IT was 60 years ago today in 1957 that Sir Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister after less than two years in the job. He had made a complete mess of the Suez Crisis the year before, but no one outside his family and small circle of close friends knew that he was suffering from severe ill health and just could not take the pressures of his office any more.
The mystery of Eden’s resignation was one of the hot topics of the late 1950s, and to this day there are people who believe the “ill health” story was concocted to cover up the real reason for his departure, namely a Tory internal coup by senior figures to put Harold MacMillan in No.10 Downing Street rather than Rab Butler who, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, had pursued policies more progressive than top Tories liked.
WHAT WAS THE PUBLIC RESPONSE?
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MOST people reacted with genuine shock. In those days, when television was only a growing medium, people got their news from radio, newsreels and the printed press. The media had dutifully reported that Eden had gone to Jamaica to recover from an illness, but no journalist went public with the real state of affairs – that the Prime Minister’s health was deplorable and that his nerves were shot. He may even have been suffering from mental illness.
To the Tory plotters, it was no shock at all, and they moved swiftly to put their man in power. The Queen accepted Eden’s resignation and the Tory Lord President of the Council, the Marquess of Salisbury, did a swift head count of the Cabinet – the Tories had no formal succession format in those days – and reported that MacMillan was the favoured man. The retired, but still massively influential Winston Churchill endorsed the choice and MacMillian became PM the next day.
Butler was never the same man again, while MacMillan famously became the optimistic “Supermac” saying Britons “had never had it so good.”
WAS EDEN A GOOD PM?
HE was certainly a popular one at first. A genuine hero of the First World War – he won the Military Cross on the Western front – Eden had been a career politician who opposed appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s, and who distinguished himself in the War Cabinet.
Winston Churchill had suffered at least one heart attack and a stroke during his two terms of office as Prime Minister. King George VI had asked him to consider allowing Eden to take over as early as 1951, but Churchill chose to “keep buggering on” in his famous phrase. By then Eden had been foreign secretary three times, was very popular within the party and his succession seemed assured. Yet when Churchill had another major stroke in June 1953, Eden was himself gravely ill. He had undergone an operation to remove gallstones in April of that year but the surgery was botched and his bile duct was damaged. Eden was left susceptible to multiple infections that plagued him ever afterwards, particularly the painful cholangitis which did indeed threaten his life.
When Churchill stood down in 1955, Eden finally got the top job and his popularity was proven by the Conservatives increasing their majority in that year’s general election. In Scotland, the Tories won 55 per cent of the public vote. No party subsequently won more than 50 per cent until the SNP’s landslide in 2015.
WHAT DID HE DO WRONG OVER SUEZ?
IT would take several editions of The National to detail the Suez Crisis and how Eden screwed things up. On October 29 1956, after Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal, Israeli forces marched towards the canal. Ignoring American peace efforts, Britain and France sent in their troops, ostensibly to keep the two sides apart. Eden planned the operation in secret but denied there was any collusion with Israel, though there most certainly had been.
The USA was aghast at the British and French action as it came not long after they had complained about the USSR ruthlessly putting down the Hungarian Uprising. Massive pressure was put on Britain, France and Israel to withdraw, which they did to Eden’s utter humiliation.
WAS HIS HEALTH REALLY THAT BAD?
THERE is little doubt Eden had severe physical problems, and possibly mental ones, too. Biographers helped by the release of Cabinet papers and Eden’s own massive collection of personal papers – he wrote three volumes of memoirs – have been able to show that Eden spent much of the 1950s in considerable pain.
He constantly took Benzedrine and Drinamyl – popularly known as “purple hearts” and subsequently banned – which almost certainly led to many of the mood swings and much of the mental anguish that Eden suffered.
According to Eden himself, his resignation came about because his doctors told him his latest infection had been life-threatening. With the encouragement of his second wife Cassandra, Eden decided to go on his own terms rather than being invalided out of office.
His resignation certainly helped his health as he survived a further 20 years until January 14, 1977, 40 years ago this week, when he died of liver cancer at the age of 79. Eden’s only surviving son Nicholas inherited the title and as Lord Avon he became a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Government from 1980 to 1985. He also stood down from office due to illness, in his case the Aids which killed him on 17 August, 1985. Though never coming out, he had bravely never hidden his homosexuality, and having no heirs, the Avon peerage died with him.
Like his father, at the time of his resignation, the public had no idea of Lord Avon’s real state of health, until the News of the World broke the story of him suffering Aids after his death as part of their “gay plague” revelations.
It is believed that Avon’s death may have helped the Cabinet to decide on the national Aids public education campaign which began that year.