Anthony Eden is generally regarded as one of the least successful British prime ministers of the 20th century, whose poor judgment over the Suez Crisis led to a considerable lessening of British influence in Middle East affairs and caused a deep rift with the United States that took some time to repair.
Robert Anthony Eden was born on 12th June 1897 at Windlestone Hall in County Durham. He was the third son and fourth child of Sir William Eden, a baronet who owned large tracts of land in County Durham and Northumberland.
After private tuition and preparatory school, Anthony went to Eton College in 1911 and so was at school when World War I broke out in 1914. On leaving school he enlisted with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in September 1915 and was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for rescuing a wounded man when under fire. He was promoted to brigade major in May 1918 when still aged only 20.
After the war he entered Christ Church College Oxford to read oriental languages, particularly Persian and Arabic, and was awarded a first-class honours degree in 1922. He had a flair for languages, also being fluent in French and German. This doubtless had a strong bearing on his overwhelming interest in foreign affairs during his political career.
Early political career
He first stood for Parliament, as a Conservative in an unwinnable Labour seat, in the general election of November 1922, but had more success the following year when he won the seat of Warwick and Leamington in December 1923. He was married in November of that year to Beatrice Helen Beckett; there were to be two surviving sons from the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1950.
In July 1926 he was given the post of parliamentary private secretary to Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary. Eden agreed with Chamberlain’s view that the best way to maintain peace in Europe was to support France and be very wary of Germany, although this was not the attitude taken by a large number of fellow Conservatives.
In August 1931 Eden was appointed under-secretary of state at the Foreign Office, under the National Government of Ramsay Macdonald, which in effect meant that he was the parliamentary face of the Foreign Office in the Commons, given that the Foreign Secretary was a member of the House of Lords.
In December 1933 he became Lord Privy Seal, which made him virtually a roving ambassador for the Foreign Office. In this role, Eden was the first Western politician to have face-to-face- meetings with all three of Europe’s strong men, namely Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. He formed clear impressions of all three men and knew that none of them was to be trusted.
Eden acted as a mediator for the League of Nations during the Balkan crisis of late 1934 and his patient diplomacy may well have prevented war breaking out at that time. A health problem prevented him from attending the Stresa conference in April 1935 which failed to rein back Italy’s ambitions regarding a takeover of Abyssinia. Eden believed that, had he been there instead of Macdonald, he could have deflected Mussolini from his aims.
In June 1935 Eden was at last given a Cabinet post, specifically to deal with League of Nations affairs, but this was an awkward compromise that caused difficulties with the new Foreign Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare. However, Hoare resigned in December, following the outcry over the Hoare-Laval pact that allowed Mussolini to retain his new colony of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Eden therefore became Foreign Secretary in his place, although he was not Prime Minister Baldwin’s first choice.
Anthony Eden, at 38, therefore became Britain’s youngest Foreign Secretary since 1851, but he was to be one of the longest-serving (over three periods of office). This was a crucial time in international relations, with not only the ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini to be contended with but also the aggressive attitude of Japan and, from July 1936, a civil war in Spain. Eden took the view that it was vital to maintain solidarity with France and to develop friendly relations with as many countries as possible that were opposed to the Axis powers (as from November 1936) of Germany and Italy. This policy included the signing of an Anglo-Egyptian treaty in August 1936.
However, Stanley Baldwin resigned as Prime Minister in May 1937 and Neville Chamberlain took his place. Eden and Chamberlain took a very different line on foreign policy in that Chamberlain believed that it was possible to make binding agreements with Hitler and Mussolini whereas Eden did not.
Things came to a head when Chamberlain, in Eden’s absence, took decisions on foreign policy with which Eden disagreed profoundly. Eden therefore resigned in February 1938 and was not in office at the time of Chamberlain’s signing of the Munich Agreement with Hitler in September 1938.
Eden had not burned his bridges completely and, when war was declared in September 1939, he was invited to rejoin the government as Dominions Secretary, although this did not gain him a place in the war cabinet. This was still the case when Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940 and Eden was made War Secretary, in which post he made his famous radio broadcast appealing for men to join what would become the Home Guard. In October he made an important visit to Egypt and Palestine.
However, in December 1940 Eden did become Foreign Secretary once again, and his advice to Churchill was invaluable concerning the conduct of the war. His many important missions included several visits to Moscow to negotiate with Stalin over an anti-German alliance. Churchill made it very clear that Eden was his preferred successor as Prime Minister.
After the war, Eden attended the San Francisco Conference in 1945 that was the inaugural meeting of the United Nations, but then found himself out of office when the Conservatives lost the general election of July 1945.
Eden had hoped that Churchill would stand down after this defeat but Churchill wanted to carry on and try to become Prime Minister once more. This he was to do at the general election of October 1951, but it was Eden who appeared during the campaign in the first ever televised election broadcast.
Eden now became Foreign Secretary for the third time. He might have succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister when the latter suffered a stroke in June 1953 but he was himself ill at the time, recovering from a botched gallstones operation in which his bile duct was accidentally cut. Churchill recovered, and it was not until 5th April 1955 when the 80-year-old Prime Minister finally handed over the reins to Anthony Eden.
Eden’s first move was to call a general election, which the Conservatives won with a majority of 60 seats. Foreign affairs were to dominate his administration, including a missed opportunity for Britain to join the movement for European economic co-operation at its outset.
However, the major crisis that was to bring his career to a shattering halt was the Suez affair, which started when the Egyptian government, under Colonel Nasser, nationalized the Suez Canal and Eden, together with the French, hatched a plot to win it back by encouraging the Israelis to attack Egypt, which they did on 29th October 1956. British and French paratroopers then landed in the Canal Zone, ostensibly to separate the two warring sides. The United States opposed the move and Eden was forced to withdraw within 24 hours.
Eden was very evasive about the whole business, even pretending that he had no knowledge that Israel was going to attack Egypt. However, in the end this fooled nobody and Eden eventually had no choice but to resign, which he did on 9th January 1957.
A complicating factor was Eden’s state of health, which was never good after the botched operation. One problem was that the drugs he was prescribed to control his pain had side-effects that included extreme irritability and impaired judgment, which were not what Eden and the country needed at that time.
Eden’s retirement was to last for 20 years until his death, from liver cancer, on 14th January 1977, at the age of 79. He was offered a peerage in July 1961 as the 1st Earl of Avon, although he was not a particularly active member of the House of Lords.
History is a matter of “what ifs”. If a surgeon had been more careful during that operation in 1953, and Eden had been in a better frame of mind to deal with the Suez crisis, would his reputation have been one of conspicuous success rather than ignominious failure? Up to that point, very little had gone wrong in his public life and Anthony Eden had served his country with great distinction, not least during both world wars in very different capacities.
© John Welford