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.

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