Most recaps of the first episode of Season 2 of “The Crown” deal with the titillating allegation that Prince Philip may have had an affair with Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova or that, at least, that was what the Queen suspected after finding a photo of the dancer in her husband’s luggage. True or not, we’ll probably never know. It’s not like there will be admissions or denials from the Palace at this late date.
On the other hand, the depiction of Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s actions during the Suez Canal Crisis was accurate. Historical accounts support the characterization of Eden as someone who was desperate to make his mark after being in Winston’s Churchill’s shadow for so long. It is also documented that Eden did rely on his war experiences to read Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and analyze his intentions. History does not mince words in concluding that Eden misread Nasser, made a wrong analysis of his intentions and his mistakes led to the demise of his own political career and signalled to the world that Britain’s days as a global power were finally over.
A side question is whether Eden’s judgment and actions were made in lucid state. Put another way, did Eden’s use of amphetamines lead to bad judgment in resolving the crisis?
Why Anthony Eden was taking Benzedrine
Anthony Eden is often shown popping pills in The Crown. By Season 2, he is also injecting himself with drugs.
In real life, Anthony Eden suffered from duodenal ulcer which often caused him abdominal pain. In 1953, x-rays showed gallstones and surgery was advised. During surgery, his bile duct was damaged and recurring infections led to more surgeries. He was prescribed Benzedrine, an amphetamine.
According to a biography by David Dutton, Eden was exhibiting the side effects of amphetamine—including insomnia and mood swings—throughout the Suez Canal crisis. But whether or not the side effects sufficiently clouded his judgment is not clear. It may be more his conservative politics—his being “the last of the old guard“, an appellation for imperialist Churchill’s cabinet—that led to the bad handling of the Suez Canal crisis.
About the Suez Canal
The Suez Canal is a 101-mile-long artificial waterway connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. It significantly shortened the journey from East to West and vice versa. But to truly understand its real significance, think of toll gates in highways. The Suez Canal was a maritime highway and every ship that entered it paid a toll fee. It was big money (still is). Think of the dependence of Europe on Middle Eastern oil. The oil being transported from the Middle East to Europe not only cut travel time but transportation cost as well by going through the Canal.
There were ancient versions of a canal in the area. Oil had not entered the picture at the time but the ancient canals did shorten the maritime route not only for travelers but most especially for traders. The modern-day Suez Canal was created by a French company called Universal Maritime Suez Canal Company (Suez Canal Company for brevity) formed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. De Lesseps, a former diplomat, managed to obtain a concession from Sa’id Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, with whom he was quite friendly. The concession stipulated that the Suez Canal Company would operate the Canal for 99 years.
Construction took place between 1859 and 1869 first using forced labor and, later, with steam- and coal-powered shovels and dredgers. From its inception to its finish, Britain (Queen Victoria’s reign) was against the construction. It refused to buy shares in the company because it was against the use of forced labor although the more important reason for the objection might be because the French-dominated project was going to outshine imperial Britain.
Britain’s then prime minister Lord Palmerston tried to dissuade de Lesseps from the idea. He informed de Lesseps that the canal was a “physical impossibility” which would, if realised, injure British maritime supremacy. Its very proposal, Palmerston asserted, meant “French interference in the East.”Source
Understanding the British presence in Egypt
We all know that Egyptian civilization is one of the oldest in the world. We also know it was ruled by the Persians for a long time before they were defeated by the Macedonian King Alexander the Great. Alexander’s general, Ptolemy I Soter, declared himself Pharaoh and founded the Ptolemaic dynasty which ruled Egypt for 300 years. The Ptolemaic dynasty ended when the last Ptolemaic ruler, Cleopatra VII, aged 39, killed herself by having an asp bite her. Oh, you probably know the story. Mark Antony. Cleopatra. Yes. THAT Cleopatra.
From then on, Egypt became part of the Roman empire and, later, the Byzantine Empire until it was conquered by the Muslims when it became part of the Ottoman Empire.
British presence in Egypt began after the completion of the Suez Canal. Egypt was heavily in debt to European banks and Isma’il, Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, was forced to sell Egypt’s share in the Canal to Britain. Soon, Egypt’s treasury was being run by Britain and France, and British and French ministers sat in the Egyptian cabinet. The debts were forgiven but the Europeans took over the Suez Canal.
Influential sectors did not like the situation, there was unrest and, in 1882, Britain occupied Egypt and established a “veiled protectorate” while Egypt remained a nominal part of the Ottoman Empire. When World War I broke out, Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire (which was part of the Quadruple Alliance that consisted of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) and formally declared a Protectorate over Egypt.
A sense of nationalism had been growing in Egypt even before the British came. After the war ended, the continued British presence did not sit well with the middle and lower classes who gained nothing from their presence. Uprisings and demonstrations were rampant. In 1922, Britain declared Egypt independent but British military troops remained and so did control over the Suez Canal even after the end of World War II.
The Egyptian revolution of 1952—a military coup, essentially, led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser (yes, that character in The Crown that irked Anthony Eden so much)—resulted in the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic of Egypt.
Eden’s mistakes in dealing with the Suez Canal crisis
So that was the situation when Season 2 of The Crown began. It was 1956. Nasser was Prime Minister of Egypt; Anthony Eden, of Britain.
The United States and Britain had withdrawn from their promise to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam because Nasser was too friendly with the Russians (he officially recognized the People’s Republic of China too). Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and intended to finance the construction of the Aswan Dam from earnings from the Canal. Of course, it shocked both Britain and France, the majority shareholders in the Suez Canal Company.
He said all company assets in Egypt had been frozen and stockholders would be paid the price of their shares according to today’s closing prices on the Paris Stock Exchange.Source
Eden was so sure that he had sized up Nasser well. He was right about Mussolini, he said, and he was right about Hitler. Being of his generation and having spent too much time in the company of the likes of Churchill, he did not realize that times had changed and Nasser, a nationalist, was no Mussolini nor Hitler.
Eden signed a secret agreement with the French and the Israelis with the plan that Israel would enter Egypt, Britain and France would call for a cessation of hostilities and, knowing that there would be no cessation, France and England would strike, occupy the Canal and remove Nasser from the picture. He told neither Parliament nor the United Nations about the agreement. In The Crown, the Queen had to pry the information out of him (whether that confrontation between the Queen and the Prime Minister happened in real life, I have no idea).
What history attests to is that Britain did wage war on Egypt then withdrew after the United States refused to sanction the war and threatened not to extend financial aid to Britain which has still not fully recovered from the losses from World War II. It was a humiliation for Eden for thinking and acting like it was still the 19th century and Britain was still a mighty imperial power. It was an even bigger humiliation for Britain because the events became a proclamation, in no uncertain terms, that its glory days as an imperial power were over.