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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser