Politicians and Bureaucrats: The Art of the Possible

The state of affairs with which we have to deal is without precedent. It is so scandalous that if neither Belgium nor any other Power will act, we must use all the means at our disposal, short of undertaking the administration of the Congo ourselves, to put an end to it. [1]—Sir Edward Grey to the Cabinet, 1909

The 1890s showed that the Congo regime would make no substantive changes in response to criticism, whether private or public, measured or sensational, friendly or hostile. Reform would come only through the exercise of power: through international coordination, unilateral British military action, or the Belgian political process. All three required the British government to take a strong stand, as Morel recognized, “How can it be stopped? Only ... by publicity and popular pressure upon the Governments ... [to] force it upon the world’s diplomacy.”[2] The Congo reformers had set themselves a difficult task, but they succeeded in altering British diplomacy to be more consistent with their ends.

Morel’s complaints about the Foreign Office and Sir Edward Grey permeate most historical accounts that deign to notice the Foreign Office at all. Three historians, William Roger Louis, S.J.S. Cookey, and John Bremner Osborne, Jr, revised the Morel-generated narrative of Foreign Office vacillation to portray it as an active, autonomous agent, making choices that both helped and hindered reform.[3] The present study builds on their work to create a new understanding of Grey as a protagonist of reform when he took office in 1905 and as the main actor after 1908, applying the decisive pressure to ensure Belgian annexation and implementation of reforms.

The reformers’ chief target was the British Foreign Secretary, who in these years operated at the peak of the position’s power and autonomy.[4] Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary until 1900, set the pattern, working in secrecy because he believed that the technical expertise required made foreign policy ill-suited to governance by the Cabinet and incompatible with electoral politics.[5] The next Foreign Secretaries were Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne (Unionist) from 1900-05 and Sir Edward Grey (Liberal) from 1905 on. Despite their different affiliations, their policies were similar, focusing on the relative decline of British power in an increasingly unfriendly world. They prioritized good relations with France and Russia to neutralize threats from those countries and to serve as counterweights to an assertive, powerful, and erratic Germany.

Lansdowne and Grey sat at the intersection of institutional identities. They were politicians, active in the Lords and Commons, respectively, though only Grey had to face the voters in parliamentary elections. They were also bureaucrats, running a professionalized government department whose permanent staff worked within set procedures and traditions.

The Foreign Secretary’s power was not unlimited. The Prime Minister could remove him, not a serious risk for Lansdowne or Grey. The agreement of the Prime Minister or the Cabinet was advisable though not essential for major policy changes that might lead to political or international complications. The House of Commons had the right to question the Foreign Secretary or his representative, who could answer as he wished, but it was wisest to meet the questioner at least halfway to avoid political difficulties. Because the Commons set the budget, MPs of both major parties routinely proposed cutting the department’s funding or the Foreign Secretary’s salary by ?100. These amendments were a tool to create a debate, not a real financial threat; in 1900-13, all such amendments either were withdrawn after discussion or failed the ensuing vote. The House of Commons could intervene directly in foreign policy by passing a resolution that required the government to act, as with the 20 May 1903 resolution that the government confer with the Berlin Act signatories regarding the Congo.[6] This was a powerful tool not often used; the ruling party was unlikely to challenge its own Foreign Secretary, and the opposition usually could not muster the votes. The 1903 Congo resolution, passed without a division in a “very thin house,” prompted Lansdowne to issue two diplomatic Notes to other countries and to instruct Casement to undertake his journey.[7]

The ultimate parliamentary weapon was to vote against the government. However, this was available only for the most important issues. The CRA’s own nonpartisan strategy militated against this, because such a vote would have split the movement. A parliamentary vote against the government on the Congo issue was not a possibility at any time during the campaign.

Public opinion was a useful but not powerful tool. The Foreign Office’s largely upper-class permanent staff believed that foreign policy stood above the tides and fads of public opinion. However, Zara Steiner notes that its officials took account of the views of the most knowledgeable segment of the public, which they collected via the press, through discussions with the representatives of religious, humanitarian, and commercial bodies, from MPs and Parliament, and from informal contacts with prominent people. These views could stimulate discussions among officials, open or close off policy possibilities, and prioritize particular issues.[8]

The reformers tried to influence the Foreign Secretary through Foreign Office personnel, through letters and visits, by applying parliamentary pressure, through the force of public opinion as expressed in the press, public meetings, and resolutions, and by the intervention of influential individuals. By providing information and analyzing its implications, groups like the CRA could affect the policy-making process. The CRA’s influence in the Foreign Office peaked when it fulfilled this role and broke down after Morel attacked the Foreign Office.

  • [1] Cabinet papers, 16 March 1908, CAB 37/92/41.
  • [2] Congo Supplement to the WAM, June 1905, 317.
  • [3] William Roger Louis, “The Triumph ofthe Congo Reform Movement, 1905-1908,”Boston University Papers on Africa, Vol. 2, edited by Jeffrey Butler (Boston: Boston UniversityPress, 1966); Cookey, Britain; John Bremner Osborne, Jr, “Sir Edward Grey, the BritishConsular Staff, and the Congo Reform Campaign,” (PhD diss., Rutgers University, 1971);Osborne, “Wilfred G. Thesiger, Sir Edward Grey, and the British Campaign to Reform theCongo, 1905-9,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 27, no. 1 (January 1999):59-80.
  • [4] Zara Steiner, The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898-1914 (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1969), 200, 209.
  • [5] John Darwin, The Empire Project (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009),78.
  • [6] 122 Parl. Deb. (4th ser.) (1903) 1289-332.
  • [7] Fitzmaurice, 122 Parl. Deb. (4th ser.) (1903) 1325.
  • [8] Steiner, Foreign Office, 158, 172, 197, 199-200, 212.
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