50 Shades of Sir Edward Grey
This article is from the June 2013 issue of Total Politics
Sir Edward Grey was the antithesis of a modern politician; he was a brilliant yet reluctant statesman who had no concept of the meaning of ‘political career’. He never sought popularity or endeavoured to build up a personal following. Above all, he had a hinterland. He delighted in the beauty of nature and, as a talented fly-fisherman and ornithologist, had a gift for writing “like a dream” about the countryside. If pushed too far, he would resign and retire to his native Northumberland.
People liked Grey. They believed in him and trusted him. It was these characteristics, coupled with an inner steel core, that brought him such success as a politician-statesman. He survived 11 consecutive years in office over one of the most turbulent periods in Britain’s domestic and international history, making him his country’s longest-serving foreign secretary.
As a member of Parliament he had the respect of politicians on all sides, and enjoyed that rare ability to command the floor of the House. These same qualities encouraged trust not only in the insecure chancelleries of Europe but also across the globe, particularly in the United States.
Grey’s foreign policy had continuity, consistency and direction. He believed in widening the field of British friendship but not at the expense of existing friendships. He cemented Lansdowne’s Entente Cordiale with France, signed a new agreement with Russia, extended the Conservatives’ treaty with Japan and laid the foundation of a special relationship with the US. He desired improved relations with Germany, yet years of experience had made him suspicious of their motives. German diplomacy was as crude as it was confused.
Grey’s foreign policy was shrewd. Over a nine-year period he steadied his country for what many saw as an inevitable European conflict. Aside from securing a wide range of international allies, he encouraged Haldane’s army reforms, consistently supported the ‘big-navy’ group and, by initiating military conversations with France, ensured Britain had a sensible strategy at the outbreak of war.
Could Grey have done more to prevent war? Probably not. There were too many political and ideological tectonic plates rubbing against each other. The Alliance system and Germany’s disastrous confederation with Austria, the arms race, insecurity over ‘encirclement’, Prussian militarism, Austro-Russian antagonism and the spark of local nationalism in the Balkans were an explosive mixture. Lloyd George’s subsequent criticism of Grey for not warning the Germans earlier of our likely military support of France is unconvincing. On countless occasions Grey warned German ambassadors that British public opinion would not tolerate an aggressive attack on France by Germany. Haldane had conveyed the same message on his visit to Berlin in 1912, as had the king to members of the German royal family. In any case, in a parliamentary democracy, Grey’s hands were tied. He could not commit his country in advance to any martial aggression.
On taking secretarial office in 1905, Grey could have swept aside the Entente with France a few months after it was signed and sought some form of alliance with Germany, but it would have been an immensely risky step. It would, effectively, have ended several hundred years of allegiance to the balance of power and risked placing British foreign policy on a subservient level to that of Berlin. Germany was a divided and volatile country. The land-owning Prussian Junker class was ranged behind an almost medieval monarchy and at odds with the social democrats emerging from the newly industrialised regions. Austria was determined to shore up her collapsing empire and confront Serbia, thereby provoking Russia, and Germany was hell-bent on pursuing its calamitous error of matching Britain’s naval might.
The foreign secretary’s speech to the House of Commons on 3 August 1914 demonstrated that he was the only man capable of taking a united country into war. Would he have gone down a different path had he known the terrible cost of fighting a defensive war with modern weapons? What if he had resigned and retired to a life of solitude in his beloved Northumberland? The government might have fallen and, with public opinion divided, the British Expeditionary Force might have been held back. Paris would then have fallen and three centuries of dedicated British foreign policy of protecting the independence of the Channel ports would have been expunged at a stroke.