Later, we were pressed by the Prime Minister and Grey to examine the neutrality of Belgium and our obligations under the Treaty of 1839. But it was thrown back day after day as less urgent than France. I took down to the Cabinet the words of Lord Derby about the Luxemburg guarantee of 1867; mentioning the opposition to his language from the Duke of Argyll and others. But, perhaps quite as much my fault as that of anybody else, the discussion was thin and perfunctory. Simon contributed scarcely anything and the Lord Chancellor even less. A Cabinet usually thinks of one thing at once, and the question of Belgium was up to this date, and in truth up to the morning of August 3rd, when Grey had to set out his whole case in the House of Commons, secondary to the pre-eminent controversy of the Anglo-French Entente. One of these days Grey rather suddenly let fall his view, in the pregnant words that German policy was that of a great ‘European aggressor, as bad as Napoleon’.
‘I have no German partialities’, I observed, ‘but you do not give us evidence’. Perhaps he might have cited the series of Naval Laws.
Meanwhile Harcourt had been busy in organising opinion among his Cabinet colleagues in favour of neutrality. This was meant for a counter-move that 1 was being openly worked with his best daemonic energy by Winston, with strenuous simplicity by Grey, and sourdement by the Lord Chancellor—the Prime Minister seeing and waiting. There was no intrigue about it either way. All was above-board. Harcourt got me to his room in the House of Commons one night as I was passing along the corridor and I found Beauchamp, M’Kinnon Wood, Hobhouse, Pease, very zealous against extension of entente to alliance. They calculated to a tune of eight or nine men in the Cabinet likely to agree with us. I think I attended one other meeting of this Peace Group in the same place, and under the same auspices. Harcourt this week two or three times threw me little slips at the Cabinet table, ‘That I must resign is more and more evident.’ One of these days I tapped Winston on the shoulder, as he took his seat next me. ‘Winston, we have beaten you after all.’ He smiled cheerfully. Well he might. O pectora caeca!
Lloyd George, not by design, furthered the good cause by a very remarkable piece of intelligence communicated to the Cabinet, acquired I think at the suggestion of the Prime Minister. He informed us that he had been consulting the Governor and Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, other men of light and leading in the City, also cotton men, and steel and coal men, etc., in the North of England, in Glasgow, etc., and they were all aghast at the bare idea of our plunging into the European conflict; how it would break down the whole system of credit with London as its centre, how it would cut up commerce and manufacture they told him—how it would hit labour and wages and prices, and, when the winter came, would inevitably produce violence and tumult.
When I pressed this all-important prospect in a later debate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Lloyd Gedorge) said rather tartly that he had never said he believed it all.
‘In the present temper of labour’, said I, ‘this tremendous dislocation of industrial life must be fraught with public danger. The atmosphere of war cannot be friendly to order, in a democratic system that is verging on the humour of ’48.’ But then the wisest saws, as I have many a time found before now, count for little in the hour of practical emergency. This first-class and vital element in settling our policy received little of the attention that it well deserved; it vanished in the diplomatic hurry.
Then they were rather surprised at the stress I laid upon the Russian side of things. ‘Have you ever thought’, I put to them, ‘what will happen if Russia wins? If Germany is beaten and Austria is beaten, it is not England and France who will emerge pre-eminent in Europe. It will be Russia. Will that be good for Western civilisation? I at least don’t think so. If she says she will go to Constantinople, or boldly annex both northern and neutral zone in Persia, or insist on railways up to the Indian and Afghan frontier, who will prevent her? Germany is unpopular in England, but Russia is more unpopular still. And people will rub their eyes when they realise that Cossacks are their victorious fellow-champions for Freedom, Justice, Equality of man (especially Jew man), and respect for treaties (in Persia for instance).’ They listened rather intently, and Lloyd George told me after that he had never thought of all this.
I think it was to-day 1 I put a really strong point. Grey has more than once congratulated Europe on the existence of two great confederacies, Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, as healthily preserving the balance of power. Balance! What a beautiful euphemism for the picture of two giant groups armed to the teeth, each in mortal terror of the other, both of them passing year after year in an incurable fever of jealousy and suspicion!
The Cabinet for the first time became seriously uneasy about the danger of these foreign affairs to our own cohesion. For the very first time something of the old cleavage between the Liberal League and the faithful Campbell Bannerman, Harcourt and myself began to be very sensibly felt. Hitherto not a whisper of the old schism of the Boer war. As I walked away with Burns after the Cabinet of the 29th, he pressed my arm and said with vehement emphasis, ‘Now mind, we look to you to stand firm’. He repeated it on Friday. I was not keen in response, as to my taking any lead. We were all first alarmed on the Saturday evening. Burns himself took the lead, to good purpose, and intimated in his most downright tones that the warning to Germany not to try it on against French coasts or ships in the Channel, was more than he could stand (A) 1, not only because it was practically a declaration of war on sea leading inevitably to a war on land, but mainly because it was the symbol of an alliance with France with whom no such understanding had hitherto existed.
This was a great improvement upon groups in private conclave. Somebody has said that egotism is sometimes furtive, sometimes frank. Burns is never furtive, whatever else may be said of him. This proceeding tonight was admirably frank, and took full effect. Runciman with an anxious face, speaking of the Cabinet that was appointed for Sunday morning, muttered to me as we left the room, ‘I’m very much afraid this is going to break us up to-morrow’.
Curiously enough—by way of irrelevant parenthesis—as it soon fell out, on the 29th I happened to have a party for Lord Kitchener at the United Service Club. Present, besides him, Jellicoe, Winston, Crewe, Haldane, Bryce, Knollys, Guy.
Bryce was shocked at Haldane’s war talk. I told him afterwards he must no longer think us a Peace Cabinet. Within ten days Kitchener was installed in my chair in the Cabinet! The only case, I should think of an active military commander in the Cabinet, since Wellington joined the Liverpool Ministry in 1819 as Master General of the Ordnance.
Sunday, August 2.—Cabinet. Main question resumed was the language to be held by Grey to Cambon in the afternoon. Neutrality of Belgium, though Asquith pressed for attention to that topic, was secondary to the question of our neutrality in the struggle between Germany and France; and to our liability to France under the Entente. The situation now was this: Grey admitted that we were not bound by the same obligation of honour to France as bound France to Russia. He professed to stand by what he had told Cambon in his letter of 1912, that we were left perfectly free to decide whether we would assist France by armed force. We were not committed, he always said, to action in a contingency that had not yet arisen and might never arise. No immediate aggressive action was entailed upon us, unless there was action against France in the Channel or the North Sea. So much then for the point of honour arising on the French Entente.