Majesty & Grace VII: The Reign of Elizabeth Windsor – The Coronation; Dawn of a New Era & Dusk of Empire, 1953-58.

Map of the Coronation Procession, 2nd June 1953:

The Map below commemorates a day which brought a sense of relief to the people of the United Kingdom after the trials and tribulations of the Second World War and the years of austerity which had followed it. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953 was a moment for the nation to celebrate with lavish ceremony and age-hallowed pageantry. The procession through London’s streets, which followed the coronation ceremony itself, snaked through the city’s historic heart, beginning at Westminster Abbey, before arriving back at Buckingham Palace nearly two hours later.

The Second World War had swept away much that was familiar; not just the buildings brought down by the Blitz, but the sense that the old world had passed. In housing, there were grave shortages, partly caused by the bombing, but in large part by the lamentable state of the pre-war housing stock, while the reintegration of millions of service personnel into the economy had caused severe disruption. There was a yearning for something new, for an escape, a need partly met by the arrival of the ‘New look,’ a fashion trend that tried to make the most of limited means with long, swirling skirts. Conversely, there was a political flight to safety when the Labour government was defeated in the 1951 general election and the ageing, yet familiar face of Winston Churchill returned to Downing Street.

George VI, who had been the nation’s figurehead throughout the war, died on 6th February 1952, leaving his twenty-five-year-old daughter Elizabeth to succeed him. The planning for the new Queen’s Coronation began almost immediately, but the actual ceremony only took place fourteen months later. British coronations were always occasions for pomp and display, but Elizabeth II’s took place under the glare of unprecedented publicity. After a bitter behind-the-scenes argument, television cameras were allowed to film the ceremony, leading to the event being watched by over twenty million viewers, at a time when there were only 2.7 million television sets in Britain, many of them bought specifically to watch the Coronation.

The three million who lined London’s streets did not see the Queen enter the Abbey preceded by St Edward’s Crown, based on the medieval original, and used since the Coronation of Charles II, nor her gown designed by Norman Hartnell embroidered with emblems from the main Commonwealth countries (a Tudor rose for Great Britain, a maple leaf for Canada, a wattle for Australia and a lotus flower for India), but they did catch a glimpse of the fairy-tale carriage in which she was carried down Whitehall, Piccadilly, Oxford Street and Regent Street along the circuitous five-mile route back from the Abbey to the Palace. The line of the ten thousand servicemen who marched as part of the parade stretched for almost two miles.

People began to speak of a new Elizabethan age following the death of George VI and the accession of his daughter in 1952 and in anticipation of the great national event of the Coronation. The Establishment took up their usual positions at Westminster Abbey. Sir Henry Chips Channon occupied almost the same seat as the one he had at the previous Coronation. He wrote the following account in his diary:

… All was comfortably, smoothly arranged … as a covered bridge had been built from St Stephen’s entrance to the East Door. But there was a slight drizzle and an overcast sky. … Below, empty in the golden light, stood the throne. Opposite, the peeresses benches were gradually filling up; the front row of thirteen Duchesses was a splendid sight. … The long wait was enthralling as every few minutes a procession of distinguished guests, relations, minor royalties entered and were escorted to their seats. Finally, the Royal Family. …The Duchess of Kent was fairy-like, as she walked in with her children…

… Finally came the magic of the Queen’s arrival: she was calm and confident and even charming, and looked touching and quite perfect, while Prince Philip was like a medieval knight – the Service, Anointing, Crowning, Communion were endless, yet the scene was so splendid, so breath-taking in the solemn splendour that it passed in a flash. The homage was impressive… The Great Officers of State swished their robes with dignity… Privy Councillors in their uniforms, men in levee dress, the little Queen at one moment simply dressed in a sort of shift, and then later resplendent: the pretty pages; the supreme movements… the nodding, chatting, gossiping Duchesses; the swan-like movements when they simultaneously placed their coronets on their heads… it was all finer, and better organised than the last time, although the Archbishop’s voice was not as sonorous as that of the wicked old Lang..

What a day for England, and the traditional forces of the world. Shall we ever see the like again? I have been present at two Coronations and now shall never see another. Will my Paul be an old man at that of King Charles III?

Sir Henry Channon (1967), Diaries, edited by Robert James, pp 475-477.

Paul Channon was Sir Henry’s only son (b. 1935), and succeeded his father as MP for Southend West, serving from 1959 to 1997. He became Minister of State at the Civil Service Department when the Conservatives returned to power in 1979 led by Margaret Thatcher. He joined the Privy Council in 1980. After the Civil Service department was abolished in 1981, he became Minister for the Arts, then Minister of State for Trade at the Department of Trade and Industry following the 1983 general election, finally serving as Secretary of State for Transport from 1987 until 1989. He died in 2007, aged 71, fifteen years before Her Majesty, so will not be present at the forthcoming Coronation of King Charles III. Clearly, like so many others present that day, ‘Chips’ Channon could not envisage the young Queen reigning for another sixty-nine years.

It seemed truly the beginning of a new Elizabethan age, filled with hope. That news of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s first ascent of Mount Everest reached London on Coronation Day only added to the excitement. Later, Hillary gave his account of the final ascent to the summit which had taken place earlier that morning:

The ridge curved away to the right and we had no idea where the top was. As I cut around the back of one hump, another higher one would spring into view. Time was passing and the ridge seemed never-ending. … I went on step-cutting. I was beginning to tire a little now. I had been cutting steps for two hours, and Tenzing, too, was moving very slowly. As I chipped steps around anothe corner, I wondered rather dully just how long we could keep it up. Our original zest had now gone and it was turning more into a grim struggle. I then realised that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away, … I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running up to a snowy summit. A few more whacks of the ice-axe and we stood on top.

‘My initial feelings were of relief – relief that there were no more steps to cut – no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalise us with high hopes of success. I looked at Tenzing and in spite of the balaclava, goggles and oxygen mask all encrusted with long icycles that concealed his face, there was no disguising his infectious grin of pure delight as he looked all around him. We shook hands and then Tenzing threw his arm around my shoulder and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless. It was 11.30 a.m.’

But the country still had Everests to climb. The real future challenges it faced were its continuing near-bankruptcy after the war, the growing demands for independence among the colonies, and its economic retardation behind both the United States and the resurgent nations of Europe and the Far East.

An Era of Lost Content:

Between the fall of Clement Attlee’s Labour government and the return of Labour under Harold Wilson in 1964, Britain went through a time that some contemporary commentators and historians described as a gold-tinted era of lost content. For others, however, the period was grey and conformist, thirteen wasted years of Tory misrule. Andrew Marr (2009) argues that either way, in this part of Britain’s past, the country was truly a different country from that of the 1930s and ’40s as well as from that of the later 1960s onwards. The British imagination was still gripped by the Second World War. National Service had been introduced in 1947 to replace wartime conscription and began properly two years later, lasting until 1963. More than two million young British men entered the forces, most of them in the Army. It brought all classes together at a young and vulnerable age, subjecting them to strict discipline, a certain amount of practical education, often to privation and sometimes to real danger.

Teenagers were introduced to drill, cropped haircuts, heavy boots and endless polishing, creasing and blanching of their kit. In due course, some would fight for Britain in the Far East, Palestine, Egypt and East Africa. Most would spend a year or two in huge military camps in Germany and Britain, going quietly mad with boredom. An estimated 395 conscripts were killed in action in the fifty-plus engagements overseas during National Service. A generation of British manhood was disciplined, helping to set the tone of the times. The civilian habits of polishing, dressing smartly and conforming to authority in millions of homes originated in National Service, keeping the atmosphere of the forties alive for a decade longer than might have been expected. There was also an urge for domestic tranquillity with women at home while men worked well-ordered and limited hours, a response to the suffering and uncertainty of 1940-45 and the continuing fears of nuclear war. To be at home was a kind of quiet liberation. The return of Winston Churchill in 1951 added to the middle-class impressions that Britain was returning to social order and political hierarchy after the post-war period of radical change.

Nevertheless, successive Conservative governments in the 1950s and 1960s, including Churchill’s from 1951 to 1955, and from 1957 to 1963 that of his old disciple Harold Macmillan, decided against reversing most of the essential institutions of Labour’s new Britain: the NHS created by Bevan; the public ownership of railways, steelworks and mines; and especially the commitment to building publicly owned council housing for renting. Macmillan, a radical critic of the Conservative-led National Government in the thirties, had spoken of British miners as ‘the salt of the earth,’ and in 1938, he had published a little book, The Middle Way, advocating, among other things, the abolition of the Stock Exchange.

Developing Britain’s Transport System & Infrastructure, 1952 – 1963:
1.) Roads & Airports:

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain’s inland transport was dominated by the railways. But increasingly cheap and flexible motor transport took an ever-greater share of passengers and freight. As the car replaced the railway as Britain’s preferred form of transport in the second half of the twentieth century, it became progressively difficult for the road system to cope with the increase in traffic. A motorway system became imperative. But between 1939 and 1952 there had been practically no major road improvement or new road construction. Road transport recovered slowly from vehicle and fuel shortages during and after World War II. Road haulage was assisted by a succession of regulations, including, in Britain, the lifting of the twenty-five limit on road freight consignments. By the 1960s, British road transport had eclipsed railways as the dominant carrier of freight.

Motorways were meant to ease congestion on the roads; the planners never envisaged that car ownership would reach twenty million by 1990.

In December 1958 Macmillan opened the Preston bypass, the first eight miles of dedicated, high-speed, limited-access motorway in Britain, and the following month the M1 was opened. Motorways were meant to ease congestion on the main roads. By the early 1960s, traffic flow had been eased by a total of a hundred miles of motorway. Between 1953 and 1963, vehicle numbers more than doubled: motorways allowed fast, convenient commercial and social travel, household incomes were rising, and the real cost of personal motoring was falling. Workplace, retail and residential decentralisation encouraged the desertion of trains and car dependency.

The M1 at Luton Spur opened in November 1959.

The first jet aeroplane to carry passengers was called the Comet, which began regular passenger services in 1952. But it was very small compared with modern ‘jumbo jets’ and could not carry many people, only a small fraction of the five hundred that can be carried by a jumbo seventy years later. In the late fifties and early sixties, people began to spend more of their growing income on foreign holidays. They no longer wanted to spend holidays in Britain, due to the unpredictable weather. Package holidays became popular and airports like Gatwick (below), opened as an aerodrome in the late 1920s; it has been in use for commercial flights since 1933 but was used by the RAF during the war. It was redeveloped and re-opened in May 1958 for commercial fights from two terminals. This gradually made package holidays cheaper and easier for families.

2.) Railways & Ports:

Reinvesting in exhausted railways was not a priority after World War Two. Railway nationalisation was followed by railway rationalisation (closures) as the railways were made more efficient. In 1952, the railways’ share of total passenger miles was still at a level of twenty per cent, and rail passenger mileage was stable for most of the second half of the century. Yet by 1953, nearly twelve hundred miles of railway had been closed to passenger traffic in Britain. This was largely the result of the industrial changes that brought the loss of staple coal and textile traffic. Britain’s compact industrial geography also diminished any long-haul advantages that railways had over modern road transport. Comparatively low-cost rural bus services damaged the railways still further.

The start of Britain’s largest-ever road-building programme in the 1960s coincided with an increase in the tempo of the railway closures. Roughly half of Britain’s branch-line railways and stations had become uneconomic. The closure of almost six thousand miles of track and two thousand stations resulted from the notorious Beeching Report in 1963. However, the least utilised third of the track had previously carried little more than one per cent of passengers and freight; henceforth, the railways were to concentrate on fast inter-city services. In 1966, the first electrified Intercity train was used, which could travel much faster than steam or diesel engines.

The docks also began to be modernised, with the development of container ports like Tilbury and Felixstowe hastening the decline of ports like London, which could not handle containerised freight. Airports also increased in number to meet an ever-growing demand.

3.) From Coal to Nuclear Power:
A coal mine in South Wales in the 1950s.

Until the early 1960s, most of Britain’s energy came from coal. It heated homes, offices and schools, and was also used in power stations and to power steam trains. The coal mines were finally nationalised by the Labour government in 1947, and the Conservatives kept them under public control by the National Coal Board. In 1955, there were still nine hundred coal mines throughout Britain. Gradually, cutting machines were introduced, putting many colliers out of work. But when new sources of energy were introduced and developed, especially oil and gas, many collieries were closed. By 1965, the number left was about half that of ten years earlier. The unemployment and hardship of the 1930s returned to the coalfield communities, especially those in South Wales, once one of the largest coal-mining areas in Britain, where the coal industry was still the major employer. In October 1956 Calder Hall became Britain’s first nuclear power station. Despite a major fire in 1957 at the nuclear waste processing plant, Windscale (renamed Sellafield), which produced widespread contamination, a series of Magnox power stations were built throughout the country.

The Affluent Society – Reality or Illusion?:

Real wages grew, on average, by fifty per cent between 1951 and 1964, and the Financial Times index of industrial shares rose from 103 in 1952 to 366 in 1961. By 1963, three out of every four households had a vacuum cleaner, one in three had a fridge and one in five had a washing machine. Perhaps most significant of all, four out of five had a television set. BBC TV, begun in 1936 and appealing to the small minority who could afford sets, went from strength to strength. Commercial television began in 1955, and by 1959 new transmitters allowed ninety per cent of the population to receive pictures, by which time three-quarters of the population already had a set. In 1964, BBC2 started to provide more ‘high-brow’ programming.

Watching television quickly became the most popular leisure activity in the country, while cinema attendance fell from 26.8 million in 1950 to 37 million by 1970. For the mass of viewers, programmes like ‘Cathy Come Home’ made the public aware of the poverty that remained in the midst of Britain’s affluence. But in his famous speech in July 1957, Harold Macmillan claimed that most people were better off after six years of Tory rule:

“Let’s be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good. Go around the country, go to the industrial areas, go to the farms, and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime.”

Harold Macmillan’s Speech, 20 July 1957.

But six years after Macmillan’s speech, British economic growth rates did not match those of competitor states, and it was partly for this reason that in 1961 Britain applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC), formed by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. However, its entry was vetoed by France under President De Gaulle, who was concerned about the implications of Britain’s economic dependence on the USA.

J. K. Galbraith’s book on the affluent society, published in 1958, was seen by many as symbolising attitudes in the late fifties. Though primarily concerned with the United States, his work was hailed in Britain as a masterpiece which truly reflected the nature of British society. His work fitted the mood of Britons at the time. Austerity, with its characteristic lack of consumer goods, was replaced by affluence with the plethora of consumer products which still characterised the country in the 1980s. But how did Galbraith define an affluent society? He seems to suggest that it is one where…

… the ordinary individual has access to amenities – foods, entertainment, personal transportation and plumbing – in which not even the rich rejoiced a century ago. So great has been the change that many of the desires of the individual are no longer evident to him. They become so only as they are synthesised, elaborated, and nurtured by advertising and salesmanship, and these, in turn, have become among our most important and talented professions. Few people at the beginning of the nineteenth century needed an ad-man to tell them what they wanted. … The affluent country which conducts its affairs in accordance with rules of another and poorer age also forgoes opportunities. And in misunderstanding itself it will, in any time of difficulty, implacably prescribe for itself the wrong remedies.

However, not everyone fell under the Galbraith spell. M. Shanks’ work on the stagnant society, published in 1961, showed another side to the economy and government policy. He saw Conservative policy as leading to inflation based on consumer demand and thought that there was a failure to deal with the problems facing the economy. He argued that since the 1940s there had been no lack of new ideas, techniques or machines, and in the same way there was no lack of knowledge as to how the economic system worked. He pointed out:

We are no longer powerless to avert depressions or to prevent massive unemployment. We are no longer compelled to look on powerless at the catastrophic fluctuations of the trade cycle, unpredictable as a force of nature. If we cannot tame this monster now, it is due to incompetence and not ignorance. …

And yet it works much less smoothly. Why is this? Three main reasons stand out, all interconnected. The first is that the measures required to contain inflation, unlike those required to stimulate demand, are unpleasant and painful. It is much easier psychologically and to encourage people to do things they would like to do but are afraid to … than to stop them doing what they would normally want to do. …

The second reason is rather more complicated. Inflation manifests itself in a tendency for production costs and prices to rise sharply and progressively. … a country like Britain which depends on international trade cannot let its costs and prices get out of line with the rest of the world because of the danger to its balance of payments. …

The third reason for the difficulty of imposing an effective anti-inflationary policy is that one is making a real choice between evils. … In 1955, when, as a result of a government-assisted boom in industrial investment, demand began to run ahead of capacity and the economy became overstrained. … The cost of living was deliberately pushed up by raising purchase tax on a wide range of goods, and at the same time a number of measures were taken to discourage capital investment. Mr Butler’s policy was followed by his two successors at the Treasury. … It was only reversed at the onset of the recession in 1958. …

It did eventually succeed in slowing down the pace of wage increases, which was one of the main factors behind the 1955 inflation. But it took three years to do so, at the cost of a virtually complete industrial standstill and a number of financial crises and major industrial disputes. … One particularly unfortunate aspect of this period was the government’s attempts to restrict investment in the public sector – an attempt which was largely unsuccessful because of the long-term nature of most of the projects involved, which made it quite impossible to turn them on and off like a tap to meet the short-term fluctuations in the economy.

M. Shanks (1961), The Stagnant Society, pp. 30, 33-9, 40-42.
From Cost of Living to Quality of Life:

Outside work, leisure and home, the public was ordered and monitored by self-confident officialdom, hospital consultants and terrifying matrons, bishops and park-keepers, bus conductors and police officers. Ten National Parks had been designated between 1951 and 1957, protecting these areas from many forms of industrial and commercial development. There was also a continuing expansion of education. Higher education saw particular expansion. In 1938, there had been just twenty thousand students, a figure that rose nearly six-fold to 118,000 in 1962. But the real explosion in numbers came thereafter, as new ‘plateglass’ universities were formed and former colleges were given university status. Hanging, corporal punishment of young offenders, and strong laws against abortion and homosexual behaviour among men, all framed a system of control that was muttered against and often subverted but never directly or significantly challenged throughout the early fifties. The country was mostly orderly, and the people were more or less obedient subjects. Patriotism was publicly proclaimed, loudly and unselfconsciously, in a way that was later difficult to imagine.

In keeping up a public front of self-confidence after the Coronation in 1953, there was much continuing talk of the New Elizabethan Age, a reborn nation served by great composers, artists and scientists. In retrospect, not all of this was false or exaggerated. In Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, Britain did have some world-class musical talents. W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot were among the greatest poets of the age. Many contemporaries also saw the sculptor Henry Moore and the painter Graham Sutherland as world-class figures. In popular culture, the steady rise of television brought, at first, a traditionalist upper-class view of the world to millions of homes. This was the age of ‘Watch with Mother’, of Joyce Grenfell and Noel Coward. It was also the time of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile. In 1955, Bannister wrote his own account of his record-breaking run. Here he describes the final two hundred yards:

I felt at that moment that it was my chance to do one thing supremely well. I drove on, impelled by a combination of fear and pride. The air I breathed filled me with the spirit of the track where I had run my first race. The noise in my ears was that of the faithful Oxford crowd. … I had now turned the bend and there were only fifty yards more. The faint line of the finishing tape stood ahead as a haven of peace, after the struggle … I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the cavern that threatens to engulf him. … The announcent came – ‘Result of one mile … time, three minutes…’ — the rest lost in the roar of excitement*

Roger Bannister (1955), The First Four Minutes. pp. 163-5. *The time was 3 min. 59.4 secs.

It was also a time of great British achievements in yachting and football. Billy Wright, England’s captain in their 6-3 defeat by Ferenc Puskás’s Hungary in 1953, led his club side Wolverhampton Wanderers out onto their Molineux turf to face Puskás’s Honved Budapest (Army) team in December 1954.

Billy Wright (left) & Ferenc Puskás (right) lead out their teams at Molineux on 13 December 1954.

Wolverhampton Wanderers were unofficially crowned as champions of the world after their 3-2 victory over the ‘Mighty Magyars’ in the season after the Hungarian national team, containing many of the same players, had been the first continental team to beat England on home soil, at Wembley Stadium, in what was the centenary season of the English Football Association. ‘Wolves’ therefore gave English football a much-needed boost. The morale of National Servicemen throughout the country also received a boost, as the following recollection from the Wolves’ archivist Graham Hughes shows:

‘In 1954, I was serving with the Royal Corps of Signals, stationed at Sherford Camp near Taunton. On the day of the Wolves game with Honved our orders were to more chairs into the NAAFI so the servicemen could watch the BBC broadcast of the game. Myself and my two friends, Taffy Townsend and Les Cockin, being from Wolverhampton, were guests of honour and given front-row seats; it was great! When Wolves scored the winner everybody jumped up, shouting and cheering: Scousers, Cockneys, Geordies, the lot; even the officers. In fact, the officers were so pleased they ordered the NAAFI to stay open so we could celebrate Wolves win properly. Fantastic!’

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against The World: European Nights 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing. pp. 44-46.

These scenes were repeated in many NAAFIs (Servicemen’s clubs) throughout the country. The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 proved to be the end of this great ‘golden team’ led by Ferenc Puskás, which was touring at the time of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Many of the players, including Puskás, decided against returning to their homeland, preferring instead to ply their skills in the free world.

But there is also a lesser-recalled sequel to this story. On Tuesday 11th December 1956, Wolves welcomed another Hungarian team to their Molineux ground, ‘Red Banner’ (MTK), another team from Budapest who, like Honved, was packed with internationals, including Palotás and Hidegkúti, who had played in the humiliating victories over England three years earlier. Wolves had agreed to host the benefit match against MTK, as they preferred to be known, with the proceeds donated to the Hungarian Relief Fund. The attendance at the match was 43,540 and it finished in a 1-1 draw with both goalkeepers making a string of acrobatic saves. The solemnity of the occasion, set against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation and crushing of the uprising, perhaps produced a match which didn’t live up to the encounter with Honved two years earlier.

At the pre-match banquet, the Hungarian team had pledged to play the very best football they could in honour of their gracious hosts and they certainly tried hard on the pitch. Responding, the Wolves Chairman James Baker told his guests that the motto of both the town and its famous football club was Out of darkness cometh light and that he hoped that very soon that would be the way in their native land. The day after the match, the Hungarians were on their way to Vienna, from where their future movements would be dictated by the course of events in their stricken country. The match had raised two thousand three hundred pounds for their compatriots who were fleeing in the opposite direction in hundreds of thousands, many of them eventually finding refuge in Britain.

Beginning of the End of Empire – The Suez Crisis, War & its Aftermath:

Britain’s disengagement from its empire was not entirely voluntary. The dissolution of the British Empire was accomplished in two main waves. The first, presided over the Labour governments of the 1940s, centred in Asia, which incorporated India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma and Palestine. Britain’s comparative international weakness in the two decades after the end of World War II required that it grant independence to territories in Asia that were rapidly becoming ungovernable. By October 1951, when Labour left office, nationalist demands in the empire were already beginning to run on far ahead of Britain’s willingness to concede them, and colonial policy was taking on the appearance of a power struggle between government and nationalists. Further retreats were forced on the Conservative governments by Britain’s inability to sustain a world role.

The next eight or nine years, from October 1951, were the most difficult of all for the post-war empire, as nationalist demands became bolder and their methods more drastic, and as the new government came to terms only very slowly and painfully with the full reality of the situation and all its implications. Conflict sometimes erupted violently. There were colonial wars in Malaya (1948-58), Kenya (1952-56) and Cyprus (1954-59), and lesser ‘skirmishes’ elsewhere. In the mid-fifties, however, Britain was still a worldwide player, connected and modern. Her major companies were global leaders in the production of oil, tobacco, shipping and finance. The Empire was not yet quite gone, even if both name and organisation it had been, for some decades, transforming itself into ‘the Commonwealth’. Royal visits overseas featured heavily in news broadcasts and weekly magazines. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were promoted as places for holiday cruises or emigration; sunlit, rich and empty.

Then, in 1956, in a late flourish of imperial self-assertion, Britain sent troops to the Suez Canal to safeguard its strategic and economic interests in the old proprietorial way, with humiliating results. The Conservatives reacted every time Britain was faced with an inconvenient nationalist who threatened to repatriate imperial assets like the Suez Canal. The Suez Crisis was described soon after as the last dying convulsion of British Imperialism (Nutting, 1967). All this was in a desperate scramble to find some sort of handhold, a defensible position, to halt the fall from imperial pre-eminence which had started with Indian independence in 1947. The attempt failed, yet it may still have been necessary for the Conservatives’ peace of mind to make it.

‘Suez’ is often portrayed as a very short era of bad judgement. However, it was a crisis which resulted from Britain’s colonial heritage. It may have begun as something intensely personal, a duel between an English politician of the old school and an Arab nationalist leader of the new post-war world. If Eden was the model of an aristocratic kind of Englishness, Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser was the original anti-colonialist autocrat who would become familiar over the decades to come – charismatic, patriotic, ruthless and opportunistic. Driving the British from Egypt was the cause that had burned in him from his teenage years and, not surprisingly, although nominally independent under its own king, Egypt had been regarded as virtually British until the end of the Second World War. Before the war, Egypt had been forced to sign a treaty making it clear that the country was under Britain’s thumb. The Suez Canal was the conduit through which a quarter of British imports and two-thirds of Europe’s oil arrived.

In the early fifties, Nasser was soon at the centre of a group of radical army officers, Egypt’s Free Officers Movement, discussing how to get the British out and how to build a new Arab state, socialist rather than essentially Islamic. A quietly determined man who naturally attracted followers, when King Farouk was eventually ousted by the Free Officers, it took Nasser just two years to seize control of the country. After the war Arab nationalism made things much tougher for Britain in the Middle East. Its oil interests were challenged and visiting British ministers suddenly found themselves being stoned by Arab crowds. Almost as suddenly, The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company was nationalised in 1951. In Iraq, a British-sponsored king and prime minister were holding on to power by their fingertips and were later murdered by mobs. In Jordan, the young King Hussein decided to replace the British soldier, John Glubb, the commander of the Arab League since 1939, with an Arab. But it was Egypt where the decisive confrontation between the colonial power and Arab nationalism was bound to take place.

Britain’s military base at Suez, guarding its interest in the canal, was more like a small country than a barracks, with a vast border that was expensive and difficult to defend. It depended for its survival on supplies from the surrounding towns and villages. But as tensions rose, it was boycotted by the nationalists. Off-duty British servicemen were shot, and after one act of bloody retaliation, involving the killing of a poorly armed Arab policeman holed up in a building by British soldiers, the Cairo crowds turned on foreign-owned clubs, hotels, shops and bars and set them alight. Britain was facing a guerilla war. London began to negotiate a British withdrawal in favour of using bases in Cyprus and Jordan. Eden, then Foreign Secretary, came to think that withdrawal was inevitable. He reached an agreement with Nasser in which Britain would keep its rights over the canal, a deal soon to be broken by Nasser. Yet he would have remained a local irritant had it not been for a catastrophic blunder by Washington.

Nasser’s great ambition was the creation of the so-called High Dam at Aswan. Three miles wide, it would be used to create a three-hundred-mile-long lake which would increase the electricity supply eightfold and give the Egyptians a third more fertile land. Nasser talked of it being seventeen times taller than the greatest pyramid. With Aswan, there was a new Pharoah bringing a new age to Egypt after centuries of humiliation by the imperial powers. The problem was that such a dam was also far beyond the resources of Nasser’s Egypt. Loans had been discussed for years and in 1956 Nasser had every reason to think that the Americans, followed by the British, were about to sign the cheques. Nasser’s ambassador then claimed that they could get help from the Russians and Chinese if the US terms were not favourable enough. In July, the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles abruptly cancelled their cheque, followed within a few days by the British government doing likewise. For Nasser, the Aswan Dam was a symbol of the rebuilding of Egypt and Arab nationalism, and the withdrawal of Western aid in this peremptory manner was a stinging personnel rebuff. According to Kilmuir, …

‘The British decision was reached almost entirely for economic reasons; the immense political implications of the step do not seem to have been apparent to the Americans or to the Foreign Office. I, certainly have recollection of this crucial aspect of the situation being brought home to Ministers. And thus the decision was taken which was to plunge the world into a desperate crisis.’

Earl of Kilmuir (1964), Memoirs, p. 267.

Nasser was livid and abruptly retaliated by seizing control of the Suez Canal, triggering the coup with the code words given to a mass public rally.

The man who split Britain over Suez, Anthony Eden.

On 25th July 1956, Harold Nicolson was a guest at a party given by Bob Boothby, then a leading Conservative backbencher. Political gossip dominated the conversation, particularly about the new Conservative PM, Anthony Eden, who had succeeded Churchill in April 1955. Eden, the gossipers had decided, was a ‘dud,’ with no leadership qualities. Aneurin Bevan, the former Labour minister, was also present and said that “the decay of the present government is due entirely to Eden who is incompetent and tricky.” Boothby joined in the discussion with the remark, “Eden is loathed by his colleagues and bullies them.” Writing retrospectively, in 1965, Reginald Bevins gave this more considered and sympathetic, but equally candid critique of the former premier and Foreign Secretary:

Eden showed a curious mixture of strength and weakness. In my view, and I say this with sorrow, he ought never have been Prime Minister. His performance prior to Suez had been feeble. He forever temporised and chopped and changed his mind. He busied himself absurdly with detail. He was no judge of men; no favourite of Eden’s ever did any good. While he had a natural charm he was also nervy, jumpy and bad-tempered.

Reginald Bevins (1965), The Greasy Pole. p. 37

Eden’s handling of the ensuing crisis, highlighted by his incompetence and trickery, would lead eventually to his downfall. He had already convinced himself that Europe was reliving the 1930s and saw in Egypt’s president a Levantine Mussolini, whose violation of treaty agreements and ‘grab’ of the Canal must at all costs be resisted if the torch of freedom were not to go out in the Middle East. Hugh Thomas thought that Eden saw Egypt through a forest of Flanders poppies and gleaming jackboots. Nasser’s sudden nationalisation of the Canal in July provoked a petulant and enraged reaction from the British government. The débacle which followed led to an agonised and bitter conflict in British public opinion, which was as divided as it had been in 1938, the disapproval of nearly every other nation in the world, including much of the Commonwealth, the active opposition of the United States, the nadir of Anglo-American relations and the downfall of Eden himself.

A day after Boothby’s party, Egypt’s President, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. He spoke quite clearly about what he was doing and why he was doing it:

‘This is… a battle against imperialism, and a battle against Israel, the vanguard of imperialism, which was created… in an effort to annhilate our nationalism in the same way as it annihilated Palestine. … Britain left Egypt, believing… that she could have no place there. This was because the people of Egypt were awakaned; because <they> had pledged themselves to achieve for Egypt freedom of life.

‘… As I told you, Arab Nationalism feels its existence, its structure and strength. It also believes in its right to life. These are the battles which we are entering. … The Suez Canal was dug by the efforts of the sons of Egypt – 120,000 Egyptians died in the process. The Suez Canal Company, sitting in Paris, is a usurping company. It usurped our concessions. … The Suez Canal was one of the facades of oppression, extortion, and humiliation. … Today … we declare that our property has been returned to us.’

Speech by Colonel Nasser, 26 July 1956, in D. C. Watt (ed.) (1957), Documents on the Suez Crisis, 26 July to 6 November 1956. pp. 85-6.

At first, public opinion was unanimous in condemning Nasser’s move. Harold’s first reaction – that is a pretty resounding slap in our face – was entirely predictable, and wholly representative of contemporary political opinion. He was kept fully conversant with events in parliament and government through his son Nigel, MP for Bournemouth East, and Hugh Thomas, then a young Foreign Office civil servant, who became a distinguished historian and wrote a dispassionate account of The Suez Affair. Nicolson feared a fearful loss of prestige for Britain and increased tension in Anglo-American relations. Apart from Eden’s bumbling, his Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, inspired little confidence; his pretentious sabre-rattling at the Foreign Affairs Committee was anathema to Harold’s diplomatic style. Should Britain use force or even threaten it? He was not ‘absolutely sure.’ One thing was self-evident: ‘The Government have shown their accustomed irresolution and confusion of purpose,’ he wrote in his diary.

Initially, though, Eden’s tough line with Nasser was hugely popular. The Conservative Party was roaring its support. The Labour Opposition followed suit, under Hugh Gaitskell, who sounded more bellicose than any opposition leader before or since. With a couple of exceptions – the Manchester Guardian and the Observer – the press, commentators and cartoonists were all on-side and demanding swift punishment. The new science of opinion polling, and individual messages of support pouring into Downing Street, showed that public opinion agreed.

Under American pressure, there followed weeks of diplomatic manoeuvring during which Eden and his passionately anti-Nasser Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, began to lose the initiative. There were international conferences, promised compromise deals and intensive negotiations at United Nations. Britain kept hinting that it might yet come to war, but Eisenhower and Dulles insisted that a peaceful solution should be found. Nonetheless, by openly declaring that the USA would have no part in trying to shoot our way through to the Canal and by referring to the general problem of colonialism, they encouraged Nasser to resist all outside initiatives.

President Dwight Eisenhower, however, was 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. Initial efforts to get Nasser to ‘disgorge’ what he had seized, via diplomacy backed by coded threats, were unsuccessful. 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 allow him to destroy Nasser and 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 the three powers to collusion 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 to 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.

As the crisis moved through its well-documented stages, from the London Conference of the eighteen most-interested nations to the Suez Canal Users Association, which Hugh Thomas claimed was provocative and likely to lead to war, to the final Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt, Harold Nicolson’s position hardened against government policy, and in particular against Eden. All efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement petered out in deadlock. Harold knew why: France ‘clearly wants a showdown with Nasser because of Algeria,’ and was dragging Britain along. On 29th October, Israel, in a three-pronged strike, swept into the Gaza strip and Sinai, driving swiftly towards the Canal and Sharm el-Sheikh. Harold’s first, instinctive reaction was to see this as part of a ‘preventative war’ to protect Israel from Fadayun attacks on its territory. The following day Britain and France quickly issued an ultimatum to both sides to stop fighting. On the 31st, Halloween, Harold Nicolson wrote to his wife, Vita Sackville-West:

‘… The news broke only at 4 p.m. How they can have done such a thing with the whole of world opinion against us passes my comprehension. We shall now be accused of exploiting the crime of the Jews in invading Sinai in order to resume control of the Canal. To do this we have sacrificed our principles and practically destroyed UNO and the Charter. We are in danger of being denounced as aggressors. Of course, if the occupation of Port Said, Ismaila and Suez proceeds without a hitch or much loss of life, and if we can maintain ourselves on the Canal against the united armies of Arabia, then the Tories will acclaim it as an act of great resolution and courage. But to risk a war with more than half the country against you, with America and UNO opposed, and even the Dominions voting against us, is an act of insane recklessness and an example of lack of all principle.’

Harold Nicolson (1968), Diaries and Letters 1945-62, p. 312.

Thus the two powers would be able to claim that, as stated in their ultimatum, they were upholding the freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal on which the economic life of many nations depends. They would then be able to justify their lack of consultation with both the United States and the United Nations on the basis that they were acting on behalf of the international community. They were separating the combatants and extinguishing a dangerous fire, while actually seizing control of the entire waterway and its terminal ports. This would not only restore the running of the Canal to Anglo-French management but also enable these two powers to supervise all shipping movements through the Canal and thereby break the Egyptian blockade of Israel. On 30th October, an Anglo-French ultimatum was issued to Cairo and Jerusalem to stop the fighting between them, withdraw their troops behind a ten-mile strip along the Canal, and for the Egyptians to allow allied forces to occupy, temporarily, key points along the waterway. Non-compliance, they threatened, would lead to intervention. “Eden is mad! Eden is mad!” Hugh Thomas exclaimed, representing informed opinion in the Foreign Office.

Nicolson, among others, now suspected ‘a conspiracy … a very nasty plot,’ with the French masterminding it: ‘It is truly one of the most disgraceful transactions in the whole of our history.’ Eden had acted dishonestly and put Britain in breach of international law. Controversy continued long afterwards about the extent to which Britain and France were in collusion with Israel in their war with Egypt. According to Anthony Nutting (1967), who was working in the Foreign Ofice at the time as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs since 1954, there was a French-Israeli plan that Israel should first attack across the Sinai Peninsula and that France and Britain should then order both sides to withdraw their forces from the Suez Canal, in order to permit an Anglo-French force to intervene and occupy the canal on the pretext of saving it from being damaged by the fighting. Nutting’s resignation, Nicolson wrote, was…

‘… extremely important, since it deprives back-bench Members of the excuse, “The Government must know best”. Nutting knew everything, and has decided that it is evil. The central fact remains that Eden has deliberately ignored a recommendation passed by the overwhelming majority of the United Nations Assembly . This is a breach of law. I am not surprised that the House, at their special meeting yesterday, should have burst into disorder.’

Harold Nicolson (1968), Diaries and Letters 1945-62, p. 315.

It later became clear that the French had made at least preliminary soundings with the Israeli government, which they then shared with the British Foreign Office. Doing his best to conceal his excitement at the French plans, Eden replied to their approach by saying that he would give them very careful consideration. In fact, the PM had already made up his mind to go along with the French plans, however strongly his Foreign Office advisers might have warned against the venture. In the Commons, on 31st October, the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, was asked about collusion with the Israelis, since the previous day’s demands were made at a time when the Egyptian army was still engaging the Israelis at distances of more than seventy-five miles to the east of the Canal. Lloyd replied:

“… Every time any incident has happened on the frontiers of Israel and the Arab States, we have been accused of being in collusion with the Israelis about it. That allegation has been broadcast from Radio Cairo every time. It is quite wrong to state that Israel was incited… by Her Majesty’s Government. There was no prior agreement between us about it. It is, of course, true that the Israeli mobilisation gave some advance warning and we urged restraint upon the Israeli Government and in particular drew attention to to the serious consequences of any attack upon Jordan.”

A. Nutting (1967), No End of a Lesson. Constable, pp. 93-95, 116, 126.

According to Kilmuir (1964), the scenes in the Commons were the worst since the bitter clashes between Liberals and Unionists in 1911. A storm of booing would break out as soon as Eden entered the House and…

‘… would rise to a crescendo of hysteria when he actually rose to speak. At one point the chances of fighting actually breaking out between Members was very real, so intense was were the passions on each side. On November 1st, ‘Shakes’ Morrison, with consummate timing, adjourned the House for half an hour to let tempers cool, and things were never quite so bad afterwards.

I was told that Anthony made the speech of his life after the House reassembled, and when he sat down the Opposition could hardly raise a single boo, which was little short of astonishing. The courage with which Anthony faced this daily tumult won the admiration of his colleagues, supporters, and even of some members of the Opposition.

If the proceedings of the Commons had been televised, the effect on public opinion of the screaming mass of Labour Members would have been traumatic. As it was, the Press reports of the calculated howling down of the Prime Minister resulted in a great revulsion of public opinion.’

The Earl of Kilmuir (1964), Memoirs, pp. 273-4.

There was no compliance with the terms of the ultimatum by the Egyptians 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 Nicolson, the destruction of the Egyptian airforce left him unimpressed: ‘success does not render a dirty trick any less dirty.’ 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, in Paris and London, was seen as a threat to Western Europe’s oil supply and to international order more generally.

Nikolai Bulganin, the Soviet Prime Minister, certainly took a hard line against the ‘triumvirate’. Notes of the most menacing nature had been issued to the ‘aggressor’ nations – Britain, France and Israel – threatening the use of ‘every kind of destructive weapon’ unless they withdrew. This was, in part at least, a cover-up for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary and its crushing of the people’s rebellion there. Throughout the autumn, there had been an intense worry in Washington about the menacing noises from Moscow about Imre Nagy’s reform communist government emerging in Hungary and its liberalisation of society there following the Uprising of 23rd October. At the beginning of November, a substantial Soviet Army occupied Budapest and other major towns and cities. Allied action in Egypt deprived the British and French governments of any moral right to indict the Soviet Union for its aggression. Nicolson commented:

‘The Russians have sent seven divisions into Hungary and are closing in on Budapest. But we have no right to speak a word of criticism.’

Harold Nicolson’s Diaries, 4 Nov 1956, 315.

It wasn’t just Nicolson who thought that, at this moment, the world seemed to be going mad. The Israeli-British-French triumvirate’s dead-of-night intervention in Egypt to prevent Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal made the outcome of the Hungarian revolution dependent on superpower bargaining. Neither the USSR nor the USA was interested in military confrontation, but both were concerned to defend their strategic interests; the Soviets were willing to remain passive in the Middle East if they received assurances that there would be no Western intervention in Hungary. This was also agreed upon by the end of Tuesday 30 October.

This tacit agreement meant that the promise which had been expressly given by Radio Free Europe on Eisenhower’s behalf, which played no small role in the resolve of the Hungarian insurgents, was thus broken, while the Soviet leaders sought and obtained the agreement of Tito to their planned alternative of intervention. Alex von Tunzelmann believes that, in return, the situation in Hungary helped to push an already volatile situation between the superpowers closer to the brink. Khrushchev had to think very carefully about Suez when he was dealing with Hungary, just as Eisenhower had to think carefully about Hungary when he was dealing with Suez:

Both crises were referred to the UN, which was awkward because normally Britain would have stood by the US and condemned Soviet aggression – but since it was doing exactly the same thing, the UN was hamstrung. The US went against Britain and France at the UN for the first time, so this was the real danger to that alliance.

The turning point for the Soviets came on 31st October with the news that the British and French governments had issued their ultimatum threatening to attack Egypt. The Israelis, in a secret agreement with the British and French, had launched an invasion of Egypt across the Sinai desert. The Suez Crisis proved a disastrous venture for the prestige of Britain and France more broadly across the Middle East. The military intervention was universally denounced and seen as the dying act of the imperialist powers. The US government was furious; it had not been consulted on the military operation and was opposed to it. With the presidential elections only a week away, Washington was now presented with two international crises simultaneously. This was, potentially, an even more disastrous situation for Hungary. Tom Leimdorfer, then a fourteen-year-old in Budapest, who soon after became a refugee in Britain, remembers the flurry of worried phone conversations at the end of October:

‘Everyone agreed that this was the worst possible news. The UN and the West would be preoccupied with Suez and leave Hungary to its fate. Still it seemed that the streets which were not the scenes of the worst battles were returning to some semblance of normality. Some trams and buses started to run, the railways were running, many people walked or cycled to their places of work, but still no school of course. … At the same time there were daily political bulletins with mixed news. The most sinister of these were reports of increasing Soviet troop movements.’

Tom Leimdorfer’s personal family memoir, unpublished.

The Suez affair did indeed distract attention from events in Hungary, just as they entered their most critical phase, with PM Imre Nagy having restored order and set to consolidate the revolutionary gains of the previous eight days. It split the western camp and offered Moscow, with all eyes temporarily on Suez, a perfect cover for moving back into Budapest at the beginning of November. At first, however, it had the opposite effect, delaying Moscow’s intervention in Hungary, for Khrushchev himself did not want to be compared to the “imperialist aggressors” in Egypt. After all, he had withdrawn Soviet troops from Poland when confronted by Gomulka; perhaps now he would rely on the Hungarian Prime Minister to keep Hungary in line.

The US attitude also encouraged Moscow, which led the diplomatic charge against Britain and France. Throughout the episode, and despite the concurrent crisis caused by the USSR’s crushing of the Hungarians, Washington and Moscow stood shoulder-to-shoulder against London and Paris. Suez had become the most decisive issue in British politics since Munich. With Hugh Gaitskell now appealing to the Tory dissidents to vote against the government, and unprecedented mass demonstrations in Trafalgar Square calling for its resignation, Eden’s administration was tottering on a political precipice. Suez split Britain down the middle, dividing families and friends. It brought the Prime Minister into angry conflict with establishment grandees. Lord Mountbatten is said to have warned the young Queen that her government were “behaving like lunatics” and a former Royal aide believed that Her Majesty thought her premier had gone mad. Even the military was affected. The call-up for Suez provoked widescale desertions and minor mutinies across Britain. Some twenty thousand reservists were called back and many declined to come, some scrawling ‘bollocks’ across their papers. In Southampton, Royal Engineers pelted a general with stones. In Kent, there were similar scenes among reservists:

More or less to a man they refused to polish boots or press uniforms or even do guard duty. They spent most of their time abusing the career soldiers for being idiots. The army could do nothing…

Tom Hickman (2004), The Call-Up: A History of National Service. Headline.

In the House of Commons, Eden and Selwyn Lloyd made ‘revoltingly unctuous statements’ about Hungary. For Harold Nicolson, this was rank hypocrisy. He indulged in a telling comparison between these statements and British imperial policy in Cyprus. In Hungary ‘when people rise against foreign repression, they are hailed as patriots and heroes’ but in Cyprus ‘the Greeks whom we are shooting and hanging are dismissed as terrorists. What cant!’ Whether or not the Soviets were bluffing, more cogent considerations persuaded the British government to back down. The public mood in Britain was also changing. Anti-Colonialism, the rule of law and the rights of young countries were all issues which enthused Labour and the left more generally. The United Nations, NATO and the European Convention on Human Rights were all established as part of the architecture of the post-war world. As US hostility to military action became clearer, some MPs and commentators began to have second thoughts. Eden claimed that left-wing intellectuals were stirring up opposition to him, while…

“the BBC is exasperating me by leaning over backwards to be what they call neutral and to present both sides of the case.”

Eden made threatening noises about taking the BBC under direct government control. The reality was that the government was becoming increasingly isolated in the international arena and that Eden had misinterpreted the signals coming out of Washington and was on the verge of virtually destroying Anglo-American relations. Eisenhower, up for re-election on 6th November, would not countenance lending any support to what would be seen by the US voters as a foreign, imperial adventure.

In Malta, Grenadier Guards marched through their camp, angry about conditions as much as by politics, earning a stiff lecture from their commanding officer about the dire consequences of mutiny. Shortly afterwards, the Reservists of the 37th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery marched through the Maltese camp to protest, shouting down their regimental sergeant-major. These incidents were minor, but the headlines in the press about army mutinies and protest marches sent shockwaves through the forces.

From Eden’s point of view, the US was preventing any real pressure against Nasser while talking grandly about international law. He thought he had given enough broad hints for the White House to realise that he and the French prime minister were ready to use force. At different times Eisenhower’s administration gave the impression that they accepted force might be necessary. So while Britain could not tip off the Americans about their dangerous and illegal agreement with Israel, or give military details once the operation was underway, there was a general belief that the Americans would understand. This was an error.

On 5th-6th November, Anglo-French paratroop forces landed at Port Said and Port Faud. A huge British convoy which had been steaming for nine days from Malta arrived with tanks and artillery and the drive south to secure the Suez Canal began. So far, only thirty-two British and French commandos had been killed, against two thousand Egyptian dead. In a military sense, things had gone smoothly, but the politics were a different matter. When the invasion happened, Eisenhower and Dulles exploded with anger. According to the White House correspondents, the air at the Oval Office turned blue in a way that had not happened for a century. The US found itself in an extraordinarily difficult  position, as Alex von Tunzelmann has recently reiterated in her book, Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis that Shook the World:

… they were trapped between a lot of competing alliances. Britain and France had lied to them, and were continuing to lie, when it was perfectly obvious what was going on. It was also complicated because, although the US and Israel didn’t have quite as solid a relationship as they do now, it was still a pretty solid relationship.

It had therefore been widely expected in Britain, France and Israel that the US would not go against Israel in public, but in fact they did – extremely strongly. This was all happening in the week leading up to Dwight D Eisenhower’s second presidential election, too, and it was assumed that he wouldn’t stamp down on Israel because he would lose the election if he lost Jewish votes in the US. But actually Eisenhower was very clear that he didn’t mind about losing the election, he just wanted to do the right thing.

Above: British paratroopers in the Suez Canal Zone, November 1956.

Dulles appeared seriously to compare the Anglo-French action to that of the Soviets in Budapest. Meanwhile, Nasser had done the very thing Eden’s plan had been designed to prevent; he had blockaded the Canal by filling forty-seven ships with concrete. For the first and last time, the USA made a common cause with the USSR at the UN to demand a stop to the invasion. The motion for a ceasefire was passed by a crushing sixty-four votes to five. The Soviet Union threatened to send fifty thousand ‘volunteers’ to the Middle East. A day later, as the British troops were moving south towards Cairo, having taken Port Said, they were suddenly ordered to stop. The operation was halted and an immediate ceasefire was declared by London, to be followed by a swift pull-out. Harold recorded:

‘It is about the worst fiasco in history. Nasser regarded as a hero and a martyr … our reputation is tarnished … at the first serious threat from Bulganin, we have had to climb down.’

Harold Nicolson’s letter to Vita Sackville-West, 7 Nov., 1956.

On the ground, the French were prepared to keep going, clear-sighted about their national interest and uninterested in American anger. By then, the Egyptian air force had been destroyed and 13,500 British troops, with 8,500 French troops had landed at Port Said and were making their way south towards the Canal. Rather embarrassingly, the Israelis, led by Ariel Sharon, future PM, had long ago reached their destination and stopped, so there was no need for the Anglo-French forces to ‘separate’ anyone. From Eisenhower’s perspective, his old allies had dropped him in the dirt at the worst time possible, during a presidential election and when the Soviets were brutally crushing the Hungarian revolution with four thousand tanks. News of the Suez invasion, coinciding with American elections, helped bring home the hopelessness of Hungary’s situation to the citizens of Budapest. The West continued to be preoccupied; Hungary did not matter so much. Moreover, Britain and France had given the Soviets the perfect excuse for re-occupying the country in order to ensure that it stayed within the Soviet sphere of influence.

The US administration had failed to pick up on worrying reports from CIA agents in Paris and London about the Suez Crisis, just as they had failed to understand the consequences of cancelling their financing of the Aswan dam. The USA in the mid-fifties was a young superpower, and this time it had been fooled by both sides. In any event, President Eisenhower was so aghast at this independently planned Anglo-French campaign that the US led the call for a UN resolution issuing an ultimatum for the British and French to withdraw from Suez. To many, it seemed as if NATO itself was on the verge of breaking apart. In the end, American financial pressure was enough to force a humiliating British withdrawal and climb down. The crunch appears to have come when the US refused help for the critically ailing pound unless a truce was signed. Harold Macmillan had turned to the USA and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. The US Treasury Secretary told the UK’s ambassador to Washington:

“You’ll not get a dime from the US government if I can stop it, until you’ve gotten out of Suez. You are like burglars who have broken into somebody else’s house. So get out! When you do, and not until then, you’ll get help!”

With the country divided from Buckingham Palace to the barrack room, Eden’s health and nerves gave way. After a brutally direct phone call from Eisenhower, ordering him to announce a ceasefire, Eden called his French opposite number, Guy Mollet, who begged him to hang on. According to French sources, Eden told him:

“I am cornered. I can’t hang on. I’m being deserted by everybody. My loyal associate Nutting has resigned as minister of state. I can’t even rely on unanimity among the Conservatives. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church, the businessmen, everybody is against me! The Commonwealth threatens to break up … I cannot be the gravedigger of the Crown. And then I want you to understand, really understand, Eisenhower phoned me. I can’t go it alone without the United States. It would be the first time in the history of England … No, it is not possible.”

Jean-Raymond Tourneaux (1960), Secrets d’Étát: Paris. Quoted in Herman Finer (1964), Dulles over Suez: Heinemann.

Macmillan, the only strong man left in the cabinet, once hot for military action, now blew cold, informing his colleagues that he could no longer be responsible for ‘Her Majesty’s Exchequer’ unless there was a ceasefire. The cabinet duly agreed to sign a truce, in what was a vivid lesson for every British politician in the general relationship between power and freedom, and in the realities of where global power lay at that time. The ceasefire and the withdrawal that followed were a disaster for Britain, which left Nasser stronger than ever. It finished Eden, though not before he lied to the Commons about the Anglo-French-Israeli plot at Sévres, outside Paris. In December, Eden also claimed in the House that there was no foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt. This can be compared with the French copy of the Sévres protocol agreed upon six weeks earlier which begins by stating quite bluntly:

‘Les forces Israeliennes lancent le 23 Oct 1956 dans la soirée une operation d’envergure contre les Forces Egyptiennes… ‘

In the face of global condemnation, and more importantly a severe run on the pound, the British had quickly called a ceasefire and U-turn. Eden hung on for a few more weeks in office but was not in power. He eventually resigned on 9th January 1957 on grounds of ill health. Suez was a humiliation not just for him but for the British nation as a whole. At the time, MPs and commentators remained suspicious of what took place between Britain, France and Israel at their meeting at Sévres, especially in the context of earlier secret agreements in the twentieth century, most notably the Treaty of London (1915), the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) and the Hoare-Laval Pact (1935). In 1957, D. C. Watt also concluded that the Anglo-French actions were prevented from winning any degree of international support by…

‘ … the immediate acceptance by considerable sections of opinion of allegations that the British and French governments either had definite foreknowledge of the Israeli attack on Egypt, or that their ultimatum and intervention were concerted with the Israeli government.’

D. C. Watt (ed.) (1957), Documents on the Suez Crisis, 26 July to 6 November 1956.

In her recent interview for the BBC History Magazine, historian Alex von Tunzelmann was asked why she thought the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt was so badly bungled. She pointed out that the military plans from the time show that they were full of gaps and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were clearly opposed to the whole operation. Indeed, they themselves had advised the British Prime Minister that the consequences of the action could be terrible, but he had chosen to ignore their advice. They were proved right, but partly because the weight of world opinion was so heavily against them, by the time the British and French forces got a third of the way down the canal, they had to stop. Israel achieved its objective of taking Sinai but soon lost it again. Neither Britain nor France achieved their objectives, and all that they succeeded in doing was strengthening Nasser’s control in the Middle East while his ally, the Soviet Union, reasserted its control over its satellite states. In addition, people no longer talked about Britain as a significant world power. From this point on, there were just two ‘superpowers’, the United States and the Soviet Union. In the following years and decades, Britain was reduced to playing the junior partner in its ‘special relationship’ with the USA.

It has long been argued that the 1st November declaration of neutrality by the Nagy government was the trigger which set off the Soviet invasion of Hungary three days later. From the Soviet perspective, this may well have been the case but, as we now know from the Kremlin Archives, the decision to invade had already been taken in there the day before, 31st October, the same day that the ‘liberal’ Soviet declaration of the 30th was published by Pravda. Also on the 30th, the Anglo-French Ultimatum to the Governments of Egypt and Israel had been laid in the Library of the House of Commons. Notes taken at the Soviet Party Presidium on 31st October indicate that the about-turn was initiated by Khrushchev himself, on the grounds of international prestige and against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis. No doubt under pressure from hard-liners in the politburo, he had exchanged his early view of occupying higher moral ground for a conviction that, as he is quoted as saying:

‘If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English and French – the imperialists. They will perceive it as weakness on our part…’  

Eisenhower was not, in fact, in favour of an immediate withdrawal of British, French and Israeli troops until the US ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jnr., pushed for it. Eden’s predecessor Sir Winston Churchill commented on 22 November, “I cannot understand why our troops were halted. To go so far and not go on was madness.” Churchill further added that while he might not have dared to begin the military operation, nevertheless once having ordered it he would certainly not have dared to stop it before it had achieved its objective.

UNEF soldiers from the Yugoslav People’s Army in Sinai, January 1957

Without a further guarantee, the Anglo-French Task Force had to finish withdrawing by 22 December 1956, to be replaced by Danish and Colombian units of the UNEF (United Nations Emergency Force). Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt within a week; Israel did not. A rare example of support for the Anglo-French actions against Egypt came from West Germany; though the Cabinet was divided, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was furious with the United States for its “chumminess with the Russians” as Adenauer called the U.S. refusal to intervene in Hungary and voting with the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, and the traditionally Francophile Adenauer drew closer to Paris as a result.

F/L Lynn Garrison crew with UNEF DHC-3 Otter, Sinai, 1962

Reading the newspaper accounts of the Autumn of 1956, von Tunzelmann was struck by the speed of the events both in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the way in which both sets seemed simultaneously to be upsetting the existing order of the world. In the climate of world opinion against Britain and France, the Soviet Union was able to avoid large-scale diplomatic repercussions from its violent suppression of the rebellion in Hungary, and even to present an image at the United Nations as a defender of small nations against imperialism. In addition, the Soviet Union made major gains with regard to influence in the Middle East. The American historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote about the aftermath of the crisis:

When the British-French-Israeli invasion forced them to choose, Eisenhower and Dulles came down, with instant decisiveness, on the side of the Egyptians. They preferred alignment with Arab nationalism, even if it meant alienating pro-Israeli constituencies on the eve of a presidential election in the United States, even if it meant throwing the NATO alliance into its most divisive crisis yet, even if it meant risking whatever was left of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, even if it meant voting with the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council at a time when the Russians, themselves, were invading Hungary and crushing—far more brutally than anything that happened in Egypt—a rebellion against their own authority there.

The fact that the Eisenhower administration itself applied crushing economic pressure to the British and French to disengage from Suez, and that it subsequently forced an Israeli pull-back from the Sinai as well—all of this, one might have thought, would win the United States the lasting gratitude of Nasser, the Egyptians and the Arab world. Instead, the Americans lost influence in the Middle East as a result of Suez, while the Russians gained it.

By 22nd December, the evacuation of Anglo-French troops from Egyptian territory was complete. Hugh Thomas commented that it was tragic to see great imperial countries ending their pretensions in comic style. Harold Nicolson placed the blame for this fiasco squarely on Eden’s shoulders. The utterly disgraceful tale of collusion between France of Israel, to which Britain was a party, flew in the face of everything he had held dear as a diplomat and politician. He coldly listed Eden’s failings:

‘breaking election pledges; lying; bringing about international isolation; endangering relations with US; blocking the Canal and disrupting oil supplies; and robbing Israel of fruits of its victory’.

Harold Nicolson’s Diaries, 9 November 1956.

Eden, he concluded, had done more ‘to dishonour his country than anyone since Lord North.’ Suez soon became a four-letter word for the moment when Britain realised its new place in the world. It was left stripped of moral authority and rebuked by Washington. The Canal was eventually reopened and reparations were agreed upon, though the issue of oil security then assumed fresh importance. Other consequences were less predictable. It provoked the arrival of the mini car in Britain, designed in the wake of the petrol price shock caused by the seizure of the Canal. It even accelerated the decline of the shipyards of Clydeside and Tyneside, whose small oil tankers were soon replaced by supertankers built at larger yards overseas. These, it was discovered, could sail around the Cape and deliver their cargo just as cheaply as smaller ships using the Canal.

From the perspective of more recent Arab-Israeli wars, conflicts and crises, the Suez War has long receded in significance, but it does show how difficult it was for politicians to learn definite lessons from their countries’ pasts. The perspectives of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries enable us to see the impossibility of Britain and France withstanding the forces of nationalism and expansionism when their own nationalism and imperialism had been so readily deployed in Europe, Africa and the Middle East in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Although Suez has often been a defining moment at the End of Empire, historians now tend to emphasize the continuities rather than seeing 1956 as a sharp break. At the time, however, the Conservatives did not offer a blind, intransigent resistance to the nationalist onslaught. Eden’s government was not reactionary, though it had some reactionary supporters. They did not mean to reverse the trend, or even to halt it entirely. They had professed, at the beginning of their term, an intention to continue the process towards self-government within the Commonwealth, and they put no great obstacles in the way of this process in the colonies – like the west African colonies, the Sudan and the West Indies where it was already too far advanced. It has to be remembered that Egypt was no longer a colony at the time of the Suez Crisis, though control of the Canal was a Nationalist-Imperialist issue for both Britain and France.

Within Whitehall, politicians and officials continued to seek an ongoing global British leadership role. It took fifteen years for the subsequent ‘turn to Europe’ to take shape and bear fruit, due to resistance from France. 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 the 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.

(to be continued…)


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