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?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.