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

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.