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GREAT BRITAIN: Over to Anthony

5 minute read

All of Britain seemed to accept the news as the day grew near. What no one said officially, all seemed unofficially agreed upon: barring some unforeseen change, one day this week 80-year-old Sir Winston Churchill will proffer his resignation to his young Queen. Thus, after 52 years in the House of Commons, 28 years a Minister, Sir Winston will take leave of the post to which he has added such luster. In his place his faithful lieutenant, Sir Anthony Eden, will be summoned to kiss the Queen’s hands.

A strike of electricians had closed down London’s dailies on the eve of the biggest British story of the year. Deprived of their newspapers, Britons became rumor-happy, seizing at stories such as one that had Churchill saying, as an excuse for staying on: “Surely Anthony could not take over without a headline?”

In this strange twilight of acceptance and uncertainty, the emotional impact of Churchill’s leaving was yet to be felt. Until the word was official and irrevocable, the nation held back its full measure of tribute for the man who was by common consent the greatest Englishman of the 20th century. But there was no one unmindful of the unrolling calendar of events:

April 4: The Queen and Philip take dinner at 10 Downing Street with the Churchills, a rare royal gesture.

April 5: Churchill visits the Queen.

April 12: Sir Winston leaves by commercial airline for a two-week vacation in Sicily, and will be away during the presentation of the British budget on April 19, one of the classic “occasions” in the House of Commons.

His Bounden Duty. M.P.s bombarded Churchill with searching questions in the House. “The future is veiled in obscurity,” he replied to Laborite Willie Warbey. “I should not like to plunge too deeply into it this afternoon.” His conduct implied, however, that Sir Winston at last had accepted the view that it is his bounden duty, to his country and his party, to let the younger man take over. Asked if he would urge a conference on Formosa, he deferred to his successor: “I doubt if anyone in the whole world has worked as hard as the Foreign Secretary to steer this matter out of the danger area.”

Another day, when he moved a motion for a public monument to his old Liberal friend, World War I Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Churchill spoke with such feeling that the House had the impression that he was applying the valediction to himself. “Pity and compassion lent [him] their powerful wings. He knew the terror with which old age threatened the toiler . . . He stood, when at his zenith, without a rival.”

Only once during the week did the old man speak of the future as though he might still share it. Warmed by the news that Washington, as well as London and Paris, in principle favors Big-Power talks, he revived his favorite proposal for “a top-level meeting, without agenda . . . [with] the agreements of heads of governments recorded in broad and simple terms.” But Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden publicly overruled Churchill on the subject. Asked if Big-Power talks would be held at the highest level, Eden said flatly, “No, sir.” He and the Foreign Office, like President Eisenhower and the U.S. State Department, favor talks among the ambassadors first, then at the Foreign Ministers’ level “and possibly at other levels also, if all goes well.”

Man of Authority. M.P.s were quick to detect a new note of calm authority in Sir Anthony’s voice. The same tone came through, even more conspicuously, at a Tory fund-raising rally held in the coal-mining town of Newcastle (pop. 290,000). The Tories were riding high as the results of local elections came pouring in from London and the neighboring counties. The vote for the London County Council, which Labor has dominated since 1934, cut back the Socialist majority from 55 to 22. Sensing a swing to the right, the result of Britain’s prosperity and the quarrels within the Labor Party, Newcastle’s Tories were confident that a British general election lay just around the corner, possibly at the end of May. They greeted Sir Anthony as if the campaign had already begun.

Eden and his smartly dressed wife Clarissa took their seats on a festooned platform. Three thousand Tory voices were raised in the booming hymn Land of Hope and Glory. Facing the Edens was a bank of red carnations spelling the initials A.E.; all around were campaign banners proclaiming a desperate search for any quotable clichés that Eden had ever uttered: “A nationwide property-owning democracy”; “Open covenants secretly arrived at.”

In a speech that was in effect a review of his accomplishments as Foreign Secretary, Eden’s manner showed all the assurance and authority of a man who makes the final decisions on British policy, and who had no ban-the-H-bomb nonsense in him. “The leaders of the Soviet Union,” Eden said, “believe themselves destined to hasten the collapse of our free civilization . . . But it may well be that even the [H] bomb can help to keep peace. I want you to think this over carefully. Is it not a deterrent?”

When Eden sat down, the Tories started singing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, “and so say all of us.” The cheers had in them the warmth of anticipation.

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