Robert Anthony Eden
Robert Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon, KG, MC, PC (12 June 1897 – 14 January 1977) was a British Conservative politician, who was Prime Minister from 1955 to 1957. He was also Foreign Secretary for three periods between 1935 and 1955, including during World War II. He is best known for his outspoken opposition to appeasement in the 1930s, his diplomatic leadership in the 1940s and 1950s, and the failure of his Middle East policy in 1956 that ended his premiership.
Eden's worldwide reputation as an opponent of appeasement, a "Man of Peace", and a skilled diplomat was overshadowed in the second year of his premiership when the United States refused to support the Anglo-French military response to the Suez Crisis, which critics across party lines regarded as an historic setback forBritish foreign policy, signalling the end of British predominance in the Middle East. Most historians argue that he made a series of blunders, especially not realising the depth of opposition to military action by the United States. Most historians say that Eden completely dominated the British decision-making process in the Suez crisis. However, Jonathan Pearson argues in Sir Anthony Eden and the Suez Crisis: Reluctant Gamble (2002) that Eden was more reluctant and less bellicose than most historians have judged.
He is generally ranked among the least successful British Prime Ministers of the 20th century,although two broadly sympathetic biographies (in 1986 and 2003) have gone some way to redressing the balance of opinion. D.R. Thorpe says the Suez Crisis "was a truly tragic end to his premiership, and one that came to assume a disproportionate importance in any assessment of his career."
Eden was born at Windlestone Hall, County Durham, England, into a very conservative landed gentry family. He was a younger son of Sir William Eden, baronet, from an old titled family. His mother, Sybil Frances Grey, was a member of the famous Grey family of Northumberland (see below). This was perhaps the meaning of Rab Butler's later gibe that Eden—in later life a handsome but ill-tempered man—was "half mad baronet, half beautiful woman". Eden's great-grandfather was William Iremonger who commanded the 2nd Regiment of Foot during the Peninsular War, fighting under Wellington (as he became) at Vimiero. He was also descended from Governor Sir Robert Eden, 1st Baronet, of Maryland and the Calvert Family of Maryland.
There was speculation for many years that Eden's father was the politician and man of letters George Wyndham, but this is considered impossible as Wyndham was in South Africa at the time of Eden's conception. His mother was rumoured to have had an affair with Wyndham. Eden had an elder brother called John, who was killed in action in 1914 and a younger brother, Nicholas, who was killed when thebattlecruiser HMS Indefatigable blew up and sank at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
Education and war service
The Uffizi Society Oxford, ca. 1920. First row standing: later Sir Henry Studholme (5th from left). Seated: Lord Balniel, later 28th Earl of Crawford (2nd from left); Ralph Dutton, later 8th Baron Sherborne (3rd from left); Anthony Eden, later Earl of Avon (4th from left); Lord David Cecil (5th from left).
Eden was educated at two independent schools: at Sandroyd School from 1907–1910, at the time based in Cobham inSurrey (and now the home of Reed's School), followed by Eton College, in Eton in Berkshire, where he won a Divinity prize and excelled at cricket, rugby and rowing, winning House colours in the latter.
During World War I, Eden served with the 21st (Yeoman Rifles) Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, and reached the rank of captain. He received a Military Cross, and at the age of twenty-one became the youngest brigade-major in the British Army. At a conference in the early 1930s, he and Adolf Hitlerobserved that they had probably fought on opposite sides of the trenches in the Ypres sector.
After the war, he studied at Christ Church at the University of Oxford, where in 1922 he graduated with a First in Oriental Languages. He was fluent in Persian and Arabic - his degree languages - and also in French and German. He had a lesser knowledge of Russian. His main leisure interest at the time was art, and he took no part in student politics.
Life and career
Like many aspirant politicians Captain Eden, as he was still known, first contested a seat where he had little chance of winning in the November 1922 general election, and was then elected Member of Parliament forWarwick and Leamington in the December 1923 general election, as a Conservative, at the age of twenty-six. Also in that year he married Beatrice Beckett. They had three sons, one of whom died in infancy, but the marriage was not a success and later broke up under the strain of a son missing in action during the latter half of World War II.
In the 1924–1929 Conservative Government, Eden was first Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson Hicks, and then in 1926 to the Foreign Secretary Sir Austen Chamberlain. In 1931 he held his first ministerial office as Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. In 1934 he was appointed Lord Privy Seal and Minister for the League of Nations in Stanley Baldwin's Government.
Like many of his generation who had served in World War I, Eden was strongly anti-war, and strove to work through the League of Nations to preserve European peace. His ruling National Government, led by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, failed to recognise the threat that an ascendant Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler posed, and proposed measures, in contravention of existing international agreements, that would allow Germany to rearm. In response to sharp criticism of this policy by Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on 23 March 1933, he defended this appeasement policy toward Adolf Hitler's Germany by arguing that Britain needed to "secure for Europe that period of appeasement which is needed", a speech that brought him a standing ovation in the House. He later to came to recognise that peace could not be maintained by appeasement of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. He privately opposed the policy of the Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, of trying to appease Italy during its invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935. When Hoare resigned after the failure of the Hoare-Laval Pact, Eden succeeded him as Foreign Secretary. When Eden had his first audience with King George V, the King is said to have remarked, "No more coals to Newcastle, no more Hoares to Paris."
At this stage in his career Eden was considered as something of a leader of fashion. He regularly wore aHomburg hat (similar to a trilby but more rigid), which became known in Britain as an "Anthony Eden".
Foreign secretary and resignation (1935–38)
Eden became Foreign Secretary at a time when Britain was having to adjust its foreign policy to face the rise of the fascist powers. He supported the policy of non-interference in the Spanish Civil War through conferences like the Nyon Conference, and supported prime minister Neville Chamberlain in his efforts to preserve peace through reasonable concessions to Germany. The Italian-Ethiopian War was brewing, and Eden tried in vain to persuade Mussolini to submit the dispute to the League of Nations. The Italian dictator scoffed at Eden publicly as "the best dressed fool in Europe." He did not protest when Britain and France failed to oppose Hitler's reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936. When the French requested a meeting with a view to some kind of military action in response to Hitler's occupation, Eden in a statement firmly ruled out any military assistance to France.
His resignation in February 1938 was largely attributed to growing dissatisfaction with Chamberlain's policy ofAppeasement. That is, however, disputed by new research; it was not the question if there should be negotiations with Italy, but only when they should start and how far they should be carried. Similarly, he at no point registered his dissatisfaction with the appeasement policy directed towards Nazi Germany in his period as Foreign Secretary. He became a Conservative dissenter leading a group conservative whip David Margesson called the "Glamour Boys," and a leading anti-appeaser like Winston Churchill, who led a similar group called "The Old Guard."
Although Churchill claimed to have lost sleep the night of Eden's resignation (later recounted in his wartime memoirs The Gathering Storm, 1948), they were not allies and did not see eye to eye until Churchill became Prime Minister. There was much speculation that Eden would become a rallying point for all the disparate opponents of Neville Chamberlain, but his position declined heavily amongst politicians as he maintained a low profile, avoiding confrontation, though he opposed the Munich Agreement and abstained in the vote on it in the House of Commons. However, he remained popular in the country at large, and in later years was often wrongly supposed to have resigned as Foreign Secretary in protest at the Munich Agreement.
In a 1967 interview Eden explained his decision to resign: "It was not over protocol, Chamberlain's communicating with Mussolini without telling me. I never cared a goddamn, a tuppence about protocol. The reason for my resignation was that we had an agreement with Mussolini about the Mediterranean and Spain, which he was violating by sending troops to Spain, and Chamberlain wanted to have another agreement. I thought Mussolini should honour the first one before we negotiated for the second. I was trying to fight a delaying action for Britain, and I could not go along with Chamberlain's policy."
Prime minister (1955–57)
In April 1955 Churchill finally retired, and Eden succeeded him as Prime Minister. He was a very popular figure, as a result of his long wartime service and his famous good looks and charm. His famous words "Peace comes first, always" added to his already substantial popularity.
On taking office he immediately called a general election for 27 May 1955, at which he increased the Conservative majority from seventeen to sixty, a majority which broke a ninety-year record for any UK government. The 1955 general election was the last in which the Conservatives won the majority share of the votes in Scotland. But Eden had never held a domestic portfolio and had little experience in economic matters. He left these areas to his lieutenants such asRab Butler, and concentrated largely on foreign policy, forming a close relationship with U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. Eden's attempts to maintain overall control of the Foreign Office drew widespread criticism.
Eden has the distinction of being the British prime minister to oversee the lowest unemployment figures of the post World War II era, with unemployment standing at just over 215,000 in July 1955 - barely 1% of the workforce.
Eden’s life was changed forever by a medical mishap: during an operation on 12 April 1953 to remove gallstones his bile duct was damaged, leaving him susceptible to recurrent infections, biliary obstruction and liver failure. He suffered from cholangitis, an abdominal infection which became so agonising that he was admitted to hospital in 1956 with a temperature reaching 106°F. He required major surgery on three occasions to alleviate the problem. Eden would almost certainly have become Prime Minister when Churchill suffered a severe stroke on 23 June 1953, had he not been recovering from corrective surgery in the United States on the same day.
He was also prescribed Benzedrine, the wonder drug of the 1950s. Regarded then as a harmless stimulant, it belongs to the family of drugs calledamphetamines, and at that time they were prescribed and used in a very casual way. Among the side effects of Benzedrine are insomnia, restlessness and mood swings, all of which Eden suffered during the Suez Crisis. His drug use is now commonly agreed to have been a part of the reason for the Prime Minister's ill judgment. Eden was secretly hospitalised with a high fever, possibly as a result of his heavy medication, on 5–8 October 1956. He underwent further surgery at a New York hospital in April 1957.
In November 2006 private papers uncovered in the Eden family archives disclosed that he had been prescribed a powerful combination of amphetamines and barbiturates called drinamyl. Better known in post-war Britain as "purple hearts", they can impair judgement, cause paranoia and even make the person taking them lose contact with reality. Drinamyl was banned in 1978.
Rejected plan for union between Britain and France
British Government cabinet papers from September 1956, during Eden's term as Prime Minister, have shown that French Prime Minister Guy Molletapproached the British Government suggesting the idea of an economic and political union between France and Great Britain. This was a similar offer, in reverse, to that made by Churchill (drawing on a plan devised by Leo Amery) in June 1940.
The offer by Guy Mollet was referred to by Sir John Colville, Churchill's former private secretary, in his collected diaries, The Fringes of Power (1985), his having gleaned the information in 1957 from Air Chief Marshal Sir William Dickson during an air flight (and, according to Colville, after several whiskies and soda). Mollet's request for Union with Britain was rejected by Eden, but the additional possibility of France joining the Commonwealth of Nations was considered, although similarly rejected. Colville noted, in respect of Suez, that Eden and his Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd "felt still more beholden to the French on account of this offer".
Illness and death
On a trip to the United States in 1976–1977 to spend Christmas and New Year with Averell and Pamela Harriman, his health rapidly deteriorated. At his family's request, James Callaghan arranged for an RAF plane that was already in America to divert to Miami to fly him home. Eden died from liver cancer inSalisbury on 14 January 1977, at the age of 79. Born in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, he thus died in the year of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. He was survived by Clarissa.
Anthony Eden was buried in St Mary's churchyard at Alvediston, just three miles upstream from 'Rose Bower' at the source of the River Ebble. Eden's papers are housed at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
Eden's surviving son, Nicholas Eden (1930–1985), known as Viscount Eden until 1977, was also a politician and a minister in the Thatcher government until his premature death from AIDS at the age of 54.
Character and speaking style
Anthony Eden always made a particularly cultured appearance, well-mannered and good-looking. This gave him huge popular support throughout his political life, but some contemporaries felt that he was merely a superficial person lacking any deeper convictions. That view was enforced by his very pragmaticapproach to politics. Sir Oswald Mosley, for example, said that he never understood why Eden was so strongly pushed by the Tory party, while he felt that Eden's abilities were very much inferior to those of Harold Macmillan and Oliver Stanley. Also, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson regarded him as a quite old-fashioned amateur in politics typical of the British Establishment. However, recent biographies put more emphasis on Eden's achievements in foreign policy, and perceive him to have held deep convictions regarding world peace and security as well as a strong social conscience.
Eden was for all his abilities not a very effective public speaker. Too often in his career, for instance in the late 1930s, following his resignation fromChamberlain's government, his parliamentary performances disappointed many of his followers. Churchill once even commented on an Eden speech that the latter had used every cliché except "God is love". His inability to express himself clearly is often attributed to shyness and lack of self-confidence. Eden is known to have been much more direct in meeting with his secretaries and advisors than in Cabinet meetings and public speeches, sometimes tending to become enraged and behaving "like a child", only to regain his temper within a few minutes.
Eden in popular culture
As Secretary of State for War in 1940, Eden authorised the setting-up of the Local Defence Volunteers (soon renamed the Home Guard). In the film of the TV sitcom Dad's Army, the (fictional) Walmington-on-Sea platoon is formed in response to Eden's radio broadcast. The debonair Sergeant Wilson takes enormous pride in being often said to resemble Eden.
Eden is also mentioned in a song by The Kinks, "She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina" from the 1969 album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).
Eden appears as a character in the 2008 play Never So Good—portrayed as a hysterical, pill-addicted wreck, spying on members of his own Cabinet by ordering government chauffeurs to report on their comings and goings. He is shown being overwhelmed by the chaos of the Suez Crisis and eventually forced out of office by his Conservative Party colleagues, at the urging of the American government. He also appeared in the 2013 stage play The Audience byPeter Morgan (in the premiere of which he was played by Michael Elwyn).
Eden appears as a character in James P. Hogan's science-fiction novel The Proteus Operation.
The first season of the UK TV series The Hour revolves around the Suez Crisis and the effect of journalism and censorship on public perception of Eden and his government as a metaphor for modern Western military involvement in the Middle East.
In one episode of the Honeymooners Ed Norton mentions that Anthony Eden would not have been able to join the Raccoon Lodge due to the Lodge's membership requirements.
The Eden Government
- Prime Minister: Sir Anthony Eden
- Lord Chancellor: Lord Kilmuir
- Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords: Lord Salisbury
- Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons: Harry Crookshank
- Chancellor of the Exchequer: R.A. Butler
- Foreign Secretary: Harold Macmillan
- Home Secretary: Gwilym Lloyd George
- Secretary of State for the Colonies: Alan Lennox-Boyd
- Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations: Lord Home
- President of the Board of Trade: Peter Thorneycroft
- Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: Lord Woolton:
- Minister of Education: Sir David Eccles:
- Secretary of State for Scotland: James Stuart
- Minister of Agriculture: Derick Heathcoat Amory
- Minister of Labour and National Service: Sir Walter Turner Monckton
- Minister of Defence: Selwyn Lloyd
- Minister of Housing and Local Government: Duncan Sandys
- Minister of Pensions and National Insurance: Osbert Peake
- December 1955: Rab Butler succeeds Harry Crookshank as Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons. Harold Macmillan succeeds Butler as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Selwyn Lloyd succeeds Macmillan as Foreign Secretary. Sir Walter Monckton succeeds Lloyd as Minister of Defence. Iain Macleod succeeds Monckton as Minister of Labour and National Service. Lord Selkirk succeeds Lord Woolton as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Minister of Public Works, Patrick Buchan-Hepburn, enters the Cabinet. The Minister of Pensions and National Insurance leaves the Cabinet upon Peake's retirement.
- October 1956: Sir Walter Monckton becomes Paymaster-General. Antony Henry Head succeeds Monckton as Minister of Defence.
Eden's initial cabinet is remarkable for the fact that 10 out of the original 18 members were Old Etonians: Eden, Salisbury, Crookshank, Macmillan, Home, Stuart, Thorneycroft, Heathcoat Amory, Sandys and Peake were all educated at Eton.