The Suez file: the Attorney’s letter and memo of October 12, 1956

by Carl Gardner on December 27, 2016

With permission of the image library of the National Archives, here are the first two documents I’m reproducing from the Attorney General’s 1956 Suez file: a letter from the Attorney, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir (better known to many as Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, as he was before he became a peer) dated October 12 1956 and a manuscript draft of a memorandum setting out the Law Officers’ legal view.

First, the letter, sent to the Lord Chancellor at the Conservative conference in Llandudno. At this time, diplomatic efforts were going on. The USSR was about to veto an Anglo-French draft resolution at the UN on the 13th, and the government was preparing invasion plans. The Prime Minister was to say in his conference speech

we have always said that with us force is the last resort, but it cannot be excluded. Therefore, we have refused to say that in no circumstances would we ever use force.  No responsible Government could ever give such a pledge.

The Attorney explains that the memorandum represents his view and that of the Solicitor General (“Harry”—Sir Harry Hylton-Foster). The Attorney says somewhat beseechingly

I do hope you will agree with it for I feel under some obligation to inform the Prime Minister of the views of the Law Officers pretty soon.

But he refers to discussions with the Lord Chancellor in earlier meetings, so must have known Kilmuir’s agreement would be unlikely.

We do not think

the Attorney writes, that the seizure of the Suez Canal Company’s property in Egypt

would now justify the use of force by us. It would now be most difficult, if not impossible, to establish that such use of force by us came within the doctrine of self-defence. Even if a case could be made for regarding Nasser as an aggressor we should not in consequence be justified in using or threatening force …

The letter outlines the “most attractive” way the Attorney thinks force could be justified but makes clear that

We do not think this argument is sound.

To see the document in full screen view click on the “four arrows” box at the bottom left hand of the viewer; you’ll also find there a link to the original pdf version of the letter.

I couldn’t find on file at Kew a typed version of the memorandum referred to in the letter. But I did find an undated manuscript draft which must represent the substance of what was sent to Lord Kilmuir. If you’re unable to read the handwriting, click on the “text” box, where you’ll see my transcript.

Resort to war, the Law Officers argue in the draft memo, is ruled out by the Kellogg-Briand pact, which outlawed war as an instrument of national policy. They’re unpersuaded that fighting to restore the Suez canal to multilateral control was a matter of international rather than national policy. Any threat of force, even short of war, cannot be justified under the UN Charter, they write, since there has been no armed attack by Egypt, nor even any illegal forcible denial of the UK’s rights.

At present

they conclude,

President Nasser does not appear to us to have used or threatened force which would justify the threat or use of force in self defence.

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