Obituary: Sir Anthony Nutting Bt
Wednesday 03 March 1999
Over 40 years later, historical opinion is still divided as to whether he was the martyr or the self- inflicted casualty of the unfolding dramas following President Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal in July 1956. The high point of Nutting's ministerial career is easier to assess, coming as it did in October 1954 when he negotiated the final stages in Cairo of the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement, the prelude to the withdrawal of British troops from the Canal Zone. This marked a new phase in the history of Anglo- Egyptian relations and brought him into personal contact with President Nasser, of whom he wrote a substantial biography in 1972.
A handsome, elegant figure, Nutting was a protege of the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, to whom he was much indebted for his rapid political advancement. With his distinguished war record, and glamorous bearing, Nutting's career had many parallels with his mentor (Punch depicted him in a cartoon as "Eden's Eden") and, in Churchill's last years as prime minister, Nutting was seen by some as the heir presumptive to Eden, the acknowledged heir apparent.
But the Treasury benches are littered with the bones of future prime ministers, and, unlike Eden after his resignation from Neville Chamberlain's government in February 1938, Nutting left the Commons in 1956 and never held office again. It was a tragic and, in the view of many, unnecessary end to a career that had promised so much, just at the moment when it could have been expected to fulfil all the hopes placed in him by Eden. However Nutting felt himself unable to defend the Sevres Agreement with France and Israel over the invasion of Egypt, the dilemma that Walter Monckton told him he would have to face in the House of Commons, and for this he paid a heavy personal price. But, as Eden said at the time of his own resignation, "There are occasions when strong political convictions must override all other personal and political loyalties."
He was born in 1920, the third son of Sir Harold Nutting, second Baronet, a wealthy landowner, whose main seat was at Quenby Hall, Leicestershire, in his youngest son's future constituency. As his two elder brothers were killed on active service, Anthony Nutting succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his father in 1972.
He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. On the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the Leicester Yeomanry. He was invalided out in 1940 and joined the Foreign Service in Paris. After the fall of France, his intelligence experience was invaluable in Spain in arranging escape routes for Allied Forces. Later he headed the Scandinavian Department of the Foreign Office and in 1942 was Eden's Private Secretary, a post that defined much of his subsequent career and the first stage of a relationship that was to have bitter-sweet consequences.
Nutting's election as Conservative MP for the Melton division of Leicestershire in the Labour landslide of 1945 proved a golden opportunity and he swiftly rose through the party hierarchy, serving as Chairman of the Young Conservatives in 1946 (reinvigorating a flagging organisation); the youngest Chairman of the National Union at the Blackpool Conference of October 1950, and Chairman of the National Executive when the Conservatives returned to office the following year.
Nutting was an obvious candidate for preferment and Eden, whom Nutting would have preferred to see as Prime Minister, sought his services as Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, advising him never to take a non- departmental job because, however grand the title, that would be when he would be marginalised. When Nutting led a delegation to see Churchill shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister inquired: "Haven't I seen you before?" Nutting explained that he was Chairman of the National Executive and that Churchill himself had recently appointed him to the Foreign Office. "Well, you can't do both jobs," said Churchill and Nutting's path was thereafter firmly set in the international field.
In 1954 he was promoted Minster of State and for two years led, with notable success, the British Delegation to the United Nations and - a harder assignment - to the Disarmament Commission. When Eden finally became Prime Minister in April 1955, Nutting was seen as one of the charmed circle who bore the key of all his counsels. But the skies were about to darken.
In the autumn of 1955, New York papers publicised personal difficulties Nutting was experiencing. However, Eden stood loyally by Nutting, whom he regarded as a key player, resisting pressure from certain elements in the Conservative Party to remove Nutting from the Foreign Office to a less sensitive position. Eden was encouraged by Nutting's robust response to the sacking of Glubb Pasha as Commander of the Arab Legion in March 1956, but the ramifications of the unfolding Suez Crisis from July was to fracture their relationship.
In the absence of the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, who was negotiating with his Egyptian opposite number, Dr Fawzi, in New York, Lord Salisbury was due to reply to the Foreign Affairs Debate on 11 October at the Party Conference in Llandudno, when trouble was anticipated from the right-wing Suez Group, led by Charles Waterhouse. Owing to Salisbury's illness, Nutting was drafted in at a late stage, "as a deputy for a deputy", to read the prepared text.
To placate the right wing, the party managers wanted Nutting to explain that the text was Salisbury's, but the speech was delivered as though it was Nutting's own ("Make no mistake," he said privately beforehand, "this is to be Nutting's day") and the forceful address contributed to the bewilderment his resignation generated in some quarters in November.
Two days after the Llandudno speech Nutting was present at the fateful meeting at Chequers when a French delegation outlined to Eden what became known as "The Plan", whereby the Israelis were to be invited to launch an attack on Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula, after which the French and the British would intervene to separate the combatants and regain the canal. When Eden said to the Duty Secretary, "There's no need to take notes", Nutting knew in his heart that their paths would inevitably diverge.
Nutting's resignation, communicated to Eden on 31 October, was delayed until after the invasion, but complicated by some Conservative backbenchers, now dead, who sought to impugn his integrity by a whispering campaign concerning his private life which they suggested was the real reason he wanted to "bale out" of both his office and his constituency, in an era when divorce proceedings could have profound political consequences for a Conservative MP. When Robert Rhodes James's biography of Eden appeared in 1986, and Suez was once more the topic of debate, Nutting placed a notice in the newspapers reiterating that his "resignation was purely a matter of conscience and principle".
Nevertheless, after his resignation, Nutting was regarded as an outsider in the tribal world of Conservative politics. It was an unhappy time. His first marriage, to Gillian Strutt, ended in divorce in 1959 after 18 years. Though there was never any rapprochement with Eden, Nutting wrote a generous letter to Selwyn Lloyd when he was dismissed as Chancellor of the Exchequer by Macmillan in July 1962 and, for his part, Selwyn Lloyd, who had once described the 1956 resignation as "Much Ado about Nutting", spoke in support of Nutting when he contested (unsuccessfully) East Oldham in the 1966 general election.
After this failure to re-enter mainstream politics, Nutting divided his time between his London homes, where he wrote on Arab affairs, and his farming interests at Achentoul in Sutherland, where he was a willing host. A series of books, of which Nasser (1972) was the most consequential, appeared and he was a consultant for the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), another of his biographical subjects. But it was the publication in 1967 of his account of Suez, No End of a Lesson, which fluttered the most dovecotes, involving the Cabinet Office and constitutional questions about the Official Secrets Act and a Privy Councillor's oath.
Although Nutting's book was to be superseded by later accounts, its importance lay in the fact that it was the first disclosure by a British minister of the events surrounding the Sevres Protocol. Many were outraged by the appearance of the book, but Selwyn Lloyd never regarded Nutting's account as being a case of sour grapes. "As a result of it," he wrote, "we have to face a number of important issues", and it influenced Lloyd's decision to publish in due course his own account.
Having waited 10 years to put his side of the story, Nutting was unlucky in its timing, for the publication coincided with the outbreak of the Six Day War, when even some of Eden's former critics were prepared to allow the possibility that contemporary events may have proved Eden to have been right all along. Demands for a debate in Parliament and an inquiry on the model of the Dardanelles Committee in 1916 never took wing.
In his later years, though weakened by arthritis and asthma, Anthony Nutting gave generously of his time to historians and researchers, an important witness to events which had shaped, and then ultimately destroyed his political career.
Harold Anthony Nutting, diplomat, politician and writer: born Shrewsbury 11 January 1920; Secretary to Anthony Eden 1942; MP (Conservative) for Melton Division of Leicestershire 1945-56; Chairman, Young Conservatives, 1946; Chairman, Conservative National Union 1950-51; Chairman, Conservative National Executive Committee 1951; Under-Secretary, Foreign Affairs 1951- 54; PC 1954; Minister of State for Foreign Affairs 1954-56; Leader, UK Delegation to United Nations and United Nations Disarmament Commission, 1954-56; succeeded 1972 as third Bt; married 1941 Gillian Strutt (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1959), 1961 Anne Gunning (died 1990), 1991 Margarita Sanchez; died London 23 February 1999.
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