Although British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee (1945-51), is properly known as a Cold Warrior no less gung-ho than his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, or the American president, Harry Truman, less well known is Attlee’s rejection of the salience of the Soviet ‘threat’ and promotion of a policy of closing British bases in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Had he prevailed, Clement Attlee may have changed the the role of Britain in the postwar world, prevented the Americans from relying on Britain’s support in numerous foreign wars, and thrust a relatively disarmed, more prosperous Britain into a leading role in a European superstate.
But, of course, Attlee did not get his way and we all know where that led: the 'special relationship' with the United States that lasts till today, a position of subservience in defence of a particular interpretation of British interests as world-wide and requiring very high levels of military spending and an ability and willingness to ‘punch above its weight’ in world affairs. This not only caused Britain (under Attlee) to follow America’s intervention in Korea (1950-53), but also to Harold Wilson’s support short of war (i.e., ground troops) to President Lyndon Johnson’s war on Vietnam, and to Tony Blair’s unflinching backing for George W. Bush’s wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.
What precisely did Attlee do that was, on the face of it, so radical? And how did the British military and foreign policy establishments react?
It seems that Clement Attlee (rather naively, according to Churchill’s more ‘realistic’ foreign secretary, Anthony Eden who, it must be recalled, was later to attack Nasser’s Egypt for the temerity to desire control of Egypt’s Suez Canal) took seriously the idea of the United Nations as an international organisation for peace. Attlee thought that rather than holding on to a series of expensive naval and military bases in the Mediterranean Sea and in Egypt, and thereby constitute to Soviet eyes a military threat to the communist superpower, Britain ought to internationalise the defence of the route to India and the east, as well as come to an understanding with the Soviet Union. To Attlee, what looked like defence of British interests to his colleagues in the Foreign Office looked like aggressive preparations for an attack on the Soviet Union to Stalin. This remarkable insight, because of its novelty among the political establishment, earned Attlee opprobrium from the Admiral Cunningham, the First Sea Lord: “What an ass!” retorted Cunningham.
Yet, for a time, Attlee was undaunted. “Where’s the [global] danger now?” he asked: “there was no one to fight.” In almost panto-fashion, Cold Warrior, Ernest Bevin invoked the Soviet Threat – positions vacated by Britain would fall under Soviet control and, one by one, the dominoes would fall. Yet, the Joint Intelligence Committee estimated that the Soviets were unlikely to risk a major war for at least 5 years, given the devastation visited upon that country by Nazi bombardment. But Bevin was undeterred: “It would be Munich over again, only on a world scale, with Greece, Turkey and Persia as the first victims in place of Czechoslovakia. If I am right about Russian ideology, Russia would certainly fill the gap we leave empty whatever her promises…” Attlee refused to budge.
Then, quite suddenly, Attlee changed his mind. Why? The Chiefs of Staff, under Lord Montgomery of Alamein, threatened en masse to resign should Attlee persist in opposing their desire to hold Britain’s positions in the Middle East. And that is pretty much the last the world was to hear of Attlee’s foreign policy radicalism.
What if he had prevailed? Would Britain have withdrawn from its military commitments across the Middle East, Asia and the Far East? Could it have then done without American financial support and built an even stronger welfare state? Would it have seen the ‘loss’ of Korea as just one more domino or, more likely, refused military support for American intervention in Korea? Britain would probably have been unlikely thereafter to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs, perhaps, including helping overthrow the Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1952, invading Egypt with the French and Israelis in 1956 or, perhaps, in putting down the communist-nationalist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s and 1960s.
Of course, we will never know, though Attlee was still committed to defending the British Empire: but the question is still worth pondering.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of Government at the University of Manchester and Vice Chair of the British International Studies Association. This post first appeared at his excellent US Blog