On Facebook recently, a friend posted a letter written by her father. My friends father, M.V., had moved from India to Britain in the late 1930s, just before the start of World War II. After the war, M.V. stayed on in London working in the Indian High Commission. The image on Facebook is a copy of the actual letter sent via post. Typewritten and just a page long, the letter is a fine example of the courteous yet pithy English in use at the time. The addressees name is on the top left: Sir Anthony Eden K.G, Prime Minister, 10 Downing Street, London SW 1. The date on the top right says November 4, 1956.
Anyone with some knowledge of post-war history would recognise the date as being just after the start of what came to be known as the Suez Crisis. The crisis was a polite word for a tripartite attack on Egypt by Britain, France and Israel. Egypt, ruled by military strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, had nationalised the Suez Canal, and the three countries conspired to launch a military attack to take back control. In late October 1956, troops from the invading alliance seized control of the canal and surrounding areas.
However, the cabal of three hadnt informed the U.S. of their plan and things rapidly came unstuck as both America and the Soviet Union openly berated the invaders. Britain and France were forced to withdraw by December and the last of the Israeli forces pulled out from the occupied areas in March 1957. The whole fiasco exposed Britain and France as still nurturing imperialist ambitions, while simultaneously demonstrating to the world that they were no longer genuine world powers.
The letter by M.V. was written well before most of these events, but we see how quickly he has grasped both what is happening and what is about to follow. Sir, he begins by giving a small tithe of compliments and politeness, Nobody admired your action more than I did when, for your principles, you resigned at the time of Munich. After the brief first paragraph though, the correspondent pulls no punches. It is therefore with all the greater sorrow and shame that I, as a voter, protest against your criminal action in attacking Egypt against the wishes of the United Nations and without a shred of moral justification.
Petty act
Very quickly the writer goes into all-out attack: What have you accomplished? The canal is blocked; Britains oil supplies are endangered; except for France, the whole world detests Britains imperialist action. Could political ineptitude go further? This is followed by: This is not the action of a brave Prime Minister defending his countrys honour. It is the action of a petty, petulant bully, trying to convince himself he is as great as his predecessor. The last passage is particularly cutting, the final swipe, of course, referring to Winston Churchill, whose large shadow hung over every Prime Minister who came after him for the next 20 years, especially the ones from Churchills own Tory party.
The letter ends with another deadly swipe, neatly tying it to the beginning, when M.V. quotes the exhortation in Parliament to Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister responsible for the Munich debacle. The only honourable course left to you sir… is to resign immediately and let the rule of morality and law prevail again. In the words of Mr. Leopold Amery on the occasion of another great crisis in this countrys history, Go! In the name of God, go!
Sharp language
Looking at this letter now, in the time of Messrs Trump, Johnson and Modi, the phrase petty, petulant bully stands out, as do a few other things:
The man writing the letter is from a minority community; at the time of writing, Britain is a deeply racist society with many still suffering from the hangover of jingoistic empire; this is technically a time of war and also of a potentially huge international humiliation; and yet, this man, not powerful, not overly connected in terms of position or influence, this man who claims his authority by the simple phrase, I, as a voter, spells it out to the countrys Prime Minister, in clear, sharp language, telling him to eject himself from office with speed. The letter was written on November 4. We will never know if Eden or anyone close to him ever read it.
However, just over two months later, despite serious attempts to save his job, Anthony Eden was obliged to follow M.V.s advice and resign.
The writer is a filmmaker and columnist.