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Ill-considered imperial gestures

10 May 2006

6:32 PM

10 May 2006

6:32 PM

1956: Power Defied Peter Unwin

Michael Russell, pp.256, 20

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During 1956 three major powers made dramatic efforts to prop up their position by the use of armed force. The British and French, in collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt to overthrow its dictator and regain the Suez Canal; their attempt failed within a few hours. The Soviet Union used its tanks to suppress a working-class revolt for the freedom of Hungary; despite the world’s execration they succeeded in re-establishing their control for another 30 years. It was the coincidence of these clashes which made the drama. Both came to a head in the same few days at the end of October.

Peter Unwin comments and analyses these events in the best Foreign Office style — which is a compliment. His writing is not academic; he rations his footnotes and does not enter into long disputation with other historians. Nor does he write as a journalist; he knows that the two disasters need no exaggeration. He is kinder than I would have been to President Nasser but his judgments are shrewd and well argued.

It is not Unwin’s fault that there is not much new to be written about Suez. The facts have been out for several years. It is amazing that Eden should have supposed that it would be possible to keep the collusion with Israel a secret. The invasion plan got as far as it did only because of the huge respect which Eden had built up over his years as foreign secretary. He lost that balance of respect very quickly in the autumn of 1956, but it lasted just long enough for the ultimatum to be issued to Egypt, the fleet to sail from Malta and the parachutists to drop on the Canal.


It was also strong enough to keep Selwyn Lloyd in office as foreign secretary during the critical weeks. This now seems to me extraordinary. Those of us who were minor witnesses at the British delegation to the UN saw our position there collapse day by day and night by night. But we knew nothing of the collusion with Israel and supposed that the Prime Minister had some master plan in which we were simply pawns to be sacrificed for the greater good. But Selwyn Lloyd knew about the collusion and knew that there was no plan worthy of the name for the governance of Egypt after Nasser had been overthrown. It was right for Lord Mountbatten as First Sea Lord and Sir Pierson Dixon as our ambassador at the UN to stay at their posts despite their doubts. But Selwyn Lloyd as a politician and a member of the Cabinet and foreign secretary was in a different position, and owed us all his resignation.

Unwin’s narrative brings out again the extraordinary speed with which the United Nations acted to halt and then reverse the Anglo-French invasion. Within hours the scheme for a United Nations force to replace the British and French was taking shape. The Americans supported this way out of the crisis but were not its authors. We did not at the time feel grateful to Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary general, or Lester Pearson, the Canadian foreign minister, for pushing us so fast down this path, but given the total opposition of the Americans to what we were doing it was as good a way of escape for us as we could have expected.

Unwin deals with Churchill’s views. At the time people constantly asked themselves how Churchill would have handled Suez, just as they now ask how Margaret Thatcher would have handled Iraq. I think the answer is clear in both cases. Both leaders would by instinct have wanted to support what was being done. But both had a natural strategic sense and before committing British troops would have insisted on a proper plan and answers to certain questions. In both cases, Egypt in 1956 and Iraq in 2003, these questions were simply not considered coherently by the prime minister of the day in his feverish anxiety to be seen as a man of action.

The Hungarian tragedy is less vivid in our minds today, and it is here that Unwin’s account is particularly useful. He served twice in Hungary, the second time as our ambassador, and has written a life of Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister during the 1956 uprising. He describes carefully and convincingly the shift in the Soviet attitude. On 30 October, the day of the Anglo-French ultimatum to Egypt, Mikoyan and Suslov returned to Moscow having negotiated with the Hungarians a declaration which could have brought the Hungarian crisis to a close. The declaration provided for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Budapest and for a new relationship between the two countries. It was eight months since Khruschev had denounced the tyranny of Stalin and only a few days since Gomulka in Poland had won similar concessions from the Soviet Union. Mikoyan and Suslov could reasonably have expected that their negotiated document would be accepted by the Kremlin. Instead on 31 October, the day when the allied bombing of Egypt began, Khruschev and the Central Committee in Moscow rejected the draft declaration, and ordered the Red Army to suppress the Hungarian uprising by force.

Unwin examines carefully the two crucial questions. Was this fatal Soviet decision taken because the Russians believed that the commotion over Suez saved them from any fear of Western intervention in Hungary? He concludes, like Sir William Hayter in Moscow at the time, that ‘the Soviet decision to go all out in Hungary was caused by Nagy and not by Suez, though the latter had contributed something’. Nagy had proclaimed neutrality and Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact; neither was acceptable to Moscow.

The second question is whether the West could in practice have done anything to halt the Soviet military action in Hungary. He concludes that only Western nuclear weapons could have saved Hungary — at the price of destroying half of Europe and much of the world.

Britain and France drew different conclusions from the Suez debacle. The British concentrated on restoring Anglo-American relations, believing that Britain would not in future be able to do anything serious in the world against American opposition. The French concluded that they must try to build Europe under French leadership into a power which though allied to the United States was capable of independent action. These were the differing visions of Harold Macmillan and General de Gaulle. Both proved wrong. The Iraq war has shown how Britain lost the art of using the position of a junior partner to influence American policies when it mattered. The French have failed to rally other European countries into a convincing counter- balance to the United States. Now at last, as we see in Iran, the Middle East and the Balkans, Britain, France and the other members of the EU are beginning to work together as Europeans in partnership with the United States. This is in effect what poor Selwyn Lloyd recommended to the Cabinet after the Suez failure at Anthony Eden’s last Cabinet meeting. The wheel turns, and what Selwyn Lloyd’s colleagues rejected then makes plenty of sense today.

Douglas Hurd served in the British delegation in the UN in New York in 1956 and was Foreign Secretary from 1989-95. His memoirs were published in October 2003 and he is writing a life of Sir Robert Peel.


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