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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Progressive voters must ditch party differences to gain a voice in Brexit Britain

It's time for politicians and activists to put aside their tribal loyalties.

The status quo has broken. British politics lies shattered into pieces, and even Brexiteers look stunned. We are in a new landscape. Anyone who tells you they have the measure of it is lying; but anyone reaching for old certainties is most likely to be wrong.
 
Through this fog, we can already glimpse some signposts. There will be a leadership election in the Tory Party within three months. While it is still unclear who will win, the smart money is on a champion of Brexit. The Leave camp are in the ascendancy, and have captured the hearts of most Tory members and voters.
 
The next Conservative prime minister will lack a clear mandate from voters, but will need one to successfully negotiate our exit from the EU. They will also see a golden opportunity to capture the working-class Leave vote from Labour – and to forge an even more dominant Conservative electoral coalition. UKIP too would fancy their chances of dismembering Labour in the north; their financier Arron Banks now has almost a million new registered supporters signed up through Leave.EU.
 
In this context, it seems inevitable that there will be another general election within six to twelve months. Could Labour win this election? Split, demoralised and flailing, it has barely begun to renew, and now faces a massive undertow from its heartlands. In this time of crisis, a party divided will find it difficult to prevail – no matter who leads it. And amidst all today’s talk of coups against Corbyn, it is currently tough to envisage a leader who could unite Labour to beat the Brexiteers.  
 
From opposite ends of the political spectrum, I and my Crowdpac co-founder Steve Hilton have been testing the possibilities of new politics for years. In this referendum I supported Another Europe Is Possible’s call to vote In and change Europe. But it is crystal clear that the Leave campaigns learnt many of the lessons of new politics, and are well positioned to apply them in the months and years to come. I expect them to make significant use of our platform for crowdfunding and candidate selection.

Time to build a progressive alliance

On the other side, the best or only prospect for victory in the onrushing general election could be a broad progressive alliance or national unity platform of citizens and parties from the centre to the left. Such an idea has been floated before, and usually founders on the rocks of party tribalism. But the stakes have never been this high, and the Achilles heels of the status quo parties have never been so spotlit.
 
Such an alliance could only succeed if it embraces the lessons of new politics and establishes itself on open principles. A coalition of sore losers from Westminster is unlikely to appeal. But if an open primary was held in every constituency to select the best progressive candidate, that would provide unprecedented democratic legitimacy and channel a wave of bottom-up energy into this new alliance as well as its constituent parties.
 
In England, such an alliance could gather together many of those who have campaigned together for Remain in this referendum and opposed Tory policies, from Labour to Greens and Liberal Democrats. It might even appeal to Conservative voters or politicians who are disenchanted with the Leave movement. In Scotland and Wales too, some form of engagement with the SNP or Plaid Cymru might be possible.
 
An electoral alliance built on open and democratic foundations would provide a new entry point to politics for the millions of young people who voted to stay in the EU and today feel despairing and unheard. Vitally, it could also make a fresh offer to Labour heartland voters, enabling them to elect candidates who are free to speak to their concerns on immigration as well as economic insecurity. I believe it could win a thumping majority.

A one-off renegotiation force

A central goal of this alliance would be to re-negotiate our relationship with Europe on terms which protect our economy, workers’ rights, and the interests of citizens and communities across the country. Work would be needed to forge a common agenda on economic strategy, public services and democratic reform, but that looks more achievable than ever as of today. On more divisive issues like immigration, alliance MPs could be given flexibility to decide their own position, while sticking to some vital common principles.
 
This idea has bubbled to the surface again and again today in conversations with campaigners and politicians of different parties and of none. What’s more, only a new alliance of this kind has any prospect of securing support from the new network movements which I helped to build, and which now have many more members than the parties. So this is no idle thought experiment; and it surely holds out greater hope than another rearranging of the deckchairs in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
 
The alliance would probably not last in this form beyond one parliamentary term. But during that time it could navigate us safely through these turbulent referendum seas, and lay foundations for a better country and a better politics in the coming decades. Food for thought, perhaps.
 
Paul Hilder is co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011. 

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is the Executive Director of Here Now, a movement lab working with partners around the world. He co-founded 38 Degrees and openDemocracy, helped launch Avaaz.org and served as Vice-President of Global Campaigns at Change.org. He has worked on social change in the UK and around the world, including in the political arena and with Oxfam and the Young Foundation.