Britain and national trauma, then and now
Britain is facing a national crisis comparable to her position in 1940 and the Suez Crisis of 1956.
Measuring crisis is difficult. One argument is that the world has always been in a state of constant crisis, and that the events since the June 2016 Brexit referendum are linked to a greater period of chaos. However, in the year since the vote to leave the European Union, Britain has found herself in a state of trauma not seen in a generation. The vote has left Britain isolated in the world of international affairs, at a crossroads between its former ties with the Commonwealth, its ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States, and its future partnership with the EU.
Comparisons can be made with the war in 1940 and Suez in 1956. Although both these events were military confrontations – something that is not a factor today – the comparative diplomatic fallout and the impact on Britain’s world position are striking. In May 1940 France was invaded and defeated in six weeks. Britain stood alone in the world. Isolated and at her weakest point in living memory; many at home and abroad expected a peace treaty with Hitler. Instead, Britain repositioned her place in the world away from the alliance with France and into a partnership with Washington. This was made possible after most of Western Europe fell under Nazi control. Whilst Britain had avoided defeat in the war, it soon became clear America and the USSR were the world’s only superpowers. Britain in 1940 was vulnerable – the war set in motion years of financial and imperial decline.
Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalised the Anglo-French owned Suez Canal in June 1956. It was as an embarrassment to Britain and unacceptable to prime minster Anthony Eden. Britain’s role in world was severely damaged, Eden resigned and a retreat from the world – which had already begun – gathered pace. In the heyday of empire, the canal was a crucial artery connecting the metropole to India and beyond. Until 1956, the ‘canal-zone’ – a huge military base adjacent to Suez – had allowed Britain to station thousands of troops on Egyptian soil. The nationalisation of the canal came just days after the British withdrawal.
After failing to achieve a favourable diplomatic resolution, Britain along with France and Israel, invaded Egypt on 29 October. Eden expected American support. He received none. America condemned the European aggressors, organised a ceasefire, introduced an international peace-keeping force and squeezed sterling to push Britain into submission. The result was humiliation. Forced into an embarrassing withdrawal, Suez proved who held the real power. Eden was forced to resign, and the episode remains a traumatic moment in British memory.
Today, Britain’s precarious position looked evident in Theresa May’s January visit to Washington. Her invitation to Trump for a UK state visit now looks like rash a move with little room to rescind. Desperate for a free trade agreement, May has consistently failed to speak out against her premier ally. This policy is not restricted to America. Earlier this year the Minister for International Trade, Dr Liam Fox, called upon Britain’s ‘shared values’ with controversial Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. On 17 January 2017 May delivered her ‘Global Britain’ speech at Lancaster House, celebrating Britain’s ‘most effective hard and soft power’. A crucial argument in the Brexit campaign was the global strength of our diplomacy and the potential to trade with the world. Yet Britain in 2017 appears to be a country more willing to deal with controversial regimes than to use its dwindling influence constructively. Further isolation is the greatest threat facing Brexit Britain and this national crisis evokes the trauma of Suez 1956 and the war in 1940.