1956 - Eden agonistes

The historical significance of contemporary events is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. We like to think that we are participating in momentous and unforgettable happenings when it is quite likely that posterity, if it cares to be reminded of them at all, will be content to have them dismissed in a single sentence. Take, for instance, the last three weeks during which parliament, press and radio have kept everyone on the boil. What has it all amounted to? Seen against the background of the revolt in Hungary, very little. In the twilight of expiring imperial systems, deluded figures like Sir Anthony Eden are liable to rush frenziedly into the centre of the stage and begin declaiming lines belonging to a play on which the curtain has already fallen. They may be sure of the wild applause of those who share their illusions, but the outcome of their efforts cannot but be a total fiasco. Whatever may or may not be expected of us here on earth, we are under the inescapable necessity of taking our allotted parts in the drama of our own times. We may dream, but we cannot live, in the past or in the future.

Historians, then, may be expected to pay no more than scant regard to this sorry and costly attempt to revive a power technique which we possess neither the means nor the will to apply. On the other hand, the episode's social implications may appear in retrospect more deserving of attention, especially if, as I suspect, it proves to have shaken the whole class system in this country as nothing else has in recent years.

Political parties, it has been shown, can live down the most appalling errors when they are in office. The prestige of a class, however, and of the leadership derived from it, is more difficult to sustain. Surely the spectacle of a Prime Minister departing to sit in the Jamaican sun at the very moment when, in consequence of a policy for which he is personally responsible, the oil that was to have been safeguarded is lost, the Canal that was to have been kept open is closed, the British nationals in Egypt who were to have been protected are being cruelly harried, the going it alone which was to have provided another finest hour is about to require an unqualified act of subservience in Washington, and the crack-up in the Middle East which was to have been prevented is more imminent than ever - surely such a spectacle must ultimately damage, if it does not totally destroy, both his own reputation and that of the class system he symbolises. The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but Eton itself looks like being lost on that Jamaican beach at Goldeneye.

The survival of the English upper classes, when their like elsewhere have all gone down, represents a remarkable achievement. They have been adroit, tenacious and flexible. Above all, they have managed to keep their allure. Even their enemies have wanted to be like them. Expensive public schools are full of the children of ardent Labour voters. The aspirations of strangers from far off Baghdad or Odessa have soon turned, when they have come to these shores, to fox-hunting or All Souls. New nobility has fortified, enriched and enlivened the old. In Golders Green and other suburbs the Great Houses have retained their glamour - Brideshead always revisited, if only on the National Trust. Through two world wars and four Labour governments; despite death duties, high taxation, Lord Beaverbrook and the Welfare State, the urge to climb the social ladder has persisted. Penurious households have denied themselves all but the barest necessities to pay the exorbitant fees of schools which turn out an authentic upper-class product. Why, even in Moscow, to Mr Driberg's satisfaction, Burgess has continued to sport his Old Etonian tie. Mr Dornford Yates, Mr Evelyn Waugh, Miss Mitford and a host of lesser practitioners, including gossip-writers who thrive by assuming that their readers shoot grouse, drink claret and know the Duchess of Windsor, have formulated the mystique; the stage, in the skilled hands of dramatists like Mr Noel Coward and Mr Douglas Home, has presented the form, while the BBC has provided the accent. Thanks to their combined efforts, toast-masters still can roar at considerable length, and Messrs Moss Brothers continue to do an extensive trade in hiring out all varieties of social impedimenta.

Beneath this piously and ardently preserved mythology of the class system has lain the reality of power. The myth has been an instrument, supple and effective, for impeding the process of putting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble and meek, of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. Through its operation the only political party in the world which dares openly to call itself Conservative has been kept alive and relatively thriving. Whereas Austrian and German nobility sit forlornly in their castles, knowing only brief moments of glory when some shadowy archduke espouses some equally shadowy princess; whereas the French and Italian aristocracy content themselves with social occasions, sometimes disreputable enough to rate a feature in the Sunday Pictorial, a Lord Salisbury remains one of the dominating figures in a government elected to power on a basis of universal suffrage.

Because the English class system has been thus directly related to political power, and not only to money or notional titles or nostalgic preoccupations with ancestry and past glories, it has required a code of behaviour on the part of its protagonists. The political leadership it has provided, however incompetent and short-sighted in practice, has needed to be "sound", of good repute - as had also, incidentally, the symbolic leadership, the monarchy, which is why so grave a view was taken of the Edward VIII-Mrs Simpson and the Princess Margaret-Towns-end affairs. Taking the Conservative leaders of our time, Baldwin was cast as a plain, fair-minded man; Chamberlain as a good man with a simple-hearted, if misguided, passion for appeasement; Sir Winston Churchill as heroic in war and venerable in peace. These images could be plausibly identified with the actual men even though they all three made grievous errors and, in that they have been set in authority over us for the greater part of the last three decades, must be held largely responsible for our present hapless plight. The imagery was valid, and therefore the class system to which it was related was valid, too.

The case of Sir Anthony Eden has turned out quite differently. As an image he seemed perfect. His appearance, his manner, his record, all gave an impression of exactly fitting contemporary requirements. He was gentlemanly, reassuring, ingratiating - any selection board's dream come true. He slid into power with a comfortable majority as effortlessly as into one of his own elegant suits. Who more suitable than a common Etonian to preside over the English variant of the century of the common man?

And yet it has all gone awry. The image and the man have dramatically diverged to the point that they can never again be identified, thereby creating a condition of social schizophrenia. Why? Was there, beneath the exterior of a BBC announcer, some strange inward instability which manifested itself outwardly when at last he found himself the head of a government? Did the long years of waiting accumulate a frenzy of resentment in him which has only now found expression? Was it, perhaps, a consciousness of the prevailing assumption that he was nice and ordinary and tedious which generated a mania to demonstrate the opposite, as well as the feverish strength to carry his more prudent colleagues with him? Has he been trying to show us that, despite all appearances to the contrary, he, too, can be a Churchill?

Whatever the explanation may be, the fact is that he has succeeded in demolishing all the assumptions on which his own, his party's and his class's fortunes have hitherto rested. No more unlikely Samson to pull down the pillars of a social edifice could possibly be imagined. But pull them down he has. The only difference is that, whereas the original Samson remained in the resultant ruins, this one has decamped to Jamaica, leaving salvage operations to Messrs Butler, Macmillan and Selwyn Lloyd. It has been an astonishing performance, whose full consequences will only slowly become apparent. These are likely to prove more significant in their social than in their political or international implications. It was not only Napoleon who never recovered from abandoning his army on the retreat from Moscow. His empire, his marshals, the whole show was doomed thereby. Perhaps it will be said hereafter, in recording the death of a class, that it "met its Goldeneye".

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser