From bedazzled to besmirched

Anthony Eden
January 3, 1997

A belated Christmas cracker. Question: what is the most poignant example in our history of a person consulting the Oxford English Dictionary? Answer: Anthony Eden looking up "appeasement" when writing the relevant volume of his memoirs, Facing the Dictators (1962). Laid low by Suez, Eden was hoping to ratify his prejudices and restore his image for the benefit of that fickle jade, posterity. He was not wholly reassured by what he found, but he made the best of it. "I had by this time (1936) occasionally used the word 'appeasement' in a speech or minute for the Foreign Office in the sense of the first meaning given in the Oxford English Dictionary, 'to bring to peace, settle (strife, etc.)'.

It was not until some years later, when the results of the foreign policy pursued by Mr Chamberlain became apparent, that the word was more strongly associated with the last meaning given in the dictionary, 'to pacify, by satisfying demands'." Observe the not-so-subtle distancing of Mr Chamberlain's recent intimate. Eden resigned as foreign secretary in 1938, reputedly on principle, really on provocation, not from the German chancellor, but from the British prime minister. When, a few months later, Chamberlain managed to get Hitler's autograph at the place whose name is synonymous with the policy, Eden very nearly voted with the government before finally abstaining. Contrary to legend, but not to habit, Eden was mealy-mouthed over Munich.

Munich made him, nonetheless, and Munich unmade him. No office became him so much as the leaving of it. In the 1930s he was perceived to be both acute and honourable, and he internalised that self-image. On one of the defining issues of the 20th century his reputation was secure. In the collective criminography of appeasement Eden was found, angelically, not guilty. Two decades later the position was completely reversed. In the 1950s he was perceived to be both inept and deceitful, and perhaps (given his medical history) he internalised that too. On the very same issue - as defined by the tragedian himself - his reputation was shattered. No longer angel but pariah, he was successively vanquished, banished, and dispossessed by a mutinous cabal of Anglo-American aristos led by his own chancellor of the exchequer, the hooded-eyed Harold Macmillan. The debonair distancer had been brutally out-distanced. During a long after-life (he died in 1977) Eden occupied himself solipsistically in drawing "the lessons" of appeasement as he saw or contrived them, preserved in three turgid volumes of memoirs - at once excessive and elliptical - personal denunciations, and numberless notes for his biographer presumptive.

As to that, there was a certain difficulty, exacerbated by Eden's inconvenient longevity, as David Dutton interestingly recounts. Sir John Wheeler-Bennett died, Anthony Nicholls withdrew, Martin Gilbert was entrapped by Eden's avuncular dominator, Winston Churchill. Eventually Robert Rhodes James brought the work to fruition, as Dutton puts it, in 1986. It was not expected that Rhodes James would rock the boat. Nor did he. "This," he wrote, "is the portrait of a man. It has been my purpose that it be sympathetic, but not uncritical, and, above all, fair." Fairness, in this instance, may be construed as essentially rehabilitatory. The authorised version was skilful, occasionally sentimental advocacy, overstrained at the end by cliche ("it had been a great career, and a remarkable life, and there had been much sunshine in the later years"), and a curiously ambiguous borrowing from Churchill on Curzon: "These heavy reverses were supported after the initial shocks with goodwill and dignity. But undoubtedly they invested the long and strenuous career with ultimate disappointment. The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were solid, and each was polished till it shone after its fashion."

Eden had special need of rehabilitation, as Robert Rhodes James well knew, because five years earlier, in 1981, David Carlton had published an unauthorised, unorthodox, and still unsurpassed portrait of the politician-in-action, well encapsulated by his authorised biographer as "consistently and mystifyingly hostile to Eden throughout his career". The mystification, however, lay only in the fact that no one before Carlton had pulled off the same dastardly trick. The clues were there, even on the British side (and Carlton, unlike his competitors, also cased the American): "fussing and fidgeting, very self-conscious and blushing with handsomeness - vain as a peacock with all the mannerisms of the petit ma tre" (Crawford); "good looks, good address in Parliament and on the platform, a nice wife, money and, above all, the divine gift of popularity" (Hankey); "not only second rate but also a dirty dog" (Vansittart).

All of this evidence and more - 500 pages more - is cited in Dutton's study, subtitled, rather plonkingly, A Life and Reputation - actually a half-life, chronologically, beginning its detailed treatment in late 1931 with his fortunate appointment as parliamentary under-secretary in the Foreign Office, bedazzled at 34, and ending in early 1957 with his forced resignation as prime minister, besmirched at 60. There were already eight books on Eden when Dutton began his research, a ninth appeared while his was still in progress, a tenth perhaps by the time you have finished this; not to mention a mountain of work on Suez, notably Keith Kyle's, much of it centrally (and rightly) concerned with the overweening British decision-maker and his anti-Munich reflex. In an era of inexorable relative decline, the productivity of the Eden industry is one of Britain's few success stories. It is not immediately clear why Dutton wishes to add to it in such Stakhanovite fashion. He describes his book as "a series of linked essays, arranged with a sufficient sense of chronology to allow it to be read as a biography, but permitting me to explore the key themes of Eden's career without the distraction of trying to do justice to every feature of the kaleidoscopic existence of a leading politician". The chapter headings appear to corroborate this intention ("Eden and Chamberlain", "Eden and the United States", "Eden and Europe", and so on). Yet in practice the treatment is not at all essayistic. It is, in fact, impeccably chronological, desperately thorough and remorselessly judicious.

What is immediately clear is that Dutton is navigating, a trifle awkwardly, around Rhodes James on the one hand and Carlton on the other. If, as he says, the former is an argument for the defence and the latter for the prosecution, his own work is perhaps best summarised as a case for the extenuation. As such, it is professionally made, if profoundly unconvincing. "Overall Eden did as well as, if not better than, any of his contemporaries. His many achievements make it difficult to deny him a place among the top rank of foreign secretaries. But he was also - and notwithstanding the mistakes of Suez - a man of integrity. Though he could become obsessive in his attitude towards those he perceived as implacable enemies - Mussolini, Nasser, and latterly Dulles (a tell-tale bracketing) - he was nonetheless remarkably free of malice. There was a patent honesty about the man which is attractive. In a meeting with Dulles in November 1956 Eisenhower expressed disappointment at having 'continually to downgrade' his estimate of Eden. The final verdict of history may yet turn, full circle, towards an opposite conclusion."

We may have a long wait for the final verdict. In the interim, as biography, this "life" makes no sense. Eden is surely destined to remain controversial, but all workers in that well-tilled field are agreed on one thing: to a marked degree, his personality affected (some would say afflicted) his diplomacy. Put differently, the inner life impacted on the outer, in troubled and troubling ways. "Personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer life of telegrams and anger," wrote E. M. Forster. Telegrams and anger fill this book, often incomprehensibly. Personal relations are confined to a brief addendum, deceptively entitled "Eden: an assessment". New readers may be well advised to start there.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Anthony Eden: A Life and Reputation

Author - David Dutton
ISBN - 0 340 56168 8
Publisher - Arnold
Price - £25.00
Pages - 576

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