The Labour Party and the Suez Canal

In view of the attitude taken up by the Labour Party in the Suez dispute it is worthwhile casting the mind back to the attitude of Labour Governments in 1924 and 1929 on this matter. The Labour Magazine for August, 1929, under the heading “Labour and Egypt,” contains the following quotation from a dispatch sent by Ramsay McDonald in 1924, as Labour Foreign Secretary:

“No British Government in the light of these experiences (meaning the war) can divest itself wholly even in favour of an ally, of its interest in guarding such a vital link in British negotiations (meaning, of course, the Suez Canal). Such a security must be a feature of any agreement come to between the two Governments, and I see no reason why accommodation is impossible, given goodwill. The effective co-operation of Great Britain and Egypt in protecting these negotiations, might, in my view, have been ensured by a treaty of close alliance. The presence of a British force in Egypt provided for by such a treaty, freely entered into by both parties on an equal footing, would in no way be incompatible with Egyptian independence. Whilst it would be an indication of the special close and intimate relations between the two countries, and their determination to co-operate in a matter of vital concern to both. It is not the wish of His Majesty’s Government that the force should in any way interfere with the functions of the Egyptian Government or encroach upon Egyptian sovereignty, and I emphatically said so.” (Pages 176-177.)

It will be noticed that this outlook is much the same as that put forward by the present Tory Government. However, negotiations fell through but the problem came up again during Labour’s 1929-1930 period of office. The Labour Magazine for September, 1929, contains the proposals made to Egypt by Henderson, the Labour Foreign Minister. Here is an extract from these proposals:

“An undertaking on the part of Egypt that if she requires military instructors these shall be British; when the British military forces now in Egypt are removed and certain British forces are permitted by Egypt to be maintained on Egyptian territory in the vicinity of the Suez Canal for the protection of that waterway, the presence of these forces is not to prejudice in any way the sovereign rights of Egypt; an undertaking that the Egyptian Government will, as a rule, when engaging the services of foreign officials, engage British subjects”

The summary of the proposals concludes with the following:

“modification of any treaty based on the proposals to be admissible only after the treaty has been in force for a period of 25 years.”

The article adds that Mr. Henderson said that these proposals are “the extreme limit to which the Government is prepared to go.”

Thus the Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929 wanted British forces to remain on Egyptian territory to safeguard the Suez Canal, and the 1929 treaty was to secure that this was so for the following 25 years—and it also included only British military instructors and British officials! What are the “sovereign rights” of a country in the eyes of Imperialists?

The November, 1929 issue of the Labour Magazine had an article on “The Labour Government’s offer to Egypt” containing a typical piece of Imperialist hypocrisy:

“Later, in the detailed working out of the proposals, we find that, while the occupation of Egypt is to end, the occupation of the banks of the Suez Canal is to continue. The Canal is indisputably Egyptian territory In fact, however, Egypt sees little, and thinks, less of it The Canal is in Egypt, but not of Egypt. The Egyptian life in the main goes on unheeding of the vast international traffic that traverses the waterway from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The grip of a country’s capital by foreign troops is one thing; the policing of a vastly important international highway is quite another. The former makes a mockery of national independence; the other—except on doctrinaire grounds—has but little relevancy to the question of national independence” (pages 303-304).

You see it all depends upon whether you look at the question from the point of view of Egyptian nationalism or British Imperialism. The Egyptians contend that as the canal is in Egypt it is in Egypt and consequently they have been trying to kick the British out since 1880. We have been taught that the Thames is an International highway, but if the Egyptians suggested sending a force here to protect it we very much doubt if the Labour Party would argue that the Thames is in England but not of England.

Finally, puzzle; find the difference between the outlook of the Labour and the Tory parties on the Suez Canal question; or, alternatively, which is the greatest humbug.

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