A gallant failure

Eden: the life and times of Anthony Eden

D R Thorpe <em>Chatto & Windus, 758pp, £25</em>

The misfortune of Anthony Eden is to be remembered, if at all, for the Suez campaign, which began as a squalid conspiracy and ended in humiliating failure. If, as his admirers have always claimed, Eden deserves a more honourable place in history than the final episode in his career allows, D R Thorpe, in a biography of almost unqualified excellence, is here to set the record straight. His biography is comprehensive, authoritative, balanced and invariably (throughout more than 600 pages) readable. Somehow it manages to be sympathetic without losing its objectivity. In a year or more of notable biographies, there has been nothing to touch it.

By any sensible standard of measurement, Anthony Eden's career was a triumph. He was three times foreign secretary and, as Thorpe rightly says, one of the men whose conduct diverted the course of history. Yet in his postwar years, he exuded the aura of gallant failure. The account of his admission to Oxford exemplifies a life in which, far too often, decisiveness was lacking.

Captain Eden had a good Great War. He won the Military Cross and refused to leave the trenches for a staff appointment until an imminent battle was over. When he left Eton for the army, he had been regarded as a scholar of potential distinction. Yet his mother thought it necessary to write to the Dean of Christ Church to make sure that he was awarded a place at that college. No wonder he grew up to be the politician who was slightly too handsome, slightly too well dressed and slightly too genteel.

He was also the politician who was picked out for glory too early and had to wait for greatness for far too long. Harold Macmillan (who does not emerge from the Thorpe biography as a model of loyalty and self-denial) describes the Eden syndrome in the language of the turf: "The trouble with Anthony is that he was trained to win the Derby in 1938 but not let out of the stalls until 1955." It was Eden's misfortune to be heir apparent to Winston Churchill, who was not only reluctant to retire but positively enjoyed making Eden wait for the inheritance.

Among the highlights here are anecdotes about discussions between the two men in which the succession is clearly at the back of both their minds. Churchill thought of felling Downing Street trees in order to obtain a clearer view of Horse Guards Parade and Trooping the Colour. Eden reminded him that he was the tenant of No 10, not the owner-occupier.

There is no doubt that Eden behaved with both gallantry and courage (not quite the same thing) during the years of appeasement before the Second World War. When he resigned from the cabinet, he must have assumed that his chances of becoming prime minister - canvassed publicly by commentators as he had been since he was in his early thirties - had been virtually extinguished. But standing out against the political crowd is, in some ways, more difficult than accepting the loss of both office and fut-ure prospects. In September 1938, when Neville Chamberlain announced that Hitler had invited him to fly to Munich for a third round of peace talks, the House of Commons - believing that war had been avoided - exploded in cheers of exultant relief. Walter Liddall, a now forgotten back-bench Tory MP, hissed to Harold Nicolson (one of the doubters who pinned his hopes on Eden): "Stand up, you brute."

Nothing here suggests that Anthony Eden was psychologically prepared to risk the opprobrium of his peers. But stand up he did; indeed, there were sustained months of heroism.

Part four of Thorpe's book is entitled "Greatness Going Off", a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra that is intended to convey the notion that the long wait extinguished all hope of what might have been. The text is peppered with such (invariably apposite) quotations. Eden's calm mental state when he resigned in 1938 is exemplified by quotations from Shakespeare and Ibsen in successive paragraphs. It may be that the reliance on other people's aphorisms is the one failing of the book.

Eden "went off" after Churchill had been dragged - metaphorically kicking and screaming - from Downing Street. But there is no doubt that the hidden steel was still in Eden's character until the moment of the succession. Thorpe quotes Macmillan's accounts of a cabinet meeting in which discussions of future plans went round in circles, because it was once more clear that Churchill (80 years of age, and the victim of a recent stroke) was still trying to hang on. Suddenly, his successor asked him: "Does this mean, Prime Minister, that arrangements you have made with me are now at an end?" I have tried to imagine a cabinet minister of my time acting with such audacity. Denis Healey? Roy Jenkins? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Once he became prime minister, Eden thought of himself as the man who deals with dictators. Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus was easy. Colonel Nasser in Egypt was made of sterner stuff. Part of the problem, as Thorpe writes, was Eden's preoccupation with his own prestige. "He wanted to maintain oil supplies first and foremost, but was rebuffed by a man who he saw as an upstart." Because of that weakness of character, he was brought down himself.

The political end came after the withdrawal from Suez and an illness which, although genuine, was providentially convenient. After consultations with his ever-faithful constituency party, Eden decided to leave politics completely. At the by-election that followed, the Conservative majority in Warwick and Leamington was reduced to barely 2,000. I worked on that campaign and went to the celebration that the Labour Party held to mark "A Defeat Which Has the Taste of Victory". An account of the political life that ended on that day reads now like ancient history. But as told by D R Thorpe, it is history of exceptionally high quality.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2003 issue of the New Statesman, What now?