HERBERT HENRY ASQUITH, 1ST EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH, KG , PC , KC ,
FRS (12 September 1852 – 15 February 1928), generally known as H.
H. ASQUITH, served as the Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
from 1908 to 1916, and was the last Liberal leader to lead that party
in government without forming a coalition. He had a central role in
the design and passage of major liberal legislation . In August 1914,
Asquith took the
Asquith's father owned a small business but died when Asquith was
seven. Asquith was educated at
City of London School and Balliol
College , Oxford. He trained as a barrister and after a slow start to
his career achieved great success. In 1886, he was adopted as Liberal
candidate for East Fife , a seat he held for over thirty years. In
1892, he was appointed as
With their first majority government since the 1880s, the Liberals
were determined to advance their agenda. An impediment to this was the
House of Lords
Although the Lords then passed the budget, Asquith was determined to
reform the upper house, and following the general election in December
1910 gained passage of the
Parliament Act 1911
Asquith's action in taking the country to war was one of the most important individual ministerial decision of modern times; he did it with Britain united and with the postponement of the issues of Ireland and women's suffrage. He assisted Britain's ultimate success in the war through his early decisions on national mobilisation; the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front, the creation of a mass army, and the development of an industrial strategy designed to support the country's war aims.
But Asquith's technique of acting as mediator among talented cabinet
members such as Lloyd George and
Asquith remained as leader of the Liberal Party, but was unable to quell the internal conflict. The party rapidly declined in popularity and was ruined by the 1918 general election. Asquith accepted a peerage in 1925 and died, aged 75, in 1928. His roles in creating the modern British welfare state, 1906-1911 have been celebrated, but his weaknesses as a war leader and as a party leader after 1914 have been emphasised by historians.
* 1 Early life and career: 1852–1908
* 1.1 Family background * 1.2 Childhood and schooling * 1.3 Oxford * 1.4 Early professional career * 1.5 Member of Parliament and Queen\'s Counsel * 1.6 Widower and cabinet minister * 1.7 Out of office, 1895–1905 * 1.8 Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1905–1908
* 2 Peacetime prime minister: 1908–1914
* 2.1 Appointments and cabinet * 2.2 Prime minister at play
* 2.3 Domestic policy
* 2.3.1 Reforming the
House of Lords
* 2.3.3 1910: election and constitutional deadlock
* 126.96.36.199 1910–1911: second election and Parliament Act
* 2.3.4 Social, religious and labour matters * 2.3.5 Votes for women
* 2.4 Irish Home Rule * 2.5 Foreign and defence policy * 2.6 Impending catastrophe
* 3 First year of the war: August 1914 – May 1915
* 3.1 Asquith\'s wartime government * 3.2 Dardanelles Campaign * 3.3 Shell Crisis of May 1915 * 3.4 Other events
* 4 First Coalition: May 1915 – December 1916
* 4.1 War re-organisation * 4.2 Conscription * 4.3 Ireland * 4.4 Progress of the war
* 5 Fall: November–December 1916
* 5.5 Last four days: Sunday 3 December to Wednesday 6 December
* 5.5.1 Sunday 3 December * 5.5.2 Monday 4 December * 5.5.3 Tuesday 5 December * 5.5.4 Wednesday 6 December
* 6 Wartime Opposition Leader: 1916–1918
* 6.1 Maurice Debate * 6.2 End of the war
* 7 Decline and eclipse: 1918–1926
* 7.1 Coupon Election * 7.2 1919: out of Parliament * 7.3 Paisley * 7.4 Leader of the Opposition: 1920–1921 * 7.5 Leader of the Opposition: 1922 * 7.6 Liberal reunion * 7.7 Putting Labour in power * 7.8 Labour government and the Campbell Case * 7.9 1924 election * 7.10 Elevation * 7.11 Resignation
* 8 Final years: 1926–1928 * 9 Asquith\'s descendants * 10 Assessment
* 11 Notes, references and sources
* 11.1 Explanatory notes * 11.2 References * 11.3 Sources
* 12 Further reading * 13 External links
EARLY LIFE AND CAREER: 1852–1908
Asquith (left) with his sister Emily and elder brother William, c. 1857
Asquith was born in Morley , in the West Riding of Yorkshire , the younger son of Joseph Dixon Asquith (1825–1860) and his wife Emily, née Willans (1828–1888). The couple also had three daughters, of whom only one survived infancy. The Asquiths were an old Yorkshire family, with a long nonconformist tradition. It was a matter of family pride, shared by Asquith, that an ancestor, Joseph Asquith, was imprisoned for his part in the pro- Roundhead Farnley Wood Plot of 1664.
Both Asquith's parents came from families associated with the
Yorkshire wool trade. Dixon Asquith inherited the Gillroyd Mill
Company, founded by his father. Emily's father, William Willans, ran a
successful wool-trading business in
CHILDHOOD AND SCHOOLING
In his younger days he was called Herbert ("Bertie" as a child)
within the family, but his second wife called him Henry. His
Stephen Koss entitled the first chapter of his biography
"From Herbert to Henry", referring to upward social mobility and his
abandonment of his Yorkshire
Nonconformist roots with his second
marriage. However, in public, he was invariably referred to only as H.
H. ASQUITH. "There have been few major national figures whose
Christian names were less well known to the public," writes his
Roy Jenkins . He and his brother were educated at home by
their parents until 1860, when Dixon Asquith died suddenly. Willans
took charge of the family, moved them to a house near his own, and
arranged for the boys' schooling. After a year at Huddersfield
College they were sent as boarders to a
The boys were sent to the City of London School as dayboys. Under the school's headmaster, the Rev E. A. Abbott , a distinguished classical scholar, Asquith became an outstanding pupil. He later said that he was under deeper obligations to his old headmaster than to any man living; Abbott disclaimed credit for the boy's progress: "I never had a pupil who owed less to me and more to his own natural ability." Asquith excelled in classics and English, was little interested in sports, read voraciously in the Guildhall Library , and became fascinated with oratory. He visited the public gallery of the House of Commons , studied the techniques of famous preachers, and honed his own skills in the school debating society. Abbott remarked on the cogency and clarity of his pupil's speeches, qualities for which Asquith became celebrated throughout the rest of his life. Asquith later recalled seeing, as a schoolboy, the corpses of five murderers left hanging outside Newgate .
In November 1869 Asquith won a classical scholarship at Balliol
College, Oxford , going up the following October. The college's
prestige, already high, continued to rise under the recently elected
Asquith's university career was distinguished – "striking without being sensational" in the words of his biographer, Roy Jenkins . An easy grasp of his studies left him ample time to indulge his liking for debate. In the first month at university he spoke at the Oxford Union . His official biographers, J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith , commented that in his first months at Oxford "he voiced the orthodox Liberal view, speaking in support, inter alia, of the disestablishment of the Church of England, and of non-intervention in the Franco-Prussian War ". He sometimes debated against his Balliol contemporary Alfred Milner , who although then a Liberal was already an advocate of British imperialism. He was elected Treasurer of the Union in 1872 but was defeated at his first attempt at the Presidency. During the General Election in January and February 1874 he spoke against Lord Randolph Churchill , who was not yet a prominent politician, at nearby Woodstock . He eventually became President of the Union in Trinity (summer) Term 1874, his last term as an undergraduate.
Asquith was proxime accessit (runner-up) for the Hertford Prize in 1872, again proxime accessit for the Ireland Prize in 1873, and again for the Ireland in 1874, on that occasion coming so close that the examiners awarded him a special prize of books. However, he won the Craven Scholarship and graduated with what his biographers describe as an "easy" double first class degree in Mods and Greats . After graduating he was elected to a prize fellowship of Balliol.
EARLY PROFESSIONAL CAREER
Perhaps because of his stark beginnings, Asquith was always attracted to the comforts and accoutrements that money can buy. He was personally extravagant, always enjoying the good life—good food, good companions, good conversation and attractive women. “ ” Naomi Levine, in a 1991 biography
After his graduation in 1874, Asquith spent several months coaching Viscount Lymington , the 18-year-old son and heir of the Earl of Portsmouth . He found the experience of aristocratic country-house life agreeable. He liked less the austere side of the nonconformist Liberal tradition, with its strong temperance movement. He was proud of ridding himself of "the Puritanism in which I was bred". His fondness for fine wines and spirits, which began at this period, eventually earned him the sobriquet "Squiffy".
Returning to Oxford, Asquith spent the first year of his seven-year fellowship in residence there. But he had no wish to pursue a career as a don ; the traditional route for politically ambitious but unmoneyed young men was through the law. While still at Oxford Asquith had already entered Lincoln\'s Inn to train as a barrister , and in 1875 he served a pupillage under Charles Bowen . He was called to the bar in June 1876.
There followed what Jenkins calls "seven extremely lean years". Asquith set up a legal practice with two other junior barristers. With no personal contacts with solicitors, he received few briefs . Those that came his way he argued capably, but he was too fastidious to learn the wilier tricks of the legal trade: "he was constitutionally incapable of making a discreet fog ... nor could he prevail on himself to dispense the conventional patter". He did not allow his lack of money to stop him marrying. His bride, Helen Kelsall Melland (c.1855–1891), was the daughter of Frederick Melland, a physician in Manchester. She and Asquith had met through friends of his mother's. The two had been in love for several years, but it was not until 1877 that Asquith sought her father's consent to their marriage. Despite Asquith's limited income – practically nothing from the bar and a small stipend from his fellowship – Melland consented after making inquiries about the young man's potential. Helen had a private income of several hundred pounds a year, and the couple lived in modest comfort in Hampstead . They had five children: Raymond (1878–1916), Herbert (1881–1947), Arthur (1883–1939), Violet (1887–1969) and Cyril (1890–1954). Asquith in 1876
Between 1876 and 1884 Asquith supplemented his income by writing
Asquith's career as a barrister began to flourish in 1883 when R. S. Wright invited him to join his chambers at the Inner Temple . Wright was the Junior Counsel to the Treasury, a post often known as "the Attorney General 's devil ", whose function included giving legal advice to ministers and government departments. One of Asquith's first jobs in working for Wright was to prepare a memorandum for the prime minister, W. E. Gladstone , on the status of the parliamentary oath in the wake of the Bradlaugh case . Both Gladstone and his chief law officer, the Attorney General, Sir Henry James , were impressed. This raised Asquith's profile, though not greatly enhancing his finances. Much more remunerative were his new contacts with solicitors who regularly instructed Wright and now also began to instruct Asquith.
MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT AND QUEEN\'S COUNSEL
In June 1886, with the Liberal party split on the question of Irish Home Rule , Gladstone called a general election . There was a last-minute vacancy at East Fife , where the sitting Liberal member, John Boyd Kinnear , had been deselected by his local Liberal Association for voting against Irish Home Rule. Richard Haldane , a close friend of Asquith's and also a struggling young barrister, had been Liberal MP for the nearby Haddingtonshire constituency since December 1885 . He put Asquith's name forward as a replacement for Kinnear, and only ten days before polling Asquith was formally nominated in a vote of the local Liberals. The Conservatives did not contest the seat, putting their support behind Kinnear, who stood against Asquith as a Liberal Unionist . Asquith was elected with 2,863 votes to Kinnear's 2,489.
The Liberals lost the 1886 election, and Asquith joined the House of Commons as an opposition backbencher. He waited until March 1887 to make his maiden speech, which opposed the Conservative administration's proposal to give special priority to an Irish Crimes Bill. From the start of his parliamentary career Asquith impressed other MPs with his air of authority as well as his lucidity of expression. For the remainder of this Parliament, which lasted until 1892, Asquith spoke occasionally but effectively, mostly on Irish matters.
Asquith's legal practice was flourishing, and took up much of his
time. In the late 1880s
From time to time Asquith appeared in high-profile criminal cases. In
1887 and 1888 he defended the radical Liberal MP, Cunninghame Graham ,
who was charged with assaulting police officers when they attempted to
break up a demonstration in
Asquith's law career received a great and unforeseen boost in 1889
when he was named junior counsel to Sir Charles Russell at the Parnell
Commission of Enquiry . The commission had been set up in the
aftermath of damaging statements in The Times, based on forged
letters, that Irish MP
Charles Stuart Parnell had expressed approval
Phoenix Park murders . When the manager of The Times, J.C.
Macdonald, was called to give evidence Russell, feeling tired,
surprised Asquith by asking him to conduct the cross-examination.
Under Asquith's questioning, it became plain that in accepting the
forgeries as genuine, without making any check, Macdonald had, in
Jenkins's phrase, behaved "with a credulity which would have been
childlike had it not been criminally negligent". The Manchester
Guardian reported that under Asquith's cross-examination, Macdonald
"squirmed and wriggled through a dozen half-formed phrases in an
attempt at explanation, and finished none". The accusations against
Parnell were shown to be false,
Asquith appeared in two important cases in the early 1890s. He played an effective low-key role in the sensational Tranby Croft libel trial (1891), helping to show that the plaintiff had not been libelled. He was on the losing side in Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co (1892), a landmark English contract law case that established that a company was obliged to meet its advertised pledges.
WIDOWER AND CABINET MINISTER
In September 1891 Helen Asquith died of typhoid fever following a few
days' illness while the family were on holiday in Scotland. Asquith
bought a house in
The general election of July 1892 returned Gladstone and the Liberals
to office, with intermittent support from the Irish Nationalist MPs.
Asquith, who was then only 39 and had never served as a junior
minister, accepted the post of
Asquith had known Margot Tennant slightly since before his wife's death, and grew increasingly attached to her in his years as a widower. On 10 May 1894 they were married at St George\'s, Hanover Square . Asquith became a son in law of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Baronet . Margot was in many respects the opposite of Asquith's first wife, being outgoing, impulsive, extravagant and opinionated. Despite the misgivings of many of Asquith's friends and colleagues the marriage proved to be a success. Margot got on, if sometimes stormily, with her step-children and she and Asquith had five children of their own, only two of whom, Anthony and Elizabeth , survived infancy.
OUT OF OFFICE, 1895–1905
The general election of July 1895 was disastrous for the Liberals, and the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury won a majority of 152. With no government post, Asquith divided his time between politics and a return to his law practice. Jenkins comments that in this period Asquith earned a substantial, though not stellar, income and was never worse off and often much higher-paid than when in office. Matthew writes that his income as a QC in the following years was around £5,000 to £10,000 per annum (around £500,000–£1,000,000 at 2015 prices). According to Haldane, on returning to government in 1905 Asquith had to give up a £10,000 brief to act for the Khedive of Egypt . Margot later claimed (in the 1920s, when they were short of money) that he could have made £50,000 per annum had he remained at the bar. Campbell-Bannerman , Liberal leader from 1899
The Liberal Party, with a leadership – Harcourt in the Commons and Rosebery in the Lords – who detested each other, once again suffered factional divisions. Rosebery resigned in October 1896 and Harcourt followed him in December 1898. Asquith came under strong pressure to accept the nomination to take over as Liberal leader, but the post of Leader of the Opposition, though full-time, was then unpaid, and he could not afford to give up his income as a barrister. He and others prevailed on the former Secretary of State for War , Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman to accept the post.
During the Boer War of 1899–1902 Liberal opinion divided along pro-imperialist and "Little England" lines, with Campbell-Bannerman striving to maintain party unity. Asquith was less inclined than his leader and many in the party to censure the Conservative government for its conduct, though he regarded the war as an unnecessary distraction. Joseph Chamberlain , a former Liberal minister, now an ally of the Conservatives, campaigned for tariffs to shield British industry from cheaper foreign competition. Asquith's advocacy of traditional Liberal free trade policies helped to make Chamberlain's proposals the central question in British politics in the early years of the 20th century. In Matthew's view, "Asquith's forensic skills quickly exposed deficiencies and self-contradictions in Chamberlain's arguments." The question divided the Conservatives, while the Liberals were united under the banner of "free fooders" against those in the government who countenanced a tax on imported essentials.
CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER, 1905–1908
Asquith as Chancellor of the Exchequer , in the House of Commons
Salisbury's Conservative successor as Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour
, resigned in December 1905, but did not seek a dissolution of
Parliament and a general election. King
A month after taking office, Campbell-Bannerman called a general
election , in which the Liberals gained a landslide majority of 132.
However, Asquith's first budget, in 1906, was constrained by the
annual income and expenditure plans he had inherited from his
Asquith planned the 1908 budget, but by the time he presented it to
the Commons he was no longer Chancellor. Campbell-Bannerman's health
had been failing for nearly a year. After a series of heart attacks he
resigned on 3 April 1908, less than three weeks before he died.
Asquith was universally accepted as the natural successor. King
Edward, who was on holiday in
PEACETIME PRIME MINISTER: 1908–1914
Further information: Liberal government, 1905–1915
APPOINTMENTS AND CABINET
Asquith in 1908
On Asquith's return from Biarritz, his leadership of the Liberals was affirmed by a party meeting (the first time this had been done for a prime minister). He initiated a cabinet reshuffle. Lloyd George was promoted to be Asquith's replacement as chancellor. Winston Churchill succeeded Lloyd George as President of the Board of Trade , entering the Cabinet despite his youth (aged 33) and the fact that he had crossed the floor to become a Liberal only four years previously.
Asquith demoted or dismissed a number of Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet ministers. Lord Tweedmouth , the First Lord of the Admiralty , was relegated to the nominal post of Lord President of the Council . Lord Elgin was sacked from the Colonial Office and the Earl of Portsmouth (whom Asquith had tutored) was too, as undersecretary at the War Office. The abruptness of their dismissals caused hard feelings; Elgin wrote to Tweedmouth, "I venture to think that even a prime minister may have some regard for the usages common among gentlemen ... I feel that even a housemaid gets a better warning."
Historian Cameron Hazlehurst wrote that "the new men, with the old, made a powerful team". The cabinet choices balanced the competing factions in the party; the appointments of Lloyd George and Churchill satisfied the radicals, while the whiggish element favoured Reginald McKenna 's appointment as First Lord.
PRIME MINISTER AT PLAY
Possessed of "a faculty for working quickly," Asquith had considerable time for leisure. Reading the classics, poetry and a vast range of English literature consumed much of his time. So did correspondence; intensely disliking the telephone, Asquith was a prolific letter writer. Travelling, often to country houses owned by members of Margot's family, was almost constant, Asquith being a devoted "weekender ". He spent part of each summer in Scotland, with golf, constituency matters, and time at Balmoral as duty minister. He and Margot divided their time between Downing Street and The Wharf , a country house at Sutton Courtenay in Berkshire which they bought in 1912; their London mansion, 20 Cavendish Square , was let during his premiership. Other recreations included bridge , to which he was addicted, and drink, which, friends and enemies alike, considered sometimes became close to an addiction.
Above all else, Asquith thrived on company and conversation. A clubbable man, he enjoyed "the companionship of clever and attractive women" even more. Throughout his life, Asquith had a circle of close female friends, which Margot termed his "harem". In 1912, one of these, Venetia Stanley became much closer. Meeting first in 1909–1910, by 1912 she was Asquith's constant correspondent and companion. Between that point and 1915, he wrote her some 560 letters, at a rate of up to four a day. Although it remains uncertain whether or not they were lovers, she became of central importance to him. Asquith's thorough enjoyment of "comfort and luxury" during peacetime, and his unwillingness to adjust his behaviour during conflict, ultimately contributed to the impression of a man out of touch. Lady Tree 's teasing question, asked at the height of the conflict; "Tell me, Mr Asquith, do you take an interest in the war;" conveyed a commonly held view.
Reforming The House Of Lords
Asquith hoped to act as a mediator between members of his cabinet as they pushed Liberal legislation through Parliament. Events, including conflict with the House of Lords, forced him to the front from the start of his premiership. Despite the Liberals's massive majority in the House of Commons, the Tories had overwhelming support in the unelected upper chamber . Campbell-Bannerman had favoured reforming the Lords' by providing that a bill thrice passed by the Commons at least six months apart could become law without the Lords' consent, while diminishing the power of the Commons by reducing the maximum term of a parliament from seven to five years. Asquith, as chancellor, had served on a cabinet committee that had written a plan to resolve legislative stalemates by a joint sitting of the Commons as a body with 100 of the peers. The Commons passed a number of pieces of legislation in 1908 which were defeated or heavily amended in the Lords, including a Licensing Bill, a Scottish Small Landholders' Bill, and a Scottish Land Values Bill.
None of these bills were important enough to dissolve parliament and
seek a new mandate at a general election. Asquith and Lloyd George
believed the peers would back down if presented with Liberal
objectives contained within a finance bill—the Lords had not
obstructed a money bill since the 17th century, and after initially
blocking Gladstone 's attempt (as chancellor ) to repeal Paper Duties,
had yielded in 1861 when it was submitted again in a finance bill.
Accordingly, the Liberal leadership expected that after much objection
1909: People\'s Budget
This 1909 Punch cartoon suggests the Liberals were delighted when the Lords forced an election. Back row: Haldane, Churchill with arms up, being hugged by his ally Lloyd George. Asquith standing at right. Bottom row: McKenna, Lord Crewe (with moustache), Augustine Birrell leaning back
In a major speech in December 1908, Asquith announced that the upcoming budget would reflect the Liberals' policy agenda, and the People\'s Budget that was submitted to Parliament by Lloyd George the following year greatly expanded social welfare programmes. To pay for them, it significantly increased both direct and indirect taxes. These included a 20 percent tax on the unearned increase in value in land, payable at death of the owner or sale of the land. There would also be a tax of 1⁄2d in the pound on undeveloped land. A graduated income tax was imposed, and there were increases in imposts on tobacco, beer and spirits. A tax on petrol was introduced despite Treasury concerns that it could not work in practice. Although Asquith held fourteen cabinet meetings to assure unity amongst his ministers, there was opposition from some Liberals; Rosebery described the budget as "inquisitorial, tyrannical, and Socialistic".
The budget divided the country and provoked bitter debate through the
summer of 1909. The Northcliffe Press (
1910: Election And Constitutional Deadlock
The January 1910 general election was dominated by talk of removing
the Lords' veto. A possible solution was to threaten to have the
King pack the
House of Lords
Lloyd George and Churchill were the leading forces in the Liberals'
appeal to the voters; Asquith, clearly tired, took to the hustings for
a total of two weeks during the campaign, and when the polls began,
Immediate further pressure to remove the Lords' veto now came from the Irish MPs, who wanted to remove the Lords' ability to block the introduction of Irish Home Rule. They threatened to vote against the Budget unless they had their way. With another general election likely before long, Asquith had to make clear the Liberal policy on constitutional change to the country without alienating the Irish and Labour. This initially proved difficult, and the King's speech opening Parliament was vague on what was to be done to neutralise the Lords' veto. Asquith dispirited his supporters by stating in Parliament that he had neither asked for nor received a commitment from King Edward to create peers. The cabinet considered resigning and leaving it up to Balfour to try to form a Conservative government.
The budget passed the Commons again, and – now that it had an electoral mandate – it was approved by the Lords in April without a division. The cabinet finally decided to back a plan based on Campbell-Bannerman's, that a bill passed by the Commons in three consecutive annual sessions would become law notwithstanding the Lords' objections. Unless King Edward guaranteed that he would create enough Liberal peers to pass the bill, ministers would resign and allow Balfour to form a government, leaving the matter to be debated at the ensuing general election. On 14 April 1910, the Commons passed resolutions that would become the basis of the eventual Parliament Act 1911 : to remove the power of the Lords to veto money bills, to reduce blocking of other bills to a two-year power of delay, and also to reduce the term of a parliament from seven years to five. In that debate Asquith also hinted – in part to ensure the support of the Irish MPs – that he would ask the King to break the deadlock "in that Parliament" (i.e. that he would ask for the mass creation of peers, contrary to King Edward's earlier stipulation that there be a second election).
These plans were scuttled by the death of
1910–1911: Second Election And Parliament Act
Punch 1911 cartoon shows Asquith and Lloyd George preparing
coronets for 500 new peers to threaten takeover of
House of Lords
On 11 November, Asquith asked King George to dissolve Parliament for another general election in December , and on the 14th met again with the King and demanded assurances the monarch would create an adequate number of Liberal peers to carry the Parliament Bill. The King was slow to agree, and Asquith and his cabinet informed him they would resign if he did not make the commitment. Balfour had told King Edward that he would form a Conservative government if the Liberals left office but the new King did not know this. The King reluctantly gave in to Asquith's demand, writing in his diary that, "I disliked having to do this very much, but agreed that this was the only alternative to the Cabinet resigning, which at this moment would be disastrous".
Asquith dominated the short election campaign, focusing on the Lords' veto in calm speeches, compared by his biographer Stephen Koss to the "wild irresponsibility" of other major campaigners. In a speech at Hull , he stated that the Liberals' purpose was to remove the obstruction, not establish an ideal upper house, "I have always got to deal—the country has got to deal—with things here and now. We need an instrument that can be set to work at once, which will get rid of deadlocks, and give us the fair and even chance in legislation to which we are entitled, and which is all that we demand." Samuel Begg's depiction of the passing of the Parliament Bill in the House of Lords, 1911
The election resulted in little change to the party strengths (the
Liberal and Conservative parties were exactly equal in size; by 1914
the Conservative Party would actually be larger owing to by-election
victories). Nevertheless, Asquith remained in Number Ten , with a
large majority in the Commons on the issue of the House of Lords. The
Parliament Bill again passed the House of Commons in April 1911, and
was heavily amended in the Lords. Asquith advised King George that the
monarch would be called upon to create the peers, and the King agreed,
asking that his pledge be made public, and that the Lords be allowed
to reconsider their opposition. Once it was, there was a raging
internal debate within the
According to Jenkins, although Asquith had at times moved slowly during the crisis, "on the whole, Asquith's slow moulding of events had amounted to a masterly display of political nerve and patient determination. Compared with , his leadership was outstanding." Churchill wrote to Asquith after the second 1910 election, "your leadership was the main and conspicuous feature of the whole fight". Matthew, in his article on Asquith, found that, "the episode was the zenith of Asquith's prime ministerial career. In the British Liberal tradition, he patched rather than reformulated the constitution."
Social, Religious And Labour Matters
Despite the distraction of the problem of the House of Lords, Asquith and his government moved ahead with a number of pieces of reforming legislation. According to Matthews, "no peacetime premier has been a more effective enabler. Labour exchanges, the introduction of unemployment and health insurance ... reflected the reforms the government was able to achieve despite the problem of the Lords. Asquith was not himself a 'new Liberal', but he saw the need for a change in assumptions about the individual's relationship to the state, and he was fully aware of the political risk to the Liberals of a Labour Party on its left flank." Keen to keep the support of the Labour Party, the Asquith government passed bills urged by that party, including the Trade Union Act 1913 (reversing the Osborne judgment ) and in 1911 granting MPs a salary, making it more feasible for working-class people to serve in the House of Commons.
Asquith had as chancellor placed money aside for the provision of non-contributory old-age pensions ; the bill authorising them passed in 1908, during his premiership, despite some objection in the Lords. Jenkins noted that the scheme (which provided five shillings a week to single pensioners aged seventy and over, and slightly less than twice that to married couples) "to modern ears sounds cautious and meagre. But it was violently criticised at the time for showing a reckless generosity."
Asquith's new government became embroiled in a controversy over the
Eucharistic Congress of 1908, held in London. Following the Roman
Catholic Relief Act 1829 , the
Roman Catholic Church
Disestablishment of the Welsh Church was a Liberal priority, but despite support by most Welsh MPs, there was opposition in the Lords. Asquith was an authority on Welsh disestablishment from his time under Gladstone, but had little to do with the passage of the bill . It was twice rejected by the Lords, in 1912 and 1913, but having been forced through under the Parliament Act received royal assent in September 1914, with the provisions suspended until war's end.
Votes For Women
Early 20th century suffragist lapel pin
Asquith had opposed votes for women as early as 1882, and he remained well known as an adversary throughout his time as prime minister. He took a detached view of the women's suffrage question, believing it should be judged on whether extending the franchise would improve the system of government, rather than as a question of rights. He did not understand—Jenkins ascribed it to a failure of imagination—why passions were raised on both sides over the issue. He told the House of Commons in 1913, while complaining of the "exaggerated language" on both sides, "I am sometimes tempted to think, as one listens to the arguments of supporters of women's suffrage, that there is nothing to be said for it, and I am sometimes tempted to think, as I listen to the arguments of the opponents of women's suffrage, that there is nothing to be said against it."
The Prime Minister became a target for militant suffragists as they abandoned hope of achieving the vote through peaceful means. He was several times the subject of their tactics: confronted (to his annoyance) at evening parties, accosted on the golf course, and ambushed while driving to Stirling to dedicate a memorial to Campbell-Bannerman. On the last occasion, his top hat proved adequate protection against the dog whips wielded by the women. These incidents left him unmoved, as he did not believe them a true manifestation of public opinion.
With a growing majority of the Cabinet, including Lloyd George and Churchill, in favour of women\'s suffrage , Asquith was pressed to allow consideration of a private member\'s bill to give women the vote. The majority of Liberal MPs were also in favour. Jenkins deemed him one of the two main prewar obstacles to women gaining the vote, the other being the suffragists's own militancy. In 1912, Asquith reluctantly agreed to permit a free vote on an amendment to a pending reform bill, allowing women the vote on the same terms as men. This would have satisfied Liberal suffrage supporters, and many suffragists, but the Speaker in January 1913 ruled that the amendment changed the nature of the bill, which would have to be withdrawn. Asquith was loud in his complaints against the Speaker, but was privately relieved.
Asquith belatedly came around to support women's suffrage in 1917, by which time he was out of office. Women over the age of thirty were eventually given the vote by Lloyd George's government under the Representation of the People Act 1918 . Asquith's reforms to the House of Lords eased the way for the passage of the bill.
IRISH HOME RULE
Members of the Ulster Volunteer Force march through Belfast, 1914
The question of Irish Home Rule consumed much of Asquith's time during the final two peacetime years. Support for self-government for Ireland had been a tenet of the Liberal Party since 1886, but Asquith had not been as enthusiastic, stating in 1903 (while in opposition) that the party should never take office if that government would be dependent for survival on the support of the Irish Nationalist Party. After 1910, though, Irish Nationalist support helped keep Asquith in office for the remainder of the prewar period. Retaining Ireland in the Union was the declared intent of all parties, and the Nationalists, as part of the majority that kept Asquith in office, were entitled to seek enactment of their plans for Home Rule, and to expect Liberal and Labour support. The Conservatives were strongly opposed to Home Rule; the desire to retain a veto for the Lords on such bills had been an unbridgeable gap between the parties in the constitutional talks prior to the second 1910 election.
The cabinet committee (not including Asquith) that in 1911 planned
the Third Home Rule Bill opposed any special status for Protestant
Since the Parliament Act the Unionists could no longer block Home
Rule in the House of Lords, but only delay Royal Assent by two years.
Asquith decided to postpone any concessions to the Unionists until the
bill's third passage through the Commons, when he believed the
Unionists would be desperate for a compromise. Jenkins concluded that
had Asquith tried for an earlier agreement, he would have had no luck,
as many of his opponents wanted a fight and the opportunity to smash
his government. Sir
Edward Carson , MP for
The passions generated by the Irish question contrasted with
Asquith's cool detachment, and he wrote about the prospective
partition of the county of
FOREIGN AND DEFENCE POLICY
Asquith led a deeply divided Liberal Party as Prime Minister, not least on questions of foreign relations and defence spending. Under Balfour, Britain and France had agreed upon the Entente Cordiale . In 1906, at the time the Liberals took office, there was an ongoing crisis between France and Germany over Morocco, and the French asked for British help in the event of conflict. Grey, the Foreign Secretary, refused any formal arrangement, but gave it as his personal opinion that in the event of war Britain would aid France. France then asked for military conversations aimed at co-ordination in such an event. Grey agreed, and these went on in the following years, without cabinet knowledge—Asquith most likely did not know of them until 1911. When he learned of them, Asquith was concerned that the French took for granted British aid in the event of war, but Grey persuaded him the talks must continue.
More public was the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. The
Moroccan crisis had been settled at the
The Agadir crisis of 1911 was again between France and Germany over Moroccan interests, but Asquith's government signalled its friendliness towards France in Lloyd George's Mansion House speech on 21 July. Late that year, the Lord President of the Council, Viscount Morley , brought the question of the communications with the French to the attention of the Cabinet. The Cabinet agreed (at Asquith's instigation) that no talks could be held that committed Britain to war, and required cabinet approval for co-ordinated military actions. Nevertheless, by 1912, the French had requested additional naval co-ordination and late in the year, the various understandings were committed to writing in an exchange of letters between Grey and French Ambassador Paul Cambon . The relationship with France disquieted some Liberal backbenchers and Asquith felt obliged to assure them that nothing had been secretly agreed that would commit Britain to war. This quieted Asquith's foreign policy critics until another naval estimates dispute erupted early in 1914.
The assassination of
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
During the continuing escalation Asquith "used all his experience and
authority to keep his options open" and adamantly refused to commit
his government; "The worst thing we could do would be to announce to
the world at the present moment that in no circumstances would we
intervene." But he recognised Grey's clear commitment to Anglo-French
unity and, following Russian mobilisation on 30 July, and the
Kaiser\'s ultimatum to the Tsar on 1 August, he recognised the
inevitability of war. From this point, he committed himself to
participation, despite continuing Cabinet opposition; "There is a
strong party reinforced by Ll George Morley and Harcourt who are
against any kind of intervention. Grey will never consent and I shall
not separate myself from him." Also, on 2 August, he received
On Monday 3 August, the Belgian Government rejected the German demand
for free passage through its country and in the afternoon, "with
gravity and unexpected eloquence," Grey spoke in the Commons and
called for British action "against the unmeasured aggrandisement of
any power". Liddell Hart considered that this speech saw the
"hardening (of) British opinion to the point of intervention". The
following day Asquith saw the King and an ultimatum to Germany
demanding withdrawal from Belgian soil was issued with a deadline of
midnight Berlin time, 11.00 p.m. (GMT ).
FIRST YEAR OF THE WAR: AUGUST 1914 – MAY 1915
Main article: History of the United Kingdom during World War I
ASQUITH\'S WARTIME GOVERNMENT
The declaration of war on 4 August 1914 saw Asquith as the head of an almost united Liberal Party. Having persuaded Sir John Simon and Lord Beauchamp to remain, Asquith suffered only two resignations from his cabinet, those of John Morley and John Burns . With other parties promising to co-operate, Asquith's government declared war on behalf of a united nation, Asquith bringing "the country into war without civil disturbance or political schism".
The first months of the War saw a revival in Asquith's popularity. Bitterness from earlier struggles temporarily receded and the nation looked to Asquith, "steady, massive, self-reliant and unswerving", to lead them to victory. But Asquith's peacetime strengths ill-equipped him for what was to become perhaps the first total war and, before its end, he would be out of office forever and his party would never again form a majority government.
Beyond the replacement of Morley and Burns, Asquith made one other significant change to his cabinet. He relinquished the War Office and appointed the non-partisan but Tory-inclined Lord Kitchener of Khartoum . Kitchener was a figure of national renown and his participation strengthened the reputation of the government. Whether it increased its effectiveness is less certain. Overall, it was a government of considerable talent with Lloyd George remaining as chancellor, Grey as Foreign Secretary, and Churchill at the Admiralty.
The invasion of Belgium by German forces, the touch paper for British intervention, saw the Kaiser's armies attempt a lightning strike through Belgium against France, while holding Russian forces on the Eastern Front. To support the French, Asquith's cabinet authorised the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force . The ensuing Battle of the Frontiers in the late summer and early autumn of 1914 saw the final halt of the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne , which established the pattern of attritional trench warfare on the Western Front that continued until 1918. This stalemate brought deepening resentment against the government, and against Asquith personally, as the population at large and the press lords in particular, blamed him for a lack of energy in the prosecution of the war. It also created divisions within the Cabinet between the "Westerners", including Asquith, who supported the generals in believing that the key to victory lay in ever greater investment of men and munitions in France and Belgium, and the "Easterners", led by Churchill and Lloyd George, who believed that the Western Front was in a state of irreversible stasis and sought victory through action in the East. Lastly, it highlighted divisions between those politicians, and newspaper owners, who thought that military strategy and actions should be determined by the generals, and those who thought politicians should make those decisions. Asquith's view was made clear in his memoirs: "Once the governing objectives have been decided by Ministers at home – the execution should always be left to the untrammeled discretion of the commanders on the spot." Lloyd George's counter view was expressed in a letter of early 1916 in which he asked "whether I have a right to express an independent view on the War or must (be) a pure advocate of opinions expressed by my military advisers?" These divergent opinions lay behind the two great crises that would, within 14 months, see the collapse of the last ever fully Liberal administration and the advent of the first coalition , the Dardanelles Campaign and the Shell Crisis.
Main article: Gallipoli Campaign Admiral "Jacky" Fisher
The Dardanelles Campaign was an attempt by those favouring an Eastern strategy to end the stalemate on the Western Front. It envisaged an Anglo-French landing on Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsula and a rapid advance to Constantinople which would see the exit of Turkey from the conflict. However, the plan never enjoyed the full support of Admiral Fisher , the First Sea Lord , or of Kitchener and, rather than providing decisive leadership, Asquith sought to arbitrate between these two and Churchill, leading to procrastination and delay. After an initial failed attempt to force the Dardanelles by naval gunfire, Allied troops established bridgeheads on the Gallipoli Peninsula, but a delay in providing sufficient reinforcements allowed the Turks to regroup, leading to a stalemate Jenkins described "as immobile as that which prevailed on the Western Front".
SHELL CRISIS OF MAY 1915
Main article: Shell Crisis of 1915
The opening of 1915 saw growing division between Lloyd George and Kitchener over the supply of munitions for the army. Lloyd George considered that a munitions department, under his control, was essential to co-ordinate "the nation's entire engineering capacity". Kitchener favoured the continuance of the current arrangement whereby munitions were sourced through contracts between the War Office and the country's armaments manufacturers. As so often, Asquith sought compromise through committee, establishing a group to "consider the much vexed question of putting the contracts for munitions on a proper footing". This did little to dampen press criticism and, on 20 April, Asquith sought to challenge his detractors in a major speech at Newcastle; "I saw a statement the other day that the operations of our army were being crippled by our failure to provide the necessary ammunition. There is not a word of truth in that statement."
The press response was savage: 14 May 1915 saw the publication in The Times of a letter from their correspondent Charles à Court Repington which ascribed the British failure at the Battle of Aubers Ridge to a shortage of high explosive shells. Thus opened a fully-fledged crisis, the Shell Crisis . The prime minister's wife correctly identified her husband's chief opponent, the Press baron, and owner of The Times, Lord Northcliffe ; "I'm quite sure Northcliffe is at the bottom of all this," but failed to recognise the clandestine involvement of Sir John French , who leaked the details of the shells shortage to Repington. Northcliffe claimed that "the whole question of the supply of the munitions of war is one on which the Cabinet cannot be arraigned too sharply." Attacks on the government and on Asquith's personal lethargy came from the left as well as the right, C. P. Scott , the editor of The Manchester Guardian writing; "The Government has failed most frightfully and discreditably in the matter of munitions."
Failures in both the East and the West began a tide of events that was to overwhelm Asquith's Liberal Government. Strategic setbacks combined with a shattering personal blow when, on 12 May 1915, Venetia Stanley announced her engagement to Edwin Montagu . Asquith's reply was immediate and brief, "As you know well, this breaks my heart. I couldn't bear to come and see you. I can only pray God to bless you – and help me." Venetia's importance to him is illustrated by a letter written in mid-1914; "Keep close to me beloved in this most critical time of my life. I know you will not fail." Her engagement; "a very treacherous return after all the joy you've given me", left him devastated. Significant though the loss was personally, its impact on Asquith politically can be overstated. The historian Stephen Koss notes that Asquith "was always able to divide his public and private lives into separate compartments (and) soon found new confidantes to whom he was writing with no less frequency, ardour and indiscretion."
This personal loss was immediately followed, on 15 May, by the resignation of Admiral Fisher after continuing disagreements with Churchill and in frustration at the disappointing developments in Gallipoli. Aged 74, Fisher's behaviour had grown increasingly erratic and, in frequent letters to Lloyd George, he gave vent to his frustrations with the First Lord of the Admiralty ; "Fisher writes to me every day or two to let me know how things are going. He has a great deal of trouble with his chief, who is always wanting to do something big and striking." Adverse events, press hostility, Tory opposition and personal sorrows assailed Asquith, and his position was further weakened by his Liberal colleagues. Cassar considers that Lloyd George displayed a distinct lack of loyalty, and Koss writes of the contemporary rumours that Churchill had "been up to his old game of intriguing all round" and reports a claim that Churchill "unquestionably inspired" the Repington Letter, in collusion with Sir John French. Lacking cohesion internally, and attacked from without, Asquith determined that his government could not continue and he wrote to the King, "I have come decidedly to the conclusion that the must be reconstituted on a broad and non-party basis."
FIRST COALITION: MAY 1915 – DECEMBER 1916
The formation of the First Coalition saw Asquith display the
political acuteness that seemed to have deserted him. But it came at
a cost. This involved the sacrifice of two old political comrades:
Churchill, who was blamed for the Dardanelles fiasco, and Haldane, who
was wrongly accused in the press of pro-German sympathies. The Tories
Having reconstructed his government, Asquith attempted a re-configuration of his war-making apparatus. The most important element of this was the establishment of the Ministry of Munitions , followed by the re-ordering of the War Council into a Dardanelles Committee, with Maurice Hankey as secretary and with a remit to consider all questions of war strategy.
The Munitions of War Act 1915 brought private companies supplying the armed forces under the tight control of the Lloyd George. The policy, according to J. A. R. Marriott , was that: no private interest was to be permitted to obstruct the service, or imperil the safety, of the State. Trade Union regulations must be suspended; employers' profits must be limited, skilled men must fight, if not in the trenches, in the factories; man-power must be economised by the dilution of labour and the employment of women; Private factories must pass under the control of the State, and new national factories be set up. Results justified the new policy: the output was prodigious; the goods were at last delivered.
Nevertheless, criticism of Asquith's leadership style continued. The Earl of Crawford , who had joined the Government as Minister of Agriculture, described his first Cabinet meeting; "It was a huge gathering, so big that it is hopeless for more than one or two to express opinions on each detail Asquith somnolent – hands shaky and cheeks pendulous. He exercised little control over debate, seemed rather bored, but good humoured throughout." Lloyd George was less tolerant, Lord Riddell recording in his diary; "(He) says the P.M. should LEAD not follow and (Asquith) never moves until he is forced, and then it is usually too late." And crises, as well as criticism, continued to assail the Prime Minister, "envenomed by intra-party as well as inter-party rancour".
Main article: Recruitment to the British Army during the First World War Lord Kitchener's call to arms
The insatiable demand for manpower for the Western Front had been
foreseen early on. A volunteer system had been introduced at the
outbreak of war, and Asquith was reluctant to change it for political
reasons, as many Liberals, and almost all of their Irish Nationalist
and Labour allies, were strongly opposed to conscription . Volunteer
numbers dropped, not meeting the demands for more troops for
Gallipoli, and much more strongly, for the Western Front. This made
the voluntary system increasingly untenable; Asquith's daughter Violet
wrote in March 1915; "Gradually every man with the average number of
limbs and faculties is being sucked out to the war." In July 1915,
the National Registration Act was passed, requiring compulsory
registration for all men between the ages of 18 and 65. This was seen
by many as the prelude to conscription but the appointment of Lord
Derby as Director-General of Recruiting instead saw an attempt to
rejuvenate the voluntary system, the
Derby Scheme . Asquith's slow
steps towards conscription continued to infuriate his opponents, Sir
Henry Wilson writing to
Leo Amery ; "What is going to be the result of
these debates? Will 'wait and see' win, or can that part of the
Cabinet that is in earnest and is honest force that damned old Squiff
into action?" The Prime Minister's balancing act, within Parliament
and within his own party, was not assisted by a strident campaign
against conscription conducted by his wife. Describing herself as
"passionately against it",
By the end of 1915, it was clear that conscription was essential and Asquith laid the Military Service Act in the House of Commons on 5 January 1916. The Act introduced conscription of bachelors, and was extended to married men later in the year. Asquith's main opposition came from within his own party, particularly from Sir John Simon, who resigned. Asquith described Simon's stance in a letter to Sylvia Henley; "I felt really like a man who had been struck publicly in the face by his son." Some years later, Simon acknowledged his error; "I have long since realised that my opposition was a mistake." Asquith's achievement in bringing the bill through without breaking up the government was considerable, his wife writing; "Henry's patience and skill in keeping Labour in this amazing change in England have stunned everyone," but the long struggle "hurt his own reputation and the unity of his party".
Main article: Easter Rising
On Easter Monday 1916, a group of
Irish Volunteers and members of the
Irish Citizen Army seized a number of key buildings and locations in
PROGRESS OF THE WAR
Asquith visits the front during the Battle of the Somme , 1916
Continued Allied failure and heavy losses at the Battle of Loos between September and October 1915 ended any remaining confidence in the British commander, Sir John French and in the judgement of Lord Kitchener. Asquith resorted to a favoured stratagem and, persuading Kitchener to undertake a tour of the Gallipoli battlefield in the hope that he could be persuaded to remain in the Mediterranean as Commander-in-Chief, took temporary charge of the War Office himself. He then replaced French with Sir Douglas Haig ; the latter recording in his diary for 10 December 1915; "About 7 pm I received a letter from the Prime Minister marked 'Secret' and enclosed in three envelopes. It ran 'Sir J. French has placed in my hands his resignation ... Subject to the King's approval, I have the pleasure of proposing to you that you should be his successor.'" Asquith also appointed Sir William Robertson as Chief of the Imperial General Staff with increased powers, reporting directly to the Cabinet and with the sole right to give them military advice, relegating the Secretary of State for War to the tasks of recruiting and supplying the army. Lastly, he instituted a smaller Dardanelles Committee, re-christened the War Committee, with himself, Balfour, Bonar Law, Lloyd George and Reginald McKenna as members although, as this soon increased, the Committee continued the failings of its predecessor, being "too large and lack(ing) executive authority". None of this saved the Dardanelles Campaign and the decision to evacuate was taken in December, resulting in the resignation from the Duchy of Lancaster of Churchill, who wrote, "I could not accept a position of general responsibility for war policy without any effective share in its guidance and control." Further reverses took place in the Balkans: the Central Powers overran Serbia, forcing the Allied troops which had attempted to intervene back towards Salonika .
Early 1916 saw the start of the German offensive at Verdun , the "greatest battle of attrition in history". In late May, the only significant Anglo-German naval engagement of the War took place at The Battle of Jutland . Although a strategic success, the greater loss of ships on the Allied side brought early dismay. Lord Newton , Paymaster General and Parliamentary spokesman for the War office in Kitchener's absence, recorded in his diary; "Stupefying news of naval battle off Jutland. Whilst listening to the list of ships lost, I thought it the worst disaster that we had ever suffered." This despondency was compounded, for the nation, if not for his colleagues, when Lord Kitchener was killed in the sinking of HMS Hampshire on 5 June.
Asquith first considered taking the vacant War Office himself but
then offered it to Bonar Law, who declined it in favour of Lloyd
George. This was an important sign of growing unity of action between
the two men and it filled
Asquith followed this by agreeing to hold Commissions of Inquiry into the conduct of the Dardanelles and of the Mesopotamian campaign , where Allied forces had been forced to surrender at Kut . Sir Maurice Hankey , Secretary to the War Committee, considered that; "the Coalition never recovered. For (its) last five months, the function of the Supreme Command was carried out under the shadow of these inquests." But these mistakes were overshadowed by the limited progress and immense casualties of the Battle of the Somme , which began on 1 July 1916, and then by another devastating personal loss, the death of Asquith's son Raymond , on 15 September at the Battle of Flers–Courcelette . Asquith's relationship with his eldest son had not been easy. Raymond wrote to his wife in early 1916; "If Margot talks any more bosh to you about the inhumanity of her stepchildren you can stop her mouth by telling her that during my 10 months exile here the P.M. has never written me a line of any description." But Raymond's death was shattering, Violet writing; "...to see Father suffering so wrings one", and Asquith passed much of the following months "withdrawn and difficult to approach". The War brought no respite, Churchill writing that; "The failure to break the German line in the Somme, the recovery of the Germanic powers in the East , the ruin of Roumania and the beginnings of renewed submarine warfare strengthened and stimulated all those forces which insisted upon still greater vigour in the conduct of affairs."
FALL: NOVEMBER–DECEMBER 1916
The events that led to the collapse of the First Coalition were exhaustively chronicled by almost all of the major participants, (although Asquith himself was a notable exception), and have been minutely studied by historians in the 100 years since. Although many of the accounts and studies differ in detail, and present a somewhat confusing picture overall, the outline is clear. As Adams wrote; "The Prime Minister depended upon majority Parliament. The faith of that majority in Asquith's leadership had been shaken and the appearance of a logical alternative destroyed him."
NIGERIA DEBATE AND LORD LANSDOWNE\'S MEMORANDUM
"a man called Max Aitken"
The touch paper for the final crisis was the unlikely subject of the
sale of captured German assets in
The situation was further inflamed by the publication of a memorandum on future prospects in the war by Lord Lansdowne . Circulated on 13 November, it considered, and did not dismiss, the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Central Powers . Asquith's critics immediately assumed that the memorandum represented his own views and that Lansdowne was being used a stalking horse, Lord Crewe going so far as to suggest that the Lansdowne Memorandum was the "veritable causa causans of the final break-up".
On 20 November 1916 Lloyd George, Carson and
Asquith was to be retained as prime minister, and given honorific oversight of the War Council, but day to day operations would be directed by Lloyd George. This scheme, although often reworked, remained the basis of all proposals to reform the government until Asquith's fall on 6 December. Until almost the end, both Bonar Law, and Lloyd George, wished to retain Asquith as premier. But Aitken, Carson and Lord Northcliffe emphatically did not.
POWER WITHOUT RESPONSIBILITY
Lord Northcliffe teeing up
Lord Northcliffe's role was critical, as was the use Lloyd George
made of him, and of the press in general. Northcliffe's involvement
also highlights the limitations of both Aitken's and Lloyd George's
accounts of Asquith's fall. Both minimised Northcliffe's part in the
events. In his War Memoirs, Lloyd George stated emphatically; "Lord
Northcliffe was never, at any stage, brought into our consultations."
Aitken supported this; "
Lord Northcliffe was not in active
co-operation with Lloyd George." But these claims are contradicted by
others. In their biography of Northcliffe, Pound and Harmsworth record
Northcliffe's brother Rothermere writing contemporaneously; "Alfred
has been actively at work with Ll.G. with a view to bringing about a
change." Riddell recorded is his diary for 27 May 1916; "LG never
mentions directly that he sees Northcliffe but I am sure they are in
TO-ING AND FRO-ING
His reply was an outright rejection; the proposal was impossible
"without fatally impairing the confidence of colleagues, and
undermining my own authority." Law took Asquith's response to Carson
and Lloyd George at Law's office in the Colonial Office. All were
uncertain of the next steps.
Lloyd George had also been reflecting on the substance of the scheme and, on Friday 1 December, he met with Asquith to put forward an alternative. This would see a War Council of three, the two Service ministers and a third without portfolio. One of the three, presumably Lloyd George although this was not explicit, would be chairman. Asquith, as Prime Minister, would retain "supreme control."
Asquith's reply the same day did not constitute an outright
rejection, but he did demand that he retain the chairmanship of the
council. As such, it was unacceptable to Lloyd George and he wrote to
LAST FOUR DAYS: SUNDAY 3 DECEMBER TO WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER
Sunday 3 December
Sunday 3 December saw the Conservative leadership meet at Bonar Law's house, Pembroke Lodge. They gathered against a backdrop of ever-growing press involvement, in part fermented by Max Aitken. That morning's Reynold\'s News , owned and edited by Lloyd George's close associate Henry Dalziel , had published an article setting out Lloyd George's demands to Asquith and claiming that he intended to resign and take his case to the country if they were not met. At Law's house, the Conservatives present drew up a resolution which they demanded Law present to Asquith.
This document, subsequently the source of much debate, stated that "the Government cannot continue as it is; the Prime Minister (should) tender the resignation of the Government" and, if Asquith was unwilling to do that, the Conservative members of the Government would "tender (their) resignations." The meaning of this resolution is unclear, and even those who contributed to it took away differing interpretations.
Chamberlain felt that it left open the option of either Asquith or Lloyd George as premier, dependent on who could gain greater support. Curzon, in a letter of that day to Lansdowne, stated no one at the Pembroke Lodge meeting felt that the war could be won under Asquith's continued leadership and that the issue for the Liberal politicians to resolve was whether Asquith remained in a Lloyd George administration in a subordinate role, or left the government altogether. Max Aitken's claim that the resolution's purpose was to ensure that "Lloyd George should go" is not supported by most of the contemporary accounts, or by the assessments of most subsequent historians.
As one example, Gilmour, Curzon's biographer, writes that the Unionist ministers; "did not, as Beaverbrook alleged, decide to resign themselves in order to strengthen the Prime Minister's hand against Lloyd George..(their intentions) were completely different." Similarly, Adams, Bonar Law's latest biographer, describes Aitken's interpretation of the resolution as "convincingly overturned." Ramsden is equally clear; "the Unionist ministers acted to strengthen Lloyd George's hand, from a conviction that only greater power for Lloyd George could put enough drive into the war effort."
The outcome of the interview between Law and Asquith was clear, even
if Law had not been. Asquith immediately decided that an
accommodation with Lloyd George, and a substantial reconstruction to
placate the Unionist ministers, were required. He summoned Lloyd
George and together they agreed a compromise that was, in fact, little
different to Lloyd George's 1 December proposals. The only
substantial amendment was that Asquith would have daily oversight of
the War Council's work and a right of veto. Grigg sees this
compromise as "very favourable to Asquith." Cassar is less certain;
"The new formula left him in a much weaker position authority merely
on paper for he was unlikely to exercise his veto lest it bring on the
collective resignation of the War Council." Nevertheless, both
Asquith, Lloyd George, and
Despite Lloyd George's denials of collaboration, the diary for 3 December by Northcliffe's factotum Tom Clarke, records that; "The Chief returned to town and at 7.00 o'clock he was at the War Office with Lloyd George." Meanwhile Duff Cooper was invited to dinner at Montagu's Queen Anne\'s Gate house, he afterwards played bridge with Asquith, Venetia Montagu and Churchill's sister-in-law "Goonie", recording in his diary : "..the P.M. more drunk than I have ever seen him, (..) so drunk that one felt uncomfortable ... an extraordinary scene."
Monday 4 December
The bulletin was published on the morning of Monday 4 December. It was accompanied by an avalanche of press criticism, all of it intensely hostile to Asquith. The worst was a leader in Northcliffe's Times. This had full details of the compromise reached the day before, including the names of those suggested as members of the War Council. More damagingly still, it ridiculed Asquith, claimed he had conspired in his own humiliation and would henceforth be "Prime Minister in name only." Lloyd George's involvement is uncertain; he denied any, but Asquith was certain he was the source. The author was certainly the editor, Geoffrey Dawson , with some assistance from Carson. But it seems likely that Carson's source was Lloyd George.
The leak prompted an immediate reaction from Asquith; "Unless the impression is at once corrected that I am being relegated to the position of an irresponsible spectator of the War, I cannot possibly go on." Lloyd George's reply was prompt and conciliatory; "I cannot restrain nor I fear influence Northcliffe. I fully accept in letter and in spirit your summary of the suggested arrangement – subject of course to personnel." But Asquith's mind was already turning to rejection of the Sunday compromise and outright confrontation with Lloyd George.
It is unclear exactly whom Asquith spoke with on 4 December.
Beaverbrook and Crewe state he met Chamberlain, Curzon and Cecil.
Cassar follows these opinions, to a degree. But Chamberlain himself
was adamant that he and his colleagues met Asquith only once during
the crisis and that was on the following day, Tuesday 5 December.
Chamberlain wrote at the time "On Tuesday afternoon the Prime Minister
sent for Curzon, Bob Cecil and myself. This is the first and only time
the three of us met Asquith during those fateful days." His
recollection is supported by details of their meetings with Bonar Law
and other colleagues, in the afternoon, and then in the evening of
the 4th, and by most modern historians, e.g. Gilmour and Adams.
Crawford records how little he and his senior Unionist colleagues were
involved in the key discussions, and by implication, how much better
informed were the press lords, writing in his diary; "We were all in
such doubt as to what had actually occurred, and we sent out for an
evening paper to see if there was any news!" Asquith certainly did
meet his senior Liberal colleagues on the evening of 4 December, who
were unanimously opposed to compromise with Lloyd George and who
supported Asquith's growing determination to fight. His way forward
had been cleared by his tendering the resignation of his government to
the King earlier in the day. Asquith also saw
Tuesday 5 December
Lloyd George accepted the challenge by return of post, writing; "As all delay is fatal in war, I place my office without further parley at your disposal." Asquith had anticipated this response, but was surprised by a letter from Arthur Balfour, who until that point had been removed from the crisis by illness. On its face, this letter merely offered confirmation that Balfour believed that Lloyd George's scheme for a smaller War Council deserved a chance and that he had no wish to remain at the Admiralty if Lloyd George wished him out. Jenkins argues that Asquith should have recognised it as a shift of allegiance. Asquith discussed the crisis with Lord Crewe and they agreed an early meeting with the Unionist ministers was essential. Without their support, "it would be impossible for Asquith to continue."
Asquith's meeting with Chamberlain, Curzon and Cecil at 3.00 p.m.
only highlighted the weakness of his position. They unanimously
declined to serve in a Government that did not include
Later that evening Bonar Law, who had been to the Palace to receive the King's commission, arrived to enquire whether Asquith would serve under him. Lord Crewe described Asquith's reply as "altogether discouraging, if not definitely in the negative."
Wednesday 6 December
I am personally very sorry for poor old Squiff. He has had a hard time and even when 'exhilarated' seems to have had more capacity and brain power than any of the others. However, I expect more action and less talk is needed now “ ” General Douglas Haig on Asquith's fall (6 December)
Wednesday saw an afternoon conference at Buckingham Palace, hosted by the King and chaired by Balfour. There is some doubt as to the originator of the idea, although Adams considers that it was Bonar Law. This is supported by a handwritten note of Aitken's, reproduced in A.J.P. Taylor\'s life of that politician, which reads: "6th Wed. Meeting at BL house with G. (Lloyd George) and C. (Carson) – Decide on Palace Conference." Conversely, Crewe suggests that the suggestion came jointly from Lord Derby and Edwin Montagu. However it came about, it did not bring the compromise the King sought. Within two hours of its break-up, Asquith, after consulting his Liberal colleagues, except for Lloyd George, declined to serve under Bonar Law, who accordingly declined the King's commission. At 7.00 pm. Lloyd George was invited to form a Government. In just over twenty four hours he had done so, forming a small War Cabinet instead of the mooted War Council, and at 7.30 p.m. on Thursday 7 December he kissed hands as Prime Minister. His achievement in creating a government was considerable, given that almost all of the senior Liberals sided with Asquith. Balfour's acceptance of the Foreign Office made it possible. Others placed a greater responsibility on Asquith as the author of his own downfall, Churchill writing; "A fierce, resolute Asquith, fighting with all his powers would have conquered easily. But the whole trouble arose from the fact that there was no fierce resolute Asquith to win this war or any other."
WARTIME OPPOSITION LEADER: 1916–1918
The Asquiths finally vacated
10 Downing Street
Asquith's fall was met with rejoicing in much of the British and Allied press and sterling rallied against the German mark on the New York markets. Press attacks on Asquith continued and indeed increased after the publication of the Dardanelles Report.
Within Parliament, Asquith pursued a course of quiet support, retaining a "heavy, continuing responsibility for the decision of August 4, 1914." Gardiner in the Daily News (9 December) stated explicitly that Lloyd George's government should not have to live under the constant barrage of criticism that Asquith's coalition had endured. In a "gracious" reply to Lloyd George's first speech in the House of Commons as Prime Minister on 19 December 1916, made clear that he did not see his role "in any sense to be the leader of what is called an opposition". From around the spring of 1917 Asquith's reluctance to criticise the government at all began to exasperate some of his press supporters.
Outside of the Commons, Margot and he returned to 20 Cavendish Square and he divided his life between there, The Wharf and visiting. Money, in the absence of his premier's salary, became more of a concern. In March 1917 he was informally offered the Lord Chancellorship, with the highest salary in government, but he declined. Personal sadness continued in December 1917 when Asquith's third son Arthur , known in the family as "Oc", was badly wounded fighting in France; his leg was amputated in January 1918. Asquith's daughter-in-law recorded in her diary; "The Old Boy (Asquith) sent me fifteen pounds and also, in a letter, told me the sad news of poor, dear Oc having been badly wounded again."
Main article: The Maurice Debate
On 7 May 1918 a letter from a serving officer, Major-General Sir
Frederick Maurice appeared in four London newspapers, accusing Lloyd
END OF THE WAR
Asquith was left politically discredited by the Maurice Debate and by
the clear turn of the war in the Allies' favour from the summer of
1918. He devoted far more effort to his Romanes Lecture "Some Aspects
of the Victorian Age" at Oxford in June 1918 than to any political
speech. However, Lady Ottoline Morrell thought it "a dull address". A
letter of July 1918 describes a typical couple of days. "Nothing much
is happening here. I dined with the usual crowd at Mrs. Astor's last
The beginning of the end of the war began where it had begun, with the last German offensive on the Western Front, the Second Battle of the Marne . "The tide of German success was stemmed and the ebb began under pressure of the great Allied counter-stroke." In response to the Allied offensives, "the governments of the Central Powers were everywhere in collapse".
DECLINE AND ECLIPSE: 1918–1926
Even before the Armistice, Lloyd George had been considering the political landscape and, on 2 November 1918, wrote to Bonar Law proposing an immediate election with a formal endorsement – for which Asquith coined the name "Coupon", with overtones of wartime food rationing – for Coalition candidates. News of his plans soon reached Asquith, causing considerable concern. On 6 November he wrote to Hilda Henderson; "I suppose that tomorrow we shall be told the final decision about this accursed election." A Liberal delegation met Lloyd George in the week of 6 November to propose Liberal reunification but was swiftly rebuffed.
Asquith joined in the celebrations of the Armistice, speaking in the Commons, attending the service of thanksgiving at St Margaret\'s, Westminster and afterwards lunching with King George. Asquith had a friendly meeting with Lloyd George a few days after the Armistice (the exact date is unclear), which Lloyd George began by saying "I understand you don't wish to join the government." Asquith was instead keen to go to the Peace Conference , where he considered his expertise at finance and international law would have been an asset. As he refused to accept public subordination, Lloyd George, despite lobbying from the King and Churchill, refused to invite him.
Asquith led the Liberal Party into the election, but with a singular lack of enthusiasm, writing on 25 November: "I doubt whether there is much interest. The whole thing is a wicked fraud." The Liberal leaders expected to lose the 1918 election badly, as they had lost the "Khaki Election" in 1900, but did not foresee the sheer scale of the defeat. Asquith hoped for 100 Liberal MPs to be returned. He began by attacking the Conservatives, but was eventually driven to attack the "blank cheque" which the government was demanding.
Asquith was one of five people given a free pass by the Coalition but the East Fife Unionist Association defied national instructions and put up a candidate, Sprot , against him. Sprot was refused a Coalition "coupon." Asquith assumed his own seat would be safe and spent only two and half days there, speaking only to closed meetings; in one speech there on 11 December he conceded that he did not want to "displace" the current government. He scoffed at press rumours that he was being barracked by a gang of discharged soldiers. Postwar reconstruction, the desire for harsh peace terms, and Asquith's desire to attend the peace talks, were campaign issues, with posters asking: "Asquith nearly lost you the War. Are you going to let him spoil the Peace?" James Scott, his chairman at East Fife, wrote of "a swarm of women going from door to door indulging in a slander for which they had not a shadow of proof. This was used for such a purpose as to influence the female vote very much against you."
At the poll on 14 December, Lloyd George's coalition won a landslide,
with Asquith and every other former Liberal Cabinet minister losing
his seat. Margot later recorded having telephoned Liberal
headquarters for the results; "Give me the East Fife figures: Asquith
6994 – Sprott (sic) 8996." She claimed to have exclaimed "Asquith
beat? ... Thank God!"
1919: OUT OF PARLIAMENT
1919 portrait by André Cluysenaar
Asquith remained leader of the Liberal Party, despite McKenna vainly urging him, almost immediately after the election, to offer his resignation to the National Liberal Federation and help with building an alliance with Labour. At first Asquith was extremely unpopular, and there is no evidence that he was invited to address any Liberal Association anywhere in the country for the first six months of 1919. He continued to be calumnied in the press and Parliament over the supposed presence of Germans in Downing Street during the war.
Although accounts differ as to the exact numbers, around 29 uncouponed Liberals had been elected, only 3 with any junior ministerial experience, not all of them opponents of the coalition. There was widespread discontent at Asquith's leadership, and Sir T.A. Bramsdon , who claimed that he had been elected at Portsmouth only by promising not to support Asquith, protested openly at his remaining leader from outside the Commons. At first Lloyd George extended the government whip to all Liberal MPs. On 3 February 23 non-coalition Liberals formed themselves into a "Free Liberal" group (soon known as the "Wee Frees" after a Scottish religious sect of that name ); they accepted Asquith's appointment of Sir Donald Maclean as chairman in his absence but insisted that George Rennie Thorne , whom Asquith had appointed Chief Whip, hold that job jointly with James Myles Hogge , of whom Asquith and Maclean had a low opinion. After a brief attempt to set up a joint committee with the Coalition Liberal MPs to explore reunion, the "Wee Frees" resigned the government whip on 4 April, although some Liberal MPs still remained of uncertain allegiance. The Liberals won by-elections in March and April 1919, but thereafter Labour performed better than the Liberals in by-elections.
In April 1919 Asquith gave a weak speech to Liberal candidates, his
first public speech since the election. In Newcastle (15 May) he gave
a slightly stronger speech, encouraged by his audience to "Hit Out!"
Asquith was also disappointed by the "terms and spirit" of the Treaty
In August 1919 Asquith was asked to preside over a Royal Commission into the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, although the report when it came was, in line with Asquith's own academic views, somewhat conservative. The commission began hearings in January 1920; many dons would have preferred Haldane as chair. Asquith's public rehabilitation continued with the receipt in late 1919 of the 1914 Star , the British War Medal and the Victory Medal , honours which the War Office, under Churchill, had originally intended only to be awarded to Lloyd George, until the King insisted Asquith receive them also.
Maclean and others urged Asquith to stand in the Spen Valley by-election in December 1919, but it is unclear whether he ever considered the idea. This was just as well, as it had become clear that Labour were going to fight the seat hard and they defeated Sir John Simon when Lloyd George insisted on splitting the Liberal vote by running a Coalition Liberal candidate.
Main article: Paisley by-election, 1920
A Parliamentary seat was essential if Asquith was again to play any serious part in future events. By the autumn of 1919 J.M. Hogge was openly critical of Asquith's leadership, and by January 1920 it was rumoured that he had given Asquith an ultimatum that unless he returned to Parliament in a by-election the Independent Liberal MPs would repudiate him as their leader (had he lost a by-election, his position would have been untenable anyway, as he well knew).
In January 1920, an opportunity arose at Paisley , in Scotland like his previous seat, after the death of the Liberal MP. The Liberals had held the seat by only 106 votes in 1918. Asquith's adoption was not a foregone conclusion: the local Association was split between pro- and anti-coalition factions, and he was selected by a vote of 20:17 by the executive and then 92:75 of the wider members. He was formally adopted on 21 January 1920 and soon united the local Liberal Association behind him. Asquith was lukewarm at the thought of returning to Scotland, and regarded his gamble with trepidation, although he grew more confident as the campaign progressed. Travelling with Margot, his daughter Violet and a small staff, Asquith directed most of his campaign not against Labour, who were already in second place, but against the Coalition, calling for a less harsh line on German reparations and the Irish War of Independence . Some "thought fit to compare with Gladstone\'s Midlothian campaign , although Asquith himself was more circumspect.
The result was stupendous, with Asquith defeating his Labour opponent by a majority of over 2000 votes, with the Coalition candidate a very poor third. Violet was ecstatic; "every star in the political skies favoured Father when we left Paisley, he became there what he has never before been in his life, the 'popular' candidate, the darling of the crowd." The poll was up by 8,000 from 1918. Asquith's surprise victory was helped by the support of the press baron Lord Rothermere .
He was seen off by tumultuous crowds at Glasgow, and greeted by further crowds at Euston the next morning, and along the road on his first return to Parliament. However, he received only a chilly greeting inside the Chamber, and no personal congratulations from Coalition politicians, except, ironically from Lord Cave who was to be his nemesis at Oxford in 1925.
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: 1920–1921
Paisley was a false dawn, for the Liberals and for Asquith personally. Jenkins wrote that "The post-war Liberal day never achieved more than a grey and short-lived light. By 1924, it was dusk again. By 1926, for Asquith, it was political night." Maurice Cowling characterised Asquith at this time as; "a dignified wreck, neither effective in the House of Commons nor attractive as a public reputation, (who) drank too much and (who) had lost touch with the movement of events and the spirit of the time."
Money, or its lack, also became an increasing concern. Margot's extravagance was legendary and Asquith was no longer earning either the legal fees or the prime ministerial salary they had enjoyed in earlier years. Additionally, there were on-going difficulties with Margot's inheritance. In 1920, as an economy measure, 20 Cavendish Square was sold to Viscountess Cowdray and Asquith and Margot moved to 44, Bedford Square .
Criticism of Asquith's weak leadership continued. Lloyd George's mistress Frances Stevenson wrote (18 March) that he was "finished … no fight left in him"; the press baron Lord Rothermere, who had supported him at Paisley, wrote on 1 April of his "obvious incapacity for the position he is expected to fill". In fact Asquith spoke in the House of Commons far more frequently than he had ever previously done when not a minister. He also spoke frequently around the country, in June 1921 topping the Liberal Chief Whip's list of the most active speakers. The issue was the quality of his contributions. Asquith still maintained friendly relations with Lloyd George, although Margot made no secret of her enmity for him.
Until the Paisley by-election Asquith had accepted that the next government must be some kind of Liberal-Labour coalition, but Labour had distanced themselves because of his policies on the mines, the Russo-Polish War , education, the prewar secret treaties and the suppression of the Easter Rebellion. The success of Anti-Waste League candidates at by-elections made leading Liberals feel that there was a strong anti-Coalition vote which might be tapped by a wider-based and more credible opposition. By late June 1921 Asquith's leadership was still under strong attack from within the Wee Free group, although Frances Stevenson's claim in her diary that most of them now wanted Lloyd George as their leader is not corroborated by the report in "The Times". Lord Robert Cecil, a moderate and pro-League of Nations Conservative, had been having talks with Edward Grey about a possible coalition, and Asquith and leading Liberals Crewe, Runciman and Maclean had a meeting with them on 5 July 1921, and two subsequent ones. Cecil wanted a genuine coalition rather than a de facto Liberal government, with Grey rather than Asquith as Prime Minister, but the Liberals did not, and little came of the plans.
Asquith did fiercely oppose "the hellish policy of reprisals" in Ireland, impressing the young Oswald Mosley . J.M. Hogge even urged Sir Donald Maclean (31 August) to "knock Asquith into the middle of next week" and seize back the chairmanship of the Liberal MPs. Late in 1921 the National Liberal Federation adopted an industrial programme without Asquith's agreement. On 24 October 1921 Asquith commented "if one tries to strike a bold true note half one's friends shiver and cower, and implore one not to get in front of the band".
LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: 1922
In January 1922 C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian told Asquith that he supported a centre-left grouping, but only if moderate Labour was included – in reality Labour leaders were unable to deliver the support of their local members for such a realignment. Asquith achieved more success with a major speech at Westminster Central Hall in January 1922, in reply to a speech by Lloyd George a few days earlier. Asquith had with some difficulty been persuaded to make the maximum possible reference to his renewed alliance with Grey, but Haldane had refused to join the platform. Five days later Churchill replied with a pro-Coalition speech in which he accused Asquith and other Liberals of having "stood carefully aside" during the war, causing deep offence.
By the summer of 1922 Asquith's interest in politics was at a very low ebb. He was observed to be "very heavily loaded" at a party of Sir Philip Sassoon 's on 16 July 1922, whilst his reputation was further damaged by his portrayal in Aldous Huxley 's novel Crome Yellow and by the publication of the first volume of Margot's memoirs, which sold well in the UK and the USA, but were thought an undignified way for a former Prime Minister to make money. On 13 September 1922 Sir Donald Maclean told Harold Laski that Asquith was devoted to bridge and small talk and did not do enough real work. Asquith was increasingly attracted by the thought of making money from writing, with Churchill doing very well from his " The World Crisis " and Lloyd George rumoured to be being paid handsomely for his memoirs (which in the event did not appear until the mid-1930s). Asquith's books The Genesis of the War finally appeared in September 1923 and Studies and Sketches in 1924. His second son Herbert recorded; "A large part of my father's later years was occupied with authorship and it was during this period that he wrote most of his longer books."
Asquith played no part in Lloyd George's fall from power in October
1922, which happened because the rank-and-file majority of his Tory
coalition partners, led by
In March 1923 a petition for reunion among Liberal backbenchers received 73 signatures, backed by the Lloyd Georgeite "Daily Chronicle" and the Asquithian "Liberal Magazine". But reunion was opposed by senior Asquithian Liberals like Sir John Simon, Viscount Gladstone and Charles Masterman, and as late as 30 June by journalists such as Massingham and Gardiner of "The Nation". By July Asquith was friendly to Lloyd George and conferred with him, but excluded him from the Shadow Cabinet just as Campbell-Bannerman had sometimes excluded Asquith and the other Liberal Imperialists at the time of the Boer War. Asquith wanted Lloyd George to make the first move but although he put out feelers to senior Asquith supporters he insisted that he was "neither a suppliant nor a penitent". Viscount Gladstone felt that "it was generally recognised that Asquith was no longer effective as an active leader" but that Lloyd George must not succeed him.
The political situation was transformed when Baldwin, now Prime Minister, came out in favour of Protection at Plymouth on 22 October 1923. Coming out for Free Trade himself, Lloyd George was obliged, at least formally, to submit to Asquith's leadership. Parliament was dissolved. Asquith and Lloyd George reached agreement on 13 November, followed by a Free Trade manifesto, followed by a more general one. Lloyd George, accompanied by his daughter Megan , came to Paisley to speak in Asquith's support on 24 November.
Asquith fought an energetic national campaign on free trade in 1923, with echoes of 1903. He spoke at Nottingham and Manchester, but did not privately expect more than 200 Liberals to be elected – although he hoped to overtake Labour and become Leader of the Opposition once again – and hoped for Baldwin to win by a tiny majority.
The poll at Paisley was split by an independent extreme socialist and a Tory. Asquith won with 33.4 percent of the vote. Nationally, the outcome of the election in December 1923 was a hung Parliament (258 Conservatives, 191 Labour, 158 Liberals); the Liberals had gained seats but were still in third place. A quarter of the seats were held by majority less than 1,000. In general, Asquith Liberals did better than Lloyd George Liberals, which Gladstone and Maclean saw as a reason to prevent close co-operation between the factions.
PUTTING LABOUR IN POWER
There was no question of the Liberals supporting a continuation of the Conservative government, not least as it was feared that an alliance of the two "bourgeois" parties would antagonise Labour. Asquith commented that "If a Labour Government is ever to be tried in this country, as it will be sooner or later, it could hardly be tried under safer conditions". Asquith's decision to support a minority Labour Government was seconded by Lloyd George and approved by a party meeting on 18 December.
Baldwin's view was similar, as he rejected Sir Robert Horne 's scheme
for a Conservative-Liberal pact. Roy Douglas called the decision to
Asquith was never in doubt as to the correctness of his approach, although a deluge of correspondence urged him to save the country from Socialism. He wrote on 28 December "I have been intreated during these weeks, cajoled, wheedled, almost caressed, tortured, threatened, brow-beaten and all but blackmailed to step in as the saviour of society."
The Liberals thus supported Britain's first ever (minority) Labour
LABOUR GOVERNMENT AND THE CAMPBELL CASE
Asquith's decision only hastened his party's destruction, Austen Chamberlain writing to Sir Samuel Hoare ; "We have got (unexpectedly and by our own blunders and Asquith's greater folly) a second chance. Have we got the wit to take it?"
Relations with Labour soon became very tense, with Liberal MPs increasingly angered at having to support a Labour Government which treated them which such open hostility. Many Liberals were also angered at MacDonald's pursuit of a trade agreement with the USSR, although Asquith rather less so. The intervention of a Labour candidate at a by-election in Oxford in June handed the seat to the Conservatives.
As Asquith brought MacDonald in so, later in the same year, he had significant responsibility for forcing him out over the Campbell Case and the Russian Treaty. The Conservatives proposed a vote of censure against the Government for withdrawing their prosecution for sedition against the Daily Worker , and Asquith moved an amendment calling for a select committee (the same tactic he had employed over the Marconi Scandal and the Maurice Debate). Asquith's contribution to the debate showed an increasingly rare return to Parliamentary form. "Almost every one of his delightful sentences filled the Chamber with laughter." Asquith's motion was passed by 364–198. As in the Maurice Debate, his sense of political tactics was, in Jenkins' view, overcome by his sense of Parliamentary propriety. He could not bring himself to withdraw the amendment, but could not support the government either.
Instead of resigning MacDonald requested, and was granted, a General Election. The 1924 election was intended by MacDonald to cripple the Liberals, and it did. Lloyd George refused to hand over money from his fund until he had more say over the Liberal whips office, Liberal Party Headquarters at Arlington Street and an election there was a chance of winning.
Meetings at Paisley were tumultuous and Asquith was barracked by hecklers singing " The Red Flag ". Asquith was widely expected to lose his seat and did so by 2,228. He received 46.5 percent of the vote in his final parliamentary election, a straight fight against Labour. Violet wrote; "Father was absolutely controlled. He just said to me, 'I'm out by 2,000'."
It was a political, as well as a personal, disaster. Baldwin won a landslide victory, with over "400 Conservatives returned and only 40 Liberals," far behind Labour which entrenched its position as the "chief party of Opposition." Labour's vote actually increased somewhat (partly as a result of their fielding more candidates than before). The Liberal vote collapsed, much of it coalescing to the Conservatives as a result of the scare around the forged Zinoviev Letter .
The Liberal grandees, who hated Lloyd George, did not press Asquith to retire. Sir Robert Hudson and Maclean called on him (31 October) and insisted he firmly keep the chair at the next meeting and nominate the new Chief Whip himself.
The 1924 election was Asquith's last Parliamentary campaign, and
there was no realistic chance of a return to the Commons. He told
Charles Masterman "I'd sooner go to hell than to Wales," the only part
of the country where Liberal support remained strong. The King offered
him a peerage (4 November 1924). Asquith felt he was not rich enough
to accept, and would have preferred to die a commoner like Pitt or
Gladstone. He accepted in January 1925 after a holiday in Egypt with
his son Oc. He deliberately chose the title "Earl of Oxford", saying
it had a splendid history as the title chosen by Robert Harley , a
In 1924 the Liberal party had only been able to put up 343 candidates due to lack of money. At one point the Liberal Shadow Cabinet suggested obtaining the opinion of a Chancery Lawyer as to whether the Liberal Party was entitled under trust law to Lloyd George's money, which he had obtained from the sale of honours. On 29 January 1925, at a two-day London convention, Asquith launched a Million Fund Appeal in an unsuccessful attempt to raise Liberal Party funds independent of Lloyd George. Main article: University of Oxford Chancellor election, 1925 I have had a noble offer from Lady Bredalbane who proposes to give me her late husband's Garter robes as a present. I shall jump at this, as it will save me a lot of money “ ” Asquith on an additional benefit of The Order of the Garter
One more disappointment remained. In 1925 he stood for the
Chancellorship of Oxford University , vacant on the death of Lord
Curzon. He was eminently suited and was described by Lord Birkenhead ,
one of his many
Asquith suspected he might lose because of country clergy's hostility
to Welsh Disestablishment, blaming "
Zadok the Priest and
Priest – with their half-literate followers in the rural
parsonages". The election was also seen as a settling of party scores
and a mockery of his title. He lost to the
In May 1925 Asquith accepted the Order of the Garter from Baldwin, who was known to be a personal admirer of his.
Difficulties continued with Lloyd George, who had been chairman of the Liberal MPs since 1924, over the party leadership and over party funds. In the autumn of 1925 Hobhouse, Runciman and the industrialist Sir Alfred Mond protested to Asquith at Lloyd George organising his own campaign for reform of land ownership. Asquith was "not enthusiastic" but Lloyd George ignored him and arranged for Asquith to be sent reports and calculations ("Lord Oxford likes sums" he wrote). At a meeting on 25 November 1925 Grey, Maclean, Simon, Gladstone and Runciman urged Asquith to have a showdown with Lloyd George over money. Asquith wanted to think it over, and at the December 1925 Federation executive he left the meeting before the topic came up. To the horror of his followers Asquith reached an agreement in principle with Lloyd George over land reform on 2 December, then together they presented plans to the National Liberal Federation on 26 February 1926. But, wrote Maclean, "in private Asquith's language about Lloyd George was lurid."
In January 1926 Mond withdrew his financial support from the Liberal Party. The loss of wealthy donors and the failure of the Million Fund Appeal further weakened Asquith's position, and there is some evidence that his frequent requests for money irritated donors like Sir Robert Perks who had given a good deal to the Party over the years, and that outside his inner circle of devotees he was bad at keeping on good terms with potential donors.
This was followed by a near final breach with Lloyd George over the General Strike . The Liberal Shadow Cabinet unequivocally backed Baldwin's handling of the strike on 3 May. Asquith viewed the strike as "criminal folly" and condemned it in the House of Lords, whilst in the Commons Sir John Simon declared it to be illegal. But whereas Asquith and Grey both contributed to the British Gazette , Churchill's pro-government newssheet, Lloyd George, who had not previously expressed a contrary opinion at Shadow Cabinet, wrote an article for the American press more sympathetic to the strikers, and did not attend the Shadow Cabinet on 10 May, sending his apologies on "policy grounds". Asquith at first assumed him to be trying to ingratiate himself with the Churches and Labour, but then (20 May) sent him a public letter rebuking him for not attending the meeting to discuss his opinions with colleagues in private.
In private, both sides were incandescent; one of Asquith's colleagues describing him as; "far more indignant at L.G. than I have ever seen," whilst Lloyd George expressed his private feelings in a letter to Frances Stevenson on 24 May "(Asquith) is a silly old man drunk with hidden conceit. When he listens to those poor creatures he has a weakness for gathering around him he generally makes a fool of himself. They are really 'beat'. Dirty dogs – and bitches."
Lloyd George's letter of 10 May had not been published, making it appear that Asquith had fired the first shot, and Lloyd George sent a moderate public reply, on 25 May. Asquith then wrote another public letter (1 June) stating that he regarded Lloyd George's behaviour as tantamount to resignation, the same as if a Cabinet Minister had refused to abide by the principle of collective responsibility. Twelve leading Liberals (including Grey, Lord Buckmaster, Simon, Maclean and Runciman) wrote in Asquith's support to "The Times" (1 June). However, Lloyd George had more support amongst the wider party than amongst the grandees. The executive of the National Liberal Federation, despite backing Asquith by 16:8, had already urged a reconciliation in late May, and the London Liberal Candidates' Association (3 June) and the Liberal MPs (8 June) did the same. Asquith had planned to launch a fightback at the National Liberal Federation in Weston-Super-Mare, due on 17 June, but on the eve of the conference he suffered a stroke (12 June) which put him out of action for three months.
Margot is said to have later claimed that her husband regretted the breach and had acted after several rich donors had threatened to quit. Asquith finally resigned the Liberal leadership on 15 October 1926.
FINAL YEARS: 1926–1928
Asquith's grave at Sutton Courtenay
Asquith filled his retirement with reading, writing, a little golf, travelling and meeting with friends. Since 1918 he had developed an interest in modern painting and sculpture.
His health remained reasonable, almost to the end, though financial concerns increasingly beset him. A perhaps surprising contributor to an endowment fund established to support Asquith in 1927 was Max Aitken, now Lord Beaverbrook, who contributed £1,000. Violet was highly embarrassed by her step-mother's attempts to enlist the aid of Aitken, Lord Reading and others of her husband's friends and acquaintances. "It is monstrous that other people (should) be made to foot Margot's bridge bills. HOW she has dragged his name through the mud!"
Asquith suffered a second stroke in January 1927, disabling his left leg for a while and leaving him a wheelchair-user for the spring and early summer of 1927. Asquith's last visit was see the widowed Venetia Montagu in Norfolk. On his return to The Wharf, in autumn 1927, he was unable to get out of his car and "he was never again able to go upstairs to his own room." He suffered a third stroke at the end of 1927. His last months were difficult, and he became increasingly confused, his daughter Violet writing; "To watch Father's glorious mind breaking up and sinking – like a great ship – is a pain beyond all my imagining."
Asquith died, aged 75, at The Wharf on the morning of 15 February
1928. "He was buried, at his own wish, with great simplicity," in
the churchyard of All Saints\' at Sutton Courtenay, his gravestone
recording his name, title, and the dates of his birth and death. A
blue plaque records his long residence at 20
Cavendish Square and a
memorial tablet was subsequently erected in
Asquith had five children by his first wife, Helen, and two surviving children (three others died at birth or in infancy) by his second wife, Margot.
His eldest son Raymond, after an academic career that outstripped his father's was killed at the Somme in 1916. His second son Herbert (1881–1947) became a writer and poet and married Cynthia Charteris . His later life was marred by alcoholism. His third son Arthur (1883–1939), became a soldier and businessman. His only daughter by his first wife, Violet, later Violet Bonham Carter (1887–1969), became a well-regarded writer and a life peeress as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury. She married Asquith's Personal Private Secretary Maurice Bonham Carter in 1915. His fourth son Cyril (1890–1954) was born on the day Asquith became a QC and later became a Law Lord .
His two children by Margot were Elizabeth, later Princess Antoine Bibesco (1897–1945), a writer, who also struggled with alcohol and Anthony Asquith (1902–1968), known as "Puffin", a film-maker, whose life was also severely affected by alcoholism.
Among his living descendants are his great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966), and two great-grandsons, Dominic Asquith , British High Commissioner to India since March 2016, and Raymond Asquith, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith , the heir to Asquith's earldom. Another leading British actress, Anna Chancellor (b. 1965), is also a descendant, being Asquith's great-great-granddaughter on her mother's side.
Memorial to Asquith,
According to Matthew, "Asquith's decision for war with Germany was
the most important taken by a British prime minister in the twentieth
century, and was more important than any prime ministerial decision of
the nineteenth century. It not only dictated the involvement of the
Asquith's reputation will always be heavily influenced by his
downfall at the height of the First World War. In 1930, Basil Liddell
Hart summed up opinion as to the reasons for his fall; "Lloyd George
(came to) power as the spokesman for a widespread demand for a more
vigorous as well as a more efficient prosecution of the war."
Asquith's collegiate approach; his tendency to "wait and see;" his
stance as the chairman of the cabinet, rather than leader of a
government – "content to preside without directing;" his "contempt
for the press, regard(ing) journalists as ignorant, spiteful and
unpatriotic;" and his weakness for alcohol – "I had occasion to
speak to the P.M. twice yesterday and on both occasions I was nearly
gassed by the alcoholic fumes he discharged;" all contributed to a
prevailing sense that Asquith was unable to rise to "the necessities
of total warfare." Grigg concludes, "In certain vital respects, he
was not qualified to run the war. A great head of government in
peacetime, by the end of 1916 he was in a general state of decline,
his obvious defects as a war leader (exposed)." Cassar, reflecting on
Asquith's work to bring a united country to war, and his efforts in
the year thereafter, goes towards a reassessment; "His achievements
are sufficiently impressive to earn him a place as one of the
outstanding figures of the Great War" His contemporary opponent,
Lord Birkenhead paid tribute to his bringing Britain united into the
War, ""A statesman who rendered great service to his country at a time
when no other living Englishman could have done what he did." The
Coalition Whip, William Bridgeman, provided an alternative
Asquith's fall also saw the end of the "Liberal Party as one of the great parties of state." According to Koss, Asquith's memory, "has lingered over the successive crises that continued to afflict his party. Each glimmer of a Liberal revival has enhanced his historical stature, if only as the victim or agent of the Liberal decline." After 1922 the Liberals did not hold office again, except as junior partners in coalition governments in 1931–1932, in 1940–1945, and (as today's Liberal Democrats ) in 2010–2015. Leonard considers that responsibility for this must also be carried, in part, by Asquith; "this gifted, fastidious, proud yet ultimately indecisive man must bear his share of the blame."
Koss concludes that, in a "long, eventful and complex career, (that)
does not admit easily of a summing up, Asquith's failings were no less
manifest than his achievements." Brock maintains that "his peacetime
record of legislative achievement should not be overshadowed by his
wartime inadequacy." Of those achievements, his colleague Lord
Buckmaster wrote; "The dull senses and heavy lidded eyes of the public
prevent them from seeing now all that you have accomplished, but
history will record it and the accomplishment is vast." Among his
greatest domestic accomplishments, reform of the
House of Lords
Perhaps Asquith's greatest personal attainment was his parliamentary dominance. From his earliest days in the House, "he spoke with the authority of a leader and not as a backbencher." As Campbell-Bannerman's "sledgehammer", his "debating power was unequalled." Lord Curzon extolled his skill in parliamentary dialectic; "Whenever I have heard him on a first-rate occasion, there rises in my mind the image of some great military parade. The words, the arguments, the points, follow each other with the steady tramp of regiments across the field; each unit is in its place, the whole marching in rhythmical order; the sunshine glints on the bayonets and ever, and anon, is heard the roll of the drums."
Jenkins considered Asquith as foremost amongst the great social reforming premiers of the twentieth century. His Government's social and political reforms were unprecedented and far-sighted; "paving the way for the welfare state legislation of the Attlee government in 1945–1951 as well as Blair's constitutional reforms after 1997." According to Roy Hattersley , a changed Britain entered the war in 1914, "the political, social and cultural revolution had already happened. Modern Britain was born in the opening years of the twentieth century." Asquith also worked strenuously to secure a settlement of the Irish question and, although unsuccessful, his work contributed to the 1922 settlement. Lastly, as a "great head of a Cabinet," Asquith directed and developed the talents of an extraordinary array of parliamentarians, for an extraordinarily long period. Hazlehurst contends that this "ability to keep so gifted and divergently-inclined a group in harness (was) one of his major achievements." Overall, Brock argues that; "on the basis of his achievements 1908 to 1914 he must rank among the greatest British statesmen of any era." His oldest political and personal friend, Haldane, wrote to Asquith on the latter's final resignation; "My Dear A., a time has come in both of our lives when the bulk of work has been done. That work does not pass away. It is not by overt signs that its enduring character is to be judged. It is by the changes made in the spirit of things into which the work has entered."
NOTES, REFERENCES AND SOURCES
* ^ Some sources mention only two daughters. See Bates , p. 9. The
brother and sister who survived into adulthood were William Willans
and Emily Evelyn. See
* ^ Cameron Hazelhurst, "Herbert Henry Asquith" in John P McIntosh,
ed. British Prime Ministers in the 20th Century (1977) 105-6
* ^ A B C Jenkins , p. 13.
* ^ Davies, Edward J. "The Ancestry of Herbert Henry Asquith",
Genealogists' Magazine, 30 (2010–12), pp. 471–479
* ^ Alderson , p. 1.
* Adams, R.J.Q (1999). Bonar Law. London: John Murray. ISBN
* Adelman, Paul (1995). The Decline of the Liberal Party,
1910–1931. London: Longman. ISBN 978-0-582-27733-5 .
* Alderson, J. P. (1905). Mr. Asquith. London: Methuen.
* Fry, Michael. "Political Change in Britain, August 1914 to
December 1916: Lloyd George Replaces Asquith: The Issues Underlying
the Drama." Historical Journal 31.03 (1988): 609-627.
* Gilbert, Martin (1971). Winston S. Churchill Volume III
1914–1916. London: Heinemann.
* Gilbert, Martin (1995). First World War. London: Harper Collins.
ISBN 978-0-00-637666-8 .
* Gilmour, David (1994). Curzon: Imperial Statesman. London:
Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-374-53024-2 .
* Grey, Sir Edward (1925). Twenty-Five Years: 1892–1916 Volume II.
London: Hodder & Stoughton.
* Hobhouse, Charles (1977). David, Edward, ed. Inside Asquith\'s
Cabinet: The Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. London: John Murray. ISBN
* Heffer, Simon (1998). Power and Place: the Political Consequences
of King Edward VII. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-84220-0 .
* Jenkins, Roy (1964). Asquith (first ed.). London: Collins. OCLC
* Koss, Stephen (1985). Asquith. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN
* Lee, Arthur (1974). Clark, Alan , ed. A Good Innings: The Private
Papers of Viscount Lee of Fareham. London: John Murray. ISBN
* Leonard, Dick (2005). A Century of Premiers: Salisbury to Blair.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-3990-6 .
* Levine, Naomi (1991). Politics, Religion and Love: the story of H.
H. Asquith, Venetia Stanley and Edwin Montagu. New York: New York
University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-5057-5 .
* Liddell Hart, Basil (1970). History of the First World War.
London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-304-93653-7 .
* Lindsay, David (1984). Vincent, John , ed. The Crawford Papers:
The journals of David Lindsay, twenty-seventh Earl of Crawford and
tenth Earl of Balcarres 1871–1940 during the years 1892 to 1940.
Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-0948-0 .
* Lloyd George, David (1933). War Memoirs: Volume I. London: Ivor
Nicholson and Watson.
* Asquith, H.H. (1918). Occasional Addresses 1893–1916. London:
Macmillan and Co.
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* Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by the Earl of Oxford * Bodleian Library catalogue record (finding aid) of H.H. Asquith\'s private papers * Bodleian Library catalogue record (finding aid) of Margot Asquith\'s private papers * Bodleian Library