The lie that changed us

Forty years ago Suez killed the myth that Britain was still a world power.

Share
Related Topics
"I Saw what you did! I've got your number!" shouted my friend. He was addressing a mounted policeman who had just clubbed down a woman. It was Sunday, 4 November 1956. The great anti-Suez demonstration had poured out of a rally in Trafalgar Square and was battling to get into Downing Street.

My friend was a public schoolboy who, a few years before, had been badly wounded as a National Service officer in Korea. He had continued to believe in Britain as a place in which fairness, honesty and moderation prevailed. Now he was making discoveries. The policeman lashed out with his baton and leaned down to drag him away. I held him round the waist, my own legs wrapped round a bollard, and in a moment the melee swept the horseman into the chaos of struggling people and swaying placards.

We had all been making discoveries, that October and November 40 years ago. Suez was a turning point, for Britain's self-understanding as a Power in the world but also for my generation's attitude to the state. Labour voters as most of my friends were, we had not imagined that even a Tory government would lie to the world and its own people in order to invade a country which had done no more than nationalise a canal and threaten "British imperial interests".

Now we knew better. A whole mental structure, the dullish, decent expectations of the welfare state, fell apart. Lawless aggression, which ranged up and down the rest of the Cold War world and, against which Britain had seemed to mount a sure defence, was at home in our country, too. We felt then that Suez had changed everything, and all the revelations since have only confirmed that we were right.

In Downing Street, the Cabinet could hear the crowd as they met. But Anthony Eden and his men decided to go ahead. British and French troops were already at sea, and would land at Port Said next day. Outside, we chanted "Law, not War!" But Eden had chosen war, and it was too late to turn back.

President Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal on 26 July. Eden, already dismayed by the weakening of British authority in the Middle East, supposed that the canal was still Britain's imperial lifeline to Asia, East Africa and the Gulf. Nasser, he declared, had put "his hand on our windpipe". He resolved to use force, and through the summer sought vainly to provoke Egypt into some act that would justify military intervention. When that failed, he decided that the pretext would have to be manufactured.

On Sunday, 14 October, General Maurice Challe arrived at Chequers. On behalf of the French government, he proposed a collusion plot with Israel. The Israelis would invade Egypt. Britain and France would instantly declare the freedom of navigation to be in danger and issue an ultimatum to Nasser which he could not accept. An Anglo-French force would intervene "to separate the combatants", dethrone Nasser and return Egypt to European hegemony.

At the fatal meeting at Sevres on 24 October, Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary, signed a secret treaty with France and Israel. The Israeli attack came five days later.Next day, Eden issued two ultimata, one to Egypt and another - fraudulent - to Israel. The RAF began to bomb Egypt on 31 October. Troops landed at Port Said on Monday, 5 November.

Outside the inner Cabinet, few people knew the awful secret of collusion. One was a journalist. Incredibly, Eden unveiled the Challe plan to Iverach McDonald, foreign editor of the Times. Perhaps he thought the Times would burst out cheering. But McDonald was appalled. In his book Eden, Suez and the Mass Media (IB Tauris 1996), the historian Tony Shaw reveals that McDonald told only his editor, William Haley, who was almost as shaken as he. Until then, the paper had supported Eden. Now it backed off and sat on the fence.

The full truth about Sevres took years to leak out. And yet many people knew instinctively what had happened as soon as news of the Israeli offensive broke. This was because Britain was already deeply divided. Half the country took at face value Eden's propaganda depicting Nasser as the Arab Hitler and arguing that to give into him over the canal would be an act of appeasement on the scale of Chamberlain's surrender to Hitler at Munich in 1938. But the other half, growing more alarmed and suspicious week by week, condemned Eden's threat of force as hysterical.

The protesters conceded that Nasser was a repressive autocrat, but a Fascist dictator bent on world domination he was not. Moreover, he was within his rights when he nationalised the canal, and the dispute between Britain and Egypt should be settled by mediation, if possible through the United Nations, rather than by war.

At the time I was living in Manchester, a lodger in the house of the Canadian economist Harry Johnson and his wife Liz. Canada played a noble part through the Suez crisis, vainly trying to talk Eden down from his madness and using all the influence it could muster in London to persuade the British that the Prime Minister was leading the country into disaster. For Harry and Liz, as North Americans, war was a ghastly and unnecessary accident. This had never occurred to me. Like the Manchester people I mixed with, I had assumed that life had a sort of seasonal rhythm in which peacetime and wartime alternated, as night succeeded day or winter followed summer. The man in the pub who had received his call-up papers said: "My grandad had to go in his time, and my dad went in the last war. Now it's my turn."

A patient, long-suffering old Britain was preparing once more to do its duty. British soldiers were going into action, and every loyal man and woman - whatever their inner doubts - should rally round the flag. For people like that, Hugh Gaitskell's anti-Suez appeal on the radio, delivered on the eve of the landings, was an act of treason.

But there was another Britain, too. A Gallup poll at the time of Eden's ultimatum showed that only 37 per cent thought it right to invade Egypt, while 44 per cent thought it wrong. Given the months of anti-Nasser propaganda, eagerly taken up by the entire press with the exception of the Observer, the Daily Herald and the Manchester Guardian, this was an astounding result. For the first time in living memory, Britain was rent apart on a matter of peace and war. The split ran through families, through school playgrounds and university common rooms. The rows over the Abdication or Munich had been nothing to this.

Part of the reason was Hungary. On the Sunday of the demonstration in Trafalgar Square, Soviet tanks drove back into Budapest. I travelled down from Manchester for the Suez rally, and, as I came out of Euston, I saw the head of a procession. The people walked in silence, apart from their soft footfall on the roadway. In front walked a young woman carrying a red, white and green banner with a hole cut out of the middle. Rank after rank passed without a glance or a word, wrapped in their own agony.

We thought then that we were guilty, too, that Suez had made it possible for the Soviet Union to crush the Hungarian Revolution. Many Hungarians agreed. They told Charles Wheeler of the BBC to get out before the Russians cut the Vienna road, and added: "Remember to tell your people that you and the French have wrecked our revolution." This was almost certainly wrong; Khrushchev would have acted as he did with or without the Suez diversion. But Hungary was on the conscience of those who stood up against Suez.

In retrospect, I see that the anger which burst through over Suez had deep roots. Britain in the 1950s was not as placid as it seemed. The wartime rhetoric about national unity and sacrifice was still used to keep us in our place, but its credibility was leaking away by 1956. The shattering of trust in government was followed by the crumbling of other certainties. Unemployment returned. So did inequality, and the opportunity to make fortunes legally. The entrepreneur was promoted from spiv to patriot.

The myth that Britain was still a world power collapsed, as American financial sanctions forced Eden to choose between withdrawal from Egypt and the death of sterling. The self-inflicted wound to British interests in the Arab world took a generation to heal.

In Whitehall, there were old men shouting: "Who's got the ball-bearings? Throw them under the horses' hooves!" We, the young, stared at these veterans of pre-war riots. They had never for a moment thought of "our" government or "our" policemen. For them, British history had always been a merciless struggle between "them" and "us", fought with truncheons, money and lies. In the Suez days, for a terrible moment, we began to see what they meant.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
Members of the House of Lords gather for the state opening of Parliament  

Peer pressure: The nobles in the Lords should know when to go

Jane Merrick
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick