Lloyd George, Curzon and the Control of British Foreign Policy 1919-22

Article excerpt

Humanities and Cultural Interpretation, University of Plymouth

Determining how governments arrive at their policies, and which ministers have more influence than others in this process, is a particularly difficult exercise. The parameters of the policy-making process constantly fluctuate according to the problems facing the government, the nature of the personalities involved and a host of less tangible factors. This is particularly tree in the field of foreign policy which at times has been determined by the collective wisdom of the cabinet, or, in other occasions, by the autocratic will of a Foreign Secretary or prime Ministers. Despite such fluctuations, there remains a significant body of opinion which regards the formation of foreign policy during the Lloyd George peacetime government, from 1919 to 1922, as in many ways threatening to breach the traditional parameters of foreign policy-making. Many contemporaries saw something deeply sinister in Lloyd George's influence over Britain's external relations in this period. Subsequent historians have perhaps been rather too quick to accept some of these opinions. It is then, perhaps time to re-assess the position of the Foreign Secretary in the making of British foreign policy in the years immediately after the end of the First World War.

During the late nineteenth century the control of foreign policy was characterised by its secrecy, and the exclusivity of the small number of ministers and officials who devised and conducted it. The views of the general public and the press were not thought to have any role in framing foreign policy and even within the government circles the making of foreign policy was vested in an elite. Indeed, the affairs of the Foreign Office were routinely subject to direct Prime Ministerial control. In the late nineteenth century this had been amply demonstrated by the foreign policy interventions of Benjamin Disraeli from 1874 to 1878, over the head of his Foreign Secretary the Earl of Derby, and Lord Salisbury's combination of the posts of Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary after 1885. Although Arthur Balfour's indolence as Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905 allowed Lord Lansdowne the freedom to run his own department, Balfour still took a very keen interest, and played an important part in the development of British foreign policy. With the arrival of Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office in 1906 the formation of policy became still more exclusive. Increasingly, the shaping of foreign policy was left in Grey's hands, especially after the dying Campbell-Bannerman was replaced by Herbert Henry Asquith in 1908. As Zara Steiner has observed: "During his first two years in office ... [Grey] enjoyed a large measure of freedom.... When Asquith replaced Campbell-Bannerman, Grey's position was further strengthened, for the new Prime Minister was not only an old political ally but shared Grey's views on the European situation. Asquith was content to leave the direction of affairs in his colleague's hands".(1) With his fellow ministers preoccupied with particularly pressing domestic issues, Grey was only too happy to keep foreign affairs away from the prying eyes of the Cabinet, restricting the circulation of some important Foreign Office papers to a select coterie.

The appalling consequences of war in 1914 generated mounting criticism and condemnation of the nature of the old diplomacy and the methods of those who had conducted it. That criticism came from various quarters -- from the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) to President Wilson of the United States. Whilst Wilson demanded that in future all covenants should be open and openly arrived at, the UDC called for democratic control of foreign policy and the creation of an international system to ensure that the war to end all wars really had achieved that result. With foreign policy submerged into the general conduct of the war until 1918, and then channelled by the confines of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, it remained to be seen just how the foreign policy-making process might operate and continue to evolve in peacetime. …