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, but ultimately damning in content.
Rhodes James’s argument is that there were indeed two Edens, the one attractive, accomplished, and successful, the other unappealing, inadequate, and unfathomable, and that the tension between them provides the key to understanding his career. He was born in 1897, the younger son of a County Durham baronet, and remained an aristocrat all his life. The family home, Windlestone Hall, was secure and civilized, and Eden grew up to love books and pictures, trees and flowers. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, where he took a First in Oriental languages, without apparent effort. Between school and university, he served in the First World War. He was a brave and brilliant soldier, won the Military Cross, and became one of the youngest brigade majors in the army. At twenty-six, he was elected MP for one of the safest Tory seats in the country, and he soon established a reputation in the Commons as an expert in international affairs. Within three years, he was given junior office under Austen Chamberlain, the foreign secretary, and by the early 1930s he was widely acclaimed as the rising star of his political generation.
But as Rhodes James amply demonstrates, there was another side to this success story. Despite the undeniably idyllic surroundings, Eden’s childhood was lonely and difficult: his father was eccentric, tyrannical, and given to furious outbursts; his mother was financially irresponsible beyond the point of profligacy; and Eden himself may well have been the illegitimate offspring of her affair with George Wyndham. He was a physically delicate boy, further afflicted with poor eyesight, and he grew up to be exceptionally sensitive, highly strung, and inclined to bad temper. During the First World War, two of his brothers were killed, his father died, and the family fortune was dissipated. As a younger son, Eden himself had very little money, and had to augment his small inheritance with journalism. In 1923, he married the beautiful Beatrice Beckett; but almost from the outset it was an ill-fated union. Eden was increasingly wrapped up in his work, whereas she loathed politics and diplomacy. By the late 1920s, the marriage was already failing, and the combined pressures of private sadness and public success brought on Eden’s first ulcer.
This was an ominously insecure base from which to launch a major political career. But during the 1930s, Eden’s rise was meteoric. He seemed the glamorous survivor of the lost generation, nobly striving to build a better world. In 1931, on the formation of the National Government, Stanley Baldwin sent him to the Foreign Office as parliamentary under-secretary, where he won golden opinions for his work in Geneva at the disarmament conference and for his shuttle diplomacy between the European capitals. He was soon promoted to full ministerial rank, and his reputation was further enhanced when he sought—albeit unavailingly—to thwart Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia. Late in 1935, he became the youngest foreign secretary of modern times, and waged a courageous campaign from inside the cabinet against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, which culminated in his sensational resignation in February 1938. In a dismal decade, Eden seemed, in Churchill’s words, the “one strong young figure standing up against long, dismal, drawling tides of drift and surrender.”
Once again, however, this was only part of the picture. Tense, lonely, and unhappy, Eden was already driving himself too hard. His many absences abroad, and his dislike of political infighting, meant that he made few friends in the Commons or the cabinet. Even in foreign policy, his attitudes were neither clear nor consistent. Initially, he was a strong supporter of disarmament and was well-disposed to Hitler. As foreign secretary, he was more preoccupied with the Italian than with the German menace. And his resignation was astonishingly maladroit: he was outmaneuvered by Chamberlain in the battle for advantage; the specific issue on which he left the government was vague and trivial; and his speech in self-justification impressed no one. The rumors put about at the time—that he was on the verge of physical and nervous collapse—may well have been the malicious whisperings of his enemies. But there was already some evidence that he did not hold up well in a crisis. Thereafter, he failed conspicuously to exploit his position: he refused to join with Churchill in attacking the government wholeheartedly, his speech against the Munich settlement was feeble, and even in early 1939 he was still unsure about precisely what policy to adopt toward Germany.
Nevertheless, on the outbreak of the Second World War, Eden returned to power as dominions secretary, and on the fall of Chamberlain’s government he became secretary of state for war. He organized the Home Guard and promoted gifted commanders like Dill and Brooke; his orders to hold the Channel ports made the Dunkirk evacuation possible; and he rightly took much of the credit for Wavell’s early victories against the Italians in Africa. When Lord Halifax was exiled to Washington as ambassador on the death of Lord Lothian, Eden took over the Foreign Office again. He established close contacts with exiled leaders like De Gaulle and Sikorski; he scored notable diplomatic triumphs on two visits to Russia; he was the first major Western figure to divine Stalin’s expansionist intentions; and he was a significant influence in the preparation and agreement of the United Nations charter. In 1942, on the eve of one of his foreign visits, Churchill advised the king to send for Eden in the event of his own death. Thereafter, his position as crown prince was assured and unassailable.
Yet even these were tainted triumphs. His health and his marriage were further undermined by the burdens of office, and his eldest son was killed in the very last stages of the war. While in charge of the Dominions Office he was inevitably a marginal and insignificant figure. Even as secretary for war, he did not sit in the inner war cabinet. And as at the Foreign Office, he played no more than a peripheral part in the crucial meetings between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt. Throughout the war, diplomacy was subordinated to strategy and, on the British side, Churchill was emphatically in charge of both. While Eden consolidated his reputation as an accomplished and highly professional negotiator who was outstanding at settling problems and working out agreements, he was implementing policy rather than formulating it. On more than one occasion, he considered abandoning his subordinate position for “a real job.” In 1943, he was strongly tempted to go to India as viceroy, and at the end of the war, he longed to be appointed the first secretary general of the United Nations. But after the heavy defeat of the Conservatives in 1945, he stayed on, in the forlorn hope that Churchill would soon retire.
As deputy leader of the opposition, he encouraged young, progressive, liberal Conservatives, who were seeking to update the party’s image and program. He divorced his first wife and married Clarissa Churchill, who was not only his leader’s niece, but also brought him happiness and companionship hitherto unknown. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, he resumed the Foreign Office a third time, and as Churchill aged, Eden became correspondingly more assertive. In 1954, he pulled off a spectacular string of diplomatic coups: he brought about a cease-fire in Indochina and held back America and Russia from the brink of nuclear war; he successfully negotiated the withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal base; he stabilized the precarious situation in Iran, to Britain’s financial advantage; and he brought West Germany into NATO and established the Western European Union. Appropriately enough, he received the Order of the Garter from the Queen, and the Wateler Peace Prize from the Carnegie Foundation. When he finally succeeded Churchill as prime minister in 1955, it was to widespread welcome, and within a month he had increased his party’s majority at a general election, the first occasion on which this had been accomplished in peacetime since 1900.
But as Rhodes James admits, the signs were not all encouraging. Although more assiduous than his leader, he was ill at ease in opposition, and Churchill invariably stole the limelight on great occasions. In foreign affairs he was deeply hostile to the cause of European unity, did not get on well with the Americans, whose overwhelming power he resented, and was unable to accept the diminished role that Britain was now constrained to play in the world. In domestic policy he was understandably unsure, and the one speech Rhodes James quotes as evidence of his interest in the subject is as boring as it is banal. As foreign secretary, he was constantly at loggerheads with Churchill; he was appalled by the prime minister’s idea of a top-level summit with the Russians and Americans; and he was stung by right-wing criticism within his own party that he was appeasing the Egyptians and the Communists. When Churchill suffered a stroke in 1953, Eden would almost undoubtedly have succeeded him, but for the fact that he was himself gravely ill at the time. Thereafter, his health was more suspect than ever, while the strain of waiting for Churchill to make up his mind when to leave was, for a man of his nervous temperament, almost unendurable.
Nor, as prime minister and Conservative party leader, did Eden begin auspiciously. His shyness and aloofness meant that his parliamentary power base was dangerously narrow, and the fact that he had never passed a single piece of domestic legislation was now exposed as a grave weakness. He never really stamped his identity on his administration, his first cabinet reshuffle was a mistake, and his second a disaster. He interfered in the day-to-day running of departments, he drove himself much too hard in his evident desire to succeed, and the strain showed in frequent outbursts of petulance and bad temper. He was excessively sensitive to press criticism, and was noticeably maladroit in dealing with journalists. At the general election, he offered no firm lead on policy, and despite his victory at the polls, the total Tory vote actually fell. Even worse, Churchill’s Indian summer was followed by Eden’s cold spring; at home, the economy went into recession, and there were rows about security, immigration, and the death penalty; while in foreign affairs, there were a crisis in Cyprus, and humiliation in Jordan, and the visit of the new Russian leaders—Bulganin and Khrushchev—was a public-relations disaster.
It is in this setting—of a government and prime minister visibly losing grip and ground—that the Suez crisis occurred. It was provoked by Nasser’s nationalization of the canal after the British and the Americans had refused to finance the Aswan High Dam project. In defense of Eden’s disastrous policy of military retaliation against Nasser, Rhodes James argues that his appraisal of Nasser was essentially correct: he was an international pirate, another Mussolini, who posed a major threat to world peace. In addition, Eden was clearly let down by his chiefs of staff, who were too cautious and indecisive in their planning, and especially by Mountbatten, who did grave disservice by refusing to make his doubts about the enterprise known.
Moreover, Eden was badly served by his cabinet colleagues: Rab Butler was ineffectual; Selwyn Lloyd as foreign secretary was not up to the job; Monckton as minister of defense declined to make his reservations public; and Macmillan as chancellor of the exchequer was conspicuously inconsistent. Above all, Eden was deceived and defeated by the Americans: partly because Dulles gave ambiguous signals, which encouraged Eden to expect US support when none was ever intended; and partly because President Eisenhower coerced the British into halting their military operations by refusing to support the falling British pound until they did.
Yet despite these extenuating circumstances, the fact remains that Eden, ostensibly the great international statesman, was broken by his mishandling of a great international crisis. For much of the time he was clearly ill, and his judgment was distorted by his violent personal animosity to Nasser, whom he wanted destroyed at any cost. He showed a lack of firmness in dealing with the chiefs of staff, and simply ignored the unequivocal messages from Eisenhower declaring that under no circumstances would the United States give military support. He failed to carry opinion with him, in Britain, in America, in the Commonwealth, and at the United Nations.
Even Rhodes James cannot understand why he accepted the plan whereby the French and British would intervene after an Israeli attack on Egypt, since it was clear to all that its real intention was to topple Nasser rather than to divide the combatants. By ordering the cease-fire before the canal zone was fully occupied, Eden ensured that the British troops in Egypt incurred the maximum of odium and the minimum of advantage. In denying in the Commons that there had been collusion between the British, the French, and the Israelis, Eden undoubtedly misled the House. And his decision to leave for Jamaica when his health finally broke down was a catastrophic act of political folly. As Rab Butler later wrote bitterly, he “was left in charge of the government, with the odious duty of withdrawing the troops, re-establishing the pound, salvaging our relations with the US and the UN, and bearing the brunt of the criticism.”
Whether Eden finally resigned in early 1957 on grounds of ill health (as Rhodes James insists), or because he feared that evidence of collusion with the Israelis would leak out (as Carlton claims), remains unclear. But for whatever reason, his career was finished: the youngest foreign secretary of modern times had become the youngest prime ministerial casualty since Lord Rosebery. Only when dealing with this last phase of Eden’s life does Rhodes James’s wish to be sympathetic triumph over his desire to be fair. In a chapter implausibly entitled “Victory, 1957–77,” he deploys all his rhetorical skills to argue that in the aftermath of Suez, Eden “rebuilt” his shattered reputation. But the evidence does not support such a happy ending. His memoirs were predictably boring, and their theme, “the lessons of the ‘thirties and their application to the ‘fifties,” suggested that he had learned no lessons at all. Like many a former prime minister, he dreamed of making a Commons comeback; but his health would not permit it, and when he finally took a peerage, he made almost no impact on the House of Lords. At best he was a forlorn figure; at worst, a failed man of peace, an ineffectual man of war, a self-styled prima donna whose brief solo performance had been disastrously second-rate.
Beyond doubt, Rhodes James paints a more sensitive and sympathetic picture of Eden than that drawn by David Carlton, not only because he is well-disposed toward his subject, but because he draws so heavily on both personal and official papers to which Carlton did not have access. But inevitably, the result is an individual portrait rather than a historical study. Much recent writing, especially on the politics of the 1930s and the policy of appeasement, seems to have passed him by, and he does not appear to have consulted any major manuscript collection beyond Eden’s own papers. One such source is the diary of Evelyn Shuckburgh, who was private secretary to Eden between 1951 and 1954, and in charge of Middle Eastern affairs at the Foreign Office from 1954 to 1956.* At the time, he was highly critical of Eden, as foreign secretary and as prime minister, particularly for his arrogance and indecisiveness, and his comments were extensively quoted by David Carlton. But even though an edited version has now been published, Rhodes James completely ignores the diaries.
How are we to explain and to reconcile the two Edens which Rhodes James depicts so vividly? The author’s own answer is that Eden was extraordinarily unlucky—in his temperament, in his first marriage, in his health, in the long years of waiting for Churchill to retire, and in the colleagues at home and abroad who misled and betrayed him over Suez. To the extent that this is correct, it prompts the remark that no one so vulnerable or accident-prone should ever have been so prominent in English public life. And this in turn suggests that Eden’s greatest misfortune was not that he was dogged throughout his career by bad luck, but that, on the contrary, he was in many ways far too fortunate for his own and for his country’s good. Promoted too soon and too far for his abilities, his career then acquired an inexorable momentum of its own. As a result, he became the object of extravagant and unrealistic expectations which he lacked the ability to meet. Despite Rhodes James’s disclaimers, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that at Suez he was making a despairing attempt to prove that he really was up to the job. But as Churchill had predicted, when the crunch came, Eden could not do it.
Undeniably, there is much in Eden’s career that may be explained by luck (both good and bad) and personality (both his own and other people’s). But to understand his successes and his failures more fully, we need to see his life in a broader historical perspective than this biographical treatment allows. It is important to remember that Eden was born in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, but died in 1977, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Between those two dates the world, and Britain’s place in it, was transformed almost beyond recognition. At his birth, gentlemen still ruled Britain, and Britain still ruled much of the globe. Even during his apprentice years at the Foreign Office, Europe remained in many ways the hub of the universe. But by the time of his maturity and preeminence, the British Empire was in dissolution and Europe was in disarray, and in the resulting retreat from greatness, Eden was his nation’s foremost casualty. Unable to defy, like Churchill, or to dissemble, like Mountbatten and Macmillan, he possessed neither the firmness nor the flexibility to survive in such demanding and difficult times.
Moreover, even in the heyday of British greatness, expertise in international affairs was rarely the route to the very top in politics. Among the outstanding prime ministers of the nineteenth century, only Palmerston and Salisbury made their reputations in that realm, and both were much more tough and robust than Eden. But thereafter, almost every British prime minister, including Churchill himself, spent most of his (or her) ministerial career in home rather than overseas affairs. Eden apart, the only exception is Sir Alec Douglas-Home, and he is surely the exception who proves the rule. Seen in this light, Eden was never really prime minister material, and never served the appropriate prime ministerial apprenticeship. On the contrary, his place was among those patrician foreign secretaries who have held office in Britain for so much of the twentieth century: Lansdowne, Grey, Curzon, Halifax, Home, and Carrington. All were aristocrats, ill at ease amid the infighting of politics; most of them provided a dignified façade while the prime minister was in charge of foreign policy; none of them was really fitted by temperament or by training for the supreme office. In this sense, Eden was indeed unlucky, not in waiting so long to succeed Churchill, but in the fact that he succeeded him at all.
How, exactly, did this happen? In part, it was because Eden’s preeminence in foreign affairs was itself largely accidental. He obtained junior office in 1931 only because Baldwin pressed his claims with uncharacteristic vigor; he became foreign secretary in 1935 only because Sir Samuel Hoare was forced to resign and there was no one else available; and he only returned to power in 1939 on Churchill’s coattails. During the Second World War, the domestic jobs in Churchill’s coalition were virtually monopolized by the Labour party, and the prime minister’s preference for cronies like Beaverbrook and Lindeman meant that few younger Tory politicians were promoted. The result was a postwar Conservative party with a missing generation, which meant that Eden was faced with no serious rival, except possibly Oliver Stanley, who died in 1950. And this in turn meant that in Churchill’s last government, most of the ministers were elder statesmen devoid of political ambitions (like Salisbury, Lyttelton, Alexander, and Monckton), while the two who did have their sights set on the top job (Butler and Macmillan) were much too young.
Under these unusual circumstances, Eden’s rise was as unavoidable as it was unfortunate. For the truth is that it would not have mattered when he took over. Regardless of the timing, Eden would invariably have seemed a lameduck leader by comparison with the Churchillian golden eagle, Mr. Pooter following the Duke of Omnium. Indeed, modern British history is littered with similar instances of lesser men succeeding greater, who then went down to defeat: Rosebery after Gladstone, Balfour after Salisbury, Home after Macmillan, Callaghan after Wilson. In each case, it may have been bad luck to have succeeded in such unfavorable circumstances; but it may also be that the circumstances only appeared unfavorable because of the very limitations of the successors who inherited them. Viewed in this broader perspective, Eden’s career seems remarkable not because he was a great man tragically destroyed, but rather because he was a mediocre figure who had got so far. He seems in many ways a thoroughly decent fellow. But as Rhodes James admits, “he lacked hardness and ruthlessness.” Then, as now, decency alone is rarely, if ever, enough.
October 22, 1987