on the World Today
SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL, who has had fifty years’ rich experience of observing at close range the ups and downs of British cabinets, slipped quietly off for a midwinter holiday in southern France without a word of comment on the storm of troubles that had overtaken the cabinet of Sir Anthony Eden. Many Conservative members of Parliament would give a great deal to know his thoughts.
Perhaps his veteran’s intuition tells him that the sudden slump in Eden’s stock is only a passing phase, one of those bad patches that come along in politics and then, a little further on in the cycle, go away again. There are many informed British who hold this view. There are many who say that Sir Anthony, hurt at first by his sharp fall front favor with much of his party, will come out of it all a tougher and more resilient man.
But there are also elements in the affair that do not fit any familiar pattern. The vehemence of the Tory criticism was unusual. Never, in these fifty years, has a new head of government come under such a fusillade from his own party after only nine months in office. Never has a new Prime Minister had to face in so short a time a cabal of malcontents in Parliament. Eden’s prestige has always stood higher in the country at large than among Tory members of Parliament; but even so, his critics on the back benches seem to have forgotten with remarkable ease his great political achievement of last summer — the election victory which carried them back to Westminster with a much improved majority.
There have been other odd elements in the story. Whatever Churchill may be thinking, it seems clear as day that he would never have let himself be put in such a position that his public relations officer at 10 Downing Street (indeed, he never had one) would feel obliged to deny a rumor t hat he was planning to resign because of a loss of faith among his followers. That is what Eden’s press officer did.
Until the denial came, no American correspondent in London had bothered to take the rumor seriously, since the traditional answer to such reports is a sublime, disdainful silence. The rebuttal showed that the rumor had hurt. Speculation was helped along when R. A. Butler, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Eden’s closest associate in the cabinet, added his denial and in so doing let fly the unkindest cut of all. “Eden,” said Butler firmly, “is the best Prime Minister we have.”
The Tory “rebels” retreat
The denial from Downing Street, which bore all the signs of being issued in panic, had an immediate sobering effect. Miraculously, it subdued the storm and cleared the air. It rallied the faithful and shamed the disloyal. It revealed that no one wanted to stand up and be counted. It brought home again the old moral truth, still potent in British political life, that it simply is not sporting to desert the leader of the party.
There has been, and there still is, deep and serious discontent with Eden’s leadership among many Tory members of Parliament. But there is no concerted move to oust him as head of the party or government. When called to account, the “rebels” had to acknowledge that any attempt to overthrow the Prime Minister would certainly undermine and quite possibly overthrow the Tory Government itself. No group in the party would willingly take that risk.
It was equally clear that much as the rebels might hanker for a hero-leader, a man of dramatic decisions, “a Winston Churchill forty years younger” (as one writer-to-an-editor put it), there was no such man on the scene.
To whom could the rebels turn? To Mr. Butler, who has his own devoted political following in the party? But Butler himself is now tasting the sour disappointments of the worst patch in his career: his two budgets of last year (an easy pre-election budget followed and contradicted by a stern postelection one) have rubbed most of the shine from his once brilliant reputation. To Harold Macmillan, who has now stepped into Butler’s shoes at the Exchequer? But in his few months at the Foreign Office, Macmillan scored no visible personal triumphs and certainly failed to prove himself the man of decision whom restive Tories are yearning for. Aside from these two men, there are no possible contenders for Eden’s job.
The gentle knight
The malaise in Tory ranks is a many-colored thing. It does not spring from any coherent set of arguments or any profound differences of policy. The upsurge of dissatisfaction has been more of a mood than a movement, and it has spread more quickly than any of its supporting arguments would warrant. There is a feeling of nostalgia: instead of a buccaneer with a grand sense of drama and history, there is, in Downing Street, a sensitive and decidedly nongregarious man who by training and temperament prefers the subtleties of private diplomacy to the ardors of publicized action, and who is disinclined to mount the public stages to take the country into his confidence.
There is a feeling also of anticlimax: after last summer’s exhilarating victory, it was expected on Tory back benches that a strengthened Government would take a number of strong, unpopular, but necessary measures quickly, so that the political rewards would have full time to ripen before the next test at the polls. From this point of view, Eden’s offense is that he has not yet been resolutely Tory enough.
Then there has been a series of annoying little blunders, of errors of judgment and changes of mind on relatively minor matters which are nevertheless the all-important trivia of domestic politics in every country — matters ranging from a proposed tax on pots and pans (a proposal abandoned in the face of the housewives’ outcry) to an announced ban on the manufacture of heroin (also shelved at the last minute, after ministers had stoutly defended it against popular feeling and expert advice).
These waverings and shifts of front are not good reasons for dismissing a Prime Minister; but they have helped to feed the complaint that the Eden team lacks drive and decisiveness, and that, its captain lacks the political touch. “The smack of firm government has not been felt,” said one widely quoted stricture.
On two counts of policy, this winter’s discontent strikes deeper. Two pivotal issues for Britain in 1956 are the cost of living, which continues to rise, and the situation in the Middle East, which continues to worsen. The emergency budget of last autumn was intended to check inflation; as Mr. Butler explained, his whole design was to put a brake on the British boom so as to prevent rising costs at home from pricing Britain out of her markets overseas.
Butler’s expectations have not been fulfilled, and his budget has had no discernible anti-inflationary effects. The price index as a whole has continued to rise; new wage claims have continued to pour in. Most disturbing of all, the balance-of-payment figures which the budget was intended to redress have continued to show, each month, a deficit for Britain.
On Middle Eastern issues, there is a permanent body of anti-Eden Tory opinion. Nearly everything that Eden has touched there in recent months has somehow gone wrong. There was his own luckless offer of British mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict. There was the evidently futile wooing of unresponsive Arab statesmen, which still goes on. There was the muddling and shifting over Cyprus.
At one point, there was actual collapse— the breakdown, in a welter of anti-Western riots, of Britain’s plan to bring her safest Arab ally, Jordan, into the Baghdad Pact. The decision now to call a truce and allow the Baghdad Pact to rest for a while is admission that British policy, which has been pegged to a pure and simple faith in the future of that young alliance, has been soundly licked.
The reason Eden is personally vulnerable in Middle Eastern affairs goes back to one of his own major acts as Foreign Secretary. It was he who overrode the doubts of Sir Winston Churchill and the angry opposition of a large Tory group in Parliament, and assumed personal responsibility for the decision to evacuate the Suez Canal Zone.
Eden advanced two major arguments for the move, and by them he carried the majority of his party with him. He urged that this timely and sensible concession to Egyptian nationalism would enable Britain to retain Egypt as her loyal friend. He urged that there was a military alternative to the Canal Zone: another base, another site for Britain’s Middle Eastern headquarters, was at hand. This alternative was Cyprus.
The “Suez policy" backfires
On the face of it, these two expectations have both been falsified by recent events. Eden’s Suez policy has not borne the fruits which he promised for it. For more than a year, the British troops which have been sent to the new Cyprus headquarters (as a strategic reserve for the Middle Eastern area) have been tied down chasing terrorists on the island. Egypt, far from embracing British friendship, has taken the lead in the Arab drive to expel British influence from the Middle East. As part of that drive, Colonel Nasser has invited Communist influence in, and has discovered the new and potent weapon of blackmail represented by his acceptance of Communist arms.
But the “Suez policy” remains. The basic premise of the Suez evacuation— the idea that the Arab countries will be won over to the West by a combination of friendly concessions, timely economic help, placation, and a steady effort to build up Arab selfconfidence and assuage the stinging sense of inferiority which Egypt especially has felt in the aftermath of the Palestine war—is still the guiding idea of British policy, and it is an idea that is seriously pondered and sincerely held.
Eden is not merely trying to make good the promises of 1954; he honestly believes this policy will pay off. But he is keenly aware that his Tory opponents, the “Suez rebels” and last-ditchers of empire, are laying for him and are always ready to jump. In defense of his policy, it must be said that nobody in Britain, on either the Tory or the Labor side, has yet offered a coherent and well-thoughtout alternative.
in any case, the old premises of the Suez action still help to explain many British reactions to the last few months’ explosive train of events. They account for Eden’s suggestion that peace talks in Palestine should begin by Israel’s making territorial concessions to the Arabs; and for Britain’s hasty assurance to Nasser (after the Jordan riots) that she would not try to push Jordan into a pact which Nasser abominates.
Britain pulls in her horns
The prospect of expanding Communist influence in the Arab world is foremost in the minds of British diplomats as they try to get Israel and her Arab neighbors to the negotiating table. They try to point out to Israel the danger of her gradual encirclement by an increasingly Communistinfiltrated world — a danger that is very real and will continue to be so in the absence of an Arab-Israeli settlement. They seek at the same time to warn ihe Arabs of the peril of indefinitely prolonging the suffering of the 850,000 Arab Palestinian refugees whom the Arab states are holding as hostages of fortune. The peril is that, these homeless refugees (bombarded already by Moscow Radio) will become a focus of Communism in the center of the Arab world. These are impressive arguments, but there is no evidence that they have yet impressed the persons to whom they are primarily directed.
Britain’s reaction to her latest defeat, in Jordan, has been to pull in her horns. A few months ago, on his return from Baghdad, Mr. Macmillan spoke glowingly of the potentialities of the Baghdad Pact as a kind of Western magnet in the Arab world. He spoke hopefully of the United States’ joining the pact in due time. Such talk is now ended.
A few weeks after Mr. Macmillan’s prophecy, ihe new pact had split the Arab world; and a combination of Egyptian intrigue, Communist disruption, Saudi Arabian gold, and genuine resistance to this “Western” alliance had torpedoed the British suggestion that Jordan become its second Arab member. The picture has now changed so radically that all thought of American participation is out, for many months at least.
This political blunder, in a part of the world where the British are acknowledged experts and in a country where they have long been the paramount power, is cause for more than passing wonder. The larger question it suggests is whether such setbacks are only temporary, or whether Britain is indeed reaching the end of her resources as a power in the Arab world.