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
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.