The infamous Suez Canal Crisis played out on the world stage over the latter months of 1956. An important moment in post-war British history, ‘Suez’ (as it has become known) still conjures up powerful images of national decline, ministerial incompetence and global humiliation six decades later. The crisis formally began on 29 October 1956, when Britain (in alliance with France and Israel) invaded its former colony Egypt.
The objectives of the intervention were clear: to seize back ownership of the Suez Canal – that vital strategic asset and great symbol of empire – after its abrupt nationalisation by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser three months earlier. The expectation in taking back the canal was that the troublesome Nasser would be deposed as a result. Reclaiming ownership of the canal became something of an obsession for British prime minister Anthony Eden, spurred on by immense domestic pressure and media reports that likened the situation to the failed appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938.
The intervention was planned and executed with precision, as Britain and her allies quickly seized control of Suez, Gaza and parts of the Sinai with minimal losses. However, for as much as the operation was a success in military terms, it was a disaster politically. World opinion roundly condemned the three nations for their aggression and lack of respect for Egyptian sovereignty. Fury and outrage erupted across the Islamic world at Britain’s perceived neo-colonial behaviour. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev even threatened to rain down nuclear missiles on Western Europe in retaliation. Crucially, the United States – who Eden and his chancellor Harold Macmillan had fatally miscalculated would permit the invasion – was also staunchly opposed, and President Eisenhower exerted significant financial pressure to force a withdrawal.
Reduced to an international pariah and threatened with severe American economic sanctions, Britain had no choice but to disengage and pull out of Egypt. Eden fell on his sword shortly afterwards, and in the years that followed the British empire rapidly disintegrated as what Macmillan called the “wind of change” blew through Africa and beyond. The failed intervention stimulated widespread public debate and hand-wringing, embedding Suez into the national consciousness as a traumatic moment when Britain’s influence on the world stage had been dramatically and permanently curtailed.
Suez in historical perspective
The story summarised above is a familiar and well-rehearsed one. But was Suez truly a watershed moment in post-war British history? While the significance of the crisis was once accepted as conventional wisdom, in recent years historians have promoted more sophisticated and nuanced perspectives. The general consensus now is that Suez did not immediately trigger the wave of decolonisation that brought an end to empire in the 1960s, nor did it cause a sudden and drastic decline in Britain’s global influence. Both of these trends had actually started long before 1956, and would likely have unfolded with or without the spark of Suez. Britain had been severely weakened economically by the Second World War, relying heavily on American loans in the decade that followed. With domestic economic pressures mounting throughout the 1950s, it was inevitable that both the size of the armed forces and the scale of overseas commitments would be drastically scaled down in the 1960s.
Britain’s retreat from the Middle East had also begun well before Suez, as evident in the failure to convert Palestine into a bi-national state in 1948, or the failure to reverse the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951. Decolonisation and the end of empire was also underway well before 1956, given the high costs of maintaining colonial territories and the mounting political pressures and nationalist movements inside Africa. Many officials thus came to favour a fast and orderly transfer of power to friendly post-colonial governments, before the Soviet Union penetrated the continent.
Furthermore, the fallout from Suez did not mark an immediate collapse of British imperial power and prestige. The UK gradually disengaged from the Middle East after 1956 (handing over many commitments to the United States), but continued to staunchly defend her oil interests in the region. This included the deployment of armed troops, SAS squadrons and RAF aircraft to help put down a rebellion against the Sultan of Omar in 1957.
From these broader historical perspectives, the impact and significance of the Suez Crisis appears to have been overstated. As Selwyn Lloyd (Eden’s foreign secretary in 1956) later acknowledged, “Suez became an excuse. It was the scapegoat for what was happening to Britain in the world, and for all that flowed from the loss of power and economic weakness”.
If the Suez Crisis was not the critical watershed moment it has often been depicted as, why does it continue to be so vividly remembered six decades later? The episode was undoubtedly dramatic, with a story worthy of the most exciting political thriller. But Suez’s enduring resonance is primarily a reflection of the distinct context in which it took place. The attempt to seize back the canal was a failed attempt to reassert European strength and colonial power at a time when the world was undergoing fundamental change, shifting to a new world order constituted of independent post-imperial states and organised around the poles of the competing Cold War superpowers.
The humiliation experienced in Suez thus illuminated deep-rooted cultural anxieties and fears within Britain, about the direction of the country in an uncertain era of diminishing power and influence. As Dean Acheson, former United States secretary of state memorably commented in 1962, Britain had “lost an empire and… not yet found a role”. This general sense of angst helped foster a rhetoric of national declinism that has been an enduring part of our cultural and political landscape ever since.
What this all suggests is that while the overall significance of the crisis may have been exaggerated, ‘Suez’ has left a lasting mark on our collective memory which can still be deployed today for political and partisan purposes. This was particularly apparent in the debates leading up to the 2003 war in Iraq, as the anti-war campaign argued that the intervention was a folly that would only result in a “new Suez”. Ironically, many in the pro-war camp warned that to not oppose Saddam Hussein would repeat the mistakes of appeasement in the 1930s, which was one of the arguments used to originally justify invading Egypt in 1956. More recently, several public figures have invoked memories of Suez in response to the decision to leave the European Union in this year’s referendum. Commenting on David Cameron’s decision to offer the referendum, Jeremy Paxman said “no prime minister has made a bigger miscalculation since Anthony Eden”. Gordon Brown, meanwhile, added that Brexit would leave us “more isolated from our international partners than at any time since the humiliation of Suez”.
These are deliberate mobilisations of history in support of contemporary political positions, which are rarely conducive to fostering more nuanced understandings of the past or present. But continuing references to Suez do reveal how the complex set of national anxieties and concerns crystallised in 1956 – the end of empire, declining global influence, and a corresponding loss of a clear national purpose or vision – still remain profoundly relevant in 21st-century Britain.
In 1956, one notable outcome of Suez was to accelerate Britain’s turn away from the Commonwealth and towards Europe, beginning a drawn-out process that culminated in Britain joining the European Economic Community in 1973 (which was in turn incorporated into the newly formed European Union in 1993).
Sixty years on from Suez, Britain’s enthusiasm for European integration has come to a sudden and abrupt end. Indeed, many of the more vocal advocates of ‘Brexit’ have promised a reassertion of British international influence and independence outside of the constraints of the European Union. While it is too soon to evaluate the merits of such claims, it is clear that the ghosts of Suez are still far from being put to rest.
Dr Andrew Jones is a teaching fellow in imperial history at the University of Warwick.
This article was first published by History Extra in October 2016