London Letter

London Letter

Post-mortem on Suez: a Churchill rebuked

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 31 1959
London Letter

London Letter

Post-mortem on Suez: a Churchill rebuked

BEVERLEY BAXTER January 31 1959

London Letter

Post-mortem on Suez: a Churchill rebuked


There are times when the theatre seems a drab and unconvincing affair compared with the drama of real life. And seldom have I felt that truth more keenly than when I recently attended the opening night of Macbeth at the Old Vic. The actors sw-allowed their words, the midnight hags were like three schoolteachers in a charade, and as for Macbeth himself, he swallowed so many of his words that it is no wonder he seemed to be suffering from violent indigestion.

As ! sat through the interminable affair it was impossible to avoid comparing the production w ith the intense drama of the night before when at Westminster an allstar cast played The Tragedy of Suez with Antony Head as Mercutio. with Randolph Churchill as a malignant offstage Falstaff, and Anthony Eden as an aging Hamlet.

So intense and dramatic was the parliamentary setting that I would not have been surprised to find the ghost of Shakespeare walking on the rain-soaked terrace muttering to himself:

Tis now the very witching time of night.

When churchyards yawn . . .

The fact that I dislike Randolph Churchill does not lessen my ad-

miration for him as a controversial journalist. To be the son of the great Winston is enough to crush almost any man, yet Randolph has made his way on his own steam and his own ability. Despite his famous name he could not now get himself adopted as a Tory candidate even for a hopeless seat, yet as a political commentator he is without a rival in Fleet Street.

Therefore, no one was surprised when Lord Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard recently announced that Randolph had decided to blow the gaff on the Suez affair. His principal target was Sir Anthony Eden who had been prime minister at the time of Suez and whose health gave way under the strain. One might have thought that the younger Churchill might have been restrained by compassion for a man whose health and political career crashed so cruelly but Randolph obviously took the view that in public life no man can escape contumely.

But this drama of Westminster was not concerned solely with the man w ho was prime minister. What about Antony Head who was secretary of state for war and, therefore, responsible for the British plans to attack Egypt and seize the Canal from Nasser's greedy hands?

Why did the Suez campaign stop so soon? “The politicians blew the whistle,” says a general

Here again the theatre invades reality. Antony Head was born to play Mercurio. He is slim, his voice is sheer music, and he is a sentimental satirist. Everything was in his favor when he first entered parliament. On his way to high position in the state he trod a primrose path. He went to Eton, then to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, married the daughter of the Earl of Shaftesbury, and entered parliament in 1945 where he spoke with an attractive ironic melancholy that was immediately and immensely effective.

For the six years that the Socialists were in power he ridiculed them with his sharp pointed wit that dazzled even his victims. Therefore it was a surprise to no one—certainly not to himself— when Sir Winston Churchill appointed him secretary of state for war when the Tories returned to power in 1951.

Thus it came to pass that when Nasser seized the Suez Canal, and the governments of Britain and France decided on aggressive action, it was left to Antony Head as the minister of war to produce the plan which was to strike down Nasser and seize the canal before Russia could intervene.

Invasion, right or wrong

Sir Anthony Eden, as prime minister, had to take supreme responsibility and. as an ex-ofificer in the First World War, he was no amateur in military affairs. Therefore these two old Etonians—Eden and Head—-burned the midnight oil as they perfected their plans.

But Eden had forgotten or had decided to ignore one man. a very important man —-General Eisenhower—who was on the eve of a presidential election.

Knowing Eden as a brilliant tactical politician 1 am convinced that he had decided to present Eisenhower with a fait accompli. Rightly or wrongly Eden believed that the French and the British could go it alone. Once they had seized the canal and overthrown Nasser even America could hardly do anything else but support them.

So there came the famous FrancoBritish aerial swoop with the Israeli forces ready to give support if they were wanted. Nothing stood in the way but a poor, ragged Egyptian Force, yet the invading army stopped short of their objective.

Why? Why? Why?

That was the question which I put to General Keightley, the commander of the British invading force, when he returned to London and 1 met him at a private luncheon. His reply was as complete as it was laconic: “The politicians blew the whistle." He smiled as he uttered the words but there was no humor in his eyes or in his voice.

But as always in armed conflict the casualties are not confined to the men in uniform. The Socialists at Westminster fiercely attacked Prime Minister Eden as a bungler, an enemy of peace and a reckless gambler with human destiny. Aneurin

Bevan w'as comparatively silent but there were Tories as well who thought that Eden had acted recklessly and unforgivably.

Poor Eden! On the night before he flew w'ith his wife to Jamaica to try to recover his broken health he called me over to his table in the members’ dining room. To mock his forthcoming trip to the Caribbean the Daily Mirror had announced a contest that day in which the winners would be given a free aerial journey and a week’s stay at a first-class hotel in Jamaica.

As usual Eden was immaculately dressed, but his clothes hung on him as if he were a skeleton. The fates had nearly finished with him. On his return from Jamaica he looked better but his weary body could not carry the burden any longer. He tendered his resignation to the Queen, and Harold Macmillan was appointed prime minister over the only other possible choice—Rab Butler.

Eden, however, was not the only political casualty. After a period of time Antony Head was thrown to the wolves. The British conscience had to be cleared from the stigma of Suez.

One might have thought that the story could have ended there, and indeed Suez did fade after a time although it must be admitted that the whole misadventure played a psychological part in the subsequent disorders and assassinations in the Middle East.

As far as contemporary politics are concerned Suez was a far-off and almost forgotten chapter in history until the irrepressible Randolph announced that he was writing the biography of Anthony Eden and that it would first appear serially in Lord Beaverbrook's London Evening Standard. Nor should there be any criticism of his lordship in connection with the publication. Randolph is the famous son of a famous father even though many people would prefer the word "notorious" as applied to Churchill J unior.

So the articles duly appeared in the Standard but oddly enough Randolph chose to attack the conduct of the Suez invasion and not its morality. According to him the attack was badly conceived, badly organized and badly carried out. In fact the whole thing stank.

There were immediate and clamorous demands by the Socialists for a parliamentary debate. And since it was on the very eve of the Christmas adjournment, what could be better for the Opposition than to reveal not only the wickedness but the incompetence of the Tory government? Nor can anyone take exception to that. The very word Parliament comes from parler (to speak) and believe me the Socialists w'ere ready to speak very loud and clear. Unfortunately only an hour and a half could be given for the debate, which meant that only the top-liners were likely to be called.

The chamber was crow'ded and there w'as tenseness in the air, yet once more we saw that inherent decency of British politics. The Socialists wanted to score against the government but they did not want to injure the good name of Britain herself. Thus the first Socialist speaker opened with these words;

"1 believe that the truth about Sir Anthony Eden is that he was and remains an honorable man. What Randolph Churchill wrote about him is that he did not know but should have known. Sir Anthony gave great service to his country and all of us send him a message of hope that his health will be restored and his spirits regained. We should clear the good name of Sir Anthony Eden, but that is only part of the story. The essential thing is to clear the name of this country because from all that is written about this appalling story people in foreign countries do not draw a distinction between the Conservative Party and the l abor Party. What they talk about is Britain."

It was so fair and sporting an opening to the debate that some of the scowls began to disappear; but suddenly the element of high drama emerged. Antony Head, the dismissed secretary of state for war, rose to make the opening speech from the Tory benches.

He had hardly been on his feet for more than three minutes when he brought

in Randolph’s name by indirect reference;

“1 should say that I have been approached by several newspapers to write or to say something about the controversy which has arisen around this operation, but I believe that the proper place to say anything is in this House and not in a newspaper.”

The Tories cheered very loudly at this thrust into the vitals of Randolph but it was more effective than logical. Randolph was in parliament for a time but today no constituency would be likely to adopt him. Therefore he has no other platform but the press.

Then Head got down to the origin of the Suez affair and the previous events which forced it to take the character that we all know. In clear, easy logic he reminded (he House how Britain was persuaded to give up the Suez Canal and how our garrison was transferred to Cyprus, f rom the British evacuation of Egypt to the stealing of the Canal by the Egyptians was an inevitable step. The only question would be the timing.

Then he dealt with the subsequent attack on Suez which, after all. was the substance of the debate. The first task

of the RAF was to eliminate the Egyptian air force. That, he told the House, was brilliantly carried out.

Then he turned to. the next item of military attack—an assault on Port Said with minimum damage. ”1 went to see General Keightley, not for the reasons reported by that very fine, imaginative writer, Mr. Randolph Churchill — who can he bracketed with Edgar Allan Poe for imagination—but to see whether the airborne drop could be made earlier, to overcome the beach defences and eliminate the naval bombardment which would inevitably cause more destruction at Port Said. That was done and the airborne drop went absolutely without a hitch anil was one hundred percent successful. The landing went in exactly on time and the objective was seized as planned. The follow-up also went as planned. The debouching from the bottleneck of Port Said was going according to plan . .

Antony Head paused for a moment. Then in slow, grim words he said, “when the operation was stopped."

Seldom in my long experience of the theatre had I -seen an audience more tense or motionless. Here at last was

the truth, and nothing but the truth. As 1 learned at the lime of the crisis. President Eisenhower, on the eve of his reelection. had forced Eden to call a halt. I shall not dwell upon what the president said or how he said it but it had little relation to the genial president and happy golfer.

Antony Head, although nearing his close, was not yet finished with Randolph Churchill. He had come to the last few words of his speech and there was not a movement or sound in the chamber as. quietly and without emphasis, he said: "I believe that history, looking back, will regard this episode in Mr. Randolph Churchill’s journalistic career as a disgrace to the proud name that he bears. I believe that what he has said about our forces and the incompetence and incapacity of the British power to act will he condemned, but I know, also, that nothing will be condemned more than his attack on Sir Anthony Eden himself.”

There was an angry roar of approval from the Tory benches and not a sound of protest from the Socialists.

The world-wide Suez smear had been answered at last. ★