Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.
Anthony Eden has not enjoyed a high reputation among the Prime Ministers of this country. On May 10 Alistair Lexden considered his career and achievements afresh in a lecture which he delivered at Speaker’s House, chaired by The Speaker. The lecture formed part of a series entitled “Parliamentarians on Parliamentarians” which has been held annually for some years. This was Alistair Lexden’s second contribution to the series, following one which he gave at the end of June last year on the famous philanthropist, Lord Shaftesbury.
In political life, which is rarely free from unkindness and unfairness, a single untoward event can inflict grievous damage on even the most formidable and firmly established reputations: and so it did in the case of Sir Anthony Eden. The event of course was Suez. Exactly sixty years on, it has lost none of its power to stir feeling against his memory. In the autumn of 1956, after just eighteen months as prime minister — a position for which he had waited good-humouredly for so long — he set out to topple an inflammatory Egyptian dictator whose confiscation of the Suez Canal and close association with the Soviet Union in his view endangered stability in the region. He was not in search of late imperial glory; Anthony Eden cared little for the British Empire. He sought to secure the peace of the Middle East, most certainly in British interests but also in the interests of preserving the international order of which the United Nations, like the League of Nations before it, seemed an inadequate custodian.
Colonel Nasser survived. It was Eden himself who was toppled, ill-health, of which this fine man had had so large a share, precipitating his resignation in January 1957 amid growing charges that he had colluded outrageously with France and Israel in secret military plans and then misled Parliament about them. This single misfortune overshadows — indeed almost obliterates in public recollection — all that he had done in the service of his nation in peace and war since entering political life in 1923. Few now care to recall that at the outset of his premiership he had the entire Conservative Party at his feet; literally so where some members of it were concerned, for women would swoon before this charming, elegant and exceptionally good-looking man, the most handsome male leader the Tories have ever had. He is the only prime minister apart from the Duke of Wellington to have had an article of apparel named after him. The Eden hat, a splendid homburg, adorned the heads of men of fashion throughout the 1930s. (Incidentally, what on earth would the originator of this head-piece, who was always immaculately turned out, have thought of the inelegance and scruffiness that flourish on every side today, with the prime minister himself frequently appearing in tatty jeans and without a tie? As for Mr Corbyn, his appearance would have left Eden speechless with shock.)
Before Suez almost everyone regardless of party hailed him as a master of all significant aspects of foreign affairs, a statesman with a commanding international reputation, recently reinforced by a string of diplomatic successes in 1954, for which the Queen had made him a Knight of the Garter, a rare honour for a serving foreign secretary. In domestic affairs no one was more firmly committed to the cause of One Nation .He hated social injustice and applauded the welfare state that Attlee’s Labour government fashioned, drawing on plans that Churchill’s war-time coalition had formulated with Eden’s enthusiastic support. In the general election that took place in May 1955, a month after he succeeded Churchill, the Tories won a stunning victory for which contemporary commentators, including a young David Butler, gave Eden personally a great deal of the credit. He was the first political leader to make a successful election broadcast on television, speaking to camera for fifteen minutes without a note. At that moment in 1955 the popularity of Anthony Eden, man of peace, was at its highest point. What went wrong?
It is perhaps tempting to see Eden, as some have done, as a supreme example of a particular type of politician: one blessed with great talent but nevertheless in the end unsuited to the highest office. Famous words used by Tacitus to describe the very short-lived reign of the Emperor Galba in A.D.69 ring down the ages: omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset—if he had not become Emperor everyone would have agreed that he was capable of ruling. Quite swiftly after May 1955 things ceased to go well for Eden. His popularity plunged long before Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Despite his long and distinguished record, did he lack some of the vital accomplishments needed for success at the very top? That is the question that has been in the centre of my mind as I pondered his career.
Robert Anthony Eden did not come from a calm, stable, orthodox Tory background. By the time of his birth in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the Edens were having increasing difficulty in keeping their spending carefully within the limits of the income generated by their estate of some 8,000 acres at Windlestone, County Durham, which had been the family seat for some 700 years. Neither of his parents was disposed to count the pennies. His mother, Sybil, great niece of Lord Grey of the Reform Bill, was as extravagant as she was beautiful, continuing her spendthrift ways into old age to the alarm of her children, of whom Anthony was the youngest but one in a brood of five, reduced to three by the First World War which took the lives of his eldest brother Jack, heir to the two Eden baronetcies, and the very youngest, Nicholas, to whom he was deeply attached, killed at the Battle of Jutland at the age of sixteen. His father, Sir William, believed in leaving the boring book-keeping to others. Anthony wrote later that when he was about three, “the agent absconded to the United States with all the cash he could lay hands on, leaving a heap of unpaid bills. My father dealt with this setback by sending his entire family, together with courier, maids, nannies and governess, on a peregrination of Europe while he tried to sort out the tangle”. Anthony Eden managed his own finances infinitely better, but he was never to acquire a deep interest in money-making or become a rich man.
The Eden parents were not the kind of people to preside sweetly at Tory bazaars. Aesthetic interests were much more important to them. Sybil Eden loved art, literature and handsome men. There has been much speculation that Anthony Eden’s real father was a dashing but neurotic Tory minister, George Wyndham. Eden himself rather encouraged the talk. But illegitimacy, like treason, is a matter of dates. Wyndham was out of the country when Eden was conceived. So he does not have something in common with Archbishop Welby after all. As for monogamy, for much of his life Eden agreed with his mother that it was not a desirable virtue, but quickly changed his mind on his second marriage to Winston Churchill’s niece, Clarissa, in 1952 which brought him total contentment.
His father set tongues wagging for different reasons. Sir William Eden was an accomplished horseman who liked to jump over closed level-crossing gates. He was a talented amateur artist who thought that one way of bolstering the family’s finances was by investing in pictures by modern painters like Degas, Cezanne and Corot to the amazement of his neighbours. “Willie actually gave good money for these things,” said the dim-witted Lord Londonderry, owner of vast coal mines nearby. But most of the stories about Sir William concerned his bizarre behaviour. Anthony Eden later described his antics with filial restraint as if they reflected no more than mild eccentricity. As rain cascaded down one day, “his eye fell on a barometer hanging on the panelled wall. He walked up to it and tapped; it read ‘Set Fair’. He tapped again; it still replied ‘Set Fair’. He took it off the wall, walked through the front door and sent it clattering down before the assembled company, saying, “Go and see for yourself, you damned fool”.
Towering rages were Sir William’s real speciality, as Anthony’s elder brother, Timothy, recorded in a masterly memoir entitled The Tribulations of a Baronet. “ It is not easy to understand”, he wrote, “how a terrible tornado of oaths, screams, gesticulations and flying sticks can be seriously prompted by a barking dog; nor will anyone readily admit that the whistling of a boy in the street can be a good and sufficient reason for breaking a window with a flower-pot”. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, made a study of the impact of this ungovernable temper on Eden himself. He concluded that “Anthony did not inherit his father’s instability, but it must have been a handicap to be brought up in such an atmosphere”. In fact Eden did pay a price. Sudden outbursts of anger would occasionally and unpredictably disfigure the normally perfect manners with which he conducted himself.
The greatest benefit that Anthony Eden derived from his memorable, idiosyncratic parents was a deep love of art and literature. He became as great an expert on modern art as his father. The library was his favourite room in the family home at Windlestone. Like Churchill and Harold Macmillan, he was formidably well-read. Long passages from Shakespeare leaped effortlessly from his memory.
The garden at Windlestone often bore a film of coal dust. Growing up among the coal mines of County Durham, Eden was conscious of political trends that were to make this part of England one of the heartlands of the Labour movement. He was not apprehensive. On the contrary, the vigorous assertion of working class interests seemed to him thoroughly desirable in the overall national interest. He went to hear the trade union leader, Ben Tillett, speak in Bishop Auckland. ‘He was quite wonderful’, Eden said. Such experiences helped to make him an ardently progressive Tory, always on the left of his party in domestic policy, always conscious of the need to seek agreement with Labour wherever possible. That he is what he meant by One Nation conservatism.
That lifelong political stance was confirmed and strengthened by the great comradeship which he found in the trenches during the First World War. He joined up at the first opportunity in 1915 aged 18, leaving his well-known school in Berkshire without a backward glance. He wrote later, “though I never pretended to like school and my years there were far from the happiest in my life, the independence and freedom of choice which Eton encouraged were some compensation”. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the public school system. Far deeper feelings were aroused in Captain Eden MC of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. They emerge powerfully from his wonderful memoir of his early life, Another World, published in 1976, the year before his death.
It is the work of a man of deep emotion, firmly controlled and deliberately understated. During the Battle of the Somme, he writes, his platoon “in weakened numbers” was inspected by a general whom Eden greatly admired. “His brief inspection over, the general turned and spoke so that the riflemen could hear: “That is the best platoon I have seen today, colonel.” “It was Mr Eden’s, sir”, came the quiet reply. The general nodded and I have never known a happier moment in my life.” The reader is left in no doubt that this mattered so much to him because it was a collective achievement in which he had been joined by men of very different backgrounds to his own. “We had all been so much mixed up together in a battalion like ours and in so many others which we knew, that it was hardly conceivable that the nation should be divided again as it had been”. Eden was left above all with “a sense of the irrelevance and unreality of class distinction”.
Possessing such strong One Nation convictions about the importance of ending class divisions, why didn’t Eden concentrate on domestic policy when he entered Parliament in December 1923 at the age of 26? He was to be frequently accused of neglecting it. Indeed, it came to be widely believed that he knew absolutely nothing about it. He was never a minister for a domestic department in government. His supposed ignorance was one of the main points made against him when he became prime minister after his long, distinguished service in foreign affairs. The criticism, though often repeated, had no serious foundation. Eden swept the members of the selection committee in the Warwick and Leamington constituency off their feet in 1923, and won the nomination for this safe seat, with a brilliant survey of Britain’s industrial problems. Arriving at Westminster, he was reassured to find that the incumbent Tory leader who quickly became his political mentor, Stanley Baldwin, the man who invented the term One Nation, was firmly pledged to policies based on the progressive conservatism in which he believed so strongly. Recalling Baldwin with great affection in a volume of his memoirs published in 1962, Eden wrote: “No British statesman in this century has done so much to kill class hatred. He was able to do this because he neither believed in class distinctions nor felt them.”
Eden’s great contribution in domestic policy was to look ahead and help chart a direction for the Tory Party in the next generation. By the late 1920s he was already advocating policies with which he was to become even more closely identified during the years of arduous Tory policy-making after Attlee’s accession to power in 1945. Speaking in November 1929, he said: “The Conservative objective must be to spread the private ownership of property as widely as possible, to enable every worker to become a capitalist. The status of the worker in industry must be raised… There must be a steady and ever-increasing development of schemes of co-partnership in industry…The wider we can spread the basis of national well-being…the more certainly shall we create a Britain where her people may dwell in peace and plenty”. Co-partnership was an idea whose time never came. After 1945 wider ownership was promoted in other ways instead , principally through housing. It became the central element of the quest for a property-owning democracy, in the famous phrase that Eden then popularised and made his own, though he did not invent it.
In this way Eden enlarged and developed the vision of One Nation that Baldwin had first placed before the Conservative Party. Baldwin, who retired in 1937, saw Eden as his ultimate political heir, the man who should follow Neville Chamberlain, another great proponent of One Nation, aged 70 in 1939, as prime minister if peace was maintained, though not if war broke out. Then, said the astute Baldwin, the post should go to Churchill. In 1939 Eden was 42. There was no sign of the severe health problems that dogged him after 1953. It would have been an excellent moment for an Eden premiership. Hitler destroyed that prospect.
By 1939 Eden had established himself firmly on the world stage. Though never neglecting domestic issues — and later deepening his understanding of them with two stints as Leader of the House of Commons — Eden believed from the start that he had a special aptitude for foreign affairs. He came to them equipped with an Oxford First in Persian and Arabic, a unique distinction among senior British politicians which gave him deep insights into the Middle East, making his ultimate failure there the more tragic.
He first made his name abroad, while no more than a junior Foreign Office minister, at the World Disarmament Conference which took place in Geneva between 1932 and 1934. It represented a final strenuous attempt to establish peace on lasting foundations by setting agreed international limits on the armaments of the leading powers. Eden worked ferociously hard on the only set of detailed proposals that stood any chance of success. He became the first person to practise shuttle diplomacy to try and get them agreed, visiting Hitler — the first British minister to encounter the Nazi leader — and then Mussolini in February 1934. Hitler impressed him: “the man is clearly much more than a demagogue”, he wrote. Mussolini, who later came to loathe Eden, was extremely cordial. But in 1934, as later, the dictators ultimately proved intransigent.
If no agreement could be reached on disarmament, then, the Conservative leaders of the 1930s agreed, there must be rearmament to strengthen Britain’s depleted defences. On 30 July 1934 the government secured parliamentary approval for 41 new RAF squadrons, with Labour voting against. But Conservative leaders were also clear that there must be a second element to policy: a search for agreement with the dictators so that the new armaments did not need to be used. And so they embarked on the long road that led first to Munich and then to war. Anthony Eden, who was appointed Foreign Secretary in 1935, fully subscribed to the dual policy. The central difficulty for Eden was that Neville Chamberlain, who became Prime Minister two years later, did not attach equal importance to the twin elements: he stressed appeasement (Chamberlain’s own word, then devoid of pejorative overtone) and slowed down the pace of rearmament. Chamberlain, a Tory One Nation hero in domestic policy but wholly unversed in international diplomacy, became convinced that he knew better than the stunted brains at the Foreign Office how to reach an accommodation with the dictators. A breakdown in the hitherto cordial relations between the two men was the inevitable consequence, and Eden resigned in February 1938, six months before Munich, over Chamberlain’s appeasement of Mussolini, the new emperor of Abyssinia.
After his resignation Eden put himself at the head of a group of some 20 to 30 backbench critics of the government, known as the Glamour Boys, not to try and force Chamberlain into a showdown with Hitler at Munich, but to speed up rearmament in case Munich did not represent the end of Hitler’s expansionism. Ironically, that was exactly Chamberlain’s view, but by this point the two men were personally irreconcilable. In 1939 Eden, always a man of peace, came reluctantly to accept the stark truth that the destruction of Nazi Germany was essential if peace—and its concomitant, freedom—were to be secured for future generations.
Until the period immediately before the outbreak of war, Eden and Churchill saw comparatively little of each other. After Eden’s appointment as Foreign Secretary for the second time in December 1940, the two men became the closest of colleagues and boon companions. They were in constant communication, by hand-delivered note, by letter, by telegram, by long-distance telephone calls. Matters of high strategy were discussed between them at length and with complete mutual confidence. A detailed study of their war-time partnership based on private papers was published in 1978 by a leading commentator on foreign affairs, Elisabeth Barker. She writes: “ there was real and deep friendly feeling between the two men. Eden quoted approvingly Herbert Morrison’s description of their relationship as that of father and son…Churchill, especially in times of particular strain or exhaustion, obviously came to rely more and more on Eden for sympathy, a ready responsiveness and congenial company”. They did their best to keep Stalin’s vaulting ambitions for territorial aggrandisement in check, but their American allies were too often inclined to practise appeasement of this dictator. Together they laid the foundations of the United Nations Organisation — of which Eden could have been the first Secretary-General if he had wished — and envisaged some form of European unity in the post-war world.
Churchill promised Eden that he would not repeat the mistake made by Lloyd George in 1918 by staying on after the war. The breaking of that promise was for Eden the greatest tragedy. Formally designated the great man’s successor in 1942, Eden had to wait thirteen years to enter into his inheritance, making him the longest-serving political crown prince in British history. How different everything would have been if Eden had become prime minister aged 54 on the Tories’ return to power in 1951, perhaps the best moment of all for him and the country. While Churchill wrote his tendentious war memoirs during the years of post-war opposition, Eden had directed the Party in Parliament and involved himself fully in the complete reconstruction of Tory policy on the progressive lines to which he had always been committed. His vivid phrase, a property-owning democracy, gave the Party one of the most effective slogans in its history. He deserved the highest post in 1951, but that ideal moment passed. He returned to the Foreign Office for a third, and particularly glorious, term.
Personal factors count for so much in politics. The bond of war-time affection with Churchill was reinforced further by Eden’s marriage to his niece, Clarissa, in 1952. Eden did not conspire with other members of Churchill’s peace-time cabinet who thought the aged Titan should retire. Tory gentlemen of high honour not infrequently lower their standards to advance their personal interests in politics. Anthony Eden never did.
The crown prince finally ascended in 1955, weakened in health by a number of serious operations in Britain and America. Disloyalty flourished in his cabinet. He fussed and fretted about press criticisms. He annoyed his colleagues by interfering with their departmental work. The economy ran into difficulties. That great Tory organ, The Telegraph, accused him of failing to provide “the smack of firm government”. In other words, he had much the same experience as most other prime ministers in post-war Britain. There is nothing very unusual about a run of domestic setbacks after a general election triumph. Do they really show that Eden resembled Tacitus’s unfortunate Emperor Galba in lacking what it takes to rule successfully? Some historians believe so, taking their cue from Churchill’s much-quoted comment just before he left Downing Street “ I don’t believe Anthony can do it”. That is best seen perhaps as the sour and embittered parting shot by an 80-year old national saviour who did not want to retire.
There is no need to look further than the Suez crisis for an explanation of Eden’s sudden descent into the gravest political turmoil from which there was no way back. American opposition to the use of force broke him; it would have broken anyone who set out to tackle the threat posed by Colonel Nasser and his Soviet backers by using military means in the autumn of 1956, just as Margaret Thatcher would have been broken by the Falklands War if the United States had been against her in 1982. It was Nasser’s good fortune, and Eden’s misfortune, that the confiscation of the Canal took place in the run-up to an American presidential election fought in a mood of moral high-mindedness which excluded support for an attack on Egypt without the backing of the United Nations. At other times in this period the Americans showed no compunction in taking action without UN blessing.
Eden sought a degree of national independence within the framework of the Anglo-American alliance in order to defeat Russian ambitions and preserve Britain’s capacity to deal firmly with threats to peace and stability in the Middle East, a region of which it had long experience. Eisenhower later told Richard Nixon that his betrayal of Eden over Suez was his major foreign policy mistake. Eden bore the pressures of the intense crisis with immense fortitude until his health finally gave way completely at the beginning of January 1957. There was no truth in the widespread rumours that he became dependent on drugs and sleeping pills. Despite unremitting Labour opposition generously laced with personal abuse, he retained his mastery of the House of Commons to the last, as Enoch Powell, no mean judge, attested.
An account of Eden’s government was written shortly after his resignation by the great Tory seer, T.E. Utley. He concluded that Eden’s foreign policy was “the only one compatible with the interest and honour of his country”. It would be hard to argue that the survival of powerful British influence in the Middle East as part of an enduring Anglo-American alliance after 1956 would have been of manifest disadvantage to the region.
In the year that marks the 60th anniversary of the Suez crisis and at a time of suffering in the Middle East on a scale that he could never have imagined, it may not be inappropriate to reflect more sympathetically than has often been the custom on the career of Sir Anthony Eden KG, First Earl of Avon, hero in war, champion of One Nation values, three times Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister, a most distinguished servant of his country.