Emma Alice Margaret Tennant later became Mrs Asquith and eventually the first Countess of Oxford and Asquith but she was universally known as ‘Margot’. Margot was married to an immense personality, yet was also a great personality in her own right, who appears to have exerted significant influence over the career of her husband.
Unlike H. H. Asquith, Margot started life with a silver spoon firmly in her mouth. She was born in Peeblesshire on 2 February 1864, the sixth daughter and eleventh child of Sir Charles Tennant, a wealthy iron master and later a Liberal MP.
Margot was a woman of many parts. Educated privately, then briefly at a finishing school and eventually at Dresden, she became an avid reader of serious literature, for which she had a remarkable memory. In her youth she showed considerable interest in the welfare of people less fortunate than herself, joining with her sister in establishing a crèche at Wapping in London’s East End and later making frequent visits to a factory in nearby Whitechapel, an area notorious for sweated labour.
Soon she became associated with many of the most remarkable men of her time. Gladstone commemorated her with a piece of doggerel. The celebrated classicist Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, was a close friend and perhaps it was from Jowett that she acquired an enthusiasm for Plato. Soon she became one of the ‘souls’ – a cross-party group of intellectuals which included A. J. Balfour, the Marquess of Hartington, Lord Rosebery, John Morley and Archbishop Randall Davidson.
She had very strong likes and perhaps even stronger dislikes, for people who came into her circle of acquaintances. As her step-daughter Lady Violet Bonham Carter noted, Margot’s political concern was with men rather than with measures. When she died, The Times would reflect that she was ‘not a wholly endearing personality…but of her scintillating endowment of mind…there could never be any question’.
In May 1894, she became the second wife of Herbert Henry Asquith, Home Secretary in the Liberal Government and future Prime Minister. She was a mixed blessing to her husband. She was utterly loyal to him and brought sufficient wealth to make it possible for a man with much talent to attain the highest political office. Both spouses were able to introduce the other into circles with which they had hitherto been unfamiliar. But her tactlessness and her disposition to see public matters in personal terms were less helpful.
Perhaps the most important of her dislikes – or intuitions? – was signalled in July 1916. Lord Kitchener, Secretary for War, had recently died. As Prime Minister of the wartime coalition, Asquith eventually picked on Lloyd George as the successor. That night Margot noted in her diary: ‘We are out, and it is only a matter of time when we shall have to leave Downing Street.’
Was that a premonition of the inevitable, or a self-serving prophecy? Asquith’s position was in some ways a very lonely one and his wife, who had such pronounced views, was one of the few people in whom he could confide. Later in 1916, a difficult question arose concerning the conduct of the war, with Asquith and Lloyd George inclining to different sides. Until almost the last minute, a compromise appeared likely; but Asquith suddenly backed off. Within a short time, Lloyd George was Prime Minister in his place. Was Margot’s influence of crucial importance in bringing about the Asquith-Lloyd George split which would prove so disastrous to both men and to the Liberal Party?
Margot was capable of astonishing indiscretions. Her scribbled top-of-the-head letters may be found in various political papers. When Bonar Law brought about the destruction of the Lloyd George’s coalition government in 1922, Margot sent a gushing and congratulatory letter to the new Conservative Prime Minister, assuring him of her husband’s ‘generosity’ in the future and indicating that the Asquith’s would rather be out ‘for ever’ than encompass a return of the coalition. Whether this correctly represented Asquith’s view or not, it is unthinkable that he would have approved the transmutation of such a letter, which might easily prove a high political embarrassment.
Margot was the author of several books, including an autobiography (1922) and a novel, Octavia, and late in life was an occasional broadcaster. She had five children, only two of whom survived infancy. She died on 28 July 1945, a few weeks before the end of the Second World War.
The story of Margot and her family is chronicled in Colin Clifford’s The Asquiths (John Murray, 2002). Margot’s wartime diary has been edited by Michael & Eleanor Brock in Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-1916 (Oxford University Press, 2014); also of interest is Anne de Courcy’s Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014).
This biography first appeared in the Dictonary of Liberal Biography (Politico’s Publishing, 1998).