I recently read “Eden. The life and times of Anthony Eden” by DR Thorpe.
Anthony Eden was a brave and effective British Foreign Secretary in the 1930s.
He resigned in February 1938 because the Chamberlain government was not taking a sufficiently robust stand against Mussolini, who had invaded Abysinnia in defiance of the League of Nations.
He continued to oppose the efforts of Chamberlain to avoid war, by doing business with Hitler and Mussolini over Czechoslovakia.
For a time, Eden was even considered as an alternative to Chamberlain in the event that Chamberlain was forced to resign as Prime Minister.
An opinion poll take in March 1938 showed that Eden had 38% support as a potential successor to Chamberlain as Prime Minister, whereas Churchill , who did become Prime Minister in 1940, had only 7% support!
This was because Eden had been in the public eye, while Churchill had sidelined himself because of his reactionary views on self government for India.
When Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he invited Eden to be his Foreign Secretary. He was thereafter considered to be Churchill’s heir apparent.
Eden played an important role in cementing the alliance with the US, which was important to the eventual victory over Germany. On the other hand , it was the Soviet Union, which Hitler foolishly attacked in 1941, which did the biggest share of the fighting.
Churchill was reluctant to leave the stage and did not resign as Conservative leader until 1955, when Eden eventually took over as Prime Minister.
His term of office in remembered for the failure of the Anglo French attack on Egypt in 1956 to prevent the Egyptian government taking over the Suez Canal.
Oil supplies to Europe came through the Canal , and Eden saw the Egyptian leader, Nasser as similar to Hitler and Mussolini.
In reality, even if the Canal was nationalised, it would still have been in Egypt’s interest to keep it open to fee paying shipping, including British and French shipping. The Anglo French intervention was really an exercise in the sort of imperialism which the French and the British had conducted for the previous century or more.
Crucially, the British and French did not clear the attack with the Americans, who used massive economic pressure to force the French and British to withdraw.
This episode showed that European powers , like the UK and France, could not act alone militarily any more. Whereas in the 1930’s the US was isolationist, in the 1950’s, it wanted to call all the shots. In military terms this remains the case today. Europe depends on America for its defence.
Eden was Prime Minister when the Messina conference met in 1955 to launch what became the European Common Market. Eden sent a representative, but the UK did not commit itself to anything, whereas the other six nations did so, and eventually drafted and signed the Treaty of Rome, the founding Treaty of today’s European Union.
At the time, Eden would have seen Britain as a global player, and not on a par with a politically unstable France or with recently defeated Germany and Italy. One wonders if the present UK government sees things in a similar way to Eden.
In a way, Eden’s problem was that his view of the world had been shaped in the 1930’s, and he did not adjust to the world of the 1950’s.