The Suez file: the Attorney’s letter to Selwyn Lloyd, November 1, 1956

by Carl Gardner on December 30, 2016

The next document I’m reproducing from the Attorney General’s 1956 Suez file (with permission of the image library of the National Archives) is a letter from the Attorney General to the Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd dated November 1 1956—and copied to Prime Minister Eden—expressing concern about government statements on the legal justification for action in Suez, and making clear the Law Officers’ view that action was unlawful.

The Attorney writes

I am troubled about the legal basis for the action … and I am worried about the consequences for Her Majesty’s Government should it become known that the Law Officers are not able to support the main legal contentions so far advanced.

The previous day in the Commons, Selwyn Lloyd had suggested action in Suez was lawful because British citizens were in imminent danger.

It’s clear from the letter that the Attorney had been “kept out of the loop” as we’d say nowadays, about the ultimatum issued to Egypt two days before. He says

on what is known to me, I am unable to devise any argument which could purport to justify in international law either our demand … [that Egypt withdraw its forces from the canal zone] or the threat to occupy her territory by armed forces should she fail to acceded to that demand.

The Attorney’s frustration is clear:

I feel compelled to write this letter because … it will generally be assumed that we have been approached for advice as to the legality of what has been done. In fact we were not consulted …

The reader in 2016 wonders why he felt so unable to impose his legal view on his ministerial colleagues—and why he remained in his position.

That evening, the Lord Chancellor Lord Kilmuir gave his own legal defence of the military action, in the House of Lords. Interestingly he did not rely on the case he’d set out in writing to the Attorney about the “international character” of the Suez canal, but claimed that action was justified in self-defence because of an imminent threat to British citizens.

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