November 8, 2021

As an easy shorthand for fiasco, the Suez crisis — which came to an end 65 years ago — has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past five years. Days after the Brexit referendum, Gordon Brown called the vote “the biggest setback to our international position… even bigger I believe than the crisis at Suez.” In 2018, Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo, attacked Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement as “a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis”.

When Parliament then refused to pass the deal the following spring, Lord Ricketts, a former national security adviser and ambassador to Paris, claimed that May’s last-ditch appeal to Brussels for more time was “perhaps the greatest humiliation for a British prime minister since the Suez crisis… When can a British Prime Minister have cut such a lamentable figure at an international meeting?” Good question.

While a few Brexiteers have also made the link (Boris Johnson once said that if May’s deal went through, it would be “the greatest national humiliation since Suez”), the parallel has mainly attracted Remainers. It’s not hard to see why. While some are old enough for it to have been the defining moment of their youth, for others, it is simply a sophisticated way to state their prejudice that Leavers ignorantly voted for some sort of splendid imperial isolation — a claim that has been thoroughly debunked by the historian Robert Saunders.

That has not stopped the FT journalist Philip Stephens from arguing (in his recent book, Britain Alone) that “Brexit, like Suez, was an attempt to chart the future by reaching back into the halcyon days of history,” the triumph of “an appeal to nostalgia over reason”. And David Lammy, who has accused “hard Brexiteers” of:

“still mourning Suez, Britain’s last fling of the colonial dice. Back then, Anthony Eden failed to recognise that Britain was no longer capable of launching a solo imperial adventure. Let us not fall for the same hubris today.”

But contrary to this stereotype, the Suez Crisis was not a lonely, self-inflicted error brought on by nostalgia. The reality is more complex and far more interesting.

The Suez crisis began, perhaps, at the UN’s General Assembly of 1955, when the US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, extolled “the immense benefit the British Empire had been and was” in a conversation at the UN with the British foreign secretary, Harold Macmillan. The two men were bemoaning the recent decision by Egypt’s Prime Minister, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to buy weapons off Russia, after balking at the conditions the United States would attach to such a sale. The Americans had supported Nasser’s coup, but as their client turned against them, Dulles asked Macmillan “if we had enough troops to reoccupy Egypt”. Macmillan thought Britain had.

Once, it would have seemed impertinent to ask such a question. But Britain had emerged from the war deeply in debt; since the sterling crisis six years earlier, the nation had been in dire financial straits, because of an unsustainable balance of payments. After the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, Macmillan had privately compared the cabinet to the “directors of a rapidly deteriorating concern. They dare not tell the shareholders the facts”.

A few months before Dulles and Macmillan spoke, Churchill — winged by a stroke in 1953 — had finally shuffled off into retirement. He was succeeded by his impatient understudy, Anthony Eden, who was also in no great shape: due to a bodged gastric operation, he was plagued by chronic pain. Macmillan’s report of Dulles’s sly enquiry as to whether Britain might intervene triggered a splenetic prime ministerial rant. “The big interest in the Middle East is ours, not America’s,” he said, annoyed by what he saw as the consequences of a cack-handed American intervention. “We are dependent on Middle East oil.”

The dependence was not just economic but financial: Eden was referring to the fact that the oil produced by Iraq and Kuwait was priced in sterling — a legacy of the fact that both countries, though never British colonies, had formed part of Britain’s informal empire. The Bank of England could always print currency to afford it, while sales to other countries provided a welcome boost to Britain’s holdings of foreign currency. The comparison of Suez and Brexit breaks down because in 1956 nostalgia played no part in British calculations. They were guided by fear of losing an ongoing advantage.

That fear had an important consequence. Based on another claim of Eden’s, that the “US has almost always been wrong about the Middle East”, the minutes of the meeting record an important decision: “We should not, therefore, allow ourselves to be restricted overmuch by reluctance to act without full American concurrence and support.” In mid-October, the British government made a crucial move. Without warning the Americans, it authorised military action to remove a Saudi force from a remote oasis, where it was preventing British oil exploration in Oman. The US had significant financial and strategic interests in Saudi Arabia, but the British found Dulles’s reaction, when he was belatedly told about the fait accompli, encouraging. He “did not like the news”, recalled one diplomat, “but he was not unpleasant about it.”

The “Buraimi incident,” as this altercation was known, seemed so obscure as to be laughable at the time (it was the subject of a Goon Show sketch), but it set a precedent. Buoyed up by the ease with which they had routed the Saudis, the British now sought to press home their advantage by encouraging Saudi’s northern neighbour, Jordan, to join a regional military alliance with Iraq, known as the Baghdad Pact. The heavy-handed British approach backfired and, barraged by incessant Egyptian radio propaganda, in March 1956 the king of Jordan sacked the British head of his armed forces, John Glubb, following rioting. Eden believed Nasser had engineered this coup. If Suez is a formative influence on today’s Remainers, then Eden had been scarred by Munich. Fearing the consequences of failure to deal with the Egyptian leader before he became too powerful, he told a close adviser: “It is him or us, don’t forget that”.

It was not just the British attitude to Nasser that was hardening: so was the United States’. In the spring of 1956, Dulles began talking of “ditching” Nasser; like FDR before him, and Donald Trump more recently, President Eisenhower was keen to swing his country’s support behind the Saudis, who had started to see the Egyptian’s republican ideas as a threat. The previous year the United States had promised to lend Nasser millions of dollars to enable him to build a new dam at Aswan. On 21 July, Dulles announced that the United States was pulling the loan. Nasser responded days later by announcing that he was nationalising the Suez Canal.

Eden felt his convictions about Nasser had been vindicated. The idea that he was alone in this — that Britain was isolated in its approach — is groundless. When news of Nasser’s move reached London, Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Said, happened to be in Downing Street at a dinner and worried that Nasser would only be emboldened by the takeover. “Hit him,” he advised Eden. “Hit him hard and hit him now. … If he is left alone, he will finish all of us.” So worried was Nuri by the news of the canal’s takeover that he even suggested encouraging the Israelis to invade Egypt.

Since being forced out of Palestine by a Jewish insurgency eight years earlier, however, the British had only the most perfunctory relationship with Israel. It took an old rival, and old ally, of Britain to bring the crisis to a head. Not that anyone, in drawing parallels with Brexit, would admit that France had anything to do with Suez.

Unlike the British, the French had a strong relationship with Israel, and a direct imperial interest, since Nasser was supporting the insurgency in French Algeria. They opened secret talks with the Israelis that autumn. In mid-October, French representatives presented their idea to Eden: Israel would invade Egypt, giving Britain and France grounds to go in and order both sides to retreat from the canal. Precisely because he was unwilling to go it alone, Eden leapt at the French proposal. To allay old Israeli suspicions of Britain, the secret protocol summarising the arrangement was signed by representatives of the three conspiring powers. Madcap plot it may have been, but Suez was never a solo British plan.

The Israelis invaded Sinai on 29 October. The following day Britain and France, as they had secretly agreed, issued ultimatums to both Israel and Egypt and landed troops in Port Said on 5 November. The collusion was not hard to see, and under immense international and — more importantly — financial market pressure, which threatened to drain Britain’s remaining reserves, the two European powers were soon forced to abandon their military operation. The truth is that Britain lacked the confidence in 1956 to act alone. But had she done so, she might well have got away with the deception: it was high-altitude photos of French jets on Israeli runways that alerted Washington to exactly what was going on.

A sense of vulnerability led Britain and France to lash out. Britain, which owed millions to Washington, looked towards its creditor. France, on the other hand, turned to Europe as a way to preserve her empire from American predation. These complexities — in particular the role of money — are lost in the comparison of Suez and Brexit. But then its chief purpose has not been honest, but to denigrate the intelligence of Leavers.