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11 August 2020updated 17 Aug 2020 9:51am

From the NS archive: Boring for England

11 February 1956: On the tediousness of Anthony Eden.

By Malcolm Muggeridge

The journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge was no fan of the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden. This “tedious, serious Etonian” was, he believed, the sort of leader the nation deserved – well meaning but banal. The man himself was a cipher – “there is nothing in Sir Anthony either to admire or to abhor” – who, in a modern echo, liked to refer to the voters as “my friends” but who had little to say to them and no answer to the most pressing economic problem of the time: inflation. Muggeridge believed that even Conservative MPs had no affection for the man but that they put up with him, and that’s what the nation had to do too.

***

Leadership is always apt, even under universal suffrage. Government is seldom imposed, except for brief periods, and in politics there are never any Guilty Men. It is not by chance that a Baldwin or a Neville Chamberlain, an Attlee or a Roosevelt, or for that matter a Hitler or a Mussolini or a Stalin, emerge. Governors and governed seek and find a modus vivendi; the collectivity expect those set in authority over them to manifest, in a recognisable manner, the zeitgeist to which they belong. Otherwise they get rid of them.

Thus, today, we have in Sir Anthony Eden an eminently suitable prime minister, conveying, as he does so exactly in appearance and in personality, the benevolent intentions and earnest purposes whereby an almost extinct ruling class seeks to protract itself a little longer. His somehow slightly seedy good looks and attire, his ingratiating smile and gestures, the utter nothingness of what he has to say – does it not all provide an outward and visible manifestation of an inward and invisible loss of authority and self-confidence? Yes, it is entirely fitting that this tedious, serious Etonian, on whose lips are the last dying echoes of the late 19th-century concept of progress without tears, should have his moment in the middle of the turbulent and cruel 20th century. He is a Disraeli hero who has moved into a service flat, or perhaps a deep shelter; a Bertie Wooster who has turned from the Drones Club to Toynbee Hall. As has been truly said, he is not only a bore but he bores for England.

Why, then, does he arouse, particularly among some of his ostensible supporters, a frenzy of irritation, if not of positive dislike? After all, there are plenty of bores and nonentities among politicians of all parties. No one gets furious with Lord Woolton because he is not a dazzling conversationalist. Nor has a heavy hand in ladling out the spoken word prevented Lord Waverley or Lord Halifax from enjoying a reasonable measure of public esteem. Lord Alexander of Hillsborough is no Sidney Smith, and Mr Griffith’s oratory is more notable for sound and fury than for sense. Yet these, and many like them, patiently tread the political mill, receiving in due course their due reward.

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The simple fact is that there is nothing in Sir Anthony either to admire or to abhor. He is just empty of content, like his television appearances in which a flow of banalities is presented in the persuasive manner of an ex-officer trying to sell one a fire extinguisher at the front door. His writings are the same. There is nothing wrong with them except that they are unreadable. One has to fight one’s way through them; only dogged determination and a series of pauses to get one’s breath for a fresh assault will carry one on to the end. When, as in the case of the recent Washington communiques, President Eisenhower also takes a hand, with Mr William Clark doubtless putting in the finishing touches, the result is a brew which makes Coco-Cola seem, by comparison, like Imperial Tokay.

Even so, quite a lot of Conservatives, particularly among his parliamentary and even ministerial colleagues, find it very hard to enthuse over Sir Anthony, and next to impossible to praise him. At best they put up with him. It was the same with Ramsay MacDonald during the second Labour government. Labour ministers and MPs for the most part just could not abide him, and at the same time they felt they had to endure him because he “had a large following in the country”, because he “spoke with authority in the counsels of the nations”, and so on the self-same reasons, in fact, which induce Conservative MPs to endure Sir Anthony. If there had been a Gallup poll when MacDonald was a Labour prime minister it would have shown, I am sure, as overwhelming a majority in favour of his leadership among the Labour Party rank-and-file as it has lately shown in favour of Sir Anthony’s among rank-and-file Conservatives.

The two men – MacDonald and Sir Anthony – have, as a matter of fact, a great deal in common, down to the small but significant detail of frequently referring to us, the public, as “my friends”. In the United States MacDonald was greatly esteemed, and so, it is said, is Sir Anthony today. Again, MacDonald had no more idea of how to deal with unemployment, the chief domestic problem confronting his government, than Sir Anthony has of how to deal with inflation, which is the chief domestic problem confronting his government. In his rather more shaggy, William Morris sort of way, MacDonald was as consciously elegant in appearance as is Sir Anthony, and their diction bears many points of resemblance-a note of almost whimpering persuasiveness combined with a lack of precision which, in MacDonald’s case, degenerated into total incomprehensibility.

In a sense, too, their roles are the same, though in reverse. MacDonald’s role was to convince the then much more powerful middle and upper classes that they had nothing to fear from a Labour prime minister, and Sir Anthony’s is to convince the now much more powerful lower classes that a Conservative prime minister is really on their side. Such a role cannot but give a touch of ribaldry to those who undertake it, and though neither MacDonald nor Sir Anthony can be regarded as greatly dowered with humour, there is something inherently comical about both of them. In the pages of history they are likely to appear as Don Quixote figures, whose earnest intentions and high aspirations bear no valid relation to the actual circumstances of their times, and therefore in retrospect seem funny.

It is, of course, true that MacDonald did not run out his time as leader of the Labour Parry. Sir Anthony might be well advised to follow his example in this respect. When the inflation crisis reaches its peak, what possible recourse will he have but to join up with Mr Gaitskell, as MacDonald did with Baldwin, and appeal to the country for a Doctor’s Mandate? Many Conservatives would doubtless refuse to follow him and would, in consequence, lose their seats; but the Gaitskell-Eden government would be returned with a huge, and largely Labour, majority. The Observer, under JL Garvin, said of MacDonald, when he formed his national government with Baldwin: “Thank God for him!”; the Observer, under Mr David Astor, would probably make a like observation about Sir Anthony if he were to form a national government with Mr Gaitskell. Just as there was a minute Labour opposition under George Lansbury in 1932, so there would doubtless be a minute Conservative opposition under, say, Mr James Stuart, when Sir Anthony and Mr Gaitskell had appealed successfully to the country. Mr Bevan would then make forays from the left as Churchill did from the right. Otherwise the two situations would be identical. In due course Mr Gaitskell and Sir Anthony could change places as Baldwin and MacDonald did.

Without some such arrangement it is difficult to see much future for Sir Anthony as a purely Conservative leader. Conservative MPs, certainly, are more docile than Labour MPs, but even they will scarcely go on enduring with equanimity the surrender, one after another, of all their cherished positions at home and abroad. Fate, and Sir Winston Churchill, have given them, just at their moment of recovery from the 1945 debacle, a general whose instinct is always to retreat, and whose words of command have about as much dynamism as a Third Programme talk on the place of the potato in English folk-lore.

None of this is Sir Anthony’s fault. He is but a victim of history. The ship of state was already hopelessly water-logged and incapable of responding to the tiller when he took over command. What was there, then, for him to do but to bend his efforts to soothing down the increasingly apprehensive passengers? Like the Republicans in the United States under President Eisenhower’s leadership, the Conservatives under his have been unable to find any raison d’etre except to continue the policies of their opponents. They asked for a leader and were given a public relations officer; here is the news, and this is Anthony Eden reading it.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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