A Whale of a War

C.H. Sisson

  • By Safe Hand: Letters of Sybil and David Eccles
    Bodley Head, 432 pp, £16.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 370 30482 9

It is hardly an odd notion for a man approaching 80, who has held office as Minister of Education, President of the Board of Trade and Paymaster-General, to look back to the beginnings of his public career and to see what he can make of it, at a distance of forty years or more. And nothing could be more natural for any man, after the death of a wife to whom he had been married for 50 years, to turn out a heap of old letters which had been exchanged between them long ago. It must be highly unusual, however, for these two retrospects to come together to the extent that they have done for David Eccles, who now publishes both sides of his correspondence with his wife in 1939-42, which was the epoch of his first start in public life, at the age of 35. My Who’s Who is silent as to what Eccles was doing before the war, but we learn from one of the introductory pages he has written for this book that since 1932 he had been chairman of a company which had built, and was operating, the Santander-Mediterraneo Railway in northern Spain, with its main station in Franco’s old headquarters, Burgos. Hardly surprising, then, that he should be listed as someone whose knowledge of Spain, where, as he says, ‘Franco was winning the Civil War,’ might come in handy. We are told that early in 1939 the Foreign Office asked Eccles to ‘transfer from the reserve of officers to the skeleton staff of the Ministry of Economic Warfare’ – a department for which he entertained some contempt while adoring the Foreign Office where his Winchester contemporary Roger Makins had already made a name for himself.

There would be a volume at once comic and instructive to be made out of the histories of the academics, businessmen and others who flooded into Whitehall as temporary civil servants during the war. They brought a variety of talents, some of them much needed, and contributed largely to a loosening of hierarchic relationships which must sometimes have assisted the transmission of ideas and sometimes added to the general confusion. The Ministry of Economic Warfare, newly invented for the occasions of the war and faced with problems which changed with the military and diplomatic situation, cannot have been among the least confusing and confused. It did not take them long, however, to find a suitable role for Eccles, who, in November 1939, was sent to Madrid as a member of an inter-departmental mission charged with working out a War Trade Agreement with Spain; the Treasury and the Board of Trade were also represented. The agreement was signed and scaled in March 1940 and apparently bound up in red, white and blue ribbon left over from Christmas, there being no silk ribbon to be had in Madrid to do the job with propriety. All this while Sybil Eccles, the daughter of Lord Dawson of Penn, was in Wiltshire with the three children: hence the correspondence. It is from Madrid and later from Lisbon that most of David’s letters are dated, with an interlude in Washington in 1941.

It is not surprising that Eccles should have felt some difficulty in settling down to life as an official. He did not lack enterprise or self-confidence – far from it – but no doubt the former businessman was used to going his own way with less interference. Far different were these helots he had now to work with! ‘Your typical civil servant is a terrifying product, almost, even so early as the age of 30, a mass-produced article. Very intelligent, very suspicious of human nature per se, perfect son-of-the-vicar, the vicar’s manners, wears a burberry, a black hat turned down all round, a sensible scarf and smokes a pipe.’ The picture is a good one. ‘Their salaries are small in comparison with the power they wield, their prospects secure, their pension’ – looking forward a bit, in what were then highly uncertain times – ‘adequate to a flat in Bath or a small house in Dorking.’ This was not at all David’s or Sybil’s world. But these rather mean characters ‘know more about the form of their own subject than it is possible to believe’, David reported, and ‘they have a devastating power of seeing the flaws in other people’s arguments.’ In a moment of insight he imagines his wife in Wiltshire saying: ‘How good for David!’ He is determined never to ‘catch their lack of faith in everything human and divine’. His assessment is a model for the businessman who suddenly finds himself among civil servants. He is driven to complaining, in true amateur form, that ‘they never say anything agreeable in their letters from MEW or the Board of Trade,’ adding sadly and truly: ‘but that is the civil service tradition.’ Sybil, from Chute in Wiltshire, reports similar discouragement, ringing up the Treasury where she was trying the personal touch without success, to be met by ‘an unbelievably cultured voice...so bored he can hardly be bothered to go on living and utterly unhelpful’. No wonder the Foreign Office connection was preferred. City men like Eccles could get on with them ‘because snobbishly we admired them anyway and there was no traditional antipathy.’

During the period covered by the correspondence, Eccles is moving in embassies and so can keep reasonably clear of sordid connections. He dearly loves a Spanish aristocrat, indeed any aristocrat, any nob, it might almost be said; he serves the FO ‘with a pure heart and they must know it by this time,’ he says in 1941. It is certainly not his fault if they do not. ‘The others, the amateurs and minor departments – there has been endless trouble with them.’ Still, an amateur he certainly remains himself, with all the virtues and vices that that implies, behaving, as he says, ‘more like a good minister than a good civil servant’. He talks indeed as if it were the policies of Eccles which really matter, and these he pushes on all occasions. That is what keeps him going: ‘lucky D.E. wriggling his way into a front seat again’. One can believe in his energy and general usefulness: only an expert in these tangled affairs could say how far one should believe that his personal contribution is as crucial as he is always telling his wife that it is. It is pretty certain that his opinions did not matter as much as he would have her – and us – think, and as he thought and thinks himself. He was, by the ordinary British standards of that day, strongly pro-Franco and pro-Vichy, and a cynic would say that he had the impression of getting on so swimmingly in the Peninsula because he had the right prejudices, from the point of view of the host governments. There is of course a case for saying that the antipathy to Franco – and even more the antipathy to Vichy – expressed at home was often excessive and above all ill-informed, if one judges it, as it should have been judged by those responsible for our affairs, not in terms of likes and dislikes but of what would best serve the interests of the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, a prejudice in favour of the alleged doctrines of Franco and of Vichy, and of the doctrines which were no doubt actually held by the ex-professor Salazar in Portugal, can have been no more to the point. Perhaps the relatively unpopular nature of Eccles’s opinions helped him to feel he was a force.

It must have been the case that the relationships between governments during the war depended more on military and geographical situations than on anyone’s personal preferences in the matter of policies; losers and expected losers do not get many kind words and should not put much reliance on those they do get. Eccles laid it down that the first principle of diplomacy was to be ‘really interested in foreigners as human beings’ and he seems to have been ingenuous about the ‘warmth and affection’ with which he was greeted in Spanish ministries, as well as about the attentions of ladies who were apparently subject to ‘fixations’ on him. Ingenuousness must have been part of his charm. He was prematurely busy about settling the lines on which Europe should be organised after the war, and thought of the future as being ‘talked out’ in ‘the FO, in MEW, at Brooks’s etc’. He would be ‘disposed to take very seriously any advice Salazar gave on how to plan the new Europe’, and he was very unimpressed by the sober realism of the visiting Attlee, who said: ‘the people of England want security: security first and very little besides.’ For Eccles, ‘the possibility of our refusal, after such a war, to accept the leadership of Europe’ – that ludicrous middle-class British notion of which so much as been heard since – was ‘tragic beyond all the tragedies’ he ‘had ever read or imagined’. In Africa, he saw ‘a strong Union of African states (all red on the map ... except the west coast above the Equator)’. He was a man of wide vision and far horizons.

One can see how Roger Makins came to speak of ‘David’s usual effervescence’: Eccles had unusual opportunities for effervescing, during these years. Indeed, he seems to have had a whale of a war. Sybil says as much: ‘The war brought you an opportunity to lead a life beyond your dreams.’ There was ‘success and flattery ... women and the company of people either brilliant or beguiling’. He was certainly a man beguiled, none the less so because he did not join in the ‘everybody sleeping with everybody else’ of his diplomatic circles. He appears not as an amorous man but as an ambitious one. ‘Come home and make a REAL name for yourself,’ says Sybil, in her more usual, less scathing mood. And that I suppose is what Eccles did. What he came home to, immediately, was to be head of the new Preemption Section of MEW, but his eyes were on a political future, and he became MP for the Chippenham Division of Wiltshire in 1943. It is difficult to believe, from the tone of these letters, that he did not see himself in some more dominant role. ‘Am I selfish?’ he asks rhetorically, then answers: ‘Of course I am to that devouring and dangerous extent you find in all men who have in them the seed, undeveloped, but swelling, of great power over their times and fellow men.’ He was one of those, clearly, and he had to wait till 1951 for the respectable office of Minister of Works before he became, in 1954-57, one of the many people who should never have been Minister of Education. It can hardly have been such posts – or such a timetable – that he had in mind when he spoke in 1942 of what he could ‘plan and execute for England’ and of standing with Sybil ‘mightily to stem this landslide in our national fortunes’. But he was certainly better suited for the political career which took him to the Lords in 1962 than for the alternative he once proposed to himself: ‘to deny the world and go away and read and write and pray’ – adding with typical buoyancy that ‘it would not be very hard’ for him to do this. He ‘lacked some scar’, as he says of himself in another context. One has the impression of a fatal invulnerability in this man so ready with advice for others, so self-confident that he could almost pass for bumptious.

In 40 years, and with much experience of Westminster, Eccles must have lost most of the illusions which kept him going in the Peninsula and in Washington, and one can admire the courage with which he has laid his follies before the public. No doubt he judges that the public importance of his papers outweighs any personal inconvenience, which can hardly be great for a man now out of public life. The importance of this volume – however estimated – for those who have the unenviable task of wading through the documents of our too wordy age, must be limited by the incompleteness of the record, inevitable though that is and to some extent merciful. Some five or six hundred letters survived. The author has ‘eliminated anything that might give offence’ because of the frankness with which he and Sybil wrote about their contemporaries. The remaining material ‘has been cut by rather more than half’. Moreover, it was decided that, where only part of a letter was to be published, no indication should be given of ‘where a passage has been omitted’. The result must be a rather garbled set of papers, for any historical purpose. Eccles and his assistants have edited the book with confessed preconceptions as to where the interest of the contents would lie: in ‘three questions. Why did Franco’s Spain remain neutral? How should we have treated France after the Armistice? And what may happen to a marriage when two people so much in love are forced to live apart?’ As here presented, the first two questions are hardly less personal than the third. We are meant to conclude for the wisdom of the Eccles line, but few people at this time of day will wish to take a passionate view of situations of such complexity and uncertainty. What happened has happened, and most of us will console ourselves readily enough for the fact that Eccles did not have greater power over his ‘times and fellow men’.

For Eccles, the point of the volume seems to lie more in the personal than the public story, and indeed the former has its interest, as all such stories do. A well-to-do couple, from families in Harley Street and Wimpole Street, with a house and land in Wiltshire which the wife and children naturally make their headquarters in wartime; father with a posh job abroad and mother able to put in a word for him from time to time with ministers and senior officials; there is a ‘great flowering’ of father’s spirit among the diplomatic whoopee of wartime till mother blows up and writes that ‘neither at home or abroad’ is she ‘necessary any more’. That Sybil is the more sensitive spirit of the two David would be the first to admit: ‘being good by nature’, he says, she ‘was not curious to know about God’ Both were able, intelligent and hard-working people, but something more than that is needed to make a correspondence immortal. Although Eccles says that ‘it is very hard to write dully in English,’ it must be admitted that he sometimes succeeds. And there is, surely, something slightly ridiculous about a man who entertains his wife continuously with stories of the reputation he is earning and the problems he is settling – a blow-by-blow account of how the hero is faring in his negotiations. But the figures of the pair can be seen wriggling under the blanket of diplomacy.