The Suez Crisis and the Fall of the British Empire

Posted by Pete on 29th Oct 2017

61 years ago today, Britain (in alliance with France and Israel) illegally invaded Egypt.

It was all just a big misunderstanding of course...

A misunderstanding that Labour heroes Attlee, Bevan and Benn were all happy to lay at the door of the Tory government of the day.

Anthony Eden's plan for the Middle East 

Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden couldn’t think beyond Gamal Abdel Nasser - the radically anti-imperialist and devilishly charismatic new President of Egypt.

Eden and his government believed that all of the British Empire's growing problems in the Middle East during the 1950s were because of Nasser personally. These problems, their logic convinced them, could therefore be solved by taking him out.

After Nasser nationalised the British-owned Suez Canal in July 1956 - a canal built by Egyptians in Egypt - Eden pounced.

The British government colluded with Israel to invade Egypt so that Britain and France could use that as a pretext to occupy the Canal Zone. Their thinking was that this would de-legitimise Nasser in the eyes of the Egyptian people and eventually lead to his overthrow.

This was, to put it mildly, a really bad plan.

Port Said: entrance to the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean

An Anti-Imperialist Backlash 

Nasser’s prominence in the Middle East - like Gandhi’s in India, or Che’s in Latin America - was symptomatic of a wider social phenomenon: the unwillingness of peoples suffering imperial domination to suffer it any longer.

And even the mighty British Empire couldn't withstand this popular power.

Maybe that’s why the Empire's last guardian, Anthony Eden, preferred the simplistic answer of blaming it all on one man, Nasser.

However, this remained a peculiarly Tory misunderstanding of the situation, and was not one shared by the British labour movement.

In Trafalgar Square, Nye Bevan roared at Eden’s government:

"They have besmirched the name of Britain! They have made us ashamed of the things of which we were formerly proud! They have offended against every principle of decency, and there is only one way in which they can even begin to restore their tarnished reputation and that is to GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!" - Aneurin Bevan

In the House of Commons, a young Anthony Benn MP put it plainly:

"Egypt has been attacked. Under Article 51 [of the UN Charter] Egypt has a right to self-defence. The British ultimatum is in direct contravention of Article 51 which provides the right of self-defence." - Tony Benn

And in the House of Lords an ageing Clement Attlee, having comprehensively taken apart the many moral and practical flaws of the invasion, concluded simply:

"I am sorry to say that the only concrete suggestion that occurs to me is that it is time this Government gave way to another." - Clement Attlee

Aneurin Bevan tea towelClement Attlee tea towelTony Benn tea towel

Our Aneurin BevanClement Attlee and Tony Benn tea towels

A global response to a fallen empire 

Attlee was right to think the government were done for.

After just a few days of the Suez operation, the United States - angry at not being consulted - threatened economic sanctions if Britain and France didn’t withdraw. Unsurprisingly, the Soviet Union also opposed the invasion.

Faced with the anger of the world’s two superpowers, Britain had no choice but to back down and withdraw.

With this humiliation, Eden's career as Prime Minister was destroyed after only a couple of years in the job.

As for the British Empire? After far too many decades of oppression, it was out for the count.