Britain’s military agreements with France just prior to the First World War were basically a gentleman’s agreement between the Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey and the French military.  It is perhaps understandable that the details were not made public by revealing them to parliament.  It is a bit more surprising that the Cabinet were kept in the dark.  It is even more surprising that the Prime Minister, Asquith, wasn’t in the loop either.

This is the story we get from a new book from everyone’s least favourite politician and one time foreign secretary himself David Owen.  Asquith finally found out that Britain was committed to sending troops to France about 3 years after he became prime minister.  Grey was both a friend and a supporter of Asquith, at least initially, so this whole business is a little surprising.

But perhaps it shouldn’t be.  The official heads of governments, both hereditary and elected, are often the last people to know what is going on in their governments.  We are still waiting to find out from the Chilcott Enquiry exactly what happened about the last war that Britain got involve in, the one in Iraq.  I wonder if we’ll be any the wiser if and when it comes out.  A lot of people who take an interest in these things assume that Blair wanted to go to war and that he misled those about him in order to get his way.  Maybe the true story is even more embarrassing.   Perhaps Blair himself wasn’t in on the decision, and his subsequent dissembling is not to hide a poor decision but to hide how little he actually had to do with it.

Big modern states are complicated things and the people who make the decisions aren’t always the ones that you would expect.  Foreign policy is the one that is least amenable to control.  The parts of the state that are hardest to keep accountable are the military and the intelligence.  Both have great excuses for keeping things secret and are consequently able to avoid legitimate scrutiny if they so choose.

We see this all over the place.  President Obama criticises the excesses of Israeli policy in Gaza only to find that arms are being shipped to Israel anyway.  And in fact American foreign policy seems serenely unconnected to internal american politics.  Obama is not perceived to be a warmonger in the way Bush was, but he still keeps spending the money on the military and even seems to have a particular penchant for the deployment of drones.

The account David Owen gives us is an interesting one, if you can cope with his rather flat prose style.  It does bring the perspective of a an actual foreign minister to the story.  He was in charge of the same organisation some sixty years later – albeit sixty eventful years that probably changed the way the British Foreign Office worked more than most.  But I couldn’t help feeling that even he is a bit naive about things.  Although the government is supposedly the servant of the people and the armed forces are nominally the servants of the government, it is important to remember that these are powerful vested interests in their own right that are quite capable of doing their own things for their own motives.

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