HC Deb 16 December 1958 vol 597 cc1064-94

9.1 p.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

I wrote to Mr. Speaker and to the Leader of the House to give notice that if I had the opportunity on the second Adjournment debate tonight, I would raise the subject of Suez and, once again, ask the Government to appoint a Select Committee to inquire into the operations at Suez and the events which led up to them.

The House is fond of precedents, and I have spent some time looking up precedents of the last few years. There have been many occasions when the Government of the day have found it necessary to inquire into operations, even while operations were going on. There are the examples of Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles, but I shall not weary the House with much detail, for the best authority I can quote is the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) who, writing in Volume IV of The Second World War, said, on page 81: I judged it impossible to hold an inquiry by Royal Commission into the circumstances of the fall of Singapore while the war was raging. We could not spare the men, the time, or the energy. Parliament accepted this view; but I certainly thought that in justice to the officers and men concerned there should be an inquiry into all the circumstances as soon as the fighting stopped. The argument advanced by the right hon. Gentleman in connection with Singapore is a thousand times stronger in connection with what happened in the Suez operations, for the whole affair has been shrouded in mystery.

Hon. Members opposite and their supporters in the country honestly and sincerely thought—and I pay tribute to their honesty and sincerity—that it was possible for this country to launch an operation which would have dealt with the situation in the Suez area following upon the nationalisation overnight by Colonel Nasser. The best example is Captain Waterhouse, now, unhappily, no longer with us. On 2nd August, he came to the House and thought that there was unanimity in the demand for strong action. By 5th December he was saying that there was no plan, that there were no men, no ships, and that the thing was a hopeless blunder. I believe that Captain Waterhouse went out of the House broken-hearted, because he had been in the forefront of what were called the "Suez Rebels," the tail which had wagged the dog.

There is an important part of the problem, and posterity will not understand the fraudulent and fatuous nonsense which led to those appalling days in November, 1956, if it is not understood that the Conservative Party is ruled by a body of opinion which is utterly irresponsible and which finds expression in the House through the mouths of a very few Members, who, apparently, in Committee upstairs can make and break Ministers. It must be appreciated that those men in the Conservative Party who had the honesty to stand up for the things in which they believed in opposing that awful business are now broken, while those who supported it now sit on the Government Front Bench. It started with the Prime Minister, and I will not refer to the most recent appointment—we all know all about it.

I shall never forget—and I remind hon. Members that this is not the first occasion that I have mentioned it—that the last words which Sir Anthony Eden ever uttered in the House were in response to me two years ago, when I pleaded, in all honesty—and I hope that whatever they think about me hon. Members in all parts of the House will accept that I was being honest and sincere-that there should be a Select Committee, in the interests not of the Conservative Party, nor the Labour Party, but of the country as a whole.

I reminded hon. Members, as I remind them again, that of all countries with an

interest in the rule of law and with a direct interest in peace and persuasion as a method of settling international differences, this country was in the forefront. Sir Anthony Eden, I regret to say—I did not realise until afterwards how moving it was—replied to me, as I remember only too well, by throwing his pencil down and saying, "I would do it all again".The fact that the man who was responsible, whose health was broken, went out of the House still believing in his heart that he would do it all over again, suggests that there is a national requirement that these facts should be weighed and investigated in the interests of all of us, since our interests are based upon an understanding which is far greater on the things on which we are agreed than on the things on which we disagree. If the right hon. Member for Woodford, with his great authority, could say of Singapore that we should have had an inquiry, surely the Government will now come to the conclusion that there should be an inquiry into Suez. I shall make my case from the military point of view, because no one can deny, whatever may be thought about Suez and the necessity for what was called strong action, that, as Captain Waterhouse said, there was a lack of plan, there was a lack of ships, there was a lack of aircraft, and that the whole procedure was slow and cumbersome and that it ran us into a grave situation.

To quote a great authority, Lord Strang, writing in the Sunday Times of November, 1956: The fact to be recognised is that Great Britain and France have not sufficient material strength to make it a wise course for them to embark upon and try to carry through a far reaching policy of armed intervention to which the United States is opposed. That was a wise declaration, but, of course, it concerns the politics of the matter rather than the military.

I do not want to appear to be egocentric, and I am not being wise after the event in saying that I am not in the same position as Mr. Randolph Churchill in having to wait until 1958 to find out the facts about landing ships and aircraft, for I said it on 31st July, 1956. My words are in HANSARD of that date, when I said that I felt an overwhelming desire to go out and be sick when I heard the cheers on both sides of the House when he "— that is, the Prime Minister— hinted at strong action."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st July, 1956; Vol. 557, c. 1257.] I knew what our fighter strength in the Middle East was and I had a good idea of the number of tank landing ships we had. I also knew something about the state of our mobilisation and I knew that the swift action that was in the minds of many hon. Members opposite could not take place.

One of the great dangers for nations is that they come to believe in myths. The weaker they become, the more they are inclined to do this. Perhaps this belief in myths is part of the price of weakness. Before the war, the French believed in the myth of the Maginot Line. We know the consequences of that. Here, I think, the myth still survives that a British person can take on two or three other people much better than the foreigner can —that we can give the "Wogs" a lesson, or that we can smash Nasser now. The truth is that we no longer deploy that strength. Even if there was the will, it is beyond our economic and financial capacity to build up the armed forces that are necessary for the kind of action that we undertook at Suez.

Therefore, I have never quite understood why, when the Keightley dispatches were published, we did not have a debate. If ever a man gave the game away in an assessment of our armed strength, General Keightley did it. It seemed to me that in his way he had put forward a careful but, nevertheless, objective document which would destroy, or help to destroy, this myth that whether it be Suez or Jordan, there is no limit to what we can do.

I want to dwell on another myth. We are not the only victims of it. There is another and very dangerous myth in the Middle East at the present time. I am sure it is believed on both sides of the HOUSE-again, quite genuinely—though I do not believe it myself, that the Israelis inflicted a major military defeat on the great bulk of the Egyptian Army, that Nasser and the Egyptians ran away, and that if armed conflict broke out again tomorrow the same thing would happen.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

That simply is not the correct military appreciation of the situation.Every—

body knows that the forward troops in the area of Gaza were not fighting troops, but maintenance troops.

Mr. Wigg

I am obliged to the hon. Member. That is exactly what I was going to say.

The view is widely held in this country—it is certainly believed throughout Israel—that the Israeli Army took on the bulk of the Egyptian Army and beat them, that had it come to it, the Israeli Army could have dealt with the whole of the Arab forces seriatim and that they are the masters of the Middle East. This I believe to be untrue. I believe it to be another myth. It is the belief in this that is the basis of the Government's present Middle Eastern policy.

The United States has come round to the view that perhaps, after all, it was wrong about Suez and that it will back a kind of slightly more civilised gunboat policy and, at the same time, back us in supplying the Israelis with arms. The Government might even think that if it comes to another showdown, the Israelis can deal with the Arab forces in the Middle East. This might bring us to the edge of a third world war, because we might start with an operation of that kind and find that the Americans and the Russians are, quite accidently, looking into the whites of each other's eyes, neither side being able to withdraw. Again, therefore, from the viewpoint of national policy and of our commitments in the Middle East, there is an overwhelming case for an objective examination of what happened two years ago.

I have never believed in the rather crude version of collusion between Britain, France and Israel as it was printed in journals like Time on 12th November, 1956. I wrote a letter to The Times towards the end of that month dissociating myself even from the views of my hon. Friends on this side of the House who put forward that view of collusion.

I believe that the truth about Sir Anthony Eden is that he was, and remains, an honourable man. What Mr. Randolph Churchill wrote about him is that he did not know all that was going on, and the charge against him, perhaps, is that he did not know but should have known. I do not see the noble Member for Berwick - upon - Tweed (Viscount Lambton) in his place, but I thought he showed great courage and generosity in writing about his leader as he did in last week's Sunday Express. If I were on the other side of the House, I would be on his side, rather than on the side of those who at one time were fawning on Sir Anthony Eden, but who can now say no good of him. I regard that as contemptible. Sir Anthony gave great service to his country and all of us should send to him a message of hope that his health will be restored and his spirits regained.

What is the charge made against Sir Anthony Eden? The charge was ably made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan), who said that here was a man who found himself a synthetic villain and who got caught up in a chain of events. I believe that the villains of the piece were the French, and I do not exempt Mr. Ben Gurion. I accept the view that it was not until very late in October when, in fact, Sir Anthony Eden found out what was afoot and that there had been a coordinated plan of operation as between the Israelis and the French; and then it was too late. Like a weak man—it might have come from his ill-health, or because circumstances were too much for him—he found himself caught up in a change of circumstances from which he could not withdraw.

It is easy for Mr. Randolph Churchill to say, two years afterwards, that it is the very limit of perfidy to find that we were presenting an ultimatum at the very time when French aircraft were flying from British bases in Cyprus to collaborate with Israeli infantry. I believe these things happened, but I believe that the explanation of how they came to happen was presented in far too crude and dishonourable a way; and not only for the right hon. Gentleman and hon. Members opposite. We should clear the good name of Sir Anthony Eden, but that is only a part of the story. The essential thing is to clear the name of this country, because from all that is written about this appalling story people in foreign countries do not draw a distinction between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. What they talk about is Britain.

I say no more, as many other hon. Members want to speak. I repeat the

demand now that I last made two years ago, that there shall be a Select Committee of this House to inquire into the conduct of these operations and the events that led up to them, not in the interests of any party but on an issue that far transcends any party—the interests of this country, its good name and its standing in the world.

9.18 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Head (Carshalton)

I wish to ask for some indulgence from the House because I knew of this debate only this morning and I had to go to another gathering to make a speech that I had undertaken to make there tonight. I therefore hope that right hon. and hon. Members will acquit me of any discourtesy if they find that my remarks are not perhaps as well thought out and coherent as I would wish them to be.

I should also say that I have been approached by several newspapers to write or to say something about the controversy which has arisen around this operation, but I believe that the proper place to say anything is in this House and not in a newspaper. Therefore, I am glad of this opportunity. Whatever the feeling of the House may be about my remarks, I say this sincerely because it has been a grief to me, not to my own reputation entirely—though one cannot dismiss thatbut because the general attitude towards this operation has tended to throw discredit on the chiefs of staff, the planning organisation of the three Services and, to some extent, on the operation itself. I believe most sincerely that this operation has been deeply misunderstood because a retrospective view, especially by those who write very well but do not think very long, can be extremely damaging and the arguments the other way are harder to put and have gone by default.

When Nasser seized the Canal an operation was mounted prepared to take over the Canal. The Canal, after all, was the area of dispute, not Egypt nor Cairo, but the Canal. Indeed, as the operation turned out, it was again the Canal which was the area of dispute. I ask hon. Members to try to visualise that they were responsible for mounting an operation which would take place at an indefinite and undetermined time, which might be as a result of S.C.U.A., but S.C.U.A. never produced it, leading to an incident, or due to a situation which demanded the seizure of the Canal.

Consider the problem of seizing the Canal by military force at very short notice. It could be done either from Suez or Port Said, or both, or perhaps a landing from either side of those areas. It is not worth my going into possibilities of doing it from Suez, which is on the Cape route and outside the area of our bases. That leads inevitably to Port Said and to those who think that we might have landed round the port. I would say that that country is singularly ill-adapted for doing so. An operation plan was prepared for a frontal assault on Port Said which, for all we knew, was a defended port. What does one do if one mounts an operation to assault Port Said and debouch from Port Said? I suggest to hon. Members that one of the first things one does is to see what is opposed to one. To the west of the Canal there was one armoured group and on the other side of the Canal three armoured groups.

Many people have said categorically how slow this operation was and how it should have been done much more quickly, but I have not yet heard a single suggestion as to how it could have been done more quickly, except by an all airborne operation to seize the Canal. I should like hon. Members to consider for a moment whether, given almost unlimited aircraft, they would have dropped airborne troops along the Canal and left them for six days—which I will explain in a moment—without support and with a large number of Egyptian tanks—in the area.

There may be hon. Members who would accept that. All I can say is that after a great deal of consideration and all the responsible military advice, both British and French, that course was unanimously rejected. There may be those who say that they would have carried out an all airborne operation. Very well. But it would have been a bold man whose ultimate responsibility it would have been to undertake an airborne operation against all military advice and probably with the resignation of those military advisers who had been overruled. There may be arguments the other way, but, personally, I am absolutely convinced that to have done that would have been a most risky and unwise measure which

would have risked a very large number of lives.

I remind hon. Members of one further fact. At the very start, when we pushed the button and decided on the operation, there was in existence a well-manned Egyptian Air Force—and when I say "well-manned" I do not necessarily mean by Egyptians—which might have inflicted very serious damage on the slow—flying aircraft which bring in airborne troops.

If hon. Members have followed as far as this, I would now point out that in this plan we were tied down to doing it by land forces—that is to say, with the necessary infantry and tanks to occupy the Canal Zone. Again, the critics, who, perhaps, have not thought this matter out very carefully, will ask why it did not happen more quickly. Any hon. Member who has made a study of the war, or operations of this kind, knows one thing for certain—that it is quite impossible to mount an operation comprising very large numbers of tanks and vehicles without a deep water port. I do not believe that a single hon. Member would disagree with that.

The Suez operation was placed, so to speak, in a straitjacket so far as how it was to be executed by the fact of our getting out of Egypt. Hon. Members opposite—I remember, because I had to make a speech on that occasion—were very much in favour of that move, but from the day we got out of Egypt the nearest deep water port in the Eastern Mediterranean was Malta. Hon. Members may ask, "Why not make one in Cyprus?" But, financially and from an engineering point of view, it was impracticable, and on that day the nearest deep water port to Port Said was Malta.

The steaming distance for a ship from Malta is six days. If hon. Members follow me, therefore, this operation, which has been so heavily criticised as being slow and a classic example of military ineptitude, was, unless we did an allairborne operation, in a straitjacket in respect of its form. That straitjacket was this. Push the button, give the order for it to take place and six days elapse between the order and the assault on Port Said. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am talking about the criticism of ineptitude which has been made against our Armed Forces.

The operation has been compared with that of the Israelis. People said, "Look at the Israeli operation, which was so fast, and then look at ours, which was so slow and so laborious." The comparison between a seaborne operation and a land operation, with vehicles and tanks on a contiguous land frontier, is utterly irrelevant. The problems are in no way related. If one has a force ready on a contiguous land frontier one can motor through with great speed, but if one has the appalling problem of funnelling a force through the bottle neck of a port, it is an utterly different matter, both in speed and in nature. Whatever hon. Members may think of this operation, therefore, its form was dictated by geography and ports—

Mr. Aneurin Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

What the right hon. Member is saying apparently is that in a push-button operation of this sort it should have been realised that it would take six days for the bell to ring. Was not that known to the Government at the time?

Mr. Head

Of course it was well known. Nobody could have planned any operation to take place without being aware of that fact. It should have been apparent to anybody who either studied or thought about the operation. As far as I know, nobody has made any attempt to conceal that this was so. The right hon. Gentleman is looking for things which do not exist. In fact, very great pressure was, naturally, brought to bear to shorten that interval but no Government, no planner, and not even the right hon. Gentleman. can escape from the physical fact that if you mount an operation for a deep-water port that interval of steaming time is inevitable.

I am saying that this almost unacceptable fact—and I am coming to the justification of the operation in a minute—had to be accepted because there was no alternative. The operation was planned and the air operation started and eliminated the Egyptian Air Force. That was a brilliant exploit by the Royal Air Force, and I should like the House to be aware of it and to recognise how well they did it.

It is true that the second target of the Royal Air Force was dictated by the inevitable delay of the arrival of the seaborne assault, and it was to beat up the

Egyptian Army. The way in which they did that was exemplified by the fact that anybody in a military vehicle in Egypt got out and ran and anybody in a civilian vehicle motored on and was fairly sure he would not be hurt. That is another great tribute to the Royal Air Force, and that, too, was done by the Fleet Air Arm.

What was the next aspect of the plan? It was that there should be an assault on Port Said, with minimum damage. An assault on a defended port is not an entirely easy matter, and everybody felt and said that this must be an example of what the Air Force could do towards the capture of the place with the minimum damage. I went to see General Keightley, not for the reasons reported by that very fine imaginative writer Mr. Randolph Churchill-who can be bracketed with Edgar Allan Poe for imagination—but to see whether the airborne drop could be made earlier, to overcome the beach defences and eliminate the naval bombardment, which would inevitably cause more destruction at Port Said. That was done and the airborne drop went absolutely without a hitch, and was 100 per cent. successful. The landing went in exactly on time and the objective was seized as planned. The follow-up went as planned. The debouching from the bottleneck of Port Said was going according to plan when the operation was stopped.

Let us pause there for a moment. The hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) and many others have said "There was a shortage of L.S.T.s and of supply aircraft," and both are mentioned in General Keightley's report. I admit that. If any blame falls on me I am willing to accept it, although there was a necessity to work quickly on the part of those responsible. I would say to anybody who is critical of this operation that if we had had half as many L.S.T.s again, and half as many supply aircraft again, it would not have altered the basic plan of this operation by one iota.

Mr. John Strachey (Dundee, West)

Does the right hon. Gentleman not see that what he is proving by dilating on the "military straitjacket", as he called it, of this operation is that the conditions were such that it was bound to produce the terrible disaster which it did produce, and that he is just proving that, and proving up to the hilt our case against the folly of the Government?

Mr. Head

The right hon. Gentleman is anticipating what I am about to say.

By explaining the problem of this operation, for which the forces and the chiefs of staff are being so much condemned, I am not condemning the Government, but going on to explain later the reasons for this decision. What I am at pains to do is to say something to explain that those military authorities who were responsible, the chiefs of staff and the planners, are not the half-witted, infatuated fools that they have been made out to be. I believe that to be an unnecessary slur on our military prowess and our military advisers. I say that this particular operation was extremely well planned and executed, within its limits, which, I have tried to explain, were fixed ones.

The assault succeeded 100 per cent., and the unloading of vehicles proceeded rather better than was anticipated. When the report of surrender, not true, was announced in this House, I can remember to this day all the Order Papers that were waved. Supposing that surrender report had been correct, supposing that Nasser had surrendered, I do not think that we would have heard so much about the faults of the Suez operation, but one thing happened. It stopped. A few days would have been necessary to complete the occupation of the Canal Zone, but the operation was not completed.

It is not my business to go into that in this debate, but I would say that my right hon. Friend, Sir Anthony Eden, was a man who saw that the gradual infiltration and erosion by Communism into backward countries and elsewhere was a menace. He saw that if, at some time or another, this country did not make a stand, we should go down the slippery slope of infiltration. He saw the disadvantages of this operation, that it was in the "straitjacket" to which the right hon. Gentleman referred; but he accepted those deficiencies and he saw them through during that period.

The operation was circumscribed by geography and the operational confines in which it had to be carried out. The Government knew of those problems and accepted them. The operation is now regarded as a failure. Why? [HON. MEMBERS: "Because it failed."] Because of its execution? Because of its planning? No—because it stopped. When we ask why it stopped, hon.

and right hon. Gentlemen opposite have not, I think, an entirely clean sheet.

In my view, the tragedy is that the operation stopped. I would say that those responsible for military advice, for planning and for execution, did nothing wrong. In my view, which is a personal one, Sir Anthony Eden was absolutely right in his decision.

This biography, or whatever it is called, which has been written about Sir Anthony Eden is a very peculiar document. I do not know what was the purpose behind Mr. Randolph Churchill's writing it. Mr. Churchill bears what is perhaps the most illustrious name in England today, and the very fact of his bearing that name gives a certain authority to his book. I would say that this life of Sir Anthony Eden, particularly those parts which have been published, is a smear not on Sir Anthony, but on Mr. Randolph Churchill as the son of our greatest statesman.

I believe that history, looking back, will regard this episode in Mr. Randolph Churchill's journalistic career as a disgrace to the proud name that he bears. I believe that what he has said about our forces and the incompetence and incapacity of the British power to act—which is the only matter I have dealt with tonight—will be condemned, but I know, also, that nothing will be condemned more than his attack on Sir Anthony Eden himself.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. R. H. S. Crossman (Coventry, East)

This debate has taken a dramatic and unusual form. The proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) and myself, that there should be a Select Committee, would have been justified in itself by reason of the speech to which we have just listened. Without our asking for this debate, we should not have had this fascinating episode. We have had the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Head), one of the right hon. Gentlemen responsible for the Suez affair, for the first time coming to the House and revealing a few of the secrets.

The right hon. Gentleman says that Randolph Churchill's articles are all untrue—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—or that there were large inaccuracies. [HON. MEMBERS: "Twist."] All right; let me put it in this way. He suggested to the House that we should not accept the version of history put by Randolph Churchill. In my view, he has every right to say so, but how are we to discover what to believe and what not to believe?

We on this side. in asking for a Select Committee, are asking for it precisely on this occasion because of the situation created by the Randolph Churchill articles. Until that point the attempt to discover the truth about Suez has been made across the House by the Labour Party and by the Liberal Party seeking to discover the truth which was being systematically concealed by the other side. Now we have something new—a Conservative doing the same. I quite agree that there is nothing new in what Mr. Churchill says. He has made a number of grave allegations made by others before him, allegations which can neither be proved nor disproved without a Select Committee.

I say in all seriousness to the right hon. Member for Carshalton: how shall we discover the truth unless other people are allowed to look at the secret papers which the right hon. Member had the right to look at? How can the House make up its mind on this subject? That is why my hon. Friend and I asked for the debate. Two years ago during the debate art the Christmas Recess Adjournment some of us on this side of the House urged the need for a Select Committee. As my hon. Friend reminded us, it was the last occasion on which Sir Anthony Eden spoke to the House. He was replying to speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley and myself, not making allegations, but saying that one could not discover the truth unless a Select Committee were appointed. That is the point we are making again today.

I should like to quote from the last article of Mr. Randolph Churchill, because it sums up the allegations made: In common with many other people, I feel compelled to revise the judgment and opinions which I held in October, 1956.…If we had known with what ineptitude the campaign had been planned, if we had detected the inherent fraudulence of the Anglo-French ultimatum, if we had known of the Government's miscalculations about American reactions…many of those who, like me, applauded the action on the day might have adopted a very different line. I want to deal with those three charges—the charge of miscalculation about American reaction, the charge of ineptitude in the planning of the campaign, and the charge of inherent fraudulence. Those are the three allegations made about Suez. and it is on the basis of these three allegations, which can fairly be made on the facts as we now know them, that we now insist that the Government should appoint a Select Committee. This could do for the Suez campaign what was done in respect of the Crimea, another great disaster which occurred in the history of our military affairs.

First, I want to deal with the miscalculation of the American reaction. This is something about which the House has every right to know. We did not have an Ambassador in Washington at that time. Was that merely chance or was it deliberate? Was this another case where the politicians decided to take over from the experts? I agree with the right hon. Member for Carshalton that it was not the chiefs of staff who were to blame, nor the Foreign Office. It was the Inner Cabinet, which made the decisions, as far as I know, in defiance of almost every expert opinion. A Select Committee would clear for once the Foreign Office of this stupidity in our relations with America and would indicate that it was despite the advice it gave that a fantastic miscalculation took place of what the American reaction would be.

My hon. Friend has dealt with the ineptitude of the military planning. I do not want to go into the details of the military campaign. I want to raise the problem of the political plan. Look at the psychological warfare from Cyprus. Who organised that? Look at the political calculation on which the campaign was based, the calculation that we would never have to go ashore because Nasser could be bluffed into surrender.

Mr. Head

That is palpably untrue. Mr. Randolph Churchill said something to the effect that if the Air Force could have done the job the pongos would never have been landed. If the hon. Gentleman has been led into following Mr. Churchill's imaginative writings, he is quite wrong. There was never at any period of the operation an assumption of this kind.

Mr. Crossman

Again the right hon. Member is making the case for having an investigation. He is telling us that during the days of the advance towards Suez, after the ultimatum, there was no hope on the Government's part of a coup in Egypt to overthrow Nasser, which would have made the campaign unnecessary. I should like to hear that said under cross-examination and after access to papers to make sure whether that is true. I am not prepared to accept the right hon. Gentleman's word that there was no anticipation on that score. There are a number of Foreign Office officials—

Mr. W. Yates

Would the hon. Member say what the British Ambassador in Cairo said about the matter?

Mr. Crossman

As far as I know, the British Ambassador was not informed of the matter until after it had occurred—in common with every other British Ambassador. This is the astonishing truth about the British Ambassadors and the British Foreign Office staff throughout the Middle East. They were not informed.

I come to the third charge, of fraudulence. This is the key charge. Were the British Government at that time guilty of bad faith? Were they guilty of lying and of concealing things which they had done? I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend that the charge does not seem to be one of planning a campaign with the Israelis but of giving an assurance to the Israelis about the use of the French Air Force. This, it is alleged, enabled them to start a campaign which they would not have started without it. I do not know. We cannot possibly know whether that is true or what the precise truth is until the facts are revealed.

Some people may say, "Why should we go over this disreputable page in our history?"—or shall we call it, "This glorious near—miss"? The right hon. Member for Carshalton seemed to feel, "What a pity. It was almost perfect. It almost came off". If he had the chance, would he do it again? The British public has the right to make up its mind, on the basis of the facts, whether this incident was something which would have come off with a little more luck, or whether it was a time when the button should never have been pressed at all.

Those are the three issues, which we cannot decide on the basis of the facts now available. I was looking at the debates which we had two years ago, and what struck me was that we know nothing more two years later than we knew when we debated the matter two years ago. There has been a conspiracy of silence on the Government side. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] The Government cannot really blame the Opposition for not revealing the facts about Suez; that was the job of the Government, who have preserved a conspiracy of silence.

The Government are divided in their own mind. I reckon there are two sorts of Tory. One is represented by the minority who, on reflection, realised that Suez was a disaster, not merely a military disaster but a political misjudgment. There are Tories—a few of them—who on the basis of the insufficient evidence available have said that this was a disaster. They are harried in their constituencies and they are subjected to lynch law. When they appeal to the Prime Minister, he says: "Get on with your constituency parties or get out." They are getting out. On the other hand, those Tories who asserted that all that was wrong was that we stopped too soon and "We would do it again", get on to the Government Front Bench. They get jobs in this Government under the present Prime Minister and the present Foreign Secretary.

We are concerned here about these two men, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. It is very relevant for the British people to know whether the people running this country are still proud of Suez. The Prime Minister has said that the people will decide. They will, but in a democracy the people cannot decide until they are given the facts on which to decide. Democracy does not function when only one version of the facts and one selection of the secret papers are given out.

One version of the Suez facts is to be given to the people during the next nine months. Sir Anthony Eden will be able to play his part in the next General Election without making a speech. He is being allowed to write his version of Suez, with access to all the secret documents. If he wants to publish any of them he has only to get leave of the present Prime Minister, and I suspect that that will not be very difficult. We shall have a speech in defence of the Government written by Sir Anthony Eden for which The Times has paid, I am told,£100,000 for the serial rights.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—and that will come out nicely in time for the election.

Here is a Government that claim to be proud of themselves, confident of their Suez record. If the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are confident of their record they have one simple way of proving it—they can submit themselves to cross-examination by a Select Committee of this House. Why should they be afraid of a Select Committee if they think that the secret documents are on their side? What they believe is that only a partial selection of these secret documents will suit them, and what they feel is that unless they are given the monopoly of selecting what should be known and what not they will be thrown out by the British people.

The best evidence of the bad conscience of the Government about Suez is their conspiracy of silence. That is why they cover up and refuse to grant a Select Committee. When the Patronage Secretary put up the Secretary of State for War to reply, it was known he could not make a very adequate reply. He is being put up to shout nothings, while more important people take evasive action behind the ample bulk of this intellectual smoke-screen. The men who can tell the truth about Suez want to hide from this investigation. I believe that they should be harried out of their hiding, and called by name, to give evidence. In the end, we shall get a Select Committee and the British public will learn the truth.

9.53 p.m.

Sir Charles Mott-Radclyffe (Windsor)

The tone of the debate set by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) was, if I may say so with great respect, rather different from the tone followed by his hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman). I find it difficult to understand why the Opposition should choose this particular moment to press for a Select Committee on the Suez operation some eighteen months after the

despatches of General Keightley have been published.

I have not been in this House very long compared with many other hon. Members, and I am not a great expert on Parliamentary procedure, but I should have thought that in the course of the last eighteen months there were a number of Supply Days and other opportunities available to the Opposition which they could have used, if they had wished, to press home the advantage which they now claim to have and ask for a Select Committee to inquire into the Suez operation and for a reply to the questions which have been put tonight.

I find it difficult to believe that the articles by Mr. Randolph Churchill in the Daily Express were the spur that brought them to action. Maybe they think that they can gain some electoral advantage. If so, let me tell them quite frankly that I hope that they will press home what they feel to be this advantage at the next General Election, because I think that the balance of advantage is very heavily on our side.

The tribute paid to Sir Anthony Eden by the hon. Member for Dudley was a generous tribute, and I think that broadly speaking it was couched in words with which hon. Members of his party could fully agree. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I would have thought so. The tribute paid to Sir Anthony Eden tonight was very different from the sort of tone which I remember during the debates which took place two years ago when the Suez operation was not quite as successful as some of us had hoped. I hope to prove, in the course of the few minutes which I wish to occupy the House this evening that the arguments for taking action, in spite of the disadvantages of geography, to which my right hon. Friend referred, greatly outweighed the argument for doing absolutely nothing at all, which was, broadly speaking, the case of the Opposition.

I believe that the public at large at the next election will judge the Suez operation simply and solely upon the issue of whether it was better to take action, even though the action was not 100 per cent. successful, than to do nothing at all. If the party opposite thinks that there is any electoral advantage to be gained from this, perhaps it will have some second thoughts. Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but I wonder whether in retrospect all hon. Members opposite are very proud of the antics, if I may put it politely like that, of the right hon. Lady the Member for Warrington (Dr. Summerskill) when she went off to Port Said shortly after the operation was over and claimed some kind of Nordic nationality.

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition is, of course, absolutely entitled to state his views in a broadcast, although the views expressed in his broadcast were rather different from those which he had expressed earlier. I am not absolutely certain whether in retrospect it will be thought that what he said and the time he chose to say it will be an electoral winner to the troops who were in action at the time.

At the time of Suez, of course, the House was deeply divided. It was more divided than I had known it at any time since I had been in the House, and, of course, feelings ran very high. There is no mistake about that, but there are a number of facts which ought to be faced. They are facts which are indisputable, whatever view anybody takes, on whatever side of the House.

The first fact is that for the previous two or three months leading up to November, 1956, there was mounting tension on the Israeli-Egyptian border. I do not think that anybody in his senses would dispute that fact. So much so that in the months of August and September no fewer than 148 Arabs and Israelis were killed in frontier incidents of one sort or another. So much so that General Burns himself stated that the tension was worse than he had ever known before and he forecast a major flare-up at any moment. I do not think there is any dispute about those facts. Whether they are palatable or not is another matter.

The second fact is that the United Nations had already had by that time about—I forget the actual figure-200 meetings in an attempt to settle the dispute between the Israelis and the Egyptians on the frontier without any successful result at all. The third fact is that the Israelis suddenly, within a week, mobilised. They advanced into Sinai and cleaned up the bulk of the Egyptian army in Sinai. I will not argue whether that army was composed of first-class or second-class troops. I do not know. The Israelis were advancing towards the Canal within a matter of hours. Having got to the Canal, there was nothing to stop them getting across, and, having got across there would have been nothing to prevent them advancing from Ismailia along the Cairo road. [Interruption.] Will any hon. Gentleman opposite deny that there was mounting tension on the Israeli-Egyptian frontier?

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

We do not know. The hon. Member has asked for an intervention. We have heard from the right hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Head) what a difficult operation it was for us. Why on earth should we bring that operation on ourselves by putting an ultimatum to the Israelis to stop them doing the job for us?

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

I am very grateful to the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget).

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

The hon. and learned Member's intervention is a complete answer to the charge of collusion. The hon. and learned Member is not always quite as clever as he thinks he is. His intervention knocks out the charge of collusion. If there had been collusion, it would have been exactly on the lines he suggested. The party opposite cannot have it both days—[Laughter.]—and nor can hon. Members opposite laugh it off. If they want to allege collusion, then the right way to have had collusion would have been to allow the Israelis to do the job for us, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said. The very fact that the Government did not do that, is a complete answer to that charge.

The issue with which the Government were faced two years ago was simply whether action was to be taken in spite of all its appalling difficulties and uncertainties, or whether no action was to be taken at all. Faced with that position, any Government would have had to make up their minds on this extremely difficult problem. Of course, all the arguments were not on one side. They never are. It is a question of the balance of advantage.

The Opposition's case was that we should not have taken action, that we should have allowed the Israelis to go on to the Suez Canal, allowed them to cross the Canal, to march towards Cairo, while we hopefully asked the United Nations to intervene, in the meantime going on our knees and praying that the conflict would be confined to Egypt and Israel and that no other Arab State would intervene. That is a policy which no Government in their senses, certainly no responsible Government, could conceivably have undertaken.

I want now to deal with the timetable on which the United Nations acted. Hon. Gentlemen opposite say that we should have left all this to the United Nations. Why did we not do so? We intervened in the Canal Zone dispute, firstly, to achieve a cease fire between Egypt and Israel; secondly, to secure the passage of ships through the Canal;—

Mr. Paget rose

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

—thirdly, to separate the two combatants—the Israelis were already within ten miles of it—and, fourthly, to enable a United Nations force as soon as possible to take over from us. In two of those objectives we succeeded and in the other two we did not succeed.

Let me come to what the United Nations did. Hon. Gentlemen opposite say that the United Nations is set up to deal with these kind of events and that no Government should act on their own. However, everyone must recognise that by its composition, its rules and membership the United Nations is completely unable to move quickly enough to prevent that kind of flare-up spreading. It is quite impossible. The United Nations resolution to send a special force to the Middle East was passed on 3rd November. It was not until 12th November, nine days later, that the advance party consisting of Mr. Hammarskjöld and a few other officials, so far as I recollect, landed in Naples.

When they landed in Naples, they were completely stuck and were dependent on someone providing them with American aircraft to fly on to Port Said to see what

was happening. It was not until 16th November that the advance party of United Nations troops arrived. As far as I remember, that was a force consisting of a few Danes or Norwegians. They arrived in Naples on 16th November and they, too, were stuck and had to be ferried by United States aircraft to Port Said.

This airlift, so to speak, was built up in the course of the next month, but it was not until 13th December, nearly five weeks after the original resolution was passed, that a United Nations force of 3,600 or 3,700 men landed in Port Said.

Mr. Bevan

This is irrelevant.

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

It is not irrelevant, because this is the Opposition argument. The Opposition argue that we should have dealt with this affair by leaving it to the United Nations. The United Nations force landed without maintenance arrangements. with different arms and ammunition, with no vehicles, no training, no orders. no common language. They would have been quite unable to operate in any way but for the fact that the British and French were in control of the base at Port Said and gave them the vehicles and facilities.

The other thing which should be mentioned is that the United Nations Force is still there. I agree that it is smaller in number, but it is on the Egyptian-Israeli frontier. The Egyptians may not like it, the Israelis may not like it, but the fact remains that by the presence of that United Nations Force the incidents on the Egyptian-Israeli frontier have been reduced to reasonable proportions.

It is not unfair to claim that by its intervention in Suez, the British Government stopped the fighting—that is true. It certainly provided facilities without which a United Nations force, for the first time in history except for Korea, was able to function. It certainly injected into the United Nations some sort of sense of responsibility for what it was undertaking. I believe that history will record that our intervention in this dispute to put out the fire before it spread was right, and that history will also record that the attitude of the Opposition was a most sorry affair and that the less said about it, the better.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Mr. Soames.

Mr. Bevan

On a point of procedure, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. A great deal of the time of this debate has been taken up by a purely irrelevant filibustering speech. [HON. MEMBERS: "It was not irrelevant."] The Secretary of State for War is to be asked a plain question. There is no need for a long speech about it. Are we to have a Select Committee or not? The right hon. Gentleman does not need 20 minutes to answer that.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I call Mr. Soames.

Mr. W. Yates

On a point of Order. [Interruption.] The Patronage Secretary can wait. If I wish to put a point of order in the House, I will put it. Was it correct, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Redmayne) turned to you and said, "Do not call Yates"?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

That is not a point of order. It is not correct.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

Further to that point of order. [Interruption.] I notice that hon. Members opposite are frightened about the possibility of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) intervening. The hon. Member for Windsor (Sir C. MottRadclyffe) made a number of allegations against the Opposition. Is it reasonable that the Opposition should not have an opportunity of replying to those allegations?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am sorry if there is not enough time. I have called Mr. Soames.

10.12 p.m.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. Christopher Soames)

As I understand this debate, it is an Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) on matters affecting Suez and the Keightley dispatches and it will have lasted an hour and a half. The House will be glad that it was found possible—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—for arrangements to be made for this debate to take place.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

On a point of order. Is it not the custom in this House that hon. Members are called alternately from either side, and, when two Privy Councillors stand at the same time, is it not following custom for the one on the side due to be called, to be called?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

The practice is to call the Minister who will reply to the debate.

Hon. Members


Mr. Soames

I will endeavour, first, to deal with the three-—

Mr. Paget

On a point of order. When the Government put up one of their supporters to make a barefaced filibuster and then the Opposition Front Bench speaker, a Privy Councillor, gets up, desiring to give the Opposition answer, is it fair or customary to cut out the Opposition because a deliberate Government filibuster has been put up?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. and learned Member cannot dispute whether it was right or wrong to call the hon. Member. I have called Mr. Soames.

Mr. Bevan

As Mr. Speaker has now arrived in the Chamber, will you be good enough to allow him to take the Chair, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, so that I may put a point of order to him? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] As one who has been a Member of the House for many years, may I be allowed to put to Mr. Speaker a complaint against your behaviour?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The right hon. Member can put anything to Mr. Speaker when Mr. Speaker is in the Chair.

Mr. Bevan

Would you be good enough—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sit down."] As Mr. Speaker is your superior, why do you not leave the Chair and allow him to answer?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I shall leave the Chair when Mr. Speaker wishes to take over.

Mr. Bevan

Mr. Speaker, I wish to put to you a complaint about your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy-Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I could not entertain that. If there is any complaint about Mr. Deputy-Speaker it must be put in the form of a substantive Motion.

Mr. Bevan

Will you please be good enough, Mr. Speaker, to give me your advice? There has been a debate on the Adjournment this evening, opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg). It was supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) and then there was a long speech made from the other side of the House and a speech by the right hon. Member for Carshalton (Mr. Head). [HON. MEMBERS: "That was before."] It does not matter about the order at all. There was a long speech made by another hon. Member on the Government benches and no opportunity at all had been provided for the Front Bench on this side of the House. I rose to speak and Mr. Deputy-Speaker called the Secretary of State for War, thus denying the Opposition any opportunity of answering charges made against us.

Mr. Speaker

I repeat what I said. Any complaint against Mr. Deputy Speaker must be put in the form of a substantive Motion, but I would remind the right hon. Member and the House that this is an Adjournment Motion on a subject raised by an hon. Member, who, normally, is entitled to a reply from the Government to what he has said. I should think it quite proper that the Government should be allowed to reply to his attack upon them, if that is so. The Government ought to answer the charges which have been made. That is always accepted. An hon. Member raises a matter on the Adjournment and he would be very disappointed if a Minister did not reply and give some sort of answer.

As to the strict alternation of parties, one tries to do that as much as one can. The Chair always does that, but the trouble is the rule that a Minister should reply to charges made on an Adjournment Motion. I think that the House ought to listen to the Secretary of State for War, who, I understand, was called.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I put this point to you, Mr. Speaker? You will recollect some exchanges of view in the House a day or two ago about the possibility of a debate on the Christmas Adjournment, when we were informed by some hon. Members that they intended to raise certain issues, one of them being Suez. Following that, discussions took place between the usual channels and as a result this was an arranged debate this evening on the Adjournment. It is not

surprising, as very frequently there are arranged debates on the Adjournment. Of course, this had one grave disadvantage, that the time was limited as it would not have been limited unless the Closure had been moved on the Christmas Adjournment Motion.

I submit to you that in those circumstances, following the fact that two hon. Members from each side of the House have spoken and the last hon. Member who spoke made a number of attacks on the Opposition, it would have been only fair and correct to allow my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale to make a brief reply to those attacks before the Minister replied. I ask that that should he reconsidered.

Mr. Speaker

I am afraid that I am bound by what has been done. I do not see that Mr. Deputy-Speaker had any choice but to call the Minister to reply to the debate. If hon. Members will look at the order of the debate, I do not think that they will consider that it has been one-sided. There have been speeches from either side.

Mr. Soames

I was hoping—

Mr. George Lawson (Motherwell)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before the Secretary of State for War was called I distinctly heard Mr. Deputy-Speaker call "Mr. Bevan." Is it in order, in those circumstances, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) should not continue, as he was called first?

Mr. Speaker

I cannot vouch for that. Mr. Lawson: I distinctly heard it.

Mr. Speaker

Any complaint against Mr. Deputy-Speaker must be put in the form of a Motion.

Mr. Soames

I was hoping to be able to answer at some length, though, I hope, at not too great length, the points raised by the hon. Member for Dudley and the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Grossman) about the setting up of an inquiry. Time does not permit me to go into much detail on that, but there were various reasons put forward by those hon. Members about why they thought that a committee of inquiry, or a Select Committee, should be set up.

The hon. Member for Coventry, East. I understand, rested his case largely on the fact that there was not sufficient knowledge about the military aspects of the operation and he referred to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton (Mr. Head) had said. He said that my right hon. Friend was quoting from secret papers and that the hon. Member, like many others, had not access to those secret papers and, therefore, would it not be better if they were published? There was nothing which my right hon. Friend said which was not in the Keightley despatches. The hon. Member for Dudley knows about it. Because the hon. Member has not studied this, he thinks that a committee of inquiry set up to examine what he has not given sufficient study to himself.

Mr. Crossman rose

Mr. Soames

I cannot give way. The military aspect of the operation has been well set out in the Keightley dispatches. I know that the hon. Member regrets that they have not been debated in more detail, but he knows the reason for that better than I.

On the political aspect of what led up to the Suez campaign, we have had two debates.

Mr. Wigg rose

Mr. Soames

The hon. Member knows that in normal circustanmes I should be delighted to give way to him, but there is no time. We had two debates on this subject, in December, 1956, and February, 1957. Those charges have been made and the Government have answered them, and the Government are of the opinion that there is no reason why a committee of inquiry should be set up.

The hon. Member for Coventry, East has raised once more, in his inimitable way, a number of charges which we have heard over and over again. They are charges of incompetence, political interference with miltary operations, collusion, and all the rest. We have been all over that before, and he has certainly said nothing new.

It is important for those who are trying to judge this issue to bear in mind the background against which hon. Members make these charges and the difference of attitude and approach between the Government and the Opposition to the whole problem and conduct of the operation. The Government believed that the operation was necessary in the country's interest. The Opposition did not, and they did their best to prevent it by a campaign both in the House and outside. They took a view. We did not agree with it, but it was certainly perfectly reasonable that they should resort to every constitutional measure to endeavour, as the right hon. Gentleman said at the time, to get their view accepted. It was not accepted, and British troops were launched into battle.

There were those in this country who took the view, to a greater or lesser degree, for different reasons, some on moral grounds and others on military grounds, that the operation should not be launched; but once it had been launched, and British troops were engaged, it was not for them to say or do anything which would make the task of our troops harder. At best, they supported it; at worst, they kept silent. But alas, that was not the attitude adopted by Her Majesty's Opposition. Having failed in what can clearly be represented as a perfectly reasonable endeavour to prevent an operation in which they had no heart and with which they did not agree they continued to attack it even after it had been launched and put every obstacle they could in the way of its successful conclusion.

Of course they realised that if the operation were to fail our country's prestige and our interests in the Middle East would suffer. Did that worry them? Not a bit. Nor did they stop to think of the effects which their actions and their words would have upon our troops, committed to battle for better or for worse.

This is all old ground which we are covering today. How comes it, after nearly two years have gone by, with barely a mention of the Suez operations in the House, that hon. Members opposite choose this time to rake up their accusations again? [HON. MEMBERS: "Mr. Randolph Churchill."] I was not aware that the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale governed his actions by what journalists wrote.

It is, in my view—and I think it will be so regarded in the country—a matter of satisfaction to the Government and a great compliment to them that such efforts should have been made by hon. Members opposite on the eve of the 1958 Christmas Recess to debate something which happened two years ago and which was debated at length in 1956 and in February, 1957. Nothing could be a. clearer sign of the barrenness of the Opposition's attack upon the Government.

As to what happened at the time, nothing can excuse the attitude and actions of the Opposition from the time that our troops were launched into battle. They showed themselves to be a party which would willingly sacrifice the prestige of the country for a political aim. They showed themselves lacking in patriotism. and as such they will be judged.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Aneurin Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

The Opposition are not basing their request for a Select Committee upon newspaper articles. They are basing it upon three new facts, one of which has emerged this evening from the speech of the ex-Secretary of State for War, in which he accused his ex-colleagues of having deliberately planned what they knew to

be almost a suicidal operation and then run away from its consumation.

The second fact is that the Prime Minister has stated that he is prepared to have an inquest upon this matter. We think it is not possible for a jury to render a verdict if the facts are not disclosed to them.

Mr. Head rose

Mr. Bevan

I cannot give way. The third reason is that the principal witness to give evidence has now sufficiently recovered his health as to he able to write his memoirs on the subject. Those three facts together constitute a reason for having a committee of inquiry.

Mr. Head

Before the right hon. Gentleman sits down—

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.