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Faith, war, and policy; addresses and essays on the European War online

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In some passages Mr. Ponsonby sees and even em-
phasizes the truth of this. He admits that Parliament
has not only been "ignorant and powerless," but "has
been content to remain so" (p. 48). He complains that
constituents have sometimes actually expressed dis-
approval of their member taking an intelligent interest
in the affairs of foreign countries (p. 110). The blame
then lies rather with democracy than with diplomacy,
but the charge itself is true. Agents often have to warn
young candidates against "too much foreign policy."
This is partly, no doubt, due to the mere narrowness of
interest which always goes with lack of knowledge and
weakness of imagination; partly, I think, it is due to a
more special and perhaps temporary cause. For work-
ingmen often feel an instinctive, and not unnatural,
suspicion of the speaker who seems unduly interested in
remote places and peoples. They can be roused, of course,
by a full-blooded tale of atrocities; but, short of that,
they are either bored or they suspect that the speaker has


some axe of his own to grind. And they know that he has
led them on to ground where he can easily deceive them.
This attitude is, no doubt, regrettable. In a properly
educated democracy it should be impossible. But it has
most emphatically its good side, as I am sure Mr. Pon-
sonby would be the first to acknowledge. It is the out-
come of a state of mind which has no fears, no aggres-
sive designs, and no grudges against foreign nations; an
insular state of mind -which is concentrated on the im-
provement of our own national conditions, and is dis-
posed to let other people look after themselves. I have
often been struck, when conversing with foreigners, —
Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and above all members
of the Balkan States, — by the vivid and detailed inter-
est they show in alliances and combinations and possi-
bilities of war, and the ready way in which they accept
the fact that some nation or other is "the enemy."
The average, moderate-minded Englishman is not at
home in this atmosphere. He does not like to talk about
wars and intrigues, and he will not calmly accept the
suggestion that any nation is, as a matter of course, "the
enemy.' ' He has a feeling that the whole subject of
foreign politics, as it is usually discussed, is unwhole-
some. It suggests trains of thought which had better not
be in people's minds at all. There is obviously a great
deal of somewhat confused wisdom in this feeling; and
I am not surprised to find Mr. Balfour saying that, in
his opinion, when once people "are fairly confident that
the general lines pursued are not inconsistent with na-
tional welfare, then, I think, probably the less time
given to foreign affairs the better" (p. 122). It is cer-
tainly a happy nation that need not think much about
foreign affairs; it is probably a wise nation which, if it


has to think, docs its thinking as rapidly and effectively
as possible, and then occupies its mind with safer sub-

However that may be, Mr. Ponsonby proves his point
as to the bare fact. Our foreign policy has, since the
settling-up of the Boer War, pursued its way almost un-
checked, and to a large extent uncriticized, by Par-
liament or by public opinion. We are now landed in a
great disaster, and Mr. Ponsonby assumes, without any
present attempt at proof, that this disaster might have
been avoided by a different foreign policy. He does not
say what the right policy would at any point have been;
that is not the subject of his book; but he believes that
it might have been attained if the people of England had
exercised a real and active control over the Foreign
Office. That is, if I understand him aright, he believes
that our policy would have been wiser and our influence
for peace greater if the Foreign Secretary had always
been compelled to ask himself, at each new step: "What
will Parliament, what will my constituents think of this? "
or "How will this look under the test of a general elec-
tion?" He would admit, I presume, that such a policy
must involve a certain loss in initiative, in decisiveness,
and in rapidity. And he does not pretend that the ordi-
nary mass of electors have more knowledge or more cool-
ness or — I think — higher principles than Mr. Asquith
and Sir Edward Grey. But he does believe that, in spite
of all drawbacks, this publicity, this constant reference
to the plain man, would somehow have resulted in the
production of a better spirit, and have let gusts of fresh
and wholesome air into the stale corridors of diplomacy.
I feel on this subject that the argument of the book fails
to convince me.


There are several points, of course, which one willingly
concedes to Mr. Ponsonby. If there had been demo-
cratic control in Germany, there would probably have
been a Social-Democratic Government, or at least a
liberal and peace-seeking Government. But in France
and England there were already liberal and peace-seek-
ing Governments, and in Russia a Government which,
whatever may be thought of its nascent Liberalism, was
at least most earnest for peace. The Entente Powers
possessed already the pacific tone which Mr. Ponsonby's
reforms profess to offer them. And it does not seem
reasonable to apply a particular remedy to the peace-
seekers because it would do good to the war-seekers.
Again, most persons of experience will concede to Mr.
Ponsonby that they have occasionally heard individual
diplomats and empire-builders talk about foreign affairs
in a reckless and intriguing spirit, which would certainly
not be countenanced by the House of Commons or an
average popular constituency. A great deal of such talk
is not to be taken seriously. It is the form in which these
people take their romance. But sometimes, no doubt, it
represents real opinions, and sometimes the holders of
such opinions do acquire a temporary and surreptitious
influence over public affairs. But my own experience has
been that, though they always dread the " Talking Shop "
and the ''British Public/' they dread "Downing Street "
as much or even more. And rightly so, for as a matter
of history during the last century the Foreign Office has
acted almost always as a drag on these forward or expan-
sionist movements, and a far more effective drag than
"the public" can be, for the mere reason that it knows
more and is harder to deceive. The Foreign Office is
normally engaged on a mass of useful and unobtrusive


work, which the public never cares to read about, from
the settling of small disputes by small agreements to the
clearing of international waterways and the preservation
of hippopotami. And international friction is what it
most detests.

This shows, I think, that the vital issue at stake in
foreign politics is much more an issue between reason
and unreason, between prudence and recklessness, be-
tween moderation and chauvinism, than, as Mr.
Ponsonby insists on regarding it, between democratic
and oligarchic sentiment. I suspect really that he and
his friends have been misled by a false analogy. A great
many abuses in the past have been remedied by a mere
extension of the franchise or a letting-in of democratic
fresh air. Cases of class privilege and class oppression,
of indefensible favouritism or nepotism or traditional
abuse, these and many others can be treated by the
simple application of publicity and democratic control.
These cases mostly occur in home politics, because there
the most common conflicts are class conflicts; the facts,
if not simple, are at least familiar; the issues to be de-
cided are very largely moral issues, and the people are
called in to give, not an expert, but a disinterested judge-
ment. Now, as a general rule in foreign politics the very
reverse holds good. The conflicts are seldom or never
class conflicts; the facts and the whole state of circum-
stances surrounding the facts are unfamiliar, and can-
not be understood without special study; the issues are
seldom plain issues of right or wrong. Furthermore, the
people of any one nation is, unfortunately, not dis-
interested. The disinterested arbitrator, whom analogy
demands, is not any single "people," but the Concert
of Europe — a different story altogether. Neither the


quality of disinterestedness, nor the kindred qualities of
reasonableness, tact, self-control, and knowledge, which
are specially required for the handling of foreign contro-
versies, can be secured by any mere mechanical method
such as the application of democratic control.

Of course, there are sometimes cases in foreign policy
where the democratic remedy is indicated; cases where
a Government is in some sense conspiring against the
wishes of the people, or where a bureaucracy is, for the
sake of avoiding friction, tolerating some outrageous
wrong. In both types of case I think that our own
political practice does insure publicity; certainly any
notion that a British Government can really conceal
from all eyes the main trend of its foreign policy is the
wildest dreaming; but, if Mr. Ponsonby can suggest any
method by which to increase our assurance in this
matter, he will be working in the spirit of the Consti-
tution as well as forwarding the cause of democracy, and
we must listen to his proposal with all sympathy.

And here I will make my largest concession to him in
the matter of our recent history. I think it is true, as he
says, that owing to some extreme reticence in Ministers
and other leaders of the nation, there grew up before the
war a great divergence of expectation between the mind
of the Foreign Office and that of the country, between
those behind the scenes and the mass of outsiders. This
divergence, I admit, was regrettable ; but I do not think
it arose from the cause which Mr. Ponsonby assigns.
It was not because the Foreign Office was secretly
aggressive and dreaded peaceful opinion. It was almost
exactly the opposite. It was because the Foreign Office
was straining every nerve for its twofold object, and it
dreaded outside disturbance. Its object was, if possible,


ponce; if peace failed, security. It was trying to appease
the sensitiveness of all reasonable Germany and at the
same time to guard against the intrigues of militarist
Germany. It was negotiating with a half-declared
enemy, armed to the teeth, demanding world-power and
ready to spring, muttering demands which seemed
vague and sinister and which yet were well worth satisfy-
ing if they were capable of being satisfied; a half-declared
enemy who had once been a friend and might still by
supreme tact and patience be reconverted to friendship;
and in that crisis it did not want the cooperation of any
one it could not trust. It told no falsehood and practised
no intrigues. But it hid its difficulties; it spoke with a
smiling face; it pretended always that things were less
terrible than they were. And when at last the storm
broke, we who had not been fully warned were amazed
and angry, and some of us thought we had been cheated.
Let Mr. Ponsonby look again at the writings of the
Haldane-hunters and the other wolves of Jingoism.
What is it that they complain of? It is that again and
again there were dangerous situations out of which they
could have made capital, and Lord Haldane and the rest
of the Government did not give them the opportunity.
German agents worked up sedition in India, German
money corrupted the gendarmes in Persia, German dip-
lomats committed breaches of diplomatic honour; and
the Government kept it all dark ! All the yellow press was
waiting outside the door, longing for information, only
too anxious to help; all the people who wanted to turn
out the Government, with civil war or without civil war;
the schemers who wanted militarism for the sake of
reaction, the lunatics who wanted trouble because they
thought it fun. I quite admit that they would not have


had entirely their own way: the other side would have
had its say also. But would there be much safety in that?
Mr. Shaw would have rushed to preserve the peace with
criticisms the reverse of sedative. Some Syndicalists and
some Irishmen of extreme views would have expressed
their preference for the foreigner over the English
capitalist. Mr. Ponsonby himself ... I would not for
the world attack him. I believe he would have used all
his influence absolutely and disinterestedly for good.
But would he and his group, in a crisis like that, have
supported the Government with real and effective
friendship, have strengthened their hands and tried to
show them that they could firmly count on the whole-
some part of the nation? I believe they would; but I
cannot blame the Foreign Office for doubting it. The
nation as a whole would have been behind the Govern-
ment. I have no doubt of that. But I believe that dur-
ing those years the more thoughtful part of the nation
actually preferred not to be consulted. And if any reader
feels vehemently otherwise, I would ask him to look up
the citations from the English press quoted in Revent-
low's important book, " Deutschlands Auswartige Pol-
itik," and then ask himself whether he would care to
have such allies talking beside his Foreign Secretary
when negotiations were peculiarly delicate.

"Then," Mr. Ponsonby may reply, "you confess quite
frankly that you do not trust the people?" Trust is a
limited, not an unlimited, quantity; but I could answer
that question better if I knew exactly what it meant, if
I knew whether Mr. Ponsonby was referring to an actual
or an ideal people. For he, like the rest of us, varies be-
tween the two conceptions. At times he admits that the
mass of the people is ignorant, indifferent, apt to be


swayed by gusts of passion and deceived by interested
newspapers, and that the good of its participation in
active politics chiefly depends on the extreme danger of
trying to keep it out. At others he still speaks of that
ideal people whose lineaments have really come down to
us from Shelley and Godwin; which looks straight at all
questions without prejudice or personal interest and,
therefore, with universal good-will and unclouded moral
judgement. When we think of "the people" as control-
ling our politics, do we mean a sort of residue which
remains after removing all special classes and all per-
sons of outstanding character or knowledge — a people
which reads the yellowest type of newspaper and finds
its heroes on the race-course and its politics in the music-
hall? Or do we mean the sort of people which rises to
the mind's eye as one returns from a meeting of the
Workers' Educational Association or a particularly good
trade-union discussion? And can Mr. Ponsonby see any
way whereby the first people shall not snatch the deci-
sion out of the hands of the second? In nine cases out
of ten, doubtless, the common sense of the nation will
assert itself. I have no doubt of that. But in the tenth
case, in the critical and exciting and specially dangerous
case, with organized bad influences ready to play on
public opinion? No; undesirable as secrecy is on a mul-
titude of grounds, I cannot see that perpetual publicity,
as such, is any safe road to the keeping of peace.

I grant, of course, fully that, in foreign affairs as in
all the rest of politics, the will of the people must be
supreme, and the ultimate control must be with the
citizens of the country acting through Parliament. But
I do not believe that increased democracy will serve as
a substitute for character and wisdom, any more than an


artificially restricted franchise will. Our foreign politics
are not below the average standard of the nation; I be-
lieve myself that they have been well above it. I believe
that, under the present Foreign Secretary, our foreign
policy has been conducted with as great care and pru-
dence and with more than as great high-mindedness and
resolute honesty of purpose, as that of any nation in
modern history. But, if we are ever to rise to a foreign
policy which shall be still higher, more daring and
idealist, more ready to run risks for great ends, and more
brilliant in meeting perils as yet far off and scarcely dis-
cernible, it will not be by any mere democratization of
machinery; it will only be by some enormous change of
heart, in which the masses of the nation must take part
fully as much as their rulers.

I need hardly assure those who know Mr. Ponsonby
that his concrete proposals are in no way either un-
practical or revolutionary. In part, he merely calls
attention to those reforms in the Foreign Office which
have been recommended by the recent Civil Service
Commission. Here every one will agree with him.
Further, he proposes two changes in what we may call
political procedure and one important, but not unreason-
able, change in the Constitution. There is to be (1) an
annual debate, occupying at least two days, on the
Foreign Office Vote, in which the Foreign Secretary
shall expound his whole policy. Besides this (2) it shall
be the recognized duty of the Foreign Secretary to
make periodical pronouncements in the country on
foreign affairs, especially when Parliament is not sitting.
These proposals could hardly be made compulsory, but
they both seem desirable, so far as an outsider can judge.


The country would certainly be glad to have both the
debate and the periodical speeches, and it is difficult to
see that anything but good would in normal circum-
stances accrue to the Government. The sort of Foreign
Secretary whose speeches would be a public danger
would be sure to make them in any case. The change in
the Constitution falls under three heads, and presents
great difficulty. At present, as we all know, Parliament
is a deliberative and legislative body; the executive
power is vested in the Sovereign, acting through his
Ministers. In practice, this sharp distinction is in many
ways softened. A Government can be questioned about
its executive acts, and cannot continue in existence if
those acts are definitely disapproved by the House of
Commons. The Home Secretary, for instance, can de-
cide whether a particular condemned criminal shall be
hanged or pardoned. If he knows the House wants the
man pardoned, he can still hang him, but he does so at
his peril; because, though the man will remain hanged,
the Home Secretary will not remain Home Secretary.
Consequently, he will never hang a man against what he
believes to be the general feeling of the House, unless he
has very strong reasons and is confident that he can
justify his action.

Similarly, the Government has at present the power
of (1) making a treaty, (2) making an agreement or al-
liance with a foreign country, and (3) declaring war.
Mr. Ponsonby wishes to make all these powers depend-
ent on previous consent of Parliament. The question is
difficult and merits a full discussion. The case for Mr.
Ponsonby's reform is obvious. There is certainly some-
thing anomalous in the conception that a Government,
which cannot pass the smallest bill without full Parlia-


mentary debate, should be able to negotiate a treaty or
form an alliance or even declare war without saying a
word to any one. The case on the other side appears to
rest on two arguments. First, there is a constitutional
argument. Parliament is the Legislature, not the Exec-
utive. It is from every point of view unfitted for ex-
ecutive work. It contains the executive body and can
dismiss it, but it must allow that body to do its own
work in its own way. True, Parliament may have to
allow many small things to be done against its wishes
rather than take the drastic step of turning the Govern-
ment out; but, it is argued, that arrangement just gives
the Executive sufficient elasticity and power of real
initiative. The discretion, no doubt, is larger in foreign
affairs than in home affairs, but it is not different in
qualitjr. And foreign affairs, as a matter of fact, require
that larger discretion.

The second is a practical argument. It is pointed out
that to make treaties dependent on the approval of
Parliament is greatly to weaken the bargaining power
of the Government. For a treaty is always a matter of
give and take; each party has to make concessions.
And, obviously, a foreign Power will often be willing to
make a concession when assured of a firm bargain, which
it would not make if it had to take the risk of having the
whole bargain thrown back on its hands. For example,
in the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907, Russia recognized
our right to control the foreign relations of the Amir,
which she had always disputed before. But would she
have done so if she had known that the treaty as a whole
was subject to the approval of the British Parliament,
and that she might find herself in the position of having
gained nothing, but given up an important point which


could never quite be recovered? The proposed limita-
tion certainly weakens the Government's bargaining
power; it also makes treaties harder to conclude. For
after almost every important treaty, you find the re-
spective Parliaments complaining that their own Min-
ister has not driven a hard enough bargain. The Par-
liaments would thus be less likely to agree than the
Ministers. And, further, a House which wants to quar-
rel with a Minister about other matters can often show
its annoyance by rejecting a treaty; as, for instance, the
United States Senate rejected the Arbitration Treaty
with England. Considering that most treaties — es-
pecially if we remember the host of small but valuable
treaties which attract no public notice — are attempts
to settle international difficulties and remove causes of
quarrel, while every treaty makes some demand upon
international good-will, it would seem a deplorable thing
to increase the obstacles in the way of concluding

Furthermore, it is pleaded that, as a matter of experi-
ence, there has been of late years in England no abuse of
any of these special powers. Before the crisis of 1914 the
Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary were able to
assure the House that " there was no secret engagement
which they would spring upon the House. The House
was free to decide in any crisis what the British attitude
should be." (Grey, August 3, 1914.) The treaties con-
cluded have mostly been treaties of arbitration or simi-
lar clearings-up ; the main exception was probably the
Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which, curiously
enough, was announced to the Duma while still unknown
to the British Parliament. As to declarations of war,
Mr. Ponsonby quotes a startling statement from Homer


Lea to the effect that in the nineteenth century Great
Britain embarked on no less than eighty wars with no
prior declaration at all. This figure, if in any sense cor-
rect, must be obtained by counting every small expedi-
tion against a savage tribe as a war. Such expeditions
are almost always caused by incidents which make decla-
rations of war unsuitable. In the case of a war with any
civilized nation it is almost unthinkable that a British
Government should either begin a war without declara-
tion, or declare war without having made sure of the
overwhelming support of Parliament and the country.
The whole course of proceedings in 1914, and earlier,
shows with what iron determination Grey refused to
make any agreement or alliance or promise on his own
responsibility, without the support of Parliament, and
how carefully the Government explained the whole situa-
tion to the House of Commons before taking any of the
critical steps. True, if the House had insisted on pre-
serving peace with Germany in 1914, Grey would pre-
sumably have resigned. That only shows that a Minister
who does not possess the confidence of the House cannot
continue in office.

Other countries, which possess written constitutions,
have various rules limiting the power of the Executive
in treaty-making. We, with our unwritten tradition, are
probably in a transition stage. The Executive has in
practice made a habit of carefully consulting the House,
and, indeed, is attacked by critics both at home and
abroad for hampering its own effectiveness by doing so.
It is argued that if the British Government had had the
courage to contract definite alliances and to announce

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Online LibraryGilbert MurrayFaith, war, and policy; addresses and essays on the European War → online text (page 8 of 19)