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.

Daniel Hannan: Lord Frost’s speech yesterday exposed the staggering petulance of Britain’s Euro-zealots

13 Oct

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

“Well, you signed it!”

That, pretty much, is the entirety of the case against the Government over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Ministers and officials keep patiently proposing ways in which the EU’s stated objectives could be met without disrupting Ulster’s economy and unsettling her politics.

“Yeah, well you signed it!”

David Frost and his team point to the harms: the extra costs loaded onto businesses, the trade diversion, the scheduled banning even of medicines.

“Should’ve thought of that before!”

They explain that the application is disproportionate. That there is no way that the EU actually needs to carry out 20 per cent of its external checks on 0.5 per cent of its trade. That there is plainly more going on here than a desire to check what might enter Co Cavan. That Brussels’ insistence on rabies shots for pets was not, by any stretch of the imagination, necessary or proportionate.

“Didn’t you read it before you signed?”

They draw attention to the political implications. They recall that the peace settlement in Northern Ireland rests on two pillars: first, an understanding that nothing important will be done with the support of only one of the two communities; second, a promise that there will be no change in the constitutional status of the Province except by a vote of its own inhabitants.

Yet all three Unionist parties are campaigning against the Protocol, and the surviving author of the Belfast Agreement, David Trimble, says the Protocol breaches its terms.

“Bet they’re feeling silly about backing Brexit now, eh, Unionist numpties!”

Frost’s team asks whether the EU is acting in good faith when it is so obviously trying to make life difficult. Its aim – stated publicly and repeatedly – is to force Britain into accepting its agrifoods regulations, so that we can’t buy beef from Australia rather than France or Ireland. Is this really a reasonable position?

“Well, you signed it!”

This has been the response, not just of online #FBPE maniacs, but of Europhile columnists, Irish politicians, Labour and LibDem front-benchers and, not least, EU negotiators. The reaction to Lord Frost’s temperate well-reasoned speech in Lisbon yesterday was a case in point. Rather than disagreeing with anything he had said, his opponents fell back on their favourite yah-boo attack line.

“The same minister who, just months ago, was trumpeting the Government’s botched Brexit deal now says it’s intolerable and has to be changed,” said Alistair Carmichael for the Lib Dems.

Yup, agreed Labour’s Jenny Chapman, it was “the agreement he negotiated – and the prime minister signed – just two years ago.”

“The absolute state of David Frost trashing the deal he negotiated + hailed as a triumph,” Tweeted Gavin Barwell.

“It is a fact that Lord Frost negotiated the protocol, agreed to its terms and backed Boris Johnson’s campaign to sell it during the last general election,” said Matthew O’Toole for the SDLP, just in case we had missed the point.

OK, guys, we get it. But your argument is enormously telling in two ways.

First, it exposes a total lack of interest in addressing the problems. Even now, more than five years after the referendum, Eurocrats are chiefly interested in teaching us a lesson. They want there to be a visible price for Brexit, and if that price is an economic and political crisis in Northern Ireland, tant pis.

That much, perhaps, is not entirely surprising. There were always Euro-zealots for whom Brexit was an act of sacrilege that called for chastisement. What is surprising – or at least would have been five years ago – is that a section of the British commentariat was so unbalanced by the referendum result that it now automatically sides with the EU, however petulant, self-contradictory or unreasonable its position.

No one in Northern Ireland is pro-Protocol. My parliamentary select committee has been taking evidence for months. We have heard from Leavers and Remainers, Unionists and nationalists, Leftists and Rightists. Some oppose the Protocol on principle, some see it as the price of Brexit. But no one – no one – actively likes it.

Yet, while the British government is actively seeking to address local concerns in ways that will avoid a hard border and give the EU the guarantees it says it needs, its opponents are still playing games of the well-who’s-sorry-now kind.

That reaction is telling in another way. “You signed it” is a far weaker argument than its exponents seem to realise.

Most treaties are now defunct. Either they lapsed, or they were renounced by one party or the other, or they were overtaken by events. Where, now, is the Triple Alliance? Where is the 1914 Bryan-Chamorro Treaty, giving the United States first refusal on any canal built across Nicaragua? Where is the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, guaranteeing a British military presence at the Suez Canal? Where is the Warsaw Pact?

Imagine a list of every international accord, going back to the Peace of Callias between the Delian League and Achaemenid Persia in the fifth century BC. How many of them are still in force? One per cent? Less?

Consider an example that seems apt given its subject matter, and given the fact of this being its centenary year. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which recognised Irish independence, came with a number of conditions, including an oath of loyalty to the monarch, continuing British access to three ports and much else.

Once independence had been secured, successive Irish governments progressively dismantled those conditions, breaking their residual constitutional links with the UK, leaving the Commonwealth and declaring a republic.

Britain, for what it’s worth, reacted with equanimity. When the final rupture was made in 1949, George VI sent a warm message to the Irish President:

“I hold in most grateful memory the services and sacrifices of the men and women of your country who rendered gallant assistance to our cause in the recent war and who made a notable contribution to our victories. I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future.”

The EU is unlikely to be so affable. But the argument that Ireland used was a familiar one, namely that it had signed a treaty under duress, sought to make it work, found it intolerable, and so was abandoning it.

Obviously, Britain did not fight a war to get out of the EU. But there is no way that it would have agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol had not a majority of MPs been working with Brussels to sabotage Brexit. The Protocol was the product of the Benn Act. Indeed, it was only after Theresa May lost the 2017 election that the EU proposed the outrageous idea that the UK should surrender jurisdiction over part of its territory.

As Frostie put it in Lisbon, it was agreed during “a moment of EU overreach when the UK’s negotiating hand was tied” – a point that no one has seriously disputed. Which makes it rather rich for those MPs who were doing the hand-tying in 2019 to complain now.

Could Britain simply annul parts of the Protocol, as Ireland did with the 1921 treaty? Yes – and it should. Triggering Article 16 is an inadequate solution, leaving many objectionable arrangements in place. It is a measure of the loopiness of Brussels negotiators and, even more, of their British cheerleaders, that making use of a treaty clause agreed to by the EU and intended for precisely such circumstances as now is howled down as a breach of faith.

If the EU is threatening retaliation over a measure foreseen in the Protocol – a measure invoked by the EU in February from no higher motive than pique at Britain’s vaccination programme – then we might as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, abrogate the whole deal and replace it with something more workable.

Outright repudiation would allow us to put new arrangements in place, proving that there is no need for border infrastructure in Ireland and ensuring that future talks began from that fact. The sooner we act, the better.

Profile: The Foreign Office, damaged by the retreat from Kabul, but free at last of Blairite illusions

3 Sep

The retreat from Afghanistan leaves the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary much diminished in reputation. Dominic Raab was unable, in his appearance on Wednesday before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to efface the impression that until Sunday 15th August, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, he and his colleagues fell far below the level of events.

They were unable or unwilling to grasp how quickly the situation was deteriorating. Raab had gone on holiday, and at first refused to come back.

Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary of State, who should have been directing the urgent redeployment of staff and other resources to meet the emergency, was likewise on holiday, and disinclined to return.

And one regrets to say that Sir Laurie Bristow, the British Ambassador in Kabul, had apparently been given instructions to leave, along with his staff, even though they were the people with the local knowledge needed to process the mass of applications from Afghans who had worked for the British – an order countermanded at the last moment as far as the ambassador was concerned.

It would be unfair to judge this lamentable performance against some imaginary standard of perfection. Evacuations are seldom easy, and this one could have been a hell of a lot more bloody, as Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, points out in this week’s Spectator.

And the wishful thinking which permeated the Foreign Office, the belief (as Raab said on Wednesday) that it was unlikely Kabul would fall this year, was widely shared, not only in Downing Street but in Washington.

Wallace makes an astute point about the impossibility of knowing exactly when a regime will collapse:

“History shows us that it’s not about failure of intelligence, it’s about the limits of intelligence. When the Soviet Union crumbled, when Libya collapsed, when the actual moment came in Afghanistan, intelligence hadn’t failed. It was just limited, as it always is at the very end.”

But in such circumstances, political judgement becomes all the more important. One needs to recognise the point at which changing facts on the ground have rendered the intelligence obsolete.

And long before that point, one has to be careful about relying too heavily on intelligence which says “we are winning”. When the intelligence agencies, the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and others agree an assessment at the Joint Intelligence Committee, it is extremely difficult for them to be impartial.

No one has a strong incentive to say “we are losing” or even “my department’s work does not appear to be all that effective”, especially when the actual moment of defeat is probably still a long way off.

Considerable figures – Richard Holbrooke for the Americans and Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles on the British side – who long ago warned that we had adopted a losing strategy in Afghanistan were not heeded.

Raab and his officials are reported to be on poor terms. This is in part a matter of personality. Raab likes to have things under control.

Everything has to pass through the Foreign Secretary’s extremely large private office. Officials and junior ministers are allowed very little discretion. Relations with other departments are likewise kept under strict control, and are not at all good.

But this is not just a matter of temperament, important though that is. It is also a question of what kind of a department the Foreign Office is, and what it is for.

Forget for a moment nation-building in Afghanistan. Within the Foreign Office itself, there has also been a kind of nation-building going on: an attempt to bring the department into strict conformity with the most progressive ideas of how the British nation should be, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.

Ambassadors recently started stating at the end of an email their preferred pronouns, and at the foot of the staircase in the Foreign Office photographs were put on display of the first woman ambassador, the first black ambassador and so forth.

All this was in full accordance with what Tony Blair and his followers were preaching both at home and abroad. Liberal interventionism, set out in his Chicago speech of April 1999, had become the new orthodoxy.

In 2001, after the September 11th attacks, Blair at once declared, in his Labour Conference speech,

“The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.”

And in his memoirs, published in 2010, he writes, with reference to Afghanistan and Iraq:

“I conceived of September 11 as making all previous analyses redundant, or at least duty-bound for re-examination. We could no longer presume that countries in which this virus persisted were none of our business. In the choice between a policy of management and a policy of revolution, I had become a revolutionary.”

So the costly attempt to build a liberal democracy in Afghanistan had begun. Successive Foreign Secretaries followed Blair’s lead and have spoken of our moral duty to uphold women’s rights in Afghanistan.

This policy had the merit, for its advocates, of being impossible for any western politician to oppose. It nevertheless sounded like an inadequate reason for putting British troops in harm’s way, and now stands exposed as the most flagrant Blairite humbug.

All of which is rather confusing for the Foreign Office. To its dismay, it has lost the European Union, the cause to which so many of its best minds have been devoted since the 1960s.

True, it has gained the Department for International Development, but it cannot be said as yet fully to have digested this acquisition.

And yet through the fog of battle, elements of a new doctrine can be discerned. Spending on defence has already been increased, with the Treasury conceding, quite exceptionally, a four-year settlement, while spending on aid has been cut.

There has been a shift from soft to hard power; from liberal idealism to Realpolitik. The Prime Minister’s adviser on foreign affairs, John Bew, is the author not only of biographies of Castlereagh, one of the great Foreign Secretaries, and Attlee, but of Realpolitik: A History, a subtle study in which is found the observation:

“To define oneself as standing for or against something remains a natural human inclination, as does seeking reconciliation between one’s morals and the nasty, brutish world. Yet it is also an activity better suited to moral philosophy or theology than to foreign policy analysis.”

Realpolitik does not offer some simple key to foreign policy dilemmas. To understand reality, and act in accordance with that reality, is a complicated and never-ending endeavour.

But one of the themes running through the present Prime Minister’s career is a delight in exposing liberal humbug, and a keen appreciation of the real balance of forces in any particular situation.

Boris Johnson is not, palpably, a perfectionist. Nor is he a preacher who gets caught up in visions of his own moral greatness. He is a realist, an anti-Blair, inclined to take people as they are, rather than attempt, whether in Britain or Afghanistan, to remake them as they ought to be.

One aspect of realism in foreign policy is to recognise that success may hardly be noticed; may indeed be achieved because no one is boasting about it.

Our policy at the United Nations, carefully concerted with France and apparently working rather well, is a contemporary example of this.

Triumphalism in foreign policy can be a very dangerous sign. One thinks of Neville Chamberlain giving way to it after Munich. Nor is expertise of much value, when unaccompanied by a commonsensical estimate of what is and isn’t possible.

Sir Anthony Eden offers the great modern warning: an expert who lacked the mental robustness to cope at the highest level, and got us into Suez. In the mid-19th-century, we find Lord Aberdeen, the Conservatives’ most trusted authority on foreign affairs, a man with a deep horror of war, who got us into the Crimean War because he failed to impress on Tsar Nicholas I the danger Russia would run by seizing Turkish territory.

It is fruitless to seek for some golden age in British foreign policy. Even at the height of the British Empire, it consisted most often in the management of weakness.

No sane British statesman ever committed the British Army to a continental conflict except in case of dire necessity, and victory could only then be attained by building coalitions.

Britannia ruled the waves for a hundred years after Trafalgar, but the Royal Navy could not avert humiliations which occurred at numerous points on land, including the retreat from Kabul in 1842, from which there was only one survivor.

The expedition in early 1885 to rescue the wretched, rash, intruding General Gordon from Khartoum arrived just too late.

And within living memory we have seen America, as the great imperial power, exposed to similar humiliations, of which the worst was in Vietnam.

But America still emerged victorious from the Cold War. The retreat from Kabul has filled the August press, and prompted a cry of anguish from Blair.

It marks a change of tone in western policy: a move away from the hubristic policy of nation-building. But there is no reason why, in any but the very short term, it should signify a weakening either of the United States, or of the British Government’s development of a more realistic foreign policy, entrusted to a revived Foreign Office and, before long, to a new Foreign Secretary.