Adrian Hamilton: A history lesson for Gordon Brown

When Macmillan saw that the Suez venture was going wrong, he was quick to see the need to get out
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The Independent Online

The nearest parallel between the Suez crisis of 1956 and Iraq today seems to have been missed in the reams of comment coming out at the 50th anniversary. It is the story of a Chancellor of the Exchequer who initially had supported the idea of invasion, turned about face when it all went wrong and then proceeded to help remove the Prime Minister to move into Number 10 himself.

That Harold Macmillan fully supported the Suez plan as Chancellor of Exchequer has become increasingly clear. So has the fact that he helped wield the knife to oust Anthony Eden early in the following year, elbowing aside a "Rab" Butler who had been far more principled and doubtful about Suez. "First in, first out," as Harold Wilson acidly remarked of him at the time. The detailed diaries he kept throughout his political life are mysteriously missing for the period - "mislaid" he said at first, changing his story later to say that he had "destroyed" the relevant volume at Eden's request.

But then, if Macmillan's reputation for probity has taken a severe knocking from historians, the extent to which he learned from the Suez experience to develop a different and more forward-looking foreign policy has not. When he saw that the Suez venture was going wrong, he was quick to see the need to get out, promoting (and quite possibly deliberately exaggerating) the spectre of a financial crisis which the US would not bail us out of.

Once he became Prime Minister, he sought a twin-track policy of restoring relations with President Eisenhower at the same time as seeking membership of the Common Market and succouring better relations with Russia. Above all he used Suez to persuade the British public of the need to retreat from Empire, with his "wind of change" speech in Africa.

Which brings us to his successor as Chancellor and very probably Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. We don't yet know just how enthusiastically Brown did support the invasion of Iraq. Although he has liked to appear as if he kept his distance, he certainly helped make sure that Tony Blair got the Commons vote and seems to have played a crucial role in persuading Clare Short not to resign along with Cook - only, in a Macmillanesque way, to desert her when she did. But then, as Rab Butler's failure to get the premiership either after Eden or Macmillan showed, nice guys don't get to the top of politics.

The real point for Brown, however, is how far he can learn the lessons of Iraq and use them to recast Britain's policy towards the world. In one sense he - or whoever else might succeed Blair and/or win the next election - has it easier than Macmillan. The US is as anxious as Britain to extricate itself from the Iraqi imbroglio, so it becomes simpler for the new Prime Minister to distance himself (for it will be a him) without explaining how they supported war in the first place.

But an American exit strategy will not absolve any British leader from having to decide whether to lead the US into an early retreat or trot tamely behind or in having to face up to the lessons of of this ill-fated venture.

The first, and most glaring, is that it has proved yet again that Britain no longer has the resources or manpower to perform a lead role in the world. You can see that in the complaints of the generals in Afghanistan and you can see it in Iraq.

Brown, as a Chancellor like Macmillan, must know that and must act upon it in the future. Blair's post 9/11 vision of a Britain going anywhere, at any time with whatever force to enforce a better world is over. That has implications for our policy towards Nato and indeed our policy for a Trident replacement. Macmillan sought the cheaper option of getting Polaris from, the US. We should consider whether a new generation of nuclear weapons can, or ought, to be pursued.

In the same way any new British premier (and that includes David Cameron, if he gets the job) ought to consider also how far to rebalance British allegiances. This is not a question of either America or Europe. Macmillan understood that it was both. But by tying himself so closely to Washington, Blair has sacrificed one for the other and damaged our role in the United Nations as well. His successor will have to think again.

The most fundamental question posed by Iraq, however, is also the one that Brown may be least fitted to cope with: what is the world we will have to live in. Macmillan had the advantage of a past. He had served, and been wounded, in the First World War. He had been party to the alliance of the Second World War and its chaotic end. He had served in housing and the Foreign Office before he became Chancellor.

Brown has little experience of the world outside the Treasury, and that in a sense is the worst window through which to observe it. You understand the economic policy problems - and Brown is very good at envisaging what better economics can do for the poor - but you see them from the western window of international conference rooms and chauffeured cars, always de haut en bas.

That reinforces the view that it is the white man's role to tell the rest of the world what to do, not least because western economics seems everywhere triumphant. Yet the lesson of Iraq is that it is the politics, and the dynamics of power, that are shifting away from the West to newer patterns and a quite different, non-western perspectives. Macmillan instinctively understood the shifting sands around Britain. But can his successor?