Prospect discloses an exclusive account of one of Labour’s most colourful MPs as he toured around the tinderbox
George Brown: the former foreign secretary toured the region the year before Britain pulled out its military forces © Associated Newspapers/Rex Features
A collection of parliamentary papers obtained by Prospect and published for the first time sheds new light on Britain’s relationship with the Middle East and western engagement in the region. You can read the papers in full here.
The 140 pages are the detailed notes of a three-week trip by George Brown, MP and deputy leader of the Labour party, as well as former foreign secretary, to meet political leaders across the Middle East and Gulf from 29th December 1969 to 19th January 1970. The account of his visit, which features moments of high comedy, transcribed with more vividness, incredulity and exasperation than any government scribe would commit to paper today, includes reports of his conversations with Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt. In 23 days, Brown visited eight countries and attended more than 100 meetings.
Part of the interest of the account is the freshness and intimacy of the conversations between the leaders and Brown. The MP (who died in 1985) was not formally representing the UK on the trip. But he was still a leading figure in the party, despite the excessive drinking which had contributed to his exit from Harold Wilson’s government (it was Brown’s agent who coined the phrase “tired and emotional” as a euphemism for intoxication, to describe his client’s state after a long flight). The accounts, which fill out the more formal picture presented by government papers already available under the old 30-year-release rule, appear to owe some of their colour to the observations of Gwyn Morgan, an irreverent Welshman and senior Labour party official who accompanied Brown on the trip.
The deeper interest, however, is in the portrait of the region in the final year of Britain’s role as the pre-eminent foreign influence. Prime minister Harold Wilson had declared in 1968 that he would withdraw troops from “East of Suez” by 1971 (including Malaysia and Singapore), marking the effective end of Britain’s colonial ambitions in the region. In 1970, British officials still enjoyed easy access at the highest levels across the region, but were confronted with conflicts and disputes they had little power to solve. Much is barely recognisable now; the extraordinary transformation of the Arab states by oil wealth had barely begun. Yet many of the themes—and even the language—of Brown’s trip are claustrophobically the same today, while the roots of the conflicts which have proved intractable for four decades are clear.
The conversations were dominated by Israel’s 1967 annexation of what is now called the West Bank and by the way that Britain was hemmed in on all sides by expectations and recriminations. In meeting after meeting, Brown was blamed by Arab ministers for the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which supported the creation of “a national home for the Jewish people,” in Palestine, and at the same time by Israelis for his advocacy of UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed in the wake of the 1967 war, which called for Israel’s withdrawal from all territories occupied in the conflict. At dinner with Golda Meir, “her attitude could be summarised in her own words as ‘not an inch of territory will I give up,’” the account records.
Echoing the attempts of the British government to pick an increasingly impossible path through the region’s allegiances, Brown adroitly tried to appeal to all sides, citing his pedigree as an oppressed Irishman to Palestinians in Ramallah, and in Israel, the fact that his wife was Jewish. He commented throughout the trip that he had “never ceased to oppose the existence of the state of Israel at the time of its creation,” having argued instead for “a federation of the whole of Palestine.” But, he added, “there came a point in time when you had to come to terms with what existed.” When Iraqi ministers began to quote the Balfour Declaration at him, “Mr. Brown exploded and said that if one was going to quote history one should at least quote it accurately,” the account reads. “He went on to recite how in 1948 it was the Soviet Union and America who had pressed for the creation of a Zionist state and that Britain had not supported this.”
The Iraqi meetings were particularly antagonistic. Brown told the minister of culture and information that, “‘So far as the British were concerned, and Europe in general, the public hanging of Jews in Iraq had done tremendous damage to the image of Iraq.’ The minister looked most uncomfortable and replied, ‘I appreciate your advice as a friend, and I wonder if you could tell me how we can obtain more help from the BBC Arabic Service.’ And on that evasive note the meeting ended.”
More widely, Brown accused Arab leaders of a central part in perpetuating the deadlock and suffering. “The [Palestinian] refugee problem could have been solved by now,” he told Iraq’s foreign minister, “and the reason it had not been solved was that the Arabs wanted it to remain an essential part of the political problem.” As a socialist, he said, he “regretted deeply the terrible conditions under which the refugees existed.” According to the record, the minister replied that, “It did not matter a hang about the suffering of the Palestinian refugees. What had to be taken into account was the fight for the homeland.”
Brown noted at one point that the mayor of Ramallah had told him that if necessary, the Arabs could wait 100 years for a solution. But in a refugee camp he had met “some of the constituents of the mayor, poverty-stricken, scantily clad, hopeless and in despair, and they, unlike the mayor, could not afford to wait a hundred days let alone a hundred years.”
His frustration made few inroads. In words that have proved prescient, the Kuwaiti minister of oil and finance responded that “in his view there was no possibility of a short-term solution and the dispute was likely to drag on for years and years.”
A second theme is the ambitions of Iran as a regional power, with an eye to the imminent British military retreat from the Gulf, not least from Bahrain, to which it laid claim. “Mr. Brown began by saying how pleased he was to see the shah looking so well,” the account runs. “In truth he looked a little bit drawn and pale.”
The meeting at the Niavaran Palace, with its chandeliers, mirrored walls and 30ft high ceilings, was steeped in time-honoured Iranian disdain for its Arab neighbours. Iranians, the shah said drily, “considered themselves to be experts on the subject of the Iraqis,” and “in everything that the Iraqis did, it was possible to see the hand of the Soviet Union.” (His prime minister had previously told Brown that “the Shaikhdoms… were living in conditions of thirteenth century feudalism.”) The shah held that “the trouble with the Arabs was that they could stir themselves up into a frenzy by their own oratory and vituperation,” adding that “this was what committed President Nasser to the Six Day War [in 1967].” The shah, reinstated to power in 1953 by the US with British help, was direct about the ties with Britain. “Iran did not hoard hard money,” the shah said. “She spent it and any increase in revenue from oil would almost certainly be spent on arms purchases from Britain.”
A third theme is the fear of Soviet-backed socialism and for the region to be a proxy for the cold war. “It was clear that the Bahrainis considered Nasser an instrument of the Soviet Union,” the account says. Nasser, in a meeting full of sparring, warned Brown that it was “really quite dangerous” to visit the British ships trapped in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal (see below).
The coup in Libya of 1st September, 1969, led by Muammar Gaddafi, then a 27-year-old army captain, runs as a thread of nervousness through many of the meetings. Shaikh Ahmad, foreign minister of Kuwait, offered that he had met the leaders of the Libyan revolution at the recent summit in Rabat, “and they were mere boys,” implying that they would not last.
That, at least, proved a gross misjudgement of the ability of the region’s leaders to hold on to power and to keep their countries and their conflicts immobilised in many ways—the reason why this account is still so resonant today.
ACCOUNT OF VISIT BY THE RT. HON. GEORGE BROWN M.P., AND MR. GWYN MORGAN ON MONDAY, 5TH JANUARY, 1970, TO THE BITTER LAKE TO VISIT THE BRITISH SHIPS MAROONED THERE
At the beginning of the war between Israel and the combined forces of the United Arab Republic (now Egypt), Jordan and Syria in June 1967, the UAR sank ships at both ends of the Suez Canal. That blocked the waterway and caught 14 ships travelling north through it at the time. The ships, four of them British, were trapped in the Great Bitter Lake section of the canal, and were to remain there until 1975. In the following passage (transcribed with the original punctuation), one bank of the lake is described as belonging to Israel, which took the Sinai peninsula during the war.
“At 7.30 a.m. Major Helmi, the escort from the Ministry of War, turned up at Shepheards Hotel [in Cairo], dressed immaculately and holding a pair of leather gloves, which he certainly never wore at any time during the day. Although Major Helmi had his gloves he did not have a car. Apparently he was under the impression that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs were providing the cars which the party had been using on previous days, whilst the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was under the impression that the Ministry of War were providing a military car.
Mr. Brown was most agitated at this delay. Mr. El Feki was roused from his bed to which he had retired only three hours earlier after having met Dr. Horace King, Speaker of the House of Commons, who had arrived on a delayed flight in the early hours of the morning. Mr. El Feki tried to sort out what was by this time taking on, at least in Mr. Brown’s public utterances, the shape of a plot to sabotage the visit to the Bitter Lake. Mr. El Feki appeared dishevelled and slightly dopey from sleeping tablets, but with remarkable speed when informed by Mr. Morgan that Mr. Brown was actually ringing President Nasser’s office. The unfortunate Major Helmi had retired in the face of a torrent of abuse from Mr. Brown to make innumerable telephone calls to complement the innumerable telephone calls which were being made from a different telephone box by Mr. El Feki. Mr. Roland Challis, the B.B.C. correspondent resident in Cairo who had been given permission to accompany the party to Bitter Lake, was despatched to fetch his car which Mr. Brown threatened to get into and drive down towards the Suez Canal, daring anybody to stop him.
Eventually Mr. Brown retired to his room to await the outcome of all this frantic activity. Mr. El Feki opened the door of Mr. Brown’s suite and asked for a whisky at 8.15 in the morning.
Everyone there adjourned to the balcony overlooking the Nile where Mr. El Feki attempted to get Mr. Brown to agree that in a situation like this one had to be philosophical. In between attempts to assure Mr. Brown that there was no plot to prevent him from visiting the Bitter Lake, Mr. El Feki was doing his best to get Mr. Challis of the B.B.C. to agree that there was really no story in what had happened that morning.
After another five minutes Mr. Brown issued a final ultimatum and said that if there were no car in ten minutes he was going to hold a press conference, announce the reasons for his departure and get the next plane out of Cairo. Mr. El Feki became even more agitated when Mr. Brown instructed Miss Elliott to ring up the Embassy and find out the time of the next plane out of Cairo. Miss Elliott left the room to give the impression that she was making this call.
To Mr. El Feki’s great relief, two cars appeared within five minutes and the party departed at 8.30 a.m. Mr. El Feki telephoned Miss Elliott in a state of agitation and asked her to cancel her request to the British Embassy at once for fear of the press hearing of it. Miss Elliott promised she would do this although the call had in fact never been made in the first place.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Morgan went in one car and Mr. Challis followed in his own car, chuckling at his story. Mr. Brown prophesied more disaster to come, probably in the shape of a puncture at some check-point, before they reached their destination. For the only time in his life Mr. Morgan was forced to concede that Mr. Brown really did have divine powers. At the very first check-point on the outskirts of Cairo the car in which they were travelling had a puncture.
Mr. Brown and Mr. Morgan transferred to the car in which Mr. Challis was travelling and the immaculate Major Helmi removed the chauffeur of the second car and took over the wheel himself, still not using his gloves. Then began two and a quarter hours of absolute nightmare driving, with a total disregard for everything else on the road from large Sam missile trailers to children, dogs and chicken[s]. He drove at a speed which hardly ever went below 100 kph. One magnificent dog was killed without the flicker of an eyelid and thousands of Egyptians must have had their lives considerably reduced by fright.
Eventually they reached the Great Bitter Lake after passing through very heavily guarded check-points and battalions of troops at battle stations in the battle area of the Ismailia side of the Great Bitter Lake.
The party got on to one of the Canal launches and were taken on board the S.S. Port Invercargil where all the British crew members, both from Invercargil and the Scottish Star, were gathered. A boat was sent round to collect the captains of the other ships in the Lake, American, Czech, Polish and West German. There was a tremendously enthusiastic reception, very enjoyable discussion and buffet lunch was served.
There then arrived two Egyptians, one was the Director of the Canal Shipping Agency, Mr. Sammy Samia. Mr. Brown asked the Captain of the Ship, Captain Hart, whether there were any problems. The Captain replied in the affirmative, saying that the Egyptians were now imposing a £25 landing fee on every individual who landed on the Egyptian side of the Lake, and this made it impossible for people to go to Cairo. Mr. Samia denied that such a charge existed. Mr. Brown said that whether it existed or not, he was only concerned with what happened from that moment on and promptly produced a form of agreement that there should be no such fee in the future which Mr. Samia and Mr. Brown formally sealed. Captain Hart was able to announce to the other Captains that this charge was now being removed.
The only other request from the officers was that Mr. Brown, when he went to Israel, should try to persuade the Israelis to allow the ships to recover three launches that had broken away and drifted to the Israel bank. Without these launches, communications between the ships were extremely difficult. Mr. Brown agreed to do his best.
The ship’s crew also urged Mr. Brown to appreciate how useless they felt their continued occupation of the ships to be. Mr. Brown said he was not sure that the Companies would necessarily be in agreement with all the crews but he sympathised with them a great deal. (Mr. Brown did in fact raise this matter with President Nasser at his second meeting with him and the President said that the crews could leave at any time.)
On arrival at the ships Mr. Brown had been greeted by hooters of both the British and Polish ships sounding the victory sign. On departure the crews sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and there were genuine signs of deep appreciation for Mr. Brown’s efforts to visit the ships. Mr. Brown was told that the British Embassy had not sent a representative since June and the Ambassador himself had never been. The crew were particularly peeved by the lack of visit at Christmas time from a representative of the British Embassy, whereas visits had been made by the French and Polish Ambassadors respectively. In this regard Mr. Brown’s visit lifted morale considerably and enabled the crew to feel a little more capable of holding their own with the ships of other nations.
By this time it was quite clear that the party would have to move very speedily to get to Cairo in time for the 5pm meeting with President Nasser. Already a lunch appointment in Cairo with Mr. Haikal and Mr. Arafat, the leader of Al Fatah, had had to be cancelled.
Mr. Brown insisted that the unfortunate but still immaculate Major Helmi should try to get a helicopter to fly the party back to Cairo. Mr. Challis, the B.B.C. correspondent, was most sceptical, pointing out that in his six months in the UAR he had never seen a helicopter in the sky, let alone been inside one. Mr. Brown merely said “If you want to ride by helicopter Brother, stick with me. If you want to go back with the Mad Major, get into the car and go.” Mr. Challis decided to sit it out. After a great deal of cajoling and bullying and telephone calls culminating in one to the Minister of War himself, a helicopter was promised. The party was driven about 20 miles towards the Ismailia road and in the village of Abou Hesseir were diverted from the main road onto a military airfield where a large helicopter was waiting on the tarmac with a crew lined up to receive Mr. Brown. The Air Commodore who was in charge of the whole station received the party and Mr. Brown, Mr. Morgan and a palpably stupefied Mr. Challis got on board what turned out to be the luxuriously furnished helicopter of President Nasser.
They flew very low under radar to the old Cairo Airport. Mr. Brown was allowed to fly the helicopter for a matter of seconds, much to the consternation of Mr. Morgan and Mr. Challis. They landed safely and returned to the Hotel. Mr. Brown made his appointment with President Nasser.”