Release of Suez records

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The Suez review

In 1963, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, imposed a special embargo on records relating to the Suez crisis of 1956. Macmillan's embargo meant that Ministers or officials could not consult records relating to Suez without the express permission of the Prime Minister. Primarily intended to prevent Lord Mountbattan gaining access to the Suez archive, the embargo also meant that the records could not be reviewed and subsequently made ready for release to the Public Record Office. To compound matters, as the embargo had been imposed by a Prime Minister, only his successor could revoke it. It would take 17 years and five different Prime Ministers before the question of the embargo was raised again.

In June 1980, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, acting on the advice of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, agreed to lift the restrictions imposed by Macmillan. The Suez records could now be reviewed and made ready for release. Reviewers were instructed to approach the task with particular regard to personal and political sensitivities. Whenever they were in doubt about whether to release certain papers, the views of Ministers should be sought. The Prime Minister was keen that the Cabinet Secretary should be consulted in particularly difficult cases. To oversee the process, the Cabinet Office established a Suez review committee, which met intermittently over the next six years. The continuing interest in the Suez affair meant that records would need to be reviewed with meticulous care. Due to persistent allegations that important Suez records had been destroyed, review staff would be expected to account for all papers, whether or not they were to be released after 30 years.

Within the Foreign Office, the review was co-ordinated by John Bushell, former HM Ambassador to Saigon (1974-75) and Pakistan (1976-79). In all, some 90 linear feet of records, weighing slightly less than 1 ton, were identified by the FCO as relating to the Suez crisis. In reporting his findings to the Foreign Secretary, Bushell confirmed that a small group of Ministers led by Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister, and Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary, took it upon themselves to collude with elements of the French and Israeli governments to invade Egypt on the pretext of protecting the Suez Canal. To conceal the collusion, direct lies or evasions of the truth were given to Parliament, the Commonwealth and the United States. Only a very small number of senior officials were involved: Sir Donald Logan, Assistant Private Secretary to Lloyd, Sir Guy Millard, Private Secretary to Eden, and Sir Patrick Dean, Assistant Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Bushell was more concerned by what he did not find. There were no records of meetings with French ministers, the absence of which might arouse suspicion that the government was withholding critical documents. Of equal concern was the discovery of the Dean Memorandum.