23 November 2021

Clarissa Eden and the passing of the second Elizabethan age

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For most people in modern Britain, the closest we get to a controversial going on in a drawing room is through Downton Abbey or an upmarket Poriot. But the late Clarissa Eden, Countess of Avon, centenarian, and wife of Anthony Eden, once had something far more shocking than Maggie Smith or a couple of corpses in hers. She memorably claimed in 1956 that she ‘felt sometimes that the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room’ during her husband’s infamous Egyptian imbroglio. As well as ruining the carpets of the Number 10 flat, Suez has been remembered as the passing of an age. 

Alongside being knocked out of the Euros by Iceland in 2016 and Ed Sheeran’s continuing music career, Suez is one of this country’s greatest post-war humiliations. The opprobrium triggered by our forced withdrawal (and which saw the countess’ husband edged out of office) is said to have marked the end to our imperial pretensions. Egalitarian social democracy triumphed over the ghost of Victorian colonialism. The passing of the late Countess aged 101 provides a welcome opportunity to dissect this traditional account of the Second Elizabethan Age. 

The only daughter of Winston’s Churchill younger brother, she went to Paris at 16 to become a painter and entered the highest of high societies. Swanning about Montmartre in a green Rolls-Royce easily transitioned into studying philosophy at Oxford. As clever as she was beautiful, she was a hit with figures as diverse as Isaiah Berlin, Lucian Freud, and Evelyn Waugh. The latter fancied marrying her, and was rather put out when he was eventually pipped by the Foreign Secretary and future Prime Minister. 

Anthony Eden may be best known today for coming a cropper with a canal, but he was a statesman of a quality we sorely lack today (as well as being popular with women of a certain age). He was an anti-appeaser who had played a central part in international politics into and through the Second World War and commanded the highest share of the vote of any post-war government at the 1955 general election. Plus, he had a cracking moustache and holidayed with Ian Fleming. All in all, the perfect companion to his glamorous wife. To think that someone who grew up in such a milieu was still with us until last week is truly remarkable. 

When she was born, David Lloyd George was still Prime Minister, women and working-class men had only just gained the vote, and the memory of the First World War stalked Europe as viciously as the influezna pandemic that proved even more deadly. The changes over the ensuing century are now the stuff of endless popular histories – hi Andrew Marr! The narrative is of the triumph of democracy over people like Clarissa – of a People’s War, the welfare state, rights for minority groups, and Beatlemania. 

It’s a narrative with which I have a natural sympathy. My own late great-grandmother was born 6 years earlier than the countess. No famous uncle for her – she was born into poverty in Newcastle. She grew up through the Great War and the Great Depression, endured the Blitz and welcomed the welfare state. Her teenage years were spent not in Paris painting, but scrubbing doorsteps on the Tyne. Though she died before I made it to university, her children and grandchildren became the first in their family to attend secondary school, own their own homes, and even go to Cambridge and Oxford. 

But whilst one can applaud the many social advancements that the last century has brought for the bulk of Britain’s population, one can still regret the passing of the world from which Eden stemmed. As we enter the dusk of the Second Elizabethan Age, it is time we take an axe to the Whiggish tale of victory for the masses against the classes and reclaim the Suez Crisis from those who would still use it to tell a depressing tale of Britain’s decline as a world power.

For people like Philip Stephens, a columnist at The Financial Times – whose Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit released earlier this year rehashes all the familiar myths of Britain’s waning influence in the post-war world Suez becomes a tool with which to bash today’s Brexiteers. According to Stephens and his ilk, 1956 proved what was the case since the end of the Second World War – Britain is a soggy, powerless, irrelevant little island that should not develop ideas above its station. Instead, it should content itself as a larger Denmark on the fringe of the Brussels imperium. 

One need only take a quick look at the modern Middle East to think Britain’s absence from it might not have been wholly to the benefit of its resident populations. History would have been very different had the Americans stopped the French and us from toppling Nasser. As Andrew Roberts pointed out in 2006, ‘over hasty decolonisation, which brought vicious civil wars and dictatorships to much of Africa over the next three decades’, might have been avoided. 

Moreover, as Paul Collier highlighted in The Bottom Billion, it is absence of governmental stability that has hampered the growth of countries across the developing world. A perilous cycle of authoritarianism, perpetual conflict, and horrifying fundamentalism seems no improvement on British imperial rule, whatever its inequities. The misgovernment and humanitarian crises that have prompted calls for Western intervention everywhere from Iraq to Sierra Leone in recent decades are of a piece with the underlying logic of the Suez expedition. They are also part of a long tradition that includes Gladstone’s original occupation of Eqypt in 1882. Rather than represent the end to imperial pretensions, Suez was another chapter in an ongoing story of European entanglement in Africa and the Middle East. 

Nevertheless, Suez did mark a significant change for more than just the career of Clarissa Eden’s beloved. It precisely marked the point at which this country turned in on itself: the point at which foreign policy became fully a sideshow to running the economy just hot enough to continue shovelling ever-more cash into the NHS’ gaping maw. It’s the point at which Britain’s role in the world became producing Beatles records and military action; the point when Foreign Office busy bodies, stripped of their colonial role, turned with eager eyes to the emerging Common Market. The irony was that Suez was a success militarily, but a narrative of humiliation was far more useful for those with agendas facing elsewhere. 

Hence why it has become such a turning point in traditional narratives of post-war Britain. With Britain’s remaining imperialists chastened, historians of a certain mindset can happily turn their attention to domestic politics, social change, and lamenting the rise of Margaret Thatcher. But it’s not hard to poke holes in a narrative that uncritically celebrates the NHS, the managed economy, the rise of Celtic nationalism, and other typical touchpoints. Central planning hampered our post-war recovery; the NHS fails at keeping people alive; devolution has been a disaster for the government of our four nations. Hardly an unalloyed triumph. 

Those are all topics handled with much more skill by better writers elsewhere, so I’ll sign off by returning to where we first began. The sad passing of the late Countess of Eden shows the waning of the Second Elizabethan Age. It is an epoch that has undoubtedly seen remarkable changes, and one that we think we know all too well. But as memory drifts into history, it is the challenge of those from my coming generation to challenge those shibboleths, upend expectations, and generally make a nuisance of ourselves. That challenge is only just beginning. But it is one tinged with melancholy if it relies on the loss of figures as marvellous as the late Countess, and the remarkable world from which she came.

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William Atkinson is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.