Asquith, Herbert Henry, first Earl of Oxford and Asquith 1852-1928, statesman, was born at Croft House, Morley, Yorkshire, 12 September 1852, the second son of Joseph Dixon Asquith, a nonconformist wool-spinner and weaver of that place, by his wife, Emily, daughter of William Willans, a wool-stapler of Huddersfield. His father died when he was eight years old, and his mother then went with her four children to live near her father at Huddersfield; there, and for a short time at a Moravian boarding-school at Fulneck, near Leeds, Asquith received his early education. In 1863 he was sent with his elder brother to live with relatives in London, and entered the City of London School, then situated in Milk Street, off Cheapside. He remained at this school for seven years and came strongly under the influence of Dr. Edwin Abbott [qv.], its most famous headmaster. Abbott early marked him out as a boy of brilliant promise with an especially precocious talent for speech-making, which was shown to great advantage at the school debating society. In 1870 Asquith proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, having gained a classical scholarship at the age of seventeen. He more than fulfilled his school promise at Oxford where he obtained first classes both in classical moderations (1872) and literae humaniores (1874) and was awarded the Craven scholarship (1874), after being proxime accessit for the Hertford and the Ireland scholarships. Asquith was also in his last term president of the Oxford Union, where the fame of his exploits was handed on to many generations of undergraduates. Jowett, like Abbott, predicted a great career for him, and all his Oxford contemporaries were of the same opinion.
In 1874 Asquith was elected fellow of Balliol, the other fellowship of the same year being awarded to A. C. Bradley, professor of poetry at Oxford, 1901-1906. About the same time he entered as a student at Lincoln's Inn, and after a short residence at Balliol came to London, and for the next year was a pupil in chambers of the future Lord Justice Bowen, who confirmed what was now the usual opinion of his abilities. He was called to the bar in 1876. In 1877, in his twenty-sixth year, he married Helen, daughter of Frederick Melland, a well-known Manchester physician, and took up his residence at Eton House, in what used to be John Street, Hampstead. Asquith had early decided that his real career was to be in politics, and that the bar was to be only a means to that end. But in making his way at the bar he had six years of struggle and discouragement, in which he added to a slender income by lecturing and writing articles for the Spectator and Economist. The rare briefs which came his way were well argued, but he lacked some of the superficial qualities which tell with juries and ensure quick success. It was not until 1883 that he began to make his mark at the bar, and then he caught the attention of (Sir) Robert Samuel Wright, afterwards a judge, at that time attorney-general's devil, and of Sir Henry James (afterwards Lord James of Hereford), for both of whom he devilled, and to whom he always acknowledged a great debt for help in these early years.
During this period Asquith devoted most of his leisure to politics, speaking for the Eighty Club at public meetings and engaging in debate at local parliaments as an ardent Gladstonian liberal. In 1886, being now fairly established at the bar, he decided to stand for parliament, and after a week's campaign was returned for East Fife, a constituency which remained faithful to him for thirty-two years. He at once made his mark in the House of Commons. His speeches were brief, pointed, trenchant, and admirably timed; it was said from the beginning that he spoke with the authority of a leader and not as a backbencher. During this parliament he concentrated on the Irish question, and distinguished himself as a vehement opponent of the coercive policy of Mr. Balfour, then chief secretary for Ireland. But his chief opportunity came in 1888 when he was appointed junior counsel for Charles Stewart Parnell [qv.] before the Parnell commission—Sir Charles Russell being leader—and a brilliant cross-examination of one of the principal witnesses for The Times not only made him at the bar but greatly enhanced his reputation in the House of Commons, where he made formidable use of the knowledge gained on the commission. From this time forward his legal practice increased by leaps and bounds, and his name became widely known in the country. He took silk in 1890.
As a tragic set-off to these successes came the loss of his wife, who died of typhoid fever in September 1891, when they were on holiday together at Lamlash in the Isle of Arran. To me, Asquith wrote to a friend some time afterwards, she was the gentlest and best of companions, a restricting rather than a stimulating influence, and knowing myself as I do, I have often wondered that we walked so evenly together. I was only eighteen when I fell in love with her, and we married when we were little more than boy and girl. In the cant phrase our marriage was a great success; from first to last it was never troubled by any kind of sorrow and dissension; and when the sun went down, it was in an unclouded sky. Asquith was now left a widower with five young children (four sons and one daughter), and he had in front of him some of the hardest years of his life.
Up to the autumn of 1890, it was generally believed that the liberal party would come back to power with a large majority at the next election, but the Parnell divorce case in November of that year, and the complications which followed from it, blighted that prospect. Thus, when the election came in 1892, the party had a majority of only 40, with which to undertake the formidable task to which it was pledged of carrying a Home Rule Bill through parliament. That task was doomed to failure from the beginning, but, indomitable as ever, Mr. Gladstone was determined to try, and formed an exceptionally able Cabinet with a strong infusion of younger men. Abandoning his former objection to putting into a Cabinet men who had not served an apprenticeship as under-secretaries, he made Asquith home secretary, and no appointment received more general approval. Asquith thus became a Cabinet minister and the holder of the principal secretaryship of state at the age of thirty-nine.
In lasting three years the liberal government outlived the most sanguine expectations of its friends, and at the end of that time Asquith was held to have justified and increased his reputation. He had shown firmness and good sense on such questions as the demand for the release of Irish dynamiters, the holding of public meetings in Trafalgar Square, and the Featherstone riots (August 1893); any one of these, if mishandled, might have put the government in jeopardy. He also left behind him an excellent administrative record, and steered an important Factory Bill through the House of Commons in 1894 and 1895. His reputation was now firmly established as a debater in the house, and as an admirable speaker on platforms in the country. When parliament was dissolved in 1895, he was generally regarded as a future prime minister.
In May 1894, while he was home secretary, Asquith married as his second wife Margaret (Margot), youngest daughter of Sir Charles Tennant, first baronet [qv.], a young woman well known in London society for her brilliant gifts and originality of mind and character. A selection (published in his biography) of the letters that he wrote to her before their marriage, reveals a deep and imaginative side of his character which he kept veiled from the public until the end of his life. The world said that they were unequally matched; but he remained as devoted to her to the end as she was to him, and was unqualified in his admiration of her gifts and in acknowledging the stimulus which she gave to his own less lively disposition. There were five children of this marriage, of whom only two, a son and a daughter, survived infancy.
Asquith remained out of office for nearly eleven years—years of trouble and schism for the liberal party, from which at times it seemed doubtful if it could ever recover. The resignation of Lord Rosebery as leader of the party in 1896 was followed by the resignation of Sir William Harcourt from the same position in 1898. In the latter year Asquith was much talked of for the succession to the leadership, but he was resolved not to put himself into competition with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who had the claim of seniority, if willing to accept this bed of thorns, as Lord Rosebery called it. Asquith, moreover, was now busily engaged earning a large income at the bar, to which he had returned in defiance of the convention which was supposed to prevent an ex-Cabinet minister or, indeed, any privy councillor, from engaging in this profession, and he was not yet prepared to give his whole time to public affairs. He was, in fact, very often absent from the House of Commons in these days, and some said that he was tiring of politics.
That was never so, but politics were difficult and thorny enough for a liberal leader between the years 1899 and 1902. The Boer War which broke out in the autumn of 1899 deeply divided the party and its leaders. There were Little-Englanders, so called, who thought the War an iniquity and denounced it in unmeasured terms; there were Liberal-Imperialists who thought it just and inevitable, at all events after President Kruger's ultimatum. Asquith, although he had vigorously criticized the Chamberlain-Milner diplomacy which led up to the War, was of the latter opinion. This brought him into collision with Campbell-Bannerman who, although he admitted the inevitability of the War after the ultimatum, could never be brought to pronounce it just or, taking into consideration the whole course of events, unavoidable. Little-Englanders and Liberal-Imperialists composed their differences temporarily for the khaki election of October 1900, in which both suffered equally, but the trouble broke out anew afterwards, and in June 1901 Asquith publicly protested against Campbell-Bannerman's use of the phrase methods of barbarism as applied to the farm-burning practised by British troops in South Africa under the provocation of guerrilla warfare. Much recrimination followed, and the formation of the Liberal League by the Imperialist group in February 1902 seemed to indicate that the whole group was about to follow Lord Rosebery in the definite separation which he had already announced on his own behalf. But by this time Asquith had come to the conclusion that the quarrel had gone too far, and in the next few weeks he used his influence successfully to make peace.
The situation was eased by the ending of the War in May 1902, and before another year was out the conservative party, by its education policy and still more by raising the fiscal question, had done what liberals had failed to do for themselves—reunited the liberal party. From now to the end of the parliament, Asquith was foremost both in attacking the government and in defending free trade; and the speeches which he made in the country were models of trenchant and lucid exposition of all aspects of the fiscal question.
Mr. Balfour's government resigned early in December 1905, and after ten and a half years of exclusion from office the liberal party again had an opportunity of forming a ministry. The circumstances at the moment were by no means auspicious. Lord Rosebery had just made a speech dissenting emphatically from the line taken by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, with Asquith's consent, on the Irish question; and while the government was being formed a serious hitch occurred owing to the condition which Mr. Haldane and Sir Edward Grey sought to make that Asquith should be leader of the House of Commons while the new prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, should accept a peerage and go to the Lords. Asquith, who had, in the meantime, accepted the office of chancellor of the Exchequer, was strongly opposed to any step which would lead to a crisis at that moment on an issue personal to himself; and when Campbell-Bannerman declined their condition, Haldane and Grey were persuaded to waive it, and to enter the government as secretary for war and foreign secretary respectively¾appointments which were to be momentous in later years. At the election which followed in January 1906 the liberal party obtained an enormous majority mainly on the free trade issue, and for the next two years Campbell-Bannerman remained leader of the House of Commons, a position in which he greatly distinguished himself and¾as no one acknowledged more generously than Asquith¾belied all the fears that had been expressed about his capacity for leadership.
In these two years the struggle between Lords and Commons, which was to last continuously for the next five years, entered upon its first stage. The House of Lords either rejected or amended out of recognition the bills to which the liberal government attached most importance¾education bills, land bills, franchise bills¾and feeling ran high on this treatment of liberal legislation just after a great liberal triumph in the country. Asquith, as had been expected, proved the most formidable debater on the government side in these controversies; but his principal work was as chancellor of the Exchequer, and he was responsible for three budgets (1906, 1907, and 1908), the last of which he introduced after he had become prime minister. As a financier, he was orthodox, thrifty, and progressive. In his first budget he took off the 1s. per ton coal export tax, and reduced the tea tax from 6d. to 5d. In his second he established the difference between earned and unearned income for income-tax, and revised the whole system of grants in aid of local authorities, substituting equivalent grants for ear-marked taxes. In his third he made the first provision for old age pensions, at the same time reducing the sugar tax from 4d. to 2d. He took especial pride in having instituted old age pensions, and was able to claim that, in spite of this new demand on the Exchequer, he had reduced debt at the rate of from 14 to 15 millions a year out of taxation.
In February 1908 Campbell-Bannerman fell dangerously ill, and it soon became known that he was dying. His relations with Asquith had been intimate and affectionate, and Asquith on his side was reluctant to take any step which might be painful to him or retard the hope of his recovery, while it was yet possible to hope. The government was carried on with great difficulty in his absence during the next six weeks, and at the end of that time Campbell-Bannerman's doctors declared his resignation to be imperative. King Edward VII was then at Biarritz, and instead of returning to London, summoned Asquith to ‘kiss hands’ as prime minister at that French watering-place¾a method of procedure which exposed him to no little criticism. Asquith departed for Biarritz on 5 April, ‘kissed hands’ on 6 April, and came back as prime minister the following day, with the list of his ministers approved. The most important changes which he made in the previous administration were the appointments of Mr. Lloyd George to be chancellor of the Exchequer, of Mr. Reginald McKenna to be first lord of the Admiralty, and of Mr. Winston Churchill to be president of the Board of Trade.
Never was a political succession less disputed than that of Asquith to the prime ministership in April 1908. There were no rivals in the field, and he came to the highest place by common consent. But no one at that moment thought it likely or, indeed, possible that he would hold this place for nearly nine years¾the longest continuous period for which it had been held by one man since Lord Liverpool's resignation in 1827. In April 1908 the liberal tide was visibly ebbing from its high-water mark of 1906; almost all the legislation on which the party had set its heart had been brought to a standstill owing to the resistance of the House of Lords; and failing the means of overcoming this obstruction, the government was losing prestige in the country and seemed doomed, if it survived, to a sterile ‘ploughing of the sands’. No one then foresaw that the House of Lords itself would provide the issue which would prolong the life of the government and keep the liberal tide flowing until the outbreak of the European War in 1914.
The issue arose out of finance. By the end of 1908, it had become clear that the large and unexpected increase in the German navy would require a corresponding effort on the part of the British government. The necessity was challenged by certain members of the Cabinet, who saw with dismay the prospect of the surplus which they had ear-marked for social reform being absorbed by the demands of the Admiralty. A sharp struggle followed, in which the Admiralty secured an even bigger programme than it had at first demanded; but the Cabinet decided that money should be found both for the construction of new ships and for the social programme which it had previously contemplated. The budget of 1909 which Mr. Lloyd George introduced for this purpose, with its fourteen millions of extra taxation, may seem a modest effort to a later generation, but it led to a violent agitation, in which the proposed new land taxes were specially singled out for denunciation, and on the last day of November it was rejected by the House of Lords. This raised a constitutional question of the first magnitude. For at least 250 years it had been assumed by all parties that the power of the purse belonged to the House of Commons, and to that House alone; and it was clear that, if the House of Lords could establish its right to hold up supply, it would have acquired the power of dissolving parliament and bringing any government to which it objected to a standstill. In fact, the hereditary assembly would have the whip-hand of the elective.
Asquith immediately took up the challenge and appealed to the country. At the election which followed, in January 1910, the government secured a majority of 124¾a majority large enough for ordinary purposes, but not large enough to overcome the opposition of the Irish if they carried their objection to certain taxes to the length of voting against the budget, when it was again presented to the House of Commons. For some weeks the fate of both the budget and the government was in doubt, but Asquith stood firm against any change to conciliate the Irish, and in the end the latter gave way and the budget was passed by a majority of 93 in the House of Commons on 27 April 1910, and accepted without a division by the House of Lords on the following day. But the liberal party was now unanimously of opinion that the government could not content itself with procuring the submission of the House of Lords on the one issue of the budget and continue to accept its unqualified supremacy over all other legislation. Simultaneously with the passing of the budget, Asquith had prepared and presented to the House of Commons a scheme for limiting the powers of the House of Lords by providing that a Bill which had been passed by the House of Commons in three successive sessions should, after a minimum period of two years from its first introduction, automatically become law in spite of its rejection in each of those sessions by the House of Lords. This was the plan which the liberal party had adopted in 1907, and it was now the party's unanimous demand that it should occupy the first place in the government programme.
It was evident from the beginning, however, that such a plan would not be accepted by the House of Lords except under pressure of a creation of peers, or the threat of such a creation, to overcome its resistance. No one saw this more clearly than King Edward, who had warned Asquith before the election of January 1910 that if the question of the House of Lords veto was raised in addition to that of the budget in the new house, he would not ‘feel justified in creating new peers until after a second general election’, at which the veto would be the sole and acknowledged issue. The natural sequence of events was broken by the death of King Edward in May 1910, and for the next few months Asquith endeavoured to reach a settlement of the House of Lords and other constitutional questions through a conference of the leaders of both parties. When this attempt broke down, he decided to dissolve parliament at once and to hold the second election on the House of Lords question for which King Edward had stipulated as the condition of using the royal prerogative to create peers. But before doing so he felt it necessary to satisfy himself that King George V would accept this second election as the final and sufficient test of the popular will, as presumably his father would have done. Accordingly, on 16 November, Asquith put the question to the king in an interview at Buckingham Palace, and obtained from him a ‘hypothetical understanding’, as he afterwards described it, that, if the government obtained ‘a sufficient majority’ at the coming election, he (the king) would create peers in sufficient numbers to overcome the resistance of the House of Lords, should it resist in the teeth of the popular verdict. It was agreed that this understanding should be divulged to no one except members of the Cabinet, unless it proved necessary to give effect to it in the new parliament.
Asquith always hoped that this necessity would not arise, and that, if the popular verdict was decisive, the House of Lords would bow to it without waiting for a creation of peers. In this way he hoped that the king would be kept out of the controversy which was bound to follow, if the understanding were made public either before the election or while the measure was being debated in the new parliament. To a considerable extent this hope was realized, but although the election of December 1910 gave the government a majority of 126, the House of Lords continued its resistance up to the last stages of the Parliament Bill which it amended in such a way as to defeat its principal objects. On 24 July, when the House of Commons met to consider the Lords' amendments, Asquith stood at the box for half an hour unable to make himself heard against the organized clamour of his opponents, and the house had to be content with learning the intentions of the government from the report of his undelivered speech in the next day's papers. It now became necessary to reveal that the king was prepared to use his prerogative if the peers persisted in their opposition, but even under this pressure the Bill was only passed by a majority of 17 after agitated debates in which Asquith was hotly assailed for having ‘coerced the king’.
To the end of his life Asquith warmly repudiated this charge. The position was one, in his opinion, in which neither king nor minister had any option. The minister could not have undertaken another election without satisfying himself that, if a sufficient majority was obtained, the result would be decisive; the king could not, as the event proved, have obtained another minister who could have survived either in the existing parliament or in the new parliament. Opinions may differ as to the policy of the Parliament Act, but it is now scarcely disputed that the king's action was in strict accord with his constitutional duties and that Asquith, in peculiarly difficult circumstances, chose the method best calculated to keep the crown out of political controversy.
At the election of December 1910, Asquith made it clear that the removal of the absolute veto of the House of Lords was intended by the government to clear the way to other liberal legislation which, till then, had been obstructed by the peers; and in April 1912 he introduced a Home Rule Bill, proposing, for the third time since Mr. Gladstone's effort in 1886, to set up a subordinate parliament in Ireland. The accumulated bitterness of the party struggles of previous years now found vent in the opposition to this Bill. Before the year was out the protestant counties of Ulster, under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson and with the support of unionist leaders, began to drill and arm with a view to resisting the Bill if it became law, declaring this to be the only alternative remaining to them, now that the veto of the House of Lords was removed. This placed the government in extreme difficulty. It was warned that any legal proceedings which it might take would almost certainly be abortive, since in the heated state of opinion it was improbable that juries would convict; and Irish supporters of the government were strongly opposed to ‘British coercion’ being applied to any party in Ireland. Asquith held his hand, and during the next eighteen months endeavoured by all possible means to narrow down the field of controversy and bring the opposing parties to reason. The agitation continued unabated in the meantime, and among its more serious incidents was the intimation in March 1914 of a group of officers at the Curragh camp in Ireland, in answer to a question put to them by their commanding officer, that they would accept dismissal from the service rather than take part in the coercion of Ulster. Asquith was of opinion that such a question ought never to have been put to them, and that the whole matter had been seriously mishandled by the military authorities. The country and the House of Commons were greatly disturbed by this event, and in order to restore discipline and reassure the public, Asquith himself assumed the secretaryship for war and was actually serving in that capacity when the European War broke out (28 July).
After much patient negotiation, in which the king played a useful part, the Irish controversy was reduced to the question of the precise area to be excluded, and the conditions on which that area should vote itself out or vote itself in. This was submitted to a conference of party leaders at Buckingham Palace on 14 July 1914, but even then the leaders failed to agree, and the future was still in doubt when the War came to suspend the controversy. The Home Rule Bill was passed into law in September 1914 after the War had broken out, but was accompanied by a suspensory Bill postponing its operations until the War was over. A parallel controversy went on during the same years about the Welsh Disestablishment Bill which was dealt with in the same way while the War continued, but was accepted afterwards by general consent.
During these years of agitating controversy between the male parties in the electorate, Asquith became a special target of the militant suffragists who were demanding votes for women and pursuing their campaign with acts of obstruction and violence. For the greater part of his life he was an opponent of women's suffrage, and he both spoke and voted against the resolutions and bills introduced into the House of Commons for the enfranchisement of women. His reasons were frankly sentimental. As his correspondence shows, he rated the capacity and intelligence of women very high, and had no more intimate confidants on serious matters than his wife and a few chosen women friends. But he considered that women in general would lose rather than gain by engaging in the rough and tumble of politics, and he saw no middle course between enfranchising them and admitting them to parliament, and for this final step he was not prepared. His opposition, however, as he explained to the house in one of the debates on the subject (6 May 1913) was ‘not dogmatic or final’. He would withdraw it if, first, clear proof were given that an overwhelming majority of women desired to be enfranchised, and secondly, if it were shown that the absence of direct representation in the House of Commons caused the neglect by parliament of the special needs and interests of women. He considered that these conditions had been reasonably fulfilled by the experience of women's work in the War and the new position which they were evidently going to occupy in industry. The demand persisted, and there could no longer be any question of their special interest in legislation. Accordingly he supported their enfranchisement in the Act of 1918, and in the following year the removal of the bar to their sitting in parliament.
Grave and difficult as were the domestic controversies of these years, foreign affairs in the end overshadowed them all. Few British ministers can have had to face more, and more dangerous, crises in the same period of time as Asquith in the six years from the date on which he became prime minister to the outbreak of the European War. His complete accord during these years with Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, he reckoned one of the most fortunate circumstances of his life, and the perfect partnership of the two men saved him from the friction so usual in the relations between prime minister and foreign secretary, and kept the government steadfast to a continuous line of policy. Asquith was anxious to find any means of conciliating Germany, but loyalty to the French entente and security against the challenge of the increasing German fleet he considered to be the two essentials of British policy. In the many struggles within his Cabinet about the increases in the British navy deemed necessary to meet the German competition, he was invariably a strong supporter of what the Admiralty thought necessary for safety, and he brought all the arts of persuasion to bear upon his colleagues who were unconvinced or reluctant. On the other hand, he was strongly opposed to scattering the resources of the country between army and navy in time of peace, and in a lively passage in his Genesis of the War (1923) has replied to the charge that he did not ‘raise an army’ on the continental model in the years before the War. He believed, as did most responsible men in both parties, that no government could have persuaded the British people to accept compulsory military service except under the pressure of extreme necessity, and he claimed for his government that in keeping the navy beyond challenge and maintaining the expeditionary force and territorial army, it had made a larger effort in naval and military preparation than any other government in the same space of time.
The successive crises arising out of the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, the dispatch of the German warship Panther to Agadir in 1911, and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 tested the nerve of his government to the utmost, and not less because some of them coincided with the tensest moments in domestic affairs. The Agadir crisis, for example, ran side by side with the Parliament Bill in 1911, and while the Peers and Commons were at grips Asquith and his Cabinet had seriously to consider the possibility that in another week Great Britain would be plunged into war with Germany. In all these emergencies Asquith's steadiness and composure were of the highest value.
Asquith has left it on record in his Memories and Reflections (1928) that in the final crisis of July to August 1914 he started with five leading ideas on policy: (1) Great Britain has no obligations of any kind either to France or Russia to give them military or naval help; (2) Great Britain must not forget the ties created by her long-standing and intimate friendship with France; (3) it is against British interests that France should be wiped out as a great power; (4) Great Britain cannot allow Germany to use the Channel as a hostile base; (5) Great Britain has obligations to Belgium to prevent her from being utilized and absorbed by Germany. All five of these ideas had been embodied in the policy of Asquith's government in the previous years. In the Grey-Cambon correspondence of 1912 it was laid down for the information of the French that all final decisions rested with the British parliament. In the naval negotiations with Germany following the mission of Viscount Haldane [q.v.] to Berlin in the same year, a German formula which would have detached Great Britain from France and compelled her to remain neutral in the event of a German attack upon France was definitely declined, and in reporting the government's decision Asquith told the king that British interests alone, apart from consideration for France, required its refusal. The British documents in regard to the neutrality of Belgium further show that the British government made it quite clear that it would not be a party to the violation of Belgian territory by any power, and Marshal Joffre has revealed in his Mémoires that a French plan, which might have anticipated the German incursion by entering Belgian territory in advance of the Germans, had to be abandoned in November 1912 on that account. When the crisis came, all these ideas and motives worked together to the conclusion that honour and policy alike required British intervention; and Asquith himself never wavered in the view that a victory of Germany over France, leading, as it almost certainly would have done, to German control of Belgium and the Channel ports, and to a combination of hostile fleets in German hands, would leave Great Britain and the British Empire in a position of the gravest peril. His colleagues have left their testimony that when the final crisis came, his handling of the Cabinet was masterly. He knew where he would stand; but he knew also the importance of keeping the government united, and the unwisdom of forcing the hands of colleagues who shared his responsibility. By his patience and suasion he accomplished the feat, which at the beginning had seemed impossible, of bringing Cabinet and country to the all but unanimous conclusion that British participation in the War was a stern necessity.
Asquith's government, by common consent, handled the first stages of the European War with remarkable skill and success. The navy was at its stations at the critical moment; the six divisions of the Expeditionary Force were conveyed to France swiftly, secretly, and without a hitch. The plans devised in previous years to prevent panic and to enable business to continue worked with admirable efficiency. The appointment of Lord Kitchener as secretary for war was hailed as a masterstroke. But in Great Britain, as in other countries, both government and public were utterly unprepared for the prolonged and devastating struggle which followed. When the retreat from Mons had been retrieved by the victory of the Marne (September 1914), hopes ran high that the War would be ‘over before Christmas’, and the grim war of attrition which now set in presented all the governments concerned with unheard-of problems as to men, munitions, and supply. Within Asquith's government were influential men, especially Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Winston Churchill, who believed that the war of attrition could be avoided by a ‘more imaginative strategy’ which would discover alternatives to an incessant hammering at trench barriers on the Western front; and Asquith himself made one exception¾in favour of the Dardanelles expedition (February 1915)¾to the belief which he otherwise strongly held that victory could only be attained by conquering the main German army in France. The Dardanelles expedition miscarried partly because an initial confusion between a purely naval and joint naval and military attack robbed it of the element of surprise, and partly because, when it had failed as a surprise, sufficient men and munitions could not be spared from the Western front to ensure its success.
The failure of the Dardanelles expedition in its initial stage coincided with an agitation on the subject of munitions on which Asquith had borne uncomplainingly much unfair criticism, and the two things together brought the purely liberal government, which had been in office since 1906 and had survived two general elections, to an end (May 1915). Asquith now formed a coalition Cabinet in which the principal unionist leaders and one member of the labour party (Arthur Henderson) were included.
For the purpose of the War the Coalition government was no improvement on its predecessor. The new men needed to be informed about everything from the beginning; all the parties expected to be represented on any body to which the conduct of the War was deputed; party feeling persisted and caused acute divisions on subjects like compulsory service and the treatment of the Irish question after the rebellion of Easter 1916. Asquith's official biography tells a story of incessant struggles on these and other questions within the Cabinet; and throughout its existence Mr. Lloyd George maintained a running fight with Lord Kitchener and the principal military authorities, demanding a complete change in the direction of the War, by which he meant the transfer of the chief part of the army from the Western to the Eastern front. Then, as later under his own government, this proposal encountered the all but unanimous opposition of the commanding officers, British and French. Both protested that the enemy would have the enormous advantage of interior lines against the long and uncertain communications of the Allies, to say nothing of the inadequacy of the ports and bases of supply and other geographical obstacles to campaigns in the East. The French especially were determined that none other than their own country should be the main theatre of war, while it was in the occupation of the enemy.
The French, nevertheless, made an exception to their own rule in favour of the Salonika expedition (October 1915), which proved a grave embarrassment to the British government. Asquith opposed it to the utmost of his power, but the French forced his hands, and by so doing compelled the evacuation of the Dardanelles, since troops could not be found simultaneously for both expeditions. The evacuation of the Dardanelles (December 1915) without the loss of a man was a great military feat, but in the public mind it set the seal of failure on the greatest military operation of the year 1915, and, combined with the ill success of the great offensives in France in the autumn of the same year, did much to sap the credit of the Coalition government.
Asquith met these troubles with his usual fortitude, and the next few months were occupied in preparing the Somme offensive and in instituting compulsory service which, after the failure of the Derby scheme of recruiting in the autumn of 1915, he thought inevitable. This, however, encountered fierce opposition from many different quarters, and once more it needed all Asquith's skill and patience to carry it through without breaking up his Cabinet. In the spring of 1916 came the Irish rebellion, which Asquith met characteristically by going to Ireland and informing himself about all aspects of the situation. He came back convinced that the only way to stem the tide of anti-British feeling was at once and without waiting for the end of the War to set up parliamentary Home Rule for the South of Ireland. In this he had the support of Mr. Balfour and Mr. Bonar Law, and even of Sir Edward Carson, but the opposition of other conservative members of the Cabinet, and especially of Lord Lansdowne, proved too strong and, to his great disappointment, he was compelled to drop the project.
In after years German soldiers confessed that the Somme offensive had played the principal part in exhausting the military power of Germany, but this result was not apparent at the time, and when, after heroic struggles and immense losses, the fighting died down in the autumn of 1916, the enemy seemed to be as firmly entrenched as ever on French soil. All the anxieties and disappointments of these times were now concentrated on Asquith, and he became the subject of violent and unscrupulous newspaper attacks which had the avowed object of driving him from office. He had from the beginning accepted the fullest responsibility for everything that went wrong, stood between the soldiers and impatient criticism at all critical moments, and scrupulously refrained from advertising his own activities or claiming credit for himself. These were conspicuous merits which won him the respect and confidence both of the soldiers in the field and of his intimate colleagues. But they left him exposed to critics who knew how to work on popular feeling against a man who never defended himself, and the legend that he was lethargic, that he was ‘waiting and seeing’ [see Life, i, 275, for the origin (1910) of the phrase], and even that he was ‘sparing the Germans’ obtained a wide vogue in the autumn and winter of 1916.
The cry now went up from these hostile quarters that Asquith should be displaced in favour of Mr. Lloyd George, who had long been pressing for a ‘change in the direction of the War’. In the last days of November and the beginning of December 1916 a series of skilful maneuvres in which Sir Edward Carson, Lord Beaverbrook, and finally, though with some reluctance, Mr. Bonar Law, played the principal parts, led the unionist members of the Cabinet to transfer their support from Asquith to Mr. Lloyd George, and Asquith with all his principal liberal colleagues thereupon resigned (5 December 1916). Mr. Lloyd George proposed that the direction of the War should be taken out of the hands of the Cabinet and intrusted to a war council of four with himself as chairman and Asquith exercising only a shadowy and titular control as prime minister. Asquith was not unwilling to delegate some of his executive functions, provided that his final control was unimpaired, but conversations between the two men left it in extreme doubt whether this was Mr. Lloyd George's intention, and the group of newspapers which supported him made it quite clear that nothing less than Asquith's complete supersession was the object aimed at. Throughout this controversy Asquith had the support of all his liberal colleagues, and up to the beginning of December unionist ministers, with the exception of Mr. Bonar Law, had expressed a strong preference for his leadership. But at the critical moment a mistaken belief on his part that they had suddenly deserted him led to obscure cross-purposes between him and them, in the course of which they forced his hands by resigning. Whether the result would have been different if Mr. Bonar Law had acquainted Asquith with the resolution passed by unionist ministers at their meeting (Sunday, 3 December), and thus allowed him to explore the position for himself, has been much debated; but Mr. Bonar Law, for reasons which he thought good, withheld this resolution from Asquith, and the first war Coalition came to a close in a scene of confusion and misunderstanding. Mr. Lloyd George now succeeded Asquith as prime minister.
The change in the direction of the War which Mr. Lloyd George desired, namely, the transfer of the chief part of the British army from the Western to the Eastern front, proved as impossible under the new régime as under the old, and the next year (1917) was one of the blackest of the War for the Allies. As leader of the opposition, Asquith gave a general support to the government and refrained from any but the most moderate criticism; but in the following year an incident occurred which gravely affected his fortunes and those of the liberal party. This was the debate on the letter which General (Sir) Frederick Maurice, the director of military operations, Imperial General Staff, had addressed to the newspapers after the spring disasters of 1918, challenging the statements made by Mr. Lloyd George and other members of the government respecting the strength of the army in France at the time of the great German offensive in March 1918. On the appearance of this letter (7 May), Mr. Bonar Law, speaking on behalf of the government, had said that an impartial inquiry was necessary, and proposed that it should be undertaken by three judges. Asquith, who greatly objected to judges being invoked to decide questions which raised political issues, submitted an amendment in favour of a select committee of the House of Commons as the proper tribunal. Upon that Mr. Lloyd George announced that the government would regard a vote for this amendment as a vote of censure upon itself, and, withdrawing the proposal for inquiry, demanded a vote of confidence from the House of Commons there and then. Asquith persisted in his amendment, and in the division which followed he and 106 other liberals voted for it. No more was heard of this incident at the time, but in the following November, after the conclusion of the armistice, when the liberal and conservative leaders of the Coalition, Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Bonar Law, decided to hold an immediate election, Asquith and the other liberals who had voted for his amendment found themselves branded as having conspired against the government at the most critical moment of the country's fortunes, and therefore as unworthy to be returned to parliament. Popular feeling ran so strongly at the time, and the joint appeal of the Coalition leaders had so destructive an effect on ordinary party loyalties, that the non-Coalition liberals were to all intents and purposes wiped out, and Asquith himself was defeated in East Fife¾the constituency which up till then had returned him continuously for thirty-two years.
This method of electioneering, and the extravagant and embarrassing promises of indemnities and other punitive measures against the late enemy which accompanied it, found few defenders in subsequent years, but the result was decisive at the time. The independent liberals were reduced to 26 in number, and Asquith himself was out of parliament for the whole of the following year (1919). Although his services were available for the Peace Conference at Versailles, the prime minister refrained from including him among the British delegates. He bore these rebuffs with unfailing dignity and fortitude, and at the beginning of the following year (1920) a by-election at Paisley offered him the opportunity of returning to parliament. His campaign on that occasion is generally acknowledged to have been one of his finest oratorical efforts, and he used it to develop an all-round liberal programme and to state his views firmly about what he considered to be excessive and unworkable provisions in the peace treaties. He had by this time come to the conclusion that there was no solution of the Irish question short of Dominion Home Rule, and on that subject he declared himself uncompromisingly.
Returning to parliament, Asquith devoted himself mainly to the Irish question, and hotly denounced the method of reprisals adopted by the special force popularly called the ‘Black and Tans’, while again constantly urging the solution of Dominion Home Rule. The prime minister spoke of this as madness, and others called it ‘treason’, but Asquith was undismayed. The policy which he advocated was in fact adopted before the close of the year 1921. From that time onwards the Coalition rapidly disintegrated, and in the election which followed (November 1922), the conservative party, having thrown off Mr. Lloyd George, came back to power with Mr. Bonar Law as prime minister. There were 117 liberals of all sections (64 independents, and 53 followers of Mr. Lloyd George) in the new house, and a reunion between them was effected in the autumn of 1923, when Mr. Baldwin, who had become prime minister on Mr. Bonar Law's retirement in the previous May, suddenly dissolved parliament on the issue of free trade and protection. This reunion undoubtedly saved free trade for the time being, but it presented liberals with a very perplexing problem in the new parliament which met after the general election of December 1923. For although the conservatives were in a minority of nearly a hundred, labour, which was the next strongest party, with 191 seats, could only form a government with the support of liberals, who were 158 strong. Liberals, therefore, had to decide whether they should support labour in taking office, or support Mr. Baldwin in continuing in office, or take office themselves with the support of the conservatives.
There were not a few who urged Asquith to adopt the third course, and he received strong assurances of conservative support, if he would take it. But he was unhesitatingly for enabling labour to take office. He thought that it would be seriously harmful to the public interest and an incitement to class antagonism for the two ‘middle-class’ parties to combine together to deprive labour of an opportunity which either of them would have claimed as its right in like circumstances; he held it to be impossible for Mr. Baldwin, after he had told the country that he could not carry on without protection, to continue in office as if nothing had happened, when he had been refused permission to try that remedy; and he was not prepared either to enter into a coalition with conservatives or to take office depending on their support. His decision has generally been regarded as constitutionally correct, and in keeping with the instinctive sense of fair play characteristic of great parliamentary leaders; but the sequel was not a happy one for the liberal party. Fruitful co-operation between labour and liberal proved impossible; and after eight months the labour government came to an untimely end (October 1924) in what Asquith called ‘two squalid crises, each of which could have been avoided, or at least circumvented, if they had played their cards with a modicum of either luck or skill’. In the election that followed, the strange incident of the ‘Zinovieff’ letter let loose a storm in the country which overwhelmed both liberal and labour, and Asquith himself was defeated when he presented himself for re-election at Paisley. Thus after thirty-eight years ended his career in the House of Commons.
The king immediately offered Asquith a peerage, and after a short period for reflection he accepted it and entered the House of Lords as Earl of Oxford and Asquith in 1925. He was created K.G. the same year. He remained leader of the liberal party for another eighteen months, but his last days in that capacity were clouded by differences with Mr. Lloyd George, arising first out of the Lloyd George fund and coming to a climax at the time of the General Strike (May 1926), when Mr. Lloyd George took action which, in Asquith's view, made an irreparable breach between them. In this view he was supported by nearly all his liberal colleagues, but the attitude of the rank and file of the party seemed to him ambiguous, and rather than face further dissensions he resigned his leadership in October 1926.
Asquith's health had already begun to fail, but in the next year he had a partial recovery and lived quietly, seeing his friends and working at his book, Memories and Reflections. His years of office had left him much impoverished, and for some time past he had turned to writing in order to supplement his income; in addition to many essays and addresses he produced two books, the Genesis of the War (1923) and Fifty Years of Parliament (1926), which are contributions of high value to history and autobiography. To the end he preserved the dignity, fortitude, and charity which had characterized him throughout his life. He died at his country home, The Wharf, Sutton Courtney, Berkshire, 15 February 1928, and having expressed a strong wish that there should be no public funeral, he was buried in the churchyard of that village.
It was said after his death that Asquith was the ‘last of the Romans’, and there is much in his character and career to justify that description. In his respect for institutions, his sense of decorum in public affairs, his dislike of mob-oratory and self-advertisement, his high sense of honour, he was in the line of classical English statesmanship. If circumstances made him leader in a great democratic struggle, he was, in his own view, defending the historic House of Commons against an innovation which, if not resisted, would have destroyed its prerogative, and he conducted the controversy on a high plane of serious argument. Like Mr. Gladstone he was defeated in his attempt to give Ireland parliamentary Home Rule, but his effort for a timely settlement on the lines then proposed may well seem conservative in contrast with the solution afterwards adopted. He had certain outward characteristics which lent themselves to the reproach of ‘wait and see’ which his enemies threw back at him, and his temperamental dislike of showy action undoubtedly was a drawback in war, when the public looks for dramatic qualities in its leaders. But the curtain is seldom lifted on the part which he played behind the scenes without showing him to have been prompt and decisive. He took the War Office into his own hands during the Ulster troubles, and returned to it again at a very critical moment in the War; he played a principal part in bringing Italy into the War; he went to Ireland himself after the rebellion. He was immovable in defence of soldiers in the field, or members of his Cabinet whom he thought unjustly blamed; he did unflinchingly many necessary but unpopular things, and bore the odium without complaint or explanation. In all these ways he earned the respect and trust of his colleagues, and conformed to the highest traditions of public life. In the end he showed certain signs of weariness after his long term of office and the incessant struggles and crises in which he had played the leading part, and he lacked the resilience to defend himself against the attacks which bore him down. But in the long period of his prime ministership he had played a continuous part in great and historic events such as had seldom fallen to any British statesman, and it may be said that only a man of commanding abilities, iron nerve, and high integrity of character could have sustained it.
Asquith's eldest son, Raymond, a man of exceptional brilliance, was killed in action in 1916, and he was succeeded as second earl by his grandson, Julian Edward George (born 1916).
Asquith was of middle height; his frame unathletic, but erect and firmly compacted. Spare till he was in the 'forties, in later life he filled out, and acquired in old age an ample habit of body. His face in early life was pale and ascetic, the eyes wide apart and if anything prominent rather than sunken, the nose substantial, the mouth full but firm; the whole dominated by a massive brow from which a wave of hair swept back. In middle age his complexion acquired a healthy red, the severe cast of feature yielded to a prevailing expression of serenity, the abundant hair silvered, yet his countenance still had austere phases. The mouth had contracted to the firm thin line which it tends to assume in lawyers; the forehead remained salient and formidable; and when he was speaking or under a high light which set off the modelling of the bones, his face could assume a sternness, an expression of command and of authority, which was at least as true a reflection of his character as the geniality which normally overlay them.
There are portraits of Asquith by Sir William Orpen in the Council Room, Lincoln's Inn; by Sir John Lavery at the Reform Club; by Solomon J. Solomon at the National Liberal Club, and by Fiddes Watt in Balliol College hall. The last was thought by his friends to be the best likeness. There are also various busts; one by Mrs. Clare Sheridan at the Oxford Union; others at the City of London School, and in the Town Hall at Morley. Cartoons appeared in Vanity Fair 14 July 1904 and 17 March 1910.
The Times, 16 February 1928; J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, Life of Lord Oxford and Asquith, 2 vols., 1932; H. H. Asquith, The Genesis of the War, 1923, Fifty Years of Parliament, 2 vols., 1926, Memories and Reflections, 1852-1927, 2 vols., 1928, Occasional Addresses, 1893-1916, 1918; Speeches by the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, edited by J. B. Herbert, 1928; The Autobiography of Margot Asquith, 2 vols., 1922; J. A. Spender, Life of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 2 vols., 1923; A. G. Gardiner, Life of Sir William Harcourt, 2 vols., 1923; Lord Morley, Recollections, 2 vols., 1917.
Contributor: J. A. Spender.