To have one brother killed by an African animal would be a misfortune. To lose two, at different times, is surely remarkable. Such was the distinction of Sir Edward Grey, who served as foreign secretary from 1905 to 1916. A lion got his brother George, who was hunting in British East Africa in 1911: excited for the kill, he galloped too near his prey, missed and was mauled. Charles, having lost an arm and won an MC in the First World War, was felled by an angry buffalo in Tanganyika in 1928. Grey’s remaining brother, Alexander, a vicar in Trinidad, died aged 44, probably from the after-effects of a childhood cricket injury.
Biographers of Grey, including the latest, Thomas Otte, have taken these three incidents in their stride, granting them a few incurious sentences at most. Instead they have dwelled on Grey’s love of homely nature: his passion for fly-fishing and bird-watching, his long weekends in Hampshire, his occasional quotations from Wordsworth. A famous photograph shows him in country clothes with a robin perched on his hat. This lifelong rusticity led many to label him an insular amateur of limited ambition. As incoming prime minister in 1905, Henry Campbell-Bannerman was reluctant to make Grey foreign secretary because of ‘his ignorance of foreign countries and foreign languages’, a judgment partly founded in the belief that Grey’s only Continental trip had amounted to two glum days in Paris.
The British countryside is indeed important to understanding Grey, but so are the lives of his brothers. They gravitated towards the empire because it offered open horizons. Africa seemed a natural destination for the younger sons of landed families; there they could farm vast tracts, indulge in manly sports and hope to get rich quickly through mining. Grey, as the eldest son, inherited the family estate in Northumberland and so had no need to follow his siblings, but his mindset and theirs were conjoined in a way that is disguised by the Wordsworthian image of him established by his first biographer and fellow Northumbrian, G.M. Trevelyan. Grey was a countryman because he inherited two thousand acres when he was twenty. His rural world was the complement, not the antithesis, of the standard upper-class British imperial experience. He didn’t need to mount a conscious defence of empire; he took it for granted. When he graduated from Oxford in 1884 and sought political instruction, his cousin, a former viceroy of India, arranged for him to work for his second cousin, Evelyn Baring, consul-general of Egypt. Grey’s perspective was transcontinental, even though his cultural hinterland was conventional.
The Greys were a dynasty, and they were made by empire and war. Because Charles Grey, Edward’s great-great-uncle, led the Whigs in the early 19th century, became prime minister in 1830 and delivered the first Reform Act in 1832, members of his family are usually called ‘Whigs’. This has always been misleading. The 1830 government was a centrist coalition, not a party ministry. And the Greys had little in common with the high Whig families, the Russells and Cavendishes, who had no need to exploit the empire because they already owned massive estates at home. The Greys were a hardy Northumbrian family whose acreage was only a tenth of that owned by the local duke, a Tory, but they intended to be his political equals. They rose financially and socially through service to the army and the crown, at home and abroad. One Grey became private secretary to Prince Albert and then to Queen Victoria. Charles Grey’s father – the first Earl Grey – was a tough, blunt soldier who did well in the wars of the 1750s and 1770s and captured West Indian sugar colonies for Britain in the 1790s. The Greys thought globally. ‘Earl Grey’s tea’ was a marketing exercise by Jackson’s of Piccadilly in the 1830s, but it still revealed something about the family’s perspective.
Though Charles Grey is usually regarded as a principled man of opposition, this was not his intention when he became MP for Northumberland aged 22 in 1786. He was in a hurry for fame and office. He intended to out-Pitt Pitt, who had just become prime minister aged 24 by virtue of skilful political triangulation during the crisis that accompanied the loss of the American colonies. Charles attacked Pitt in order to show himself the better centrist. Only Pitt could rival his parliamentary oratory and Charles’s social skills made him a hit with Fox and the Prince of Wales. But it was 44 years before he became prime minister. This was the fault of an astonishing series of events: George III’s deliverance from insanity in 1789, swiftly followed by the French Revolution; the long and intensely bitter European war; a pandemic of bovine Tory patriotism; and the union with Ireland in 1800. Pitt used these events to redefine the political centre around himself, and to make men like Charles look dangerously radical for espousing positions that had previously seemed common sense. Charles realised too late how damaging it was to continue making the arguments Pitt himself had made in the 1780s – that the way to prevent popular discontent was a modest redistribution of parliamentary seats so that they represented real people rather than rotten boroughs. After 1800, he got into worse trouble with monarchs and Tories for arguing that, since Ireland was now united with Britain, Catholics might actually be allowed to sit in Parliament. Those who think that madness has overcome the politics of today might take comfort from imagining the debates of the early 19th century.
These events revealed another Grey characteristic: stubborn arrogance. By 1807, Charles realised that the only way his opposition men could form a stable government was by forcing the king to accept contentious policies at the outset. He made Catholic Emancipation, and eventually parliamentary reform, the price of taking office. Otherwise, he insisted, he would stay in Northumberland. This stance kept him out of government until 1830 and established his reputation for imperiousness. His hauteur undid him after less than four years as prime minister. He never accepted the logical consequences of the two principles to which he had devoted his career. By 1834, the new Catholic Irish MPs had joined with post-Reform British radicals to demand policy changes in Ireland. Charles found this democratic lobbying unacceptably offensive and resigned. His son and heir subsequently destroyed his own career by developing impractical ‘crotchets’ on the three great family causes of Reform, Ireland and empire.
Edward Grey could also exhibit inflexible arrogance: in 1905, Campbell-Bannerman despairingly called him ‘a regular Grey’. But the Greys who had the disease most virulently were the ones who sat in the House of Lords. Because of their earldom, both Charles and his eldest son were freed from the rough-and-tumble of the Commons, allowing their egotism free rein. The Greys who stayed in the lower house were forced to become better politicians. They offered a common-sense administrative centrism without histrionics, allowing them to stay contentedly in office. For twenty years after 1846, Liberal government was kept on the road not just by Lord John Russell and Palmerston but by their two most reliable and businesslike cabinet supporters: Sir George Grey, Charles’s nephew, and Sir Charles Wood, Charles’s son-in-law. Commentators fond of political flamboyance considered both men dispensable, but dispensing with them was not on the agenda. George, who inherited the smaller of the family’s two Northumberland estates, at Fallodon, served as home secretary for many years. Wood was willing to turn his hand to any number of cabinet posts, but spent most time managing the navy and India, another example of the family enthusiasm for military and imperial matters.
George was Edward Grey’s grandfather and the greatest influence on him, especially after his father, an army officer and equerry to the Prince of Wales, died of pleurisy aged 39. George taught Grey a speaking style that projected honesty, seriousness, clear-headedness, good faith, and respect for opponents. Grey consistently embodied three family traits throughout his career: a desire to control the political centre, an emphasis on upholding Britain’s global power, and a haughty insistence on his right to pursue his own approaches to these tasks. Like his ancestors, Grey wasn’t an intellectual; he was at Balliol when T.H. Green was a fellow there, but the great sage meant nothing to him. He spent so much time playing real tennis, rowing and shooting that he was thrown out of college for the six months before his finals. Grey’s creed was based on simple precepts, not the textbook fabrications of ‘old’ or ‘new’ Liberalism. He favoured Irish Home Rule because he felt that the only alternative to it was an unconstitutional and counter-productive coercion policy. He supported women’s suffrage on grounds of equity and fairness. In 1910, he told a friend that he could never vote Tory because ‘the selfishness of the rich and the appeals to their selfishness are much more hateful to me than the selfishness of the poor and the appeals to them.’ Benjamin Jowett, Balliol’s busybody master, had scolded him for not living up to the family tradition, not appreciating that George had given Grey a much clearer idea of it than the prissy Jowett was likely to have. By the time he graduated from Oxford in 1884 with a third, Grey had inherited Fallodon. It became obvious that he would pursue a public career, so long as it was compatible with his passion for breeding waterfowl.
Grey’s luck was made by another Reform Act, that of 1884, which greatly extended the franchise in rural Britain, and undermined Tory feudalism in counties like Northumberland. Ever since Charles Grey lost his seat as a result of anti-Catholic sentiment at the 1807 election, Northumberland, especially its largest northerly division, had been a Tory bastion. Suddenly that seat (now called Berwick-upon-Tweed) was winnable by a Liberal, and as the only Liberals who had ever won it were Greys, the nomination was there for the taking in 1885. It remained Grey’s seat throughout his 31 years in the Commons. He was as likely to move to Russia as to abandon it. At 23, he became the second youngest MP in Parliament, and stood as much chance of making a golden name for himself as Charles had a century earlier. From 1886, his matter-of-fact support for Irish Home Rule marked him out from most landed politicians. His name and rank offered him a prominent position in Liberal politics as the party faced up to what amounted to 16 years in opposition.
Otte’s biography is strong on Grey’s strategy over the next two decades, which was to neutralise the damage Gladstone’s recent foreign and imperial policy had done to Liberal prospects of power and success. He was annoyed that the Gladstonians insisted on applying moral judgments to matters involving British interests. He felt that their campaign in response to the Armenian atrocities of 1894-96 was an invitation to other powers to try once more to carve up the Ottoman Empire. His main concern was to educate Liberals to accept the reality of British power in the Nile valley and Eastern Africa. The Gladstonians had never confronted the consequences of their own occupation of Egypt in 1882. In 1906, Grey described Britain’s position in Egypt as ‘what we all know, but never say’. It was a non-negotiable part of Britain’s security zone for the defence of India. This zone also included the Sudan and even Uganda, should they be threatened by France or Germany. Thwarted in Egypt itself, the French government was tempted in 1898 to play to its domestic gallery by trying to challenge British dominance at Fashoda. For Grey, securing East Africa was about hard-headed defence, not a nationalist competition for extra territory. Moreover, he understood that Liberal incoherence and unreliability on imperial questions played into the hands of the Tories and their supporters in the press. A sensible empire policy would secure the electoral centre ground, as in the days of Palmerston and Sir George. It was the only chance of defeating the dangerous ‘imperialism’ of the Daily Mail. Grey and his allies, often unhelpfully called ‘Liberal imperialists’, wanted to show that the Tories did not have a monopoly on the language of patriotism and national efficiency.
At first, Grey was willing to pursue this agenda as Lord Rosebery’s lieutenant, but by 1902 the maverick Rosebery was less of a Liberal asset than the solid, plain-spoken Grey. Even so, the Boer War split the Liberal Party badly, and it seemed unlikely that Grey, Asquith and their friends would ever be able to force the rank-and-file to accept their view of Britain’s global role. Their great good fortune was that in 1903 Joseph Chamberlain united the Liberals in opposition to his Tariff Reform scheme, which to Grey was a perfect example of dangerous Tory imperialist froth. It destroyed the principle of free trade in pursuit of a fantasy of imperial consolidation that was at odds with the healthy desire of the Australians and Canadians – and the Irish – for self-government. It also imperilled Anglo-American co-operation. Balfour’s government collapsed in late 1905 and the Liberals returned to office, securing a large electoral majority in 1906. True to family tradition, Grey expressed repeated doubts about serving with Campbell-Bannerman, which Campbell-Bannerman unsurprisingly reciprocated, but these were smoothed over. Grey became foreign secretary, with every intention of controlling foreign policy and perpetuating centrist government.
Grey’s policy seemed straightforward. It rested on securing good relations with Britain’s two traditional global rivals, France and Russia. Grey had supported the Tories’ entente with France in 1904, which had stabilised British East Africa in return for the recognition of French predominance in Morocco. In 1907, he secured a similar understanding with Russia. The main contribution of Otte’s biography is to show Russia’s importance to Grey’s thinking about European and Asian affairs. His aim was to treat Russia as a normal power, not as the demonic aggressor that loomed large in the fevered imaginations of radical moralists and Indian Tory militarists. He argued that Asia offered scope for Russia to expand without damaging British interests. An entente would secure India and keep its defence budget in check. It would also strengthen Britain’s hand in negotiations with Germany, which was hoping to perpetuate Anglo-Russian tension in order to force Britain to accept German friendship. However, the Russian entente was not unproblematic. It was only possible because of Russia’s temporary humiliation in the Japanese war of 1905; Russia (like Britain) had no tradition of accepting long-term constraints on its independence of action. And the entente required a hard-nosed treatment of Persia, which was divided between British and Russian spheres of influence. This upset many Liberals who dreamed of a Persian constitution and hated treating with a historic enemy at Persia’s expense. Grey’s handling of Russia, therefore, both strengthened his preference for pursuing his own ideas, and increased Liberal backbenchers’ suspicion of him.
Otte admits that Grey failed to educate his party and the public on Russia and more generally. His explanation is that Grey was fundamentally a parliamentarian, but this does not account for the fact that he also failed to educate Parliament. The Foreign Office’s great attraction, for Grey, was the unique freedom it offered to ignore parliamentary and press opinion. Grey never held ministerial office in any other department, so developed no experience of public-facing politics. This profoundly limited his own education. Many of his official papers were not even circulated to the full cabinet. Otte suggests that ministers probably understood what the Foreign Office was doing but preferred to pretend that they did not.
Grey’s greater problem was the peculiar nature of British global power. It rested on a fragile naval dominance, an inadequate army, and a very diverse set of colonial structures. It depended on peace and on maintaining a balance of power between a number of nervy rivals who had less interest in retaining that balance than Britain did. Its main basis since 1830 – when Charles Grey and Palmerston inaugurated it – had been global co-operation with France. This was periodically imperilled by mutual tensions when France was strong, or by shared feebleness when France was weak. Since politicians and the press loved exploiting these occasional tensions, public opinion did not understand how crucial this unspoken French alliance was to British global dominance. Now Germany threatened the European balance as France had not been able to do since the fall of Napoleon. French concern about the rise of German power led it to seek assistance from Russia as well as Britain. But Russia’s weakness after its defeat by Japan further boosted Germany, prompting France to press Britain to increase its commitments. In several crises between 1905 and 1911, Germany tested the Anglo-French relationship, and Grey consistently gave France moral support and hinted at military co-operation. His constant line was that this did not mean hostility to Germany. Liberal backbenchers and newspaper editors were not convinced.
By 1913-14, Russian ambition was resurgent and Germany more insecure. The other problem was the decline of the Habsburg Empire in the face of rising Eastern European nationalism: Grey remarked after the war that it was trying to prolong itself against nature. Just as defeat in the Crimean War had pushed Russia to expand in Asia rather than the Balkans, the Japanese victory of 1905 and the Asian entente of 1907 redirected her ambitions back to South-East Europe. Otte stresses Britain’s alarm at this Russian activity. He speculates that the Foreign Office may have been inching towards a new pattern of European relationships, thinking that the Russian entente had had its day. If so, this was spectacularly bad timing. Certainly Germany hoped that it could exploit the Foreign Office’s anxieties about Russia, and persuade Britain to declare Continental neutrality. The British government had rejected similar requests before; Grey and Asquith (who had been prime minister since 1908) rejected them again in July 1914, though they took the precaution of doing so before discussing their decision with the cabinet.
The main charge against Grey’s handling of the July 1914 diplomatic crisis has always been that he should have warned the German ambassador more explicitly that Britain would support France and Russia in the event of a war begun by Austria and Germany. Otte argues that such a warning would have had no impact, indeed might have made Germany more neurotic about the longer-term threat to its security, which could only be neutralised by a quick war. Germany was committed to Austria whatever Britain might do. Similarly, Otte argues that Russia would not have responded to British pressure to tone down its response to the Balkan crisis. Russian calculations were made on the assumption that Britain would not join in any war. Britain could have persuaded Russia to change policy only by giving a stronger commitment in return. None of the European powers knew what Britain would do in the event of war. That was not surprising, since, until the last minute, neither did the cabinet.
On the other hand, Grey knew all along that Britain would have to enter a European war of this scope. The British could not risk a German victory leading to dominance in Europe and the possible seizure of the French Empire. In any case, Britain was under a moral obligation to defend the French Atlantic coast against Germany in return for France’s naval support in the Mediterranean. Nor could Britain tolerate a joint Franco-Russian military triumph, which would exclude it from the Mediterranean and jeopardise Egypt and India. Given current imperial strains, there was no logic in making Russia an enemy, while to make one of France would be to commit suicide as a Great Power. All this should have been obvious, on top of Britain’s treaty commitment to defend the neutrality of Belgium, a commitment which symbolised what the European balance meant to it strategically. As Grey himself remarked, Britain was too powerful in too many spheres for other countries not to cast covetous eyes at her possessions. Any war between the Great Powers was bound to expose those possessions; that it was sparked off by rivalries in the distant Balkans was irrelevant. The isolation that so many Liberals wanted was not compatible with remaining a global force. They were as deluded about the limitations of British power as those Tory voices which, then and since, pilloried Grey for not singlehandedly strong-arming Europe into peace talks.
Britain was a global power, but not so powerful that it could prosper alone. Though its empire was mostly a long way away, the state of Europe fundamentally affected its health. For all his supposed insularity, Grey understood how closely connected the two realms were. But this was an unpalatable truth, since Britain’s power to affect the state of Europe was constrained. The debate about the origins of the First World War continues to show how little recognition of these limits there has been. Discussion of Grey’s policy is still shot through with the insistence that more action from him would have brought Europe to reason, or, alternatively, that by doing too much, he inflicted damage on the country that a policy of isolation could have avoided. Sometimes, in an excess of journalistic moralism, one finds both arguments at the same time, as in a review by Andrew Adonis with which Otte has some sport.
This book, then, is a reading for our times. It is a defence of Grey’s self-contained realism, tempered by regret at his failure to communicate his policy. It is a critique of his critics’ fantasies of British power and exceptionalism, whether expressed in moralistic or jingoistic form. It is an explicit reminder to fantasists of this stamp that national strength rests on diplomatic co-operation, and that isolationism is incompatible with it and will destroy it. It is a stalwart defence of politics as the careful, sensitive and pragmatic management of constant change, and of political history as an education in these truths. In all these ways, it makes a significant mark. Unfortunately it is also weighed down by detail and perhaps by an imbued Grey arrogance. It is massive: nearly a third of a million words of text, plus well over a hundred pages of endnotes. Though generally fluent, it avoids analysis; its narrative is not always well anchored chronologically. It seems not to have experienced the editorial pencil, or perhaps to have resisted it. It is a reading for our times that is unlikely to be read.
As a biography, it has two particularly odd features when compared with its predecessors by Keith Robbins and Michael Waterhouse. One is a lack of interest in Grey’s personal life. Aged 23, Grey married Dorothy Widdrington; after their honeymoon, she told him that she disliked sex. Otte’s response is to stress their shared love of nature and their blissful companionship right up to the point when she was killed by a bolting horse in 1906. This may well be true, but Waterhouse produced significant evidence for two illegitimate Grey children born in the 1890s and speculates that he was also the father of the socialite David Tennant, born in 1902 to Pamela Wyndham, who later became Grey’s second wife. Family tradition also makes Grey the father of Audrey James (another socialite), born to Evelyn Forbes in the same year. Otte pooh-poohs all such rumours and discusses only one of them in a brief endnote on page 699, suggesting instead that Grey put his extra energy into real tennis. Waterhouse also points out that Grey admitted to an affair with Pamela that had gone on for years before they married in 1922, shortly after the death of her husband. Waterhouse’s highly readable and humane biography is practically ignored by Otte, though he even uses the same epigraph, Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘A Fallodon Memory’.
Sassoon’s elegy on the old, blind statesman communing with nature in his wood points to the other distinctive feature of this book, its tendency to maudlin hero-worship. Otte does not tackle Grey’s religious beliefs, regrettably, but in his account the stoical statesman, who shouldered national cares until his eyes wore out, approaches saintliness. He assumes that Grey could do (almost) no wrong. Grey’s complaints about his workload are repeated with excessive frequency. Criticism of him by foes like Lloyd George is highlighted and ridiculed, though in truth Grey had fewer enemies than almost any other front-rank politician. Pamela’s almost complete absence from the book is telling – she dies ten pages after she is introduced. Her vivacious presence, lighting up Grey’s life for decades, is ignored. She gave him a stepfamily that hardly features here, was a social star of the highest order, and was fabulously rich. Lady Tweedsmuir opined that ‘she never had to catch a bus or think about the price of fish.’
Why should we feel sorry for Edward Grey? He had a wonderful life. He gained financial independence when he was twenty. He had complete freedom to pursue a country existence which gave him lifelong pleasure. He achieved the balance of public service, family life and active leisure which he saw as the basis of a life well lived. He chose to go into politics and enjoyed the profile it gave him. He remained true to himself, and his family name, throughout. He had more success, and dealt with a more interesting range of problems, than the vast majority of politicians. The July Crisis and the war were nightmares that shredded his nerves, but these nightmares were shared by millions of people in all walks of life. If he felt personal guilt at his responsibility for the war, it was intermittent, and in his lifetime it hardly damaged his political reputation. Much of Northumberland turned out for his funeral. To appreciate his advantages, we need only remember his brothers, who lacked most of them. British East Africa and Trinidad were much less fun. George tried to make a living by prospecting for copper in Katanga: on one occasion, in W.V. Brelsford’s account, his horse died in such a remote place that he had to cycle 860 miles in a week, armed with ‘merely a bottle of Bovril, some bars of chocolate and his razors. No one ever saw him unshaven.’ (Hostility to beards was a Grey trait through the generations.) The contrast is striking. Perhaps Grey’s greatest skill was in perpetuating a style of ruling-class Liberalism that projected so attractive and superficially progressive a tone, and spread it over British public life so neatly and for so long, that it consistently bamboozled radicals into not dismantling the ultimate source of his good fortune: primogeniture.