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.
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