Robert Fisk’s World: Little has changed since the secretive days of the Suez crisis

It seems we really are going to have an Iraq inquiry. But I’m not holding my breath

Saturday 08 August 2009 00:00

If I were an examiner – a secret Fisk-wish ever since my schooldays – I would award a double-A to Professor Peter Beck of Kingston University. "Given your interest in the present-day resonance of history, including the Iraq inquiry," he writes to me, "you might be interested in the enclosed article..." Oh indeed, Professor Beck, I said to myself.

For his recent paper is a time capsule of the High Tory need to avoid – ever – a public inquiry into the Suez scandal. Yes, the predecessors of Mr Cameron's very own party were doing everything they could to prevent the shameful story of Britain's collusion with France and Israel to invade Egypt. No 10, it turns out, was busy destroying the secret documents of the agreement at Sèvres where the three powers concocted their outrageous act of aggression. Thanks only to the Israelis, we still have the Sèvres papers, the British copies of which Prime Minister Anthony Eden may well have personally burned.

Of course, it was Labour that was then demanding a public inquiry, not the Tories, although the parallels with the whimsical inquiry with which Sir John Chilcot threatens us – including the public appearance of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara himself – are so ironic and fatuous that they will need no reference from me. Read Suez. Think Iraq.

It was Hugh Gaitskill who first noted that "if there was collusion, the motives of the men who practised it were so various that, sooner or later, they are bound to start giving one another away". Eden tried to bluff it out. "Certainly the documents are there, and will remain there," he told Gaitskill in the Commons. "Anybody who wishes to dive into them, in due course, can dive into them!" "In due course", indeed. Eden had already burned some of them. Eden's successor, Harold Macmillan – who had his own dark role in Suez – tried the same insouciance. "I believe history will justify what we did," he blithely announced. A few weeks later, he was bellyaching about how "our best interests will be served if we concentrate on the future and do not revive controversy".

That, I suppose was the 1950s version of "closure" and "moving on". Macmillan thought that the desire to turn up the facts on Suez had more to do with party politics than a desire for real history. In any event, as Beck rightly points out, "the politics of affluence superseded the politics of Suez". Yet Macmillan was so frightened of the truth that he insisted that even the Ministry of Defence could not publish a dispatch by British General Sir Charles Keightley about the military campaign without his personal authorisation. The published version, he decided, must give rise to no "public difficulties", "political controversy" or "friction in foreign relations". The Foreign Office observed that publication must be accompanied by "no flourish of trumpets".

Labour's Michael Stewart, as foreign secretary less than a decade later, commented that the only way to gain "a true history of events" would be to hold – whoops – a public inquiry. But Macmillan had already forestalled that, even disapproving of a proposed study by the Joint Services Staff College on the grounds that it would have "obvious political implications". It was only in 1986 that the government of Margaret Thatcher concluded that the British copy of the Sèvres meeting had been "destroyed by Sir Anthony Eden himself or by a No 10 Private Secretary".

There were precedents for a public inquiry. There had been inquiries into the disasters at Gallipoli and in First World War Mesopotamia (ie Iraq!). Yet there was Alec Douglas-Home in 1964 – most of these characters had a role in Suez – telling the Commons that "no grounds" existed for an inquiry.

By the time Harold Wilson became prime minister, Labour's demands melted in the light of power. He didn't want to look back at a period when his own party was accused of pursuing an unpatriotic course – Gaitskill opposed the whole Suez adventure – which could divide the nation. "I do not believe that an official history would be the way to deal with the situation," he told Michael Foot. Yet this was the same Wilson who told the Commons that "there is now strong prima facie evidence of the whole thing being a put-up job in advance of the fighting we were supposed to intervene to stop".

Wilson did subsequently float the idea of an inquiry – partly, it seems, to distract attention from the 1966 sterling crisis. But one of Macmillan's former private secretaries announced that even a parliamentary debate on Suez would serve no purpose "from the national point of view". The Tory high command deemed it was "still too early to have full disclosure of this episode [sic]". Then it was the Zionist Richard Crossman who decided "to prevent the setting up of an inquiry and to minimise public discussion of this issue for both domestic and foreign policy reasons". Foreign Secretary George Brown now concluded that "the harmful effects of such an inquiry would, I am convinced, be worldwide".

By November 1966, it was our old pal Tam Dalyell who was waffling along the same lines, warning Crossman that "to establish a select committee in order to rake over the ashes might make us liable to the charge of diverting attention from the modern scene to ancient history". This wonderful stuff goes on and on. First, Suez is too recent to discuss. Then it's too far in the past to bother about. It was left to Wilson again to utter the truly Blair-like assertion that it would be unwise for the government to launch an inquiry "when all our efforts should be directed toward reducing the tensions in the Middle East".

The French didn't care much about their own Suez secrets – they had just suffered defeat in the Algerian war – but the British fear of Middle East inquiries never seemed to fade. "This is not the time for such (inquiry) decisions," Blair said of Iraq in 2006, while Lord Malloch-Brown (Foreign Office minister of state) came out with the old canard about the need for distance and perspective.

Well, it seems we really are going to have an inquiry this time round. But I'm not holding my breath for any revelations from the safe pairs of hands whom Gordon Brown has manoeuvred into position for Sir John Chilcot. Crossman on Suez is the best cure for optimism. "It means keeping out of the Middle East," he wrote, "and treating Arabs like adult Latin Americans, who don't want to be improved or democratised and who must be allowed to have what regimes they like."

And that's OUCH! from me.

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