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Suez and the Moral Bankruptcy of Empire

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A.J. Stockwell looks at the political fallout of the Suez crisis, both at home and more widely in its effect on the British Empire.

It is often claimed that the dramatic clash between ethics and cynical realpolitik at Suez spelled the end of the British empire. The resort to force without UN sanction, collusion with France and Israel and prime ministerial deceit breached principles of international diplomacy, parliamentary conduct and the Cabinet’s collective responsibility. Eden’s actions were attacked in the press, Parliament and public demonstrations.

Risking charges of treason and loss of sales, Alastair Hetherington of the Manchester Guardian and David Astor of the Observer unequivocally condemned the venture. They were joined by the New Statesman, Spectator and eventually the Daily Mirror. The director-general of the BBC, Ian Jacob, resisted government censorship and William Clark, the prime minister’s press secretary, resigned over attempts to gag the media. Jo Grimond united the Liberals in attacking Eden, and, after a hesitant start, Hugh Gaitskell by and large did the same for the Labour Party (though Jewish MPs found themselves in a dilemma). In the Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury, still the conscience of the nation, condemned the venture. Although only two, junior, ministers resigned (Anthony Nutting and Edward Boyle) and although only a handful of Conservative MPs abstained in the vote of no-confidence, there was also considerable unease in the Conservative Party – unease that was largely repressed for fear of rocking the boat. Thus, Walter Monckton, who opposed armed intervention, was persuaded to move from the Ministry of Defence to be Postmaster General  rather than resign from government. At the War Office John Hare made his opposition clear but remained in post. James Stuart decided to stay at the Scottish Office notwithstanding grave reservations about Eden’s leadership. Buchan-Hepburn, a former chief whip and minister of works with a seat in the Cabinet, opposed the use of force from first to last, though lost office only when he supported R.A. Butler as Eden’s successor. Butler himself, with an ‘appeasing’ past to live down, dithered to such an extent that he forfeited trust on all sides of the party. Some, like Hailsham at the Admiralty, thought military intervention was ‘madness’, rather than immoral, though Hailsham himself did not demur from supporting it and dissuaded Lord Mountbatten from resigning as First Sea Lord. 

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