Monday, January 11, 2021

From Suez to the Falklands - Part 1

The most intensely creative and culturally explosive era of British popular culture, and therefore Western popular culture, was bounded by a pair of amphibious military operations that had enormous global and domestic political consequences. In fact, the impetus for the dramatic outburst of British pop culture was given by the first of these military adventures, and the most serious blow to its vitality was delivered by the second.

Operation Musketeer was launched on 31st October 1956 by the Anglo-French naval Task Force 345. two days subsequent to an allied Israeli incursion into Egypt across the Sinai Desert. The purpose of this combined land and sea assault was to seize Port Said at the northern end of the canal and its surrounding airfields and military installations, thereby returning the Suez Canal to French and British control following its nationalisation by the Egyptian president, Gabal Abdel Nassar, three months previously. Although sometimes erroneously described as a "military disaster", Musketeer was in purely military terms an almost clinically successful operation that proceeded like clockwork, a product not only of the accumulated experience of the British, French and Israeli forces, but also of the comparative weakness of the Egyptian army. However, it would be the diplomatic context within which Musketeer was launched that would prove its undoing.

The build up to Suez from the British perspective was characterised by two factors that the Conservative government of Anthony Eden considered vital to its eventual success. The first was to garner approval for its execution from the newly dominant Western power, the United States of America, and the second was to convince a deeply sceptical British public of its necessity. The possibility of a misunderstanding on all sides was intensified by the byzantine complexities of the local situation, and the extraordinary dexterity of Nassar in bluffing and manipulating the multifarious forces involved. These included the intense rivalry between the various Arab states to achieve regional dominance, the increasingly nationalistic demands of the local Arab populations, and the apparent expansionist aims of the newly created Jewish state of Israel. External to these factors were the desire of the former imperial powers to retain their influence, the strategy of the Soviets to increase their influence in the region, and the resulting fear on the part of the Americans of it falling under communist influence, or even succumbing to Soviet occupation.

The latter factor was the most critical to Anglo-French intentions, as it meant that the Americans were more interested in anchoring the Egyptians within the pro-Western sphere of the developing Cold War against the Soviet bloc than they were in shoring up the colonial interests of the British and French. A series of diplomatic initiatives were therefore instigated in which the major national users of the canal convened to discuss whether the canal could be placed under international control rather than be subject to continued Egyptian sovereignty. Neither Britain nor France took these discussions particularly seriously and began planning for an intervention in earnest, these being joined by Israel, who had become alarmed by the build up of the Egyptian army with weapons supplied by the Warsw Pact. In discussions with the US President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold MacMillan, had somehow managed to misinterpret Eisenhower's clear indication that the Americans would oppose any attempt to seize the canal by force, with both MacMillan and Eden convincing themselves that they would come round to an Anglo-French intervention if it were delivered as a fait accompli.

The domestic opposition to any military intervention was also being drastically underestimated, with public opinion being distinctly charry, and much influential opinion, especially within the Labour Party, being distinctly hostile. The outbreak of hostilities would see a flurry of denunciations being submitted to influential periodicals, and anti-war protests erupt nationwide. Indeed, a demonstration at Trafalgar Square, featuring a scalding condemnation delivered by the Labour parliamentarian Aneurin Bevan, would even lead to an attempt to storm 10 Downing Street. However, the unprecedented intensity of the domestic objections paled against those of the Americans, who prevented the British Government, whose monetary reserves were quickly depleting, from receiving assistance from the International Monetary Fund, while threatening to sell the US Government's sterling bond holdings. Succumbing to the pressure, Anthony Eden duly announced a ceasefire on the 6th November, without having consulting his French and Israeli allies. The British and French forces, despite having come close to securing the entire canal, would consequently withdraw over the following month in favour of a United Nations peacekeeping force, with the Egyptian ownership of the canal now being firmly secured. The common wisdom of the era would subsequently declare that Operation Muskateer had been an anachronism, a peerless example of a pair of unreformed colonial powers throwing their weight around in ignorance of their own diminished stature.

But was this correct? In hindsight, the Suez affair was a very curious one with particular regard to the British contribution. Despite providing the bulk of the forces for the operation, especially the naval elements, Britain proved to be the weakest willed of all the protagonists. Both the French and the Israelis were prepared to sit out the international pressure, and indeed the French, who were far more clear sighted about the likely response of the Americans, had previously secured international credit lines especially to resist the expected US financial pressure. If Operation Musketeer was essentially a gamble, a bluff to retain international status and prestige, the British ruling class had been suspiciously quick to fold. Whereas the French, disillusioned with the unanticipated timidity of their British allies, would turn away from the USA and invest in their Continental project, the European Economic Community, the British would submissively draw themselves further into the American orbit. There is a sense that the failure at Suez was actually something of a relief for a tired and weary British ruling class; that they were at last relieved of the burden of responsibility that came with global hegemony; that Muskateer had been, in fact, an organised collapse, a set up from the start. It should be not be forgotten, though, that this ruling class psychodrama had resulted in the death of several thousand Egyptians, most of them civilians.

As well as the loss of status on the international stage, what would come to be called the Suez Crisis had also led to a loss of domestic prestige for Britain's rulers, and this was the essential first condition for the outbreak of popular culture. It began the end of the culture of deference that had exerted an iron grip on British life, in which the low-born genuflected to the high, and the young respected their elders. The emergence of the adolescent, the teenager as a cultural phenomenon, was dependant both on the failure of the old order at Suez, and the simultaneous arrival of a new one from across the Atlantic in the form of Rock'n'Roll. As well as being the year of Operation Musketeer, 1956 was also the year when Rock'n'Roll music first began to penetrate the British pop charts. A distinct youth subculture had been emerging from the beginning of the decade with the Teddy Boys, urban youths dressed in Edwardian-style suits that had originally been produced to appeal to demobbed servicemen, and the first tremors of the energetic new American music had hit Britain in 1955 with the film The Blackboard Jungle and its hit song by Bill Haley and the Comets, Rock Around The Clock. This record is generally agreed to have fired the starting gun on the true post-war pop culture, and by the following year, the year of Suez, Elvis Presley and Little Richard had had their first top ten hits. The frenzy intensified during 1957 with the appearance of Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, the latter in particular incinerating what remained of the traditional values of duty and restraint.

Instead of looking up to a ruling class that appeared increasingly bereft in the world, British teenagers were looking towards their peers, especially those from the emerging superpower. And this revealed what would become the critical dynamic of British youth culture; that the more the ruling class struggled and the further their authority waned, then the more vital and vibrant popular culture became. This was a symbiotic relationship, and it did not take long for the avatars of the new popular culture to realise that they had a vested interest in further weakening the dwindling authority of what would become known as the establishment. Ironically enough, the ruling class were at least partially invested in this process themselves, so eager were many of them to divest themselves of their remaining inhibitions and responsibilities. Indeed, the culturial revolutionaries would increasingly find themselves pushing against an open door, especially when the Profumo affair revealed the deep moral rot at the heart of the ruling class. If the Suez Crisis had revealed an elite that seemed to have lost its touch in international relations, this latest scandal, in which a senior government minister was found to be sharing a mistress with a suspected Soviet spy, demonstrated that they had also lost any authority to lecture the lower orders on their sexual behaviour. Needless to say, this was to be a liberation for all concerned,


  1. My Grandad was mobilised for Suez, although I think his unit never left Cyprus in the end.

    Like you say the comparison with France is very interesting in this period. I don't know if you have been following these debates about whether 'imperial nostalgia' caused Brexit, but in the 50s-70s it is striking about how weak pro-Empire politics was in Britain compared to France. And I mean politics about stopping de-colonisation or even re-starting the project, rather than anti-immigrant racism, which is related but different. Britain had nothing like the internal instability that the war in Algeria, the return of the pied-noir, the OAS etc caused in France. (maybe Northern Ireland is the equivalent?)

    If you read obits in the Telegraph it is striking how many old colonial administrators went into Third World charity work, or even eco tourism, by the 60s.

  2. You're a bit younger than me William, because my Dad was also mobilised for Suez, which was after he had completed his National Service in the RAF. His job in the RAF was processing reconnaissance photos, which was very interesting...

    As for the notion of Brexit as a result of imperial nostalgia, my own view is that it was ultimately an appeal for ruling class accountability, like there used to be when there was an empire. Wolfgang Streeck has made the point that for the French, the EEC/EU is seen as a tool for expressing/expanding the power of the French state, that it is viewed as a kind of "Greater France". The British elite seemed to take completely the opposite approach to the EU, that it was somewhere to hide from accountability in, with European law being utilised as the equivalent of "computer says no".

    What I'm tentatively exploring here is the idea that the post-war era for Britain was chiefly characterised by the ruling class fleeing from responsibility, hiding behind America for defence, and hiding in Europe to effectively launder their economic policies, and that absence of rulership is what allowed pop culture to flourish - there were no longer any adults in charge. This is largely why the denizens of the creative industries hate Brexit, because it threatens to bring the return of accountable adults. That said, they don't have to worry too much about that at the moment with the likes of Boris Johnson in charge.

  3. Phil, your old blog used to be a well good read, nice to see you again!