London, Biteback Publishing, 2013, ISBN: 9781849544436; 448pp.; Price: £25.00
University of London
Date accessed: 2 December, 2023
Sir Edward Grey’s 11-year tenure as foreign secretary between 1905 and 1916 remains the longest continuous period that anyone has held the post. For much of that time he commanded near universal respect across the political spectrum. While the Edwardian era saw bitter conflict between the two major parties, Grey consciously tried to pursue a bipartisan foreign policy that removed diplomacy from party conflict. For Conservatives he was the one saving grace of a hated Liberal administration, which they saw as destroying the constitution and pursuing welfare and taxation policies that virtually amounted to socialism. On his appointment, the strongly Unionist Times wrote ‘Sir Edward Grey will go to the Foreign Office, a post which there is no other man on the Liberal side to fill in a manner at all satisfactory’. (1) Grey’s prestige was not based on any great academic or intellectual gifts He rarely travelled abroad and was reputed to speak poor French – then the main language of international diplomacy. The source of his reputation was character and judgement, created in large part by his apparent lack of personal ambition and the fact that he appeared primarily motivated by notions of service and duty.
Paradoxically, his more severe critics were on his own side – anti-militarist Liberals who wanted him to pursue a distinctively Liberal, one might say ‘ethical’, foreign policy. They deplored what they saw as his secretiveness, his anti-German attitudes and his policy of preserving the balance of power in Europe through ententes with France and the hated autocracy of Tsarist Russia rather than pursuing the high-minded Gladstonian ideal of the Concert of Europe. Yet even his Liberal critics had a grudging respect for his integrity. One of them, the radical journalist A.G. Gardiner, wrote:
Whether in office or out of office, whether to friend or foe, Sir Edward Grey is intrinsically the weightiest speaker of his time. When he sits down in the House of Commons, it is as though discussion has ceased ... He does not argue; he delivers a judgment. There is no appeal, and no one asks for an appeal. (2)
Grey believed that politicians are either over-praised or over-criticised. If the former was the case for much of his career, the fact that he was in office when war broke out in Europe in August 1914 means that his diplomacy has inevitably been submitted to a closer and harsher scrutiny than that of other foreign secretaries. Lloyd George attacked him in his War Memoirs for not having made clearer to the European Powers during the July crisis that in the event of war Britain would intervene on the side of France. (This was disingenuous, since in 1914 Lloyd George was among the cabinet’s leading waverers on whether to enter the war.) Much criticism came from the pacifist left, particularly in the wake of the Versailles Peace Agreement’s supposedly punitive attitude towards Germany. More recently, Grey’s diplomacy has been attacked by historians of a right-of-centre disposition such as Niall Ferguson and John Charmley on the basis that entry into the First World War was the trigger for Britain’s decline as a major power.
Once war had broken out, Grey was, if not quite a broken man, then a diminished figure. Uninterested in the details of military strategy and the organisation of the war effort, he more than once had to be persuaded not to resign and welcomed the departure from office that came with the fall of the Asquith coalition in December 1916. Although still only 54, virtually the same age as the incoming prime minister, Lloyd George, his political career was effectively over. He suffered increasingly from blindness and no longer had much appetite for politics. Following the war, a plan organised by some Liberals and moderate Conservatives for him to lead a new centre party foundered on his lack of enthusiasm. He was a lacklustre leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords after the war, and although he had been a supporter of the pre-war Liberal government’s welfare reforms, he ended up in the 1920s as a member of the Liberal Council, a backward-looking group of senior Liberals who opposed Lloyd George’s attempts to breathe new life into the party through radical policies influenced by John Maynard Keynes.
It is perhaps surprising that Grey has not received more attention from biographers. The most recent study, by Keith Robbins, remains a valuable work, but it was published more than 40 years ago. So there is certainly room for a re-evaluation of Grey’s career in the light of new sources and recent historiography. But Mr Waterhouse’s book is a big disappointment. It does not appear to be based on archival research, although one cannot quite be sure as there are no footnotes. The select bibliography at the end of the book includes a preponderance of older and general works, with important recent books on both pre-First World War diplomacy and Liberal politics conspicuous by their absence. There is no evidence of familiarity with the literature in specialist journals. As a result key questions about Grey’s diplomacy are ignored or glossed over. There is no real assessment of whether any alternative foreign policy might have prevented war. There is no mention of the controversial ‘misunderstanding’ of 1 August 1914, in which Grey appeared to offer British neutrality in exchange for Germany and France agreeing not to attack each other in the event of war. Also absent is any reference to Keith Wilson’s argument for the primacy of domestic politics in explaining Britain’s decision for war.
Indeed, on the outbreak of war, as on other key elements of Grey’s political career, the book offers no more than a pedestrian summary, with little attempt at analysis and no real advance on previous accounts. This might not matter so much if the book was well-written, reliable and accurate, but this is not the case. It is so riddled with factual inaccuracies that these become more than a minor irritation. To cite just a few examples: Hartington and Goschen did not leave the government in 1886 – they were not members of it to start with; Nonconformists did not oppose the 1902 Education Act because it threatened their own voluntary schools, but because it gave favourable treatment to Church of England schools; Haldane was elected to the House of Commons a year earlier than Asquith, not a year later; Harry Cust was a Unionist not a Liberal MP; Gladstone did not resign as prime minister in 1894 due to the rejection of home rule but over cabinet support for a rise in the naval estimates; Sir William Harcourt’s ‘Death Duties’ budget was in 1894 not 1895; Campbell-Bannerman became leader of the Liberal party in 1899 not 1898 and first entered the cabinet in 1885 not 1886; Grey did not receive a parliamentary income in 1902 – MPs were not paid until 1911.
These might be dismissed as trivialities, but they are so frequent as to call into question the book’s overall reliability. They are compounded by infelicities which while not quite factually wrong display a lack of grasp of the politics of the period. So Grey was never an ‘ardent’ supporter of Irish home rule as the author claims, but at best a reluctant one. His support for an elected House of Lords was not a sign of radicalism: in the context of pre-war Liberal politics, moderate Liberals like Grey favoured a strong but reformed second chamber, radicals were more concerned to limit the Lords’ powers. It is not really correct to say Grey supported the Concert of Europe ‘religiously throughout his career, climaxing in the July crisis of 1914’. Surely the events of 1914 show that Grey put Britain’s obligations to France and Russia ahead of a European Concert. I could go on, but it is kinder to leave it there. Overall, the book offers little that is new on Grey’s political life, and does not even provide a reliable summary of existing knowledge.
One area where Waterhouse tries to break new ground is in Grey’s private life (largely ignored by previous biographers), but there are serious problems here too. He devotes much space to suggesting that Grey fathered a number of illegitimate children by various different women. But there is a distinct lack of documentary or other compelling evidence to back this up, beyond second-hand gossip among those claiming to be Grey’s unacknowledged descendents. Yet while admitting that these claims are variously ‘tenuous’, ‘family legend’ and ‘hardly irrefutable’, the author proceeds to draw conclusions about Grey’s character and emotions as if each case was established fact. We are told that these supposed illicit affairs and offspring demonstrate Grey’s ‘ruthlessness’; that he ‘must have lived with a great sense of guilt’; that he ‘must have been aware of the cruel irony’ of having illegitimate children but no legitimate heir; that he ‘justified [an affair] on the grounds of his wife’s reluctance to have sex’; that he ‘did his best to do right by his love children’. Even here there are more howlers: the author writes that a child born in 1890 is ‘the youngest of several Grey love children’ and later introduces us to another of his supposed offspring who was born 21 years later.
Certainly, there are questions and mysteries about Grey’s private life. It seems clear that he did not have a sexual relationship with his first wife and he acknowledged having a ‘delightful & intimate friendship’ with his second wife Pamela Tennant (Lady Glenconner) during her unhappy first marriage, with the apparent knowledge of her husband who remained his close friend. It seems unlikely that the relationship between Grey and Pamela was entirely chaste until their wedding night, but there is no clear evidence to warrant Michael Waterhouse’s assertion they were lovers for 30 years. One is left with a sense of the author being too keen to spice up the book with juicy stories to question their veracity. Lloyd George, who is rightly considered an unreliable witness on Grey’s foreign policy, becomes an unimpeachable source on his private life. Mr Waterhouse speculates that Grey’s private papers were destroyed after his death to prevent exposure of his various sexual transgressions. But we don’t know what motivated their destruction: Grey’s tendency towards political secretiveness is at least as plausible an explanation. It is not my brief here to defend Grey’s honour. Maybe these stories suggest there is no smoke without fire. But equally they may merely indicate that some people see a certain cachet in claiming to be descended from a famous statesman. Since we don’t know either way, they are not a sound basis on which to analyse Grey’s personal ethics nor the state of his conscience.
The only really successful aspect of the book is in the author’s discussion of Grey’s passion for country pursuits – particularly fly-fishing and birdwatching. This is clearly where his real interest in Grey lies and he dwells at length on them, too much so really for any reader who is primarily interested in this book as a work of political biography. Mr Waterhouse has previously edited editions of Grey’s The Charm of Birds and of his country diary, The Cottage Book. Here he writes with knowledge and authority that reflect a common bond between biographer and subject. He might have done better to write a shorter monograph on Grey as a countryman rather than attempt a full biography, and in that sense this book is an opportunity missed.
- The Times, 9 December 1905.Back to (1)
- A. G. Gardiner, Prophets, Priests and Kings (London, 1908), p. 88.Back to (1)