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Last Shout For The Empire
on 21 June 2010
When Gordon Brown was proclaimed to be the worst Prime Minister Britain has ever had, one newspaper columnist suggested that the estate of Anthony Eden should sue. Barry Turner, the author of "Suez 1956", would probably agree.
The Suez Campaign, Operation "Musketeer", was Britain's last imperial war (if you take the Falklands to be a face-saving rescue mission and Iraq and Afghanistan as mere adjuncts to American policy), at a time when Britain was no longer an imperial power but had yet to realise it (and I don't think it has yet fully accepted it). This book does draw very clear parallels between the case against Egypt's seizure of the Suez Canal and the drumbeating some fifty years later regarding Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction", particularly in that when one excuse for war faltered, another was found to take its' place.
This is a comprehensive account of the Suez crisis and its' origins, starting with Napoleon's dreams of a Mediterranean-Red Sea canal and taking us through the labours of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the arrival of the British and their subsequent policy towards Egypt, and the first big standoff over the Canal - the so-called "abrogation crisis" - between 1951 and 1954, when a certain Mr Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary, was at the forefront of efforts to negotiate a British withdrawal. Towards Eden, Turner is scathing, portraying him as a vain, arrogant, deceitful, spiteful, vindictive, unhinged creature, corrupted by the power of his office, with his Cabinet almost uniformly - with particular opprobrium going to Eden's Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd - condemned as spineless little men without the gumption to halt the steamroller to war. In this, Turner nails his colours firmly to the mast: "Musketeer" was a fiasco, militarily as well as politically. HM Forces are painted very negatively, with ineptly-led and under-motivated troops sent into battle with old equipment and poor communications, and in no way prepared for rapid response to sudden overseas crises. But of course, this was not just a British adventure - the French and the Israelis were involved, too, and Turner seems to view them with much more understanding and sympathy than he does his own countrymen, suggesting that they at least had just cause of sorts for attacking Egypt (Colonel Nasser's support for rebels in French Algeria, and his threats to destroy Israel) whereas Eden just wanted to beef up his ego. He attacks frontally the old argument about the Americans "stabbing us in the back", quoting numerous sources to illustrate that at no point did the Eisenhower Administration ever sanction or support military action against Egypt, and indeed made repeated and seemingly honest efforts to avert it. Furthermore, if you somehow think that the West could have responded any differently, you will find resonance with Turner's agreement that the Suez campaign gave the Soviet Union the diversion it needed to crush the Hungarian Uprising that was going on at the same time. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that the West WOULD have acted any differently without Suez, in that there was very little it could do short of going to war. The most damning indictment of Eden in this book is the fact that, having contrived so much to get his war, he ultimately lacked the courage to see it through once the pressure began to bear down on him. As his predecessor famously said of the operation: "I wouldn't have dared; and if I had done, I wouldn't have dared stop." Eden stopped, and it destroyed him, as well as tarnishing Britain's reputation for several decades onward. If Operation "Desert Storm" was America's exorcism of Vietnam, then the Falklands War was Britain ejecting the ghost of Suez.
All-in-all, this is a highly readable, briskly and at times humourously written study of the Suez Crisis, with equal time given to the political, diplmoatic and military aspects. Turner's vituperation on the subject of Eden and the British Government as a whole means that, as a history, it should be treated with a little caution, but as a means of broadly understanding how things happened, and why, it is highly recommended.