Policy shaped by personal conviction — False Prophets: British leaders’ fateful fascination with the Middle East from Suez to Syria by Nigel Ashton review

Successive prime ministers behaved as if Britain had an outsized role to play in the troubled region despite economic pressures at home and public opposition.

First Battle of El Alamein
Troops in the First Battle of El Alamein (1st–27th July, 1942), a battle of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Credit: De Luan / Alamy Stock Photo.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Britain was the dominant power in a vast region stretching from Egypt to Iran. This was a vital strategic interest – it ensured London’s control of the sea route to India, and of the world’s major source of oil. After the Second World War, British influence declined as American power grew. But the problems of that transition, coupled with the region’s chronic instability, kept the Middle East high on the Foreign Office’s worry list.

Nigel Ashton, in his wide-ranging and meticulously researched new book, False Prophets, adds an extra insight into Britain’s relations with this troubled part of the world. His argument is that every prime minister from Eden onwards has played a significant personal role in shaping British policy, often on the basis of deep convictions, and that what he calls their ‘fateful fascination’ with the Middle East often played a major part in their political fortunes.

To be effective, a book as broad as this needs not just to narrate events but to show us a pattern. Ashton’s linking theme is that each prime minister approached the problems of the region with a mix of fear and hubris. That frame of reference certainly works well for the first trio of leaders he studies: Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, all of them deeply involved in the 1956 Suez crisis.

Eden was apocalyptic in his fear that Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 gave him the power to choke off the flow of oil, and thereby pose an existential threat to the UK. Reaching instinctively for analogies from his experience of the 1930s, Eden decided that his mission was to avoid the mistakes of appeasement by taking military action quickly. The hubris was evident in his intolerance of any opposition to his plan, and his failure to heed the warnings from Eisenhower that the US would not tolerate a UK-French military operation in collusion with Israel.

Suez saw Eden’s career end in humiliation. But, as Ashton shows convincingly, it did not dampen the enthusiasm of his successors to use force in defence of British interests in the region. Macmillan, who became Prime Minister in early 1957, was careful not to make Eden’s mistake of getting on the wrong side of the Americans. But he shared Eden’s fears about loss of access to oil produced by British-owned companies in the Gulf, and the threat to British control posed by  Nasser and his support for Arab nationalism. Ashton paints a vivid picture of Macmillan giving free rein to his  imperialist/romantic view of Britain’s role in the Middle East by pressing Eisenhower for joint US-UK military action in Lebanon to counter a plot by Nasser against the Christian government. Thwarted on that, he deployed British paratroopers on a risky mission to Amman to forestall a coup against King Hussein. Then he dispatched troops to Kuwait to pre-empt an Iraqi invasion (yes, history does repeat itself). Indeed, one of the book’s strengths is Ashton’s deft touch in bringing to life these long-forgotten moments of drama and linking them to his main theme, without getting bogged down in the detail.

The last of the opening trio of prime ministers, Douglas-Home, shared the virulent anti-Nasser sentiments of his two predecessors. Like them, he faced decisions on the use of military power, in his case prompted by an uprising against British rule in Yemen by the National Liberation Front (NLF) with Egyptian support. Douglas-Home’s instincts on how to respond to Egyptian meddling were hawkish, but he was persuaded to settle for a limited air strike and a campaign to arm opponents of the NLF.

The sense of Britain having an outsized role to play in the region despite economic pressures at home continued to shape the approach of later prime ministers. Harold Wilson was passionately committed to Israel, and his Foreign Secretary, George Brown, was on familiar terms with leaders across the region. This enabled Brown and his team to play a crucial role in the diplomacy leading up to the ceasefire in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, set out in the UK-drafted UN Security Council Resolution 242. (This is a rare case where the role of a Foreign Secretary receives attention in the book.) But Brown’s diplomatic triumph was rapidly undermined by another balance of payments crisis in London and a humiliating devaluation of the pound, which in turn led to the Wilson government pulling out of Aden and all other military commitments East of Suez by 1971. Brown warned colleagues at the time of the risks Britain was running by disengaging, given that 40% of Britain’s oil supplies came from the Gulf, and that 40% of that was in British ownership, making a huge contribution to the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

In contrast to Wilson’s Zionism, Edward Heath was keen to repair relations with the Arab nations. But events conspired against him. In 1973, the Egyptians launched a further Arab-Israeli war. After initial successes by the Arab armies, the tide was turned by massive US arms shipments to Israel. And in a clear sign that Britain’s dominance in the region was over, it was Henry Kissinger who brokered the ceasefire. Arab fury at the outcome led the oil producers to cut production and force a massive price hike. The resulting economic crisis in the UK played a large part in the luckless Heath losing the two elections in 1974. 

The premierships of Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major all had their share of Middle East dramas, particularly the ups and downs of the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations, and then Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the resulting Gulf War. The ‘fear and hubris’ framing is more difficult to apply in this section of the book, which takes on more of the flavour of a chronicle. But it is one studded with memorable anecdotes. For example, I was astonished to learn that in the early stages of the Gulf War, Thatcher suggested to a surprised President George Bush that it would be justified for the US to use chemical weapons against Iraqi forces if Iraq used them first. Quite rightly, the Americans dismissed the idea.

One of the most powerful passages in the book is the discussion of Tony Blair’s approach to the 2003 Iraq war. Although the comparison with Suez is not exact, it is illuminating. Blair, like Eden, became obsessed with the threat posed by an Arab dictator. Eden’s fear that Nasser could hold Britain to ransom by his control of oil found its counterpart in Blair’s fear that leaving Saddam Hussein in control of chemical and biological weapons meant an unacceptable risk these weapons could find their way into the hands of terrorists. Although Blair worked closely with the Americans rather than against them, there was plenty of hubris in his absolute conviction that he was right, in his willingness to drive through decisions in the face of opposition from some Cabinet colleagues, and his acceptance of a role in the aftermath of the war that Britain was unable to fulfil effectively.

Ashton ends with a quick canter through the premierships of Gordon Brown and David Cameron. The latter’s decision to launch an air campaign in 2011 against Gadhafi’s forces in Libya demonstrates once more the predilection of prime ministers to reach for the military instrument. But it would also have been worth making the point that the Iraq experience had by then turned Western publics and parliaments against any use of ground forces, which inevitably meant that the coalition were in no position to control events in Libya when the air campaign was over.

False Prophets is ambitious in scope, but Ashton writes elegantly and shows a sure touch in organising his material to bring out some very striking continuities underlying the tumultuous events of the half century he covers. One is the ever-present fear that Britain’s economy could be strangled by an Arab strongman controlling access to the oilfields. Another is the complex relationship between London and Washington over the Middle East, part cooperation, part competition, sometimes dialogue of the deaf. A third is the balance between UK relations with Israel (on which several prime ministers brought their own deep personal convictions to the job) and with Arab nations. Running through the book, and supporting Ashton’s contention that hubris was never far away, is a sense that Britain knew the Middle East better than the Americans or other Western nations, and therefore saw itself as uniquely qualified to play a leading role.

The decision by the US and Britain not to intervene in the Syrian civil war closed a long chapter of Western interventionism in the Middle East. Now European security is once again the top priority, as Britain and her allies focus on the threat posed by Putin’s Russia. But this fascinating book makes a strong case that the volatile mixture of history, economic interests and personal convictions it describes will continue to exert a fateful fascination for British prime ministers.

False Prophets: British leaders’ fateful fascination with the Middle East from Suez to Syria by Nigel Ashton
False Prophets: British leaders’ fateful fascination with the Middle East from Suez to Syria by Nigel Ashton, Atlantic Books, pp 480, £20

Peter Ricketts