Eden (1897-1977) was a clever though neurotic scion of the landed aristocracy, who after an excellent record in World War I achieved a first-class degree in Persian from Christ Church, Oxford. He then went immediately into Parliament, specializing in foreign policy, and became Foreign Secretary at 38 in 1935. In that position, he followed the government’s appeasement line against Hitler, but was highly belligerent against Mussolini, whom he appeared to regard as a greater menace. Nevertheless, by resigning the Foreign Office in February 1938 over Chamberlain’s policy towards Mussolini he gained a reputation as an anti-appeaser in general, which served him well when war broke out and Churchill came to office.
Eden was Churchill’s effective deputy within the Conservative party from December 1940, when Halifax was despatched to the Washington Embassy and he returned to the Foreign Office. As Churchill’s deputy for the next 14 years and Foreign Secretary for eight of them, he was an effective diplomat, but overruled by Churchill on important questions. Ideologically on the left of the party, he was regarded as Churchill’s inevitable successor, becoming agitated as his moment of succession was delayed. His health and temperament were both questionable; a botched bile duct operation in 1953 left him weakened, while he was over-sensitive to criticism and prone to outbursts of rage.
As Prime Minister, Eden won the 1955 election comfortably, but then did little to solve Britain’s severe economic problems and embroiled the nation in the Suez crisis – like several of his successors in Britain and their counterparts in the United States, he took the Middle East too seriously. He should probably not have got involved (certainly not via a phony Israeli invasion) and should certainly not have pulled out prematurely – but that was mostly Macmillan’s fault.
While highly intelligent and hard-working, Eden completely lacked the temperament for the top job; he should rank the bottom of the list.