Did the Suez Crisis hasten the end of the British Empire?

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Did the Suez Crisis hasten the end of the British Empire?

   The Suez crisis did not hasten the end of the British Empire; it was more of an effect rather than cause of decline. Carlton argues that since Britain only had an average sized population and the corresponding economic strength her overseas territories had caused her to overstretch and over-commit herself from the end of the First World War. Hence one can argue that retreat from empire and fall from her position as a global superpower to that of a medium global power by the 1980s was inevitable and unavoidable. ‘Suez, on this view, was a rather dramatic hiccup in a generally well managed transition.’ This is the point of view that I would agree with when considering the affect of the Suez crisis. However, one must also acknowledge that for some Suez did hasten the end of the British Empire and it was a watershed marking a significant change in direction in Britain’s imperial foreign policy. This viewpoint must also be discussed and evaluated. Moving away from just focusing on the effects of Suez one must also discuss the other factors and causes of decolonisation, including the established nationalist, international and metropolitan explanations and how they were represented in the Suez crisis.

   Firstly I will look at the arguments supporting the opinion that Suez did hasten the end of the British Empire to which Lapping is an advocate. He argues that the effect of Suez spread widely, particularly in Africa, and in the three years following the crisis Britain’s pre-Suez policy of gradually introducing self-government to the indigenous population leading on to independence, ‘was replaced by one of rapid scuttle.’ Lapping continues saying that Suez was, ‘an imperial cataclysm; the principle cause of the suddenness with which decolonisation broke across Africa in 1960.’ He also argues that until 1956, despite some decolonisation in the Far East and parts of North and West Africa, the imperial powers had shown no inclination to leave their remaining African colonies. However the effects of Suez were not felt in just one way; there were several different aspects which will now be discussed.

   Nationalist movements were strengthened and encouraged with Nasser proving that Britain could no longer stand up to determined nationalists. Nasser was presented as David who had slain Goliath and became a figurehead for the anti-colonialism movement. The other imperial powers felt this effect too, especially France with her problems in Algeria intensifying and eventually leading to the collapse of the Fourth Republic. The Suez Crisis also brought the two superpowers into Africa with the United States establishing the Bureau of African Affairs in 1957, and a young John F. Kennedy made a speech to the Senate challenging outdated assumptions in foreign policy and arguing that the growing African nationalist movements needed support from the United States. Neff argues that, ‘Suez was a hinge point in history. It spelled the end of Western colonisation and the entry of America as the major Western power in the Middle East.’ The Soviet Union also gained from Suez with Egypt turning to her for support and Soviet agents were active in strengthening the anti-colonial movement and supplying arms to African nationalists.

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   There were various different effects on Britain too. The British overseas military deployment was sharply reduced after Suez and this led to the withdrawal from Cyprus. Suez showed that Britain could no longer carry through an opposed military intervention without U. S. backing. The cost was just too high with the defence budget being cut back. Even if the British Government was determined to make an effort, it could no longer be sure that it would be able to slow down and suppress the demands for independence which African nationalists were calling for and cope with the anti-colonialist ...

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This is a well researched and thorough response that display good understanding of the historiography and often uses clear examples and evidence to engage with historians. However, the author has taken a narrow view of the question and focused on Suez' effect on the empire, at the expense of other consequences such as the impact on Anglo-American relations.