No biography of Grey has ever been so thorough and scholarly as this (though, oddly, Otte says Grey died at 69. He was 71). The best known, Trevelyan’s Grey of Fallodon, appeared more than 80 years ago when much remained to be unearthed and the truth could not be told about some still alive, notably Lloyd George. His toxic personality, with its combination of rank dishonesty, cowardice and jealousy, made him anathematical to Grey, a man incapable of deceit, and the embodiment of a gentleman with an ethic of public service. Otte quotes Lloyd George’s judgment that Grey had run a “calamitous” foreign policy, which is outrageous, since Lloyd George had sat with Grey in the Cabinet, and never raised serious objections. Fuelled by ambition rather than principle, Lloyd George put it about that he would resign in August 1914 rather than endorse war, but when war came he signed up with fervour.
This book, then, is a reading for our times. It is a defence of Grey’s self-contained realism, tempered by regret at his failure to communicate his policy. It is a critique of his critics’ fantasies of British power and exceptionalism, whether expressed in moralistic or jingoistic form. It is an explicit reminder to fantasists of this stamp that national strength rests on diplomatic co-operation, and that isolationism is incompatible with it and will destroy it. It is a stalwart defence of politics as the careful, sensitive and pragmatic management of constant change, and of political history as an education in these truths. In all these ways, it makes a significant mark. Unfortunately it is also weighed down by detail and perhaps by an imbued Grey arrogance. It is massive: nearly a third of a million words of text, plus well over a hundred pages of endnotes. Though generally fluent, it avoids analysis; its narrative is not always well anchored chronologically. It seems not to have experienced the editorial pencil, or perhaps to have resisted it. It is a reading for our times that is unlikely to be read.
One is struck in particular by the seriousness with which parliamentary politics was then conducted, how crises were addressed. Otte’s is a rich and rounded portrait of Grey, whom he unshackles from Lloyd George’s wartime memoirs — “mendacious by any standards” — to restore him to his place as a humane and dutiful Liberal politician of the old school, undone, perhaps, by decency.
Still, for Grey, at least, there was a happy ending. When Lloyd George became prime minister at the end of 1916, he seized the chance of retirement. He married Pamela Tennant, who had famously appeared in Sargent’s painting The Wyndham Sisters, and devoted most of his time to his beloved fishing and bird-watching, publishing a much-acclaimed book on The Charm of Birds. When he died in 1933, aged 71, The Times called him a “great Englishman”.
That seems fair. It is true that Grey failed to avert war, but probably nobody could have succeeded. As Otte’s excellent book shows, he did his best. There is no shame in that, whatever Adonis says.