In the summer of 1945, Britain geared up for its first election in a decade. The last time voters had gone to the polls was 1935, before Europe had descended into the darkness of another all-out war. Before the conflict, Winston Churchill had been an outcast politician, but by the time war ended, he was the Prime Minister who had led the Allies to victory.
Alongside Churchill was Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Churchill’s suave sidekick and the Conservative Party’s heir apparent. It seemed a simple assumption that Churchill and the Conservatives would sweep to victory off the back of a war won. But Eden wasn’t sure he wanted to work alongside Churchill again. He recorded in his diary, “I am beginning to seriously doubt whether I can take [it] on … It is not the work itself which I could not handle, but the racket with Winston at all hours! He has to be headed off so many follies.”
Churchill and Eden’s fortunes were entwined for more than 30 years. They were both ambitious men who wanted to lead their country and leave a lasting legacy, but their relationship was often tempestuous. Theirs was one of the longest political rivalries of the 20th century.
Eden first met Churchill at a political rally in Sunderland just after World War One, while a student at Oxford. He recalled listening to Churchill – then a minister in Lloyd George’s Liberal government – give a rousing speech and shaking his hand afterwards. Churchill apparently asked the young Eden if he wanted to go into politics. By 1938, he had realised that ambition. The tall, charming, always immaculately-dressed Eden was the youngest Foreign Secretary since the Crimean War.
Eden was holidaying on the Riviera in 1938 and rendezvoused with Churchill and the then retired Lloyd George for lunch. Churchill was late and Lloyd George joked, “have you ever known Winston in time for a meal yet?” Despite the tranquil surroundings and the more than 30-year age gap between the three politicians, they had a shared concern. The storm clouds of war were looming over Europe, and Churchill and Eden were part of a small minority who saw Hitler as a real threat to peace.
A year after their Riviera lunch, Churchill and Eden were together in the House of Commons’ smoking room when the evening papers arrived with the news that German troops had marched into the Czechoslovakian capital of Prague. Six months later, Britain was at war.
Churchill, whose premonitions of the threat Hitler posed had proved correct, was invited back into government, and when embattled Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, it was Churchill who was asked to lead a wartime administration. Churchill made Eden his Secretary of State for War, then later Foreign Secretary.
One night, as the Luftwaffe’s bombs rained down on London, Churchill and Eden discussed the future. Aged 65, Churchill said he was ‘an old man’ and would not repeat the mistake of Lloyd George, who had led Britain’s World War One government and then carried on as leader afterwards. Eden recorded in his diary that Churchill said, “the succession must be mine.” It was a promise Eden would cling to, but one Churchill would not fulfil. They ended their evening on cheery terms, with Churchill telling his friend, “we shall win this war together.”
During the war, Eden was a confidant and peacemaker to Churchill’s pugnacious political style. They had significant disagreements and Eden shared the concerns of other MPs over Churchill’s dictatorial method of leadership, noting, “he sees himself … as the sole director of the war.” But Eden rebuffed suggestions of ousting Churchill at a time when the war was going badly and when hostilities ended, they remained side by side. On VE Day, Churchill messaged Eden to thank him, writing, “throughout you have been my mainstay.”
A change of power
The 1945 election didn’t go as expected. Churchill suffered a landslide loss, putting him and Eden out of government. For half a decade Churchill stayed on as Conservative Party leader, spending much time writing his memoirs and leaving Eden to run the party and the opposition. It stretched their relationship to breaking point.
Churchill, echoing his earlier promise, frequently suggested he would hand over to Eden but never did and then went on to win the 1951 election. Eden again became Foreign Secretary, but Churchill’s second term was a painful one. Churchill slept in the day, only read the newspapers and Cabinet meetings were “slow, waffling and indecisive”. It was not until 1955 that Churchill finally resigned, giving power to Eden.
Eden’s time as prime minister was short-lived. Remembered almost entirely for the disastrous Suez Crisis which saw Britain go to war with Egypt under false pretences, it was a personal political disaster that led to his resignation within two years. However, Churchill was publicly supportive of Eden, even though he had private misgivings, for which Eden was ever grateful.
For all their arguments and the bitterness Eden felt at being passed over for so long, the two men’s personal connection never dimmed. In Churchill’s final years he was a shadow of his former self, struggling to concentrate on reading or hold conversations, but Eden still visited him; Eden’s second wife was Churchill’s niece, Clarissa, so there were also family ties.
When Churchill died in 1964, aged 90, Eden escorted Churchill’s coffin outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Afterwards in the House of Lords, Eden called for a national ‘Churchill Day’ to remember his legacy.
A decade later, when interviewed by BBC television on his time with Churchill, Eden admitted their frequent disagreements, but added that there was “a very big, generous streak about Winston, which one couldn’t help liking”. The interviewer interjected, “you loved him really”, to which Eden replied, “I did, I did. I had a very great affection for him.” It was a sentiment Churchill would have shared.
David Charlwood obtained a First Class Honours Degree in history from Royal Holloway, University of London and has been a contributing historian for the BBC and Channel 4 television. He is the author of Churchill and Eden: Partners Through War and Peace, published by Pen & Sword.