Back to Anarchy

<strong>Taken from the New Statesman archive, 18 June 1921</strong>

This article, which gives such

When Eden served his brutal and illegal ultimatum on President Nasser, a shocked and horrified world began desperately to count the consequences. By Wednesday of last week, when Anglo-French bombs began to rain on Egyptian territory, they were seen to be three-fold. The first consequence – which seemed to world opinion the most serious – was that Eden's action had struck a body-blow against the United Nations, and had shaken, if not irreparably damaged, the foundations of collective security and international law. The pathetic figure of Sir Pierson Dixon, fighting back his tears, and blocking successive Russian and American motions by employing a constitutional device whose use we had so often and so vehemently deplored, symbolised the dismay of all who had worked to weld the UN into an instrument of peace.

The second consequence, forecast by all those who combine a knowledge of the Middle East with a willingness to come to terms with the 20th century, was that Eden's action, even if successful in the short-term, would end by destroying Britain's remaining positions and influence in the Middle East. By removing the last lingering Arab doubts that Israel was an instrument of western imperialism, and by confirming the view that British policy, despite superficial changes, remained fundamentally aggressive and rapacious, it would break the spirit of our remaining Arab friends and unite a multi-continental race into an unbroken wall of enmity. Even those who bear heavy responsibility for our past errors were appalled. It is no secret that the two under-secretaries in charge of Middle Eastern affairs at the Foreign Office – who were not consulted about the government's action – despaired at its consequences; and this ominous fact was reinforced by the resignation of Mr. Nutting, the Minister directly responsible for our policy in the area.

Our aggression, then, was immoral; and it was folly. But was it more than that? Was it also a milestone to the ultimate catastrophe? Until last week-end, those who predicted a third consequence of Eden's act – a spreading circle of violence which might end by enveloping the whole world – were few and hesitant. They pointed out that Eden had set in motion a process he might not be able to control and whose final results he could not possibly foresee: into an inflammable area, standing at the cross-roads of the world, he had injected the incalculable spark of violence. But such prophecies were vague, and last week, with the Soviet world silent and shrouded in turmoil, they still seemed remote.

Though the fighting has ceased, the consequences of the attack on Egypt are unfolding. Britain may have been forced to draw back, but the Premier did not withdraw until successive and massive votes in the General Assembly had branded this country as an aggressor and a moral outlaw. Half-hearted compliance with a specific directive – passed by the largest majority in the history of the UN – came only after it had been flouted. And even Mr. Selwyn Lloyd has dropped the pretence that our act of naked force has any shred of legal clothing. In the Middle East itself, the fears and predictions of the critics are proving amply justified. The Arab world is united against us. The Canal is blocked, as General Keightley put it, "from Port Said to Suez." Our pipelines are cut. Our refineries are ablaze. The flow of Middle Eastern oil has dwindled to a trickle. The Gulf is darkened. From Casablanca to Karachi, venom and violence are spilling into the streets. And in Cairo President Nasser still survives, his regime intact, most of his army around him, and with the whole world pleading his cause.

But this, alas, is not all. Eden chose to launch his aggression against Egypt at a moment of crisis in the Communist world. Last week-end, Russia's rulers were staging perhaps the most crucial debate ever held in the Kremlin. The avalanche set in motion by the 20th Congress, spilling over the frontiers of the Satellites, had finally swept away the Communist regime in Budapest. Hungary, bleeding but united, was lurching out of the Soviet world. Was she to be permitted to escape, or was she to be held back by force, and the entire policy of Stalin's heirs – holding out hope, as it did, for peace in our time – to be jerked into blind reverse? By Monday morning, the announcement that Moscow was convening a meeting of the Warsaw powers seemed to indicate that the forces of reason were winning. Then, on Tuesday, came Eden's final ultimatum, followed, on Wednesday, by his bombs. By Friday the obscurantists were once more firmly in control in Moscow. By Sunday night, Hungary was once more plunged into bitter darkness.

Must we then, in addition, lay the murder of Hungary to our charge? We do not know; but in that fateful Kremlin debate, our attack on Egypt, opening, as it did, new vistas of violence and lawlessness, may have tipped the scales. In any case, Eden had deprived us of the right to condemn Russia's brutality. We gave the example; the Russians followed it. Nor is Hungary the only victim. In Bulgaria, in East Germany, in Czechoslovakia and in Rumania, the counsellors of repression are everywhere in triumph. Only in Poland does the new mood survive – and it is a mood tempered by apprehension. The era of hope which followed Stalin's death seems to be drawing to a close. The Iron Curtain has descended again. The Cold War will be resumed.

So we come to the third consequence. Last week it seemed remote. But by Tuesday it overshadowed all the other horrors which Eden's war had conjured up. Russia, desperately anxious to obscure its own crimes in Hungary, threatened intervention in Egypt. America, torn brutally from its elections to the renewed realities of Cold War, countered with a further threat. How serious these menaces were – or are – we cannot say. They may only be notes of warning. But warning notes can lead to ultimatums and ultimatums can lead to war. There is a smell of July, 1914, in the air. As in those hot summer days, the powers are playing diplomatic poker, and the stakes are rising fast. On Tuesday, the Swiss Federal Council, echoing the fears of us all, sent an urgent message to the world: "The threat of a third world war hangs over humanity. Peace can and must be saved."

But how? What can the people of Britain, the innocent instruments of an act which at one point seemed to have jeopardised the future of our race, do to avert the final catastrophe? The answer is plain: they can take the lead. One key to peace lies in London. We have, through our government, committed a crime. But it is in our power to repudiate it and to remove the men responsible. The cease-fire is not enough to repair the evil. We must force the resignation of the Eden government and put in its place one which will will disengage from Egypt and carry out the instruction of the United Nations. We must not hesitate about losing face: we may soon have no face to lose. Only a swift and dramatic action of such a kind can produce the psychological shock required to restore the faith of the world in law and justice, and arrest the fatal chain reaction of violence. We have led the Gadarene swine to the final brink; but we can still take the first and decisive step up the precipitous slope down which we are so swiftly plunging.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: a nation under siege