Magazine article The Spectator

Half a Century on, the Ghosts of Suez Return

Magazine article The Spectator

Half a Century on, the Ghosts of Suez Return

Article excerpt

Fifty years since Suez, and this week the cauldron boils over yet again. Some of the ingredients are different. Britain and France used force in a way they would not now dare. The United States in 1956 had the power to stop the crisis which it has now lost. Most Arabs today accept the existence of Israel, but fail to impose that acceptance on those still bent on its destruction. Israel still tries to safeguard its citizens by using overwhelming force which breeds hatred and future danger. Suez was a dramatic setback for Britain; but this week we can look back almost with relief at how quickly that crisis was controlled.

Fifty years ago on 26 July 1956 the prime minister was entertaining the young King of Iraq to dinner in Downing Street. Four Cabinet ministers, the leader of the Opposition, much of the British establishment and the subtle prime minister of Iraq, Nuri Said, were all present. Just after ten in the evening Anthony Eden's private secretary told him that President Nasser of Egypt had announced to a huge crowd the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.

The formal dinner broke up into a series of informal gatherings in different rooms.

Other ministers and the chiefs of staff were summoned in white tie or lounge suits from different locations across London. As happens at sudden consultations after dinner the mood was robust. It was felt that Nasser had his finger on Britain's windpipe and would not hesitate to throttle us to death. Even the leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, thought that public opinion would support quick strong action. Nuri Said pressed the same view, adding that on no account must Britain act in collusion with Israel.

That summer evening Anthony Eden's career, though still brilliant, was over the crest and heading downhill. Two years before, as foreign secretary, he had reached his peak. Among other achievements he had persuaded his reluctant prime minister Winston Churchill to accept a new treaty with Egypt under which the British would evacuate the Suez Canal zone and give Egypt for the first time full national independence.

Now as prime minister he had to accept that so far from ushering in an era of Anglo-Egyptian friendship, the 1954 Treaty had turned sour. Nasser began to rely on the Soviet Union and ordered arms from Czechoslovakia. The nationalisation of the Suez Canal was in retaliation for the Anglo-American decision to stop finance for the Aswan Dam; but it struck Eden and almost everyone at his dinner party as proof of a deep and dangerous hostility.

The idea of an immediate paratroop attack on Egypt was abandoned as impractical.

Military planning went ahead in tandem with diplomacy. The foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, reached agreement in principle at the UN Security Council on six points which might have led to a treaty safeguarding both Egyptian sovereignty and free passage through the Canal. Military planning took a baleful turn when the French General Challe turned up at Chequers on 14 October with the idea, already discussed with the Israelis, that Israel might attack Egypt and so provide an excuse for the Anglo-French military expedition which would topple Nasser. Eden took the poisoned bait. Selwyn Lloyd was told to give up his genuine hopes of a deal in New York. He was sent to Sèvres to perfect the plans for the collusion with Israel.

The news of Israel's attack on Egypt on 29 October reached New York during the first night of the Metropolitan Opera. Britain's Ambassador to the UN Sir Pierson Dixon was in his box listening to Callas singing Norma.

He received the news at much the same time as his American colleague, Cabot Lodge, who was sitting in another box a few yards away.

Lodge appeared during the interval to suggest that, as had become usual, the British and Americans should call a meeting of the Security Council. But as Dixon's private secretary I had carried to the opera instructions from the Foreign Office that we were to do no such thing. …

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