Suez 1956: Britain forced to accept its subordinate role

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Marking anniversaries is a favourite way for the ruling class to make nationalist or militarist propaganda. However, the capitalist class in Britain is probably grateful that in October and November this year there will be a flurry of publicity for the fiftieth anniversary of the USSR’s crushing of the Nagy regime and the workers’ councils in Hungary: it probably hopes recalling the horrors of ‘Communism’ will distract a little from having to retell the embarrassing story of the Suez crisis of 1956.

There’s really only one way of presenting the events and the inevitable outcome. There’s no way of hiding British and French humiliation and the confirmation of America’s dominant position. As a recent article on the subject in The Economist (27/7/6) acknowledged: Suez “marked the humiliating end of imperial influence for two European countries, Britain and France” and “made unambiguous, even to the most nostalgic blimps, America’s supremacy over its Western allies”.

End of illusions

In the post-war world, while allowing for economic difficulties, both Britain and France continued to deploy military force in defence of their imperialist interests. British intervention in Malaysia and Kenya, French action in Indochina and Algeria are just the most obvious examples of force being used by these two old imperial powers before Suez.

However, the Second World War had severely undermined Britain’s ability to function as a major power. As we explained in a text on the ‘Evolution of the British situation since the Second World War’ in International Review 17: “Britain’s capacity to remain a global imperialist power was broken by the systematic efforts of the US during the Second World War and its aftermath… By the end of the war the US was well on its way to achieving its wartime goals regarding Britain and the Empire … while the US demobilised at speed, Britain had to support substantial forces in Europe … Several other measures were taken to keep up the economic pressure on British capital…” The article demonstrated that the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US meant the dominance of the US.

However, Britain had not abandoned the possibility of an independent imperialist policy. This led to its downfall with Suez.

The US had withdrawn aid to Egypt for the construction of the Aswan Dam following Egypt’s purchase of weapons from countries in the Russian bloc. This was among the factors that led to Egypt’s perfectly legal nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which was jointly owned by Britain and France.

These two countries – although lyingly denying it at the time – made an agreement with Israel that it would attack Egypt, and then Britain and French forces would pose as peacekeepers trying to keep Israel and Egypt apart. In reality, after the initial Israeli offensive, the two powers attacked Egypt, which retaliated by sinking all the ships in the canal.

In response to this the US dusted off its anti-imperialist rhetoric to denounce Britain and France. President Eisenhower showed sympathy toward the Arab nations and their “continuing anger toward their former colonial rulers, notably France and Great Britain”. The leader of the only country to use atomic weapons in war said in a broadcast “we do not accept the use of force as a wise and proper instrument for the settlement of international disputes”. Eisenhower asserted that the US “had laboured tirelessly to bring peace and stability” to the Middle East, and, accordingly, used the United Nations, in conjunction with Russia, to impose a cease-fire on Britain and France.

The US also put economic pressure on Britain, standing in the way of IMF loans that it was desperate for, and threatening the value of the pound through the sale of US reserves.

Britain and France had to accept the cease-fire. The US had posed as the friend of nations emerging from colonial rule, while at the same time confirming its position as the dominant power in the western bloc. The shock for France and Britain lay in losing their illusions and facing up to their real status on the world stage, both now transparently second rate imperialisms.

This realisation led to furious rows in the ranks of the British ruling class. Tory government and Labour opposition agreed that Nasser’s behaviour was like that of Hitler or Mussolini. But where Prime Minister Eden insisted on the military option (which Labour didn’t rule out), Gaitskell, Bevan and co asserted the role of the UN with the slogan ‘Law not War’. There were cries of ‘treachery’, ‘appeasement’ and ‘Nasser’s lackeys’. The fierceness of the disagreements stemmed from the weakness of British imperialism’s position. Neither law nor war would serve British interests.

At the same time that the main factions of the bourgeoisie were painfully acknowledging their real position, leftist groups sowed illusions in anti-colonial national liberation struggles. Tony Cliff, leading figure in the SWP, for example, wrote at the time in Socialist Review (August 1958) that “the Suez adventure - which ended in a fiasco, weakened the Western Imperialist foothold in the Middle East” and that whatever the US and Britain did “imperialism is doomed to defeat”. In reality, while the British and French position was weakened, that of the US was not, nor was that of the USSR. In the Middle East “The 1948 war served to dislodge British imperialism from the region. That of 1956 marked the reinforcement of American control. While those of 1967, 1973 and 1982 represented American imperialism’s counter-offensive against the growing penetration of Russian imperialism which had made more or less stable alliances with Syria, Egypt and Iraq” (International Review 68). In these imperialist conflicts Cliff’s group, like other Trotskyists, while saying that imperialism was ‘doomed’, demanded support for its Russian variety. “Nasser represents national independence and progress. As such his fight against imperialism should be supported by every socialist.”

After Suez

The impact of Suez echoes down the years. Among the paratroopers in the Israeli action was Ariel Sharon. On the other side Anwar Sadat edited Al Gumhuriya, a voice of the government. He accurately described the situation at the time: “There are only two Great Powers in the world today, the United States and the Soviet Union . . . The ultimatum put Britain and France in their right place, as Powers neither big nor strong.” Decades later, following the break-up of the USSR, the US is the only remaining super-power, but how do the lesser powers stand?

The Economist article mentioned above quotes remarks of German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, to French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, as the Suez invasion was being aborted. “France and England will never be powers comparable to the United States...Not Germany either. There remains to them only one way of playing a decisive role in the world: that is to unite Europe...We have no time to waste; Europe will be your revenge.” 1957 saw the signing of the Treaty of Rome which turned the Iron and Steel Community into the Common Market, an important step on the way to today’s EU.

But the EU is not ‘revenge’ for Suez. It remains fundamentally an economic organisation. European unity exists only in name and each national capital is still determined to defend its own interests, using its own military resources. There are occasional temporary alliances, but only insofar as they correspond to each national capital’s perceived interests.

The Economist article reminds us that De Gaulle’s suspicion of Britain was due to its appearance as America’s Trojan Horse. The publication suggests that the ‘special relationship’ has continued without interruption. “The major lesson of Suez for the British was that the country would never be able to act independently of America again. Unlike the French, who have sought to lead Europe, most British politicians have been content to play second fiddle to America.”

This hints at the basic dilemma facing the British bourgeoisie. The interests of British imperialism are obviously only sometimes going to coincide with those of the US or the major European powers. But while British capitalism wants to pursue its interests independently from the other major powers, realistically, to achieve anything significant, it needs to enter into various alliances, however temporary.

Recently Tony Blair has been severely criticised for following the US line on the Israeli offensive on Lebanon. This points to the very real difficulties facing the British ruling class. Although the independent strategy corresponds to its needs, every practical alternative only serves to emphasise the further loss of position experienced by British imperialism. The example of France and its pursuit of a more independent line shows the reality of the alternative. France’s status was briefly raised during its negotiations with the US, but, when asked to commit troops to southern Lebanon, it became very shy of making a serious contribution.

Fifty years on from the Suez crisis, the relative impotence of the second-rate powers is clear to see. Britain and France are still significant imperialist powers but, ‘independent’ or not in their overall policy, their capacity to impose themselves on situations is increasingly limited.   Car 18/8/6