Churchill and Eden: their struggle

Forget the great statesman's reputation as an unassailable colossus: cabinet diaries published today reveal his final months were a time of fierce rivalry

One had enjoyed two terms of power and was the most successful politician of his generation.

The other was his increasingly impatient successor, desperate to wrestle free the levers of power. Both men were entangled in a bitter war of words over a stalling resignation.

The year was not 2007, when Tony Blair finally ceded power to Gordon Brown, but 1954, when a series of incendiary rows between Winston Churchill and his increasingly impatient successor, Anthony Eden, were raging in Westminster, proving that in politics, at least, some things never change.

The fascinating insights into Churchill's final months in office, are found in top secret cabinet diaries, which are published for the first time today, proves that in politics, at least, some things never change.

In striking echoes of the Blair-Brown era, the handwritten entries document a series of arguments between the two men, including suggestions that Churchill would renege on a promise to resign.

The notes, written between 1954 and 1955, also provide a unique snapshot of Britain in the Fifties, as well as the issues which dominated the day, from nuclear war to paving over London's Royal Parks and turning them into car parks.

The notes kept by the cabinet secretary during the last months of Churchill's second stint as prime minister between 1951 and 1955 reveal an apparent power struggle between the wartime leader and Eden, the foreign secretary, who eventually took over in Downing Street. The highly confidential record kept of cabinet discussions by Sir Norman Brook, which is being published by the National Archives in Kew, west London, after more than five decades of secrecy also offers a valuable insight into the preoccupations of the men in charge of post-war Britain.

Among the topics that senior ministers in Churchill's Conservative government discussed were whether the BBC should be allowed to broadcast television programmes on Sunday afternoons, and a bizarre claim from the exiting prime minister that Israel was willing to swap independence for inclusion in the British Commonwealth. The 220-page notebook, which contains Sir Norman's abbreviated notes of nearly all discussions in Cabinet, covers the period between the end of November 1954 and April 1955 when Churchill, who was 80, was in fading health after suffering a stroke and heading towards retirement.

But in a precursor of the strains that defined the relationship between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, the document reveals the fractious relationship between Churchill and Eden, who had been foreign secretary during the Second World War and whose subsequent premiership was dominated by the humiliation of the Suez Crisis.

The notebook reveals that Churchill had already discussed his "plans" to step down in April 1955 with Eden, who was once more acting as foreign secretary. But, in an episode that seems to mirror the more recent battles between Mr Blair and Mr Brown, the pair entered into a sharp exchange in March when it seemed the departure would be delayed.

The post-war Cabinet was, in March 1955, discussing the forthcoming visit of the US President, Dwight Eisenhower, to ratify an important treaty. Mr Churchill wanted to get the treaty signed before he left office and end his term on a high point. But as it began to look like President Eisenhower's visit would be later than expected, Eden became increasingly frustrated.

Many of the pair's Cabinet colleagues did not know of their secret handover deal, so it must have caused some consternation when Eden blurted out: "Are the prime minister's plans off, if [Eisenhower] is likely to come to Europe later in summer?"

Churchill replied: "A new situation. I should have to consider my public duty." Eden's response was a frosty hint that Churchill should depart Downing Street sooner rather than later. He said: "If I am not competent to meet Eisenhower then that would rule for all time."

The two men also clashed over proposals that the newspaper barons of the era, including Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, should be allowed to bid for the running of the new ITV independent television service, which began broadcasting in September 1955. Churchill, describing The News of the World as a "sober, steady organ", suggested support for the idea, saying: "Tories have a preponderance of Press and are used to that. They won't mind if the same is true in TV." Eden insisted such an idea was unthinkable. He told Churchill: "I am vehemently opposed to the idea that [the] Press should control independent TV. Don't care which newspapers, don't want them at all."

Even in the Fifties the BBC was attracting the ire of the Government. The notes show it coming under fire for proposing a programme on the hydrogen bomb. Ministers insisted that it was the Government's job, not the corporation's, to inform the public on this issue.

A further reference sees Churchill questioning the intended broadcast of a documentary on the torture of British prisoners at the hands of foreign captors. He commented: "Why should this be put out now – to inspire hatred. Better forgotten."

Anthony Head, who was the War Secretary at the time, goes on to suggest "discouraging" the broadcast on "security grounds".

Sir Norman witnessed some of the more unlikely issues to divide a British cabinet, including the issue of whether to introduce parking meters in London to try to reduce congestion in the capital. Ministers were concerned that 60 per cent of those parking in London were commuters whose cars remained all day in the capital. Meters were raised by the Transport Minister, John Boyd-Carpenter, as a means of resolving the problem by restricting parking to four hours. But the Marquis of Salisbury, who held the Cabinet rank of Lord President of the Council, swatted aside the suggestion. He said: "In the US this is a money-making proposition, not a remedy for congestion. Isn't this the aim here too – to raise money for garages? Why not allow free parking for two hours and thereafter prosecute for obstruction. Why not use Royal Parks for parking?"

The notebook reveals that although the Cabinet paled at converting Hyde Park or the Mall as open air car parks, there was consensus that a "large-scale experiment" involving parking meters and "spaces" including the other Royal Parks should be pursued.

In more weighty discussions, attitudes and tensions surrounding nuclear weapons and their use were detailed during an exchange between Eden and Churchill in December 1954.

Speaking about the Nato countries, Churchill commented: "The use of nuclear weapons is the only available protection to those smaller powers. We ought not to declare our preference for fighting only with weapons that will ensure our defeat."

Eden responded: "I agree that the threat of immediate use of nuclear weapons is the best deterrent. But is European opinion ready ... to face the fact that there will never be a war in Europe without nuclear weapons?"

There are also notes of the first steps towards nuclear power stations as it is agreed coal will not meet increasing demands for energy. It is stated that "atomic energy for civil use" would be feasible within 10 years at a cost of £300m. Early concerns over immigration also reared its head in the notes with discussion over legislating against people coming into the country who could not support themselves. Even though it is admitted there is "no hope" of getting majority support in the House of Commons, one cabinet member commented that it "creates social problems for which there is no solution".

Eden adds: "I don't think we can ignore this problem."

The mores of the era were shown by a proposal to allow the BBC to broadcast television programmes between 3pm and 4pm on Sundays, despite "objections likely to be raised by Sunday schools etc". The Health Minister, Harry Crookshank, opposed the plan saying it "would cause trouble". But support was offered by the Marquis of Salisbury, who said: "Hard to deny it to adults. Suggest we agree with this in principle but be ready to re-consider if churches do raise very strong objections."

An indication is also given of Churchill's continuing belief in the attractions of the vestiges of the British Empire. During a discussion about the future of Israel, he said: "James De Rothschild [head of the banking dynasty] has told me that Israel is likely to abandon dreams of independence and adhere instead to [the] British Commonwealth. [The Israeli] ambassador in London has confirmed this. Would be a remarkable initiative from them. It should not be disregarded when the time comes."

Shortly afterwards on 5 April 1955, Sir Norman recorded Churchill's announcement to the Cabinet that he was resigning. Churchill said: "Have decided to resign, audience (with the Queen) this pm at 4.30. Will be announced by BBC at 6pm."

Despite previous conflict between the two men, Eden set aside their differences saying: "Colleagues asked me to speak for them all. Would be embarrassing for all to speak. Sense abiding affection and esteem and pride and privilege at being your colleague. Example you have shown us – if we do less well it is because we have failed to learn." He praises Churchill's courage, humour and leadership. During the exchange Churchill wished his colleagues "luck in the difficult but hopeful situation they face".

In a rare intrusion from the note-taker the record ends with the line: "This, alas, was the end of the Churchill Era."

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