‘The benefits of partnership between Great Britain and the countries of the Middle East have never reached the ordinary people’, Ernest Bevin wrote to Halifax in October 1945, ‘and so our foreign policy has rested on too narrow a footing, mainly on the personalities of kings, princes or pashas. There is thus no vested interest among the peoples to remain with us because of benefits obtained. Hence it is easy for Great Britain to be blamed when difficulties arise.’ Bevin’s unsuccessful attempt to raise the standard of living of ‘peasants not pasha’ through economic and social development in the Middle East has usually been mocked as sentimental and ignorant. For John Saville, it amounted to little more than an old man’s vanity, which the career diplomats of the Foreign Office were prepared to indulge provided it did not disturb the familiar rhythms of Britain’s traditional alliances in the region. From the opposite end of the historiographical spectrum, Correlli Barnett has pilloried Bevin as a deluded ‘world fantasist’ obsessed by the fallacy that the Soviet Union was itching to acquire the marginal and poverty-stricken states of the Middle East and that as a consequence, Britain should pour scarce national resources into a fruitless attempt to develop them. However, between the lines of William Roger Louis’s account of British policy in the Middle East and in more detailed studies by Wesley Wark of the diplomat Sir John Troutbeck and by Paul Kingston of the Development Division of the British Middle East Office, a more sympathetic reading of Bevin’s policy can be found. The experiment repays study, not least for the intriguing light it casts both upon Labour perceptions of empire and upon the severe constraints under which any new departure in imperial policy operated.
The origins of Labour’s distinctive Middle Eastern policy are to be found in several developments. The first was the belief – new in Labour circles – that the British Empire-Commonwealth, if suitably reformed, might serve as a vehicle for the strengthening of socialism and prosperity at home and peace abroad. This view had been far from dominant in the Labour Party of the interwar years, when under the influence of Liberal refugees such as H.N.Brailsford, Leonard Woolf and J.A.Hobson, imperial policy had been dominated by the internationalist conviction that since competition for colonial raw materials and markets had been a prime cause of the recent global conflict, only the establishment of open diplomacy, regulated by democratic checks and controls, and the placing of colonies under international supervision might prevent a future war. By 1945, this had changed. Radical critics on the left had felt from the start that, in the absence of socialist victories at other metropoles, internationalising the empire would simply collapse into a form of collective colonialism. By 1940, with the failure of the League of Nations to fulfil the internationalists’ expectations and the apparent resilience of European colonial systems in the face of internal and external criticism, it now appeared even to Labour’s pragmatists that internationalists had placed too much faith in the benevolence of other nations and the power of international organizations. Most importantly of all, Labour had come to favour schemes for strong, centralized, state-led development and active trusteeship with the aim of transforming the colonial empire through economic planning, educational and technological development and scientific socialism. It was hard to see how these could occur without keeping, even strengthening, the framework of colonial rule.
Of course, Labour’s attachment to developing the empire was not merely a matter of ideological preference. It seemed to follow from the cold logic of Britain’s post-war economic and strategic position. In these calculations, the Middle East, delicately poised between the emerging superpowers and their conflicting post-war interests, was to play a central role. With the loss of the Indian Army, bases in the Middle East were essential bulwarks in Britain’s global defences. Airfields in Iraq offered a means of striking at the Soviet Union’s oil interests in Grozny and Baku. The Suez arsenal provided Britain with unrivalled military installations in the region and the ability to control the vital artery to the east through which dollar-free oil supplies and Egyptian cotton, each in their way essential for Britain’s industrial recovery, were brought. It lay at the heart of Britainís system of global communications to India, the Far East and Australia and its loss would force costly excursions around the Cape or across central Africa. Were Britain to weaken her presence, Soviet influence, already pressing hard at the northern tier of the region (Greece, Turkey, Iraq and above all Iran, where they remained in occupation until mid-1946) would swiftly move in, with exactly the same hideous consequences for British prestige and power as had occurred in eastern Europe. Soviet success in the Middle East would provide communism with a way in to India, Burma and Malaya and southern and western doors into Africa. For Bevin no less than Eden, therefore, the Middle East was Britainís jugular vein, to be protected at almost any cost. It was with these arguments and the aid of the Foreign Office and the Chiefs of Staff, that Bevin was able by the summer of 1947 to crush Attlee’s attempt to question Britain’s place in the Middle East. For Attlee, modern air power and decolonisation in Asia had rendered the historic role of the region as the gateway to the Indian Ocean redundant. It might be left as a huge and desolate buffer zone – a ‘wide glacis of desert and Arabs’ – between areas of British and Soviet influence. But Bevin’s view prevailed.
If the region was to play this part well, however, it had to be developed. ‘My whole aim’, Bevin wrote to Attlee in January 1947, ‘has been to develop the Middle East as a producing area to help our own economy and take the place of India.’ True, its economies were still weak and vulnerable, lacking the trained manpower necessary for high productivity in peacetime and effective defence in war. Its states were divided by ethnic and dynastic rivalries. But with measures to promote economic growth and regional defence reorganisation under British auspices, Bevin hoped, this could all change. ‘This was once a rich region’, he told Attlee, ‘and could be so again with good government and modern methods’. Besides its military and economic benefits, development would bring political stability to the region. Schemes of economic modernisation, in offering a better standard of living to the peasants and workers who benefited from them and political experience and authority to the educated classes who would be trained to administer them, would strengthen the case for future partnership with Britain. They would also undermine the arguments of radicals and communists both in the Middle East and the Soviet bloc that such ties were inherently exploitative. The sensitivity Britain showed in handling the nationalist demands of her colonies, after all, was a significant measure of her international moral reputation, and as such an important weapon in the propaganda of the cold war. To meet the Soviet challenge required an effective partnership with the United States and acquiring a reputation for liberalism at the United Nations and other international forums by replacing the language and practice of colonialism with that of partnership and development.
Bevin’s schemes for the Middle East drew on plans he had made with Cripps concerning India in the Second World War. These had been intended to bypass and disempower the Congress leadership and strike new alliances with the younger nationalists. They had been abandoned when Congress victories in the 1945 elections rendered them irrelevant. But many of the same ideas found their way into Labour’s plans for remaining parts of the Empire-Commonwealth, such as Cyprus and west and central Africa. In the Middle East, it took the form of Bevin’s attempt to harness the energies of Arab nationalism for new purposes. Force and coercion would not be used to repress nationalist political activity, except where this itself took the form of violence or terrorism. New treaties would make it clear that the British were keen on partnership, development and political progress. Socio-economic reform would divert anti-colonial feeling into nation-building, blunt the edge of anti-British criticism, and develop the prosperity and institutions which would enable democracy, when it came, to flourish.
Bevin’s plans failed almost wholly to achieve their objectives. When Churchill brought the Conservatives back to office in 1951, British power in the region rested largely on the old foundations. Negotiations to renew the treaties had either collapsed, as in Egypt, or had resulted in agreements that were almost immediately repudiated, as in Iraq and Transjordan, and Britainís presence in the region remained heavily dependent upon privileges secured under the old regimes, above all for the increasingly vulnerable soldiers in the costly and resented Suez base. Worse still, Bevinís cherished development plans were only implemented in the most limited way and never proved sufficient to win Britain popularity, let alone reshape Arab nationalism. Neither in India nor even in West Africa did Labour’s new imperial policy stem the tide of political agitation against British rule to any appreciable degree. But nowhere did it fail as spectacularly as in the Middle East.
This was largely because the constitutional structures through which the reforms were to be proposed, debated and implemented were unwieldy. Since the 1920s, only Palestine had been under direct British rule. Especially before the development of the region’s oil resources, Britain’s economic penetration had been relatively shallow and its cultural influences had never succeeded in making much impact upon established patterns of belief and social practice. British control was sustained much more through military and diplomatic supremacy than through the imposition of an administrative structure and the construction of networks of local collaborators, as was the case in Asia and Africa. The emerging party structures of the legislatures of Cairo and Baghdad lay largely outside the reach of British influence. Few credible intermediaries thus existed to publicise and argue for the worth of British socio-economic reforms. Lacking sufficient popular support to call for sacrifices on the part of the colonised themselves, the British found themselves able neither to explain the lure of development to those who might benefit from it nor anticipate likely objections.
There was, indeed, a contradiction at the heart of Bevin’s policy. Acceptance of British views, especially on questions of socio-economic reform, had to be won indirectly, through the careful courting of clients and the promotion of local initiative. This dictated a cautious and slow approach right from the start. His commitment to the principle of partnership debarred him from more energetic attempts to push reforms on reluctant pashas and governments.
Such a potentially abrasive process inevitably required copious supplies of lubrication. Unfortunately, this was in lamentably short supply. Proffering development aid to such allies was difficult to justify to hard-pressed British taxpayers. Without the ability to levy local taxes themselves, which – especially now that Egypt and Iraq were sterling creditors – would have made British-led development look somewhat like vicarious generosity, Bevin found his schemes lay at the mercy of the Treasury, which treated requests for overseas development with miserly parsimony, especially when they involved spending outside the dependent empire. Staffing and expertise proved hard to attract, and bureaucratic rivalries in London made matters worse. U.S. assistance with development might have helped, but the Americans wanted a swift return to free and private international trade, and American involvement meant that American firms would win the bulk of the contracts that resulted.
Bevin also failed to find his desired allies. For the ‘old guard’ of British allies, shaken and discredited by the reassertion of imperial power during the war, public association with the British was a dangerous gamble that threatened to expose them to their political rivals at their most vulnerable point: their inability to resist foreign domination. Bevin’s schemes required an army of British technicians, experts and advisers intervening in the way that merely created anti-foreigner feeling. Most of the Arab political elite preferred American plans for capitalist free trade as the best means of defending the region against communism,to Bevin’s socialist remedies. Younger nationalists feared that development aid would simply drain away into the old gutters of palace corruption and be used to consolidate the power of existing elites. To them, Bevin’s offer of development and a settlement of Anglo-Arab differences threatened the prospect not of partnership, but of a more permanent exclusion from power. Those who were interested in social reform were not interested in co-operation with the British, while those who were interested in co-operation with the British were not interested in social reform.
Above all there was the question of Palestine. In 1945, Bevin had hoped that the rising standards of living that development would bring might even ease the Palestinian situation, by softening the conflict for land and resources in the area and thereby allowing rates of Jewish immigration to be stepped up. Such optimism did not last for long. Broken promises on the questions of Jewish immigration and the Palestinian homeland, and Britain’s acquiescence in the creation of the state of Israel suggested to Arab leaders that British promises of security – and hence the military alliances of which they were part – were not worth having. Bevin was undoubtedly desperate that the resolution of the Palestinian problem should not be allowed to disrupt his attempts to build new alliances in the Arab world. But American pressure from without and the Zionist ties of the Labour Party within made it impossible for him to go further in meeting Arab demands for the suppression of Israel. In the poisonous atmosphere this created, plans to create a new Anglo-Arab understanding based on economic development were bound to be seen at best as an irrelevance. While Arab states remained uncertain and divided about the regional ambitions of the new Jewish state, there was little chance of British-led economic development being successful unless it was primarily directed towards military preparations for a war with Israel, rather than to the education, welfare and redistributive projects to benefit the least well-off that Labour favoured.
At the end of their efforts, therefore, Bevin and his Labour colleagues, like a small team of foreign developers struggling to complete an over-ambitious hydroelectric dam in hostile country, found their resources inadequate for the task, and the great river, whose force they had hoped might drive the turbines of British influence, impossible to divert.
The full version of this chapter appeared in Michael J. Cohen and Martin Kolinsky (eds.), Demise of the British Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s responses to nationalist movements, 1943-55 (London, 1998). You can find the book here.
IMAGE CREDIT: GERHARD RICHTER, DIE SPHINX VIN GIZEH (OIL ON CANVAS, 1964) (DETAIL).