Apologies for the lack of posts for the last few days but I have been engrossed in, and entranced by, a book. One of my favourite periods of history is the Edwardian era and the run-up to WWI. It's far enough away to be properly historical but close enough for me to feel the resonances. In Britain it was an age of Big Men taking Big Decisions, and yet one of the biggest of them all is rarely mentioned except in passing. It is indicative that the ambiguous Asquith, the mercurial Lloyd George and the rumbustious Churchill have been more than well-served by biographers over the last 100 years, but when it comes to Sir Edward Grey, the man in charge of our foreign policy for eleven years starting in 1905, he has only two, the last written in 1971(*). Reading the latest one can see why. Grey, in comparison to the flamboyant characters around him, lives up to, or perhaps, down to, his name. A man of both public and private rectitude who abhorred publicity and only entered, and remained in, politics from a stern sense of duty. One is tempted to typecast him as the very model of an English country gentleman. He was from sound Northumberland stock, politically Whiggish, which took him into the Liberal party under Gladstone. Apart from an intense affection for Wordsworth, his only real love was the Northumberland countryside and the birds and fish that inhabited it. In this biography there is a particularly charming picture of him in old age, dressed in thick tweeds and country hat - with a robin perched on his head! He hated the Victorian revolution that had scoured his beloved England but recognised the reality and the inevitability of it and worked as hard as he could to alleviate the conditions of the people who worked in it.
His appointment as Foreign Secretary came despite himself rather than because of any obvious qualifications. For a start, Grey hardly ever traveled. For him there was nothing better than his family house at Fallodon in Northumberland, and his beloved birds, his breeding ducks and his fishing. As his biographer, Keith Robbins, puts it: Sharing neither the Teutonic proclivities of Haldane nor the Gallic delights of Campbell-Bannerman, he could judge the policies of continental powers unclouded by personal ties. Of course, his critics, then and now, used his insularity as a weapon against him, accusing him of naivety, or ignorance, or both. Oddly, the post-war German historians refused to swallow the line that Grey was just a simple country gentleman and assumed that he was an arch-Machiavel. Later German historians, at last acknowledging the truth that their brutal and stupid Prussian leadership were the main cause of WWI, have now placed Grey on a plinth as the very model of international political correctness. The answer, of course, lies somewhere in the middle.
In reading anything concerned with the lead-up to August 1914 it is essential that one constantly reminds oneself that whilst we, with the benefit of hindsight, know that war was coming, none of the participants did at the time. It is true that some of them at different times came to the conclusion that it was more rather than less likely - but none of them knew for certain. When Grey took over at the Foreign Office in 1905 he was laying down the foreign policy for the British empire, an empire so huge that the sun never set on it ... and yet, and yet ... to read his biography is to realise that already it was creaking at the joints and that its strength was waning and that faced with a plethora of threats from a variety of sources it was not possible always to act alone or even to act at all. Indeed, given that it might be deemed advantageous to severely biff country 'A', it had to be borne in mind that that would alarm country 'B' upon whom one was relying for support in dealing with country 'C', and so on, and on, and on. The saying is that 'to rule is to choose' and nowhere is this more difficult to do than in the foreign office of a global power - as today our American cousins are being reminded - yet again. Grey picked his way through this maze of equal and opposite forces never once losing sight of the main threat - Prussian-led Germany. In this he stands well ahead of Churchill and Lloyd George, both of whom fought against the huge increase in naval estimates required to keep Britain ahead of Tirpitz's new fleet, until late in the day they too saw the light in the tunnel and realised it was an oncoming, out-of-control, Prussian express train!
Regular readers will know of my tendency towards hero-worship. I try to keep it under control but I don't always succeed. I have never attempted it in the case of Sir Edward Grey, and now that I have read this superb biography, I see absolutely no need for it. In my opinion, Grey was a very great Englishman, a superb Foreign Secretary, an honorable politician and a true gentleman. It is indicative of his modesty that despite his years on the stage of international affairs there is only one of his utterances that has gone down in history. In August 1914, he looked out at the gas lights being turned down in the street outside his Foreign Office window and remarked with mordant but poetic accuracy: The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in ourlifetime. Indeed, we had to wait until 1945 for that to happen.
(*) Sir Edward Grey: A Biography of Lord Grey of Fallodon by Keith Robbins, Cassell, 1971