Reviewed: Six Moments of Crisis - Inside British Foreign Policy by Gill Bennett

Brits abroad.

Six Moments of Crisis: Inside British Foreign Policy
Gill Bennett
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £20

Gill Bennett worked as an official historian in Whitehall for over 30 years, including nine as chief historian to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She has selected six critical recent moments when, had a crucial decision of British foreign policy gone the other way, the course of history would have been substantially altered.

At the beginning of the book, Bennett sets out two important points that are often forgotten. She makes clear that under the British system the critical decisions are taken by ministers of the crown, usually, but not always, in cabinet. Nowadays we sometimes forget the primacy of cabinet decision-making in the British system. We are too quick to identify forces from outside that are said to have dictated a particular decision. These forces may be commercial, for example, the interests of the oil industry, or they may be personal, in the form of the overweening dominance of cabinet by the prime minister of the day. Sometimes a prime minister does possess exceptional gifts that may justify him or her treating his cabinet colleagues as underlings. But we are more likely to find ourselves with an Anthony Eden or a Tony Blair, whose instincts, if unchecked by others, lead us into deep trouble.

The second point that Bennett is right to emphasise concerns the sheer pell-mell of modern government. Every now and then there occurs a real crisis, when all ministerial talent is focused on a particular subject; but these are rare occasions, and ministers soon return to finding that the urgent subjects in their red boxes are not always the most important.

Those of us who keep some kind of diary are vividly reminded of this truth when besieged after retirement by eager students of recent history. Once, when cross-examined about a particular ministerial meeting, I consulted my diary – the only entry read: “Judy lost car keys again.” It is worth remembering that on the day in 1789 that the Bastille was stormed, Louis XVI wrote in his diary “Rien”.

The subjects Bennett chooses for analysis are: the decision to send British troops to Korea in July 1950; the decision to use force against Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956; the decision to apply for British membership of the EEC in 1961; the decision to withdraw forces from the east of Suez in 1968; the decision to expel 105 Soviet spies in 1971; and the decision to drive the Argentines from the Falkland Islands in 1982.

The first, second and fourth of these bear on different aspects of the Anglo-American alliance. By the time that the Americans asked the British to join the Korean war, the two most powerful figures in British foreign policy-making were both experienced in handling the alliance and recognised its overriding importance. Ernest Bevin was in hospital, but he and the prime minister Clement Attlee were, from the start, clear what must be done. Their task was to persuade their cabinet colleagues that it must be right to put off their favourite domestic projects in order to remain solid with the Americans.

By this time Bevin had abandoned his earlier belief that Britain’s economic difficulties were temporary. On the contrary, he and Attlee now knew that Britain was exhausted and bankrupt. Nevertheless, they also knew that the British ambassador in Washington, Oliver Franks, was right when he said that to refuse troops for Korea would produce “a prolonged and deep reaction”.

Six years later, the problem took a different form. The question was not whether Britain should follow the United States, but whether the US would tolerate Britain and France launching a military adventure against the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser that was ill-prepared and played into the hands of the Soviet Union. Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan greatly overestimated the effectiveness of their appeals for understanding and help in Washington. Memories of wartime co-operation did not stand a chance when set against the imperatives of the moment.

By 1968, the wheel had turned further against Britain, which by now felt constrained to withdraw from its military positions east of Suez. A major transatlantic row was averted only by the diplomatic skill of Harold Wilson, who produced a last-minute compromise on the delicate question of timing. In 1982 Britain insisted on sending an armada to retake the Falkland Islands, but this time British determination was much stronger than at the time of Suez and, after an initial hesitation on the Americans’ part, allowed Margaret Thatcher her victory. It would have been fascinating if Bennett had felt able to round off the Anglo-American story with an account of how Wilson managed to avoid being dragged into the war in Vietnam. Tony Blair, by contrast, showed no compunction in joining the Americans in the attack on Iraq in 2003.

There are other gaps, especially where the Irish question is concerned. It is unfortunate, for example, that there is no account of the cabinet discussion that followed John Major’s announcement that we had received an authenticated statement from the Provisional IRA that the war was over. However, we need to remind ourselves that Bennett is not attempting a comprehensive account of British foreign policy during a particular period. Rather, she is selecting, almost at random, a number of episodes to which she wishes to draw our attention.

Bennett deliberately keeps her range narrow; not for her the private lives or eccentricities of her different subjects. The result is sometimes dry but overall impressive. This is a portrait of a formerly great power wrestling with decline. Bennett describes accurately the “strong sense of frustration” that gripped British ministers once they realised that Britain could not impose its will on Nasser. “The option of doing nothing, to see whether Nasser would keep the canal open with business as usual was not considered,” she writes. “Yet none of the plans or proposals put forward in the next few months seemed likely to achieve what the cabinet had decided upon.”

Bennett does not examine the outcome, namely the failure of the British, French and Israelis to achieve their objectives. They blundered, not because they were wicked but because they failed to see that such an exercise of power was no longer within their reach. Declining to pass judgement, Bennett concentrates on a portrait of serious men taking serious decisions, in the light of their own previous experience of war and peace.

Douglas Hurd was foreign secretary from 1989-95

Eden with Nasser in 1955. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Chuka Umunna: Why tolerance is not enough

Against the Trumpification of politics.

It’s still spring, yet 2016 already stands out as one of the ugliest years in modern British political history. It was fantastic to see Londoners choosing hope over fear in May, electing Sadiq Khan as our first Muslim mayor. But David Cameron, having shamelessly endorsed Zac Goldsmith’s dog-whistle campaign tactics, owes those young Muslims who have been put off politics by the slurs hurled at Khan an explanation. How does racial profiling and sectarian scaremongering fit into his One Nation vision for Britain?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, one of the best bets to succeed Cameron as our next prime minister, embarrassed Britain on the world stage with a racially charged allusion to Barack Obama’s Kenyan heritage. And my own party has been grappling with a swath of deeply disturbing revelations regarding the attitudes held by some on the left towards Israel and Jewish people. Sowing discord by stigmatising or scapegoating a single faith group or community is profoundly at odds with the British tradition of “tolerance”, but we can’t ignore that this year’s events are part of a rising trend of friction and factionalism.

Last year’s general election should have been a wake-up call. The political and cultural divides between people living in the north and south and urban and rural areas – as well as between working-class and metropolitan sensibilities – appear starker than ever. In May’s devolved elections, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politics became yet more distinct – giving the impression of a kingdom coming apart at the seams. All the while, more and more voices in our national politics seek to pin the blame for the challenges facing our country on a single section of society, whether immigrants, Muslims or another group.

This trend stretches beyond our borders. From Ukip, the French Front National and Austria’s Freedom Party to Podemos in Spain and Italy’s Five Star Movement, new populist parties of the right and left are on the rise across Europe. In the United States, Bernie Sanders is tapping into the energy of Occupy Wall Street, while Donald Trump has emerged as the heir to the Tea Party: a poster boy for division and recrimination.

Trump’s rise should be a warning for us Brits. The New York Times commentator David Brooks has described his success as less indicative of the emergence of a new school of thought, or movement, and more of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Trump’s campaign has tapped into a complex cocktail of grievances, from the loss of manufacturing jobs in a globalised economy to rising inequality and raw anger felt by many white working-class Americans at demographic and cultural changes.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, as I travelled around the country, I was confronted time and time again with the reality that in the UK – just like in the US – people are afraid and angry because the world is changing in ways they fear are beyond their control. Where once they had believed that, if they worked hard, they would get ahead, too many Britons now feel that the system is rigged in favour of those born into opportunity and that those in power have abandoned them to a broken future. What it means to be British seems to have shifted around them, triggering a crisis of solidarity.

We are at a crossroads and may face nothing less than the Trumpification of British politics. In an uncertain and changing world, it is all too easy to imagine that our problems are caused by those who are different from us.

If we wish to follow the fine example set by Londoners on 5 May and choose unity and empathy over division and blame, we must accept that simply “tolerating” one another will no longer do. There is an accusation built into the very word: what you are doing is “other” or “wrong”. As Britain has become more diverse, we have come to know each other less. This makes it harder to understand how people from different walks of life feel about the big issues.

I am a Labour member because I believe, as it says on our membership cards, that, by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more together than we do alone. In order to develop the bonds of trust required for this to become a reality, and for our communities to flourish and our democracy to deliver for everyone, we must build a society in which people from all backgrounds actually get to know one another and lead interconnected lives. In this sense, “One Nation” – the land over which all parties seek purchase – should become more than a platitude. It should become a way of life.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad