The Suez Canal was one of the keystones of Britain’s overseas empire and trade routes. It was because of the Canal, bought by Britain in 1875, soon after it was completed, that Britain became the ruling power in Egypt during the 1880s. The Suez Canal was the main artery connecting trade routes through to the Indian Ocean and beyond to Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Above all, the Suez Canal was the vital route for oil shipments: 80 per cent of Western Europe’s oil imports passed through the canal.
Eden was quick to see Nasser as ‘an evil dictator who could not be allowed to get away with unprovoked aggression’ and a danger to stability in Africa. Most of Eden’s cabinet, including the Chancellor, Macmillan, were minded to take drastic action and not wait for a long, slow diplomatic process.
Eden’s natural instinct to use force was encouraged by both France and Israel. The French government was fearful of Nasser’s influence undermining French colonies in North Africa. Israel was keen to make a pre-emptive military strike against Egypt as part of the ongoing struggle for survival. The result was collusion in a conspiracy. Israeli forces would invade Egypt; British and French forces would then intervene. The excuse for intervention would be to enforce peace on Egypt and Israel; the real effect would be to seize control of the Suez Canal zone. The details of this plan were concealed from most of the cabinet and from the Americans.
Pressure from the United States halted Eden’s Suez adventure in its track. The Joint Intelligence Committee had warned Eden that the United States might take a negative view of military intervention at Suez. However, there was evidence that the American state department was willing to accept British seizure of the canal as long as it was done quickly. Britain was simply not strong enough in 1956 to stand up to American pressure; Britain was plunged into a serious financial crisis.
After the Suez fiasco, British policymakers began to reconsider the pace of decolonisation. In 1957, Ghana became the first of Britain’s African colonies to be granted independence. Malaya also gained independence in 1957, followed by the West Indies Federation in 1958 and others including Nigeria and Cyprus in 1960, Tanganyika and Sierra Leone in 1961, Uganda in 1962, Kenya in 1963. The accelerating pace of this rush to independence was the subject of Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ speech in Cape Town, South Africa in 1960. The difficult struggle to contain the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya reinforced Macmillan’s view of the need to recognise and adapt to the wind of change. In retrospect, the policy followed by Macmillan and Macleod was extremely successful. The process did not always go as planned, but British decolonisation was completed more swiftly and with far less violence than was the case with other colonial powers such as Belgium and Portugal. By 1964, the transition from empire to commonwealth seemed to represent a significant achievement.
When the process leading towards European integration began, there was an open opportunity for Britain to take a central role. The Schuman Plan of 1950 set out the proposals for a Coal and Steel Community that would integrate French and German heavy industry in order to promote rapid economic reconstruction and also to bind together the historic enemies, France and Germany, and eliminate the dangers of future wars between them.
The Schuman Plan was to be the foundation of economic cooperation across Western Europe. This scheme was strongly supported by Britain and the United States as an important contribution to the security of Europe as the Cold War took shape. At any time up to 1957, there was an open door for British entry to the EEC; but Britain saw European integration as something vitally important for continental Europe, not for Britain.
In 1959, Britain took the lead in the formation of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) linking the economies of Britain, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Portugal and Switzerland. This was only moderately successful and Britain submitted an application for membership of the EEC in 1961. This was due to economic considerations and important foreign policy aims. Britain wanted to keep her position in three areas of world affairs: Europe, the Commonwealth and the United States. The Americans were very much in favour of Britain joining the EEC. Britain was determined to keep her links to the Commonwealth; although this made the negotiations with the EEC extremely complex and difficult.
By 1961, however, European integration was already leaving Britain behind. The EEC was under the domination of the partnership between France and Germany. The French president from 1958, Charles de Gaulle, was determined to protect this partnership from ‘les Anglo-Saxons’ (Britain and, through Britain, the influence of the United States). The British application was rejected in 1963, as was a later application from Wilson’s Labour government in 1967. Only in 1973, after de Gaulle had departed the scene, was Britain able to join, by which time many commentators suggested Britain had ‘missed the European bus’.
The reasons Britain did not join the EEC originally:
The Labour Party was suspicious of the free-market principles behind the Common Market. The response of the Labour politician, Herbert Morrison was that: ‘the Durham miners won’t wear it, I’m afraid’.
The vast majority of Conservatives regarded the preservation of traditional trade links with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand as far more important than Europe.
The thinking of many people in Britain was also coloured by memories of the war. Britain had ‘won the war’. The Germans had been deadly wartime enemies; France had been overrun and occupied. The key political leaders in Britain, Attlee, Churchill, Eden, were all men of the wartime generation. There was little enthusiasm for what was going on in continental Europe and many people still had illusions about Britain being a great world power. The economic advantages of the EEC were disregarded. British foreign policy, therefore, was to encourage European integration from the sidelines but not to get involved.
The EEC took shape at an international conference at Messina, in Sicily, in 1955. The six member states, France, West Germany, Italy and the ‘Benelux countries’ (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) hammered out the complex arrangements for a Common Market and the bureaucracy that would run it. The agreements made at Messina in 1955 were developed into the Treaty of Rome launched by the EEC, without Britain, in January 1957. At that time, it was not clear how successful ‘The Six would become. British foreign policy was focused on the Cold War, on the Empire and the Commonwealth, on the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.
The fundamental reason why Britain changed its mind about the EEC was economic: the realisation that the patterns of trade that had existed in the 1930s were no longer sufficient for Britain to keep pace with continental Europe.
The United States was keen to see Britain join the EEC for strategic reasons, seeing Britain as a vital link between Europe and Americans. The massive crisis overlying Berlin in 1958 accentuated this. The shift in British policy became apparent in May 1960, when Britain became one of the seven founder members of EFTA alongside Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal. It was hoped that this ‘Outer Seven’ would provide an effective alternative to the six original members of the EEC but such hopes were never really fulfilled. Less than a year later Britain applied to join the EEC.
Having taken the decision to apply for membership in 1961, the Macmillan government then faced a massive task in negotiating the terms of entry. The EEC had already developed detailed economic structures, especially the Common Agricultural Policy, that Britain found difficult to conform to. It was also hugely difficult to negotiate special exemptions for Britain’s Commonwealth trade partners, such as lamb exports from New Zealand, which would have been blocked by EEC rules.
The French President, Charles de Gaulle, exercised France’s right of veto and blocked Britain’s application. The other five members of the EEC were as shocked as disappointed.
In 1951 Britain was already deeply embroiled in the Cold War. British troops were fighting in the Korean War as part of the United Nations force opposing North Korea. Britain had become a founder member of NATO in 1949 and substantial contingents of British troops were stationed in West Germany. There was close cooperation between Britain and the United States on nuclear weapons development and the sharing of intelligence secrets.
On the other hand, Britain was still militarily overstretched and very dependant upon American power. This was demonstrated by the costs of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. In 1960, Britain’s own rocket project, Blue Streak, had to be abandoned. It was replaced by dependence on the American Polaris submarine weapons system. When the Wilson government came to power in 1964 it had to confront the need for deep cuts in Britain’s military commitments.