Monday, July 24, 2006

Lessons from Suez

It's the fiftieth anniversary of one of the greatest ever misjudgments in British foreign policy. The problem was less the decision to attack Nasser, which could be argued was both salutary and potentially beneficial for Britain and for the region, than the failure to consult or even inform the United States. The lesson taken from Suez by the British, and especially by Macmillan, was that Britain was no longer able to take on a major independent world role without US assistance.

What this meant to Macmillan, and later to Heath, was that the future of Britain lay with Europe, Dean Acheson's crack that "Britain has lost an empire, but not found a role" had hit home.

But it is far from certain whether Suez really was a demonstration of Britain's material weakness. It was certainly a demonstration of her failure of will. Possibly deeper and wider lessons were taken than was necessary, it is certainly open to debate whether the European option espoused by the Tories was the correct one: Hugh Gaitskell believed that in turning to Europe Britain was abandoning her certain global trade positions for an uncertain, smaller and less favourable European one.

As for lessons we can take today from Suez, the most interesting can be drawn by analogy, by examining the character of Eden, the instigator and principal fall guy of the debacle. Eden was the gilded heir of a long-term leader: unparalleled leader in his field, a renowned expert on foreign affairs. Yet he had been made to wait too long for the top job, long enough that his strengths had calcified into potential weaknesses: an over-strong certainty of his own infallibility. By the time he finally succeeded to the leadership it was to be cataclysmic failure in his specific area of expertise that was to bring him down. Something for Gordon to ponder as he squats over the Treasury, biting his nails and brooding over the ultimate prize so far denied to him.

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