Sir Edward Gray
( Originally Published 1907 )
IF one were asked to say whose word carried the most weight in Parliament to-day, there could, I think, be only one answer. Whether in office or out of office, whether to friend or foe, Sir Edward Grey is intrinsically the weightiest speaker of his time. When he sits down in the House of Commons, it is as though discussion has ceased. Other men speak from the bar; he speaks from the bench. He does not argue; he delivers a judgment. There is no appeal, and no one asks for an appeal.
I remember a curious instance of this note of final authority. It was during the time when Mr. Balfour was holding his Ministry together by his arts of evasion and agility. The attack was hot and furious; the temper of the House high and passionate. But it seemed that nothing could tear away the veil of falsity behind which Mr. Balfour concealed his evolutions. Late at night Sir Edward Grey rose. It was as though a visitor from another planet had invaded the House. He spoke briefly, quietly, without heat, and without emotion. But it was as if the House had listened to a rebuke that was almost a sentence. Mr. Balfour was silenced. There seemed nothing to do but to go home.
If we seek for the source of this authority, we are struck, first, by the relative poverty of his equipment. There are many brilliant men in the House of Commons: Sir Edward Grey is not one of them. The stuff of his speech is plain to the point of homeliness. His thought is ordinary, almost conventional. He never coins a phrase that sticks, nor wears a rhetorical flower in his button-hole. He has none of the arts of popular appeal. I remember him addressing a great provincial audience after the Fashoda crisis. It was an audience that had assembled to have its political partisanship stimulated. It sat in stony silence for an hour while Sir Edward told the story of Fashodaabout which the audience obviously did not care a rap and praised Mr. Wyndham and the Conservatives for their conduct during the crisis. When he sat down the temperature of the meeting had fallen below freezing point, and only the fulminations of a local orator, whose poverty of aspirates was balanced by the richness of his enthusiasm, saved the occasion from utter failure. He is remarkable neither for learning nor ambition. His knowledge is limited, and his insularity a tradition. He never leaves the shores of England, and is reputed to have little French. He contrasts almost startlingly to take an example with Sir Charles Dilke, who is a citizen of the world, has been everywhere, knows everything, is like a well-kept office where you will find the minutest detail pigeon-holed for immediate reference. Nor has he the industry that corrects so many deficiencies in others. His love of leisure, is as notorious as his love of tennis and of fishing. It is significant that the only book he has written is on the art of fly-fishing. He has no passion for politics. He seems a casual figure in the field of affairs, a spectator who is a little. bored by its feverish activities and idle talk. You feel that he may leave it at any moment, and be discovered at home making trout flies.
It is this aloofness from life that is the key to his unique position. He comes into affairs, as it were, from the outside, detached, unimpassioned, bringing his own atmosphere with him. He has the large serenity of one who is at home in his own mind; draws his water from his own well, has that
The passions of men, the cries of the market-place, the frenzy of the conflict do not touch him. He dwells outside them in a certain grave isolation. It is not that he is cold. His philosophy is not that of the Stoic, steeled to endurance of an implacable fate. It is rather the philosophy of the mind that " feeds on a wise passiveness," and finds in that food those large reserves of power that give his words their peculiar weight and his actions their stamp of authority.
There is a certain spaciousness and simplicity in his character that communicate a sense of abiding purpose to politics. He sees the landscape, as ,it were, from an elevation, and takes in its features in broad masses. His view of the forest is not obscured by the trees. There are richer minds in politics, more eager minds, more fertile minds; but there is no mind so secure and self-contained, so indifferent to external impulse, so firmly rooted in itself. His influence is not unlike that exercised by the late Duke of Devonshire. It is the influence of a character of absolute purity of motive and of unyielding in-dependence of thought. It is the influence of one to whom the world can offer no bribe. There is nothing in its gift that he wants neither power, nor praise, nor wealth. " His mind to him a kingdom is," and in that kingdom he finds full content.
In that kingdom, too, it is nature and not man which is his constant companion. He is wholly indifferent to society, and leaves the social and festive functions of his office to others, while he escapes to the quiet of that country cottage where, before his tragic bereavement, he lived with his wife the simple life he loves and where now he is happy in the companionship of natural things. His passion for nature is, indeed, the keynote of his character. A colleague of his in the Cabinet told me an incident illustrating this rich and wholesome enthusiasm. The Session of a certain year had been an unconscionable time a-dying, and Sir Edward, yearning for the country, had been held an unwilling captive to the dusty ways of Westminster. At last he escaped, took the train to Northumberland, and reached his home at Falloden in the late evening. And, full of the joy of his recovered liberty, he ascended to the roof of his house and spent the night amid
The silence that is in the starry sky,
until the dawn came up over the North Sea that beats hard by against the rock-bound coast. It follows almost naturally that his one literary enthusiasm is for him who took men out " into the light of things," where Nature is the teacher. " I spent last night with Grey," said a friend of his to me, " and we talked of nothing but Wordsworth." It is significant, too, that at a dinner of a literary club on one occasion, the three authors he referred to as those " light-hearted and happy writers who give us recreation when we are tired and have lost resource in ourselves were Izaak Walton, Gilbert White, and Thomas Love Peacock. Show me a man's books and I will tell you his character.
He has the unhasting mind of the countryside. He never flashes out in any sudden flame of enthusiasm. He is slow to move; but he is slower still to speak. The ball has reached the mark before you hear the report. He is deaf alike to the prayers of friends and the menaces of foes. He goes his own way, takes his own time, declines to make any veiled promises in order to secure suspense of judgment. They say. What say they? Let them say." When the thing is done he will speak till then let the heathen furiously rage together. This reticence, so trying to the eager mind, invests him with a certain cloud of power that speech would dissipate. He is a hidden and implacable purpose. Sometimes that purpose, when disclosed, has the shock of dramatic surprise. For two years the friends of Macedonia had thundered at his gate in vain. He gave them no encouragement, was cold and apparently indifferent. Then one night, following a fierce onslaught by Mr. Master-man, which he waved aside without anger, almost with gentleness, he announced a policy which suddenly changed the whole situation, and revealed him taking a brave and high line with the Powers in the cause of a desolated people.
Less defensible was the muzzle he imposed on the House in the midst of the Denshawi shame. He re-presented the situation as too critical for discussion; but the truth, subsequently revealed, leaves one at a loss to understand that demand for silence from one whose tendency is to understate the facts. For it is clear that there was never any real peril. But, indeed, the whole of that dark story, with Sir Edward's defence of the officials, followed by the sudden resignation of Lord Cromer and the belated release of the wronged villagers who had escaped the scaffold, is obscure and disquieting.
Not less typical of his attitude of reserve towards Parliament was his silence as to the Russian agreement, which was never allowed to be discussed, and which, with apparently studied scorn, was published a few days after Parliament had risen. Sir Edward Grey's view of foreign affairs, indeed, is that it is a close bureaucratic preserve into which he will allow no impertinent trespassers. It is outside the field of democracy. There is no right of way through his woods, and he is the keeper with a gun. This is a just view so far as the conduct of delicate negotiations is concerned, but it is assailable when applied to the spirit of national policy. Even Prince Bülow in bureaucratic Germany seeks the endorsement of Parliament, to which he explains his policy at least with seeming frankness. But in democratic England the Foreign Minister is silent as the Sphinx, looking out over the desert of Parliament into infinity:
Others abide our question: thou art free,
Sir Edward is, indeed, the least democratic, as he is the least demonstrative of men. He belongs more than any man to-day to the great Whig tradition the Whig tradition, touched by the strong personality of Bishop Creighton, who was his tutor when that great man held a parsonage in Northumberland, and by the passionless spirit of the Balliol of Jowett. He distrusts the irresponsible waywardness of public opinion, with its quick emotions and passionate transitions. The public! the public! how many fools does it take to make the public? " he seems to say with a statesman of an earlier time. And yet, perhaps, that is unjust, for there is no trace of bitterness in him, and his patrician view is free from the taint of contempt or the airs of the superior person. It sits on him naturally. He is to the manner born. He takes his place at the high table without pushing and without challenge. He is there by a sort of royal authority, unconscious of itself, but imaged in the bold sculpture of the face, the steady eye, and the governing nose.
The unrivalled confidence which he commands in the country is not wholly shared by those who regard England as the banner-bearer in the cause of human liberty. For this cause he has done little. His policy is governed by a fixed idea the idea that peace must be preserved by having " friends" and that the Concert of Europe is a creed outworn. Under the inspiration of this idea he has committed this country to the support of the most reactionary government in Europe and has given a tendency to events which is rapidly hardening Anglo-German relations into a condition of permanent antagonism. The entente under him has taken a sinister colour, and the inflexibility of his mind, unqualified by large knowledge, swift apprehension of events or urgent passion for humanity, constitutes a peril to the future. His aims are high, his honour stainless; but the slow movement of his mind and his unquestioning faith in the honesty of those on whom he has to rely render it easy for him to drift into courses which a more imaginative sense and a swifter instinct would lead him to question and repudiate.
What of the future? It depends partly on whether the centre of gravity in Liberalism shifts to the right or the left. If to the right, then the highest place in the State is within his scope, for though he is superficially little in sympathy with the eager spirit of the new Liberalism, he is not essentially at variance with it. The Whig temperament is in him a restraint upon the tongue rather than a restraint of thought. His views are often more advanced than his habit of stating them. But his love of the rod of the fisherman is greater than his love of the rod of Empire, and like Danton, he would probably hold that " it is better to keep a flock of sheep upon the hillside than meddle with the government of men." One day, it may be, he will shake the dust of Westminster from his feet for ever, and then we shall know where to look for him. For he himself, I remember, pictured that happy time with delighted anticipation when replying on one occasion to a toast proposed by Mr. Churchill: " It is a time of unlimited leisure that we shall spend with old friends in a library. There is a garden out side the library, and, of course, a suitable river not flowing too fast, nor, at the same time, flowing too slow, which is a worse fault. That will be the happiest time of all. I, in those days, shall have no thought of politics except to read the report of the brilliant speeches which Mr. Churchill will still be making in the House of Commons. Just think, those of you who are engaged in political occupations, what our libraries are now compared with what they will be when we get old the quantities of clippings, the drawers full of opponents' speeches kept in the hope of being able to produce a quotation at an inconvenient moment; pamphlets and magazines by the hundredweight; blue books and Hansards by the ton. I think of the splendid time I shall have making a bonfire of them all. How I will stir the fire, and how I will mulch my rose trees with the ashes ! "
It is a pleasant picture. We may fittingly leave him mulching his rose trees or going out with his rod to that delightful river which flows neither too fast nor too slow. A copy of the Compleat Angler peeps from one pocket, and White's Selborne from another, and around him is the great book of nature that never wearies. Perhaps in that serene solitude one will come to him as Maximian came to Diocletian, who had resigned the Imperial purple, asking him to resume the reins of government. " He rejected the temptation," says Gibbon, " with a smile of pity, calmly observing that if he could show Maximian the cabbages which he had planted with his own hand at Salona he should no longer be urged to relinquish the enjoyment of happiness for the pursuit of power." I think I see Sir Edward showing his visitor his basket of trout and pointing to his rosebuds and the whispering woods as his answer to the appeal to return to the dusty strife of politics.