Dominic Sandbrook : 1956 ... The year that changed the world (Suez & Hungary)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dominic Sandbrook is the author of Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles, published in paperback by Abacus, and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, published by Little, Brown]

October 1956 was a good time to be young. After years of gloomy austerity, Britain was gradually awakening to the glorious possibilities of postwar affluence, and it was as though a Technicolor rainbow had suddenly lit up a slate-grey sky. If you had the money, you might spend your evenings in one of the new 'expresso' bars in the south of England, where duffel-coated students huddled around coffees and cigarettes. You might be reading the latest novel by Kingsley Amis, or perhaps Colin Wilson's existentialist tract The Outsider. You might have just bought the latest single by that new American singer, Elvis Presley, or you might be looking forward to that new film, Rock Around the Clock.

You knew that things were changing: your parents had just bought a new car, their first washing machine, their first television. Blackpool this summer had been a lot of fun. The prospect of National Service was a pain, but at least you knew there was a good job waiting for you when you finished. All in all, life wasn't too bad - and then you turned on the radio, and listened with horror to the news from Budapest and Suez.

Half a century on, the events of October and November 1956 still have an irresistible narrative momentum. The tragedy of the Hungarian revolution and the disgrace of the Suez Crisis were closely intertwined from the very beginning, jostling for space on newspaper front pages, feeding off one another so that the excitement escalated day by day. The sheer pace and complexity of events, as well as the terrible human anguish involved, left a deep impression on the British public and changed the history and image of this very newspaper. But the lasting significance of October 1956 went well beyond the confines of The Observer. It was one of those moments, like August 1914, November 1989 or September 2001, when history hangs in the balance - and afterwards, things are never the same again.

It was exactly 50 years ago today that Sir Anthony Eden's Conservative government took the fateful step that would lead to humiliation at Suez. On 22 October 1956 the Foreign Secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, announced that thanks to a heavy cold, he was cancelling all his engagements. Away from the cameras, he was driven to a secluded RAF airbase and flown to France. There, in a villa in the Parisian suburb of Sevres, he sat down with the French and Israeli prime ministers to plan the most controversial military operation of the 20th century.

Under the deal struck at Sevres, Israel pledged to invade Egypt on 29 October. After demanding a ceasefire, Britain and France would then intervene themselves, ostensibly as peacemakers, but in reality to seize the Suez Canal and topple the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was a naked, dishonourable, illegal conspiracy and they knew it. 'I think champagne was produced,' one British negotiator recalled, 'but there was little sparkle in the atmosphere.'

Why on earth was Lloyd involved in such a crooked scheme? The answer lies in the slow decline of British imperial power, and specifically in the tortured relationship between Britain and Egypt. Egypt had been formally independent since 1922, but it was still a reluctant host to thousands of British soldiers guarding the prize possession of the Suez Canal, the vital waterway linking Europe, Africa and the Middle East. To the Egyptians, the British 'canal zone' was a hated symbol of imperialist oppression. To the British, and especially to the dapper, insecure Anthony Eden, it was a crucial asset in the Cold War. When Nasser, Egypt's charismatic populist dictator, announced the immediate nationalisation of the canal in July 1956, Eden saw it as an intolerable affront to Britain's shaky international prestige....

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