Magazine article The Spectator

Yes, Suez Did Help Mac

Magazine article The Spectator

Yes, Suez Did Help Mac

Article excerpt

. . if Nasser `gets away with it', we are done for ... It may be the end of British influence and strength forever. So, in the last resort, we must use force and defy opinion, here and overseas.... (Macmillan Diaries, 18 August 1956) IT IS a pity that the best definition of Harold Macmillan's role during the Suez crisis had to be uttered by one of Britain's dodgier prime ministers. Although the words written about Suez over the past 40 years would reach from here to the Canal, the other Harold's damning, 'First in, first out' still just about says it all.

Suez was definitely not Supermac's finest hour, and from his manner of getting out, the verdict of his harsher critics that he engineered the whole show so as to pull the carpet out from under Eden is understandable, even if not acceptable.

The unpublished Macmillan diaries for 1956, up till then so complete, end tantalisingly on 4 October - the day that collusion with France and Israel slipped into top gear - and were not resumed until February 1957. By this time he had moved into No. 10.

Macmillan advanced various reasons at different times for this gap in the diary entries. Possibly they were destroyed, at Eden's request; but while I was working on his official biography, Macmillan remarked to me, `It was like the First War. When you went up to the front, you stopped keeping a diary. And in October we went into the operational stage. .. '

Before the diaries fell silent during the key 'operational stage', what gave me my first big jolt were Macmillan's entries for the beginning of August 1956, only a week after Nasser had nationalised the Canal. Far from it being a 'last resort', on 3 August, Macmillan (who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer) produced before the 'Egypt Committee' a considered blueprint for regaining the Suez Canal by force. Apart from recommending an invasion at Alexandria -- instead of Port Said, which was the current contingency plan - from which Cairo could then be seized, its most striking suggestion was that Israel should be 'encouraged to attack Egypt'. As a reward, the Israelis would receive 'some benefits'.

According to his biographer, Robert Rhodes James, Eden was `very shocked', and the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, was instructed to urge the Israelis to take no immediate action. Nevertheless, the idea had been let out of the bottle; an idea which would end in the 'Sevres Protocol' the original of which has just been re-discovered in the Negev - and an act of collusion that would lead to a British prime minister lying shamefully to the Commons. On Sunday, two days later, Macmillan dined with his old wartime boss, Churchill, at Chartwell, to whom he expanded his blueprint. 'C. got quite excited,' and promptly set off to Chequers to urge the Macmillan plan on Eden. Always the prima donna, Eden was furious at this intervention and refused to allow the paper to be circulated within the Cabinet - or to the Chiefs of Staff. Macmillan thought it 'a very foolish and petty decision of this strangely sensitive man'.

The rejected paper, however, now had another, secondary consequence; Macmillan, his knuckles thoroughly rapped, more or less withdrew wounded from any of the further operational planning of Suez. Thenceforth he restricted his efforts almost exclusively to matters directly concerning the Treasury - the post which he had accepted most grudgingly from Eden the previous year, when Eden had pushed him out of the Foreign Office in favour of the more slave-like Selwyn Lloyd.

Thus the one man in the Cabinet with strong personal influence on the Americans, dating back to the war and second only to Churchill himself, was now put in check.

There was, however, one important exception - and it was fairly disastrous. On 25 September, Macmillan, in Washington for a meeting of the IMF, called at the White House on his old wartime friend, President 'Ike' Eisenhower. Accompanied by the British Ambassador, Sir Roger Makins, he was let in by a side gate so as not to excite unwelcome press attention and then spent 35 minutes or more with the President, chatting about the good old days in North Africa. …

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