The Suez file: the Attorney’s letter and memo of October 31, 1956

by Carl Gardner on December 29, 2016

The third batch of documents from the Attorney General’s 1956 Suez file (reproduced with permission of the image library of the National Archives) consists of a letter from the Attorney General to the Lord Chancellor dated October 31 1956, together with a memorandum stating the Law Officers’ final view and in effect closing the legal discussion.

The Attorney General did not resign, in spite of his legal view being ignored; but the resigned tone of his letter is unmistakable.

Although it no longer appears to be of much importance, I think you might like to see the draft memorandum that Harry [the Solicitor General] and I have prepared relating to the use of force …

The memo, the Attorney says

was drafted in a form which would have permitted us to circulate it to our colleagues

something which by this stage was obviously pointless, the Attorney’s view being neither sought by the Prime Minister, nor welcome.

Britain’s ultimatum to Egypt and Israel of the day before had been rejected by the Egyptian side; and the Prime Minister spoke in the Commons that afternoon of

the military action that we shall have to take …

The Law Officers’ legal memorandum suggests that some ineffectual attempt was made to agree the legal analysis as far as possible with Lord Kilmuir: paragraph 4 shows that the Attorney was prepared to accept Kilmuir’s exposition in principle of self-defence in international law, as set out in his 15 October memo.

But there was no meeting of legal minds beyond that.

The Law Officers stand by their view that even an illegal and forcible denial of Britain’s legal rights would only justify a more limited use of force than the invasion being prepared (see para. 4) and that in any case there had been no illegal threat or force. Therefore (para. 6)

It cannot, in our opinion, be said that Egypt has so far committed any act which would justify the use or threat or force by the United Kingdom in self-defence. The failure of the Security Council to take an effective decision will not in itself alter this situation.

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