In the second of this blog series, we will be taking a look at Queen Elizabeth II’s second prime minister. He was prime minister from 6th April 1955 until 10th January 1957, and his name was Anthony Eden.
Robert Anthony Eden was born on 12th June 1897 at Windlestone Hall in County Durham into a Conservative landed gentry family. His father was Sir William Eden and his mother Sybil Frances Grey. Eden was educated at two independent schools, Sandroyd School and Eton College.
During the First World War, Eden served with the 21st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps; during his military service, he received a military cross, and at the age of 21, he became the youngest brigade-major in the British Army.
Eden’s first experience with politics came in the November 1922 General Election when he contested a seat he had no chance of winning. When another general election was called in December 1923, Eden was elected Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington as a Conservative at the young age of 26.
In the 1924-29 Conservative government, Eden was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson Hicks, and from 1926 held the same position to the Foreign Secretary Sir Austen Chamberlain.
In 1931, Eden held his first ministerial office as Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs. Under Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Anthony Eden was appointed Lord Privy Seal and Minister for the League of Nations.
Anthony Eden became Foreign Secretary at a time when Britain was having to adjust its foreign policy to face the rise of fascist powers. Eden did not protest when Britain and France failed to oppose Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936, but firmly ruled out any military assistance to France. In February 1938, Eden resigned as Foreign Secretary, which was largely attributed to his opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.
In September 1939, on the outbreak of the Second World War, Eden had briefly returned to the Army with the rank of major, he also returned to Chamberlain’s government as Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs; he was not however, a member of the War Cabinet. As a result of being excluded from the War Cabinet, Eden was not a candidate for premiership when Chamberlain resigned; this job went to Winston Churchill.
Churchill did appoint Eden Secretary of State for War, and at the end of 1940, he was back in the Foreign Office; in this role, he became a member of the Executive Committee of the Political Warfare Executive in 1941. During the war, Eden’s eldest son, Pilot Officer Simon Gascoigne Eden went missing in action, and was later declared deceased while serving as a navigator in the RAF in Burma.
In the post war general election, Labour came out on top,and the Conservatives became the opposition party. Eden became Deputy leader of the Conservatives, and many thought that Churchill should resign and allow Eden to become leader; this however was out of the question for Churchill.
As early as Spring 1946, Eden openly asked Churchill to retire from the party. When the Conservatives came back to power in 1951 with Churchill once again at the helm, Eden became Foreign Secretary for the third time as well as Deputy Prime Minister. Eden had an effective control on British foreign policy for the first time, as the Empire declined and the Cold War intensified. It was during his third term as Foreign Secretary that Eden was made a Knight of the Garter, and became Sir Anthony Eden.
In April 1955, Sir Winston Churchill resigned, and Sir Anthony Eden took up office as Prime Minister, the second prime minister so far in Queen Elizabeth II’s short reign. On taking office, Eden immediately called a general election for 26th May 1955 at which he increased the Conservative majority from seventeen to sixty, a majority which broke a ninety-year record for any UK government. Sir Anthony Eden had the distinction of being the British Prime Minister to oversee the lowest unemployment figures of the post World War II era with unemployment standing at just over 215,000 in July 1955, barely 1% of the workforce.
The biggest political event to occur during Eden’s tenure as Prime Minister was the Suez Crisis. The crisis began on July 26th 1956 when Egyptian President Abdul Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company, which had been run by the French, with the British Government as the largest single shareholder.
The canal was dubbed the ‘lifeline of the Empire’. It was an absolutely vital conduit for oil. If Nasser blocked the precious flow, it could cripple the British economy.
Just as critical, Nasser’s dramatic gesture came during the midst of the Cold War while Britain and France were struggling to maintain their influence in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as their own sense of relevance. For Sir Anthony Eden, the crisis was an echo of his own struggle during the 1930’s and 40’s to confront Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
The British Cabinet conceded that Nasser’s actions were legal, especially as he promised to reimburse the shareholders. London and Paris both felt though that they could not suffer this insult to their pride and prestige, and so, both began making plans for a military strike. US President Dwight Eisenhower urged Eden to avoid using force; Eden, however, refused to back down.
The Suez Crisis was arguably the worst break in UK/US relations in the 20th century. When Israel invaded Egypt, Britain and France took their guise as peacekeepers and began bombing Egyptian positions: both countries were condemned by the United Nations and the Commonwealth was split along racial lines; the Western Alliance was ripped apart.
On November 4th 1956, the General Assembly overwhelmingly supported Lester Pearson’s proposal for the world’s first peacekeeping force. Within two weeks, advance units arrived in Egypt and bowing to international pressure and the arrival of UNEF, British and French forces completed their withdrawal from Egypt by the end of 1956.
The Suez Crisis led to much speculation about The Queen’s views, and what she knew about unfolding events. Eden believed that informing The Queen was of supreme importance, and all the Suez papers were sent to her, the first time she was to be shown secret government documents. Their relationship was one of impeccable constitutional propriety and confidences were maintained. The crisis damaged, in many peoples eyes, Eden’s reputation for statesmanship and led to a breakdown in his health. The crisis is widely taken as marking the end of Britain’s status as a ‘superpower’.
Sir Anthony Eden resigned on 9th January 1957 after doctors warned him his life was at stake if he continued in office. A survey of the Cabinet taken for The Queen showed that Harold Macmillan was the nearly unanimous choice to be Eden’s successor. He became Prime Minister on 10th January 1957.
Eden maintained much of his personal popularity in England. In 1961, he was made Earl of Avon, and entered the House of Lords. After his retirement from politics, Eden spent most of his time quietly with his second wife Clarissa at their home near the banks of the River Ebble in Wiltshire.
On a trip to the Unites States for Christmas and New Year 1976-77, Eden’s health rapidly deteriorated. At his family’s request, James Callahan arranged for an RAF plane that was already in America to divert to Miami to fly the former prime minister home. Sir Anthony Eden died from liver cancer in Salisbury on 14th January 1977 at the age of 79, thus he was born in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and died in the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Eden was buried at St Mary’s churchyard at Alvediston, just three miles upstream from his former home.
Sir Anthony Eden was hugely popular throughout his political career, however many contemporaries felt he was merely a superficial person lacking any deeper convictions. That view was enforced by his very pragmatic approach to politics. Too often in his career, his parliamentary performances disappointed many of his followers, and that is why Eden is ranked among the least successful prime ministers of the 20th century.
As for Eden’s relationship with his monarch, it appears that it was amicable. The Queen found Eden a sympathetic listener to her concerns, dominating their early meetings was the discussion of Princess Margaret’s possible marriage to Group Captain Peter Townsend. Eden was however the first prime minister to have divorced, and was therefore in no position to take the lead in the decision as to whether the two should marry.
As for the Suez Crisis, we can only speculate what was spoken about during the weekly audiences. All we know is that The Queen would be able to draw on these meetings with Eden with her meetings, nearly 30 years later, with Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War.
One question that has been asked many times since 1956, is did The Queen know about Eden’s secret collusion with the French and Israeli’s over Suez, which was concealed from the world, and lied about in Parliament? This is a question that has had people split for nearly sixty years; yes, Her Majesty did sign the document approving the call up of Army reserves in the summer; however did she really approve of the operation? This is something that only few know the answer to. The Suez failure represented a huge dent in the national image and to the British pride nurtured by the Second World War.
It does bring something to mind that I once heard though, and that stuck with me, ‘Prime ministers come and go, a monarch is there for life.’ Sir Anthony Eden’s time in office may have damaged his reputation and Britain’s for a time; it didn’t, however, damage Queen Elizabeth II’s – she is still our queen.