There are times when I have felt that the British House of Commons should be renamed Heartbreak House. Instead of the mace which is laid each day on the table, we could have the executioner’s axe with its blade turned toward the prime minister of the day.
In my time I have seen Ramsay MacDonald knocked about until he was like a punch-drunk boxer who did not know when he was hit. Then there was the terrible Saturday night on the eve of the Hitler war when the Tories turned against their prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and shouted to the opposition leader to speak for England. And in the abdication crisis Churchill was howled down until he could no longer make himself heard and strode out of the arena like an angry bull.
Yet none of the men who have
held supreme political office in Britain ended his career more tragically or disappointingly than Sir Anthony Eden.
It did not need any special knowledge to realize that when parliament rose for the Christmas recess there would be no peace for Eden. My old friend Beaverbrook had been good enough to invite me to stay with him at Nassau, but the instinct of the journalist suggested that it would be better to stay home at the centre of things, just in case.
Never were the newspapers and the public less prepared for what happened. Parliament had risen for the recess and, therefore, the prime minister would not have to face the “grand inquest of the nation,” as the House of Commons is sometimes called.
My wife and I went for a seaside holiday at Brighton, which is
sometimes called “London by the sea.” It was there that the dissolute Prince of Wales, afterward George IV, carried on his famous love intrigue with Mrs. Fitzherbert. In those days there was a sharp division between the rich and the poor, and Brighton was the Mecca of the rich.
Even today Brighton keeps its Georgian quality although many of the old houses have been replaced by modern hotels. All it needs to complete the picture is a casino where the bucks of today could gamble at roulette, but betting is illegal in Britain in spite of the fact that here there is more gambling on continued on page 44
LONDON LETTER continued from page 4
Why was Rab Butler passed by? Had he lost his zest for debate?
horses than in any other country in the world.
One evening during our January visit 1 dropped in to a pub for a glass of sherry and had just taken a sip when the rheumatic radio spluttered into life and blared the words: “The prime minister has resigned.”
It was almost absurd in its brevity. For a moment 1 thought it was a practical joke, but the radio came to life again: Eden had been to see the Queen who had accepted his resignation.
By the time 1 got back to my hotel the whole place was teeming with rumors. There had been a mutiny of cabinet ministers . . . Harold Macmillan had threatened to resign if Eden continued as prime minister . . . Rab Butler had told Eden that he no longer had the confidence of the party ... In fact, almost everyone at the hotel knew everything there was to be known.
Nevertheless it was perfectly true that Eden had been told to go. The only thing the gossips didn’t know was that the ultimatum came from Eden’s doctors. Thus ended the political story of a man who in his handsome youth journeyed across Europe with his soft black hat and gave hope to a continent that had been tortured by the 1914-18 war.
As minister of League of Nations affairs he was the first minister from the West to visit Communist Russia. Even Stalin, who was not noted for sentimentality, was moved by that action.
But the fates grew angry with this handsome peddler of dreams. It may be that his wife resented his long absences, or that she had no liking for the background of political life; it was known by many people that all was not well on the home front of the Edens.
In the Hitler war, which Eden had tried so hard to prevent, the elder son of the Edens trained in Canada as an airman and was later killed in action. No one has the right to look too deeply into other people’s hearts but it may be their son’s death hastened the ultimate parting of the Edens.
There were four of us Tory MPs who crossed in the Queen Mary two or three years after the end of the Hitler war. Eden and his wife were on board, and after dinner we would join them at their table and persuade Anthony to talk about his adventures behind the scenes with Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler.
Ail politicians like to talk shop and we found these chats both entertaining and enlightening. But his beautiful wife did not share our enthusiasm.
Eventually the marriage was dissolved. Some years passed and then, as you know. Eden married Sir Winston Churchill’s niece. Politics was in her blood.
One of the most warming things in Eden’s life was the affection felt for him by Winston Churchill. The old warrior was determined that when the time came to step down from the Tory throne his successor would be Eden. The succession was as automatic as royalty.
It is an odd quirk of the British political system that when a prime minister resigns there are only two people who have any traditional part to play. The outgoing premier journeys to Buckingham Palace and asks the sovereign to accept his resignation. The sovereign expresses appropriate regrets and asks if he can suggest a successor. The exprime minister, as he then is, advises the sovereign to send for Mr. So-andso, and departs. Needless to say, Mr. So-and-so is not far away.
The sovereign greets the newcomer and asks him if he can form a government. The answer is in the affirmative and Mr. So-and-so leaves the palace as prime minister. He still has to secure the approval of his party but what can the party do when he is already the sovereign’s chief minister?
In search of a prime minister
But when Eden accepted the ultimatum of the doctors and went to the palace to hand in the seals of office, both he and the Queen were in a difficult situation. The succession was by no means clearly established. There were two pretenders to the political throne—Rab Butler and Harold Macmillan.
Faced with this dilemma, Her Majesty did a very wise thing. She summoned Sir Winston Churchill to the palace. Needless to say, I have not the slightest knowledge of what was said in that secret talk, yet it seems probable one
simple and human factor was raised.
Butler was a widower. How could he undertake the endless hospitality of No. 10 Downing Street without a consort? Perhaps it went further. We all had noticed that from the time of his wife’s death Rab Butler seemed to have lost that zest for debate that had made him for a time the most formidable figure in the party next to Churchill.
Thus the mantle fell upon Macmillan, sometimes known in the smoking room as Mack the Knife, after the character in the Threepenny Opera. Macmillan was not taken by surprise. As chancellor of the exchequer he had occupied No. 11 Downing Street for some time, and I have no doubt that he often looked at the house next door and felt that it would be no trouble to move his furniture.
I need not bore you with what are known as vital statistics and at any rate you all know that Mack the Knife was aide-de-camp to the Duke of Devonshire at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall and, in the great tradition of ADCs, he married the boss’s daughter. He was Mr. Harold Macmillan while his wife was Lady Dorothy Macmillan. It is so to this day.
My first meeting with him may lack novelty to Maclean’s readers but not unnaturally his rise to the premiership has recalled the past. In 1918 I was invalided from France and by a lucky ticket was delivered to the stately home of Earl Bathurst in Belgrave Square, which had been taken over as an officers’ hospital. About midnight I was carried to bed in a big dark room where one could sense that there were a number of others.
At about two a.m. a drawling voice said, “Have you any ideas on parliamentary reform?”
It was an extraordinary, Lord Dundreary voice — a drawling, weary and rather superior voice. As it seemed that he was addressing me, I said that I had no ideas on the subject. Had he?
“The only bloke,” said the voice, “who had a workable plan for parliamentary reform was Guy Fawkes.”
My fellow patient was Harold Macmillan who had been terribly wounded fighting with the Grenadier Guards. It was the beginning of a friendship that has never faltered in the twenty-two years that I have served with him in parliament.
In spite of his having been a rebel in the days of Baldwin, we all realized that Macmillan was obviously a man of the future.
When in 1951 the socialist government went down to defeat after six years in office. Macmillan expected and deserved high office in the new Conservative government. Therefore it was something of a shock when he found that he was to succeed Aneurin Bevan as the mere minister of housing. Bevan had always maintained a target of building three hundred thousand houses a year, but had never attained it.
Mack the Knife moved in to the ministry and summoned his undersecretary for a talk.
"It seems that our target is three hundred thousand houses,” he drawled.
"That's right,” said his junior.
“Well,” said Mack, “what do you say if we build three hundred thousand houses?”
"A good idea,” said the undersecretary.
Whereupon they did that very thing. In a subsequent debate Mr. Bevan declared that any fool could build that many houses.
"I know one fool who didn't,” said Macmillan blandly.
As always he hung on his office wall a picture of the little Scottish cottage occupied by his crofter great-grandfather. The crofter had never risen higher than being an agricultural laborer, yet he bred sons who were to establish a publishing house that became one of the most successful in the world.
“That’s the trouble with Harold,” said one of his friends. “You never can tell whether he is going to brandish the Duke of Devonshire or his crofter ancestor at you.”
When Eden became prime minister, Macmillan was given the high office of the chancellor of the exchequer. Yet in his budget last spring he gave the nonconformist conscience a cruel shock.
Knowing that the British are incorrigible gamblers he produced his plan for Premium Bonds. Like a bookmaker on the course, he shouted the odds: “Here is a flutter where you cannot lose and you might win.”
This was his plan. The punter, or the sucker if you like, could for one pound each buy any number of Premium Bonds. At the end of six months or some such period there would be a draw. If the number of his bond turned up he would get a thousand pounds, which would be untaxed.
To make the offer still more attractive, the investor could always get his money back after a stated interval.
Only Mack the Knife could have thought of that.
In the meantime the chancellor has had the use of the money without paying interest on it. The socialists were shocked and said that it was debauching the people. But the public went for it.
In the same budget debate I made a speech, urging Macmillan to do away with, or reduce, the entertainment tax which is crushing the living theatre almost out of existence. With the greatest
courtesy he replied, “I know the keen interest of my honorable friend in the theatre. Unhappily, 1 cannot ease the burden this time, but next year I promise that I shall make concessions that will help the theatre to survive.”
But alas! he is no longer the chancellor of the exchequer. Nevertheless, 1 shall urge it on him even though he is now prime minister.
What is the future of Sir Anthony Eden? As a retiring prime minister he was automatically entitled to an earldom and
could, therefore, have played a part in the House of Lords debates, as Earl Attlee does. But Eden declined the title —and subsequently resigned his seat in parliament. Perhaps he will work on his memoirs, although he does not take naturally to the pen.
It might be that he will become governor-general of New Zealand and enjoy the double warmth of the people and the sun. Or even Canada may take him to its heart as it did his son.
l et this then be Eden’s political epitaph. Never in his long, long years of
office did he do a mean or petty thing. Never did he shirk the challenge of events even when his tortured body was racked with pain.
When he intervened in Suez he knew that there would be a storm, but he was determined to shock America into a state of realism and to force the United Nations to use its power instead of dithering in the moonlight.
He was a man of clean heart who gave dignity and purpose to an era that has almost forgotten that such things existed. ★
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