Rentoul: PM humiliated by Middle East folly (sound familiar?)

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The similarities are beguiling enough to ensure that the words "Suez" and "Blair" have appeared together in the British press 846 times since the Iraq invasion. Or 847 times now. A bellicose dictator, drawing on Arab nationalism to thumb his nose at Western powers. A British Prime Minister passionately convinced that the national interest requires him to stand up to a tyrant. A belief, in Anthony Eden's case, shaped by his experience of appeasement before the Second World War. In Tony Blair's case, a belief shaped by more recent experience - of Saddam Hussein's retreat from Kuwait, and Slobodan Milosevic's retreat from Kosovo.

In both cases, powerful convictions led a British Prime Minister to a course of action that prompted bitter criticism at home amid allegations of underhand and illegal conduct.

Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, seized the Suez canal 50 years ago this week. He nationalised the Anglo-French company that owned the canal 12 years before the lease would have reverted to Egypt anyway, offering to compensate shareholders according to that day's closing prices on the Paris stock exchange.

Eden's mistake was to imagine he could hoodwink the Americans, who feared that the adventure would drive the Arab nations into the arms of the Soviets. So after British and French forces, in collusion with the Israelis, took control of the canal in October 1956, the US, acting through the United Nations, forced them to withdraw eight weeks later. By January 1957, Eden, humiliated, had resigned. It was a hugely symbolic episode as Eden, trying to defend the gateway to an empire that no longer existed, marked the last gasp of Britain's ambition as a global power and the growing confidence of America's reach. The lasting local effect of Eden's folly was Israel's occupation of the Sinai peninsula, which continued until 1982.

The differences between Suez and Iraq are more important than the similarities. Blair's role in Iraq was entirely subordinate to that of the US, and although the invasion can hardly be counted a success, it has not yet resulted in a humiliating retreat. There were differences too in the domestic political consequences of the foreign gamble. Nasser's bold anti-imperialist strike set in motion a sequence of events that led to Eden's resignation six months later. Blair has survived in office for three years already, winning a general election despite the ferocious opposition of many of his natural supporters and despite magisterial condemnations, comparing him to Eden, from historians such as Professor Peter Hennessy, who described Iraq as a "stain" comparable to Suez, and Lord Morgan, who said it was a similar "appalling disaster".

Yet even the impact of Suez on British politics was more limited than often thought. Although the Labour Party, under the leadership of Hugh Gaitskell, opposed the Suez intervention, Eden's successor, Harold Macmillan, genially shrugged off the disaster and went on to win the 1959 election.