On 4 November 1956 Aneurin “Nye” Bevan delivered an impassioned speech at a Labour-organised rally in Trafalgar Square condemning the Tory government’s decision to take military action against Egypt during the Suez crisis.
Bevan was famously a versatile, charismatic and rousing public speaker, traits that were on display at this rally, and in a similar speech to the House of Commons a month later. John Selwyn-Lloyd, foreign secretary at the time, described the latter as the greatest ever Commons performance, even though “it was at my expense”.
The rally was attended by 30,000 or more people, in the biggest national demonstration since before the Second World War. Eyewitnesses recall chants of “One, two, three, four! We won’t fight in Eden’s war!” The protest tapped into popular discontent with the war, but in its sheer scale, it has been credited with waking thousands from apathy over the invasion.
Bevan challenged government aggression, accusing the Tories of “a policy of bankruptcy and despair” that would “lead back to chaos, back to anarchy and back to universal destruction”. His criticism of the reasoning behind the war is reminiscent of events surrounding the Iraq war nearly five decades later.
We are stronger than Egypt but there are other countries stronger than us. Are we prepared to accept for ourselves the logic we are applying to Egypt? If nations more powerful than ourselves accept the absence of principle, the anarchistic attitude of Eden and launch bombs on London, what answer have we got, what complaint have we got? If we are going to appeal to force, if force is to be the arbiter to which we appeal, it would at least make common sense to try to make sure beforehand that we have got it, even if you accept that abysmal logic, that decadent point of view.
We are in fact in the position today of having appealed to force in the case of a small nation, where if it is appealed to against us it will result in the destruction of Great Britain, not only as a nation, but as an island containing living men and women. Therefore I say to Anthony, I say to the British government, there is no count at all upon which they can be defended.
They have besmirched the name of Britain. They have made us ashamed of the things of which formerly we were proud. They have offended against every principle of decency and there is only way in which they can even begin to restore their tarnished reputation and that is to get out! Get out! Get out!