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

Umaar Kazmi
Show Hide image

“They should be on bended knee apologising”: Chris Williamson warns Corbynsceptic Labour MPs

The MP for Derby North on his return to Parliament, why Labour won in marginal seats, and how party unity could have led to a Labour government.

At 5am on election morning, Chris Williamson was ceremonially tearing up some binbags. Two dustbin liners had been taped over the gold and green “Chris Williamson MP” sign on his Derby North constituency office since 2015. When it was announced that he’d won England’s most marginal constituency back from the Tories, he headed down to the old office with his team, and they tore the binbags down, dust raining upon them.

“Those black bin liners taped round were like a reminder whenever you glanced up that, one day, it’d be nice to pull that off,” he grins. In his two years away from the Commons, having been beaten by 41 votes last election, Williamson had been using the office as an advice centre.

Before then, the former bricklayer had represented the Midlands constituency from 2010 to 2015, having served as a local councillor – and twice as council leader – for two decades.


All photos: Umaar Kazmi​

Now he’s back, and squatting in a vegan-friendly café along the river from Parliament as he waits to be given an office. His signature flatcap sits on the table beside a glass of sparkling water.

“I’m not a fan of that place anyway, really, it’s horrible and oppressive, and not really fit for purpose,” he says. “That’s the slight downside. It goes with the territory I suppose. If we could move out of Westminster, that would be nice – somewhere like Birmingham or Manchester or Derby even – the centre of the country, isn’t it?”

“New Labour’s dead, buried and finished”

Perhaps this distaste for the bubble is to be expected, as Williamson is an ardent Corbynite. I followed him on the campaign trail before the election, and he was championing Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and leadership on every doorstep. It seemed a rather brave move among many undecided voters at the time, but has now been vindicated. You can almost tell from his trainers, crumpled polo shirt and contended expression that Williamson is supremely comfortable in the most left-wing Labour party since he became an MP.

“New Labour’s dead,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “No doubt about that. It’s dead, buried and finished. It's a regrettable chapter in our history. Historians will think ‘my God, what were they doing?!’” he cries.

Williamson believes he won due to Jeremy Corbyn’s character, the manifesto, a “fantastic” local campaign, and an “outstanding” national campaign. He thanks Momentum activists rallying so many people that they often had 20 teams canvassing simultaneously in his seat. And he praises an online campaign that targeted different demographics – Ukip voters in particular would mention his videos.

“If they’d been more supportive then we’d have got over the line”

“We targeted some elements of our campaign to specific cohorts,” he says. “For example, we did a message online to people who had supported Ukip previously about how a Labour government would genuinely take back control, take on the corporations, bring back the utilities into public ownership – rather than controlled by international, global corporations many of which are ripping us off.”

Williamson adds that young people were enthused by the pledges to scrap tuition fees, abolish zero-hours contracts and raise the minimum wage. He also saw Tory voters switch, attracted by a policy programme that he describes as “common sense” rather than radical.

He admits that people warned him to “disassociate yourself from Jeremy if you’re going to win” when he began campaigning. But he tells me he would “have sooner lost than gone down that road”.

But he has strong words for those who were more sceptical, saying they “let down their members” and lamenting that “if they’d been more supportive over the intervening period, then we’d have probably got over the line”.

Williamson calls on all the Corbynsceptic MPs to apologise: “They should be down on their bended knees and apologising, in fact. Not just to Jeremy but to the entire Labour movement.”

However, he believes his party is “more united” now than it has been for the 41 years he’s been a member, and is happy to “move on” – expressing his gratitude for how much warmth he’s received from his MP colleagues, “given how critical I’ve been of them!”

It may be Chris Williamson’s time in the sun – or the “sunshine of socialism” as he puts it, quoting Keir Hardie – but he does have jitters about his majority. It is 2,015 – the digits matching the election year when he was defeated by the Tories. “It’s a reminder that we lost then!” he laughs.

> Now read Anoosh on the campaign trail in Derby North with Chris Williamson

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496