Adrian Lee: Sixty five years on, how the Suez Crisis affected the direction of British Conservative policy

20 Nov

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Late on the evening of November 5 1956, an advance party of British soldiers from the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment led by Brigadier M.A.H. Butler, dropped on El Gamil Airfield in Egypt. The Anglo-French re-conquest of the Suez Canal Zone had officially begun.

The airfield was swiftly secured by the British, enabling the remainder of the battalion to be flown in by helicopter. The British forces then pushed on relentlessly to their main target, the city of Port Said. Despite strong Egyptian resistance, and with close support from fighter planes from the three British aircraft carriers nearby, they were able to secure the beach in time for the assault by 42nd and 40th Commando of the Royal Marines at dawn the following morning.

Meanwhile, the French forces were supported by two aircraft carriers, launching a similarly successful attack with paratroopers from their 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment on Port Fuad. The European forces appeared unstoppable, but the mission was forsaken before it started.

On November 2 the USA, with Soviet support, successfully proposed Resolution 997 (ES-1) at the United Nations calling for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of forces from the Suez Canal. Anthony Eden’s government then came under massive political and economic pressure from Eisenhower’s American administration to cease hostilities immediately.

Britain and France, just 24 hours away from complete control of the Suez Canal, reluctantly complied. The outcome of this Crisis was an undoubted humiliation for both countries and signified the end of independent strategic operations without American approval. The consequences for the international order have been debated for decades, but, in contrast, little attention has been focused upon the impact of Suez on the future direction of British Conservative policy.

The maintenance of the British Empire had been a cornerstone issue for pre-war Conservatives, leading them to enthusiastically embrace protectionism but the world had moved on by the time that the Conservatives returned to power in 1951. India had gained its independence and the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1949 acknowledged that all members were able to leave the embrace of the mother country at will.

Leo Amery, one of the casualties of the 1945 election cull, who had originally entered Parliament in 1911 as an enthusiastic Chamberlainite Tariff Reformer, had spent his career championing the unity of the Empire. With the Empire in decline, Amery now turned his attention to the battered continent of Europe as a possible replacement and as “a positive antidote to socialism”.

He wasn’t the only Conservative to become besotted with European prospects; Duncan Sandys (Churchill’s son-in-law), Robert Boothby (a European Federalist since the 1920s) and Harold Macmillan (an admirer of Jean Monnet) all became involved in the United Europe Movement (U.E.M.) during the years in opposition after 1945. The U.E.M. held its inaugural meeting at the Albert Hall in May 1947 and Sandys used all his powers of persuasion to obtain Churchill’s consent to serve as first Chairman.

Sandys had also been the main driver behind Churchill’s earlier “Europe Unite” speech at the University of Zurich in September 1946. The pinnacle of Conservative Europeanism came with the tabling of a Parliamentary EDM on 16th March 1948, drafted by Boothby and signed by 58 Tory MPs, calling for the creation of a “Western Union”. The influence of the Europeanists significantly declined after the Conservatives returned to power in 1951 and when Ministers were faced with the practical task of managing the remaining Imperial territories.

In the early 50s, Britain’s decline of influence was felt most acutely in the Middle East. Conservatives felt that we had been chased out of Palestine in 1948 and had been humiliated in the 1951 Iranian Abadan Crisis and the attempt to nationalise Anglo-Iranian Oil. Increasingly concerned about negotiations over the future of Sudan, backbenchers began to fear that the next outpost to be abandoned would be the Suez Canal.

The Suez Group of Conservative MPs was formed to maintain the Commonwealth as a political and military entity in the belief that, in order to continue being one of the “Big Three” powers, Britain must continue to act as America’s equal. Any retreat from Britain’s global commitments was viewed as fatal to prestige and would inevitably lead to decline to a second-class power.

The founders of the Suez Group were Captain Charles Waterhouse MP and Leo’s son, Julian Amery. Amery became de facto leader almost immediately, with the first meeting being held at his father’s house in Eaton Square on October 5 1953. The Group grew to number over 50 MPs, many of whom were from the new intake and destined to dominate the Conservative Right in future decades. These included Angus Maude, Richard Body, John Biggs-Davison and Enoch Powell (who served as joint Group Secretary with Amery).

The immediate practical aim of the Group was to force the government to maintain a strong military presence on the Canal, but the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, decided to withdraw the British bases and thus grant Egypt’s strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser, control of the Canal Zone under the terms of the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement.

Amery believed that withdrawing British troops constituted a “a catastrophic gamble” and placed too much trust in the word of Nasser. He urged military action to retake control of Suez before the Egyptians had the opportunity to renege on the treaty and unilaterally nationalise the Anglo-French owned Canal.

Enoch Powell disagreed, arguing that it was too late to act and the moment had passed when Britain closed the last military base. The majority of the Suez Group sided with Amery and, following Nasser’s nationalisation speech in Alexandria on July 26, lobbied Eden, by now Prime Minister, into launching a full-scale invasion.

The failure of the intervention and America’s opposition to Britain and France led to anti-Americanism spreading throughout the Conservative Right. Significantly, the experience caused Powell to abandon concern for the declining Empire and the new Commonwealth (perceived by him as “a costly fiction”) and to seek a post-imperial national identity.

In doing so, Powell evoked the country’s pre-Imperial past and adopted an increasingly UK-centred, isolationist approach to foreign policy. To Julian Amery, who maintained his love of Empire, this all sounded like “British Gaullism”. Kevin Hickson, in his study Britain’s Conservative Right Since 1945, sees this as a key division on the Conservative Right between the new nationalist vision and the older Imperialist one.

These divisions would eventually crystalize into two wholly different approaches to the looming issue of Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community. The Europeanists started to resurrect their ambitions following Suez.

However, whilst the likes of Amery and Bigg-Davison became enthusiasts for the European Project (and would even go so far as to form the short- lived Pan Europe Club “…to promote the role of Britain as a European nation and work for the unity of all the nations of Europe founded on the Christian tradition and ultimately for their political union.”), Powell, Derek Walker-Smith, John Biffen, Richard Body and Neil Marten opposed British membership on grounds of loss of sovereignty.

In certain respects, the European Union represented to the old Imperial enthusiasts a new manifestation of Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Milner’s Imperial Federation idea with a common external tariff, a common Imperial Parliament and an internal single market to strengthen unity. European divisions would last until 2016 in the Conservative Party. The events of November 1956 certainly cast a long shadow.

Richard Ritchie: Why I believe that Enoch Powell would have supported this Brexit trade deal

29 Dec

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

During the twelve days of Christmas, people like to play games in order to pass the time.  One such game this year, for those of a political inclination, might be to guess how the original Brexiteers of the 1970s – especially John Biffen, Richard Body, Ronald Bell, Neil Martin, Enoch Powell and Derek Walker-Smith – would have reacted to Boris Johnson’s deal, were they alive today.

Would they have supported it, or preferred to leave without one?  Since Powell’s writings and speeches on the subject are more extensive than the others, perhaps he is best placed to speak for them all.  But he has no claim to originality or primacy.

Powell was later to the party than some of those listed above, and for a specific economic reason.  As he readily conceded: “I had entered Mr Macmillan’s Cabinet only six months before the veto fell; but I am prepared to confess that in those days I used to argue the case, and answer objections, on purely commercial grounds.”

Indeed, he admitted in 1965 that he was worried by the thought of Britain being “excluded” from “her fastest growing market”.  This was not a fear shared by, for example, Walker-Smith, who identified the political implications of membership far sooner than Powell.  But then, as now, exclusion from the European market was one of the greatest anxieties of those who felt that Britain’s economic future would be bleak outside.  As Alec Douglas-Home put it in 1967: “where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”

While Powell was always a fervent free trader (although less so as he grew older and more immersed in Ulster politics) he was slower than the earliest Brexiteers to acknowledge the distinction between a customs union – a Zollverein – and a Free Trade area.  As his understanding of this discrepancy grew, so did his support for entry diminish.

Broadly, his free trading instincts were impeccable, albeit defined in their purest form which seem somewhat remote from the provisions of even the freest trade deal today. He never seemed especially exercised over so-called non-tariff barriers, which are now cited as one of the biggest potential weaknesses of the new arrangements.

Ironically, it is today’s criticisms of the deal which make it more probable that Powell would have welcomed it.  Europe’s move towards a Single Market and the reforms of 1992 ended for Powell any pretence that free trade in his understanding of the term had any similarity with the Customs Union enshrined by the European Community.

As he eventually recognised, “The Community is not about free trade; the Community is about perfect internal competition – which is something essentially different.  It is also about common restriction of external trade. There is no such thing as perfect internal competition and common external trade regulation between free nations.”

For this reason, he would have rejected as false the premise that leaving the Single Market is equivalent to reducing the scope of free trade.  He didn’t think we had it anyway, although how he would have answered specific objections over additional administrative expenses and red-tape provoked by new non-tariff restrictions is unclear from his speeches.

Of one thing, however, we can be confident.  He would not have called for a ‘tit-for-tat’ response against the EU’s invisible barriers to trade.  He distinguished between revenue and protective duties, having no objection to the former but rejecting the need for the latter –  because he believed that “one of the beauties of free trade is that it is a ‘a-political’: you do not have to browbeat or overrule anybody else in order to enjoy its blessings for yourself.  It is a game at which, like Patience, one can play”.

He would have argued that EU barriers against UK businesses would in the end hurt them more than us, provided we didn’t reciprocate. In the end, what some perceive as the greatest dangers of the new arrangements are what would have made them acceptable to Powell and most of his fellow Brexiteers of the past.

But of course, for Powell, these points would have been peripheral to what really matters, encapsulated in his assertion that “a political nation which cannot tax itself or make its own laws is a contradiction in terms.”  What would have made this Agreement acceptable to him is that it has succeeded, for the first time, in recovering powers which some thought had been lost permanently.

That does not mean that Great Britain is free from all international constraints. There was an occasion in 1966 when Powell severely criticised the Labour Government for imposing “illegal” import surcharges “which damaged our EFTA partners and severely shook confidence in Britain’s word and in the seriousness of her desire to enter into closer ties with Europe.”  He did not regard international trade agreements as inconsistent with sovereignty, provided Parliament had the right to scrutinise and reject them – but not to unilaterally renege from them, once signed and ratified.  That was another reason why Powell was so opposed Britain’s entry into the European Union – the longer that one was in and ‘absorbed’, the harder and more impractical it became to consider withdrawal.

But it has happened.  Something which the original Brexiteers warned was virtually impossible before entry, but which they demanded once EU membership was a fait accompli, has been achieved.  We have left the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – a massive recovery of sovereignty.  We are free of the risks of further political integration in the EU which were ever present so long as we remained a member.

While we may still be affected by the Euro’s vulnerability, we are at least spared the legal obligation to recuse it or those it damages.  We have recovered the right to negotiate our own international trade deals.  We may not have yet fully recovered our ability to deregulate and compete fiscally with Europe, but the fact that financial services fall outside the deal may make it possible for the UK to do just that in what is the most important section of our economy.

Talk of ‘free ports’ and the like suggest an economic direction entirely in accordance with free market principles – but which could equally be reversed should the British people choose a government with different priorities and beliefs.  This safeguard was, too, a fundamental belief in the recovery of sovereignty.

If Powell and his fellow Brexiteers were around now, perhaps they would have preferred leaving without a deal – especially if David Cameron had permitted Whitehall to prepare for Brexit in advance of the referendum, thus avoiding the consequent delay and enabling a new relationship to be formed before a pandemic struck.

But the fact is that Powell once accepted the case for entry on the grounds that exclusion from the European customs union was a danger.  He supported EFTA and other such trade agreements, even though they carried obligations and restraints upon domestic policy.  Given what this deal’ has recovered politically, it is doubtful whether he would have allowed its weaknesses to dissuade him from believing that, finally, the ratchet has been turned back, and Britain is once again a sovereign nation.  He would have supported the deal with a clear conscience.