Eden and Suez

David Gilmour

  • Anthony Eden by Robert Rhodes James
    Weidenfeld, 665 pp, £16.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 297 78989 9
  • Descent to Suez: Diaries 1951-56 by Evelyn Shuckburgh, edited by John Charmley
    Weidenfeld, 380 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 297 78993 7
  • Cutting the Lion’s Tail: Suez through Egyptian Eyes by Mohamed Heikal
    Deutsch, 242 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 233 97967 0
  • The Suez Affair by Hugh Thomas
    Weidenfeld, 255 pp, £5.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 297 78953 8

Writing at the end of the Thirties, George Orwell remarked that the British ruling class had decayed so much that the time had come ‘when stuffed shirts like Eden and Halifax could stand out as men of exceptional talent’: It was an unfair comment, though not so unfair as his description of Baldwin as ‘a hole in the air’: yet it conveyed the view, subsequently shared by many, that with Eden the facade was more important than the interior, the appearance more impressive than the reality. People recognised his ability as a negotiator, skilfully handling diplomatic problems with the support of the Foreign Office, but it was widely held that in politics he was a bit of a lightweight, a ‘natural number two’ who should never have become prime minister. John Grigg wrote of him before the Suez crisis: ‘Popularity means much more to him than it ever should mean to a statesman. Since the early days, when he was idolised by millions on account of his personal appearance and blameless views, he has never lost the temperament and outlook of a prima donna. He still smiles the same ingratiating smile, peddles the same innocuous platitudes.’

According to the traditional view, Eden was a fine Foreign Secretary but a weak and disastrous prime minister who, taunted with weakness by his own backbenchers, tried to be tough and resolute: in the words of one of them, he invaded Egypt ‘to prove he had a real moustache’. This view has been assailed, from opposite angles, by both of Eden’s biographers. David Carlton[*] is critical of many aspects of Eden’s career, and argues that his views on foreign policy in the Thirties were less wise and consistent than is usually believed. Robert Rhodes James, however, not only endorses the traditional appreciation of Eden’s periods as Foreign Secretary: he claims that his Suez policy was absolutely justified and only wrecked by wrong-headed and pusillanimous Americans.

The differing attitudes of the two biographers can be judged from their treatment of Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh’s diary, an engaging mixture of foreign affairs and reports from his garden and carpentry bench. Mr Carlton, who saw it in manuscript, quotes extracts displaying Eden at his most petty and petulant, while Mr Rhodes James ignores it altogether. Sir Evelyn ‘kept a diary’, he remarks, ‘to which I have not sought access ... ’ I find this admission incomprehensible. In a recent article Mr Rhodes James suggested that it was somehow immoral for Sir Evelyn to have kept a diary in the first place, but that is hardly an excuse for ignoring it in his research: after all, he quotes extensively from the diaries of other private secretaries such as Oliver Harvey or Churchill’s Sir John Colville. Perhaps theirs were more ‘moral’ because they were more friendly to Eden? Shuckburgh was Eden’s private secretary from 1951 to 1954 and in charge of the Middle East Department at the Foreign Office after that. For three years he saw Eden nearly every day and noted in 1954 that his diary ‘might serve as material for someone writing a life of [him] ... in thirty years’ time’. What motive can a biographer have for not consulting so obvious a source? Was he afraid of learning things he did not want to know? Or was it part of the deal, when he was given ‘authorised biographer’ status, that he did not consult Eden’s critics?

It is no doubt difficult being an official biographer, and anyone in this position is bound to remember Lord Birkenhead’s fate at the hands of Kipling’s daughter. The temptation must be to rely heavily on the subject’s papers and memoirs and avoid seeing too much of other people’s points of view. This seems to have been the case with Mr Rhodes James, who has surprised several people close to Eden by not attempting to interview them. David Carlton went carefully through Eden’s memoirs, contrasting their version of events with what really happened. Mr Rhodes James is far less critical: one sometimes has the impression that he accepts the memoirs as the truth and is measuring all other versions against them. In his preface he declares that no biographer should be an unqualified admirer of his subject, yet his own admiration for Eden is only qualified by generally minor reservations about a handful of decisions. He has espoused the cause of Eden’s rehabilitation, and in re-fighting his battles he re-fights his enemies, many of whom are dismissed in insulting and contemptuous language. This is how he writes of Sir Samuel Hoare in the course of Chapter Five: ‘ambitious and slippery ... irresolute and disloyal ... secretive and shallow ... He was an ambitious career politician ... campaigning hard and shamelessly for reinstatement ... [who] crawled back into office ... ’

Sir John Simon and Sir Robert Vansittart are described in similar terms, but the worst treatment of all is reserved for Sir Anthony Nutting. In his introduction to the new edition of The Suez Affair, Hugh Thomas describes Sir Anthony as ‘the one man who conducted himself consistently and with impeccable honour’ at the time of Suez, and it is a judgment difficult to dispute. A young and talented minister of state, Anthony Nutting sacrificed his political career rather than carry out a policy he believed to be wrong. Yet because he was highly critical of Eden, Mr Rhodes James denigrates him in an extraordinary and quite deplorable manner. First, he devotes a paragraph to innuendoes about Nutting’s private life and the break-up of his marriage. Secondly, he doubts that Nutting’s convictions were sincerely held. And thirdly, he consistently implies that he is a liar. The first is relevant neither to Eden nor to the conduct of foreign affairs, the second is too silly to need answering (why else did he destroy his political future?), and the third can be dealt with by one example. On Nutting’s resignation meeting with Eden, which he described in his book No End of a Lesson, Rhodes James comments: ‘Eden, when he read it, vehemently denied that the meeting ever took place, and his own records support this contention.’ This is an absurd deduction. To begin with, the meeting marked the end of Nutting’s career and was therefore a very much more memorable occasion for him than it was for a prime minister in the middle of a war. Furthermore, the conclusion – that Eden’s ‘records support this contention’ – won’t do, since it is well-known that Eden kept very few records of this period and that many of those that did exist were afterwards destroyed on his orders by the Cabinet Secretary. Rhodes James himself relates how Eden, on learning that the collusion agreement with France and Israel had been written down, sent two men to Paris to destroy the document.

The consistent exaltation of Eden and the systematic denigration of his enemies is one of the chief faults of this biography. As a result, the best chapters are the early ones dealing with Eden’s childhood and his family: there are fine portraits of his talented and irascible father and of his disastrous mother, who bankrupted the family and even pawned his christening cup. Mr Rhodes James manages to be both informative and discreet about his parentage (his real father may have been George Wyndham) and the failure of his first marriage. Yet all too soon he is on the defensive, acquitting Eden of vanity and arrogance and repeatedly listing his qualities. There is no doubt that Eden was in many ways an honourable and admirable man. He was loyal, hard-working, courageous in the trenches and modest about it afterwards. But one gets rather tired of phrases like ‘another example of Eden’s integrity’ or of being told several times about his ‘sure touch with children ... and animals’. The integrity was certainly there, even if the point is laboured: as Foreign Secretary during the Iranian crisis, he insisted – as a matter of principle – on selling his shares in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, even though they were at their lowest point and he could not afford the loss.

Mr Rhodes James has an answer for all criticisms. What people ‘ascribed to aloofness or even arrogance was shyness and an innate defensiveness’ – the classic defence used to excuse a person’s rudeness. He admits that Eden was prone to outbursts of bad temper but argues that because he worked so hard, travelled so much and often carried an ‘excessive burden’, ‘his occasional explosions of anger’ were ‘wholly understandable’. Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh, who had to suffer them, found them less understandable. At one conference in Geneva, he recorded, Eden’s car was held up ‘by a fleet of Chinese cars, and everyone was roundly cursed, the driver, the detective, me, Lord Reading, the United Nations and the entire Swiss people’. After another outburst, Shuckburgh noted that Eden was ‘like a child. You can have a scene with a child of great violence with angry words spoken on both sides and ten minutes later the whole thing is forgotten. This is not possible with grownups, but it is the regular thing with A.E.’

Mr Rhodes James is anxious to protect Eden from the charge of vanity, but it cannot be said that he is successful. The fact is that many people who met him found Eden astonishingly vain, and it is not a convincing defence to state that this trait ‘was in truth a mixture of shyness and reserve’. Nor was this merely the superficial impression of strangers, as Rhodes James would have realised if he had read the Shuckburgh diaries. These contain endless embarrassing incidents which could only be listed under the heading ‘Vanity, examples of: the preoccupation with status and precedence, the tantrums, the scrutiny of what journalists are saying about him – “Why don’t I have the headlines in all the papers?” – the worry that he might be jeered at by his backbenchers.’ At the end of January 1954, after he had been seeing Eden on an almost daily basis for two and a half years, Shuckburgh recorded: ‘I realise more clearly than before how terribly vain and egocentric he is. He can’t really bear any conversation to take place which does not in some way bear upon himself, his politics, his popularity, his successes in the past or present.’ Two years later, the situation had not improved. As prime minister, Eden was still ‘thinking largely about the effect he is making, not in any way strengthened in character ... by the attainment of his ambition’.

From his early days in the House of Commons, Eden specialised in foreign affairs. He knew little about social and economic issues, and his banal speeches – ‘we must have opportunity and incentive at home and peace and stability abroad’ – might almost have been delivered by the baronet in England, their England. Yet his instincts were usually right. He was an upholder of ‘one nation’ Toryism, an advocate of ‘co-partnership in industry’ and ‘a property-owning democracy’. His brand of conservatism, ‘humane, liberal and progressive’, notes Mr Rhodes James, was ‘born in the trenches on the Western Front in 1916’. It was neither reactionary nor ideological but a sensible and empirical approach to politics, the type of conservatism which after 1945 turned the Party into a modern, democratic force capable of winning four elections in twenty years before being discarded in favour of an older and more primitive outlook.

Eden spent three long periods in the Foreign Office and much shorter spells as Dominions Secretary and Secretary of State for War. According to Mr Rhodes James, he ‘decided to immerse himself in foreign affairs’ at an early age, and was soon ‘seen as a specialist with high promise’. But it is difficult to see what this reputation was based on. He travelled very sparsely in Africa and Asia and made little effort to understand the countries of either continent. In 1925 he dashed around the Middle East in a month, saw the Sphinx at midnight, drove from Beirut to Baghdad, and visited Abadan, which reminded him of Swansea. Mr Rhodes James does not give the impression that Eden learnt very much from this visit, or that he ever became very knowledgeable about foreign affairs. He was, in fact, not so much a specialist on other countries as an expert on diplomatic questions. He was a skilful and sensitive negotiator, and on the major issues of the Thirties he was right far more often than other members of the Cabinet. In his first paragraph Mr Rhodes James quotes Churchill’s assessment of the pre-war Eden as ‘the one strong young figure standing up against long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender, of wrong measurements and feeble impulses’. Yet Churchill made the remark long afterwards and said many less complimentary things about Eden as well. The ‘strong young figure’ is largely mythical. Eden was right about Mussolini and Abyssinia, but he did little to counter Hitler and Mussolini in Spain, he acquiesced in the Anschluss, and he refused either to take a strong line on the Sudetenland or to sign a telegram criticising Chamberlain for going to Munich. If he really had been strong and resolute, he would have gone round the country warning people about the dangers of appeasement instead of going into political hibernation. Mr Rhodes James claims he took the honourable course, and there may be some truth in that. But Mr Carlton believes his silence was designed to get himself back into office, and there may be some truth in that too.

During Eden’s final period as Foreign Secretary, there were further diplomatic triumphs. He played an important part in resolving the Trieste question, in bringing West Germany into Nato, in negotiating an agreement with Egypt, and in achieving a settlement in Indo-China. Mr Rhodes James notes his failure to envisage a post-war European role for Britain – one of the few instances where the biographer criticises his subject – but ignores a more serious failing. Eden had little time or sympathy for the aspirations of Asian and African countries during their period of decolonisation. As Hugh Thomas points out, he ‘never understood Middle East nationalism’. Unfortunately, Mr Rhodes James understands it even less, and his own pro-Israeli views prevent him from acknowledging any sympathy that Eden did possess. In his famous Guildhall speech as prime minister, Eden put forward a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on a compromise between the boundaries of the 1947 partition plan and the larger area which Israel conquered in 1948. Eden mentioned the speech in his memoirs but ignored its real significance: that the proposals were welcomed by Nasser and rejected by Israel. Mr Rhodes James suppresses it altogether, presumably because it makes nonsense of his much-repeated claim that Nasser wanted to destroy Israel. Similarly, he ignores both Eden’s role in the formation of the Arab League and his sympathy for the Palestinian refugees.

In Cutting the Lion’s Tail, which like Hugh Thomas’s book provides a far more balanced account of Suez than Rhodes James’s last two hundred pages, Mohamed Heikal identifies Eden’s initial folly as his insistence on the Baghdad Pact. Britain’s effort to convince the Arabs that their main enemies were the Russians was as flat-footed and incomprehensible as the American attempt thirty years later under Reagan. Nasser himself was incredulous. How could he persuade the Egyptians, tie wondered, that their real enemy was the Soviet Union, which they had never quarrelled with and which was thousands of miles away, when they had the British occupying their country and the Israelis attacking their borders? Yet Eden was determined to create an anti-Soviet alliance in the Middle East, and his determination ultimately broke him. As Heikal points out, the Baghdad Pact ‘was the main cause of division between Arab countries, the main bone of contention between Britain and Egypt, and the symbol by which Britain and America judged who were their friends and who were their enemies’. The two principal leaders who failed to measure up were Iran’s Mussadeq and Egypt’s Nasser. Deciding that they must therefore be overthrown, Eden persuaded the CIA to get rid of Mussadeq and bring back the Shah. Mr Rhodes James, who approves of the operation, merely comments that ‘this episode is perhaps not for the pure in heart and soul.’ A similar fate was later prepared for Nasser, also with Rhodes James’s retrospective approval. Eden’s determination ‘to knock Nasser off his perch’ is reminiscent of Palmerston’s threat to chuck Mehemet Ali into the Nile. It is odd that a British prime minister in the 1950s should succumb to Palmerstonian fantasies, but it is even odder that his biographer, a Tory MP on the liberal wing of his party, should approve of them in the 1980s.

Mr Rhodes James admits that Eden had certain defects as prime minister. He constantly interfered with his ministers, particularly at the Foreign Office, where he soon replaced Harold Macmillan with the more malleable Selwyn Lloyd. He used to ring them up at weekends or in the middle of the night, often on quite trivial matters. The author suggests this reflected a lack of self-confidence in domestic affairs but strongly denies that it was a sign of weakness. Once again, the evidence seems very much against him. Eden was desperately over-sensitive to press hostility and to taunts of appeasement from the Suez Group, and some of his actions, such as the deportation and imprisonment of Makarios, look very like a weak man’s response to criticism of his weakness. According to Sir Evelyn Shuck-burgh, ‘Eden’s indignation at being called a “scuttler” by his own party and his determination to show himself responsible and strong’ was one of the most powerful factors in the build-up to Suez. After Hussein’s dismissal of Glubb in March 1956, Shuckburgh noted, Eden and his ministers ‘were mad keen to land British troops somewhere, to show that we are still alive and kicking.’

They decided on Egypt because Eden had come to believe that Nasser was a new Mussolini intent on destroying British influence in the Middle East and establishing an Arab empire from Muscat to Marrakesh. I hadn’t realised that anyone still held these views until I read Rhodes James’s book. In recent weeks he has been cropping up on television and in the press to denounce Nasser as ‘a brigand’, ‘a bandit’ and ‘a megalomaniac’. In the book he employs similar language to describe the Egyptian leader (‘Nasser was now in a malignantly gloating mood’) and claims ‘there are certain very striking features in common between’ him and Mussolini. He also makes a number of assertions – ‘Nasser’s lavish assistance from the Saudis and the Russians did not go to the poverty-stricken fellahin but was devoted to weapons ... the lot of the poor did not improve at all’ – which suggest that his research has not included a single work on modern Egypt. There are several fine books by British academics and journalists which could have informed him of the early achievements of the regime: these included agrarian reform, which among other things led to a reduction in rents, security of tenure and the redistribution and reclamation of land, the establishment of rural health clinics, the reduction of tuberculosis and eye disease, the provision of clean drinking water to nearly all villages, and the opening of two new schools on average every three days. Rhodes James also sneers at the Aswan High Dam, which he claims was built for ‘politically cynical’ reasons, but the level of his other remarks on Egypt scarcely indicates that he has weighed up the arguments for and against the project. The High Dam does have disadvantages, most of which were foreseen at the time, but without it Egypt would now be enjoying the drought which has devastated Sudan.

The pretext for getting rid of Nasser was the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. It was not a good pretext because, as Mr Rhodes James admits, the Cabinet recognised that, ‘technically and legally speaking, Nasser had been within his rights. What was intolerable was that a power that was no friend of the West now controlled the canal.’ Eden then tried to persuade Eisenhower that Egypt should not be allowed to exploit the canal ‘by using the revenues for her own internal purposes’. Why Egypt should not be allowed to take advantage of her chief national asset – according to Heikal, her takings were only 2 per cent of the company’s profits – is not explained either by Eden or by Rhodes James. Eden then argued that Nasser had ‘his thumb on our windpipe’, a phrase Rhodes James finds ‘vivid and accurate’ but which was wholly inaccurate. As Anthony Nutting has pointed out, nationalisation of the company made Nasser less dangerous because it gave Egypt an incentive to promote traffic through the canal; and it made no difference whatever to Egypt’s control of the waterway. Rhodes James, like Eden in his memoirs, seems unable to grasp the difference between nationalising the canal and nationalising the canal company. Egypt already had physical control of the canal and its nationalisation of the company therefore presented no additional threat to ‘our windpipe’. As Kennett Love wrote in what is still probably the best book on the subject, Suez: The Twice-Fought War (1969), ‘neither Britain’s oil nor any other traffic through the canal was any more subject to Nasser’s whim than it had been before nationalisation.’

As for the agreements and ‘solemn undertakings’ which Eden accused Nasser of breaking – accusations which Rhodes James repeats – these were an equally bogus pretext. Nationalisation broke no law and no treaty. In violating the UN Charter, the 1954 evacuation agreement and the Tripartite Declaration, it was Britain and her allies who were guilty of breaking agreements.

So Eden and his ministers embarked on this disastrous enterprise for absurd reasons and obscure aims. It was a futile and ill-conceived expedition, frivolously prepared and stupidly executed. The British Ambassador in Cairo and the Foreign Office were ignored and almost everyone else was deceived. It was not even an open piece of gunboat imperialism but a sleazy act of collusion which forced Eden and Lloyd to lie to the House of Commons. Most bewildering of all was the lack of foresight. What was going to happen once they had got rid of Nasser, who, contrary to Rhodes James’s opinion, was a highly popular leader? How could they have thought that Egypt would submit to people like Nahas Pasha and the Wafdist oligarchs?

Predictably, Mr Rhodes James draws all the wrong conclusions from the Suez debacle. He criticises the Americans for forcing Israel to return conquered Egyptian territory because they thus ‘opened the way for massively increased Soviet intervention in the Middle East, and a consequent destabilisation, particularly in the Lebanon, that tragically lasts to this day’. Anyone who has spent any time in Lebanon knows that this is a half-witted comment. There are many top-rank villains in the Lebanese drama – Arabs, Israelis, Americans and Iranians – but the Russians are not among them. Equally illogical is the suggestion that Nuri al-Said and King Feisal of Iraq were victims of America’s refusal to let the British win. The Iraqi Hashemites were doomed because they committed themselves, in defiance of nationalism and Arab public opinion, to a declining world power. That power’s foolhardy aggression against Egypt merely hastened their overthrow. Hugh Thomas’s conclusions, written twenty years ago, are much saner: the war was fought for the wrong reasons and for impossible objectives, and so in the long run was bound to fail anyway. It was, in Gaitskell’s words at the time, ‘an act of disastrous folly whose tragic consequences’ we would regret for years. One of the casualties, as Hugh Thomas reminds us, was Britain’s reputation as ‘the most progressive and reasonable of the nations of the developed world’.

[*] Anthony Eden (1981), now published in paperback by Allen and Unwin.