The Suez Crisis and the British Empire (July 1956)

One of the signal events for the dissolution of the British Empire after the conclusion of the Second World War took place in 1956, in what is known in the West as the "Suez Crisis." Precipitated on July 26, 1956, when the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal.

The crisis was provoked by an American and British decision not to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam, as they had promised. Their refusal was a direct response to the growing ties between Egypt and Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Nasser reacted to the American and British decision by declaring martial law in the canal zone and seizing control of the Suez Canal Company, predicting that the tolls collected would pay for the dam within five years. England and France feared that Nasser might close the canal and cut off shipments of petroleum between the Persian Gulf and western Europe. When diplomatic efforts to settle the crisis failed, England and France, allying with Israel, secretly prepared military action to regain control of the canal and, if possible, to depose Nasser.

On October 29, 1956, Israeli Brigades invaded Egypt. England and France, following their plan, demanded that Israeli and Egyptian troops withdraw from the canal, and they announced that they would intervene to enforce a cease-fire ordered by the United Nations. However, growing opposition at home and in the UN and Soviet threats of intervention, put an immediate stop to the Anglo-French action. On December 22 the UN evacuated British and French troops, and Israeli forces withdrew in March 1957.

Nasser emerged from the Suez Crisis a victor and a hero for the cause of naitonalism. Israel did not win freedom to use the canal but it did regain shipping rights in the Straits of Tiran. England and France, less fortunate, lost most of their influence in the Middle East as a result of the episode. The Crisis marks major shift in the power relations of the western Europe, signalling the rising importance of cold war politics in international crises, and the continuing decrease of Britain's influence as a colonial and imperial power.

The Crisis as Backdrop

In The Remains of the Day, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, the main character conducts his retrospective look at his life as the servant of a prominent British aristocrat in July of 1956. How might these events give a shaping power to the meaning of the novel's reflections?

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