X Close

Britain needs its politicians to put principle first

April 10, 2019   5 mins

On 2 August 1860 – halfway between the Napoleonic and First World Wars – Edward Horsman, MP for Stroud, rose in the House of Commons.

“The safety of England in the estimation of every reflecting person in Europe is the preservation of all that is valuable to the peace and progress of mankind. They know that the commerce of England covers every sea, and that the security of England means the security of the only moderating and tranquillizing Power that exists in Europe. […] Every man who is the friend of his species, looks upon England as the great depository of political truth, her safety as their pride, and the peril of England as their despair.”

This kind of insular (and Anglo- rather than Britanno-centric) arrogance apparently never goes out of fashion.

But can we usefully apply experience of a piece of British history to the chaos and trauma of Brexit? British history has been treated recently as a great warehouse of romantic nonsense, a delivery hub of simplified historical trivia for politicians wanting to decorate their prejudices.

Boisterous prep school myths and Blimpish delusions are not an adequate basis for mature policy-making, nor a guide to future national performance. The value of your imperial legacy may go down as well as up.

And yet there are lessons – or at least illuminating contrasts – in the way that politics and policy were done historically.

When the crisis of Europe broke in the summer of 1914, Britain had been looking the other way. Unionist and nationalist gun-running exploits into Ireland had raised the alarming possibility that Britain’s oldest colonial tension was about to turn into a civil war.

Following the Curragh Mutiny earlier in the year, the government wasn’t sure what orders the Army would follow in that situation. (Almost exactly a century earlier she had been similarly blind-sided, when Napoleon’s return from Elba found British attention and the best of her troops even farther westward, in America, another imperial difficulty.)

The assassination of an Austro-Hungarian archduke seemed both a long way away and one step removed from the direct confrontations between the European great powers that had intermittently threatened trouble during the previous two decades. In 1914 Britain had more diplomatic officials in Chile than in the Balkans. When she had focused attention on south-eastern Europe – presiding over the 1913 Conference of London to tidy up after the second Balkan war – it had been as a rather grand referee, not an interested party.

“The object was to localise the war,” the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey had declared to the House of Commons; “the primary essential was to preserve agreement between the Great Powers.” Britain’s only direct interest had been the Aegean Islands.

Grey tried to maintain the same style in responding to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and to the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia that followed. Instead of thinking immediately of Britain’s alliances, his instinct was to use her diplomatic pre-eminence to push for talks between Britain, France, Germany and Italy – the Great Powers not directly involved in the confrontation.

Once it was clear that continental war was inevitable, the question was whether Britain would be part of it. Grey squeezed limited commitments out of his Cabinet colleagues and made a series of delicately nuanced promises to France and Germany. These painstaking – perhaps self-defeating – subtleties were Britain’s last desperate attempt at impartiality. They were exploded by Germany’s declaration of war on France and invasion of Belgium. In a speech to the Commons of typical intricacy and atypical rhetorical strength, Grey shepherded the country to war.

There’s a theoretical debate about whether Britain’s more natural position in 1914 was instead to maintain the isolation that had – according to one side of the argument – served her well in previous decades, rather than sacrificing so much national resource in a continental imbroglio, accelerating her loss of influence relative to the United States and stepping onto the slippery slope of European entanglement. Regardless of that debate, in 1914 a moderate political leadership decided that it was natural and necessary, for Britain’s interest and her identity, that she should join the war.

But that’s not the lesson of 1914. The fact that Britain declared war that mad summer has little to tell us about the best means of pursuing fisheries protection or energy security a century later, regardless of whether the flickering lamps of Europe are powered by Russian gas, Middle Eastern oil or our own patriotic coal or fuel rods.

There was political interest enough in the Government’s decision to conform to patriotic enthusiasm, and the dignified thunder of Ramsay Macdonald’s reply to Grey’s speech – “There has been no crime committed by statesmen of this character without those statesmen appealing to their nation’s honour” – reminds us that there was another point of view. Rather, the lesson is in the attitude to politics and policy.

1914 feels like the last flickering of an old idea of discretion and duty in political leadership. It is Grey himself who best embodies this. The ideal Government minister, he suggested, “may well be someone who has no itch to run other people’s lives”. Perhaps his performance in the summer of 1914 seems in hindsight naive; but he struggled desperately to avoid a war that he foresaw would be devastating, and to balance party political reality, personal principle and his own clear belief about what was essential for the country.

He echoes a greater age of principled political leadership, a sense of obligation to something wider. In 1846, Peel knowingly destroyed his own government and party because he believed it essential to repeal the Corn Laws that were keeping food prices impossibly high for much of the population. Forty years later Gladstone did the same to push Home Rule for Ireland.

It would of course be wrong to romanticise Victorian politics. It had its scoundrels and its self-interested. It had herds of bovine back-benchers who are forgotten for good reason. Its politicians could literally afford to care less about party politics, because their private incomes would continue to support them whoever was in power: it was unrepresentative not only because significant swathes of the population were not voting, but also because MPs were not paid.

Peel’s principle over the Corn Laws followed decades of selfishness by a landowning political class. Gladstone’s Home Rule was never implemented. Any credit due to Grey’s sense of duty seems lost in his own sense of failure at the ruin of his work.

But there is still the impression that leadership meant something more than party and personal interest. Parties evolved according to the demands of the politics – Peel changed the Tories and split them over the Corn Laws; Gladstone migrated to the Liberals, and then split them over Home Rule – instead of politics being distorted by parties. There’s a ghastly irony in the fact that the apotheosis of Grey’s professionalism and principle was his surrender to a conflict he had done everything to forestall, the submersion of his courtliness in a wave of patriotic fervour.

His extraordinary speech on the 3 August 1914 is the least resounding of rallying cries, a bleak and unhappy explanation of the inevitability of a war in which, as he put it, the country would suffer terribly.

When Sir Edward Grey first left office in 1895, he judged that it was for the last time, and noted that he and his wife were “both very glad and relieved”. His sense of duty seems impossibly quaint, from the perspective of the 21stcentury; it certainly seems very distant. To politicians who for personal political interest deliberately promote something they know will damage the nation, leaders who, for the national interest, deliberately brought on their own political failure must seem incomprehensible.

After three decades when the issue most significant for the future identity and sustainability of the nation has been managed according to what would placate one faction in one party, a past in which parties rose and fell and split and re-formed around definitive questions of policy principle seems like another country indeed.

The institution whose members, however arrogantly, debated, like Mr Horsman, the long-term obligations and interests of the country within the European order, is unrecognisable in a bewildered herd incapable even of understanding what their votes mean. The concept of leadership itself – of articulating and advocating a principled if unpopular position, grounded in a wise and measured view of the national interest, and so trying to bring people with you – is lost.

“The great duty of a Government,” Gladstone said in 1879, “especially in foreign affairs, is […] not to set up false phantoms of glory which are to delude them into calamity, not to flatter their infirmities by leading them to believe that they are better than the rest of the world.”

Robert Wilton was Private Secretary to three secretaries of state for defence, adviser to the Prime Minister of Kosovo before the country’s independence, and head of an international human rights mission in Albania. He writes on history, culture and international intervention in the Balkans, and translates a little poetry. His novels Death and the Dreadnought and The Spider of Sarajevo explore the period before the First World War, with differing degrees of seriousness.


Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments