It’s a fairly safe bet that a career in politics was to some degree easier in the ’50s than it is today. For one thing, the statesmen and -women of yesteryear could count on a good deal more deference from the press and media than in our times. Such was the case sixty years ago when an apparently seamless palace coup saw the replacement of one British prime minister with another.
In almost every poll of the twenty British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century, Sir Anthony Eden has ranked last, and since he started a totally unnecessary war in the Middle East that was so transparently not the “peace-keeping” operation that he pretended it was, it’s not hard to fathom why. Smarting from Egyptian president Gamal Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (formerly owned by a UK-French private firm) in July 1956, Eden’s government hatched a plot with the French and Israeli governments to take it back: Israel would invade the Sinai peninsula, and the British and French would issue an ultimatum to both sides calling on their mutual withdrawal from the canal in order to protect the waterway. Right from the outset a rat was immediately smelled by virtually everyone: it is, after all, an unusual ultimatum to both sides that’s then followed by bombing just one side – and the the country that’s been invaded, at that. Not until 1987, with the release of official papers under the Thirty-Year Rule, would the British establishment formally admit what had been obvious to most for years – and by that time Eden was conveniently dead and so escaped the opprobrium.
President Dwight D Eisenhower of the United States (and most of the Commonwealth leaders) twigged what was going on straight away, and Ike imposed an embargo on sterling unless the British and French pulled out of Egypt. An actual peacekeeping force, from the UN (and it was the world’s very first, and conceived by the Canadian diplomat and future prime minister Lester B Pearson), secured Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai the following year.
It wasn’t just that Eden had started a war behind the Americans’ back – the head honchos in the US government had other, more personal reasons to dislike him, as Stephen Haseler explains in his 2012 book The Grand Delusion:
Reportedly [Eden] tended to patronise President Eisenhower – partly because “Ike” was “no gentleman” but also because during the war the American president had, technically at least, been below him in the allied hierarchy. He got on even less well with the new American secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. This antipathy was mutual: Dulles disliked what he considered to be Eden’s contrived old-world good manners and was also irritated by Eden’s “fey” ways, such as his constant use of the term “my dear” in addressing men; Eden hated Dulles’s new world tactile over-familiarity.
So, how did the British make amends for this monumental and humiliating cock-up? By replacing Eden with one of his key allies in starting the Suez war in the first place. On 9 January 1957 Eden quit as prime minister, ostensibly on health grounds. No 10 Downing Street’s new occupant was Eden’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, who had been as gung-ho for war as his boss, writing on 8 August the previous year that ‘It’s the Liberal intellectual who is always against his country.’ Despite his close association with the Suez war, however, this wasn’t enough to stop Macmillan being summoned by the Queen to form a government (without having called a general election, of course): his better relations with backbenchers than his main rival Rab Butler were supposedly the main reason. Additionally, this was the age of the deferential media, when the default question for many a journalist would be ‘So, do you have anything else to say the nation, minister?’
Thereafter, although the Suez war had been an extremely costly mistake that had sent shockwaves across the world and reflected very badly on the UK, it left little in the way of lasting damage to the politicians concerned. Still, lessons had been learned, the Establishment were keen to assure the critics. No British government, surely, would ever be so stupid as to start an unnecessary Middle East war ever again…