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SUEZ AND BRITAIN'S DECLINE AS A WORLD POWER*

  • G. C. PEDEN (a1)
Abstract

The Suez crisis is widely believed to have contributed significantly to Britain's decline as a world power. Eden's miscalculation of American reaction to the attack on Egypt was damaging to Britain's reputation and fatal to his career. However, his actions were contrary to received wisdom in Whitehall. The crisis merely confirmed Britain's dependence on the United States and had no lasting impact on Anglo-American relations. Britain's relationship with its informal and formal empire was already changing before 1956, and the turn from the commonwealth to Europe owed little to Suez. Examination of policy reviews in Whitehall before and after the Suez crisis shows that the Foreign Office, Commonwealth Relations Office, and Colonial Office were slow to accept the need for change in Britain's world role. Insofar as they did from 1959 it was because of Treasury arguments about the effect of high defence expenditure on the economy, and slow growth of the United Kingdom's population compared with the United States, the European Economic Community, and the Soviet Union.

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Corresponding author
Ardvurich, Leny Feus, Callander FK17 8ASgeorge.peden@stir.ac.uk
Footnotes
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I am grateful to the British Academy for funding the research and to Gill Bennett for commenting on an earlier draft of the article.

Footnotes
References
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1 Accounts of the crisis that take this view include Kyle, K., Suez (London, 1991, 2003); Louis, W. R. and Owen, R, eds., Suez 1956: the crisis and its consequences (Oxford, 1989); Lucas, W. S., Divided we stand: Britain, the US and the Suez crisis (London, 1991).

2 Reynolds, D., Britannia overruled: British policy and world power in the 20th century (London, 1991), p. 205.

3 Parsons, M., ed., Looking back: the Wilson years, 1964–1970 (Pau, 1999), pp. 63–4.

4 Frankel, J., British foreign policy, 1945–1973 (London, 1975), p. 162.

5 Heath, E., The course of my life (London, 1988), pp. 177–8.

6 Lloyd, S., Suez 1956: a personal account (London, 1978), p. 252.

7 A. J. Stockwell, ‘Suez 1956 and the moral disarmament of the British empire’, in S. C. Smith, ed., Reassessing Suez 1956: new perspectives on the crisis and its aftermath (Aldershot, 2008), pp. 227–38.

8 Eden's ‘thoughts’ on general position after Suez, 28 Dec. 1956, Prime Minister's Office papers, series 11, file 1138 (PREM 11/1138), The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA).

9 Hennessy, P., Muddling through: power, politics and the quality of government in postwar Britain (London, 1990), pp. 97–8.

10 Geiger, T., Britain and the economic problem of the cold war: the political economy and economic impact of the British defence effort, 1945–1955 (Aldershot, 2004); Peden, G. C., Arms, economics and British strategy: from dreadnoughts to hydrogen bombs (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 250–60, 269–70, 318–21.

11 Lloyd to Eden, 13 July 1955, PREM 11/1778.

12 ‘Defence policy’, PR (56) 2, joint memorandum by Macmillan and Monckton, 20 Mar. 1956, British documents on the end of empire (BDEE), series A, vol. iii: The Conservative government and the end of empire, 1951–1957, ed. D. Goldsworthy, part 1: International relations (London, 1994), p. 60; Macmillan diaries: the cabinet years, 1950–1957, ed. P. Catterall (London, 2003), 29 Jan. 1956.

13 JIC (56) 21 (Final), 1 May 1956, reproduced as appendix to PR (56) 3, Cabinet Office papers, series 134, vol. 1315 (CAB 134/1315), TNA; ‘Soviet economic offensive’, ES (56) 11 Revise, 12 Apr. 1956, CAB 134/1236; ‘Cabinet: aircraft programme’, note of meeting of ministers, 31 May 1956, Gen 514/ 2nd meeting, PREM 11/1712.

14 Brook to Eden, 1 May 1956, PREM 11/1778.

15 PR (56) 3, 1 June 1956, BDE E, series A, vol. iii, part 1, pp. 61–81.

16 Brook to Eden, 2 June 1956, PREM 11/1778.

17 Notes by Patrick Dean, 23 and 30 Apr. 1956, Foreign Office papers, series 371, file 123191 (FO 371/123191), TNA.

18 ‘The UK part in the primary deterrent’, circulated by Major-General W. G. Stirling, 30 Apr. 1956, FO 371/123187.

19 PR (56) 3, paras. 1, 7–12, 17, and PR (56) 11, BDE E, series A, vol. iii, part 1, pp. 62–5, 91.

20 PR (56) 3, para. 30, and PR (56) 11, para. 1, ibid., pp. 67, 91.

21 PR (56) 3, para. 51(f), ibid., p. 71.

22 Ashton, N., Eisenhower, Macmillan and the problem of Nasser: Anglo-American relations and Arab nationalism, 1955–1959 (Basingstoke, 1996), pp. 4551, 54–60, 65–7, 79; Petersen, T., ‘Anglo-American rivalry in the Middle East: the struggle for the Buraimi oasis, 1952–1957’, International History Review, 14 (1992), pp. 7191.

23 A. Adamthwaite, ‘Suez revisited’, in M. Dockrill and J. Young, eds., British foreign policy, 1945–1956 (Basingstoke, 1989), pp. 225–45, at pp. 234–8.

24 A. Lane, ‘The past as matrix: Sir Ivonne Kirkpatrick, permanent under-secretary for foreign affairs’, in S. Kelly and A. Gorst, eds., Whitehall and the Suez crisis (London, 2000), pp. 199–220.

25 Clark, W., From three worlds: memoirs (London, 1986), p. 210.

26 Schuckburgh, E., Descent to Suez: diaries, 1951–1956 (London, 1986), pp. 362–3.

27 Ziegler, P., Mountbatten (London, 1985), pp. 538–46.

28 Hennessy, P., Whitehall (London, 1989), pp. 144–5.

29 Bridges to Macmillan, 7 Sept. 1956, Treasury papers, series 236, file 4188 (T 236/4188), TNA.

30 R. Makins, ‘Sidelight on Suez’, c. 1986, and telegram 1849 for foreign secretary, 9 Sept. 1956, MS Sherfield 957, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

31 Fforde, J., The Bank of England and public policy, 1941–1958 (Cambridge, 1992), p. 549; L. Johnman, ‘Defending the pound: the economics of the Suez crisis’, in T. Gorst, L. Johnman, and W. S. Lucas, eds., Postwar Britain, 1945–1964 (London, 1989), pp. 166–81; Kunz, D., The economic diplomacy of the Suez crisis (Chapel Hill, NC, 1991); Peden, G. C., The Treasury and British public policy, 1906–1959 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 446–7.

32 Kyle, Suez, pp. 327–8; Craddock, P., Know your enemy: how the Joint Intelligence Committee saw the world (London, 2002), pp. 109, 116, 123–6.

33 JIC (56) 98 (Final), 4 Oct., and note by secretary, 30 Oct. 1956, CAB 158/25.

34 Lloyd, Suez, p. 253. Macmillan likewise confessed to having miscalculated the extent to which the Americans would resent being kept in the dark about the Anglo-French action – Macmillan, H., Riding the storm (London, 1971), p. 157.

35 Lucas, Divided we stand, p. 330.

36 ‘The effect of our external financial position on our foreign policy’, circulated by Eden on 30 Mar. 1945 and by Bevin on 11 Mar. 1946, and memorandum with same title circulated by Bevin on 12 Feb. 1947, FO 371/62420.

37 Cabinet conclusions, CC (52) 4, 17 Jan. 1952, CAB 128/24.

38 Charmley, J., Churchill's grand alliance: the Anglo-American special relationship, 1940–1957 (London, 1995), pp. 244–61, 274–86, 294–5, 297; Ruane, K. and Ellison, J., ‘Managing the Americans: Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and the pursuit of “power by proxy”’, Contemporary British History, 18 (2004), pp. 147–67.

39 Caccia to Lloyd, ‘The present state of Anglo-United States relations’, 28 Dec. 1956, PREM 11/2189.

40 Telegrams no. 1 and 3, FO 371/126682.

41 Ashton, N., Kennedy, Macmillan and the cold war: the irony of interdependence (Basingstoke, 2002); M. Dockrill, ‘Restoring the “special relationship”: the Bermuda and Washington conferences 1957’, in D. Richardson and G. Stone, eds., Decisions and diplomacy: essays in twentieth-century international history (London, 1995), pp. 205–23; Geelhoed, E. B. and Edmonds, A. O., Eisenhower, Macmillan and allied unity, 1957–1961 (Basingstoke, 2003).

42 L. Freedman and J. Gearson, ‘Interdependence and independence: Nassau and the British nuclear deterrent’, in K. Burk and M. Stokes, eds., The United States and the European alliance since 1945 (Oxford, 1999), pp. 179–203; Aldrich, R. J., ‘British intelligence and the Anglo-American “special relationship” during the cold war’, Review of International Studies, 24 (1988), pp. 331–51.

43 Bartlett, C. J., ‘The special relationship’: a political history of Anglo-American relations since 1945 (London, 1992), p. 77.

44 Freedman, L., The official history of the Falklands campaign, ii: War and diplomacy (London, 2005), p. 84.

45 Louis, W. R., The British empire in the Middle East (Oxford, 1984), pp. 383–96, 414–77, 514–36.

46 Memorandum by Roger Makins (deputy under-secretary), 11 Aug. 1951, with comment by Sir William Strang (permanent under-secretary), FO 371/124968, cited in Beck, P., ‘The lessons of Abadan and Suez for British foreign policymakers in the 1960s’, Historical Journal, 49 (2006), pp. 525–47.

47 ‘Egypt: the alternatives’, C (53) 65, 16 Feb. 1953, CAB 129/59.

48 Lucas, Divided we stand, pp. 106–34, 140, 146–7, 151–5, 219, 276–8.

49 H. Beeley, ‘The Middle East’, in W. R. Louis and H. Bull, eds., The special relationship: Anglo-American relations since 1945 (Oxford, 1986), pp. 285–93.

50 R. Khalidi, ‘Consequences of the Suez crisis in the Arab world’, in Louis and Owen, eds., Suez, pp. 377–92, at pp. 381, 383; Franzén, J., ‘Development vs. reform: attempts at modernisation during the twilight of British influence in Iraq, 1946–1958’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 37 (2009), pp. 7798.

51 Heinlein, F., British government policy and decolonisation, 1945–1963: scrutinising the official mind (London, 2002), pp. 163–6.

52 Galpern, S. G., Money, oil and empire in the Middle East: sterling and postwar imperialism, 1944–1971 (Cambridge, 2009), pp. 196–7, 202–3.

53 Mawby, S., ‘Britain's last imperial frontier: the Aden protectorates, 1952–1959’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 29 (2001), pp. 75100; Smith, S. C., Britain's revival and fall in the Gulf: Kuwait, Bahrein, Qatar and the Trucial States, 1950–1971 (London, 2004).

54 Morgan, D. J., Official history of colonial development, v: Guidance towards self-government in British colonies, 1941–1971 (London and Basingstoke, 1980), pp. 8891. For changing economic relationships, see Krozewski, G., Money and the end of empire: British international economic policy and the colonies, 1947–1958 (Basingstoke, 2001). Krozewski believes Suez was important as it ‘revealed how fragile Britain's economy was in the global context without the support of the United States’ (p. 149), but, as noted above (pp. 1101–03), the Treasury was aware of sterling's weakness even before the crisis unfolded.

55 A. Hopkins, ‘Macmillan's audit of empire, 1957’, in P. Clarke and C. Trebilcock, eds., Understanding decline: perceptions and realities of British economic performance (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 234–60.

56 W. R. Louis, ‘Public enemy number one: the British empire in the dock of the United Nations, 1957–1971’, in M. Lynn, ed., The British empire in the 1950s: retreat or revival? (Basingstoke, 2006), pp. 186–213.

57 Heinlein, British government policy, pp. 184–7; Darwin, J., ‘The central African emergency, 1959’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 21 (1993), pp. 217–34; Ovendale, R., ‘Macmillan and the wind of change in Africa, 1957–1960’, Historical Journal, 38 (1995), pp. 455–77.

58 CC (54) 83, 7 Dec. 1954, CAB 128/27.

59 Devereux, D. R., The formulation of British defence policy towards the Middle East, 1948–1956 (Basingstoke, 1990), pp. 92–8.

60 Mansergh, N., The commonwealth experience, ii: From British to multiracial commonwealth (London, 1982), p. 171.

61 S. Gopal, ‘India, the crisis, and the non-aligned nations’; M. G. Fry, ‘Canada, the North Atlantic triangle, and the United Nations’, and J. D. B. Miller, ‘Australia and the crisis’, in Louis and Owen, eds., Suez, pp. 173–87, 285–316, and 275–83.

62 Milward, A. S., The rise and fall of a national strategy, 1945–1963 (London, 2002), p. 262.

63 Plan G is reproduced in Macmillan, Riding the storm, pp. 753–4.

64 Macmillan, H., At the end of the day (London, 1973), pp. 110, 116–38, 349, 524–39; Gowland, D., Turner, A., and Wright, A., Britain and European integration since 1945: on the sidelines (London, 2010), pp. 5667.

65 ‘The grand design: co-operation with Western Europe’, CP (57) 6, 5 Jan. 1957, CAB 129/84, and CM (57) 3, 9 Jan. 1957, CAB 128/30.

66 Doise, Jean and Vaisse, Maurice, Diplomatie et outil militaire, 1871–1969: politique étrangère de la France (Paris, 1987), p. 431; Jones, M., ‘Anglo-American relations after Suez: the rise and decline of the working groups experiment and the French challenge to NATO, 1957–1959’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 14 (2003), pp. 4979; Pagedas, C. A., Anglo-American strategic relations and the French problem, 1960–1963 (London, 2000).

67 Eden, A., Memoirs: full circle (London, 1960), pp. 371–3.

68 GEN 564, meetings of 18 and 19 Dec. 1956, CAB 130/122; PR (56) 45 and 50, CAB 134/1315.

69 Defence: outline of future policy (Cmnd 124), Parliamentary Papers (PP) 1956–7, xxiii, p. 489.

70 Hoyer Millar to Brook, 9 Oct., and Brook to prime minister, 25 Oct. 1957, CAB 21/4717.

71 ‘The position of the United Kingdom in world affairs’, and covering note by Brook, 5 June 1958, PREM 11/2321. The report is reproduced in BDEE, series A, vol. iv: The Conservative government and the end of empire, 1957–1964, ed. R. Hyam and W. R. Louis, part 1: High policy, political and constitutional change (London, 2000), pp. 43–51.

72 Heinlein, British government policy, p. 166, goes so far as to describe the committee as split into factions, but his account is marred by errors about its composition. He wrongly supposes Board of Trade officials to have participated in its discussions, and omits the Ministry of Defence's contribution.

73 Minute by P. E. Ramsbotham (Planning Section, FO), 24 Jan. 1958, FO 371/135623.

74 ‘Future UK policy in use of resources’, 30 Jan. 1958, FO 371/135624.

75 GEN 624/2nd meeting, 4 Feb. 1958, CAB 130/139; ‘Future policy’, 28 Feb. 1958, FO 371/135625.

76 Summaries of memoranda by CRO (GEN 624/2, CAB 130/139) and Colonial Office (GEN 624/4, retained by Department), n.d. but Feb. 1958, FO 371/135624.

77 GEN 659/1st meeting, 7 July 1958, CAB 130/153.

78 Memoranda by William Armstrong, 17 May, and Richard Clarke, 6 August, and note by Makins, 4 July (all 1958), T 234/754.

79 ‘The effects of nuclear sufficiency’, COS (58) 39, 13 Feb. 1958, Ministry of Defence papers, series 5, volume 82 (DEFE 5/82), TNA; confidential annex to COS (58) 77th meeting, 3 Sept. 1958, DEFE 4/111.

80 Brook, ‘The position of the United Kingdom in world affairs’, 4 Nov. 1958, PREM 11/2275.

81 ‘Future policy’, 20 Feb. 1959, PREM 11/2945.

82 Ball, S. J., The bomber in British strategy: doctrine, strategy and Britain's world role, 1945–1960 (Boulder, CO, 1995), pp. 163–74.

83 Macmillan diary, 7 June 1959, MS Macmillan dep. d.35, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

84 ‘Future policy study 1960–1970’, C (60) 35, 29 Feb. 1960, CAB 129/100; FP (60) 1st meeting, 23 Mar. 1960, CAB 134/1929; note of meeting in Sir Frank Lee's room, 5 Apr. 1960, T 325/65.

85 C (60) 35, part ii, paras. 5–6, CAB 129/100; extracts from CRO draft memorandum, ‘The commonwealth, 1960–1970’, 30 July 1959, BDEE, series A, vol. iv, part i, pp. 61–9.

86 Schenk, C., The decline of sterling: managing the retreat of an international currency 1945–1992 (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 32, 111, 117, 207–8, 414–15.

87 Committee on the working of the monetary system: report (Cmnd 827), PP 1958–9, xvii, p. 389, paras. 657–60, 678.

88 C (60) 35, part i, paras. 1–6, CAB 129/100; ‘Future policy 1960–70 (Q. A8)’, by Clarke, 26 June 1959, FO 371/143702; P. E. Ramsbotham, ‘Economic strength (questions 1–3) FP(B) (59) 11’, 21 July 1959, FO 371/143704.

89 C (60) 35, part iii, paras. 6, 8–9, 13, 30, CAB 129/100.

90 C (60) 35, CAB 129/100, part i, paras. 12–13, and part iii, paras. 14–16 and 30; comments by P. Dean and others, 4–10 Aug. 1959, on CRO draft memorandum, ‘The commonwealth, 1960–1970’ (see n. 85), FO 371/143705.

91 C (60) 35, part iii, paras. 8, 38, 49–52, 64, 85, CAB 129/100; R. Clarke, ‘Cost of UK defence’, 21 Dec. 1959, and Clarke to Makins, 22 Dec. 1959, T 234/757.

92 C (60) 35, part ii, paras. 13–17, part iv, 30. For public expenditure see Middleton, R., Government versus the market: the growth of the public sector, economic management and British economic performance, c. 1890–1979 (Cheltenham, 1996), p. 499.

93 D. K. Burdett, ‘Defence and the corpus’, 6 Nov. 1959, T 234/756.

94 Peden, , Arms, economics and British strategy, pp. 332–42; Dockrill, S., Britain's retreat from east of Suez: the choice between Europe and the world (Basingstoke, 2002).

95 A. Shonfield's seminal British economic policy since the war (Harmondsworth, 1958) came independently to similar conclusions to those of the Treasury on the need to reduce defence commitments, but was critical of its management of the economy and advocated economic planning.

96 O'Hara, G., From dreams to disillusionment: economic and social planning in 1960s Britain (Basingstoke, 2007); Pemberton, H., ‘Relative decline and British economic policy in the 1960s’, Historical Journal, 47 (2004), pp. 9891013; Tomlinson, J., ‘Balanced accounts? Constructing the balance of payments problem in post-war Britain’, English Historical Review, 124 (2009), pp. 863–84.

97 A. Maddison, ‘Macroeconomic accounts for European countries’, in B. van Ark and N. Crafts, eds., Quantitative aspects of post-war European economic growth (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 27–83, at pp. 44, 63–4.

98 A. France to Sir D. Rickett, 22 July 1959, T 234/277. See also P. Vinter, ‘Relationships with the US, Europe and the commonwealth’, 24 July 1959, T 234/755. For Churchill's ‘three circles’, see The Times, 11 Oct. 1948. Approximate populations in 1970 were: UK 55.6 million; USA 203 million; EEC 188 million; Soviet Union 242 million.

* I am grateful to the British Academy for funding the research and to Gill Bennett for commenting on an earlier draft of the article.

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