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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.