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The Suez fiasco 1956
Fifty years ago, British imperialism, in alliance with France and in secret collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt. The adventure was the Tory government’s response to the nationalisation of the Suez canal by the Nasser regime. There were mass protests in Britain. Military action rebounded on Britain and France, forcing an ignominious retreat. The secrecy and duplicity of the Eden government have striking parallels with the deception and lies of Blair in relation to Iraq. LYNN WALSH writes.
THE NATIONALISATION OF the Suez canal on 26 July 1956 was a devastating blow to the British ruling class, which was struggling to come to terms with the decline and break-up of its colonial empire. British imperialism had lost the Indian subcontinent – the jewel in the crown – in 1948. Movements for independence swept through the remaining colonies. In Cyprus, Aden (South Yemen), and Malaysia they took the form of armed insurgencies.
The action by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, leader of Egypt’s nationalist regime, was taken in response to a decision by the US and Britain (and the World Bank) to withhold financial aid for the construction of the Aswan High Dam, a major hydro-electric and irrigation scheme. The British ruling class and the Tory government saw this as a dire threat to what remained of their colonial empire.
The canal provided vital access to the ‘Far East’ and was crucial to Britain’s trade (a third of the 14,666 ships that passed through the canal in 1955 were British-owned). Moreover, the canal was of great symbolic importance to an influential imperialist faction within the Tory Party – and to the section of British capitalism that they reflected.
Nasser’s seizure of the canal posed a political threat to British interests throughout the Middle East, and (in Tory eyes) threatened the security of oil supplies, increasingly important to western industrial economies. Harold Macmillan, the chancellor of the exchequer in the Conservative government of prime minister Anthony Eden, and a leading hawk on Suez, wrote in his diary (18 August): "If Nasser ‘gets away with it’, we are done for. The whole Arab world will despise us… Nuri [es-Said, British-backed prime minister of Iraq] and our friends will fall. It may well be the end of British influence and strength forever. So, in the last resort, we must use force and defy opinion, here and overseas".
Throughout the Suez crisis, Eden and his inner war cabinet operated with extreme secrecy, just as Blair has operated on Iraq. Macmillan’s diaries, however, now provide a revealing source of information. Still unpublished in full, they are extensively quoted in Alistair Horne’s biography: Macmillan, volume I, 1894-1956 (published in 1988).
Macmillan immediately saw that nationalisation could set a precedent. Other nationalist leaders could follow suit by taking valuable national oil resources into state control. "The determination to seize other property", Macmillan told US audiences, "will be too great; and before we know where we are it may well be that the control of vital oil supplies, on which western Europe at any rate must live, will be in the hands of powers which in effect have become satellites of Russia…" (Horne, p419) Macmillan saw the war over Suez as a war for oil: "We must, by one means or another, win this struggle. Nasser may well try to preach holy war in the Middle East and… the mob and the demagogue may create a ruinous position for us. Without oil, and without the profits from oil, neither UK nor western Europe can survive". (Macmillan Diary/Horne, p429)
To preserve their control of the canal, to bolster their strategic power in the region, and to control the region’s oil supplies, the Eden government was determined to go to war. But they made a series of strategic miscalculations. While overestimating their own strength, the leaders of British imperialism underestimated the power of rising nationalist forces in Egypt and the Middle East. They were deluded, moreover, that they could act (in collusion with France and Israel) independently of US imperialism, now the western superpower. President Eisenhower’s personal representative, Robert Murphy, summed it up: "The prime minister [Eden] had not adjusted his thoughts to the altered world status of Great Britain, and he never did".
Fabricating a pretext
PUBLICLY, THE AIM of Tory policy was to guarantee the ‘international’ status of the Suez canal. Privately, Eden and Macmillan were determined to bring about ‘regime change’ (in today’s jargon) – to bring down Nasser through military intervention. Recognising that public opinion in Britain and most governments internationally would oppose such a course, Eden’s inner cabinet were determined to find – or fabricate – a pretext for invading Egypt.
Even before the nationalisation of the canal, Eden, alarmed at Nasser’s growing influence in the region, had told the cabinet in March 1956: "I want Nasser destroyed, not removed, destroyed". Later, Macmillan wrote in his diary (1 August): "we must have (a) international control of the canal; (b) humiliation or collapse of Nasser".
Criticising military plans as too limited in their objective, Macmillan wrote: "the object of the exercise, if we have to embark upon it, is surely to bring about the fall of Nasser and create a government in Egypt which will work satisfactorily with ourselves and the other powers…" The aim should be "to seize Alexandria… and march on Cairo, to destroy Nasser". (Diaries/Horne, p404, 405)
The French government, led by the pro-Israeli ‘Socialist’, Guy Mollet, was also impatient to launch a military attack on Nasser. Mollet and company accused Nasser of supporting their prime enemy, the National Liberation Front fighting to free Algeria from French rule. But Eden’s government faced more diplomatic problems than Mollet. The US administration was not in favour of military action, though Eden and Macmillan convinced themselves that, when it came to the crunch, the US would fall in with any British action.
Britain was also forced, under international pressure, to accept a conference of the major canal users (which convened in London in August). The majority favoured negotiations with Nasser and were not ready to support an invasion. There was also pressure for the Suez dispute to be referred to the United Nations (UN). Moreover, there were more and more indications from Washington that the administration would not support military invasion of Egypt. Apart from anything else, Eisenhower was facing re-election in November 1956 and did not want to tarnish his image as the ‘peace president’. At the same time, there was growing opposition at home, and even a rebellion within the ranks of Tory MPs. Faced with this opposition, the Eden leadership was determined to find a pretext for military action.
"The problem remains", wrote Macmillan in his diary, "on what ‘principle’ can we have a ‘casus belli’ [an event justifying war]? How do we get from the conference leg to the use of force?... It remains a tricky operation". In the war cabinet Walter Monckton, the minister of defence, raised doubts about whether public opinion in Britain would support the government’s use of force. "Of course", wrote Macmillan, "if an ‘incident’ took place, that would be the way out". (Diaries/Horne, p410)
Macmillan recognised that it was not feasible to go to war without going first to the UN, however reluctant they were to do so. The government agreed to go but meanwhile continued military preparations for an invasion. The parallel with Bush and Blair’s sham reference to the UN before their premeditated invasion of Iraq is striking.
One of the government’s leading hawks, Lord Salisbury, raised difficulties about going to the UN. He told Macmillan that he had read the UN charter and had "found very little in it that would seem to justify the use of forceful methods by a member state until all the means enumerated in the machinery of the UN have first been tried". He found this "rather depressing". "It must, I feel, now be for the Foreign Office to produce one [ie some provocation] which is likely to exasperate Nasser to such an extent that he does something that gives us an excuse for marching in, either for the protection of the canal and its employees or of British lives and property". (Horne, p427) What could be more cynical?
The problem for Eden, Macmillan and the Tory hawks was that Nasser did not provide them with a casus belli. Claims that his action was illegal were dubious: the Suez canal was on Egyptian territory and Nasser proposed to pay compensation to the Suez canal company’s shareholders. He guaranteed international access to the canal (except for Israeli ships), and the new Egyptian pilots proved quite capable of safely navigating ships through the canal. The head of the CIA in London, Chester Cooper, commented that the British and French "had already lost the game in late July; whether or not Eden or Mollet could bring themselves to face it, the world had already accepted the nationalisation of the Suez canal as a fait accompli". (Horne, p408)
Eden and Macmillan were dismayed when, on 5 September, Eisenhower publicly announced at a press conference that he unconditionally rejected the use of force. "We are committed to a peaceful settlement of this dispute, nothing else". It was in September and early October (prior to the UN security council debate) that the Tory hawks, in collusion with the French government, set about manufacturing a casus belli, ‘an incident’ that would justify war.
The stratagem was that Israel would attack Egypt across Sinai, justifying it by the need to destroy Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla) camps from which attacks on Israel were being carried out. The Ben-Gurion government was only too willing to oblige. Britain and France would then call on ‘both sides’ to withdraw from the ‘threatened canal’. Israel would, of course, agree; but Nasser would almost certainly refuse. A British and French invasion force would then intervene, taking up a position between the two sides – to secure a ceasefire and protect the canal!
A small cabal around Eden (including Macmillan and Lord Salisbury) concealed the real character of the intervention from most of the Tory cabinet (who only found out about the Anglo-French collusion with Israel on 24 October, when the plan was presented to them as a fait accompli). Many of the key meetings took place without minutes being taken, and in some cases minutes were destroyed. Macmillan even destroyed sections of his private diaries. The Eden government made the ultimately fatal mistake of concealing the collusion with Israel from its US ally, brazenly denying it when challenged by US officials who had received intelligence reports of the Anglo-French and Israeli preparations.
Some in Whitehall, however, had deep misgivings. Sir Walter Monckton, the minister of defence, was unhappy about the weakness of Britain’s logistical preparations, and later resigned from the government. More principled opposition came from the First Sea Lord, Louis Mountbatten, the most influential of the chiefs of staff, who was against the whole operation on political and humanitarian grounds. He considered: "That an armed amphibious assault against opposition in a built up area… would cause the deaths of thousands of innocent women and children since we obviously had to bomb and bombard the coast’s defence gun positions". (Keith Kyle, Suez , p202)
Mountbatten also raised a crucial question which no one else appeared to have considered: "what steps were being taken to ensure that, in the event of successful operations leading to the downfall of Nasser, a new government could be found in Egypt which would both support Britain’s policy for the operation of the canal and would also have the support of the Egyptian people. He said he feared that the Egyptian people were now so solidly behind Nasser that it might be impossible to find such a government". (Kyle, p202) Eden ordered him to keep his nose out of political matters.
Despite outright opposition to Anglo-French military intervention from most of the canal users, the UN security council and the US, Eden, Macmillan and company decided to go ahead. On 29 October, in accordance with the plan, Israel invaded Sinai. Britain and France issued their ultimatum to Egypt and Israel: Nasser, as expected rejected it. On 31 October, British forces opened the five-day softening up bombardment of Egyptian airfields and defence installations, while the British war fleet set sail from Malta.
Many smelt a rat. But in parliament, Selwyn Lloyd, the foreign minister, blatantly lied, denying there had been any prior agreement between Britain and Israel over the attack. Eden’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence, by 218 votes to 207.
When Eisenhower heard about Israel’s invasion of Sinai, he exclaimed: "You tell ’em [the Israeli government] that, God damn it, we’re going to apply sanctions, we’re going to the United Nations, we’re going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing". When he found out that the British government had actively deceived him about the Anglo-French collusion with Israel, he was incensed. The US threatened sanctions against Britain and France, and quickly implemented economic measures which forced Britain to call off its military action.
Enforced retreat of Anglo-French imperialism
ANGLO-FRENCH FORCES invaded Egypt on 5 November, backed up by heavy naval bombardment. They rapidly pushed back the Egyptian army, quickly taking Port Said. Israeli forces had already halted their advance across Sinai, coming to within a few miles of the canal. Militarily, Britain and France won an easy victory, with disproportionate casualties on the Egyptian side. At least 3,000 Egyptian troops were killed, and over 7,000 taken prisoner. Anglo-French forces lost around 33 dead, while Israel lost 180. But the two European powers won only a pyrrhic victory on the battlefield. They had suffered a devastating political defeat, with a massive loss of prestige, even before they landed on Egyptian soil.
The Eden government faced mass opposition at home, with splits within the government and the Tory Party. Even some of his friends thought that Eden had gone mad – the charitable view was that he was ill and temporarily unbalanced.
Internationally, Britain came under intense pressure from every direction. The Soviet leadership made thinly veiled threats that it would take military action against Britain and France. The Suez invasion was a propaganda gift for Khrushchev, distracting attention from the brutal Soviet oppression of the Hungarian uprising which exactly coincided with the Suez action. Khrushchev was able to pose as the defender of small colonial states against imperialist oppression. In the UN, the overwhelming majority of the Security Council was strongly opposed to the Anglo-French action. What was decisive for Britain, however, was the Eisenhower administration’s resort to devastating economic measures against the British economy, which forced Eden and company to abandon their military adventure.
When Nasser took control of the canal, the Labour leaders denounced his action. Both Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Party leader, and Aneurin Bevan, on the left of the Labour leadership, referred to Nasser in the same breath as Mussolini and Hitler. Their position was hardly distinguishable from that of the Eden government: they opposed nationalisation and supported ‘internationalisation’ of the canal under the control of the major users or the UN. (Though they did not call for the internationalisation of the Panama canal.) Bevan justified this position, which let the Tories off the hook, with the spurious argument that socialists should favour internationalism rather than nationalism. Some Labour leaders, however, like Emmanuel Shinwell, a former defence minister, completely supported the Eden government, including military action against Egypt.
Gaitskell and Bevan did not expect that the Eden government would launch an invasion against the Nasser regime. They strongly opposed military action, and called for a UN force to secure a ceasefire and secure international control of the Suez canal. Their opposition to the Eden government undoubtedly strengthened under pressure of the explosion of popular anger provoked by the military adventure. Suez produced some of the sharpest and most bitter parliamentary clashes in living memory. Bevan, like many others, strongly suspected collusion between Britain, France and the Israeli government, and taunted the Tories to admit the truth.
Opinion polls showed that 37% thought the British action was right, while 44% opposed military action. Among active, political layers of the workers, there was an explosion of anger against the Tory government. Military action was seen as an imperialist intervention against a small, ex-colonial country rightly laying claim to its main national asset. There was an "outburst of spontaneous popular protest that swept the country", remembers one veteran. (Neville Hunnings, Letter, The Guardian, 14 July 2006) "I can remember in London passing innumerable street orators all over the place, not just in the obvious places like Hyde Park, but in side streets off Charing Cross Road or wherever they could gather a crowd".
Moved by this tide of protest, the National Council of Labour (representing the Labour Party, the TUC and the Cooperative movement) called an emergency meeting on 1 November to launch a campaign against the government’s action under the slogan, ‘Law – not war’. A resolution was passed calling for an immediate ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egypt, and a UN peace conference to settle the dispute.
But the Labour leaders were clearly fearful that protest action would spill over beyond the bounds of parliamentary pressure. The resolution called on the British people "to bring effective pressure to bear on the government in support of these policies through normal constitutional parliamentary methods, and to refrain from taking industrial action as a means of influencing national policy in the present crisis". On 4 November there was a massive national demonstration in Trafalgar Square, with an estimated 30,000 or more participating. This was undoubtedly the biggest national demonstration since the pre-war period.
If Eden, Macmillan and Co thought they could ride out the political opposition at home, they were soon forced to face the fact that they could not survive a massive run on the pound, which threatened to bankrupt the weak British economy. Although he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Macmillan seemed to forget his financial responsibilities during the Suez episode, in which he played a more prominent role than even Selwyn Lloyd, the foreign secretary. Yet he was well aware that military action could cause a devastating run on the pound. "We shall be ruined either way; but we shall be more inevitably and finally ruined if we are humiliated [by not standing up to Nasser]". (Diaries/Horne, p415)
Despite clear warnings from senior Treasury and Foreign Office officials, Macmillan was deluded that, when it came to the crunch, the US would support Britain. Unlike the French government, which secured an IMF loan before the military action started, Macmillan took no precautionary measures to defend the pound. Sure enough, when British forces started bombing Egypt on 30 October, Macmillan had to warn the cabinet that "our reserves of gold and dollars were still falling at a dangerously rapid rate". (Diaries/Horne, p437) Things went from bad to worse. After his successful re-election on 6 November – and having discovered the full extent of the British government’s duplicity – Eisenhower ordered economic sanctions against Britain. The US Federal Reserve orchestrated a run on the pound, and Britain’s gold reserves fell by a further £100 million in only a week (or by an eighth of their remaining total). Moreover, the US treasury made it clear it would block an IMF loan for Britain to stabilise the pound.
Suez brought home the real extent of British capitalism’s economic decline. Within a few days, the Eden government was forced to accept a ceasefire in Egypt. Macmillan had been transformed from a super-hawk to a super-dove. One Tory MP, Brendan Bracken, commented: "Until a week ago, Macmillan, whose bellicosity was beyond description, wanted to tear Nasser’s scalp off with his own fingernails… Today he might be described as the leader of the bolters. His treasury officials have put before him the economic consequences of the Suez fiasco and his feet are frost-bitten". Ironically, when Eden was pushed out of the Tory leadership in January 1957, Macmillan deftly distanced himself from the Suez adventure and emerged as the new prime minister.
From Eden to Blair
THE SUEZ CRISIS was a turning point in the decline of British imperialism. It shattered the arrogant pretensions of Tory leaders like Eden and Macmillan, who still thought they could dictate to colonial and semi-colonial states and send punitive military expeditions if their writ was challenged. The Suez fiasco forced Britain’s imperial ruling elite to begin to face up to the organic weakness of British capitalism following the second world war. The awakening of nationalist consciousness – and the counterweight to imperialism provided by the Stalinist bloc – meant that Britain (and France) could no longer cling on to a spread of colonial possessions. Britain was forced to accelerate the political independence of its remaining colonies, though it fought rearguard actions against insurgencies in countries like Malaysia, Kenya and Cyprus, attempting to hand over to compliant national governments. The multinational corporations, accepting the inevitability of political independence, were developing new methods of economic domination, a policy of neo-colonialism. The lingering imperialist mentality of the British ruling class, however, continued to retard the development of British capitalism.
Suez also demonstrated that Britain was no longer capable of acting independently as an imperialist power. US imperialism had emerged from the second world war as a military, economic and political superpower – the only rival to the Soviet bureaucracy. The US followed an ‘anti-colonial’ policy. US imperialism, which was not based on colonisation, sought the break-up of the old European empires to allow free access of US business to their former territories. No US administration would now tolerate freelance activity by diminished British imperialism dependent on US economic support. After Eden, British governments, Tory and Labour, accepted a subordinate, supporting role strategically and economically to US imperialism.
French capitalism followed a different course. Humiliated in Egypt and subsequently forced out of Algeria, the French ruling class under de Gaulle, turned to building the European Economic Community (now EU), founded in 1957, as a counterweight to the US. Regarding Britain as an American Trojan Horse, de Gaulle kept Britain out until 1973.
Today it is not a Tory government, but the New Labour government of Blair that is pursuing a policy of military intervention. In 1956 Gaitskell, Bevan, and most of the Labour leaders, for all their limitations, opposed military intervention. At that time, the Labour leaders were forced to reflect the anger of an angry rank and file. In contrast Blair, under the guise of promoting a new ‘humanitarian interventionism’, extols liberal imperialism and the need "to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the 19th century" (Robert Cooper, ‘The new liberal imperialism’, The Observer, 7 April 2002). Like Eden, Macmillan and company, Blair has shown himself ready to use deception and lies, over and over again. Unlike the Eden government, however, Blair has not attempted to act independently of US imperialism. On the contrary, Blair is Bush’s poodle. Britain’s limited military forces act as an appendage to the colossal military machine of US imperialism, as much to provide political cover for Bush as for their firepower. Nevertheless, Afghanistan and Iraq are reckless military adventures on the part of US imperialism, and Blair has allowed British forces to be sucked in to the morass. As Suez rebounded on Eden, Afghanistan and Iraq are now rebounding on Blair.