From Sahib to Satan

Keith Kyle

  • The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951 by William Roger Louis
    Oxford, 818 pp, £45.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 19 822489 3

‘It was generally agreed that the British had played a lamentable if not altogether duplicitous role in the Palestine situation and that their last-minute approaches and indications of a change of heart could have no effect on our policy.’ This is the only point of agreement that is recorded in the minute of an otherwise extremely disputatious encounter between President Truman and his closest advisers on the eve of the expiry of the British mandate in Palestine and the proclamation of the state of Israel. Besides demonstrating that General Al Haig was not without precedent in terming his British opposite number ‘a duplicitous bastard’, it betrays the degree of exasperation that frequently prevailed in the relations between a rapidly declining British Empire and a slowly emerging American superpower. Yet this was the period during which Truman and Attlee, Marshall and Bevin were laying the foundations of a lasting Western alliance system. The story of the British Empire in the Middle East at this time is the story of Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy with the successes left out; it is also in part Truman’s Presidency without the greatness. Yet the worst that was anticipated at the time – that Russia would walk in to fill any vacuum left behind by the capsizing of British power and prestige – did not occur.

Roger Louis is an American scholar who has specialised in British and Belgian colonial history in Africa and came by this route to the study of American wartime attitudes to the British colonial empire in Imperialism at Bay (1977). The present volume, which tells the story of British policy-making during the life of the Attlee Administration, is heavily dependant on British diplomatic archives, though it makes some use of State Department documents. A long book, it reads very fluently throughout. It is, however, rather curiously shaped: Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, as well as the Arab world from Cyrenaica to Saudi Arabia, are included down to 1947, after which the perspective narrows to take in only the three major controversies involving Palestine, the Suez Canal Zone and the Iranian oilfields. Professor Louis is inclined to write as if mysterious external forces were compelling him to be more selective than he wishes. ‘The author regrets,’ observes one footnote, ‘that the structure of this part of the book denies the opportunity to discuss in detail the birth of the Libyan state and the beginning of the trauma of Cyprus.’ His point of view, in a sense paradoxical, is one of great admiration for Ernest Bevin, whose personality shaped so much of British policy during this period. Pen portraits and intellectual assessments of individual British diplomats are almost invariably flattering. It was under the inspiration of the best and the brightest, it seems, that Britain missed her post-war cues.

A political figure of the first order in the first Labour government to be elected with an absolute majority, Bevin intended that his foreign policy should have a distinctive, democratic socialist flavour, but he nonetheless intended it to be the policy of a Great Power. Influence was to be exercised, prestige sustained, through the informal empire of economic aid and political partnership rather than by proconsular domination, massive basing of troops, and the toppling of refractory governments. But this new type of enlightened patronage, if it were ever to be applied on a sufficiently large scale to be effective, would in reality cost much more than traditional imperialism, whereas Britain had been not just set back by the war but in relative terms impoverished for good. Professor Louis regards Bevin’s deliberate forbearance from ‘toppling kings and unseating prime ministers’ as the foremost characteristic of his ‘grand strategy’. This is surely to rate a negative virtue too highly; and in any case to imply that such methods had been much more frequently resorted to in peacetime in the past than had in fact been the case. A more positive version would say that Bevin genuinely sought to convince Middle Eastern countries that he wished to replace the apparatus of imperialist domination with alliances between true equals. The policy was intended to be economically generous, and it took for granted a community of perceived interests – in, for example, resisting Soviet expansionism – that only doubtfully existed. It was not an exclusive strategy, in that Bevin often hoped for American involvement, not only as part of his general policy of encouraging the Americans to assume world responsibilities, but more specifically as a character reference for a reformed ex-imperialist Britain.

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