I happened to walk down the street in Westminster where Edward Grey once lived – the man who was British Foreign Secretary before the Great War. There’s a case to be made that he was the worst of Britain’s Foreign Secretaries, and the case was argued by David Owen, once a Labour Foreign Secretary, in a recent review of a book co-written by a former Conservative counterpart, Douglas Hurd.
Grey was responsible for creating the alliance with France which led to Britain entering the Great War, and talks continued from 1906 until war broke out in 1914. Although he told both the prime minister of the day, Henry Campbell-Bannerman and the king of the talks, the cabinet was not informed for five years (when the Agadir crisis broke out), nor did he inform Parliament.
As Lloyd George observed, he also made a more profound mistake: “He did not tell the Germans plainly that Britain would go to war if they invaded Belgium.”
Hurd is relatively kind to Grey: he was not a devious man by nature, and Hurd sees him as being caught up is the diplomatic systems of the time.
Owen, on the other hand, is withering:
The first world war destroyed the flower of our youth and the strength of our nation for no long-term gain. Had Britain conserved its power, both militarily and diplomatically, we would have been able to bring that war to an end much earlier through negotiation, and in doing so profoundly influence the shape of Europe, with every likelihood of avoiding the second world war.
As failures go, it seems fairly catastrophic to me.