All Nasser's Fault?
You don’t have to be a Marxist to accept that history is broadly determined by the continuing churn of economic interests, a dynamic that brooks no lasting interruption. However, it is often the case that personal idiosyncrasies, affinities and the state of health of decision-makers shape world events. These accidents throw the outlines of the machinery of nations into sharp relief, like a great spark in a darkened power station.
Recently, I have been re-reading Anthony Nutting’s excellent account of the Suez Crisis, No End of a Lesson
, published by Constable in 1967. In 1956, the author was Minister of State at the Foreign Office, a post to which had been appointed by his friend and mentor, Anthony Eden
. Nutting so disagreed with the policy of a Prime Minister he had once much admired that he resigned his post, and thereby ended his own political career. Perhaps this is what drives the candour he displays. A remarkable clarity about how and why foreign policy decisions are made pervades Nutting’s illuminating book.
He depicts Eden in failing health and rapidly losing the surety of touch and diplomatic skill that had made him the golden boy of the Conservative Party as Foreign Secretary under Churchill. Although Nutting does not say so, there are striking parallels between Eden’s condition and that of old Britannia herself at the time.
A charismatic Egyptian officer, born the son of a postman, had deposed the spendthrift and capricious King Farouk of Egypt. Now Nasser was constantly agitating against British influence and control in the lands of the Arabs. In retrospect, this jolly torturer admired to this day by those he tortured was the final rather splendid bloom of real Arab nationalism, a rose that had been sprouting in Britain’s sandy Middle Eastern garden since the days of Colonel Arabi. Unfortunately, but understandably, Eden could see only the thorns and felt he was dealing with a bramble that had to be pruned.
It was Farouk who had denounced the 1936 treaty with Britain, but it was under Nasser that Her Majesty’s forces were finally withdrawn from the canal zone, an event which was portrayed as scuttling away without dignity by various diehard idiots in Eden’s cabinet. Eden, cut by the feeling of lost British prestige, also blamed Nasser for the dismissal of the British commander of Jordan’s military forces, General Glubb, an officer who epitomized Britain’s alliances with the Arabs since the days of Lawrence.
Glubb’s benevolent competence included a disposition to veto young King Hussein’s wishes concerning particular promotions within the army, for instance. It apparently never occurred to him that Hussein no longer saw himself as a Sandhurst cadet, but as the Hashemite Monarch of the Kingdom of Jordan, whose will was not to be so lightly set aside. Although Eden later came to understand that it was Hussein’s personal griefs against Glubb rather than Nasserist manipulation that led to the dismissal, he could not relinquish the idea that Nasser was behind it – or would have been had it not occurred for other reasons. In Eden’s mind, Nasser was becoming somehow to blame for every slip in Britain’s control over the network of alliances that made up Middle East politics at the time, such as the relative failure of the Turkish dominated Baghdad Pact. Nutting doesn’t say so, but this particular alliance with the former masters of the region was in fact as appealing to the Arabs as a German protectorate would have been to the Israelis.
British national prestige became Eden’s major concern, and destroying Nasser an obsession, whatever the consequences for Egypt, the other Arabs and their relationship with Britain. His government was in trouble over the British economy, reserves of gold and dollars had fallen rapidly, and the Cabinet was often under attack from all sides. A dispute with Saudi Arabia over a tiny territory in Oman had further enervated Eden. To make matters worse, his bile-duct had been damaged in an operation, affecting his health, his parliamentary performance and presumably his disposition.
Now that the dismal background has been filled in , I can finally start talking about the real subject of this post, which is not Suez at all, but Cyprus. Here’s what Nutting has to say on the subject:
Eden … wanted a demonstration of strength, an assertion of British power and influence, to raise her battered prestige. Frustrated in the Persian Gulf, he decided to show the mailed fist in Cyprus.
At that particular moment, the Governor of Cyprus, Sir John Harding, was in the throes of discussing the terms of a possible settlement of the island’s future with Archbishop Makarios, the leader of the island’s Greek community … Britain, whose interests in the colony were almost entirely determined by her need for military and air bases which might be threatened by a union with Greece, supported the Turkish case. Having failed to get agreement internationally, the Government had in the early autumn sent Sir John Harding, an acknowledged military authority who had just relinquished the post of C.I.G.S. to try to reach a settlement with Makarios which would give Britain the security of tenure required for her bases.
… terrorist attacks on British troops and installations by the Greek resistance movement, E.O.K.A., which had started the trouble in this island, continued unabated and a State of Emergency had been declared. Whether or not Makarios was directly responsible for these acts of violence, his refusal to condemn them certainly acted as a spur to the perpetrators. … by March it appeared clear that .. the Archbishop was determined to be the sole arbiter of any eventual settlement.
Nobody could feel very happy or sanguine about the situation as it then revealed itself. Yet neither Harding nor the Colonial Secretary … felt that we should abandon hope of an agreement. Not so Eden, who decided that the time had come for the British lion not only to roar at his adversary, but to gobble him up altogether. And so, on March 9, by order of the British Government, Archbishop Makarios was deported from Cyprus to the Seychelles Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Thus for the next year, until saner council prevailed and Makarios was released in March, 1957, the British Government deliberately removed from the scene the one and only man capable of negotiating an agreement on behalf of the four-fifths of the Cypriot population. And it was not until February, 1959, after altogether more than three years of bloodshed amounting in the end to virtual civil war between the Greek and Turkish communities, that Britain was able to extricate herself from an untenable situation, by granting independence to Cyprus which was to be guaranteed by both Greece and Turkey.
The sovereign bases which so concerned Britain at the time are still factors in British policy. Indeed a recent parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee stated that "the importance of the bases and some of the sites to the United Kingdom's national interest and to wider interests was impressed upon us when we visited Cyprus
". The fact that they were originally obtained from the Turks to contain Russian expansionisn, but were, according to Keith Kyle
, never used for military purposes until Suez in 1956 adds a further twist to the tale. In fact, Kyle tells us that "Anti-British sentiments were exacerbated when Britain concluded an agreement with Egypt for the evacuation of forces from the Suez Canal zone and began moving the headquarters of the British Middle East Land and Air Forces to Cyprus
Unlike John Tirnis, author of The Cyprus Conflict
, a rather good website on the subject that contains all sorts of useful documents, I believe that the Greeks were right to reject the Annan plan, and that Europe can and will resolve the situation in terms of its own priorities. British motivations in the matter should be borne in mind when considering any official pronouncements. Perhaps the Government of Cyprus would be wise to reassure Britain that the legal status of the bases is not up for grabs, especially as Britain needs only part of the original acreage for its purposes. Judging from the Select Committee's suddenly discovered willingness to give due importance to the concerns of the Greek Cypriots, there is a chance that, in the next round of negotiations, it will be borne in mind that what was on offer in the Annan plan was exactly what the majority population of the island had always tried to avoid.