Anthony Eden 1st earl of Avon

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Eden, Anthony, 1st earl of Avon (1897–1977). Prime minister. Eden's career is indissolubly linked with the Suez crisis. But opinion is divided whether Suez was an aberration brought on by chronic ill-health or whether it confirmed weaknesses present throughout his career. Eden's early rise was distinguished, if conventional, and perhaps too effortless. Born into the gentry, Eden grew up under the shadow of a domineering and eccentric father. After Eton he fought with distinction on the western front. With a first at Oxford in oriental studies he entered Parliament in 1923 for the safe seat of Warwick and Leamington. At this stage Eden showed few signs of distinction or originality. His speeches showed a tendency towards cliché, which he never overcame. None the less, he rose rapidly and as parliamentary private secretary to Austen Chamberlain 1926–9 began a lifelong association with foreign affairs. He also won the patronage of Stanley Baldwin, whose brand of consensual Conservatism he much admired.

It was as junior Foreign Office minister after 1931 that Eden's career prospered. Almost miraculously, he managed to distance himself from the deeds of his seniors, whose reputations were damaged as they strove to grapple with the rise of the dictators. In particular, he was seen as the champion of collective security through the League of Nations, though Eden had a more circumscribed view of the league's potentialities than public opinion imagined. He developed an idealized image among the young and broadened his appeal beyond the Conservative Party. How far Eden differed from the foreign policy of the National Government as a whole remains arguable, but he seems to have kept any reservations as a matter of private dissent.

Eden became lord privy seal in January 1934 and minister for League of Nations affairs in June 1935. In December 1935, after Samuel Hoare's resignation in the wake of the Hoare–Laval Pact, Eden emerged as foreign secretary, aged 38. Yet many felt that his rise owed more to his charm and good looks than to any intrinsic brilliance. His tenure saw a further deterioration in the position of the democracies, particularly with their failure to resist Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936. Despite calling for accelerated rearmament, there is little evidence that he ruled out an accommodation with Hitler, though he was less ready to appease Mussolini, whom he actively disliked. It was ostensibly over relations with Italy that Eden resigned in February 1938, though the increasing interventions of the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and the latter's handling of President Roosevelt's recent ‘peace initiative’ were contributory factors. Nevertheless, his resignation secured his reputation as an anti-appeaser.

With the outbreak of war Eden became dominions secretary and was promoted to the War Office in May 1940. That December Eden returned to the post of foreign secretary where he established an effective, if not always easy, partnership with Churchill. The latter regarded Anglo-American relations as his own preserve, but Eden was left more scope in relations with the Soviet Union. It was a difficult field for successful diplomacy, but Eden laboured prodigiously, revealing qualities of industry, patience, level-headedness, and attention to detail. He was often called upon to restrain Churchill's fertile but over-exuberant brain. From 1942 Eden was Churchill's designated successor, but his distaste for party politics made him consider seriously Churchill's offer of the Indian viceroyalty. By the end of hostilities Eden was exhausted, ill, and depressed by the loss of his elder son.

After the Conservatives' electoral defeat in 1945, Eden endured a further difficult—and increasingly exasperating—decade as heir apparent. Churchill was frequently absent from Parliament, effectively leaving Eden to act as leader of the opposition. It is often said that Eden neither understood nor interested himself in domestic politics. This is not strictly true, though his contributions were marred by platitudes and he did not go far to translate his vision into detailed reality. He was very much on the progressive left wing of the party and during the war had considered an alliance with congenial socialists such as Ernest Bevin.

In 1951 Eden returned again to the Foreign Office. By now his relationship with Churchill had markedly deteriorated. Continuing affection was balanced by a growing conviction that Churchill was no longer equal to the demands of the premiership. None the less his final period as foreign secretary was the most distinguished of Eden's career. Britain, through Eden, cut an impressive figure on the world stage which partly belied the decline in her intrinsic power even since 1945. Particular successes were achieved in arrangements for European defence, in ending the conflict in Indo-China, and, apparently, in placing Britain's relations with the emerging states of the Middle East on a new footing. It was once popular to complain that Eden failed in this period to put Britain at the forefront of moves towards European union, but, as the European ideal begins to fade, Eden's reservations in this area appear less culpable. Eden's health collapsed in 1953 and despite—or perhaps because of—three major operations, many considered that he never quite recovered.

Churchill finally retired in April 1955 and Eden began his premiership on a wave of good will. Despite an impressive general election victory in May, the prime ministerial honeymoon was over by the end of the year. Colleagues became increasingly conscious of weaknesses which perhaps made him unsuited for the highest office of state—irritability, vanity, hyper-sensitivity to criticism, and an inability to place sufficient trust in subordinates. Problems with the domestic economy shook the confidence of the Conservative Party and press, while critics on the right felt him too willing to make concessions over Britain's imperial position. Into this unpromising scenario broke the crisis created by Nasser's nationalization of the Suez canal in July 1956. Eden was handicapped by Britain's inability to take immediate military action, and the longer such action was delayed the less likely it was to command domestic and international support. With the illegality of Egypt's actions at least open to debate, Nasser refused to provide Eden with the pretext for military intervention. Yet, ironically, it was when a negotiated solution seemed at last possible that Eden entered into a collusive—and many would say disreputable—pact with France and Israel to invade Egypt. After a secret agreement, which Eden tried desperately to erase from the historical record, Britain and France entered Egypt, ostensibly to separate the Israeli and Egyptian combatants and protect the canal. It was a paper-thin deception. Yet if a prime minister of failing health and judgement had been guilty of underhand collusion to capture the canal and, probably, to topple Nasser, it was a deceit in which several senior cabinet colleagues were active participants. Under the pressure of world opinion, Britain was compelled to accept a cease-fire on 6 November. Above all, Eden had grossly misjudged the response of the USA to Britain's actions.

Despite a period of recuperation, Eden was compelled by his doctors to resign the premiership and withdraw from public life in January 1957. Even without the intervention of renewed ill-health, it seems improbable that he could for long have survived. With the patient care of his second wife, Clarissa, Eden lived for a further 20 years—time to contemplate how a reputation built on integrity, internationalism, and a commitment to peace had ended in such ignominious catastrophe.

David Dutton

Bibliography

Carlton, D. , Anthony Eden (1981);
James, R. R. , Anthony Eden (1986).

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