Protocols of Sèvres

Keith Kyle

  • The Failure of the Eden Government by Richard Lamb
    Sidgwick, 340 pp, £16.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 283 99534 3

At first sight, The Failure of the Eden Government suggests the beginning of a new series to be continued with The Failure of the Macmillan Government, The Failure of the Wilson Government, The Failure of the Heath Government and so forth. As the 30-year rule uncovers the frailties of each in turn of a not particularly glorious row of administrations, opportunities will accumulate. Besides its fairly average quota of what might be called ordinary failures – failure to anticipate problems or failure to act on problems anticipated – the Eden Government will go down in history for the resounding fiasco of its handling of the problem of the Suez Canal. The story has a certain tragic grandeur because Eden had hitherto enjoyed a glamorous and successful career in the field of foreign affairs; it was a massive misjudgment in his own area of expertise that brought him down. Although Richard Lamb says that ‘Eden’s premiership foundered solely because of the Suez affair’ (which begs the question, much discussed at the time in the press, of whether it would not otherwise have soon foundered on something else), his book deals with the record of the Government as a whole. Half of it concerns Suez, its Middle Eastern antecedents and its political and financial consequences; the rest deals with domestic affairs and with other foreign issues.

For a man who had been widely admired throughout his public career, and whose succession to the leadership was uncontested and long anticipated, Eden had a remarkably short honeymoon as prime minister. In April 1955 he moved into the bed at No 10 from which he and his predecessor conducted much of their business. By September, rumours were rife in Conservative circles that he was not proving very good at the job. Henry Fairlie, for instance, was writing in the Spectator that ‘there is no point in concealing the fact that his first six months in office have not been encouraging.’ More and more criticisms were being made – ‘by those who know’ – of Eden’s refusal to make decisions. Fairlie pointed to the remarkable fact that, although he had had years to think about it while he was expecting Churchill to give up, Eden had still not managed to form his own Cabinet, having made the minimal consequential changes when he took over. ‘The answer is that Sir Anthony Eden has been dithering. He has made up his mind, changed it, made it up again, and changed it again. He has listened to advice and heeded pressures not merely up to the point of decision but far beyond it.’ Like Rosebery, another Foreign Secretary who moved to No 10, he was too neurotic to be a good prime minister. Ministers were constantly awakened and badgered in the early hours with queries and calls for reassurance. In unnerving contrast to the great courtesy and charm which were his hallmark, and which, allied to his handsome looks and his very real achievements in foreign affairs, made him in the eyes of the world the very paragon of the diplomatic arts, were the uncontrollable fits of temper directed at his immediate staff. The premiership, before Suez, had a distinctly wobbly feel.

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