May 3, 2007

It will take us very many years to live down what we have done.

Filed under: Politics — duncan @ 7:20 pm

The Grauniad’s been publishing Great Speeches of the 20th century, in pamphlet form, for a couple of weeks. Today’s – No. 13 in a series of 14 – is Aneurin Bevan on Suez. You’ve probably already read it – if you haven’t it’s here. The paper’s comment page and Tam Dalywell’s Foreword draw out some of the many parallels with today, which scarcely need to be drawn out. Still – at the risk of hammering home, yet again, the painfully obvious, I’m going to copy down some resonant highlights. The speech was delivered on December 4 1956. That’s more than fifty years ago. (“…we have learned nothing…”)

“I have been looking through the various objectives and reasons that the government have given to the House of Commons for making war on Egypt, and it really is desirable that when a nation makes war upon another nation it should be quite clear why it does so. It should not keep changing the reasons as time goes on. There is, in fact, no correspondence whatsoever between the reasons given today and the reasons set out by the prime minister at the beginning. The reasons have changed all the time…

On October 31, the prime minister said that our object was to secure a lasting settlement and to protect our nationals… On November 1, we were told the reason was ‘to stop hostilities’ and ‘prevent a resumption of them’… On November 3, our objectives became much more ambitious – ‘to deal with all the outstanding problems in the Middle East’… our ambitions soar the further we are from realising them.

The next objective of which we were told was to ensure that the Israeli forces withdrew from Egyptian territory… That is a remarkable war aim, is it not? To establish our case before the eyes of the world, Israel being the wicked invader, we being the nice friend of Egypt, went to protect her from the Israelis, but, unfortunately, we had to bomb the Egyptians first…

These were objectives, I do beg honourable members to reflect, that were not realisable by the means that we adopted. These civil, social and political objectives in modern society are not attainable by armed force… Why on earth did we imagine that the objectives could be realised in that way in the middle of the 20th century?

The social furniture of modern society is so complicated and fragile that it cannot support the jackboot. We cannot run the processes of modern society by attempting to impose our will upon nations by armed force. If we have not learned that, we have learned nothing. Therefore, from our point of view here, whatever may have been the morality of the government’s action, there is no doubt about its imbecility. There is not the slightest shadow of a doubt that we have attempted to use methods which were bound to destroy the objectives we had, and, of course, this is what we have discovered…

I resent most bitterly this unconcern for the lives of innocent men and women… Do honourable members realise how this is going to revolt the world when it passes into the imagination of men and women everywhere that we – with eight million here in London, the biggest single civilian target in the world, with our crowded island exposed, as no nation in the world is exposed, to the barbarism of modern weapons – we ourselves set the example. We ourselves conscript our boys and put guns and aeroplanes in their hands and say, “Bomb there.” Really, this is so appalling that human language can hardly describe it. And for what?

The government resorted to epic weapons for squalid and trivial ends, and that is why, all through this unhappy period, ministers, all of them, have spoken and argued and debated well below their proper form – because they have been synthetic villains. They are not really villains. They have only set off on a villainous course, and they cannot even use the language of villainy…

It will take us very many years to live down what we have done. It will take us many years to pay the price. I know that tomorrow evening honourable and right honourable members will probably, as they have done before, give the government a vote of confidence, but they know in their heart of hearts that it is a vote which the government does not deserve.”

Eden’s government won its vote of confidence by 312 to 260. If only Labour had been in power.

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