The Foreign Secretaries (1): Sir Edward Grey

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Sir Edward Grey, 1905-16

Liberal (under Asquith; 1915-16 in the Asquith coalition)

Grey was appointed with some reluctance by Henry Campbell-Bannerman, not least because Grey had consistently tried to unseat him as leader: sometimes you have to hug your enemies close. His appointment also broke the convention that the foreign secretary should sit in the Lords (the idea was the foreign secretary should be somewhat above the party political fray).

The Greys were a great north-east dynasty. He was related to the Earl Grey of the Great Reform Act of 1832, and the Newcastle Monument; his grandfather had been home secretary. Liberal, even Whig, politics was in the blood.  Academic achievement was not: he was sent down from Oxford, and returned to gain a third in jurisprudence. Having become an MP, Grey served as number two in the Foreign Office from 1892 until 1895.

Foreign affairs became his political interest, but by no means an abiding passion. He was certainly no traveller: he only once went abroad as foreign secretary, accompanying the king to Paris in early 1914. He very much preferred his native Northumberland to Westminster, and St James’s Park to number 11 (he was a very keen countryman and bird fancier). His was also a life marked by unhappiness and death. He father died when he was 12. He also had a celibate marriage, and his wife (of whom he remained fond) spent her time home in then family estate, Fallodon. He had more than one affair, and probably at least one illegitimate child. When his wife was killed in an accident (thrown from a dogcart), he married his long-standing mistress Pamela Tennant. It was a family of accidents: one of his brothers was killed by a lion, another by a buffalo.

From the outset he was strongly supportive of the Entente Cordiale (the friendship between Britain and France). He became deeply suspicious of Germany, an approach that chimed with a foreign office increasingly wary of German intentions. This view seemed to be confirmed by the first Moroccan Crisis of 1905 and lay behind the Anglo-Russian Entente of 1907. His attitude towards Germany was further hardened buy the second Moroccan Crisis of 1911. As such, he was increasingly inclined to see France as an ally in all but name (though he would never use that term).

He is often criticised for not responding vigorously enough to the July Crisis in 1914: though he did have a divided cabinet on the issue. Probably, he did put too much faith in common sense, however, and on the notion that the great powers (especially Berlin) would ‘recoil from the abyss’. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 had been successfully confined to the region. In the end Grey’s plan for a great power conference was both too little too late, but also doomed because Vienna wanted Serbia dealt with there and then, and Germany felt obligated to support them.

Grey may have made sure that Britain had no treaty obligations to France, but he told the House that ‘obligations of honour and interest’ compelled British intervention. The support of most liberals in 1914 was certainly a political triumph for the government and Grey, much helped by the invasion of Belgium and the support of Lloyd George. He certainly bears a lion’s share of the responsibility for what he (probably rightly) believed to be an unavoidable decision. He did foresee the impact, however: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’, he famously told an unidentified friend, though he claimed that he could not recall saying it. He stayed on under Asquith, though he was increasingly marginalised; he did, however, play a key role in the process of bring the USA over to the allied side (he had long believed in the need to build a close relationship with the United States). Then, when Asquith fell, Grey didn’t want to serve under Lloyd George, nor did Lloyd George want him.

Grey was the longest continuously serving foreign secretary of the century, and undoubtedly one of the most important. If, in Enoch Powell’s famous words, all political careers end in failure, his failure, insofar as it was his failure, might be felt to be more significant than most.

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