Bernard Ingham: Six decades on from Suez, May must stick to her guns

British troops in Egypt during the Suez Canal crisis.
British troops in Egypt during the Suez Canal crisis.
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SIXTY years ago come Saturday, Israel, the UK and France invaded Egypt to recover Western control of the Suez Canal and get rid of President Nasser who had nationalised the waterway.

And, after all these years, we still have not got our relations right with the Arab world – or, for that matter, with the USA who, along with the USSR and the UN, forced us to abandon the Suez campaign after only nine days.

The invasion attained most of its military objectives. But it was a hollow victory – if the humiliating end deserves such a verdict – since the Egyptians blocked the canal. It did not reopen for six months.

What a mess.

It is supposed to have ended our role as a major world power. No doubt it fuelled France’s anti-Americanism. It also introduced a new wariness into Anglo-American relations that may have helped Harold Wilson keep us out of Vietnam.

Since then, relations between London and Washington have swung from Ted Heath’s distance to Tony Blair’s poodledom. General de Gaulle found us too Atlanticist for membership of the old Common Market while US president after president has since initially looked to Germany as the European leader until they discovered that the UK was their only reliable ally.

Margaret Thatcher did not entirely escape the American lap-dog charge, even though she considered it her friendly duty to treat the venerable President Reagan like a naughty schoolboy when he invaded Grenada and suggested to Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik that they should get rid of nuclear weapons.

As Reagan discovered, she had a most unpoodle-like bite when she thought the occasion demanded it. “Gee, honey, don’t go on so,” he is reported to have said during her tirade over Grenada.

Theresa May is heiress to all this remarkable history. She will need all of Captain Cook’s navigational skills and all of Thatcher’s unwavering attachment to principle and a plain-spoken approach to the USA and Russia alike if she is to negotiate the rapids of foreign policy.

Her position is complicated by the world’s attachment to a failing embryonic state called the EU which we are leaving.

One wonders where President Obama has been these last eight years in putting us “at the back of the queue” for a trade deal. The major Commonwealth nations have more sense.

May’s problems are compounded by the Arab Spring giving way to a raw winter, marked by a Muslim fanaticism that wages suicidal war against the Western infidel and ravages the Middle East, killing its own folk by the thousand in atrocities. Shia v Sunni makes Protestants v Catholics in Northern Ireland look like a study in restraint.

Vladimir Putin judges everybody by his own expansionism and cannot get it into his head that the West covets none of his territory – only defence against his ambitions. He is, to put it mildly, a damned – and dangerous – nuisance. Meanwhile, the Chinese seek an obtrusive finger in every potentially lucrative Western pie.

To all this, I add those old nettles – the Argentine claim to the Falklands; the international hypocrisy over so-called climate change that is imposing unnecessary costs on British consumers; and the dodgy world economy weighed down with debt.

So what should May do? The answer is simple – make a success of Brexit and the economy. If, in the process, she defines the principles of her governance and then wins the world’s respect by straight-talking and straight dealing in tirelessly seeking peace and prosperity with security, she will amply serve the British national interest.

She made a very good start in Brussels by effectively telling EU leaders to grow up. It will be very salutary for the world if Theresa May stalks it like Margaret Thatcher, never hesitating to be helpful but always leaving her company knowing where they stand.

I shall never forget that evening in the Moscow hills when Thatcher told me that Soviet generals in her company confessed that they had never expected Britain to try to recover the Falklands. They then knew Britain was no soft touch.

I cannot commend too strongly to Theresa May the Teddy Roosevelt recipe of “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Our big stick is somewhat smaller than it used to be but it is a deterrent. She now needs to clothe it with good, positive intentions from which the world will benefit.

The alternative is Jeremy Corbyn’s crystal clear foreign policy: collapse before the first whiff of grapeshot. He would have spared us Suez, but not much else.