Thursday 18 November 2021

Did Suez End Britain's National Prestige?

Well here's one for History Corner & no mistake.  Did anyone realise Clarissa Eden was still alive?  Until this week, that is, when the grand old lady died, aged 101.

© Imperial War Museum  MH 23509
The 1956 Suez Crisis, which famously "flowed through her drawing room", is always astonishing to contemplate.  The UK and France (the latter closely in cahoots with Israel) mounted, in secret (!), a successful airborne and seaborne invasion by 100,000 men (sic - that's D-Day 1944 scale; and we had a spare armoured division in Libya that didn't get deployed ...), with only a few months preparation, resulting in fighting which on the part of the British and French lasted little more than a day.  Then we packed up and went home, with the whole world against us.  20 (twenty!) squadrons of British bombers were deployed.  Fifteen squadrons of UK carrier-based aircraft!  We royally pissed off the USA (which, however, rapidly swung in behind us when we withdrew, to halt the resulting Sterling crisis), the Commonwealth (who were used to being told what the Mother Country was up to in matters of warfare), and pretty much let Russia off the hook as regards its own concurrent invasion of Hungary.  Back at home, half the country was also greatly displeased: this was no Falklands campaign.  The military, and much of the Foreign Office (which was comprehensively kept in the dark) were extremely irked.  Nasser sailed on, his prestige greatly enhanced.

Hard to envisage, really. 

Of course it's conventional to consider Suez 1956 the precise moment when Britain ceased to be a Great Power.  But the years that followed didn't represent the freefall that was envisaged by Clarissa's husband Anthony Eden, and the roguish, unscrupulous Harold Macmillan (the big winner in domestic political terms, though he was gung-ho for the campaign beforehand).  They both seem to have firmly believed that if they let Nasser get away with nationalising the Suez canal, not only would Soviet-backed Arab nationalist-communism quickly come to dominate the entire Middle East, but Britain would be headed swiftly for the status of a "third-rate power, like the Netherlands".  But no; we remained stubbornly second-rate for many decades thereafter.  Maybe we still are.

One concern that comes through very strongly in the attitudes of the time is the concept of national "prestige", the word I used of Nasser above.  Cultivating prestige, estimating and comparing different countries' prestige, in those explicit terms, was a major preoccupation in them days.  Maybe we ought to worry about it more today: the Chinese obviously do.  (Personally, as a very frequent pre-covid overseas traveller, I generally felt myself the beneficiary of a great deal of residual esteem for Britain.)

I was remined of all this when recently writing an obit for an old soldier of my acquaintance who'd fought in many conflicts and served in many countries from 1944 onwards (though not, as it happens, the Suez 'campaign').  He'd left some invaluable notes by way of a memoir, in which he'd been really keen to stress that in everything he did abroad (which was a lot more than fighting, by the way), he'd worked to enhance Britain's prestige.  It meant a lot to him; and to the Edens, too.  RIP both.



Anonymous said...

In 2021 National Prestige = Nationalism = You're a nazi.

The only prestige you can have these days is for your social/racial justice and environmental credentials (and your vaccine status, but based on the last thread here let's not mention this).

Nick Drew said...

Yes thanks, let's not.

dearieme said...

It's interesting that winning a war in a day or so was reckoned damaging to prestige.

Compare with Brandon finally losing a war that had lasted about 20 years.

djm said...

Interesting ND. Thank you.

But didn't the Suez Crisis flow through LaEdens bedroom ?

The self serving Westminster village big beasts would say that the UK remains a topp (sic) country in terms of prestige as long as it continues to hold a permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

In reality, the decline set in after June 1897, hastened by the Butchers & Bankers bills of two world wars, the frittering away of North Sea Oil income,
the farrago of the 2008 Bankster fiasco & now the - still being totted up - Covid bill.

Bill Quango MP said...

British Occupation of Egypt was an oddity. Even by the assorted treaties and terms the Empire used, Egypt was on its own.

Occupied, and ruled, but never a part of the Empire. Own kingdom, royalty and parliament. Own army and police. British military had no rights to be in Egypt. But never left. Was our home base in the Middle East.
Not until 1922 ( arrived in the 1880s) did the empire agree to leave. At some point. In the fullness of time. At the appropriate junction. Etc etc.

The Ethiopian invasion by Italy, frightened the Egyptian elite. But not into backing the British to save them from Mussolini. Who was also on their border. They were worried about Revolution. A Nasser popping up. As actually occurred in Iraq. And uprising in WW2, Which the British suppressed.

But the Egyptian position caused much unrest from Nationalists. Islamists. Anti-British factions. Revolution was very likely. Britain, very unpopular.

Meanwhile, Rommel showed up and the early desert war was largely fought across a country the British did not have any rights to be in. But still treated the place as if they were sole owners. Pretty contemptuous of the whole place.

Great Britain had a long treaty to protect its interests in the Canal Zone. One that was not particularly willingly signed up to by the Egyptians.
But by the time of suez, it had expired. No moves had been made to leave by the British.

Asking for it really.

E-K said...

Fascinating as usual. Thanks.

I think our prestige continued way long after Suez. There was no shame in becoming an underling of a free, Anglophone nation which we'd help to create, which defeated Nazism and which mirrored most of our own traits.

Our best aircraft, weaponry and troops (modern Royal Marines, in my view) were created after Suez. So too arts and music.

Our prestige started to wane when we adopted comprehensive schools and abolished grammars and began to Brit-shame our kids.

Our prestige was rooted in our much loved and envied and parochial Mary Poppins, cuppa tea, "so sorry !" and cor blimey civility which we have literally thrown away.

Don Cox said...

Covid update from the James Cook Hospital:

Don Cox

Nick Drew said...

I'd forgotten, BQ - did the old maps colour Egypt in Empire Pink? A quick google-glance and, yes, they did. (with whatever justification or lack thereof)

Have written before about how we air-surveyed & mapped important slices in Egypt during the inter-war years - and charged the Egyptian government for it! Served us in very good stead in WW2

Nick Drew said...

One other thing I should have put in the post: Eden was a meddler and, to the disgust of his commanders, the telecoms available to him even in 1956 (telex) were such that he had a reasonable crack at real-time meddling in military matters

- the very thing I'm always praising George Bush Senior for NOT doing in Gulf War 1

Anonymous said...


Nice find.
I checked the comments on his articles, couldn’t see anyone called elby.

DJK said...

My 1908 Oxford and Cambridge Geography has the following for Egypt (coloured pink on the map): "...It is nominally a province of Turkey; but the Khedive, whose office is hereditary, is independent of the Sultan. British troops have been recently employed to restore peace in this disquieted country, and an army of occupation still maintains order. The finances of Egypt, which is a British Protectorate, are controlled by the British."

It lists Eastern Sudan as being under Egyptian rule, directed by the British. Western Sudan is listed as being within the British and French spheres of influence.

Don Cox: thanks for the link.

E-K said...

Thank you Don.

Clearly the unvaccinated are heavily over represented in ICU beds.

I do hope they are not considering locking down all of us for their sakes.

jim said...

I would say Suez was just one nail in the coffin. The process of decline had begun in the 1920s with colonial overreach that could not be sustained. WW2 gave a boost that staved off the decline for a decade. But WW2 had knackered the industrial infrastructure and we tried too hard to keep up appearances.

I doubt Churchill would have fallen for the Israeli/French trap in quite the same way, he did not have the same negative attitude to the Americans as did Eden.

Bill Quango MP said...

The UK’s Marshall Aid, is often thought squandered on benefits and healthcare. While Germany rebuilt into a modern industry. France into a modern infrastructure. Italy into a modern .. er…well, maybe not Italy.

The UK used a good portion of that USA furlough freebie, for defence spending.
Which does appear ridiculously conceited and a refusal to accept reality. Trying to preserve empire in the atomic age.

Though, if judged in context, who else was there to do it?

The Russians could come charging into western Europe any moment.
The Red Army was a ruthless, battle hardened, ideological force. At its pre-missile era, peak.

Imagine NATO defending Europe. But with Germany crushed. France and Italy flattened. Belgium, Holland ravaged. Denmark, Norway, escaping occupation. Greece, Balkan/Yugoslavia, in civil war mode. Neutrals Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Finland, fascists.

No Japan in the Far East. No India.

If the UK wasn’t defending the west, with American cash, who else was there to do it?

Elby the Beserk said...

Anonymous said...

Nice find.
I checked the comments on his articles, couldn’t see anyone called elby.

8:26 pm

I'm sorry. Did somebody mention Gibraltar (MASSIVE rise in Covid despite being most vaxxed place on the planet?) Did somebody mention Taiwan (more dead from vax than from Covid)?

Must have missed them...

Can't be bothered with the links. Go find them yourselves, along with your shonky "statistics". Away wi yer.

E-K said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E-K said...

In a way I'm with you, Elby.

I don't think anyone should be forced to do anything - including having the vaccine.

If the Govt or NHS states that a high percentage of ICU patients are unvaxxed (an incredible over representation by all accounts)then great ! I'll accept that at face value even if it is bollocks.

No need (nor any point) in locking down again then, should there be any consistency in their logic.

DJK said...

E-K: What do you think of the Singapore govt's view that nobody is forced to take the vaccine, but if you refuse it and get covid, you will not be treated at public expense?

DJK said...

Re Marshall: The BBC even has a page on how the money was wasted, written by Correlli Barnett.

It's easy to say we should have paid off most of the armed forces and modernised industry, without considering all the problems that that alternative world history would have thrown up.

Bill Quango MP said...

Have not seen that before DJK. Mr Barnett knows his history.
( his global war books are some of the very best. Even today.)

Much of the waste of the money was of the government’s making. Cuts could have been made. As they could today. But it’s easier to plough on.

E-K said...

DJK - Fair policy, that. A unique case in which the only person you are more likely to hurt is yourself. If you go into hospital you are quite likely to close it down and hurt staff.

Sorry to others for participating in off topic issues.

dearieme said...

My father taught me to shoot on the grounds that "next time the Germans may be Russians".

You may thank me for my deterrent effect on the Red Army. Three cheers, etc.

I suspect that what deterred the Red missile force was the thought that the Soviet ruling class would be destroyed by a counter-strike. And likewise for the USA, mutatis mutandis.

Anonymous said...

OT, but not as OT as covid stuff, in fact maybe not OT at all - Dom is well and truly outside the tent p*****g in, now giving advice to the Labour Party on how to remove Boris.

Naturally, being Dom, his opening advice is "sack Starmer". The whole thing is both worth reading and highly entertaining. It's very much on point in our long history of national decline.

It's a tragedy about Dom. All he had to do was keep his big gob shut and wait for the next crisis to arrive (they are coming thick and fast at the moment, I wholly disagreed with HS2 but to do it and then drop the Leeds link..) and at some stage he'd be called back. He's burned all his boats now, a great pity. Without him I fear that Boris is swirling around in a cesspool of his own making, to quote the late great James Anderton.

"A core problem for Labour is that its activist base is extremely far out of whack with target voter opinion. Tories have the European Research Group. You have communists wanting to empty the jails while pretending evolution doesn’t apply to sex."

"Like the PM he (Starmer) has no discernible priorities and like the PM, and David Cameron, he can’t resist being a pundit on irrelevant stuff. Instead of having week-after-week focus on violent crime, he babbles about the next Bond and stumbles into broadcast interviews with no clear idea of the story he’s trying to make and therefore accidentally makes news on stuff that’s irrelevant or makes him look even worse.

At Conference he made news on ‘does a woman have a cervix’. Bill Clinton would have used such a question to show he was with the vast majority of the country and fed up with the media babbling about the ludicrous ‘trans discrimination’ story that almost nobody except a few idiots think is in the top 500 national priorities. And this would have contrasted brilliantly with Boris who is now under orders from Carrie and Newman to suck up to Stonewall because they have extremely deluded ideas about electoral strategy for 2024."

Anonymous said...

Dom wrote that in October, btw, and things have only worsened for Boris since.

E-K said...

Fact is that Boris got the Red Wall because they turned Right and he used it as an excuse to turn Left - "We have to respect the borrowed Labour votes."

He totally ignored the 'borrowed' Brexit Party Votes and those among conservative ranks then had the gall to sneer "See ? The Brexit Party got no seats !" after the Brexit Party had helpfully withdrawn candidates from marginals to spare the nation a Labour government.

Then what did Boris do ?

Outflanked Starmer by being more Labour than Labour.

Master stroke !

Two C's got to him.

Covid and Carrie.

The third C got caught testing his eyesight in a lockdown.

Anonymous said...

"Boris got the Red Wall because they turned Right"

Corrr...ect !

More wisdom of the Dom, (pity he hadn't the wisdom to keep his mouth shut):

"Swing voters are both more left than Blairites (e.g tax the rich) and more right than Tories (e.g violent/sex crime). We created a referendum strategy based on this fact. This approach was mocked by high status pundits who did not understand how people they rarely meet actually think. We were attacked by many as ‘too Right’ (e.g over Turkey). We were attacked by many, including many Tory MPs, as ‘too Left’ (because of the NHS/350M).

Tory MPs and many activists wanted to focus on ‘trade deals / Global Britain’. This was disastrous because most target voters didn’t care about trade and either didn’t understand ‘Global Britain’ or thought ‘it sounds like our useless politicians running around causing chaos abroad again instead of focusing on their proper jobs’ (i.e the public was right as usual!).

But our approach, though ‘incoherent’ in pundit terms of Left/Right, matched exactly the priorities of our target voters who desperately wanted a) an Australian-style immigration system (open to high skills, a period of much lower unskilled immigration) and b) more cash for the NHS. Not only did they want them, these two things were basically their two main political desires so we connected them to ‘Vote Leave’ and ‘take back control’."

Have we got less unskilled immigration? I'm not seeing it in wage rises yet. I'll believe it when all the hand car washes are gone.

Dom again:

"Remember a crude heuristic: the median voter is roughly national socialist!"

He's right of course. When the BNP manifesto around 2010 was put to voters without saying whose manifesto it was, a majority of voters approved of it.

DJK said...

Even Kier Starmer is picking up today on the broken promises about cross-channel migrants.

dearieme said...

"Even Kier Starmer": what an excellent title that is. "Even": suits him better than Sir.