1956-12-05 - Aneurin Bevan
The speech to which we have just listened is the last of a long succession that the right honourable gentleman, the secretary of state for foreign affairs, has made to the House in the last few months and, if I may be allowed to say so, I congratulate him upon having survived so far. He appears to be in possession of vigorous health, which is obviously not enjoyed by all his colleagues, and he appears also to be exempted from those Freudian lapses which have distinguished the speeches of the Lord Privy Seal, and therefore he has survived so far with complete vigour. However, I am bound to say that the speech by the right honourable gentleman today carries the least conviction of all.
I have been looking through the various objectives and reasons that the government have given to the House of Commons for making war on Egypt, and it really is desirable that when a nation makes war upon another nation it should be quite clear why it does so. It should not keep changing the reasons as time goes on. There is, in fact, no correspondence whatsoever between the reasons given today and the reasons set out by the prime minister at the beginning. The reasons have changed all the time. I have got a list of them here, and for the sake of the record I propose to read it. I admit that I found some difficulty in organising a speech with any coherence because of the incoherence of the reasons. They are very varied.
On October 30, the prime minister said that the purpose was, first, "to seek to separate the combatants"; second, "to remove the risk to free passage through the canal". The speech we have heard today is the first speech in which that subject has been dropped. We have heard from the right honourable and learned gentleman today a statement which I am quite certain all the world will read with astonishment. He has said that when we landed in Port Said there was already every reason to believe that both Egypt and Israel had agreed to cease fire. The minister shakes his head. If he will recollect what his right honourable and learned friend said, it was that there was still a doubt about the Israeli reply. Are we really now telling this country and the world that all these calamitous consequences have been brought down upon us merely because of a doubt? That is what he said.
In the history of nations, there is no example of such frivolity. When I have looked at this chronicle of events during the last few days, with every desire in the world to understand it, I just have not been able to understand the mentality of the government. We are telling the nation and the world that, having decided upon the course, we went on with it despite the fact that the objective we had set ourselves had already been achieved, namely, the separation of the combatants. As to the objective of removing the risk to free passage through the canal, I must confess that I have been astonished at this also. We sent an ultimatum to Egypt by which we told her that unless she agreed to our landing Ismailia, Suez and Port Said, we should make war upon her. We knew very well, did we not, that Nasser could not possibly comply? Did we really believe that Nasser was going to give in at once? Is our information from Egypt so bad that we did not know that an ultimatum of that sort was bound to consolidate his position in Egypt and in the whole Arab world? Did we really believe that Nasser was going to wait for us to arrive? He did what anybody would have thought he would do, and if the government did not think he would do it, on that account alone they ought to resign. He sank ships in the canal, the wicked man. The result is that the first objective realised was the opposite of the one we set out to achieve; the canal was blocked, and it is still blocked.
On October 31, the prime minister said that our object was to secure a lasting settlement and to protect our nationals. What do we think of that? In the meantime, our nationals were living in Egypt while we were murdering Egyptians at Port Said. We left our nationals in Egypt at the mercy of what might have been riots throughout the country. We were still voyaging through the Mediterranean, after having exposed them to risk by our own behaviour. What does the House believe that the country will think when it really comes to understand all this? On November 1, we were told the reason was "to stop hostilities" and "prevent a resumption of them". But hostilities had already been practically stopped. On November 3, our objectives became much more ambitious - "to deal with all the outstanding problems in the Middle East".
In the famous book Madame Bovary there is a story of a woman who goes from one sin to another, a long story of moral decline. In this case, our ambitions soar the farther away we are from realising them. Our objective was, "to deal with all the outstanding problems in the Middle East." After having insulted the United States, after having affronted all our friends in the Commonwealth, after having driven the whole of the Arab world into one solid phalanx behind Nasser, we were then going to deal with all the outstanding problems in the Middle East.
The next objective of which we were told was to ensure that the Israeli forces withdrew from Egyptian territory. That, I understand, is what we were there for. We went into Egyptian territory in order to establish our moral right to make the Israelis clear out. That is a remarkable war aim, is it not? To establish our case before the eyes of the world, Israel being the wicked invader, we being the nice friend of Egypt, went to protect her from the Israelis, but, unfortunately, we had to bomb the Egyptians first.
On November 6, the prime minister said: "The action we took has been an essential condition for a United Nations force to come into the Canal Zone itself." That is one of the most remarkable claims of all. It is, of course, exactly the same claim which might have been made, if they had thought about it in time, by Mussolini and Hitler, that they made war on the world in order to call the United Nations into being. If it were possible for bacteria to argue with each other, they would be able to say that of course their chief justification was the advancement of medical science.
Why did we start this operation? We started this operation in order to give Nasser a black eye - if we could, to overthrow him - but, in any case, to secure control of the canal.
The right honourable and learned gentleman is sufficiently aware of the seriousness of it to start his speech today with collusion. If collusion can be established, the whole fabric of the government's case falls to the ground. It is believed in the United States and it is believed by large numbers of people in Great Britain that we were well aware that Israel was going to make the attack on Egypt. In fact, very few of the activities at the beginning of October are credible except upon the assumption that the French and British governments knew that something was going to happen in Egypt. Indeed, the right honourable and learned gentleman has not been frank with the House. We have asked him over and over again. He has said, "Ah, we did not conspire with France and Israel." We never said that the government might have conspired. What we said was that they might have known about it.
The right honourable and learned gentleman gave the House the impression that at no time had he ever warned Israel against attack on Egypt. If we apprehend trouble of these dimensions - we are not dealing with small matters - if we apprehend that the opening phases of a third world war might start or turn upon an attack by Israel on anyone, why did we not make it quite clear to Israel?
The fact is, that all these long telephone conversations and conferences between M Guy Mollet, M Pineau [respectively, France's prime minister and foreign minister] and the prime minister are intelligible only on the assumption that something was being cooked up. All the time there was this coming and going between ourselves and the French government. Did the French know? It is believed in France that the French knew about the Israeli intention. If the French knew, did they tell the British government? Every circumstantial fact that we know points to that conclusion. What happened? Did Marianne take John Bull to an unknown rendezvous? Did Marianne say to John Bull that there was a forest fire going to start, and did John Bull then say, "We ought to put it out," but Marianne said, "No, let us warm our hands by it. It is a nice fire"? Did Marianne deceive John Bull or seduce him?
Now I would conclude by saying this. I do not believe that any of us yet have realised the complete change that has taken place in the relationship between nations and between governments and peoples. These were objectives, I do beg honourable members to reflect, that were not realisable by the means that we adopted. These civil, social and political objectives in modern society are not attainable by armed force. Even if we had occupied Egypt by armed force we could not have secured the freedom of passage through the canal. It is clear that there is such xenophobia, that there is such passion, that there is such bitter feeling against western imperialism - rightly or wrongly: I am not arguing the merits at the moment - among millions of people that they are not prepared to keep the arteries of European commerce alive and intact if they themselves want to cut them. We could not keep ships going through the canal. The canal is too easily sabotaged, if Egypt wants to sabotage it. Why on earth did we imagine that the objectives could be realised in that way in the middle of the 20th century?
The social furniture of modern society is so complicated and fragile that it cannot support the jackboot. We cannot run the processes of modern society by attempting to impose our will upon nations by armed force. If we have not learned that, we have learned nothing. Therefore, from our point of view here, whatever may have been the morality of the government's action, there is no doubt about its imbecility. There is not the slightest shadow of doubt that we have attempted to use methods which were bound to destroy the objectives we had, and, of course, this is what we have discovered. I commend to honourable members, if they have not seen it, a very fine cartoon in Punch by IIlingworth and called Desert Victory. There we see a black, ominous, sinister background and a pipeline broken, pouring oil into the desert sands. How on earth do honourable members opposite imagine that hundreds of miles of pipeline can be kept open if the Arabs do not want it to be kept open? It is not enough to say that there are large numbers of Arabs who want the pipeline to be kept open because they live by it. It has been proved over and over again now in the modern world that men and women are often prepared to put up with material losses for things that they really think worthwhile. It has been shown in Budapest, and it could be shown in the Middle East. That is why I beg honourable members to turn their backs on this most ugly chapter and realise that if we are to live in the world and are to be regarded as a decent nation, decent citizens in the world, we have to act up to different standards than the one that we have been following in the last few weeks.
I resent most bitterly this unconcern for the lives of innocent men and women. It may be that the dead in Port Said are 100, 200 or 300. If it is only one, we had no business to take it. Do honourable members begin to realise how this is going to revolt the world when it passes into the imagination of men and women everywhere that we - with eight million here in London, the biggest single civilian target in the world, with our crowded island exposed, as no nation in the world is exposed, to the barbarism of modern weapons - we ourselves set the example. We ourselves conscript our boys and put guns and aeroplanes in their hands and say, "Bomb there." Really, this is so appalling that human language can hardly describe it. And for what?
The government resorted to epic weapons for squalid and trivial ends, and that is why, all through this unhappy period, ministers, all of them, have spoken and argued and debated well below their proper form - because they have been synthetic villains. They are not really villains. They have only set off on a villainous course, and they cannot even use the language of villainy.
Therefore, in conclusion, I say that it is no use honourable members consoling themselves that they have more support in the country than many of them feared they might have. Of course they have support in the country. They have support among many of the unthinking and unreflective who still react to traditional values, who still think that we can solve all these problems in the old ways. Of course they have. Not all the human race has grown to adult state yet. But do not let them take comfort in that thought. The right honourable member for Woodford (Sir Winston Churchill) has warned them before. In the first volume of his Second WorId War, he writes about the situation before the war and he says this: "Thus an administration more disastrous than any in our history saw all its errors and shortcomings acclaimed by the nation. There was, however, a bill to be paid, and it took the new House of Commons nearly 10 years to pay it."
It will take us very many years to live down what we have done. It will take us many years to pay the price. I know that tomorrow evening honourable and right honourable members will probably, as they have done before, give the government a vote of confidence, but they know in their heart of hearts that it is a vote which the government do not deserve.