Sir Edward Grey

Portrait of Sir Edward Grey

Sir Edward Grey

Throughout his time in office Sir Edward Grey strove to maintain peace in Europe at a period of tremendous, and increasing, tension between the so called “Great Powers” – Germany, Russia, France, Austro-Hungary, and Great Britain. Through his intervention he successfully lead the diplomatic resolution of several crises in Europe (including the Balkan Wars of 1912 & 1913).

Grey sought to maintain a balance of power by not declaring British overt support for either of the alliance blocks that had emerged in the early years of the 20th century – Germany and Austro-Hungary on one side, and Russia and France on the other. He judged that were he to clarify the British position it would actually precipitate war: an assurance to France of British support would, he reasoned, have lead France to provoke a war with Germany (to avenge their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870), whereas a declaration that Britain would not enter a European conflict would have resulted in a German-provoked attack on France. By not declaring Britain’s position he believed the uncertainty would leave both sides unsure of the British position and therefore unwilling to risk a war.

His even-handedness throughout was unswerving, but his stance was unavailing – his trust in the truthfulness and honesty, of particularly Germany and Austro-Hungary, was misplaced. With hindsight his belief in the effectiveness of the established diplomatic machinery seems rather naïve, relying as it did on reasonable governments acting reasonably.

Is this a case where refusing to ‘take a stand’ is what integrity requires? Or is Grey better understood as the archetype consequentialist politician: someone who was prepared to ‘sit on the fence’ on a matter of enormous moral significance in order to achieve what he saw as the best outcome?

Suggested reading

  • Coz, La Caze, Levine 2013. ‘Integrity’ in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Section on integrity as ‘standing for something
  • Susan Mendus 2009. Politics and Morality, Polity Press
  • Barbara Tuchman 1962. The Guns of August. Macmillan
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