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A lighter shade of grey

This scholarly, readable and objective book will be the standard biography of Sir Edward Grey for decades to come

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


The reputation of Sir Edward Grey, the Liberal foreign secretary at the time of the outbreak of the Great War, has suffered greatly in recent years. Matthew Parris has called him “a bloody awful foreign secretary”, Andrew Adonis thinks him “arguably the most incompetent foreign secretary of all time”, Bendor Grosvenor called him “the worst MP in history”, on top of which Max Hastings, Niall Ferguson and John Charmley have all castigated him, the last two as the “gravedigger” of the British Empire. If Blackadder Goes Forth had covered the diplomatic rather than the military side of the war, Grey would have been presented as an upper class twit who blundered into catastrophe.

“The voices of his detractors, often strident and shrill, drown out all the others,” believes Thomas Otte, professor of diplomatic history at the University of East Anglia; and, in a very well written and comprehensive biography, supported by 112 pages of endnotes gleaned from sources from 34 archives worldwide, he proves Grey’s detractors wrong, presenting instead a statesman “both progressive and contemporary, a figure of great depth and consequence in his own time and beyond”. Otte not only acquits Grey of responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War, but shows how honourably, earnestly and often Grey attempted to stop it from breaking out.

Statesman of Europe: A Life of Sir Edward Grey By T.G. Otte Allen Lane, £35

Blackadder would at least have been correct in portraying Grey as irredeemably upper-class. He was the great-great nephew of prime minister the second Earl Grey, of the Great Reform Bill. The avenue at his country seat, Fallodon in Northumberland, was a mile long. His family had lived there since the reign of Edward III. His father, Lieutenant-General George Grey, was equerry to the Prince of Wales. The Greys hailed from what Otte calls “the Whig cousinhood that had ruled over the country”, but which Edward Grey recognised had had its day by the time he became an MP in 1885, explaining his lack of ambition to become prime minister.

After Winchester and Balliol, Grey entered the House of Commons aged 23, but he was always happiest at Fallodon, because he was a distinguished ornithologist and keen country sportsman, far happier fly-fishing, deerstalking, and playing tennis than trying to be gregarious in London political circles. He was nonetheless, Otte states, “an accomplished writer of subtle and sensitive prose”, including an unpublished autobiography that Otte mines well (many of Grey’s private papers were lost in a fire at Fallodon in 1917). “Today, Grey would probably be considered ‘authentic’,” Otte notes of his wide hinterland outside politics.

Much of the book is taken up with Grey’s well-intentioned efforts to steer Britain through the increasingly volatile international system

He was part of the post-Gladstone New Liberal movement that believed in state intervention for definable public good, democratising local government, votes for women, widening statutory education and constitutional reform, so as to give the newly-empowered working classes a stake in society that would dissuade them from trying to overthrow it. He was, as Otte points out, “motivated by democracy and empire, and by a patriotic sense of public duty”.

Promoted by Lord Rosebery, who appreciated his reputation for honesty and directness, Grey rose rapidly and in December 1905 was appointed foreign secretary by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and continued in that post under Herbert Asquith in what was to turn out to be the last Liberal government.

As an acknowledged expert in the vast Foreign Office archive, Otte takes the reader through the complicated international situation that Grey found, where Britain, with its huge empire to protect had perhaps more interest than any other to maintain world peace. Much of the book is taken up with Grey’s well-intentioned efforts to steer Britain through the increasingly volatile international system, where Russia was considered Britain’s primary antagonist, but the German alliance with Austria-Hungary posed a growing existential threat to France.

Grey’s attitude to France was one of “constructive ambiguity” whereby Britain supported the newly-created Entente Cordiale, but did not a formal military alliance that might embolden France to antagonise the Central Powers. This secured for Grey, Otte argues, “a degree of leverage over French policy that no British foreign secretary had enjoyed since the days of Palmerston in the 1840s”.

In the end it was not France or Britain that destabilised Europe but the German “blank cheque” support for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, combined with the fact that German military planning against France required it to violate Belgian neutrality (guaranteed by Britain), which meant German mobilisation guaranteed certain war. “That the Continent did not descend into war earlier”, Otte believes, “was largely due to Grey’s shrewd and subtle crisis diplomacy.”

In 1916, when the senior officials of the Foreign Office congratulated Grey on overtaking Lord Castlereagh as the longest-serving foreign secretary in history (which he still is), Grey perceptively replied, “The war, though unavoidable, will always mar the memory of it.” He was of course right, but Otte’s compelling retelling of the five-week period between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on 28 June and the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 proves that the war was not Grey’s fault but that of the reckless, expansionist, but deliberate policy of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Imperial Germany.

Far from being, as Otte characterises the revisionists’ portrait of Grey, “a prig-gish Wykehamist who, through incompetence and obstinacy, made Great Politics more rigid and drove Britain into an unnecessary war”, the foreign secretary strained every nerve to save the peace, while staying calm and objective throughout the crisis, as all the many ambassadors he saw attested. Winston Churchill wrote a letter urging Grey not to “fall below the level of events” during the July 1914 crisis, but he never found a moment when he needed to send it, as Grey never did. It was only after the war had broken out and all his hopes of peace were in pieces that Grey suffered what Otte calls “a nervous breakdown of some sort”.

Unlike many other diplomats at the time, Grey immediately spotted the possible consequences of what he called at the time “the terrible event at Sarajevo”. He did not share the Foreign Office’s complacency, and embarked on an intensive round of talks with the ambassadors of all the Great Powers that were sucked into the vortex of confrontation by the combination of Austria-Hungary’s desire for vengeance against pro-Bosnian Serbia, Germany’s unlimited support for Austria, and the aggression of a Russia that Otte shows was in precipitous decline in 1905 but then equally vertiginous resurgence after 1912.

Otte notes that the memoirs “were a potent and unscrupulous attempt to smear Grey”

After trying his hardest to persuade Germany not to invade Belgium, Grey warned Prince Karl Max Lichnowsky, the German ambassador to London, that “if war breaks out, it will be the greatest catastrophe that the world has ever seen.” It was to no avail. In recommending war to the House of Commons on 3 August 1914 he stated, “We are going to suffer, I am afraid, terribly in this war, whether we are in it or whether we stand aside.” He recognised that without British intervention, Germany would crush France and dominate Europe militarily, taking the invasion ports of France and Belgium in the process. When congratulated by his permanent under-secretary on his speech, “his sole reaction” was to raise his arms above his head and say, “I hate war, I hate war.”

It was at dusk the next day, as the clock ran down the hours of Britain’s ultimatum to Germany, that Grey, watching the gas lamps being lit down on Birdcage Walk below his room in the Foreign Office, told the journalist J.A. Spender, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Grey had done everything possible, consistent with national honour, to prevent war breaking out. Reading Otte’s superb account of Grey’s strenuous, noble, heartfelt, but ultimately doomed efforts for peace in that tragic summer of 1914 makes one proud to be British.

Grey denounced the rise of the Nazis before his death, aged 71, in September 1933, leading Otte to surmise that “had he lived, it is unlikely he would have been an appeaser”. Joseph Goebbels was predictably unpleasant in the Nazi press’s obituaries of Grey, but not as vicious as David Lloyd George had been in his memoirs, published shortly before Grey’s death, in which he wrote that Grey’s “reputation is not based on any achievement . . . He was a calamitous foreign secretary before and during the war.” He added that Grey’s “personality was distinctly one of the elements that contributed to the great catastrophe”, as he was “not made for prompt action”.

Otte notes that the memoirs “were a potent and unscrupulous attempt to smear Grey”, and they worked, although when Grey died, Lloyd George expressed his “grief” at the loss of someone “with whom I worked for so many years in complete harmony”. Otte’s verdict: “In politics, death brings forth its own kind of cant.”

This scholarly, readable and objective book will be the standard biography of Sir Edward Grey for decades to come. It triumphantly gives him his proper desserts as an eminent Edwardian gentleman who did his best to save his country from what he knew would be a catastrophic war, but a war that was impossible to avoid in the face of German aggression. Britain’s honour and long-term strategic interests meant that Germany could not be permitted to triumph in 1914. Because of Prof Otte, the lights are going out for anti-Grey revisionism; we shall not see them relit again in our lifetime.

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