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Grey, Sir Edward

Grey, Sir Edward (1862–1933). Foreign secretary. Grey has been described as curiously ‘suspended between the world of high politics and rural isolation’, a man who sought refuge from the toils of office in fishing and ornithology. Behind the reserve lay a very determined and tough politician. He was among those Liberals who supported the Boer War, and was involved in the attempt to compel Campbell-Bannerman to move to the Lords on becoming prime minister in 1905. But it was as foreign secretary (December 1905–December 1916, the longest continuous tenure of that office) that he has attracted the interest of historians. He has been variously portrayed as unduly rigid in his dealings with Germany; as missing opportunities to convince Berlin that Britain would fight on the side of France in the event of war; as one who might have done more to act as a mediator in European affairs; or as one who at best had little opportunity to alter the course of events leading to war.

He gained his first experience in the Foreign Office under Lord Rosebery in the mid-1890s. As foreign secretary himself Grey quickly dispelled fears that a Liberal government might weaken Britain's role in the world. In the Moroccan crisis with Germany (1905–6), he went further than his predecessor by agreeing to precautionary military staff talks with France. He also overcame the doubts of some cabinet colleagues to push through the entente of 1907 with Russia. This led some contemporary radical critics to ask why, if he could negotiate with tsarist Russia, he could not do the same with the more progressive state of Germany. But Grey's overtures on the question of the Anglo-German naval race always fell foul of Berlin's insistence on British neutrality in the event of a European war. Limited progress on other issues did not narrow the fundamental divide.

As Europe stumbled towards war in July 1914 cabinet divisions prevented Grey from unambiguously signalling that Britain would fight in defence of France. Berlin would have preferred British neutrality, but chose to risk war. Grey himself threatened to resign rather than abandon France, but it was German infringement of Belgian neutrality which ensured that most of the cabinet opted for war on 4 August. Grey did much in the first two years of the conflict to prevent serious differences with the USA, especially over American complaints arising from the British blockade of Germany. Horrified by the war, he became a supporter of the League of Nations, but failed in his bid for ongoing Anglo-American co-operation.

C. J. Bartlett

Bibliography

Robbins, K. , Sir Edward Grey (1971).

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Grey, Sir Edward

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