This incident badly damaged Britain’s standing on the international stage as Britain launched an invasion – and then was forced to back down. It also led to the downfall of Conservative Prime Minister Anthony Eden (played by Jeremy Northam in The Crown).
The Suez Crisis began when Israel invaded Egypt in 1956, quickly followed by the United Kingdom and France when a public ultimatum for a ceasefire was apparently ignored. However, it later emerged that the Israeli invasion and the Anglo-French follow-up attack had been orchestrated and coordinated beforehand by all three countries.
The three allies wanted to regain Western control of the Suez Canal and subdue Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
But after fighting began, political pressure from the US, Soviet Union and United Nations forced all three invaders to withdraw. The UK government was humiliated and Nasser came away even stronger.
The nine-day conflict was a total failure.
Why did Britain invade – and who was Egyptian President Nasser?
General Nasser (played in The Crown by Amir Boutrous) led the overthrow of the monarchy in Egypt in 1952 and introduced major land reforms, officially becoming President in 1956. He rose to power at a time of anti-Western feeling in Egypt (particularly with the creation of Israel) and promised to liberate the country from British imperialist influence.
In a bold move, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, the artificial channel through Egypt connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea – and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
This was viewed as completely unacceptable by the British and French, who relied on the trade route to reach their empires and transport an increasingly important resource: oil.
In the months after the nationalisation, a secret plan was hatched. Two French officials proposed a solution to Eden: could Israel be persuaded to invade for its own reasons?
Then Britain and France could intervene, posing as peacekeepers who could command both forces to withdraw from the canal, leaving it open for them to regain control and destabilise Nasser.
Did the Queen oppose the Suez invasion?
In an interview in 1976, shortly before his death, Eden commented that he “would not claim she was pro-Suez” – prime ministers and monarchs are supposed to keep their discussions strictly private, so this is a rare insight.
We do know, from documents discovered in 1994, that special “bulletins” on operations and intelligence were prepared for the Queen up to twice a day in November 1956. She remains officially the Head of the Armed Forces.
One of her private secretaries, Lord Charteris, said in a 1994 Channel 4 documentary called What Has Become Of Us that Suez was a matter which “gave the Queen a great deal of concern,” adding: “She was personally worried about it … I think it was the basic dishonesty of the whole thing [that] was a trouble.”
Was Prime Minister Anthony Eden told about Suez while giving a speech at Eton?
In The Crown we see the Prime Minister addressing pupils at his old school, Eton, when his aides rush in to break the news. All his pride is punctured as he faces this troubling development.
However, this appears to be showrunner Peter Morgan’s invention: Eden was, in fact, hosting a dinner for King Feisal II of Iraq and his Prime Minister when he was told. Everyone around him immediately urged him to strike back with force.
Why did Suez go wrong?
Anthony Eden and the Conservative Party saw Nasser as an aggressive threat who must be stopped. Tolerating his leadership was compared to the pre-war Appeasement of Hitler, and the majority of the British people initially supported the use of military force. But things quickly went sour.
The French and British governments had badly misjudged the international mood. Despite the secret scheme, it was obvious that Britain and France were not impartial in their intervention, and the timing was suspicious.
US President Eisenhower strongly opposed the invasion and the United Nations was not best pleased, either. Coming in the middle of the Cold War, it threatened to upset the balance of power in the region. The US started actively blocking the UK’s attempt to stabilise the pound.
Barely more than a week after the invasion began, it was halted, damaging British credibility and reducing its status as a world power.
Did Anthony Eden have to resign because of Suez – and was he really ill?
Anthony Eden was the successor to Sir Winston Churchill and became Prime Minister in 1955. He had gained fame as an opponent of Appeasement in 1938 and served in the war cabinet, but he will forever be remembered for the disastrous Suez Crisis.
Two months after the Crisis, Eden resigned as Prime Minister on grounds of “ill health”. However, he was widely suspected of having misled the House of Commons about the collusion between Britain, France and Israel to justify the invasion, making his position almost untenable anyway.
After damage to his bile duct during surgery 1953, Eden suffered from infections, biliary obstruction and liver failure as well as severe abdominal pain. The Prime Minister travelled to Jamaica in November 1956 for the sake of his health, leaving his Cabinet to deal with the crisis.
During his absence from London, Chancellor Harold Macmillan started a plot to replace him. The Prime Minister returned to the UK and struggled on through December, but at Christmas he became feverish. He finally resigned on 9th January 1957.
There is some dispute over how ill Eden really was, or whether his illness was merely a convenient way out. He immediately went on holiday in New Zealand and lived another 20 years.
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