Page 12, 12th May 2006

12th May 2006
Page 12
Page 12, 12th May 2006 — A shattering snub

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Locations: Cairo, Budapest


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A shattering snub

John Jolliffe on the turbulent year that brought about the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising 1956: Power Defied by Peter Unwin, Michael Russell £20 The year 1956 was in some ways a ru more crucial year The year 1956 was in some ways a ru more crucial year for this country than 1914 or 1939. Power was defied in a variety of countries, but for us the most poignant and fascinating case was the nationalisation by President Nasser of the Suez Canal Company, in which the British Government held 45 per cent of the shares. It was the vital artery to the import of oil pe and, since into Europe its creation, it had controlled the route from Britain to her empire and interests in the Far East. Thus Nasser's reaction was a shattering snub to Britain and France, and in due course Eden and Mollet, the British and French prime ministers, decided on a military invasion, secretly, in cahoots with the Israelis. Success depended on American support. In a presidential election year, with a strong groundswell of anti-imperialistic opinion, this was not forthcoming and, although the invasion of the Canal was begun, it was called off half way through. This is not the place to go into the sad details, but they were exceptionally well presented 10 years later by Hugh Thomas in his book The Suez Affair, in which he points out that for Britain it took place "in another world, a world certain to disintegrate, Suez or no Suez, based more on prestige than power, but one to which the previous two or three centuries of imperial story histo had accustomed us". Since we had never anything ything else, it is hardly surprising that this view of the world still prevailed here at that time. Those who remember the events — and you have to be nearly 70 to do so — will feel a strange shock of ` recognition on reading Unwin's account. He had joinedthe Foreign Office on the very day of the nationalisaton of the Canal and thus had a junior ringside seat at what followed. Though he is distinctly ungenerous to Eden, by making no mention of the great diplomatic successes of his earlier years, including the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1954, under which British troops withdrew from the Canal Zone. Nevertheless, younger readers will find here an excellent eye-opener on to a lost world. But it is true to say that had Eden's temperament been different, he could have used the lack of American support as a valid excuse for procrastination, and for continuing the search for a peaceful solution without too great a loss of face. Tragically, however, his sense of outrage, his vanity and impatience drove him on. On top of all that, he was at the time suffering from the effects of three serious operations, and by the time of the withdrawal of British troops in November his temperature would rise to 105 degrees. After our withdrawal, British prestige on the world stage never really recovered. Elsewhere, at the very time when world attention was fixed on Suez, the Hungarians rose heroically, but hopelessly, against their Russian masters, who thought that they had as good a right to control ry Hunga as the British had to control Egypt. Unwin's account of this, though sometimes rather clumsy in style, gains much by his having later twice served in the as Budapest embassy. Although the uprising failed, it lit a beacon which helped to inspire later successful insurrections, and as the dissident Yugoslav Communist MilovanDjilas was to observe, "the wound that the Hungarian Revolution inflicted on Communism can never be healed". It certainly drove all but the most diehard ostriches out of the Communist Party in England. On his second spell in Budapest, Unwin came to know Cardinal Mindszenty, the former Primate of Hungary who was then in sanctuary in the American Embassy, and he even baptised one of Unwin's sons. In view of this, his comments on the heroic cardinal, who ill his day had been imprisoned both by the Nazis and the Communists, are poorly focused and decidedly ungenerous. In the same year, French settlers in Algeria defied the French Prime Minister, and in due course the native Algerians brought French authority to an end. And, on the other side of the Atlantic, the 28-yearold Fidel Castro invaded his native Cuba with a force of 80 men, most of whom were killed by the army of the dictator Batista. Two years later, however, Batista fled to America, and after another six months Castro became President, a position he still holds 50 years later. One way or another, 1956 contained hardly a dull moment. A lighthearted British Council officer in Cairo considered that he supposed "Suez was HMS Pinafore and Hungary was Fidelio," but it was a Fidelio in which the prisoners had to wait nearly another 40 years before finally emerging into the sunlight.

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