It is usually the generals who carry the blame for the carnage of the first world war. Derek Coombs reconsiders Roy Jenkins's biography of Asquith and argues that the politicians have escaped lightlyby Derek Coombs / March 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
After the last election New Labour’s landslide was frequently compared with the Liberal landslide of 1906, and Tony Blair’s cabinet with Herbert Asquith’s reforming Liberal cabinet of 1908. The belief that Asquith represented the pinnacle of achievement for a reforming British prime minister has been reinforced by edition upon edition of Roy Jenkins’s biography of Asquith. But is it true? Was Asquith really such a great prime minister? Surely the example of Asquith is a much more sombre one for Blair; by 1914 his large majority had evaporated and he had allowed Britain to drift into a war which led to a 40-year period of unimaginable global carnage. This was in part the result of allowing too much autonomy to one of his most able ministers, Edward Grey.
From 1908 to 1914 Asquith’s premiership was preoccupied with domestic politics, particularly the Irish Question, where he achieved little, and later, women’s suffrage, which he implacably opposed. He thus delegated foreign policy making almost entirely to Grey and paid little attention to the threat of war coming from the continent.
In August 1914 Russia and Germany had declared war over the dispute between Austria and Serbia. France was tied to Russia by the Franco-Russian alliance. Grey was obsessed with the idea of supporting France, although there was no treaty between the two countries. He was supported in this by the Germanophobes in the foreign office. The matter was also party political. Traditionally the Unionist party had looked to a close relationship with Germany, whereas the Liberals had sought closer ties with France. Grey used the long-standing international treaty of 1839, guaranteeing Belgian neutrality, as an excuse to support the French. France believed that with British and Russian help it could secure its borders against a newly united Germany and even regain territory lost after the defeat of Napoleon III.
During the Campbell-Bannerman administration in 1906, foreign secretary Grey had been asked by France (during the Moroccan dispute) what help it could expect in the event of a German attack. Without consulting the cabinet Grey replied that Britain would not stand aside. He even agreed to an exchange of military information and joint planning. It was not until 1911-three years into Asquith’s premiership-that the matter was finally put before cabinet, after France had asked for the collaboration to be stepped up.
Grey’s speech to the Commons on 3rd August 1914, one day…