It is 1956 and all that again in Westminster
The Establishment may be having a wobble, but things could be much worse
It hasn’t been this bad since the Suez Crisis. That is what some are saying in Westminster. What we still call the Establishment is divided and demoralised, awaiting “clarity” on Brexit. Britain is arguably involved in another international escapade which is being executed incompetently and with insufficient vigour or realism.
There are those who hope, somewhat ungallantly, that the Prime Minister might resign due to ill health, like her predecessor Sir Anthony Eden after the botched Anglo-French-Israeli attempt to reclaim the Suez Canal. The papers are full of treacherous speculation.
As in 1956 those in positions of leadership in politics, in business and even charities are doubly nervous because of changes in the media. They have some sympathy for Theresa May. Who will the media mob turn on next, they ask? Today, it is social media; in 1950s it was television.
Eden was overwhelmed by a censorious global media firestorm. According to the UN, by 1960 there were 56m television sets in the United States and 11m in the United Kingdom, twice the number five years before. The end of Empire was broadcast live on the CBS Evening News and at home on ITN and on BBC News.
60 Tory rebels
In the 1950s, a group of some 60 Tory backbenchers called the Suez Group (sound familiar?), was founded, whose activities were animated when Britain negotiated a withdrawal from the international Canal Zone, which the British Government part-owned and administered.
Eden has since been represented as an Imperial dinosaur, but actually his policy was organised withdrawal from Empire, leaving behind a string of bases (including in Suez), some hopefully friendly governments and that amorphous thing traditionally prized above all else by the British Establishment: “influence”.
But Eden was at the beck and call of the Suez Group, and Sir Winston Churchill, who made way for him as Prime Minister in 1955, was their idol. As ever, Churchill’s policy was to never to surrender. On the other side was the pro-Soviet and anti-Western President Nasser of Egypt who nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956. There was widespread indignation in Britain and in France and a fear that trade with Asia would be cut off.
The role of the media was to argue for resolute action when the Suez Canal was nationalised, but as the affair unfolded it dramatically turned on the Government until only the Daily Express (circulation, 4 million copies a day) supported Eden.
The Treasury and the Bank of England don’t like it
The Treasury and the Bank of England were both against military action by Britain and France without American support. Although the economy was recovering from the war and unemployment was at a record low, the pound was fixed to the dollar at $2.80. The fear was it would not survive a speculative attack.
The economic situation was exacerbated by the fact that half our oil supplies came through the Suez Canal (as did much of our goods trade). Traffic was blocked and the oil price went through the roof. Petrol rationing was introduced. Many ex-colonial countries and corporates had sterling deposits which they began to withdraw from London and soon the Bank of England’s foreign exchange reserves started to dwindle.
The IMF found a role
The International Monetary Fund likes to claim that Autumn 1956 was its baptism of fire, the first time it provided emergency lending. Initially, the Americans (who had always opposed colonialism and saw the British and French as playing into Russian hands) blocked a loan to support sterling. This was the proximate reason why Britain and France halted military action in November 1956. They had sent their air forces, a naval task force and paratroopers to the Canal, supposedly to prevent Israel and Egypt from fighting each other. This was a ruse.
Gaitskell was no Corbyn
However, the comparison between now and 1956 has its limits and should not be taken too far. Eden had in fact just won an election the previous year handsomely, with a majority of 60 seats and a majority of the popular vote. A change of party leader did not bring with it the risk of a collapse of the Government and letting in a Jeremy Corbyn-style figure. The Labour leader was Hugh Gaitskell, a charismatic moderate who played both the press and international opinion skilfully.
The stakes are much smaller now too. Eden lying to Parliament about the covert agreement with France and Israel to intervene is surely worse in magnitude than the infamous “£350m for the NHS” claim. No military action is in prospect today; nor isolation at the United Nations; nor a bailout from the IMF. And President Trump publicly supports Brexit, whereas Eisenhower opposed the Suez campaign. In other words, this time round a sensible outcome should theoretically be possible to negotiate, at some point, as long as we take a global approach and work to keep international opinion on side (not much sign of that).
Markets don’t like weak governments
That said, the parallels are instructive. Markets do not like weak governments and it is noticeable that the Government’s recent travails have left the FTSE 100 underperforming global markets. It is also remarkable that the British economy has so far withstood the constantly negative outpourings of the financial press, business lobby groups etc. One wonders how long it can do so. The construction industry PMI, for instance, last month showed activity is flatlining and new housebuilding has gone off a cliff.
As 1956 turned to 1957, the front runner to replace Eden was actually RAB Butler. But Harold Macmillan, the cunning chancellor, was the person who was surprisingly supported by most of his colleagues to be Prime Minister. Macmillan had been pro-military action but then changed his mind after the Americans failed to support it.
Who is Macmillan now? My guess, for what it is worth, is Michael Gove. He may be the Harold Macmillan of Brexit, the only man with the attention to detail and ability to appeal to both sides of the Conservative party.
A diplomatic resignation
Macmillan had a reputation for deviousness and subsequently noted that if Eden had not resigned due to ill health, a “diplomatic resignation” might have been required.
A “Theresa May resigns through ill-health” scenario might be cowardly, but it is convenient for some. A resignation on health grounds, accompanied by some liberal dollops of spin and hypocrisy, would avoid a vote of no confidence among Conservative MPs. A prolonged leadership election in which Tory members can vote might also be avoided, to be replaced by a coronation. There is one issue: public support for Mrs May is deeper outside the Westminster bubble than inside it. Sometimes it seems her critics, rather than she, are having a wobble.
Macmillan leads a recovery
Macmillan actually recovered well from the Suez debacle. Perhaps helped by a positive relationship with President John F Kennedy, he adapted to the requirements of television. He actually accelerated the withdrawal from Empire and ostentatiously ordered the Polaris independent nuclear deterrent. He rebuilt the “special relationship” with America. He went on to win the 1959 election with a 100 seat majority accompanied by the soundbite “we have never had it so good”, before coming unstuck himself four years later.
Until the Vietnam War and oil crises threw the West off course, the 1960s were a time of relative social and economic idyll. Macmillan re-oriented Britain towards membership of the European Economic Community – at the time, a trade partnership – as a new anchor for British foreign policy. Which takes us back to where we are today. Who has the strength and vision to re-anchor Britain now? We will have to wait and see and in the meantime console ourselves with the ultimate lesson from the Suez Crisis: things could be a whole lot worse.