Eden and Suez

David Gilmour

  • Anthony Eden by Robert Rhodes James
    Weidenfeld, 665 pp, £16.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 297 78989 9
  • Descent to Suez: Diaries 1951-56 by Evelyn Shuckburgh, edited by John Charmley
    Weidenfeld, 380 pp, £14.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 297 78993 7
  • Cutting the Lion’s Tail: Suez through Egyptian Eyes by Mohamed Heikal
    Deutsch, 242 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 233 97967 0
  • The Suez Affair by Hugh Thomas
    Weidenfeld, 255 pp, £5.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 297 78953 8

Writing at the end of the Thirties, George Orwell remarked that the British ruling class had decayed so much that the time had come ‘when stuffed shirts like Eden and Halifax could stand out as men of exceptional talent’: It was an unfair comment, though not so unfair as his description of Baldwin as ‘a hole in the air’: yet it conveyed the view, subsequently shared by many, that with Eden the facade was more important than the interior, the appearance more impressive than the reality. People recognised his ability as a negotiator, skilfully handling diplomatic problems with the support of the Foreign Office, but it was widely held that in politics he was a bit of a lightweight, a ‘natural number two’ who should never have become prime minister. John Grigg wrote of him before the Suez crisis: ‘Popularity means much more to him than it ever should mean to a statesman. Since the early days, when he was idolised by millions on account of his personal appearance and blameless views, he has never lost the temperament and outlook of a prima donna. He still smiles the same ingratiating smile, peddles the same innocuous platitudes.’

According to the traditional view, Eden was a fine Foreign Secretary but a weak and disastrous prime minister who, taunted with weakness by his own backbenchers, tried to be tough and resolute: in the words of one of them, he invaded Egypt ‘to prove he had a real moustache’. This view has been assailed, from opposite angles, by both of Eden’s biographers. David Carlton[*] is critical of many aspects of Eden’s career, and argues that his views on foreign policy in the Thirties were less wise and consistent than is usually believed. Robert Rhodes James, however, not only endorses the traditional appreciation of Eden’s periods as Foreign Secretary: he claims that his Suez policy was absolutely justified and only wrecked by wrong-headed and pusillanimous Americans.

The differing attitudes of the two biographers can be judged from their treatment of Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh’s diary, an engaging mixture of foreign affairs and reports from his garden and carpentry bench. Mr Carlton, who saw it in manuscript, quotes extracts displaying Eden at his most petty and petulant, while Mr Rhodes James ignores it altogether. Sir Evelyn ‘kept a diary’, he remarks, ‘to which I have not sought access ... ’ I find this admission incomprehensible. In a recent article Mr Rhodes James suggested that it was somehow immoral for Sir Evelyn to have kept a diary in the first place, but that is hardly an excuse for ignoring it in his research: after all, he quotes extensively from the diaries of other private secretaries such as Oliver Harvey or Churchill’s Sir John Colville. Perhaps theirs were more ‘moral’ because they were more friendly to Eden? Shuckburgh was Eden’s private secretary from 1951 to 1954 and in charge of the Middle East Department at the Foreign Office after that. For three years he saw Eden nearly every day and noted in 1954 that his diary ‘might serve as material for someone writing a life of [him] ... in thirty years’ time’. What motive can a biographer have for not consulting so obvious a source? Was he afraid of learning things he did not want to know? Or was it part of the deal, when he was given ‘authorised biographer’ status, that he did not consult Eden’s critics?

It is no doubt difficult being an official biographer, and anyone in this position is bound to remember Lord Birkenhead’s fate at the hands of Kipling’s daughter. The temptation must be to rely heavily on the subject’s papers and memoirs and avoid seeing too much of other people’s points of view. This seems to have been the case with Mr Rhodes James, who has surprised several people close to Eden by not attempting to interview them. David Carlton went carefully through Eden’s memoirs, contrasting their version of events with what really happened. Mr Rhodes James is far less critical: one sometimes has the impression that he accepts the memoirs as the truth and is measuring all other versions against them. In his preface he declares that no biographer should be an unqualified admirer of his subject, yet his own admiration for Eden is only qualified by generally minor reservations about a handful of decisions. He has espoused the cause of Eden’s rehabilitation, and in re-fighting his battles he re-fights his enemies, many of whom are dismissed in insulting and contemptuous language. This is how he writes of Sir Samuel Hoare in the course of Chapter Five: ‘ambitious and slippery ... irresolute and disloyal ... secretive and shallow ... He was an ambitious career politician ... campaigning hard and shamelessly for reinstatement ... [who] crawled back into office ... ’

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[*] Anthony Eden (1981), now published in paperback by Allen and Unwin.