The Suez file: the Attorney’s letter to the Prime Minister, November 13, 1956

by Carl Gardner on January 3, 2017

The final document from the Attorney General’s 1956 Suez file (reproduced with permission of the image library of the National Archives) is a letter dated November 13th 1956 from the Attorney General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, to the Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden.

The previous Thursday, the 8th, the day the government had survived a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. Eden had ordered a ceasefire from midnight on November 6-7. Ten days after this letter was sent, the Prime Minister went to Jamaica to rest; he resigned in January 1957.

The Attorney’s concern was the legal position and his own.

The Lord Chancellor, I gather, expressed the view in Cabinet that our threat and our use of force was legally justified.

He mentions that Kilmuir said so in the House of Lords on November 1st, just as Selwyn Lloyd had the day before and as R.A. Butler did the same day, in the Commons. He went on:

Although I support what we have done and have said so publicly, we cannot, as you know, agree with the statements made on behalf of the Government that we were legally entitled so to act.

It seems extraordinary now that an Attorney General could support a policy of force in spite of thinking it unlawful. Perhaps the Attorney’s political support for the invasion in spite of its unlawfulness explains why he did not resign over the affair. He certainly knew he’d been compromised:

… it is very questionable if it is proper for Law Officers to continue to hold office if, on an issue of this importance, it is sought to justify the Government’s actions on legal grounds which they cannot support. If this occurred again, I feel I must frankly say that I think the position of the Law Officers would become impossible.

The chances of any such thing occurring again were vanishingly small, of course, and the warning was too little, too late. Was it worth making at all, by then?

Sir Reginald remained Attorney General until 1962, when (after Macmillan’s “Night of the Long Knives”) he replaced Lord Kilmuir as Lord Chancellor. He held that post until Labour won the 1964 election. He then sat as a Law Lord from 1969 till just before his death in 1980.

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1 Tim January 7, 2017 at 21:18

An extraordinary series of documents Carl, thanks for posting these.

Its certainly difficult to envy the AG here, having essentially had his constitutional function jettisoned by a cavalier PM and then being faced with the idea of either adopting an indefensible position and dishonestly pretending to have held it all along or resigning and quite possibly collapsing his own government.

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