Memories of Eden

Keith Kyle

Anthony Eden should be living at this hour. He would hear the President of the United States say: ‘Half a century ago the world had the chance to stop a ruthless aggressor and missed it. I pledge to you we will not make that mistake again.’ He would see the United States, uninhibited as she apparently was in 1956 by the separation of powers and the prerogatives of Congress, move with sureness and speed to confront a dictator in the Middle East. He would think that, as he had always predicted, the United States, when faced, to use his words, with ‘what is in fact an act of force which, if it is not resisted, if it is not checked, will lead to others’, had at last come round to his way of thinking. And, having indulged himself for a while with the thought that when the chips were down he would be able to count on Hugh Gaitskell, only to be sadly disappointed, he would note, with a tinge of envy, the degree of political support enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher, with Neil Kinnock and Gerald Kaufman endorsing her every move.

In normal times issues of international law are seen as a recondite speciality: in moments of stress they turn out to be of crucial importance. In 1956 the British knew from the very beginning that they had a weak legal case against Nasser; and this profoundly affected their handling of the Suez crisis. The President of Egypt had nationalised the Universal Suez Canal Company without notice, by a mechanism akin to a military coup. In law it was an Egyptian company, in which the British Government was the largest shareholder and most of the private shareholders were French. The shareholders were told that they would be fully compensated and the non-Egyptian staff (whose co-operation was thought by themselves and many others to be indispensable to the smooth working of the canal) were told that if they did not stay on the job they would be sent to prison. This threat to make hostages of the captain-pilots and land staff was immediately identified by the American President, among others, as the one weak aspect in the Egyptian posture. It was speedily rectified.

The day after Nasser’s ‘grab’, as the Daily Mirror called it, the Cabinet minutes record ministers as saying that, ‘from the strictly legal point of view, his actions amounted to no more than a decision to buy out the shareholders.’ Given this, it is not surprising to find among Eden’s private papers the following note scribbled to the Prime Minister a week later by the Cabinet’s leading legal luminary, Lord Kilmuir, the Lord Chancellor: ‘For Gawd’s sake don’t let us get tied up in “legal” quibbles, thus entailing delay. Hit him on the nose – and hit him quick before he gets his pals around him!! Forgive my frankness but I do know the breed pretty well still!’ Partly for such reasons, partly because of the near-certainty of a Russian veto, Eden’s view in the early part of the crisis was best expressed in a comment scrawled on one of his papers: ‘Please let us keep quiet about the United Nations.’

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