The Prime Ministers: Anthony Eden

Anthony Eden, Prime Minister 1955-1957

Anthony Eden was born to a landed family in County Durham on June 12th, 1897. He was educated (of course) at Eton, before enlisting at age 17 in the First World War, in which he reached the rank of Captain and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. When the War ended, he resumed his education, attending Oxford and graduating with a Double First in Oriental Languages. His language proficiency would serve him well in his political career, as a Foreign Secretary who could speak 6 languages (English, French, German, Russian, Arabic, Persian) was a valuable asset. Upon leaving school, Eden decided to enter politics, and was elected as Member for Warwick and Leamington in the 1923 General Election. Eden, as a very junior MP, served as a civil servant in the Foreign Ministry under Austen Chamberlain, until he was appointed under-secretary for Foreign Affairs in 1931. Three years later, he became Minister for the League of Nations. From these positions, he supported the Baldwin Ministry’s policy of Appeasement for a few years, but came to the view that Nazi Germany was a threat which had to be dealt with, and could not be bought off with Appeasement, which led him to oppose Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare’s policy of appeasing Fascist Italy and its invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. When the political fallout of the Hoare-Laval Pact forced Hoare to resign, Eden was appointed Foreign Secretary as his replacement. As Foreign Secretary, he attempted to shape policy away from Appeasement, but was certainly no hawk. He backed reasonable agreements with Italy and Germany, but expected them to be honoured, and was against the idea of giving the aggressor nations whatever they liked. Eventually, Eden and Chamberlain’s ideas and policies became irreconcilable, and the former resigned from the government in 1938. He did little in the next year of political significance, but returned to Chamberlain’s government in September 1939 when war broke out. When Churchill became Prime Minister in Spring 1940, Eden became Secretary of State for War for a short time, before returning to the Foreign Ministry. Eden became one of Churchill’s closest, most prominent ministers, and was given the additional responsibility of Leader of the House of Commons in 1942. He served his war role well, and returned to Opposition in 1945, when Labour won the General Election of that year, becoming Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party.

Eden in the First World War.

Eden in the First World War.

NPG x81173; Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon by Bassano

When the Conservatives returned to Government in 1951 under Churchill’s leadership, Eden became Deputy Prime Minister as well as Foreign Secretary. His main achievement of this period was the 1954 Geneva Accords, which arranged the partition of Vietnam into North and South, although he was irked that the United States declined to sign the agreements, agreeing only to observe them. Churchill retired for good in 1955, leaving Eden as Prime Minister. He immediately called a snap election, which increased the Conservative majority substantially. However, Eden had never held a ministerial position other than Foreign Secretary, so he largely left domestic affairs to his ministers and personally concentrated on foreign affairs.

In 1956, Eden was plunged into the crisis which was to be his undoing when Gamal Nasser, the leader of Egypt, nationalised the Suez Canal in July. The Canal was vital to the British Empire, as it was vital to commerce and to strategic resource supply. Seeing this as a crisis similar to those of the 1930s, Eden resolved on a decisive military response, and agreed to a plan conceived by France, whereby Israel would invade Egypt, threatening the Canal. France and Britain would then land paratroopers to take back the Canal, and Israel would withdraw. When executed, however, Eden ran into the unexpected opposition of the United States, which was afraid the USSR would intervene to support Egypt, and condemned all three nations involved. The US issued a threat to Britain, stating that if Britain did not withdraw, then the US would change the exchange rate to Britain’s disadvantage and cut off the economic assistance which Britain still needed to rebuild after the Second World War. In addition, the majority of his own cabinet threatened to resign. Faced with this dual pressure, Eden was forced to call a ceasefire on November 7th. The Suez Crisis proved to the world that Britain and France were no longer the great powers they had once been, and also ruined Eden’s political reputation. The stress of the crisis had done great damage to his health, and in 1957, he resigned on the advice of his doctors. He lived for another two decades, writing his memoirs, and died from liver cancer on January 14th, 1977.

Anthony Eden is a figure I view as being somewhat unfairly maligned. He worked faithfully for years, especially during the war years, and eventually was cast down just as he reached the pinnacle. In addition to the great personal misfortune this was for him, the Suez Crisis tends to overshadow the entirety of the rest of his career. He opposed Appeasement, became Churchill’s right had man in war and in peace, and worked as an extremely effective Foreign Minister. He was always a moderate; early on in his Ministry, before the Crisis, he said that “Peace comes first, always.” He viewed the Suez Operation as legitimate, saying afterwards that if Panama had nationalised their Canal, the US most certainly would have taken action. I view Eden, therefore, as a deeply unfortunate figure, who does not deserve the derision with which many view him.



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