The sun was already setting on Britain’s empire and its status as a major player on the world stage when in 1955 a weary and disillusioned Churchill stepped down as prime minister, handing the reins to his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. The following year the final nail in the coffin of Britain’s imperialist aspirations was driven home when catastrophic political misjudgment combined with old- fashioned muscle-flexing in one of the most humiliating fiascos in the country’s history, one whose repercussions would echo through British political life for generations to follow.
The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 proclaiming Egypt a sovereign independent state also allowed Britain to maintain a garrison to protect the Suez Canal, a vital trading route then jointly owned by Britain and France. A phased withdrawal saw the last troops leave in 1956, not a moment too soon for Egypt’s ambitious new leader, Gamel Abdul Nasser, who had recently announced the construction of a great dam on the Nile at Aswan which he hoped would transform his country’s economy. When the USA and Britain reneged on promises of vital finance for the massive project (in part because of American misgivings over an increasing Soviet influence in Egyptian affairs) Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal to secure an alternative source of funds. In retaliation, Britain and France held secret discussions with Egypt’s sworn enemy, Israel, coming up with a strategy, duly executed, whereby Israel attacked Egypt across the Sinai peninsula and thereby gave the European powers a pretext to invade under the guise of a peace-keeping force. On the brink of military success Britain and France were forced into an ignominious withdrawal following United Nations’ condemnation of the action – led by a furious USA which had always preferred a diplomatic solution – and the threat of a Soviet counter-attack.
When: July to November 1956
Where: Suez Canal region, Egypt
Death toll: There were an estimated 650 Egyptian deaths, including civilians. Israeli losses were 189 and Anglo-French forces lost 26.
You should know: Anthony Eden’s decision to call off the British action in Suez was also influenced by considerable popular opposition at home together with the threat of economic meltdown following a run on sterling (and no prospect of a bail-out from the USA).