Reviewed: Edwardian Requiem - a Life of Sir Edward Grey by Michael Waterhouse

Fatal levity.

Edwardian Requiem: a Life of Sir Edward Grey
Michael Waterhouse
Biteback, 448pp, £25

Because Sir Edward Grey was such a nice man, historians have followed his contemporaries in excusing the reality that he was such a disastrous minister: arguably the most incompetent foreign secretary of all time for his responsibility in taking Britain into the First World War, having failed in July 1914 to do all within his power to stop the conflagration.

Grey was not solely to blame. The then prime minister, Herbert Asquith, delegated foreign policy and barely engaged in the escalating crisis until its final days. We cannot know what would have happened had British policy been more effective. Probably it was within the power of Asquith and Grey to have kept Britain out of the war. Possibly they could have prevented it entirely, dissuading Germany from supporting Austria in the chain reaction that led from Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo on 28 June to the German invasion of Belgium on 4 August.

However, since virtually any alternative would have been better than what followed from the calamity of July and August 1914 – namely, a European Thirty Years’ War, complete with communism, fascism, genocide, the Holocaust, slavery and the partition and subjugation of eastern Europe for a further half century – they deserve little benefit of the doubt.

Our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations, who suffered so much, had to believe that the mass slaughter of Ypres, the Somme and the Dardanelles was not in vain and that German militarism made world war unavoidable. It was too painful to believe otherwise. Grey’s aristocratic integrity and universal pleasantness were therefore sufficient proof of his high capacity and intentions.

Alas, Michael Waterhouse simply rubberstamps this conventional wisdom. His biography is a good portrait of Grey the man – his fishing and love of the countryside, his conservative liberalism, his affairs and family – but it barely analyses his conduct of foreign policy. Waterhouse’s only judgement on Grey the foreign secretary from 1905 until 1916 is this sentence: “During the decade before the outbreak of war he prepared his country for what many saw as the inevitable conflict and, although exhausted and half blind, he was the only European statesman who fought hard for peace during the July crisis.”

If he was exhausted and half blind, should he have been in the job? And why does Waterhouse not criticise Grey’s profound ignorance of “abroad”? Grey took more than eight years as foreign secretary to make his first overseas visit and he didn’t even want to make that one (George V’s state visit to Paris in April 1914). He never visited Germany.

In the July crisis, he may have desired peace, yet his policy produced the opposite result. So how far was he to blame? Waterhouse does not address this question, beyond noting that Grey’s stark irresolution throughout July 1914 on the basic issue of whether or not Britain would support France in resisting a German invasion – which had the fatal effect of encouraging both German and Austrian militarism and French and Russian resistance – was partly because of a “split cabinet”. However, the point is that Grey did not seek to lead the cabinet because he was weak and irresolute. Only on the eve of the German invasion did Grey come off the fence and seek a cabinet pledge to uphold the security of Belgium and France. Yet at that point, the best policy for Britain – and ultimately for Europe – was probably to keep out of the war and secure the Channel, as it had done in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.

The most informative commentary on July 1914 is in Asquith’s letters to his 27-yearold lover Venetia Stanley. As late as 24 July, at the end of a letter mostly about the Ulster crisis, Asquith simply notes: “Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators [in any European conflict].”

Four days later, he was still writing in this distant vein, even drawing comfort from the prospect that the European situation might have the effect “of throwing into the background the lurid pictures of civil war in Ulster”. On 29 July, Asquith concluded a meeting of the cabinet with the decision that, on the critical issue of any German violation of Belgian neutrality, “Sir E Grey should be authorised to inform the German and French ambassadors that at this stage we were unable to pledge ourselves in advance, either under all conditions to stand aside or on any conditions to join in.” This one sentence contains the most damning indictment of Asquith’s and Grey’s leadership and policy. It is evident that Asquith did not appreciate the magnitude of the European crisis until 1 August, three days before the German invasion of Belgium. Until the day before, he had been planning to attend a weekend house party with Stanley in Anglesey. Grey was also at his country house for weekends in July.

A miscalculation of British intentions on the part of the other European powers was critical to the outbreak of war. This happened for a simple reason: Britain’s intentions were unclear. The responsibility for this lay above all with Grey. And Grey was equally critical to the decision to join the war, which was only taken in the last 48 hours before the German invasion of Belgium.

The First World War eviscerated Europe for a generation and more. As the armies marched, Grey remarked that the lamps were going out all over Europe. Asquith wrote to Stanley deploring the cheering crowds outside Buckingham Palace. “How one loathes such levity,” he added. There was indeed nothing to cheer but it was a month of political and diplomatic levity by Grey and As - quith that had led to the war and Britain’s fateful participation.

Andrew Adonis’s next book, “Five Days in May: the Coalition and Beyond”, is published by Biteback on 6 May (£12.99)

Edward Grey (left) on his way to the House of Commons in 1912. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”