Still learning the lessons of Suez

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The Independent Online
THE MOMENT at which people lose power seems to be the moment at which they say what they really think. In the last couple of years we have had the example of two former Chancellors of the Exchequer and one former permanent secretary of the Treasury declaring that they believe the Bank of England should be independent - although in office they accepted the status quo of Treasury dominance. Even prime ministers now seem to want to get their real view (or what they would like to think is their real view) across to a wider audience as soon after they leave power as possible.

Sometimes it takes longer. A memorandum written by Sir Anthony Eden in January 1957 on the lessons of the Suez crisis, shortly before he resigned as prime minister, has just been released. It was deemed too sensitive to be released seven years ago under the normal 30-year rule, but was made available under the new 'open government' initiative by the Public Records Office in response to historians' requests. (The Independent on Sunday, which reported the memorandum this week, sponsored a conference considering the impact of this initiative in London yesterday.)

What makes this document live is that it shows just how right Eden was about Britain's future place in the world. Remember the time and the man. Britain, with France (and simultaneously with Israel, although collusion was denied), had invaded Egypt in response to President Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal. But American pressure had then forced Britain and France to halt the operation before the entire canal had been secured.

The invasion on the night of 30 October 1956 provoked a run on the pound, and the Americans refused to support a British request for a loan from the International Monetary Fund unless there was a ceasefire. The ceasefire agreed by Britain and France on 6 November left Britain in the worst possible position. The clearance of the canal (a number of ships had been scuttled by Nasser) remained in Egyptian hands, and British credibility was sharply reduced. The run on sterling increased, Britain lost almost a quarter of its reserves, and Eden was eventually forced to resign, ostensibly because of ill-health.

For Eden, this was a sad end to what had been a glittering career. He had been a courageous supporter of Winston Churchill, with whom he had resigned over the policy of appeasement. He had been a handsome, dashing diplomat - he even had a hat named after him, for heaven's sake. When Churchill retired, he was the natural heir. Yet it all ended in misery. Twenty-one years after Suez, he was dead.

So what were the lessons he drew? It is a short note, just five pages of double- spaced typescript. The first part concerns military overstretch, and suggests how our commitments might be cut. It is startling to be reminded of the extent of that commitment. Eden wonders whether we gained an adequate return from our armoured division in Libya: 'Do we need armour in Tripoli itself? And would not a smaller garrison be sufficient if one is needed at all?' The Far East forces, he feels, could be scaled down: '. . . could we not now dispense with the Ceylon naval base altogether, using the Maldives instead for the air? . . . Do we need so many troops in Malaya?'

But then, suddenly, there are two wholly modern thoughts. One is that 'we need a smaller force that is more mobile and more modern' - what we would call a rapid response force. Eden's other suggestion is to halve the number of troops in Germany. Update this to today's circumstances and, presumably, he would be asking whether we need have any troops there at all - a conclusion that present politicians have yet to reach.

On the home economy, he is alarmed at the cost of running the welfare state. 'Some of this, eg, education, is a necessary part of our effort to maintain a leading position in new industrial developments. Other aspects of this spending are less directly related to our struggle for existence.' High taxation, he believes, is leading to a brain drain. 'We shall not have adjusted our problems until the younger generation here can feel that they live in a community which is leading in industrial development and can reasonably expect a fair reward for their brains and application,' he notes.

That, too, sounds very modern, though it took us a long time to adjust. His views on the importance of education are arguably not fully accepted even today. As for taxation, it was not, in fact, until the Eighties that the brain drain was halted and the country started to show net immigration in professional and managerial occupations.

But the real sting is in the tail. Listen to this. 'The conclusion is surely that we must review our world position and our domestic capacity more searchingly in the light of the Suez experience, which has not so much changed our fortunes as revealed realities. While the consequences of this examination may be to determine us to work more closely with Europe, carrying with us, we hope, our closest friends in the Commonwealth in such development, here, too, we must be under no illusion. Europe will not welcome us simply because at the moment it may appear to suit us to look to them. The timing and conviction of our approach may be decisive in their influence on those with whom we plan to work.'

It is good, isn't it? For me, at least, the man is suddenly different. He was not the silly ass, the pretty face, harking back to an imperial past, which I had judged him to be. He was tough- minded about our place in the world. He saw our future was in Europe, and he correctly warned of the rebuff we might receive. But why, oh why, did he not say this at the time? And what might our more thoughtful politicians say now if they did not have to adopt their ritual antagonism?

Would the best of those on the right acknowledge that the country must drive up educational standards and accept that this would inevitably mean more resources being put into education? Would the best of those on the left acknowledge that international competition for talent means that taxes on income cannot rise at all with any safety? Would either side be blunt enough to say that we should scale back our international commitments still further, for example, by withdrawing all troops from Germany?

There is something wrong with the process of politics if people in government (and those who aspire to government) feel able to say what they really think only when they no longer have the power to do anything about it. As this memorandum shows, there is nothing new in this. But that is small comfort indeed.

(Photograph omitted)