The Suez file: the Attorney’s letter to R. A. Butler, November 1, 1956

by Carl Gardner on December 31, 2016

Today’s document from the Attorney General’s 1956 Suez file (reproduced with permission of the image library of the National Archives) is a letter from the Attorney General to R. A. Butler dated November 1 1956 suggesting a non-legal justification for intervention to be used in the Commons (Butler was to wind up a debate on the situation for the government that evening) while making it clear the Attorney sees no possible legal defence of it.

The Attorney, undoubtedly responding to the line about to be taken by Lord Kilmuir in the House of Lords on the same day, doubts there was any threat to the lives of British nationals such as to justify the use of force.

I am not aware that any threat to our nationals came from Egypt …

He goes on

I would thus seek to justify our action not under … international law but on the ground of expediency … and in conformity with the intentions underlying the Charter …

He expresses concern that MPs will demand to know his view on the legal position.

If that demand is made, I shall be in a position of acute difficulty for I cannot really advance any legal justification for our action.

His reference to a legal memo must I think be to the one sent to the Lord Chancellor on October 31.

Butler’s speech later perhaps rather cleverly focused at first on the question of whether there was in law a state of armed conflict, rather than on the question of whether Britain’s use of force was lawful. What he said later also shows the Attorney’s influence: he talks of the spirit and intention of the Charter and defends Britain’s motives in more or less the terms the Attorney suggested.

Butler did, though, go on to claim that Britain’s action accorded with customary international law and with Article 51 of the Charter.

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