Late Deceiver

Robert Blake

  • Anthony Eden by David Carlton
    Allen Lane, 528 pp, £20.00, August 1981, ISBN 0 7139 0829 7

The state of play over the biographising of Anthony Eden is one of some interest. He offered the task to the late Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, author of many major books including a study of the Munich crisis and the official biography of George VI, who agreed on condition that he would not be expected to publish in Lord Avon’s lifetime. By a tragic irony of events Sir John, who was younger than Eden, predeceased him. Various possibilities have been canvassed since Eden’s death. The choice for the ‘authorised’ biography is said, though I have never seen any public announcement, to have fallen on Robert Rhodes James. If so, it is an excellent decision.

Meanwhile Mr David Carlton has produced a scholarly, well-written work of some five hundred pages. The author admits very fairly that it is in the nature of an interim verdict since the official records of the 1950s, including the Suez crisis, are closed under the Thirty Year Rule. I doubt whether these will throw much light on Suez, but clearly it would be useful to any biographer to have the full run of Foreign Office and Cabinet papers from 1951 to 1957. There are, however, two other sources which must be of some significance and are evidently not available to the author. One is Eden’s own private papers, notes, correspondence etc (as opposed to purely official files in the PRO). The other is Churchill’s papers, which, in view of the long and chequered relationship between the two men, can scarcely fail to throw some light on Eden’s personality and problems. The reason for the non-availability of these sets of papers is obvious enough. The first would naturally be reserved for the ‘authorised’ biographer, and the second constitutes the principal material on which Mr Martin Gilbert is working for his great biography of Churchill.

Mr Carlton’s work may therefore be ‘interim’ for other reasons than the Thirty Year Rule. Nevertheless this is undoubtedly an important book, the first major and serious biography of someone who will certainly go down to history as a major and serious statesman. It was too easy to dismiss Anthony Eden as a lightweight either because of his mannerisms – the ‘My Dear’ which echoed Noel Coward and annoyed Dean Acheson – or because of the striking good looks which prompted jealous Italian journalists to dub him ‘Lord Eyelashes’. But everyone to some extent reflects the social usages of his time and place, and if it is true that most post-war (male) prime ministers have not been much to look at, think how handsome Aberdeen, Palmerston and Gladstone were in their youth and long after. No one could say that they were not serious statesmen or deny the same description to Lloyd George, who bowled women over like ninepins. Slim, debonair, well-dressed, wearing the hat named after him, talking with the clipped yet languid accent of the Eton and Christ Church of his day, Eden could well have seemed more a man of fashion than a politician of the first rank. St James’s Street rather than Westminster or Whitehall might have been expected to be his habitat. Yet the most cursory glance at his career dispels the illusion. Unless one is very tough and very determined, one does not enter the Cabinet at the age of 38 and resign from its most coveted post less than three years later in a challenge to one of the strongest prime ministers of modern times. Nor does one stand the strain of a second spell in office during wartime as heir presumptive to his successor, who, for all his genius, was maddeningly eccentric, suspicious and jealous; or survive the loss of a beloved elder son and the break-up of a marriage to serve yet a third time as Foreign Secretary, still as heir presumptive to that same prime minister, who has meanwhile grown more eccentric and tenacious than ever. Then came the blow to his health which nearly lost him the delayed succession. When at last it arrived, his premiership, marred by gigantic misjudgment in the very field in which he might be expected to excel, ended because of renewed illness after only 21 months. Yet he survived all these vicissitudes to die two decades later in January 1977 in his 80th year. The help given to him by his second wife cannot be overstated. But this is not the career of a milksop or a muff. It betokens strength, patience, courage, ambition and determination to an extent not often found even on the harsh battlefield of politics.

Most prime ministers – indeed in modern times all – have been clever men, but they can be divided into the intelligent and the intellectual. Disraeli, Gladstone, Salisbury and Balfour were intellectuals interested in ideas and possessing imagination. Derby, Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith and Lloyd George were highly intelligent, but they were not really concerned with ideas. Bonar Law and Neville Chamberlain belong to the same category. Baldwin, despite his dislike of the ‘intelligentsia’ (a word which, he said, bore the same relation to ‘intelligent’ as ‘gent’ did to ‘gentleman’), was an intellectual in the sense that he had pondered on political problems and had views on the nature of Conservatism. He had imagination. So, too, of course, had Churchill and Macmillan. Eden lacked it. He was a very clever man, extremely quick-witted, able to disentangle the most complicated diplomatic problems, a master at the art of drafting and correcting dispatches. But he had little of the sense of history possessed by Churchill and Macmillan. It was characteristic that at Oxford he should have read Persian and Turkish, subjects demanding concentration, precision, hard work and meticulous accuracy, but not imagination or ideas. It is doubtful whether he ever gave much thought as to why he was a Conservative.

The real partisan issues from 1918 on were domestic, and in home policy Eden took little interest. Few prime ministers have had a previous official career so exclusively concerned with external affairs. Eden’s experience was almost solely in the Foreign Office, though he was briefly Secretary for the Dominions and then for War. Palmerston held the Foreign Office even longer but he did have at least a short period as Home Secretary in the 1850s. Salisbury, his career confined to the India and Foreign Offices, is the only parallel to Eden. But in the 19th century, the scope of government in the management of the economy and of all those other matters which vex us today was by comparison minimal. A prime minister who knew little about them was not greatly handicapped. Sixty years on, the situation was very different, although economic expertise was no panacea for success: both Harold Wilson and Edward Heath were far more aware of the economic problems of their time than Eden was of those in his. Yet neither was able to do much to solve them.

Eden’s life spanned the years between the heyday of Britain’s imperial grandeur and her decline, remarkably sudden, into a power of the second or even third rank. But his official life ended 20 years earlier and it is unfair to judge his actions with the hindsight of a quarter of a century. Many things are clear today which were not clear during his premiership, still less during his terms at the Foreign Office. In 1951 it was indeed obvious that the USA and the USSR, with respectively about eight times and two and a half times the British gross national product, had moved into a different league. But Britain was still the third industrial nation in the world, well ahead of West Germany and France, and far ahead of Japan. Twenty-five years later her relative position towards America and Russia was much the same, but the three medium powers had easily surpassed Britain’s economic performance, the weakest of them, France, by over 40 per cent.

This development could not have been foreseen – or at any rate was not – by Eden or any of his contemporaries. It was natural that Churchill and he, neither of whom thought in statistical terms, should be obsessed by memories of their ‘Finest Hour’ and the whole wartime syndrome of the ‘special relationship’ with America, and should hold aloof from Europe. The 1950s saw the golden opportunity for Britain to jettison the imperial role which she clearly could not sustain much longer and align her future with the countries that came to constitute the EEC. That opportunity was missed, but one should not blame either Churchill or Eden for a decision – or absence of decision – which would not have been different whoever had been in power.

The story of the relations between Churchill and Eden is the most interesting part of Mr Carlton’s biography. Their differences were frequent and bitter both during the war and after. This will come as a disagreeable surprise to those who have accepted the established view that they were ‘like father and son’. In one sense they were, but many a son is irked by his father, and fathers can survey a son’s inheritance with doubt and misgiving. It is easy to see Eden’s controversy with Neville Chamberlain and his ultimate resignation in terms of a general minority Conservative anti-Establishment battle against ‘appeasement’. But Eden’s bête noire was Mussolini, Churchill’s was Hitler – and the difference was crucial. They did not co-operate in 1938-39, and Churchill was not a member of the ‘Eden Group’ or the ‘Glamour Boys’, as they were called by the Whips – the nickname being perhaps another example of the disadvantage of good looks. On this vital question Churchill was right and Eden wrong. Mussolini’s Italy was not a real threat. Hitler’s Germany was, and the social and ideological consequences of his hateful regime were only rivalled by those of Britain’s wartime ally, Russia.

Eden in the 1930s, like many other politicians, regarded Churchill as an anachronism and a spent force. He resigned in protest against Neville Chamberlain’s Italian policy, but he did not even talk to Churchill in advance about this major decision. Perhaps he had good cause to be silent. To this day, it is far from clear precisely why he resigned when he did and whether he would have done so if he had correctly assessed the balance of political power. However that may be, no one disputes that it was a bold step which could easily have led, like Lord Randolph Churchill’s resignation in 1886, to obscurity and oblivion. Lord Randolph’s son would have been the first to appreciate the risk involved. But he was, as time went on, no less ready to recognise the possible threat to his own position. Crown princes have deposed monarchs. Churchill was formidable, wary and popular. He would only go when he could no longer stay.

Mr Carlton points out, however, that in 1939 it was by no means certain that, if a palace revolution was mounted against Chamberlain, Churchill would be the beneficiary. At this stage, he and Eden were rivals. Curiously, it was Chamberlain who did much to ensure Churchill’s succession, though Churchill’s attacks on ‘appeasement’ had been far fiercer than anything said by Eden. Chamberlain was obliged to accept both men when he reconstructed his government on the outbreak of war but he saw to it that Eden had the unimportant Dominions Office and was not in the War Cabinet, whereas Churchill at the Admiralty was. Churchill himself was in no hurry to promote his rival. It was not till he had been Prime Minister for seven months and felt securely on top that he made Eden Foreign Secretary and brought him into the War Cabinet.

On the Churchill-Eden relationship Mr Carlton, despite the inaccessibility of both Churchill’s and Eden’s personal papers, has important new sources. One is the diary of Oliver Harvey (later Lord Harvey of Tasburgh), who took the surprising step, by Civil Service standards, of descending from the post of Minister in the Paris Embassy to that of Eden’s Principal Private Secretary. Parts of it have already been published but a great deal still remains in the British Library for researchers. Mr Carlton writes: ‘The eccentricity of his willingness to serve in such a post in his late forties was matched by the outlandish character of his views. Always unusually opinionated he was now close to being an apologist for the Soviet system.’ It is possible that Harvey overstated Eden’s pro-Stalin views, which, not long after ‘Barbarossa’, came to be an additional cause of dissension between Churchill and himself: Churchill soon began to have his doubts about that particular ‘gallant ally’. But Harvey cannot have invented the whole version. If even a small proportion of the truth is described – admittedly, diaries are a historical source to be regarded with scepticism – then Eden comes out as a remarkably naive supporter of Russia. Perhaps this partly explains his much-criticised conduct over the repatriation of Russian prisoners of war in 1944-45.

The other source which is of even greater importance, since it covers the period still blocked by the Thirty Year Rule, is the diary of Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh, who was Eden’s Principal Private Secretary for most of Eden’s third term as Foreign Secretary. The author tells us that Sir Evelyn kindly allowed him to read and quote from it, but has no plan for early publication. One can only hope that Sir Evelyn will change his mind. To judge from the extracts, it is a most interesting document, but time will not make it more interesting, and it would be a pity to apply a self-imposed Thirty Year Rule. From 1951 onwards, as the Shuckburgh diary shows, Eden had become very impatient about the succession – and with good reason. After the last Cabinet of the 1945 ‘Caretaker’ Administration Churchill said to him: ‘Thirty years of my life have been passed in this room. I shall never sit in it again. You will, but I shall not.’ Whether he meant this when he said it can never be known. If he did, he soon changed his mind. It was a change that did no good to the country, to the Conservative Party, to Churchill’s reputation or Eden’s career. The election of 1945 would have been won by Labour, whoever led the Conservatives, but Eden might well have won the election of 1950 if he had been in sole charge of an Opposition which, in the event, was about as badly managed as it could be. One cannot point to any obvious achievement of Churchill’s second premiership that could be ascribed to Churchill personally; and it was a major scandal, though the gravity of his illness was known to few people at the time, for him to linger on from June 1953, when he had a severe stroke, until April 1955, when Harold Macmillan forced him to resign. It is at least possible that if Eden had a longer run as prime minister, he would not have made the blunder over Suez which cast such a dark shadow over the last months of his political life. But Churchill may not have been clinging on solely for love of power. Mr Carlton quotes Sir John Colville on Churchill’s doubts about Eden’s capacity. I can confirm this from a source even closer to Churchill. Lord Cherwell told me at the time of Suez that Churchill had been very uneasy about the succession, and had said to Cherwell early in 1955: ‘I don’t think Anthony will do. But it’s too late to change. It’s all been settled and fixed. I can’t change it now ... I can’t change it now.’

Mr Carlton has one surprising revelation about Churchill, though presumably others could have used the same source since the wartime Cabinet papers, and Neville Chamberlain’s diary, have been available for several years now. On 26 May 1940 the latter noted that Churchill thought ‘it was incredible that Hitler could consent to any terms that we could accept, though if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies he would jump at it. But the only safe way was to convince Hitler that he couldn’t beat us.’ Halifax argued that it was at least worth a try to approach Mussolini to mediate (as at Munich). Churchill, according to the Cabinet Minutes, said that ‘if Herr Hitler was prepared to make peace on the terms of the restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe, that was one thing,’ but he believed that ‘it was quite unlikely that he would make such an offer.’ Mussolini, about to enter the war, had no intention of mediating and the matter was dropped: but it is by no means clear that Hitler would have refused the prospect of a neutral West leaving him a free hand to achieve his real aim, the conquest of Russia. The entries have no particular relevance to Eden’s career except negatively in that, being absent from the discussion, he was not compromised as an ‘appeaser’, but if taken literally they show a startling discrepancy between Churchill’s private views and public stand. As Mr Carlton writes: ‘The historian if he so chooses can indeed argue that the collapse of the prospects for a compromise peace may have been based on a mere failure of communication between London and Berlin and not, as is usually supposed, on Churchill’s resolve, as Dalton recalled it, to lie “choking in his own blood upon the ground” rather than contemplate “parley” or surrender.’ It will be interesting to see how Martin Gilbert deals with this episode in his final volume of Churchill’s life.

Suez is the great question-mark over Eden’s career. Of his three volumes of memoirs, Full Circle (1960) is the least satisfactory. Mr Carlton is right to compare it adversely with the others and to regret that it was the first to be published. I was one of the team helping Eden to write it, and can attest to the fact that he would have preferred the natural chronological order. The Times, which had bought the serial rights for a large sum, pressed for his account of Suez to appear as soon as possible. One result – perhaps a fortuitous advantage for Eden – was that he did not feel obliged to deal with the charge of ‘collusion’, now proved up to the hilt. He could plausibly ignore Parliamentary accusations as partisan and Randolph Churchill’s well-informed account – The Rise and Fall of Sir Anthony Eden (1959) – as the product of spite, which indeed it was, but not for that reason necessarily untrue. It would have been impossible for Eden to disregard in the same way The Suez Affair by Hugh Thomas – Thomas is the son-in-law of Gladwyn Jebb, who was Ambassador in Paris at the time – or No End of a Lesson by Sir Anthony Nutting, who was Minister of State at the Foreign Office. Both books were published in 1967. By then, Eden could take the line that he had said his say and was not going to answer back.

In France, where no one cared a hang about international laws or morality, the facts about collusion were widely known and condoned, although the authoritative accounts by Generals Maurice Challe, Paul Ely and André Beaufre had not yet appeared. I can well remember lunching in Paris in the spring of 1959 with a journalist on the paper which had acquired the French serial rights from the Times. He implored me to persuade Eden to deal with the charge of collusion. I tried, but I got nowhere. There was, of course, as I now see, no answer to it. Some of us who were helping the author wondered how much he really remembered in 1959, for he had had bouts of high fever during the crisis and a major operation afterwards. He was heavily drugged. The time-lag between London and New York necessitated sleepless nights waiting for telephone calls. The House of Commons was in a state of continuous uproar. A medical history, if one were ever to be available, would be very interesting. Certainly the book was written much more from Foreign Office and Cabinet papers than from personal notes or memory. I read the Cabinet papers at the time. The historian who looks forward to the opening of the archives in 1987 will be disappointed, but Cabinet Minutes are intended as the basis of ministerial decisions, not as historical records – a point which the late Dick Crossman never understood. One would not guess from the official account that Selwyn Lloyd met Ben Gurion and Christian Pineau in secret at a villa in Sèvres only a week before the Israeli attack on Egypt, but why should such a matter be documented by Lord Normanbrook? Selwyn Lloyd was the first member of the 1956 Cabinet to blow the gaff on all this. It is as well that Eden did not live to see his book, which appeared in summer 1977. It could hardly have failed to cause him distress.

Mr Carlton’s account of the Suez crisis is excellent and he has some interesting new information based on American documents. The depth of Eisenhower’s resentment was far greater than most people realised at the time. It shocked Winthrop Aldrich, the US Ambassador in London, who wrote:

I myself was surprised at the vitriolic nature of Eisenhower’s reaction to what happened. I think it was unstatesmanlike; indeed I think it was a dreadful thing, the way the United States Government permitted itself to act towards Eden because of pique or petulance ... the President just went off the deep end. He wouldn’t have anything further to do with Eden at all. He wouldn’t even communicate with him.

Even more surprising, the Ambassador found himself the channel through which Macmillan, Butler and Lord Salisbury (a figure whose role in these affairs needs further elucidation) communicated to Eisenhower, bypassing both Eden and Selwyn Lloyd. There seem to have been other off-the-record conversations between Butler and George Humphrey, the US Secretary to the Treasury. Mr Carlton suggests that in return for the lifting of economic sanctions, Macmillan and Butler promised not only to capitulate to UNO but to eject Eden. Churchill, too, may have been involved. The half-Americans were very sensitive about America. Mr Carlton may well be challenged about all this, but he has the authority of some highly placed anonymous sources as well as the oral records of Dulles, Eisenhower, Aldrich and others. Eden was not, in the event, pushed out, though he well might have been, had he tried to linger longer. Whether he retired for the public reasons given, ill health, or, as Mr Carlton surmises, from fear of revelations about collusion, he went of his own accord.

‘Suez’ means little to the modern generation. After all, why should they be interested? Its consequences were far less momentous than people believed at the time: the world would not be very different today if it had never happened. But to those who either lived through it or are intrigued by historical mysteries, it is a subject of perennial fascination. Like the Jameson Raid, the Dreyfus Case and the Curragh Incident, it poses a puzzle and a problem. We do not know the full story and perhaps never will. One can, however, venture some judgments. Without American backing Eden should never have tried it – and American opposition could not have been made clearer. Having decided to go ahead, he should have opted for what the French preferred – ‘the straight bash’, as an unnamed Cabinet Minister put it to Mr Carlton, i.e. an open attempt to ‘topple Nasser’ – rather than covering it up with high-minded nonsense about ‘separating the combatants’ and ‘extinguishing a forest fire’. This led to the most disastrous error of all. Eden should never have halted the operation – nor should Guy Mollet have agreed – before the whole length of the Canal had been occupied by the Anglo-French force. Why he did so is still obscure. Continuation would no doubt have been awkward to justify in view of the ‘forest fire’ argument, for the Egyptian-Israeli war had ceased, but there is such a thing as raison d’état. Having already irrevocably offended ‘the great and the good’, Eden might just as well have gone on. They were heavily outnumbered by the ‘anti-Wogs’. Nothing damaged him more than this apparent failure of nerve. But we are all prisoners of our own past. Eden was not a de Gaulle. Years of eloquence at the League and UNO made it impossible for him psychologically to take the Palmerstonian line. Perhaps his epitaph should be the lines of Walter Scott in Marmion.

Oh what a tangled web we weave
When first we practise to deceive!

Eden took to deception too late in life to make a success of it.