H. H. Asquith, Prime Minister from April 1908 to December 1916, bore the chief part in some of the greatest Liberal achievements of the twentieth century.
Herbert Henry Asquith was born at Morley, West Yorkshire, on 12 September 1852. His father died when he was eight, and in 1863, sent to London to live with relatives, he entered the City of London School. His outstanding abilities were soon recognised and in 1870 he won a classical scholarship to Balliol. At Oxford he gained firsts in classical moderations and Greats and became President of the Union Society. Elected to a fellowship of Balliol in 1874, he was called to the bar two years later. He married Helen Melland in 1877 and started on a struggle to make his way as a barrister. In the 1886 election he won East Fife, where the sitting Liberal had been repudiated for opposing Gladstone on Home Rule; he was to hold the seat for thirty-two years. He soon showed his remarkable debating powers, and in 1888 established himself at the bar by a brilliant cross-examination when junior counsel before the Parnell Commission. He took silk in 1890.
In September 1891 Asquith was left as a widower with four sons and a daughter (Violet) when his wife died during a family holiday. He married the sparkling but eccentric Margaret (Margot) Tennant in May 1894 (one son and one daughter of this marriage surviving infancy). He had become Home Secretary in 1892, and was perhaps the only minister who increased his reputation while serving under Gladstone and Rosebery during the next three years. In December 1898, being dependent on his income at the bar, he declined the opposition leadership in the Commons. His position in the Boer War, as a leading Liberal Imperialist, was uncomfortable; but in 1903 he was offered his great chance when Joseph Chamberlain opened the campaign for tariff reform. He took it superbly, arguing the free trade case in a series of devastatingly effective speeches.
When Balfour resigned in December 1905 Campbell-Bannerman defeated an attempt to force him upstairs and make Asquith Leader of the party in the Commons. This was fortunate for Asquith. He might not have led the large but callow Liberal majority produced by the 1906 election as well as Campbell-Bannerman did. Instead he became a very successful Chancellor of the Exchequer, revising the system of grants to local authorities, starting the provision for old age pensions, and reducing the national debt.
By the end of March 1908 Campbell-Bannerman was mortally ill. Asquith’s claim to the premiership could not be disputed; he kissed hands on 6 April and formed a strong government. His prospects did not look particularly promising. Trade was depressed and the Conservative peers were wreaking havoc on the government’s legislative programme; but in 1909 they made the fatal error of throwing out the budget. In the ensuing constitutional struggle Asquith slipped only once (over the guarantee given by Edward VII to create more peers if necessary to pass government legislation through the Lords). That apart, his conduct of the government’s campaign was masterly. The Liberals won both of the 1910 general elections, though with diminished majorities; and the 1911 Parliament Act, under which the Lords powers were reduced to those of delay, became law without a creation of peers.
Asquith was by now as dominant on the platform as in the House itself. His administration was marked by notable reforms: the 1911 National Insurance Act, for instance, taken with old age pensions, heralded the welfare state. These feats were achieved against a background of strikes, where trade union growth and low unemployment (1911-14) gave syndicalist methods a brief popularity; of suffragette agitation, where Asquith, who then opposed female suffrage, was a prime target; and, above all, of threatened civil war in Ireland, if Home Rule should be enacted and Belfast brought under Dublin’s rule. The charge of dangerous procrastination over Ulster brought against Asquith has little substance. He was dependent on the Irish Nationalists for his majority and the Lords were sure to use their Parliament Act powers to delay Home Rule until 1914. By July of that year both he and his opponents were fearful of the outcome. At that point the imminent prospect of a European war brought a suspension of the struggle.
Asquith had a good record on defence: in January 1914, for instance, he prevented a group led by Lloyd George from reducing the naval estimates. His conduct during the war crisis (24 July – 6 August 1914) has generally been thought the high point of his premiership. He brought all but two of his Cabinet colleagues round to a policy of intervention until the German government and commander-in-chief completed his work for him by a wholesale invasion of Belgium in defiance of the international treaty establishing its inviolability. Had the decision to send the Expeditionary Force to France been delayed, the wars outcome could well have been different. Asquith maintained his grip, and his popularity, during the early months of the war; but in May 1915 press revelations about shell shortages, and the quarrel between Churchill and Fisher over the Dardanelles, obliged him to reconstruct the government as a coalition.
A coalition cabinet of peacetime dimensions was not an effective instrument for waging war, and the pressure on it was appalling. The failure at the Dardanelles, the long struggle over conscription, the aftermath of the 1916 Easter rising in Dublin; and the huge casualty lists of the Somme (where his son, Raymond, was killed), sapped the government’s strength. In war, Bonar Law told the Prime Minister, it is necessary not only to be active but to seem active. Asquith did not take this sound advice, and it was not in him to cultivate those who controlled newspapers for which he had scant regard. In December 1916 he was ousted from the premiership in a palace revolution and succeeded by Lloyd George.
Asquith gave the new government general support, but in May 1918, by pressing a procedural question to a division, he allowed them to brand the 106 Liberals who followed him into the division lobby as traitors to the Allied cause at a critical moment of the war. In the coupon election of December 1918 he lost his seat, his followers were decimated, and the Liberal Party suffered a split from which it did not recover during his lifetime. He was returned for Paisley in a by-election in February 1920 and held the seat until the general election of 1924. Some of his post-war speeches – advocating Dominion Home Rule for Ireland and a reasonable settlement on reparations – were among the best of his career; but a divided party did not impress the new electorate created by the 1918 Reform Act, and Lloyd George was far better funded than the Asquithians.
The two sections united to defend free trade in the 1923 election; but, though the Liberals increased their strength, they remained the third party in the Commons. Asquith rightly refused to deny Labour their chance to form a minority government, but his party gained nothing from this decision, and lost disastrously in the 1924 election. In May 1926 the General Strike occasioned a final rupture between the rival leaders and in October Asquith resigned the party leadership. He had been created Earl of Oxford and Asquith and a Knight of the Garter in 1925. He died at his home, The Wharf, Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon, on 15 February 1928.
Of the books which Asquith produced in old age to make money, The Genesis of the War (1923) is probably the most important. There are biographies by J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith (2 vols, 1932), R. B. McCallum (1936), Roy Jenkins (1964, third edition, 1986), and Stephen Koss (1976). A number of his personal letters have been published: see especially H. H. Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, eds. M. and E. Brock (1982).
Michael Brock is an Oxford historian who served three colleges (Fellow and Tutor, Corpus Christi, Vice-President and Bursar, Wolfson, Warden, Nuffield). He is the author of The Great Reform Act (1973) and co-editor of Nineteenth Century Oxford, Part 1 (1997). He was also a foundation member of the SDP.