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Reference group
Suez group (act. 1953–1957) was a group of Conservative MPs who opposed their party's leadership in order to resist Britain's withdrawal from the Suez Canal base in 1954. They then sought to pressure the government of Sir Anthony Eden into using force in the Suez crisis, and to maintain Britain's continued military presence at the canal zone after the Anglo-French intervention in November 1956. Their arguments in support of a robust stand against radical Arab nationalism, which they believed to be fostered by the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, were founded on the need to uphold Britain's power and prestige in a key strategic region.

The core of the Suez group numbered about forty dissident MPs, but during the height of the Suez crisis (July–December 1956) their number swelled to about 100. Their formal leader was Captain Charles Waterhouse, while Julian Amery provided most of the organization, initiative, and intellectual drive. Julian's father, Leo Amery (Winston Churchill's wartime secretary of state for India) supported the group's political activities until his death in 1955: many of the Suez group's meetings were held at the Amerys' house in Eaton Square. Other leading back-bench members included: Enoch Powell; Victor Montagu, Lord Hinchingbrooke (heir to the earl of Sandwich); Sir Harry Legge-Bourke; Sir (Ernest) Guy Richard Lloyd (1890–1987); Ralph Assheton, who in 1955 became first Baron Clitheroe; and Angus Maude. Another sympathetic leading back-bencher was John Granville Morrison (1906–1996), later first Baron Margadale, who was chairman of the 1922 committee of Conservative MPs. There was also a small but very influential Conservative group in the House of Lords, including lords Vansittart, Killearn, Hankey, and Rennell, with whom the Suez group MPs co-ordinated their pressure on the Conservative leadership.

The Suez group had an eclectic political complexion: it comprised members who had supported the Chamberlain government's pre-war policy of appeasement, as well as younger, keen supporters of European integration. Many members were older, diehard imperialists, but Powell and Maude were also founder members of the ‘one nation’ group, formed from the 1950 intake of Conservative MPs. (Powell left the Suez group in 1954, as did Legge-Bourke.) Waterhouse and Assheton were also leading members of an economic back-bench ginger group between 1951 and 1955. Over a quarter of the core Suez group were also members of Progress Trust, a key Conservative back-bench forum in the 1940s and 1950s.

The Suez group's intellectual point of unity was the need for a continued British military presence in the ‘informal empire’ of the Middle East, whose strategic value to the empire and Commonwealth had been underlined by the challenges of the cold war, the rising demands of Arab nationalism, and the growing threat of American commercial interests. The formative experiences of this back-bench faction were the débâcle over withdrawal from Palestine in 1946–8, and the failure of Attlee's Labour government to maintain a British presence at the Abadan refinery on the Persian Gulf after the government of Moussadeq announced the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951.

While the Conservatives were in opposition this remained an inchoate group, though there was growing concern over Egyptian pressure for the removal of the substantial British base, compounded by rising violence against British troops and installations in the Suez Canal zone. The catalytic point for the formation of the formal Suez group came after the Conservatives were returned to power (October 1951), when the brief internal furore over independence for the Sudan led to the formation of a discrete pressure group over the issue of the future of the Suez base. The Suez group used both parliamentary and media pressure to publicize their cause. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, also sought to use the existence of this back-bench faction to press his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, into a more hardline stance in the negotiations with Egypt. On 29 July 1954 twenty-six back-bench dissidents, led by Waterhouse, voted against the ratification of the agreement negotiated by Eden with the Egyptians. Despite this pressure, in October 1954 the phased withdrawal of British troops from the Suez Canal base was formally agreed. The last British troops withdrew in June 1956; in July 1956 Nasser announced the nationalization of the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company, responsible for the management and navigation of the Suez Canal.

During the Suez crisis the Suez group became the most active and vocal section of the Conservative Party, consistently calling for the use of force to uphold British interests. Julian Amery and his Suez group colleague Lieutenant-Colonel Neil McLean also became a key element of British subversive action against Nasser. It was hoped that first the threat then the fact of military force would stimulate domestic upheaval against Nasser and would lead to his replacement by a pro-Western alternative Egyptian government. After the British secret service's dissident networks in Egypt were arrested, Amery and McLean used their contacts with a variety of exiled Egyptian dissident politicians and groups. However, the Anglo-French invasion, ostensibly to separate the Israeli and Egyptian forces in late October and early November 1956, failed to produce the anticipated anti-Nasser uprising in Egypt. When, as a result of American financial and political pressure, Eden unexpectedly called a halt to the British intervention in November 1956, the Suez group demanded the maintenance of a British military presence in the canal zone and nearly succeeded in splitting the Conservative Party on the issue. Thanks to the herculean efforts of Edward Heath, the chief whip, only fifteen Suez group MPs abstained from supporting the government on 6 December 1956, when a motion approving the decision not to form part of the UN intervention force was debated.

By early 1957 the Suez group was essentially a spent political force: Amery had joined the government and Waterhouse was no longer in a rebellious mood. Lacking a forceful leader, the dissidents' attempts to prevent Britain's capitulation to Nasser failed. In May 1957, when Harold Macmillan (who had succeeded Eden as prime minister in January) announced that British ships would again use the Suez Canal, eight Conservatives resigned the party whip in protest. A small diehard band of six sat as independents until June 1958. So ended ‘a small, but brave political adventure’ (Daily Express, 13 May 1958).

The Suez group represented a continuum of political thought within the Conservative Party that dated back to the battle for tariff reform in 1903–11 and 1921–3 and was also evident in resistance to rapid moves towards self-government for India in the 1930s, opposition to the Yalta agreement of 1945 and to withdrawal from Palestine and Persia (the Abadan crisis of 1950–51), dissent on withdrawal from Cyprus in the 1950s, support for the minority regime in Rhodesia (1964–79), and arch-scepticism towards European integration, as expressed by the ‘Maastricht rebels’ of the 1990s. For the Suez group, the unifying theme of ‘Britain and empire’, and Britain's corresponding global role, represented an opportunity to develop an alternative power grouping during the cold war.

Sue Onslow

Sources  

S. Onslow, Backbench debate within the Conservative Party and its influence on British foreign policy, 1948–57 (1997) · S. Onslow, ‘Battlelines for Suez: the Conservative party and the Abadan crisis of 1950–1951’, Contemporary British History, 17/2 (2003), 1–28 · S. Onslow, ‘Unreconstructed nationalists and a minor gunboat operation: Julian Amery, Neil McLean, and the Suez crisis’, Contemporary British History, 20/1 (2006), 73–99 · D. Dutton, Anthony Eden: a life and reputation (1997) · K. Kyle, Suez (1991) · W. S. Lucas, Divided we stand: Britain, the US and the Suez crisis (1991)