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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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.