On August 3rd Grey received news that Germany would be prepared, if we would pledge ourselves to neutrality, to agree that its fleet would not attack the North Coast of France. Grey replied that this was far too narrow an engagement for us. Why? And if it was too narrow, why not at least take it as a basis for widening and enlargement? Pure precipitancy! At any rate there had as yet been no word said in the Cabinet about an Expeditionary Force. But I had been too virtuous an attendant at the C.I.D. 1 for several years, not to know that this was a settled aim in the minds of many, if not most, of its members.
Harcourt assured me before discussion began, that he believed he could count on ten or eleven men against Grey’s view that we had both moral obligations of honour and substantial obligations of policy in taking sides with France. After a very fair discussion Grey was authorised to give an assurance to Cambon that ‘if the German Fleet comes into the Channel or through the North Sea to undertake hostile operations against French coasts or shipping, the British fleet will give all the protection in its power. This assurance of course subject to the policy of His. (1 Committee of Imperial Defence.)
Majesty’s Government receiving the support of Parliament, and must not be taken as binding His Majesty’s Government to take any action until the above contingency of action by the German fleet takes place’ (No. 146). 1 There were two lines of argument for this warning to Germany. (1) We owed it to France, in view of the Entente, and also of her value to us in the Mediterranean. (2) We could not acquiesce in Franco-German naval conflict in the narrow seas, on our doorstep so to say. This authorisation, however, was not unanimous. Burns, with remarkable energy, force and grasp, insisted that this was neither more nor less than a challenge to Germany, tantamount to a declaration of war against her. He wound up with a refusal to be a party to it. Asquith took the blow a trifle too coolly, and, with a little trouble, eventually perauaded Burns to postpone his resignation until the Cabinet to be held at 6.30 in the evening. I said to Burns as we broke up at luncheon time, ‘I think you are mistaken in going on this particular proposal. The door-step argument makes a warning to Germany defensible, apart from French Entente. I expect that I am certain to (1 The reference is to No. 146 of Great Britain and the European Crisis). Go out with you, but on the general policy of armed intervention, as against diplomatic energy and armed neutrality, to which Grey has step by step been drawing the Cabinet on.’ I made just as much impression on John Burns as I expected—that is, not the slightest.
The Belgian question took its place in today’s discussion, but even now only a secondary place. Grey very properly asked leave to warn the German Ambassador that, unless Germany was prepared to give us a reply in the sense of the reply we had from France, it would be hard to restrain English feeling on any violation of Belgian neutrality by either combatant. This leave of course we gave him. There was a general, but vague, assent to our liabilities under the Treaty of 1839, but there was no assent to the employment of a land force, and, I think, no mention of it.
I do not recall whether it was at the morning or the afternoon Cabinet that Grey told us of his talk with Lichnowsky; I remember noting that it seemed a great pity, while ‘keeping our hands free’, not to take advantage of the occasion for more talk and negotiation. It was worth trying at any rate, instead of this wooden non possumus, even though Lichnowsky’s ideas or suggestions were merely personal and unauthorised by instructions. 1
The plain truth, as I conceive the truth to be, is this. The German line on Belgian neutrality might be met in two ways. One, we might at once make it a casus belli; the other we might protest with direct energy, as the British Government protested on the Russian repudiation in 1870 of the Black Sea articles of the Treaty of Paris, and push on by diplomatising. What was the difficulty of the second course? Why, our supposed entanglement with France, and nothing else. The precipitate and peremptory blaze about Belgium was due less to indignation at the violation of a Treaty, than to natural perception of the plea that it would furnish for intervention on behalf of France, for expeditionary force, and all the rest of it. Belgium was to take the place, that had been taken before as pleas for war, by Morocco and Agadir.
Now for personal movements. Simon and Lloyd George drove me to lunch at Beauchamp’s and our talk was on the footing that we were all three for resignation. Simon said to me privately that he felt pretty sure of decisive influence over Lloyd George, and that he (Simon) looked to (1 See Appendix, pp. 38, 39).
resignation as quite inevitable. Present: Lord Beauchamp, Simon, Lloyd George, Harcourt, Samuel, Pease, M’Kinnon Wood (not sure about Runciman). It wore all the look of an important gathering, but was in truth a very shallow affair. On the surface they were pretty stalwart against allowing a mistaken interpretation of entente to force us into a Russian or Central European quarrel. The general voice was loud that ‘Burns was right’, and that we should not have passed Grey’s proposed language to Cambon. They all pressed the point that the Cabinet was being rather artfully drawn on step by step to war for the benefit of France and Russia. If I, or anybody else, could only have brought home to them, that the compound and mixed argument of French liability and Belgian liability must end in expeditionary force, and active part in vast and long continued European war, the Cabinet would undoubtedly have perished that very evening, Lloyd George and Simon heading the schism. I held that the door-step point was awkward, if we stopped there. I said that as for myself, I felt bound to go, on wider grounds. Personally my days were dwindling, I was a notorious peace-man and little-Englander, etc., my disappearance would be totally different from theirs; the future responsibilities to Asquith, to the party, to the constituencies, were quite different in their case, with their lives before them, and long issues committed to their charge. They made a loud, prompt protest of course. Lloyd George and Simon were energetically decided at the end, as they had been at the beginning, to resist at all costs the bellicose inferences from the entente. Pease told us that he had been lunching with the Prime Minister, who begged him to keep the conciliabule to which he was going, ‘out of mischief’, or some such good-natured phrase. Pease also argued that Grey was never quite so stiff as he seemed. His tone convinced me that the Quaker President of the Peace Society would not be over squeamish about having a hand in Armageddon. What exactly brought Lloyd George among us, and what the passing computations for the hour inside his lively brain, I could not make out.
Two hours’ rumination at the Club. Felt acutely what Mr. Gladstone had often told me, that a public man can have no graver responsibility than quitting a Cabinet on public grounds. No act for which he may be more justly called to full account. Anybody can hold and advocate unpopular opinions; but withdrawal from a Cabinet is a definite act, involving relations for good or ill with other people, and possibly affecting besides all else the whole machinery of domestic government. It concerns a man’s principle and creed; it affects intimate and confidential relations with fellow-workers, it concerns his party, its strength and weakness, the balance of power in its ranks and its organisation. No fugitive Sabbath musing was it, either then or since, that filled my mind.
The dissolution of the Ministry was that afternoon in full view. Would even the break-up of the Ministry be less of an evil both for Liberal principles, and the prospects and power of the Liberal party, than their wholesale identification with a Cabinet committed to intervention in arms by sea and land in Central Europe and all the meshes of the Continental system? It is easy to get a question into a false position. Never easier than now. The significance of the French Entente had been rather disingenuously played with, before both the Cabinet and Parliament. An entente was evidently something even more dangerous for us than an alliance. An alliance has definite covenants. An entente is vague, rests on point of honour, to be construed by accident and convenience.
The Prime Minister and Grey had both of them assured the House of Commons that we had no engagements unknown to the country. Yet here we were confronted by engagements that were vast indeed, because indefinite and undefinable. The same two Ministers and others had deliberately and frequently, in reply to anxious protests from Harcourt and myself, minimised the significance of the systematic conferences constantly going on between the military and naval officers of the two countries. Then the famous letter to Cambon of November 1912, which we had extorted from Grey—what a singularly thin and deceptive document it was turning out!