Sixty Years after Suez

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Richard Toye
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History

Cross-posted from Politics Home

On 29 October 1956, Israeli forces launched an attack on Egypt. The following day Britain and France quickly issued an ultimatum to both sides to stop fighting. There was no compliance and, on 5 November, Anglo-French forces invaded Egypt in order to ‘separate the combatants’. The operation was a military success – and a catastrophic political failure.

For Britain and France’s actions had been based on a lie, and a pretty see-through one at that. The real motivation was to overthrow Egypt’s President Nasser, who just over three months earlier had nationalised the Suez Canal Company. In Paris and London, this was seen as a threat to Western Europe’s oil supply and to international order more generally. Initial efforts to get Nasser to ‘disgorge’ what he had seized, via diplomacy backed by coded threats, were unsuccessful.

Dwight Eisenhower, running for re-election to the White House on a platform of peace and prosperity, was not willing to back the use of force, and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was similarly cautious. Both men might have been willing to turn a blind eye to a spot of old-fashioned colonial atavism if the British and French had simply got on with it and launched an attack. Yet British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had a reputation to protect as an internationalist and a man of peace. To the frustration of his French allies, there was delay after delay as he looked for a pretext for action that would both allow him to destroy Nasser and to satisfy world opinion.

The answer was a covert plan which, to the increasingly desperate occupant of Downing Street, looked ingenious, but which was in reality deeply flawed. The notorious Sèvres Protocol, signed by Britain, France and Israel, committed he three powers to collude with one another. Israel would attack the Sinai Peninsula, creating the excuse for Anglo-French intervention, to be undertaken ostensibly because the UN would not be able act quickly enough to restore peace. Few people outside Britain were fooled – certainly not the Americans, who were deeply angered by the attempt to deceive them. In the face of global condemnation, and more importantly a severe run on the pound, the British quickly called a ceasefire. Eden hung on in office for a few more weeks but then resigned on grounds of ill health. Suez was a humiliation not just for him but for the British nation as a whole.

Or so one would think. But although Suez has often been a defining moment in the end of Empire, historians now tend to emphasize the continuities rather than seeing 1956 as a sharp break. Within Whitehall, politicians and officials continued to seek an ongoing global British leadership role. It took some years for the subsequent ‘turn to Europe’ to take shape. Moreover, the Conservative Party – although not Eden himself – quickly bounced back. This was partly possible because it took over ten years for the full facts about collusion to become known – even though it had been immediately suspected at the time. As late as 1960, a Central Office of Information film claimed that the Anglo-French action had been beneficial for the UN and the world.

Some argue today that Brexit represents the UK’s greatest crisis since Suez.

The parallels in some ways do not seem very exact, because it is hard to compare a short-lived military invasion with a long, drawn-out set of negotiations intended to implement the outcome of a referendum. But they cannot be dismissed entirely. Whereas Suez is generally seen as an end-point, it can also be seen as a starting point – for a particular form of post-imperial delusion about Britain’s potential world influence.

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