Suez destroyed Eden and the Empire

Fifty years ago, Britain embarked on a mad military adventure which destroyed Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden and hastened the collapse of the British Empire.

By Graham Dines

Fifty years ago, Britain embarked on a mad military adventure which destroyed Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden and hastened the collapse of the British Empire. Political Editor Graham Dines recalls the Suez crisis.

ON July 26 1956, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal in retaliation for the refusal of western governments to fund the construction of the Aswan damn.

The canal, opened in 1869, cut through the narrow strip of the Sinai Desert separating the Mediterranean from the Red Sea. It's strategic importance to the imperial powers such as Britain and France was fundamental - it provided a quick route to Australia and the Orient, allowing the two countries to open up new trade routes.

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When Nasser led a coup in Egypt, he looked with envious eyes at the canal. If his country could own the canal, it could extort massive tolls from the western allies, especially as the canal was now being used to ship wealth creating oil to the capitalist west.

Nasser had been courting the Soviet Union and its client states of eastern Europe. When the west turned its back on the Aswan project - vital to irrigate the arid lands of the upper Nile - the Soviets stepped in. And Nasser started buying weapons from Czechoslovakia to arm Egypt's growing military might.

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Nasser nationalised the canal and promptly closed it. Only vessels prepared to pay the high premium being demanded by the Egyptians could use it.

Britain and France were livid. Having fought and seen off Hitler, they were not going to allow a tuppenny ha'penny tinpot dictator like Nasser to hold them to ransom. And the French were deeply suspicious of Nasser, believing it was financing rebels in its Algerian colony.

A week later, the allies held talks on military action. The United States - who would later undermine Eden and the French - joined in. Britain mobilised its armed forces for an attack to retake the canal zone.

A conference in mid August saw 18 nations agree a formula which would put the Suez Canal into international management. Nasser laughed in their faces.

Nevertheless, a Suez Canal Users Association was formed on October 1 to run the canal but, duplicitously, France and Israel joined Britain in secretly planning Operation Musketeer to invade Egypt and retake the canal by force.

At the end of October, the three allies struck. Israeli forces invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula in a surgical strike and advanced towards the canal.

Britain and France then started bombing the canal zone - but Nasser attacked 40 ships which were in the canal and sunk them. He had effectively stopped any vessels passing along the maritime highway.

By the beginning of November, the United Nations had had enough. More importantly, so had the United States, where a presidential election was taking place and President Dwight D Eisenhower withdrew his backing for the military adventure being undertaken by his two most important NATO allies.

And while the attention of the world was focussed on north east Africa, the Soviets marched on Budapest to put down the Hungarian uprising. It was a brutal act of oppression on Hungary, a country which would have to wait another 34 years and the fall of the Berlin Wall to regain her sovereignty.

But Britain and France pressed on. The British dropped 668 paratroopers and 470 French paratroopers landed at two bridges on the canal.

Two days later, knowing that they were trapped in a hopeless escapade which had brought massive disapproval throughout their own countries, Britain and France agreed to a ceasefire.

A United Nations Expeditionary Force was sent in to act as a buffer between the warring parties. On November 23, President Eisenhower - having seen off for the second time the hapless Adlai Stevenson in the US presidential election - in effect told Britain and France to pull out of Egypt.

It took a month for our boys - serving in a basically conscript army, navy and air force - to return home, just in time for Christmas.

Nine days into the New Year and Sir Anthony Eden - the dashing heart-throb of British politics - resigned, a beaten, humiliated man, his reputation in shreds, destroyed by Suez.

It was the beginning of the end of Empire. Singapore and Malaya demanded and were granted independence. Colonies in West Africa - the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and Nigeria - quickly followed.

The British, tired of fighting guerrilla action in Cyprus and Kenya, agreed to their independence as well. Nyasaland (now Malawi), Uganda, Zanzibar, and Tanganyika saw the Union Flag hauled down as an empire of serfs became a commonwealth of free, independent states.

For Eden, Suez was a tragedy. Along with Churchill, he had argued in the Conservative Party against the appeasers and in 1938, he resigned as Neville Chamberlain's foreign secretary.

He was swiftly recalled to Cabinet rank by Churchill in 1940. He was the natural heir as leader of the Tory Party but - rather like Gordon Brown today - he was kept waiting for what he and the Conservatives saw as rightfully his until 10 years after World War II finished.

Churchill bowed out, Eden took over, immediately won a General Election - incredibly, given politics today, the Tories polled more than 50% of the vote in Scotland - and he looked forward to a long, bright future as Prime Minister.

Then came Suez. A broken man, Eden quit. Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister - and despite all the rancour that the crisis in Egypt had heaped on the Tory government, he was to lead his party two years' later to one of its greatest victories.

The legacy of Suez was the end of empire - but it threw up Supermac, a left leaning, patrician, pro-European leader who won an election under the slogan “you've never had it so good.”

As for Nasser, he became the hero of the Arab world. Egypt became the dominant force in the Middle East, a position it would hold until the rise of Moslem fundamentalism.

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