Protocols of Sèvres

Keith Kyle

  • The Failure of the Eden Government by Richard Lamb
    Sidgwick, 340 pp, £16.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 283 99534 3

At first sight, The Failure of the Eden Government suggests the beginning of a new series to be continued with The Failure of the Macmillan Government, The Failure of the Wilson Government, The Failure of the Heath Government and so forth. As the 30-year rule uncovers the frailties of each in turn of a not particularly glorious row of administrations, opportunities will accumulate. Besides its fairly average quota of what might be called ordinary failures – failure to anticipate problems or failure to act on problems anticipated – the Eden Government will go down in history for the resounding fiasco of its handling of the problem of the Suez Canal. The story has a certain tragic grandeur because Eden had hitherto enjoyed a glamorous and successful career in the field of foreign affairs; it was a massive misjudgment in his own area of expertise that brought him down. Although Richard Lamb says that ‘Eden’s premiership foundered solely because of the Suez affair’ (which begs the question, much discussed at the time in the press, of whether it would not otherwise have soon foundered on something else), his book deals with the record of the Government as a whole. Half of it concerns Suez, its Middle Eastern antecedents and its political and financial consequences; the rest deals with domestic affairs and with other foreign issues.

For a man who had been widely admired throughout his public career, and whose succession to the leadership was uncontested and long anticipated, Eden had a remarkably short honeymoon as prime minister. In April 1955 he moved into the bed at No 10 from which he and his predecessor conducted much of their business. By September, rumours were rife in Conservative circles that he was not proving very good at the job. Henry Fairlie, for instance, was writing in the Spectator that ‘there is no point in concealing the fact that his first six months in office have not been encouraging.’ More and more criticisms were being made – ‘by those who know’ – of Eden’s refusal to make decisions. Fairlie pointed to the remarkable fact that, although he had had years to think about it while he was expecting Churchill to give up, Eden had still not managed to form his own Cabinet, having made the minimal consequential changes when he took over. ‘The answer is that Sir Anthony Eden has been dithering. He has made up his mind, changed it, made it up again, and changed it again. He has listened to advice and heeded pressures not merely up to the point of decision but far beyond it.’ Like Rosebery, another Foreign Secretary who moved to No 10, he was too neurotic to be a good prime minister. Ministers were constantly awakened and badgered in the early hours with queries and calls for reassurance. In unnerving contrast to the great courtesy and charm which were his hallmark, and which, allied to his handsome looks and his very real achievements in foreign affairs, made him in the eyes of the world the very paragon of the diplomatic arts, were the uncontrollable fits of temper directed at his immediate staff. The premiership, before Suez, had a distinctly wobbly feel.

Hardly had Eden moved into No 10 and won his election than the economy began to behave in a disturbing way. R.A. Butler had obliged in April with a pre-election giveaway Budget, but by the late summer it seemed as if it would be necessary to take it all back again in September. The records show that Eden planned to recall Parliament early, then cancelled the idea. Lamb gives a vivid account of the Prime Minister’s fruitless fidgeting over the autumn Budget. ‘None of Eden’s horses,’ he remarks,’ had become runners.’ Surprisingly, perhaps, for a man who has three times been a Liberal candidate for Parliament, Lamb thinks Eden was wrong in failing to back sufficiently Gwilym Lloyd George’s determination to put curbs on coloured immigration, particularly from the West Indies. He puts this down to Eden’s unwillingness to spoil his image as a moderate, which presumably accounted also for the failure to press trade-union legislation requiring secret ballots for calling strikes and for the election of officers. In that case it was the Minister responsible, Walter Monckton, who declared: ‘You cannot legislate for responsibility.’ But even our historians have become Thatcherites now.

The Eden Government was faced with two major decisions abroad: whether to join in with the formation of the European Common Market and how to deal with Colonel Nasser of Egypt. Underlying both was the problem of Britain’s real place in the post-war and post-imperial world. When in 1944 the American writer William Fox first put into circulation the term ‘super-power’ – in a book entitled The Super-Powers: The United States, Britain and the Soviet Union – Their Responsibility for Peace – Britain counted as one of the three. Even then the label did not stick. The Public Record Office archives of the years up to and including 1956 are nonetheless full of policy papers arguing that this or that, which might not otherwise seem sensible, had to be done for reasons of prestige if Britain wanted to remain ‘a Great Power’. Among the components of British retention of that status were the Commonwealth, the sterling area, and assured access (via the Suez Canal) to cheap oil paid for in sterling. The nature of Nasser’s challenge as seen from that point of view was best expressed by Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office and one of the few civil servants who was in Eden’s inner circle, in a personal note to be found in the archives. It was sent to the British Ambassador in Washington after Eisenhower had written to Eden advising him not to make Nasser out to be a bigger man than he was. What Kirkpatrick said was:

If we sit back while Nasser consolidates his position and gradually acquires control of the oil-bearing countries he can and is, according to our information, out to wreck us. If Middle East oil is denied to us for a year or two, our gold reserves will disappear. If our gold reserves disappear, the sterling area disintegrates. If the sterling area disintegrates and we have no reserves, we shall not be able to maintain a force in Germany or indeed anywhere else. I doubt whether we shall be able to pay for the bare minimum necessary for our defence. And a country that cannot provide for its defence is finished.

At the same time the Six were proposing an alternative way of life based on a European Common Market with supra-national institutions. There were not many takers in the Britain of 1956. The principal affirmative Conservative voice, Ted Heath, was silenced by his job as Government Chief Whip. Macmillan, just as much as Eden and Butler, rejected British membership; the only difference was that, while Eden held aloof, Macmillan was active in trying to sabotage the Common Market or to replace it with something else. Lamb uses the new documents to give a fascinating account of how Britain tried the patience of her European allies before hoping to rally them behind Plan ‘G’, the prototype of EFTA.

Suez, inevitably, is the big story in a book remarkable for the range of material mastered with speed. Much of the interest will be to see what difference release of these documents has made. The answer is that while it has not greatly changed the outlines of the story as told by Paul Johnson, Hugh Thomas and a succession of memoirists, it begins to make possible a different type of account. It is only a beginning because the parallel French, Israeli, Egyptian and even, with very considerable exceptions, American papers are either not yet available or not to the same degree. Also the British files themselves are not complete. The policy paper on the Middle East prepared for the Cabinet in March 1956 by Sir Anthony Nutting, who was then Minister of State in the Foreign Office, is not there, nor are the entire Cabinet minutes for the morning session on 2 November. Given the very candid nature of some of the minutes that have been made available, one can only speculate on the cause, which in both cases may have something to do with covert operations. Most of the Service files are closed, and so are almost (though not quite) all the files dealing with psychological warfare, on which a great deal of reliance was misplaced. The Protocol of Sèvres, which to Eden’s intemperate fury sealed in writing the act of collusion between Britain, France and Israel, was certainly destroyed in the British version. The only known surviving copy is in the Ben Gurion archives at Sde Boqer.

Basing himself almost exclusively on documents made available at the PRO last year, Lamb provides a very fair impression of what is there. He shows signs of haste: King Feisal (instead of Farouk) of Egypt, and a tendency to confuse American personalities with similar names, such as the left-wing Democrat Hubert Humphrey for the right-wing Republican George Humphrey and Senator Johnston for Eric Johnston, who came from the movie industry. In the Far East chapter we have Matsos for Matsu, the twin island to Quemoy. These are of relatively little account. More substantively, he is mistaken about the purpose of Operation Cordage, which was not ‘the Admiralty code name for an attack on Egypt’, but the code name (for all Services) for an action against Israel under the terms of the Anglo-Jordan Treaty. Because of that, he misses the full drama of the forces in the Eastern Mediterranean which were poised for action against either foe. He misses the significance also of the signal that was sent by the Admiralty on 18 October to the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, who was Admiral Grantham, not, as Lamb has it, Admiral Durnford-Slater. The signal, authorised by Mountbatten but initiated by the Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Davis, called attention to the ‘real danger time’ between then and the American Election on 6 November: the Israelis might feel this was their last chance to ‘square things up with the Arabs’ and to ‘confront everybody with a fait accompli before the Americans are in a position to take effective action’. The action that was ordered was ‘to bring your Cordage forces to short notice by the middle of next week’. This meant they were in the right place and on the alert but in respect of the wrong enemy. The case of the RAF, which was to operate under a completely different chain of command according to whether the country whose forces were to be ‘neutralised’ was Israel or Egypt, was even more difficult.

The documents show that at the Cabinet on 18 October which preceded this signal, Eden said that ‘he had reason to believe’ that the Israelis were going to bring the whole matter to a head by attacking Egypt and that fighting over the Suez Canal must at all costs be prevented. The only reference among the new documents to what happened next – the meeting of the colluders at Sèvres, attended for a short while by the Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd – is to be found (though Lamb has not spotted this) in one (and only one) of the several copies to be found in the files of the Cabinet minutes of 23 October. The information that ‘it now appeared’ that the Israelis were not after all going to launch a full-scale attack on Egypt on their own was in all other copies unsourced. From this one copy we learn that ministers were told that this came ‘from secret conversations which had been held in Paris with representatives of the Israeli Government’. When Eden, addressing the Cabinet on 25 October, made a different assessment of Israeli intentions, it would have been reasonable for ministers to infer a similar source. Nothing of course was said then or at any other time about the Protocol of Sèvres, nor was any attempt made to meet the morning deadline on 31 October for starting the bombing of Egypt to which the Israelis considered Britain and France committed (there was never any intention, despite a suggestion of Lamb’s, to bomb during the night of 29-30 October – which would have been before the ultimatum was issued). For other information on Sèvres we must still rely on memoirs (Peres, Dayan, Pineau, Lloyd, Logan), soon to be supplemented by published extracts from Ben Gurion’s diary and the only official minutes, which were kept by an Israeli officer, Mordechai Bar-On.

Lamb is very harsh about Eden’s treatment of the Cabinet, berating him for ‘arrant dishonesty’ and saying that ‘it was madness for Eden to enter into the Sèvres agreement at a moment when a diplomatic solution was in sight.’ He is able to reconcile behaviour of this nature with the benevolent view of Eden which he formed as his Wiltshire neighbour by fastening on the external factor: Eden’s poor health and the drugs he took in consequence must, he says, have severely affected his judgment. At the same time he is astonished that the Americans, observing the type of behaviour that he has just characterised, should have started treating the British with considerable reservations. In his last chapter, with its full account of the immediate aftermath of Suez, one feels all the more keenly the shock that the period of coldness between the two countries had administered to the system by virtue of the fact that Lamb is so plainly shocked himself. ‘Almost incredible to relate,’ he writes of the US Treasury Secretary, ‘so mistrustful was Humphrey that he refused to take Butler’s promise’ – to evacuate Port Said – ‘at its face value.’ On that note the Eden Government left the scene and its leader began shortly writing those memoirs which in their unrevised form led the Foreign Office to resolve to protect his reputation by attempting to eradicate what Selwyn Lloyd called ‘the note of strong, persistent anti-American prejudice throughout’.