by Robert Rhodes James
McGraw-Hill, 665 pp., $22.95
On April 4, 1955, Sir Winston Churchill gave a dinner at 10 Downing Street on the eve of his retirement as prime minister. For him, it was the definitive end to an Olympian career. For Sir Anthony Eden, his heir apparent, his long-awaited promised land was now finally in sight. Yet although Churchill claimed that “no two men have ever changed guard more smoothly,” relations between them had recently been strained almost to breaking point. Eden had been so enraged by Churchill’s procrastination and obstructiveness that he had sometimes come to hate the man he most admired. And Churchill was so distressed by Eden’s hunger for power and hostility to his policies that he had even come to doubt the fitness of his own protégé for his job. At the end of the evening, when all the guests had departed, the prime minister turned to his private secretary, John Colville, and observed with vehemence, “I don’t believe Anthony can do it.”
Throughout his life, opinion about Eden was always sharply divided. His admirers acclaimed him as the golden boy of British politics, who was handsome, glamorous, and debonair, and whose courage in war and integrity in peace were beyond question. Abroad he was a statesman of world stature, while at home his appeal to people of all classes and parties was uniquely strong. Indeed, according to this interpretation, it was only the megalomania of Nasser and the perfidy of the Americans which tragically ruined a prime ministership of which the greatest hopes had quite rightly been entertained. But to his enemies, Eden’s glitter was entirely superficial: he was a “charm school” politician with a “screen star” image, whose reputation was based on style rather than on substance. He never coined a memorable phrase or conceived an original idea, but was always bland, aloof, and indecisive. When we view him in this light, his day of reckoning was bound to come. Suez may have been unexpected; but nemesis was inevitable.
Since Eden’s death, his critics have been emphatically in the ascendant, and their case against him has recently been greatly strengthened by David Carlton’s muchpraised and highly critical biography. By contrast, Robert Rhodes James’s book is intended as an eloquent and moving case for the defense. It is the first biography to be based on Eden’s papers, and has been written with the support and encouragement of his widow Clarissa. It specifically sets out to rebut the “consistent and mystifyingly hostile” portrait painted by Carlton. And it does so by depicting Eden as “an English worthy,” whose “brand of humane, liberal and progressive Conservatism” Rhodes James—himself a Tory MP—believes to be the only appealing political creed. Yet ironically, he is so successful in producing a book that is “sympathetic, but not uncritical, and, above all, fair,” that he lends almost as much support to Eden’s detractors as to his admirers. The result is a fascinatingly paradoxical biography: well-disposed in intention …