Grey matters

Beneath the stiff upper lip of Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary in 1914, lay a passion for politics and for love.

Grey's speeches, like here to the Commons in 1914
Grey's speeches, like here to the Commons in 1914, were famously lacking in passion or pizzazz. Credit: Getty Images

Thomas Otte has produced a new biography of Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary in 1914, titled Statesman of Europe. At over 800 pages of magisterial academic prose it should satisfy all of us who have long striven to understand this attractive and paradoxical figure: the ornithologist who went blind; a long-term Foreign Secretary who despised foreign affairs; the precocious young politician who had no real interest in politics; above all, the man of high and noble character who was known to have left behind  him at least one illegitimate son whose Grey parentage was tacitly acknowledged by the child’s (largely aristocratic) family.

The temptation with studies of Grey is to follow the well-worn stereotype of a stiff-upper lip, unemotional and bloodless Englishman, the scion of one of those county families that contributed so much to England’s greatness but who, after devoting all his energy to preserving peace in 1914, was ultimately frustrated by the machinations of more ruthless (or incompetent) continental figures. They were the culprits behind the ‘lamps going out all over Europe’.

Early reviews of Statesman of Europe appear to want to paint this picture in vivid colours. They have been encouraged perhaps by the title which explicitly refutes the most common criticism levelled against Grey: that is that if Lord Castlereagh might be called the most European of British statesmen, then it would be equally true to say of Grey that he was the most insular. ‘A typical English Junker’ was George Bernard Shaw’s famous verdict.

Certainly, by temperament and inclination Grey would have preferred the life of a country gentleman. He hated to leave England for even a day. Of Europe he knew virtually nothing. It was 1914 before he saw Paris for the first time. He had little or no knowledge of foreign languages, and even less of foreign peoples and their political systems. He came thus to rely more and more on his mandarins of whom Eyre Crowe, partly on account of his own German origins, was probably the most tirelessly and decisively Germanophobe.

The use of the word ‘Statesman’ in Grey’s case might also raise eyebrows. He was not an orator, and his speeches, wholly lacking in passion and imagination though they were, impressed his hearers more by their sincerity and matter-of-factness rather than by any intellectual fireworks. He had at best a good average brain, but of the humour and wit to be found in the speeches of his contemporaries there is no trace. Rather, he carried the confidence of parliament and the nation because both were convinced that Grey worked solely for England’s welfare and never gave a thought to his own personal position or advantage. These are indeed rare qualities, virtually unheard of in modern British politics, but they do not make Grey a great statesman. As the Austrian historian A.F. Pribram acutely observed; ‘for that he lacked farsightedness, daring, self-confidence and unfailing energy… in the face of difficulties he hesitated or retreated and was too dependent on his immediate subordinates.’

Anyone who has studied the British diplomatic documents relating to the outbreak of the First World War cannot for a moment believe that Grey was a warmonger who sought to bring about a war with Germany, but it was in the highest degree characteristic of Grey that after the war he frequently asked friends and relatives whether he might have done more to prevent the outbreak of conflict. Towards the end of his life he obstinately held to the theory that the conflict had been inevitable but the British documents show clearly that until just before the war he himself believed it was possible to prevent it and that he had acted consistently in such a belief.

When challenged about this privately in 1929, Grey fell into a frightful rage and refused to join in any further discussion of the subject, one of the few documented incidents in which Grey demonstrated that he was indeed capable of giving vent to strong emotion.

His long love affair with Pamela Glenconner was another sign that he was not the bloodless Englishman of clichéd memory. To understand something of the passion he had for this striking and gifted woman with whom he enjoyed an intimate relationship long before the death of his wife, one must go to Grey’s best book: The Charm of Birds, published in 1927 and dedicated to Pamela. It would be fair to say that the majority of scholars interested in Grey are probably not keen ornithologists. Yet who can fail to be swept along by the captivating, almost sensual language of the following passage?

‘Marvellous’ is an epithet to be used very sparingly either of mankind or of birds; but the epithet may be conceded to the song of the nightingale. Let us suppose a lover of birds’ song to be walking, slowly, with ears alert, about an oak wood in the latter part of May. Suddenly he is struck – it is almost a physical impact – by notes of an energy, force and dominance with which none of the others can compare. The supreme notes of the nightingale envelop and surround us.

These are not the words of someone incapable of depth of feeling. Tactful, well-mannered, dignified and handsome, Grey was inspired by a high sense of duty and responsibility, all qualities today rare in modern British politics.


Richard Bassett