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Ian Birchall

Striking against Suez

(November 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.92, November 1986, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE ANGLO-FRENCH invasion of Egypt in October 1956 was the last frantic but farcical attempt by Britain and France to assert themselves as major imperialist powers. In July 1956 the Egyptian government, led by nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, had nationalised the Suez Canal, built with the sweat and blood of Egyptians, but regarded by the European powers as their private property.

The invasion was launched in close cooperation with Israel, imperialism’s main ally in the Middle East. But within a week, combined pressure from Russia and the USA brought the declining European powers to heel and a cease-fire was called.

The main inspiration behind the invasion came from French ‘socialist’ prime minister Guy Mollet, who saw the adventure as a second front in his bitter war to keep Algeria part of French territory. Nasser was suspected of aiding the Algerian nationalist forces.

Mollet was a prime hypocrite, who cited Marx and Engels in justification of his policy. The role of the British Labour Party, being in opposition to Anthony Eden’s Tory government, was more complex.

The Labour leaders had little sympathy with Nasser. Gaitskell compared him with Hitler, while from the left Aneurin Bevan denounced him for “stirring the pot of nationalist passion”. But as loyal supporters of NATO they were unhappy at Eden leading Britain into a war not backed by the USA.

When the invasion came Labour ran a campaign under the slogan ‘Law Not War’. Gaitskell was apparently furious he had not been consulted. But as always the Labour leaders insisted that everything should be kept within strictly legal and parliamentary channels.

The National Council of Labour issued a statement urging the British people to “refrain from taking industrial action as a means of influencing national policy in the present crisis”.

On 1 November the chairman of the TUC, Sir Thomas Williamson, declared: “We will not countenance unofficial industrial action, and we call on all trade unionists to oppose it.”

The fact that such warnings were repeated shows that there was some pressure in the Labour movement for direct action. One group of people who voted with their feet were the reservists, recalled to fight the war. When the troopship Asturias sailed from Southampton on 28 October, 381 out of 1,295 reservists failed to turn up.

The Daily Herald reported that “the War Office was too shocked to hush it up”, and claimed that it was “the longest absentee list in army history”.

Military absenteeism was too hot a potato for the Labour leaders to handle. But demands for strike action were nearly as bad.

The first call for “all steps (not excluding a general strike)” came from the Socialist Medical Association. In itself this posed little threat, but the idea soon spread.

On 1 November a meeting of tally clerks in the Royal group of docks called on the TGWU executive to call a token one-day strike against the war. The bureaucracy sent Tim O’Leary, National Dock Group Secretary, to tell workers:

“Many of your colleagues are in the Middle East. Don’t let them come back and say, ‘We were short of tanks – we were short of food.’ If you don’t keep them supplied they will die quicker.”

Within the next few days the strike calls spread. The executive of the Fire Brigades Union urged the TUC to call a general strike to make Eden resign. The Sheffield District Committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union called for a total stoppage of the engineering industry.

On 3 November the Dally Worker reported a whole string of calls for industrial action – the Paisley districts of the AEU, workers at. Firth Brown and Shardlows Sheffield, Sutton Trades Council, maintenance men at a Salford bus depot, and many more.

By 6 November the list had been joined by Selby Trades Council, Sheffield painters, Merseyside woodworkers, Lewisham electricians and others. A one-day strike of Afro-Asian students throughout Britain was called.

A delegate conference of South Wales miners rejected industrial action after a four-and-a-half hour debate. Dagenham Labour Party also took up the Call for strike action.

In fact the only strike action that actually took place was at Crawley in Sussex. (If any SWR reader knows of other strikes I would be interested to hear from them.) At 3 p.m. on 6 November hundreds of workers at the APV and Edwards factories on the Manor Royal estate walked out to join an anti-war demonstration. They were joined by a contingent of building workers. The demonstration was limited in size – the organisers alleged intimidation by employers – but it showed the potential that was there.

The cease-fire came almost immediately after the Crawley strike, so there was no time for the example to be taken up. Had the war gone on longer there might have been more token stoppages. Certainly it would be wrong to overstate the impact of workers’ actions. It undoubtedly made little or no impact on the course of events.

As always it is difficult to know how representative were the meetings which issued calls for action. Most groups of workers confined themselves to asking the TUC to give a lead rather than taking the riskier, but more desirable, path of giving a lead and seeing who would follow.

While the right wing aimed to stamp on any direct action, the Labour left kept very quiet on the issue. The Communist Party put its weight behind calls for industrial action but was obviously seriously distracted by its own internal upheavals resulting from the events in Hungary.

But this page from our history is worth remembering. Though the actual achievements were modest, it is clear that the working class was not carried away by a wave of jingoism.

Those who wanted to oppose the war were able to organise and win support for their ideas. If even a section of the Labour left had given a clear lead, the results could have been much more impressive.

Proletarian internationalism is not a utopia or a meaningless abstraction. It can and must be fought for in the movement.

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