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Christopher Andrew

Decisions, Decisions

Six Moments of Crisis: Inside British Foreign Policy
By Gill Bennett (Oxford University Press 223pp 20)
Harold Wilson, 1964: 'Do we all agree?'

After moving from Harvard to the US government, Henry Kissinger said, 'As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the differences personalities make.' The same conclusion emerges from Gill Bennett's masterly study of six moments of crisis in British foreign policy, from the Korean War to the Falklands War. In each crisis the personalities who mattered most were not officials and special advisers but ministers, and in particular the prime minister. The more serious the crisis the greater his or her influence.

The only one of the six crises when the foreign secretary might have had the lead role was the start of the Korean War. Ernest Bevin, who held that office in the postwar Labour government led by Clement Attlee, considered himself 'a turn in a million'. He may well have been the ablest foreign secretary of the 20th century. But Bevin was out of action, in hospital or convalescing, for about half of the five months before the Attlee cabinet decided to send British troops to Korea on 27 July 1950. Though an admirer of Bevin, Kenneth Younger, the minister of state at the Foreign Office, thought it a scandal that he was still in office when 'not in a fit state to do a good job'.

During the Suez Crisis in 1956 the prime minister, Anthony Eden, was also 'not in a fit state to do a good job'. His stamina had declined since botched surgery three years earlier; he was sometimes in pain and depended on drugs. Despite long experience of foreign affairs, Eden had also lost his judgement. The minister of state at the Foreign Office, Anthony Nutting, lamented, 'Gone was his old uncanny sense of timing, his deft feel for negotiation ... He began to behave like an enraged elephant, charging senselessly at invisible and imaginary enemies in the international jungle.'

The main focus of Eden's rage was Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian president, who had nationalised the Suez Canal. Nutting later recalled Eden telling him, '"I want Nasser", and he actually used the word, "murdered".' Unsurprisingly, the cabinet minutes make no reference to assassination. But Bennett has found in the cabinet secretary's notebook (which she is among the first to use) a clear record of Eden calling for Nasser's removal at the beginning of the Suez Crisis: 'Object: elimination of N.'

Eden's foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, lacked the stature to compensate for the prime minister's deficiencies. On first entering the Foreign Office as minister of state in 1951, he admitted to being ignorant of foreign affairs. Furthermore, he spoke no foreign languages, did not like foreigners and had never been abroad in peacetime.

Despite all the research on the Suez Crisis over the last half-century, some mysteries still remain. Before the crisis began GCHQ had succeeded in breaking Egyptian diplomatic ciphers. Selwyn Lloyd, no doubt like Eden, was an avid reader of the Egyptian decrypts. He wrote to congratulate the director of GCHQ on both the 'volume' and the 'excellence' of the decrypts 'relating to all the countries of the Middle East. I am writing to let you know how valuable we have found this material.' These documents, however, remain classified.

Among Eden's crucial errors of judgement was believing that, as 'on previous occasions', the United States 'would follow our lead' if Britain invaded the Suez Canal Zone. Bennett speculates plausibly that Eden reached this conclusion because of Eisenhower and the CIA's enthusiastic collaboration with Britain in 1953 in the covert operation to restore the Shah of Iran and unseat the anti-Western Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. We now know that before Eden succeeded him as prime minister, Winston Churchill was thinking of other regime-change operations with the United States - among them a plan to prevent the Marxist politician Cheddi Jagan taking power in British Guiana after independence (an operation in which the CIA later took the lead role). But, despite Eisenhower's interest in covert operations against Nasser, he was not prepared to support a military invasion.

Harold Wilson's final year at Number Ten in 1975-6, like Eden's twenty years earlier, was degraded by growing ill health. Once impressively quick at thinking on his feet, Wilson now found it difficult even to improvise a short constituency speech. According to one of his chief advisers, he succumbed to 'near paranoia about plots by various imaginary and genuine enemies'. But, as Bennett shows, Wilson was still at the height of his powers in 1968 when he persuaded his talented but argumentative cabinet to withdraw British forces from east of Suez. Not the least of his difficulties was dealing with the mercurial foreign secretary, George Brown, whose drinking was almost out of control and who feared that British withdrawal might lead to the overthrow of Lee Kuan Yew's government in Singapore and its replacement by a communist regime.

Because of the continued unavailability of most Cold War intelligence files dealing with a majority of the crises lucidly analysed by Bennett, it is difficult to trace in detail the influence of intelligence on policy-making. The great exception is the dramatic decision in September 1971 by the Heath government to expel 105 Soviet intelligence officers operating in Britain under diplomatic or other official cover. Both the intelligence that led to the expulsion and the government's response to it are now known in some detail.

The case for expulsion was straightforward. KGB and GRU (Soviet military intelligence) personnel in London had become so numerous during the 1960s that MI5 lacked the resources to monitor their activities. Harold Wilson, however, refused to authorise expulsion for fear of damaging British-Soviet relations. But for Edward Heath's election victory in 1970, the plan would not have been implemented. Once again, the leadership of the prime minister was critical. The mass expulsion of Soviet intelligence personnel, codenamed Operation FOOT, was by far the biggest expulsion in the history of espionage. In the short term the KGB, which was taken by surprise by Heath's decisiveness, was forced to put most of its existing British agents temporarily on ice. For the remainder of the Cold War, Britain became, for the first time, a hard target for Soviet intelligence.

The most recent of Bennett's 'moments of crisis' is the decision to send a task force to the Falklands in April 1982. Although an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, Sir Percy Cradock, who became her foreign policy adviser, noted that she took 'a poor view of foreigners other than Anglo-Saxons'. While Cradock regarded this as a 'real defect', Thatcher believed it to be one of her strengths. It contributed to her now legendary decisiveness in the Falklands conflict. Many in Whitehall initially failed to grasp the intensity of the prime minister's determination. Not until after the task force had left was it fully appreciated even in the Ministry of Defence that Thatcher intended not just to deter the Argentines but to recapture the Falklands.

Besides providing many insights into leading policy-makers, Gill Bennett covers six major 'moments of crisis' spread over a period of more than 30 years in only 175 pages of text without ever oversimplifying. Her book is both a very good read and admirably succinct.


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Christopher Andrew's most recent book is Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (Penguin).


Royal Literary Fund


John Murray