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The Suez crisis is often portrayed as Britain's last fling of the imperial dice. In , the globe was indeed still circled by British possessions and dependencies, from the Caribbean in the west to Singapore, Malaya and Hong Kong in the east. Much of the African map was still imperial pink. In reality, though, the sun had long since begun to sink over the British empire. The greatest possession of them all, the Indian subcontinent, had taken its freedom.
Nationalist movements were flourishing in most of the rest, patronised by Soviet Russia and encouraged by the United States in its self-appointed role as leader of the free world. Britain itself was only beginning to emerge from postwar austerity, its public finances crushed by an accumulation of war debt.
Still, there were powerful figures in the "establishment" - a phrase coined in the early s - who could not accept that Britain was no longer a first-rate power.
Their case, in the context of the times, was persuasive: we had nuclear arms, a permanent seat on the UN security council, and military forces in both hemispheres. We remained a trading nation, with a vital interest in the global free passage of goods. But there was another, darker, motive for intervention in Egypt: the sense of moral and military superiority which had accreted in the centuries of imperial expansion. Though it may now seem quaint and self-serving, there was a widespread and genuine feeling that Britain had responsibilities in its diminishing empire, to protect its peoples from communism and other forms of demagoguery.
Much more potently, there was ingrained racism. When the revolutionaries in Cairo dared to suggest that they would take charge of the Suez canal, the naked prejudice of the imperial era bubbled to the surface. The Egyptians, after all, were among the original targets of the epithet, "westernised or wily oriental gentlemen. They were the Wogs. King Farouk , the ruler of Egypt, was forced into exile in mid A year later, a group of army officers formally took over the government which they already controlled.