Sir Edward Grey, third Baronet and first Viscount Grey of Fallodon, was the longest serving Foreign Secretary of the twentieth century, guiding Britain’s foreign policy in 1905-16. In the 1920s, he was a prominent voice on foreign affairs, and a strong supporter of Asquithian Liberalism. Grey’s importance to British politics as Foreign Secretary lay in his maintenance of good relations with France and Russia at a time when Europe was extremely unstable. In later years, his support for the League of Nations left an important intellectual legacy for Liberal internationalists.
Grey was born in London on 25 April 1862, the eldest child of Colonel George Grey and Harriet Grey (ne Pearson). His father was an equerry to the Prince of Wales, his grandfather, Sir George Grey, was Home Secretary under Russell and Palmerston, and his great-grandfather was a brother of Charles Grey, the Prime Minister responsible for the Great Reform Act. Grey was educated at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford, where he took a third in jurisprudence in 1884, despite being sent down earlier in the year for idleness. Succeeding to his grandfather’s baronetcy in 1882, Grey first stood for Parliament in 1885, when he was elected as Liberal MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed. He was created a Knight of the Garter in 1912, and held Berwick until his elevation to the Lords as Viscount Grey of Fallodon in July 1916.
As a backbencher, Grey supported Irish Home Rule, and developed an interest in land reform. Having acquired a reputation for good judgment, he became Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office in August 1892, serving under two foreign secretaries: Lord Rosebery to March 1894, and then the Earl of Kimberley until June 1895. Since both of these foreign secretaries were in the House of Lords, Grey was responsible for speaking on foreign affairs in the Commons. In opposition from 1895 to 1905, he was associated with Liberal Imperialists such as Rosebery, Haldane, and Asquith. As a member of this group, Grey was an enthusiast for Britain’s effort in the Boer War (1899-1902), which meant that he was not a strong supporter of Campbell-Bannerman’s leadership of the Liberals. However, concerned to secure balance within the party, Campbell-Bannerman appointed Grey as Foreign Secretary in December 1905.
Grey held this office until December 1916, during which time he dealt with crucial episodes in European diplomacy. Despite criticisms from Radicals who opposed alliances, Grey used the diplomatic system to secure British interests. In 1911, he renewed the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance, and one of his major achievements was the negotiation of the Anglo-Russian Entente of August 1907. This resolved differences between Britain and Russia in areas bordering India, which strengthened the British position, and lessened tensions between the two countries. Grey was a strong supporter of continuity in foreign policy, and he built upon the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, negotiated by his Conservative predecessor Lord Lansdowne. Thus Grey backed French diplomacy in the Moroccan crises of 1905-06 and 1911, and allowed the British and French military to hold conversations. Radicals were uneasy over such secret diplomacy, believing it involved covert pledges that Britain would intervene in a European war in which France was involved. This was untrue, and Grey was open-minded over the possibility of agreements with Germany; but other than the Baghdad Railway Agreement (1913), no treaty was possible, and his outrage over German violation of Belgian neutrality in August 1914 meant that he was a major influence on the Cabinet’s decision to enter the Great War.
After war broke out, diplomacy played a reduced role, and Grey had no significant influence on the direction of the war. When the government was reconstructed under Lloyd George in December 1916, he lost office. During the latter part of the war, he became a strong supporter of a league of nations, to which all countries would submit their disputes, and which would have the power to make awards and impose sanctions on aggressors. When the League was founded in 1919, Grey became President of the League of Nations Union, a high-profile organisation which supported the League’s cause in Britain.
The rest of Grey’s career after leaving the Foreign Office has been neglected by historians, but he remained a significant figure in Liberal politics, and his views on foreign affairs were valued by all parties.
This meant that he was made a temporary ambassador to the USA in September 1919, when he led an unsuccessful special mission to encourage President Wilson and the Senate to reach a compromise allowing America to enter the League. Some attempted to persuade Grey to re-enter politics in 1920-21, especially Asquith and the moderate Conservative, Robert Cecil, who believed Grey could lead a new centre party. Grey’s failing eyesight meant that he was not attracted to the suggestion; but in 1923-24, he was persuaded to lead the Liberal Party in the House of Lords.
He was also President (1927-33) of the Liberal Council, an Asquithian faction within the Liberal Party, formed in response to Lloyd George becoming party leader in 1926. The Council aimed to persuade Liberals that true Liberalism remained alive in the party despite Lloyd George’s leadership. Outside politics, Grey was Chancellor of Oxford University from 1928 until his death in 1933. This role at Oxford, like his publication of a book, The Charm of Birds (1927), reflected his desire to explore life outside politics in the 1920s.
Grey died on 7 September 1933 at his house, Fallodon, in Northumberland. He had married Dorothy Widdrington in 1885, but she died in 1906. Grey married again in 1922, to Pamela, the daughter of Percy Wyndham, and widow of the 1st Lord Glenconner. However, Pamela died in 1928, and there were no children from either marriage.
Grey wrote two volumes of memoirs: Twenty-Five Years, 1892-1916 (1925). His other publications include: Fly Fishing (1899); The League of Nations (1918); The Charm of Birds (1927). There have been several biographies: G. M. Trevelyan, Grey of Fallodon (1937); and Keith Robbins, Sir Edward Grey: A Biography of Lord Grey of Fallodon (1971), Michael Waterhouse, Edwardian Requiem: A Life of Sir Edward Grey (2013) and Statesman of Europe: A Life of Sir Edward Grey (2020). A study of his time as Foreign Secretary is: F. H. Hinsley (ed.), British Foreign Policy under Sir Edward Grey (1977).
Dr. Richard Grayson is the former director of the Centre for Reform think-tank and former Director of Policy for the Liberal Democrats. He is the author of Austen Chamberlain and the Commitment to Europe: British Foreign Policy, 1924-29 (1997) and Liberals, International Relations and Appeasement (2001).