World War, Britain still governed the world’s largest Empire, with an independent Commonwealth of the Old Dominions.

The Raj ruled India. Britain enjoyed a strong influence in the oil-rich Middle East and was still a genuine world power, behind the United States and the Soviet Union.

As early as 1832 Charles Babbage, the grandfather of the computer, had given warning that other nations, particularly the US and Germany, were overtaking British industry. In the 19th century decline was gradual, but it was greatly accelerated by the two world wars of the 20th century.

By 1945 British investments had been sold in the United States, the British economy was exhausted and overburdened; productivity was low. There followed a series of crucial events: the Labour victory in 1945, the precipitate withdrawal from India in 1947, the flight from Palestine in 1948, the devaluation of sterling in 1949, the withdrawal from the Suez Canal in 1954 and the Suez Crisis of 1956. These were six scenes in the last act of Empire.

The deterioration in the British economy and the growth of national independence movements no doubt meant that the Empire was already unsustainable by 1945, after all the losses of the war. Nevertheless, the choices that were made at each of these critical turning points were important. If, for instance, Winston Churchill had been re-elected in 1945, postwar policy would have been in the hands of a statesman who believed in the validity of Britain as a world power. We might also have avoided the cul-de-sac of Labour’s nationalisation of industry. Churchill might have been too obstinate about India — always one of his romantic illusions — but he would not have cut and run in a panic, leaving millions to die in riots.

If one had to pick a day for the end of the British Empire, it might be July 26, 1956, the day that President Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal. Whatever calculation one makes, the British Empire lasted for about 300 years; from the beginning it had an American aspect.

In 1956 I was writing leaders for The Financial Times. I had been commissioned to write a brief life of the Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, a man whom I liked and admired. I had also become involved as an assistant speech writer to Eden, specialising in economic policy. I saw him during the early months of the Suez Crisis; he was always calm, courteous and thoughtful. I am not sure that my varied connections would be thought acceptable nowadays; they did in fact break down early in November when it became apparent, not least to myself, that I could not properly write The Financial Times’s comments on prime ministerial speeches to which I might myself have contributed.

Nevertheless, I observed the development of the Suez Crisis from a privileged vantage point. In addition, I fought the Chester-le-Street by-election in September as the Conservative candidate; I went around the mining villages saying that we should not appease Colonel Nasser. The Durham miners did not have the least wish to appease Colonel Nasser; unfortunately they had no wish to vote for me. That was the only by-election between the nationalisation of the canal and the invasion of Egypt.

One’s judgment of historic events inevitably changes over time. In July to November 1956 I was a convinced advocate of Eden’s Suez policy. From 1957 to about 1990 I thought that the invasion of Egypt had been both a blunder and a failure. I note that this is still Douglas Hurd’s view in The Spectator; he saw the crisis as a junior member of the foreign service, of broadly conservative views. He writes: “The decision on Suez is now impossible to defend.”

I would not quite take up that challenge, but I would shift the blame. It has been reported that President Eisenhower in his old age was asked what was the greatest mistake of his presidency, and replied, “Suez”. Certainly many Americans now see Eisenhower’s rebuff over Suez, which pushed Britain into the arms of the French and the Israelis, as a self-inflicted wound on American policy. That undermined the whole Western position in the Middle East, destroyed the friendly monarchy of Iraq and had a negative effect that lasts to this day.

Middle Eastern oil was as essential, in 1956 as now, to the economy and security of the United States, Europe and world trade. So long as Britain had influence in the Middle East, Britain would remain a real world power. Yet Britain could not maintain that influence without American support. Nasser’s nationalisation of the canal was a direct challenge to the West. Eden believed that the challenge had to be met. Eisenhower and Dulles, his Secretary of State, were not prepared to meet it; at the Suez Canal Users Conference held in London it became apparent that American policy could not be trusted. Dulles promised action, which he failed to take.

The shift of Western power in the Middle East should have been a relay race, in which Britain would transfer the baton to the United States. Eden was willing to transfer the baton in August 1956 but Eisenhower, with his re-election campaign much in mind, was not ready to take the transfer. Only in October did Eden adopt the joint Anglo-French-Israeli plan that was indeed a disaster.

Eisenhower had made the mistake of leaving Eden with no better option. The world community had an essential interest in the free flow of oil through the canal. That could have been secured only by joint Anglo-American action. Eisenhower decided against such action; Dulles’s conduct convinced Eden that he personally was hostile and untrustworthy. The Suez Crisis was indeed the end of the Empire, but it was a blunder of American policy, for which the United States is still paying a very high price.