Nigel Ashton’s scholarly study, which straddles two of the most disastrous episodes in our recent history, the invasions of Suez and Iraq, opens in 1942, when Rommel’s panzers seemed on the brink of conquering Egypt. As staff at the British embassy in Cairo made bonfires of their sensitive files and street mobs chanted ‘Forward Rommel’, wits quipped that the only thing that could hold him up was the slow service in Shepheard’s Hotel. Fearing that the British Empire would be cut in half, Anthony Eden, Churchill’s foreign secretary, declared, ‘Our history and geography demand that we should remain a world power.’
He was certainly speaking at a seminal moment. But, as Ashton might have explained, the British preoccupation with the Middle East went back at least as far as Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition and the threat it allegedly posed to our hold on India. It was fundamentally to protect what Lord Salisbury called the ‘Jewel of the Empire’ that Disraeli acquired partial control of the Suez Canal in 1875, that Gladstone occupied Egypt in 1882 and that Lloyd George participated in the colonial carve-up of Ottoman possessions after the First World War.
Of course, by 1956 India had long been independent, but the Middle East had acquired strategic importance of another kind, as the world’s prime oil well. Eden feared that Britain’s access to it would be curtailed by communists and nationalists, the most dangerous of the latter being Egypt’s military