Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Late on the evening of November 5 1956, an advance party of British soldiers from the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment led by Brigadier M.A.H. Butler, dropped on El Gamil Airfield in Egypt. The Anglo-French re-conquest of the Suez Canal Zone had officially begun.
The airfield was swiftly secured by the British, enabling the remainder of the battalion to be flown in by helicopter. The British forces then pushed on relentlessly to their main target, the city of Port Said. Despite strong Egyptian resistance, and with close support from fighter planes from the three British aircraft carriers nearby, they were able to secure the beach in time for the assault by 42nd and 40th Commando of the Royal Marines at dawn the following morning.
Meanwhile, the French forces were supported by two aircraft carriers, launching a similarly successful attack with paratroopers from their 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment on Port Fuad. The European forces appeared unstoppable, but the mission was forsaken before it started.
On November 2 the USA, with Soviet support, successfully proposed Resolution 997 (ES-1) at the United Nations calling for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of forces from the Suez Canal. Anthony Eden’s government then came under massive political and economic pressure from Eisenhower’s American administration to cease hostilities immediately.
Britain and France, just 24 hours away from complete control of the Suez Canal, reluctantly complied. The outcome of this Crisis was an undoubted humiliation for both countries and signified the end of independent strategic operations without American approval. The consequences for the international order have been debated for decades, but, in contrast, little attention has been focused upon the impact of Suez on the future direction of British Conservative policy.
The maintenance of the British Empire had been a cornerstone issue for pre-war Conservatives, leading them to enthusiastically embrace protectionism but the world had moved on by the time that the Conservatives returned to power in 1951. India had gained its independence and the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1949 acknowledged that all members were able to leave the embrace of the mother country at will.
Leo Amery, one of the casualties of the 1945 election cull, who had originally entered Parliament in 1911 as an enthusiastic Chamberlainite Tariff Reformer, had spent his career championing the unity of the Empire. With the Empire in decline, Amery now turned his attention to the battered continent of Europe as a possible replacement and as “a positive antidote to socialism”.
He wasn’t the only Conservative to become besotted with European prospects; Duncan Sandys (Churchill’s son-in-law), Robert Boothby (a European Federalist since the 1920s) and Harold Macmillan (an admirer of Jean Monnet) all became involved in the United Europe Movement (U.E.M.) during the years in opposition after 1945. The U.E.M. held its inaugural meeting at the Albert Hall in May 1947 and Sandys used all his powers of persuasion to obtain Churchill’s consent to serve as first Chairman.
Sandys had also been the main driver behind Churchill’s earlier “Europe Unite” speech at the University of Zurich in September 1946. The pinnacle of Conservative Europeanism came with the tabling of a Parliamentary EDM on 16th March 1948, drafted by Boothby and signed by 58 Tory MPs, calling for the creation of a “Western Union”. The influence of the Europeanists significantly declined after the Conservatives returned to power in 1951 and when Ministers were faced with the practical task of managing the remaining Imperial territories.
In the early 50s, Britain’s decline of influence was felt most acutely in the Middle East. Conservatives felt that we had been chased out of Palestine in 1948 and had been humiliated in the 1951 Iranian Abadan Crisis and the attempt to nationalise Anglo-Iranian Oil. Increasingly concerned about negotiations over the future of Sudan, backbenchers began to fear that the next outpost to be abandoned would be the Suez Canal.
The Suez Group of Conservative MPs was formed to maintain the Commonwealth as a political and military entity in the belief that, in order to continue being one of the “Big Three” powers, Britain must continue to act as America’s equal. Any retreat from Britain’s global commitments was viewed as fatal to prestige and would inevitably lead to decline to a second-class power.
The founders of the Suez Group were Captain Charles Waterhouse MP and Leo’s son, Julian Amery. Amery became de facto leader almost immediately, with the first meeting being held at his father’s house in Eaton Square on October 5 1953. The Group grew to number over 50 MPs, many of whom were from the new intake and destined to dominate the Conservative Right in future decades. These included Angus Maude, Richard Body, John Biggs-Davison and Enoch Powell (who served as joint Group Secretary with Amery).
The immediate practical aim of the Group was to force the government to maintain a strong military presence on the Canal, but the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, decided to withdraw the British bases and thus grant Egypt’s strongman, Gamal Abdel Nasser, control of the Canal Zone under the terms of the 1954 Anglo-Egyptian Agreement.
Amery believed that withdrawing British troops constituted a “a catastrophic gamble” and placed too much trust in the word of Nasser. He urged military action to retake control of Suez before the Egyptians had the opportunity to renege on the treaty and unilaterally nationalise the Anglo-French owned Canal.
Enoch Powell disagreed, arguing that it was too late to act and the moment had passed when Britain closed the last military base. The majority of the Suez Group sided with Amery and, following Nasser’s nationalisation speech in Alexandria on July 26, lobbied Eden, by now Prime Minister, into launching a full-scale invasion.
The failure of the intervention and America’s opposition to Britain and France led to anti-Americanism spreading throughout the Conservative Right. Significantly, the experience caused Powell to abandon concern for the declining Empire and the new Commonwealth (perceived by him as “a costly fiction”) and to seek a post-imperial national identity.
In doing so, Powell evoked the country’s pre-Imperial past and adopted an increasingly UK-centred, isolationist approach to foreign policy. To Julian Amery, who maintained his love of Empire, this all sounded like “British Gaullism”. Kevin Hickson, in his study Britain’s Conservative Right Since 1945, sees this as a key division on the Conservative Right between the new nationalist vision and the older Imperialist one.
These divisions would eventually crystalize into two wholly different approaches to the looming issue of Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community. The Europeanists started to resurrect their ambitions following Suez.
However, whilst the likes of Amery and Bigg-Davison became enthusiasts for the European Project (and would even go so far as to form the short- lived Pan Europe Club “…to promote the role of Britain as a European nation and work for the unity of all the nations of Europe founded on the Christian tradition and ultimately for their political union.”), Powell, Derek Walker-Smith, John Biffen, Richard Body and Neil Marten opposed British membership on grounds of loss of sovereignty.
In certain respects, the European Union represented to the old Imperial enthusiasts a new manifestation of Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Milner’s Imperial Federation idea with a common external tariff, a common Imperial Parliament and an internal single market to strengthen unity. European divisions would last until 2016 in the Conservative Party. The events of November 1956 certainly cast a long shadow.