"Of course we can get to Cairo, but what I don't know is what the bloody hell we're supposed to do when we get there."

The Suez Crisis was a defining moment in post-World War Two British politics. It was the final nail in Britain's dream of remaining a world power of the first rank. It brought down the government of the day. It showed the world that Britain was subservient to the United States, and it temporarily convinced the government of France that Britain could not be trusted to join the European Union. The Suez Crisis is often forgotten nowadays. On a military level, it was not particularly dramatic. On a political level, no-one in the West came out of it well. It did the power of good for Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser, but he lost in the end and passed away into history.

"We are not at war with Egypt. We are in a state of armed conflict."
Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister

For almost a century before 1953, Egypt had been part of the British Empire's wider area of influence. Although it was not actually subject to direct rule, King Farouk was willing to allow British and French firms to own large parts of the country, as well as the important Suez Canal. The creation of Israel, and successive military defeats at its hands, did not go down too well in Egypt, and in 1953 a military coup deposed Farouk. Gamel Abdel Nasser rose to become the first President of Egypt. He was a charismatic and instantly recognisable man who had a vision for Egypt and the Middle East. Nasser set about modernising and developing his country, initially with funds from the United Nations and the US. For a time it seemed like business as usual, with Nasser as yet another colonial puppet.

But Nasser was on nobody's side but his own. He had a Pan-Arab dream of uniting the Middle East, and it became apparent that had no great love for the West. He made ties with the Soviet Union, and signed a big arms deal with Czechoslovakia, which led to the US and Britain suspending aid to Egypt in 1956 - particularly to the Aswan Dam, a hydroelectric dam that would become Nasser's equivalent of the Pyramids. Although he was regarded by British Prime Minister Anthony Eden as a crackpot socialist military dictator, a prototype of Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein, Nasser was a hero in Egypt and respected throughout the Middle East, because he was sticking it in the eye of former and potential foreign masters. The US, meanwhile, was ambivalent; they were not sure that Nasser was as bad as Britain made out, although they were upset at Nasser's ties with the Soviet Union. Nasser took the step of nationalising the Suez Canal in July of 1956, reasoning that the toll revenues from ships passing through would pay for his dam by the end of the decade.

The Suez Canal was an immensely important waterway at the time, and remains so today. It allows ships to travel from the Mediterranean to India and Japan, without having to go all the way around the Cape of Good Hope. Up until 1956 it was owned by a joint French/British consortium of stockholders, and was part of the Western sphere of influence. It had been Britain's gateway to India, and by 1956 it marked the eastern edge of the British Empire. Neither Britain nor France were best pleased at Nasser's nationalisation of the canal. For the French it came close on the heels of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and in the midst of growing trouble in Algeria. The French empire was dying a more lingering death than that of the British empire. History came to realise that Nasser had no more love for the Soviet Union than for the West, but at the time it was thought that he might destabilise the whole region, prompting widespread socialist revolutions and inevitable Soviet military support. Israel had its own problems with Egypt, and, after a protracted period of threats directed at Nasser, the three countries formulated a plan to take back the canal by force of arms. They did not want to openly invade the canal area, for fear of appearing to be warmongering bullies. Although Nasser had risen to power on the back of a coup, he did not seem evil enough to attack directly. Instead, a clever plan was worked out.

The plan called for Israel to attack the Sinai on a pretence of pre-empting an Egyptian attack on Israel. France and Britain would then demand that both sides disengage, and threaten to impose a cease-fire by force, which would of course involve putting troops on the ground at Suez. I am not sure what was supposed to happen after the canal had been taken. Perhaps Britain, France, and Israel expected Nasser to be deposed, or perhaps they expected to simply stay there forevermore. Neither of the colonial powers had the equipment or manpower for a sustained occupation of the area, and it was out of the question for Israel to station troops on the canal; Nasser could have whipped up a whirlwind.

The final part of the plan was never fully fleshed out. The illustrative quote at the beginning of the article is from British General Gerald Templar who, as governor of Malaya a few years earlier, had successfully dealt with a communist insurgency in that country, using a mixture of military force and by successfully winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Templar was one of a number of generals in favour of a military operation purely to capture the canal and impose some kind of lasting neutral zone, although the final plan was developed by Captain Liddell-Hart and British Prime Minister Anthony Eden. There might have been some chance of deposing Nasser if the Egyptian population had been against him, but they were not. The only way to get rid of him would be with a full-scale invasion of Egypt from Britain, France and Israel, and there was no way the US or the USSR were likely to stand idly by whilst that happened. Despite the special relationship between the US and Great Britain, the former was no fan of imperialism. And ultimately Nasser had kept the canal running. He did not seem a petty destructive tyrant.

On October 29, 1956, the plan was set in motion. Israel attacked with great success. On October 30 France and Britain issued their ceasefire proclamation, and declared that, no matter what, they would send troops to the region to enforce the peace. They did so the very next day, turning their firepower on Egypt. Militarily the Suez Crisis was a one-sided affair. Britain and France were not the powers they had once been, but they were old hands at war. The US and the rest of the world smelled something fishy. President Eisenhower sent ships to evacuate US citizens from Israel and Egypt, and made diplomatic moves to the UN in order to distance the US from the affair. President Nasser meanwhile blocked the canal with sunken ships. Britain's economy took a tumble at the threat of an oil embargo, and of a costly draining ongoing occupation, so soon after the expense of the Second World War, and of Korea. Britain's food supplies were still rationed by the government until 1954. The economy was being overshadowed by that of a resurgent Germany, and it was dwarfed by the Yankee dollar. The Soviets threatened to intervene directly in Suez, and for a while it look as if the whole thing was going to be a disaster for all concerned.

Although the USSR had just invaded Hungary, it was relatively blameless in the Middle East, and looked positively benign compared to Britain and France, who were clearly in the wrong. Eisenhower knew this, and he was a week away from re-election. Neither of the Cold War superpowers were in the mood to entertain the Imperial dreams of Britain and France. The people of Britain and France were not impressed either, with ongoing protests in both countries. Anthony Eden had counted on Eisenhower's support, although he had not actually told Eisenhower what he planned to do. Eisenhower was livid at the deception and invasion, at the propaganda victory it handed to the USSR, and that was that for Eden and the Suez affair. Although the brief military campaign had essentially been won by Britain and France, Eisenhower could not longer support the former Imperial powers at the United Nations.

On November 7th Britain realised that the game was up. Continued military action would be ruinously expensive and would lead nowhere. Eden prevailed on France's General De Gaulle to join him in giving up, which confirmed De Gaulle's suspicions that Britain was a pawn of the United States, not to be trusted. Israel became even more villainous in Arab eyes, whilst the open alliance with Britain and France against Egypt bashed any influence either country had over the region. The disruption to shipping and oil caused by Nasser's temporary closure of the canal caused a Sterling crisis, and caused Anthony Eden to resign in January 1957. British and French armed forces finally pulled out in March 1957. The canal remained a bone of contention between Egypt and Israel. Eventually Egypt closed the canal to Israeli shipping, which prompted the Six-Day War of 1966. Nasser's dam was finally completed in July 1970. Nasser died two months later. He did not live to see the next war between Egypt and Israel, or the peace that was signed between the two nations in 1979.

Over the next decade Britain pulled out of its colonial possessions relatively peacefully, and nobody in Britain, certainly not Harold Macmillan and Alexander Douglas-Home, Eden's successors, could have any further illusions that Britain called the shots any more. The Cold War was bigger than any former Imperial power. France continued to lurch into trouble with Algeria, which almost led to a civil war as the 1960s wore on. The United States, meanwhile, was having trouble of its own, in Vietnam.

Selected sources:

Britain’s role in the world had changed so dramatically in the fifteen years leading to 1951, that many people, politicians included, had yet to adapt to this shift. When we examine Suez in 1956, it is astonishing to think what Victorian, even Edwardian, Britons would have made of the crisis. Certainly, we cannot place sole blame upon the British political establishment, or even Anthony Eden. It is vital that we acknowledge the unstoppable, overwhelming socio-political forces that were changing the nature of the world, forces far beyond the power, or even influence, of British politics. It is important to remember that Britain was not the only waning empire in the world. The epoch of the great colonial empires was drawing to a close. France was suffering from enormous imperial problems, and the other great powers of the age, Spain, Russia, Austria-Hungary, were long gone, torn apart by either internal revolution or external war mongering. The world, instead of being carved up into the dominions of European nations was now dominated by the two Cold War superpowers, the USSR and America, and the threat of nuclear war cast a shadow over the interactions between the states. But in spite of this tumultuous backdrop, what was British foreign policy doing to face the challenges that this “new world order” presented? Did the government provide solutions, or did it simply exacerbate its rapidly growing problems?

It is important to remember that the British populace in 1951 still considered itself at the head of an empire, albeit one that was rapidly diminishing. It had only been four years since the loss of the empire’s “Crown Jewel”, India, and the full expanse of Britain’s imperial influence was still in the living memory of many. Churchill and Eden were both very much products of this age (the former having gained his notoriety in African colonial wars), and this was reflected in their attitude to the world at large. It is notable that Ernest Bevin, the Labour Party foreign minister from 1945 to 1951, was more aware of the changing nature of Britain’s role in the world. Bevin attempted to find Britain’s role in the balance of the Cold War. While this meant acting in a largely subservient role, it did mean Britain could preserve a measure of influence. However, the following two governments tried to act with the impunity more befitting a nuclear leviathan than a small island democracy. The principle of “gunboat diplomacy” is only a viable long-term strategy for those who have the necessary means with which to back their threats. What we can now see, with the benefit of hindsight, is that the true extent of Britain’s decline was not immediately apparent. The development of the nuclear bomb in 1952 was perhaps key in providing the illusion that Britain still held a predominant role. But also in general, it seemed a time for patriotism. Winston Churchill’s Nobel Prize, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the climbing of Everest and the Festival Of Britain all helped contribute to the illusion that Britain was still a nation at the height of its powers. The Conservative government played on all these, the coronation in particular, some proclaiming a “new Elizabethan age”, with the obvious imperial implications that phrase holds. Thus, it was possible for the Tories to exploit this smokescreen of national pride, and perhaps explains why they dominated politics so successfully during this period. The re-election of Churchill in 1951 is perhaps indicative of this. The “War Prime Minister”, who had been so roundly rejected in ‘45, represented, to a nation who had elected a Labour government primarily for domestic reform, a long gone imperial grandeur.

So then, does the foreign policy of the time reflect Britain’s perhaps ill founded confidence? Strangely enough, for a country supposedly ruled by a war-time Prime Minister, foreign policy was not as confrontational as we might think. We must remember that the Korean War, started in 1950, was part of the legacy of the Labour government. Thus, we may look upon the Suez Crisis as perhaps the first major intervention of the period. Where it differs greatly from Korea, is that while that war was fought under the (admittedly dubious) sanction of the United Nations, Suez was rather more a case of Britain protecting its own national concerns, rather than fighting an ideological war against Communism. The idea of fighting to preserve one’s trading interests seems one that belongs more in the seventeenth century than the twentieth, but we must appreciate that it was a time at which Britain still relied upon sea-faring trade. It is interesting that Britain took only a bilateral approach, alongside France, for Suez, instead of the more unilateral Korean War. Does this suggest a moral queasiness on the part of the world community? Perhaps the significance of the Suez, and hence the change in British foreign policy is a further reaching one than we might suppose. Indeed, we consider the approach that Britain took to its involvement in nations like Malaya and Kenya (in which they attempted to use forces to quell nationalist uprisings), we can appreciate the significance that an event such as Suez had on the thinking of British governments from that point forward.

The Suez Crisis could perhaps be seen as a symptom of Britain’s military decline following the war. The forces, unable to attack from Cyprus, were inflexible and ill prepared for the type of action that the crisis required. The loss of various other Mediterranean bases meant that the British lacked the capability for a fast response. Perhaps most crucial was the loss of the Indian army, a force upon which Britain had often relied upon with imperial matters. It was becoming clear that Britain no longer had the military or economic might to successfully coerce other nations. For a nation that had relied upon brute force and sabre-rattling in foreign affairs for hundreds of years, it was perhaps ill equipped to employ the delicate diplomacy that the nuclear age made necessary. The Suez Crisis perhaps underlines the obsolete nature of Britain’s foreign policy, and provided a catalyst for change.

Just as the nature of Britain’s empire was changing, the larger Commonwealth was a different entity too. Any expansionist empire is generally based around a xenophobic nation, and Britain was no different. Within its Imperial history, Britain has repeatedly given superior treatment to those nations whose populace was primarily white, Canada and Australia for example, to those made up of an alternative race, such as in the colonies of Africa. This belief that a white person of European origin holds greater human rights than other ethnicities was an integral moral justification for Britain, and was long undisputed “common sense”. Problems arose, however, when in 1947 India and Pakistan gained their independence. No longer could it be said that Britain was part of a “white Commonwealth”, particularly considering the outspoken nature of the likes of Nehru and Gandhi. So this of course created an ethical conundrum. How could Britain justify having two such nations as its allies, with their defiantly non-European cultural identities, and go on treating the non-white world with contempt? Of course, this is an unsolvable problem. For perhaps the first time in history, Britain would need to start acting with at least a measure of sensitivity toward such peoples, or at least stop treating them with outright contempt. The impact of this changed Britain’s foreign policy for ever.

By 1959, Britain’s foreign policy was undoubtedly different from what had gone before it. This is not say however that it was yet fully suited to the new world climate. One must only look at Macmillan‘s somewhat muddled approach to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to see that the nation was not yet operating quite in the same mentality as the two superpower blocs. But what I feel we can say is that at least we see Britain beginning to realize that the world is now a different place, and irreversibly so. Macmillan was perhaps instrumental in this, as he seemed to intuitively understand that the nature of international relations had changed. No longer could Britain be the policeman of the world, that job was clearly an American one now, but perhaps it could act as its civil servant. From Macmillan onwards, Britain has, for the most part, taken the approach that it can use its influence, if not its power, to at least guide events in the “right direction”. I sincerely believe, that we also have Macmillan to thank for the unusual position that Britain finds itself in between the United States and Europe, sometimes being used as intermediary between the two, mirroring Churchill’s comments that Britain belonged to all three “majestic circles” in world politics. His ability to form good working relationships with Dwight D. Eisenhower, and later John F. Kennedy, while not distancing Europe, played an integral part in this. It is interesting to note that when Britain takes controversial direct military action in the vein of Suez, the recent Iraq war for example, the flaws in this triangular relationship begin to emerge. This dual paradox, of Britain feeling that a debt is owed to America, while at the same time questioning its policy, and Britain’s wish to be involved in the European Community, without becoming overly integrated within it, I consider are very much the product of this era due to the delicate balance of world affairs at that time.

In conclusion, I believe that the Suez Crisis marks perhaps one of the most important points in the modern history of Britain’s foreign policy. One might argue that many aspects of its foreign policy remained the same. The continuation of the nuclear program and the continued use of imperial rhetoric by British politicians. However, in my opinion, the fact that the Suez Crisis has not been repeated (parallels to recent events in the Gulf are interesting, but I feel rather tenuous). One must only contrast Britain’s actions prior to this point, with those leading up to the present, to see the ramifications it holds. That said, I think that the changes that came as a result of it were inevitable, being a necessity for the continuation of the country’s presence in world events. Rather than changing the course that foreign policy was most likely to move in, I would suggest that it instead accelerated such change to its inevitable conclusion, by making it quite clear to the political establishment that changes not only had to be made, but had to be made immediately. Had this not taken place, we can only speculate what chain of events might have unfolded in the twentieth century, not only for Britain, but for the rest of the world.


Longman Advanced History- Contemporary Britain 1914-1979
Robert Pierce, 1996
Addison Wesley Longman Limited

Heinemann Advanced History- Britain 1929-98
Christopher Rowe, 2004
Heinemann Educational Publishers

Britain 1914-2000
Editor: Derrick Murphy, 2004
Collins Educational

Britain Since 1945
David Childs, 1992

Finest & Darkest Hours,
K. Jefferys, 2002

Britannia Overruled,
Reynolds, 2000

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