NOT A QUESTION OF IMPERIAL FLAG WAVING, BUT A MATTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM’S ECONOMIC SURVIVAL: THE BRITISH LABOUR GOVERNMENT IN DISARRAY OVER THE OIL CRISIS IN IRAN: IDEOLOGY V. REALITY: 1948-1951.

NOT A QUESTION OF IMPERIAL FLAG WAVING, BUT A MATTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM’S ECONOMIC SURVIVAL: THE BRITISH LABOUR GOVERNMENT IN DISARRAY OVER THE OIL CRISIS IN IRAN: IDEOLOGY V. REALITY: 1948-1951.

‘The British Government would not tolerate a complete change in the Company’s position as provided for in the existing [i.e. the 1933] Agreement.’¹Lord Salisbury, in the House of Lords, ‘unwarranted interference in the Company’s affairs in Persia is deplorably weak. ‘²

 

Herbert Morrison, the Foreign Secretary, knew that the British public would be outraged by any display of apparent weakness in the face of Iranian high-handedness, and that this would adversely affect the Labour Party’s election prospects. The Foreign Secretary informed the Cabinet that ‘all practicable steps would be taken to prevent the Company’s customers from buying oil from the Persian Government, ‘ ³’as evidence that United Kingdom interests could not  be recklessly molested with impunity.  Indeed, failure to exhibit firmness in this matter any prejudice our interests throughout the Middle East.’4 For example, ‘any admission of the principle of the nationalisation would be quickly exploited elsewhere in the Middle East: the Egyptian Government in particular, would be glad to seize this pretext for actions prejudicial to British interests,’5 went on Herbert Morrison.

 

As far as Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, was concerned, ‘Persian oil’ was an election issue. To preside over the Cabinet meeting, Attlee broke away from the Scottish Labour Conference and flew to London. Contrary to Morrison the Foreign Secretary, who took a hawkish approach and favoured military intervention in Iran, Attlee estimated that military intervention might strengthen nationalist feeling in Iran and consequently Dr. Musaddiq’s position as a prime Minister who could stand up to western imperialism. Furthermore, Attlee was of the opinion that, if the Iranians by their own mismanagement were to reduce the oil industry to chaos, then they might eventually recognise the desirability of British co-operation. Attlee was not especially sanguine about that prospect, but he held it to be the best that the British faced. He put these views forward with great force:

 

An occupation of Abadan island would not necessarily bring about a change in Persian Government and might well unite the Persian people against this country, and neither the oil wells nor the refinery could be worked without the assistance of Persian workers… It would be humiliating to this country if the remaining to this country if the remaining British staff at Abadan were expelled, but this step would at least leave Dr. Musaddiq with the task of attempting to run the oil industry with inadequate facilities for refining oil and getting it away from Persia and he might then be driven to accept some form of agreement with this country.6

 

      1. Parliamentary Debates, Commons, Vol. 487, Cols. 1006-1014, 1st May 1951 in H. ENAYAT, British Public Opinion and the Persian Oil Crisis from 1951 to 1954, M.Sc. Econ. Thesis, University of London, 1958, p. 110.
      2. Parliamentary Debates, Lords, Vol. 172, Col. 681,5th July 1951, in ibid, p. 103.
      3. PRO, London, CAB 128/19 CM (51) 37th Conclusions, Minute3, 5th July 1951, p. 96.
      4. PRO, London, CAB 129/46 CP (51) 212, Memorandum by Herbert Morrison on Persia, Secret, 28th July 1951, p. 1.
      5. PRO, London, CAB 128/19, CM (51) 212, 37th Conclusions, Minute3, 5th July 1951, p. 33.
      6. PRO, London, CAB 128/20, CM 60 (51), Conclusions, Minute, 27th September 1951.

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