Sixty years ago this week the Suez Crisis was in full swing and parliament was in uproar. Here we discuss the crisis through the eyes of the Commons…
The Suez Crisis is now seen by historians as one of the defining moments of twentieth century British foreign policy. At the time, the divisions within the country were played out in the Commons chamber, as the Conservative government, led by Anthony Eden, unusually came under attack by Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour opposition even as the fighting was underway.
The crisis erupted after the nationalist leader of Egypt, General Abdel Nasser, nationalised the Suez Canal. For Eden, this was an act of aggression that needed to be resisted. However, military action against Nasser proved difficult: world opinion had turned against anything perceived as ‘imperial interference’, especially in the United States, whose government feared that Nasser would turn towards their Cold War rival, the USSR. Instead, the French government suggested a scheme to regain control of the canal. Israel, concerned themselves about Nasser, would invade Egypt, allowing the British and French to intervene as ‘peacemakers’ and to ‘protect’ the canal. Eden agreed if the plan was kept absolutely secret. After Israel invaded Egypt on 29th October, as agreed Britain and France issued an ultimatum demanding that both sides retreat from the canal zone or they would use force to protect the canal. The Egyptians could not possibly accept this demand leaving the Israelis deep in their territory.
In the House of Commons, the controversy began on October 30th. Eden’s initial announcement of the ultimatum was met by a subdued Commons, yet when MPs returned to the issue later that night Labour went on the attack. Arguing that the British and French should wait for the UN to respond to the crisis, Gaitskell threatened to force a vote on the action. This vote, although won by the government 270-218, seriously undermined Eden, declaring publicly that he did not have the country’s full support at a time of national crisis.
Tensions increased the next day as British and French bombing of Egyptian airfields began. Gaitskell gave what has been described as a ‘brilliant’ opposition speech. Armed with the knowledge that a UN plan to stop the conflict had been vetoed by the British and French at the Security Council, Gaitskell argued the action now appeared to be a ‘transparent excuse to seize the Canal’.
This action involves not only the abandonment but a positive assault upon the three principles which have governed British foreign policy for, at any rate, the last ten years—solidarity with the Commonwealth, the Anglo-American Alliance and adherence to the Charter of the United Nations. I cannot but feel that some hon. Gentlemen opposite may have some concern for these consequences.
In his speech he publicly aired concerns about a ‘story’ circulating that the British and French had colluded with the Israelis and helped to cause the crisis, but it was his conclusion that shocked the Commons:
I must now tell the Government and the country that we cannot support the action they have taken and that we shall feel bound by every constitutional means at our disposal to oppose it. [For the full speech see Hansard].
The House exploded, as the opposition benches shouted for Eden to resign, while Conservative MPs described their ‘disgust’ at the ‘treachery’ of Labour’s position. Later in the debate the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, stated that there was ‘no prior agreement’ with the Israelis – a deliberate attempt to deceive the House. One Conservative MP at the time, Robin Chichester-Clark, told us in his oral history interview that the deception had a “deep impact” on him and other Conservative MPs, who were “terribly uneasy” about action in Suez.
Worst was to come the next day, November 1st, as the House had to be suspended for thirty minutes for ‘grave disorder’ as the Labour benches tried to force Eden to give an answer to the question whether war had actually been declared, and if not, what protections there were for British troops now in combat. The Times lobby correspondent described the feelings in the House as ‘much worse than at the time of Munich’. Labour later called a motion of censure of the government; in the debate even Conservative backbench MPs questioned whether the government was involved in an ‘international conspiracy’. The government won the vote 324-255, but for the first time the Liberals voted against them. The Conservative MP James Ramsden described in his oral history interview how he left London for a time, unable to “take it any more”.
Although military action had gone well for the British and French, they were condemned by world opinion. The UN acted quickly to bring about a ceasefire backed by UN forces and Nasser shut the canal. This, combined with economic action from a furious United States, angry at the intervention itself, the fact they were not consulted and the timing – just days from a Presidential election – caused a run on the pound. The British and French were forced out.
For Eden and wider British foreign policy the consequences were devastating. Suez underlined how far British power had declined in the Middle East, and that Britain could no longer intervene in this manner without the backing of the United States. In a Commons debate on 5th December the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Aneurin Bevan, attacked the policy with heavy irony:
After having outraged our friends, after having insulted the United States, after having affronted all our friends in the Commonwealth, after having driven the whole of the Arab world into one solid phalanx, at least for the moment, behind Nasser, we were then going to deal with all the outstanding problems in the Middle East. [For the full speech see Hansard]
Eden was forced to resign through ill-health soon afterwards, his reputation in tatters. Within Parliament the ferocity of the debates and the accusations of deception would be remembered for a long time.