Evidence that it was really prestige that drove Churchill can be seen as late as January 1954 when he attempted to slow the progress of negotiations with the Egyptians which would result in the withdrawal of troops. It was only nine months before the Canal Base Agreement was signed and the Prime Minister stresses to Eden that:
There is no doubt that an agreement on the lines we propose will not only be ‘to our military disadvantage’ but also that very reason most injurious to our prestige.
Furthermore, Louis supports the contention that the maintenance of Britain’s prestige was the true motive behind Churchill delaying negotiations with the Egyptians by referring to how Churchill repeatedly stated that withdrawing troops from the Canal Base was ‘another stage in the policy of scuttle which began in India and ended in Abadan’. This was in reference to Atlee’s Labour government before Churchill was Prime Minister. As the leader of the opposition, Churchill had often accused Atlee’s governments’ policy to withdraw troops from Egypt as being ‘dead-level scuttle’. This demonstrates Churchill’s concern for the need to maintain Britain’s international reputation.
Churchill was not the only politician who was concerned about how the recent developments between British policy makers and the Egyptian government from 1952 would affect Britain’s prestige. Many far right backbenchers of Churchill’s own party, led by Captain Charles Waterhouse, were known as the ‘Suez rebels’ for their public outcry against the government when withdrawal of troops from the Suez Canal Base seemed to be an increasing reality.Evidence of these far right rebels putting pressure on policy makers who were negotiating with Egypt can be seen in a letter from Lord Hankey to Eden in 1953. The letter is a personal plea from Lord Hankey to Eden and addresses the ‘defeatism and flabbyism in our policy in Egypt’.Throughout the document, Hankey repeatedly voices how the impending evacuation of the British forces from the Suez Canal Base makes him ‘anxious, for patriotic reasons’ and how ‘operation scuttle’ will ‘shatter what remains of British prestige throughout the world’.He outlines the potential risks of withdrawing military personnel from the Suez Canal by claiming that ‘strikes’, and ‘Canal personnel’ will be at the mercy of the Egyptian government.
However, it should be noted that the credibility of this letter in having an influence on Eden in delaying the withdrawal of troops from Egypt needs to be questioned. There is no doubt that in this document Hankey is unashamedly claiming that ‘prestige is of great importance’ and a factor that should be considered before the evacuation of troops. But within this document Hankey’s points are repeatedly criticised by Sir J Bowker, who was Assistant Undersecretary of State in the Middle East Department. In the margins he makes comments about Hankey’s argument such as ‘And their presence there makes these strikes more likely!’ or ‘Silly’. Furthermore, even though Lord Hankey was at the time director of the Suez Canal Company, he was not a key player in making decisions of policy with the Egyptian government. The fact that Hankey was writing to Eden illustrates how important the Foreign Secretary was in having the final say on policy. Eden’s reply to Lord Hankey shows how by 1953 the evacuation of British troops from the Suez had been finalised by firmly stating that it was ‘not at all fair to write down as defeatism and flabbiness the reasons which have led us to adopt this policy in regard to Egypt’. Eden sums up by stating that changes in Britain’s position in the world called for ‘new times, new methods’.
By 1953, Eden, in agreeing with the position of others, such as the British military, had decided to negotiate with the Egyptians on withdrawing troops from the Suez Canal. This was because Eden, like the US, was worried about alienating the Egyptian nationalists so much that they would turn to the Soviet Union. Even though Churchill never publicly endorsed the rebel backbenchers from his party, he did so secretly. There is more evidence of Churchill showing that he was motivated by the need to maintain Britain’s prestige to the bitter end. This can be seen in how the Prime Minister sent Robert Hankey, grandson of Lord Hankey, from the Foreign Office to Egypt ordering him to be a ‘patient sulky pig’. However, even Robert Hankey began to see the other side of the case by stating that the Egyptian ‘leaders have a standard of integrity’.
The final blow for Churchill came from General Sir Brian Robertson, Commander-in-Chief of the British Middle East land forces. He was greatly respected by Churchill who made him, from April1953, principal military representative to discuss issues of the Canal Zone with the Egyptians. General Robertson concluded that the Suez Base was becoming strategically obsolete and that the British forces should be deployed elsewhere. This, combined with his failing to persuade Eisenhower to provide US military assistance to hold the Canal Zone, made Churchill finally accept Eden’s policy to negotiate with the Egyptians. Even though Eden eventually persuaded his doubters that it would be better for Britain’s interests to withdraw their troops from the Canal Base, there is no doubt that Eden had been put under huge pressure in pursuing this policy. This is summarised by Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh:
He had been long subjected to the continuous pressure from his party. If anyone was potty it was the Suez Group of Tories, the Churchill entourage, who for years had been jeering at Eden as a scuttler.
In conclusion, before Churchill became Prime Minister, he and the senior military establishment, motivated by maintaining Britain’s prestige, prevented negotiations with the Egyptian government from progressing. Under the false pretence of military necessity they convinced British Policy makers that it was inadvisable to withdraw troops from the Suez Canal base. From 1952 onwards, we can see a shift in thought from the British military and the US in that it would be strategically better to re-enter negotiations with the Egyptians as Britain, and the West, could lose influence in the whole of the Middle East if relations with Egypt deteriorated further. The likes of Eden listened to this advice but others, like Churchill, were stubborn about changing their ideas. Still motivated by the desire to maintain Britain’s prestige as a world power, Churchill delayed the progress of negotiations with Egypt despite Eden’s, the British military’s, and the US’s advice. It was prestige, not military necessity that was the true reason why the dispute about withdrawing troops from the Suez Canal Base between British policymakers and the Egyptian government lasted from until 1954.
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