H. H. Asquith

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For his son, see Herbert Asquith (poet).
The Right Honourable
The Earl of Oxford and Asquith
Herbert Henry Asquith.jpg
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
5 April 1908 – 5 December 1916
Monarch Edward VII
George V
Preceded by Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Succeeded by David Lloyd George
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
10 December 1905 – 12 April 1908
Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Preceded by Austen Chamberlain
Succeeded by David Lloyd George
Home Secretary
In office
18 August 1892 – 25 June 1895
Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone
The Earl of Rosebery
Preceded by Henry Matthews
Succeeded by Matthew White Ridley
Secretary of State for War
In office
30 March 1914 – 5 August 1914
Preceded by J. E. B. Seely
Succeeded by The Earl Kitchener
Leader of the Opposition
In office
12 February 1920 – 21 November 1922
Monarch George V
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Andrew Bonar Law
Preceded by Donald Maclean
Succeeded by Ramsay MacDonald
In office
6 December 1916 – 14 December 1918
Monarch George V
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
Preceded by Sir Edward Carson
Succeeded by Donald Maclean
Leader of the Liberal Party
In office
30 April 1908 – 14 October 1926
Preceded by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Succeeded by David Lloyd George
See more
Personal details
Born Herbert Asquith
(1852-09-12)12 September 1852
Morley, England
Died 15 February 1928(1928-02-15) (aged 75)
Sutton Courtenay, England
Resting place All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay
Political party Liberal
Children 10, including Raymond, Herbert, Arthur, Violet, Cyril, Elizabeth, Anthony
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Inns of Court School of Law
Profession Barrister
Signature Cursive signature in ink

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, KG, PC, KC (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, the last to lead that party in government without a coalition. Asquith took his nation into the First World War, but resigned amid political conflict in December 1916, and David Lloyd George became prime minister.

Asquith was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. His father owned a small establishment in the woollen trade, but died when his son was age 7, and after a brief stay with an uncle, the young Asquith spent the remainder of his childhood at boarding school and lodged with families not his own. He was educated at City of London School and Balliol College, Oxford. He trained as a barrister at Lincoln's Inn, but after being called to the bar, received few briefs in his early years. Thereafter he gained prominence for his legal skills. In 1886, he was adopted as Liberal candidate for East Fife, a seat he held over thirty years. In 1892, he was appointed as Home Secretary in Gladstone's fourth ministry, remaining in the post until the Liberals lost the 1895 election. In the decade of opposition that followed, Asquith became a major figure in the party, and when the Liberals regained power under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1905, Asquith was named as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1908, when the dying Campbell-Bannerman resigned, Asquith succeeded him as prime minister, with Lloyd George as chancellor .

With their first majority government since the 1880s, the Liberals were determined to advance their agenda. An impediment to this was the unelected House of Lords, dominated by the Conservatives. When Lloyd George proposed, and the House of Commons passed, the People's Budget of 1909, the Lords rejected it. Asquith called an election for January 1910, and the Liberals won, though only with a minority government. Although the Lords then passed the budget, Asquith was determined to reform the upper house, and after another general election in December 1910 gained passage of the Parliament Act 1911, allowing a bill three times passed by the Commons in consecutive sessions to be enacted regardless of the Lords. Asquith was less successful in dealing with Irish Home Rule; repeated crises led to gun running and violence, a pattern that continued past the start of the First World War in 1914.

Asquith's action in taking the country to war has been described as the most important individual prime ministerial decision of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and he did it with Britain united. Historians have also acknowledged the contribution to Britain's ultimate success made by some his early decisions on national mobilisation; the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force, 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 Winston Churchill was less effective in war than in peace, and difficulties with the war effort led him to form a coalition government with the Conservatives early in 1915. Continued crises, over conscription, the Irish Home Rule movement, and as a result of military failures, shook the confidence of MPs in him, and when conflict with Lloyd George erupted in December 1916, Asquith could not keep their support, and he resigned. Asquith remained as leader of the Liberal Party, but the internal conflict, both during and after the war, helped demolish the party's electoral prospects as Labour continued its rise to be the party of the left. Asquith accepted a peerage after his final parliamentary campaign (in 1924) ended in defeat; he died in 1928. His role, both in the First World War and in the fall of the Liberal Party, remains controversial.


Early life and career: 1852–1908[edit]

Family background[edit]

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.[1][2][a] The Asquiths were an old Yorkshire family, with a long nonconformist tradition.[b] 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.[3]

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 Huddersfield. Both families were middle-class, Congregationalist, and politically radical. Dixon was a mild man, cultivated and in his son's words "not cut out" for a business career.[1] He was described as "a man of high character who held Bible classes for young men".[4] Emily suffered persistent poor health, but was of strong character, and a formative influence on her sons.[5]

Childhood and schooling[edit]

Asquith was registered at birth with the single forename Herbert; Henry was added later. He was known as Herbert – or in his early years Bertie – until he was middle-aged, after which he was known to the public as "H. H. Asquith", and to his second wife as Henry. 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.[6] After a year at Huddersfield College they were sent as boarders to a Moravian Church school at Fulneck, near Leeds. In 1863 Willans died, and the family came under the care of Emily's brother, John. The boys went to live with him in London; when he moved back to Yorkshire in 1864 for business reasons, they remained in London and were lodged with various families. The biographer Naomi Levine writes that in effect Asquith was "treated like an orphan" for the rest of his childhood.[7] The departure of his uncle effectively severed Asquith's ties with his native Yorkshire, and he described himself thereafter as "to all intents and purposes a Londoner."[8] Another biographer, H. C. G. Matthew, writes that Asquith's northern nonconformist background continued to influence him: "It gave him a point of sturdy anti-establishmentarian reference, important to a man whose life in other respects was a long absorption into metropolitanism."[9]

The boys were sent to the City of London School. 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;[10] 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."[10][11] 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.[12] Abbott remarked on the cogency and clarity of his pupil's speeches, qualities for which Asquith became celebrated throughout the rest of his life.[13][14] Asquith later recalled seeing, as a schoolboy, the corpses of five murderers left hanging outside Newgate.[15]


Early press mention of Asquith, 1869

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 Master, Benjamin Jowett. He sought to raise the standards of the college to the extent that its undergraduates shared what Asquith later called a "tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority".[16] Although Asquith admired Jowett, he was more influenced by T. H. Green, White's Professor of Moral Philosophy. The abstract side of philosophy did not greatly attract Asquith, whose outlook was always practical, but Green's progressive liberal political views appealed to him.[9]

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".[17] He sometimes debated against his Balliol contemporary Alfred Milner, who although then a Liberal was already an advocate of British imperialism.[18] He was elected Treasurer of the Union in 1872 but was defeated at his first attempt at the Presidency.[19] 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.[20] He eventually became President of the Union in Trinity (summer) Term 1874, his last term as an undergraduate.[21]

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.[22] After graduating he was elected to a prize fellowship of Balliol.[23]

Early professional career[edit]

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.[24]

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.[25][26] 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".[27] His fondness for fine wines and spirits, which began at this period, eventually earned him the sobriquet "Squiffy."[28]

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. [26] 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.[29] He was called to the bar in June 1876.[30]

There followed what Jenkins calls "seven extremely lean years."[29] Asquith set up a legal practice with two other junior barristers. With no personal contacts with solicitors, he received few briefs.[c] 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".[31] He did not allow his lack of money to stop him marrying. His bride, Helen Kelsall Melland (c.1855–91), was the daughter of Frederick Melland, a physician in Manchester. She and Asquith had met through friends of his mother's.[31] 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 saw the young man's potential, and consented. 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).[9]

Asquith in 1876

Between 1876 and 1884 Asquith supplemented his income by writing regularly for The Spectator, which at that time had a broadly Liberal outlook. Matthew comments that the articles Asquith wrote for the magazine give a good overview of his political views as a young man. He was staunchly radical, but as unconvinced by extreme left-wing views as by Toryism. Among the topics that caused debate among Liberals were British imperialism, the union of Great Britain and Ireland, and female suffrage. Asquith was a strong, though not jingoistic, proponent of the Empire, and, after initial caution, came to support home rule for Ireland. He opposed votes for women for most of his political career.[d] There was also an element of party interest: Asquith believed that votes for women would disproportionately benefit the Conservatives. In a 2001 study of the extension of the franchise between 1832 and 1931, Bob Whitfield concluded that Asquith's surmise about the electoral impact was correct.[32] In addition to his work for The Spectator, he was retained as a leader writer by The Economist, taught at evening classes, and marked examination papers.[33]

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",[34] whose function included giving legal advice to ministers and government departments.[34] 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.[35]

Member of Parliament and Queen's Counsel[edit]

In June 1886, with the Liberal party split on the question of Irish home rule, Gladstone called a general election.[36] 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. A close friend of Asquith's, Richard Haldane, was the Liberal candidate for the nearby Haddingtonshire constituency. 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.[37] 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.[38]

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.[39][40] From the start of his parliamentary career Asquith impressed other MPs with his air of authority as well as his lucidity of expression.[41] For the remainder of this Parliament, which lasted until 1892, Asquith spoke occasionally but effectively, mostly on Irish matters. [42][43]

Asquith's legal practice was flourishing, and took up much of his time. In the late 1880s Anthony Hope, who later gave up the bar to become a novelist, was his pupil. Asquith disliked arguing in front of a jury because of the repetitiveness and “platitudes” required, but excelled at arguing fine points of civil law before a judge or in front of courts of appeal.[44] These cases, in which his clients were generally large businesses, were unspectacular but financially rewarding.[45]

Asquith, caricatured by Spy, in Vanity Fair, 1891

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 Trafalgar Square.[46] Graham was later convicted of the lesser charge of unlawful assembly.[47] In what Jenkins calls "a less liberal cause," Asquith appeared for the prosecution in the trial of Henry Vizetelly for publishing "obscene libels" – the first English versions of Zola's novels Nana, Pot-Bouille and La Terre, which Asquith described in court as "the three most immoral books ever published".[48]

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 of Dublin's Phoenix Park Murders. When the manager of The Times, C. J. Macdonald, was called to give evidence Russell, feeling tired, surprised Asquith by asking him to conduct the cross-examination.[49] 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."[50] 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."[51] The accusations against Parnell were shown to be false, The Times was obliged to make a full apology, and Asquith's reputation was assured.[52][53] Within a year he had gained advancement to the senior rank of the bar, Queen's Counsel.[54]

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.[55][56]

Widower and cabinet minister[edit]

In September 1891 Helen Asquith died of typhoid fever following a few days' illness while the family were on holiday in Scotland.[57] Asquith bought a house in Surrey, and hired nannies and other domestic staff. He sold the Hampstead property and took a flat in Mount Street, Mayfair, where he lived during the working week.[58]

Margot Asquith at about the time of her marriage

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 Home Secretary, a senior Cabinet position. The Conservatives and Liberal Unionists jointly outnumbered the Liberals in the Commons, which, together with a permanent Unionist majority in the House of Lords, restricted the government's capacity to put reforming measures in place. Asquith failed to secure a majority for a bill to disestablish the Church of Wales, and another to protect workers injured at work, but he built up a reputation as a capable and fair minister.[9] When Gladstone retired in March 1894, Queen Victoria chose the Foreign Secretary, Lord Rosebery, as the new prime minister. Asquith thought Rosebery preferable to the other possible candidate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, whom he deemed too anti-imperialist – one of the so-called "Little Englanders" – and too abrasive.[59] Asquith remained at the Home Office until the government fell in 1895.[9]

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. Margot was in many respects the opposite of Asquith's first wife, being outgoing, impulsive, extravagant and opinionated.[60] 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.[60]

Out of office, 1895–1905[edit]

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.[e] 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.[61] 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).[9][62] On returning to government in 1905 Asquith had to give up a £10,000 brief to act for the Khedive of Egypt.[63]

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.[64][65] 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.[66]

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.[9] 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."[9] 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. [67]

Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1905–08[edit]

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.[f] King Edward VII invited Campbell-Bannerman to form a minority government. Asquith and his close political allies Haldane and Sir Edward Grey tried to pressure him into taking a peerage to become a figurehead Prime Minister in the House of Lords, giving the pro-empire wing of the party greater dominance in the House of Commons. Campbell-Bannerman called their bluff and refused to move.[68][69] Asquith was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. He held the post for over two years, and introduced three budgets.[70][71]

A month after taking office, Campbell-Bannerman called a general election, in which the Liberals gained a landslide majority of 132.[72] However, Asquith's first budget, in 1906, was constrained by the annual income and expenditure plans he had inherited from his predecessor Austen Chamberlain. The only income for which Chamberlain had over-budgeted was the duty from sales of alcohol.[g][73] With a balanced budget, and a realistic assessment of future public expenditure, Asquith was able, in his second and third budgets, to lay the foundations for limited redistribution of wealth and welfare provisions for the poor. Blocked at first by Treasury officials from setting a variable rate of income tax with higher rates on those with high incomes, he set up a committee under Sir Charles Dilke which recommended not only variable income tax rates but also a super-tax on incomes of more than £5,000 a year. Asquith also introduced a distinction between earned and unearned income, taxing the latter at a higher rate. He used the increased revenues to fund old age pensions, the first time a British government had provided them. Reductions in selective taxes, such as that on sugar, were aimed at benefiting the poor.[74]

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.[75] Asquith was universally accepted as the natural successor.[76] King Edward, who was on holiday in Biarritz, sent for Asquith, who took the boat train to France and kissed hands as prime minister in the Hôtel du Palais, Biarritz on 7 April.[77]

Peacetime prime minister: 1908–1914[edit]

Appointments and cabinet[edit]

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).[9] 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.[78]

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."[h][79]

Historian Cameron Hazlehurst wrote that "the new men, with the old, made a powerful team."[80] 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 McKenna's appointment.[9]

Prime minister at play[edit]

Venetia Stanley. Photograph taken c. 1914

Possessed of "a faculty for working quickly,"[81] Asquith had considerable time for leisure. Reading;[82] 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.[83] Travelling, often to country houses owned by members of Margot's family, was almost constant, Asquith being a devoted "weekender."[84] He spent part of each summer in Scotland, with golf, constituency matters, and time at Balmoral as duty minister.[9] He and Margot divided their time between Downing Street and The Wharf,[85] a country house at Sutton Courtenay in Berkshire which they bought in 1912;[86] their London mansion, 20 Cavendish Square,[87] was let during his premiership. Other recreations included bridge,[88] to which he was addicted, and drink, which, friends and enemies alike, considered sometimes became close to an addiction.[89]

Above all else, Asquith thrived on company and conversation. A clubbable man, he enjoyed "the companionship of clever and attractive women" even more.[90] Throughout his life, Asquith had a circle of close female friends, which Margot termed his "harem".[91] In 1912, one of these, Venetia Stanley became much closer. Meeting first in 1909–10, 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.[92] Although it remains uncertain whether or not they were lovers,[93] she became of central importance to him.[94] Asquith's thorough enjoyment of "comfort and luxury"[90] during peacetime, and his unwillingness to adjust his behaviour during conflict,[95] ultimately contributed to the impression of a man out of touch; "Tell me, Mr Asquith, do you take an interest in the war?"[96]

Domestic policy[edit]

Reforming the House of Lords[edit]

1909: People's Budget[edit]

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.[97][i] 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.[98] 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.[99] 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.[97]

None of these bills were important enough to dissolve parliament and seek a new mandate at a general election.[9] 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 from the Tory peers, the Lords would yield to policy changes wrapped within a budget bill.[100]

In a major speech in December 1908, Asquith warned 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.[9] 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 12d in the pound[j] on undeveloped land. A graduated income tax was imposed, and there were increases in imposts on tobacco and spirits.[101] 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,[9] there was opposition from some Liberals; Rosebery described the budget as "inquisitorial, tyrannical, and Socialistic".[102]

The budget divided the country and provoked bitter debate through the summer of 1909.[103] The Northcliffe Press (The Times and the Daily Mail) urged rejection of the budget to give tariff reform (indirect taxes on imported goods which, it was felt, would encourage British industry and trade within the Empire) a chance; there were many public meetings, some of them organised by dukes, in protest at the budget.[104] Many Liberal politicians attacked the peers, including Lloyd George in his Limehouse speech, in which he said "a fully-equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two dreadnoughts (battleships)" and was "less easy to scrap".[105] King Edward privately urged Conservative leaders Balfour and Lord Lansdowne to pass the Budget (this was not unusual, as Queen Victoria had helped to broker agreement between the two Houses over the Irish Church Act 1869 and the Third Reform Act in 1884).[106] From July it became increasingly clear that the Tory peers would reject the budget, partly in the hope of forcing an election.[107] If they rejected it, Asquith determined, he would have to ask King Edward to dissolve Parliament, four years into a seven-year term,[9] as it would mean the legislature had refused supply.[k] The budget passed the Commons on 4 November 1909, but was voted down in the Lords on the 30th, the Lords passing a resolution by Lord Lansdowne stating that they were entitled to oppose the finance bill as it lacked an electoral mandate.[108] Asquith had Parliament prorogued three days later for an election beginning on 15 January 1910, with the Commons first passing a resolution deeming the Lords' vote to be an attack on the constitution.[109]

1910: election and constitutional deadlock[edit]

The January 1910 general election was dominated by talk of removing the Lords' veto.[9]' A possible solution was to threaten to have the King pack the House of Lords with freshly minted Liberal peers, who would override the Lords's veto; Asquith's talk of safeguards was taken by many to mean that he had secured King Edward's agreement to this. They were mistaken; the King had informed Asquith that he would not consider a mass creation of peers until after a second general election.[9]

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, journeyed to Cannes with such speed that he neglected an engagement with an annoyed King Edward. The result was a hung Parliament. The Liberals lost heavily from their great majority of 1906, but still finished with two more seats than the Conservatives. With Irish Nationalist and Labour support, the government would have ample support on most issues, and Asquith stated that his majority compared favourably with those enjoyed by Palmerston and Lord John Russell.[110]

Asquith caricatured by XIT for Vanity Fair, 1910

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.[111][l] 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.[9] The cabinet considered resigning and leaving it up to Balfour to try to form a Conservative government.[112]

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.[113] 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.[114] 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.[115] 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).[116][m]

These plans were scuttled by the death of Edward VII on 6 May 1910. Asquith and his ministers were initially reluctant to press the new king, George V, in mourning for his father, for commitments on constitutional change, and the monarch's views were not yet known. With a strong feeling in the country that the parties should compromise, Asquith and other Liberals met with Conservative leaders in a number of conferences through much of the remainder of 1910. These talks failed in November over Conservative insistence that there be no limits on the Lords's ability to veto Irish Home Rule.[9] When the Parliament Bill was submitted to the Lords, they made amendments that were not acceptable to the government.[117]

1910-1: second election and Parliament Act[edit]

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".[118]

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.[119] 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 [of constitutional change] 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."[120]

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 Tory party on whether to give in, or to continue to vote no even when outnumbered by hundreds of newly created peers. After lengthy debate, on 10 August 1911 the Lords voted narrowly not to insist on their amendments, with many Tory peers abstaining and a few voting in favour of the government; the bill was passed into law.[121]

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 [the Conservatives], his leadership was outstanding."[122] Churchill wrote to Asquith after the second 1910 election, "your leadership was the main and conspicuous feature of the whole fight".[119] 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."[9]

Social, religious and labour matters[edit]

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."[9] 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.[123]

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.[124] 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."[125]

Asquith's new government became embroiled in a controversy over the Eucharistic Congress of 1908, held in London. Following the Catholic Emancipation Act 1829, the Roman Catholic Church had seen a resurgence in Britain, and a large procession displaying the Blessed Sacrament was planned to allow the laity to participate. Although such an event was forbidden by the 1829 act, planners counted on the British reputation for religious tolerance,[126] and Francis Cardinal Bourne, the Archbishop of Westminster, had obtained permission from the Metropolitan Police. When the plans became widely known, King Edward objected, as did many other Protestants. Asquith received inconsistent advice from his Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, and successfully pressed the organisers to cancel the religious aspects of the procession, though it cost him the resignation of his only Catholic cabinet minister, Lord Ripon.[127]

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.[9][128]

Votes for women[edit]

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.[129] 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."[130]

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.[131]

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.[132] 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.[133]

Asquith belatedly came around to support women's suffrage in 1917, by which time he was out of office.[134] Women over the age of thirty were eventually given the vote by Lloyd George's government under the Representation of the People Act 1918. Ironically, Asquith's reforms to the House of Lords eased the way for the passage of the bill.[135]

Irish Home Rule[edit]

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.[136] 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.[137] 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.[9] 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.[138]

The cabinet committee (not including Asquith) that in 1911 planned the Third Home Rule Bill opposed any special status for Protestant Ulster within majority-Catholic Ireland. Asquith later (in 1913) wrote to Churchill, stating that the Prime Minister had always believed and stated that the price of Home Rule should be a special status for Ulster. In spite of this, the bill as introduced in April 1912 contained no such provision, and was meant to apply to all Ireland.[9] Neither partition nor a special status for Ulster was likely to satisfy either side.[136] The self-government offered by the bill was very limited, but Irish Nationalists, expecting Home Rule to come by gradual parliamentary steps, favoured it. The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists opposed it. Both Nationalists and Unionists began preparing to get their way by force if necessary, and the Unionists were in general better financed and more organised.[139]

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.[140] 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.[141] Sir Edward Carson, MP for Dublin University and leader of the Irish Unionists in Parliament, threatened a revolt if Home Rule was enacted.[142] The new Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, campaigned in Parliament and in northern Ireland, warning Ulstermen against "Rome Rule", that is, domination by the island's Catholic majority.[143] Many who opposed Home Rule felt that the Liberals had violated the Constitution - by pushing through major constitutional change without a clear electoral mandate, with the House of Lords, formerly the "watchdog of the constitution", not reformed as had been promised in the preamble of the 1911 Act - and thus justified actions that in other circumstances might be treason.[144]

The passions generated by the Irish question contrasted with Asquith's cool detachment, and he wrote about the prospective partition of the county of Tyrone, which had a mixed population, deeming it "an impasse, with unspeakable consequences, upon a matter which to English eyes seems inconceivably small, & to Irish eyes immeasurably big".[145] As the Commons debated the Home Rule bill in late 1912 and early 1913, the north of Ireland mobilised, with talk of Carson declaring a Provisional Government and Ulster Volunteer Forces (UVF) built around the Orange Lodges, but in the cabinet, only Churchill viewed this with alarm.[146] These forces, insisting on their loyalty to the British Crown but increasingly well-armed with smuggled weapons, prepared to do battle with the British Army, but Unionist leaders were confident that the army would not aid in forcing Home Rule on Ulster.[145] As the Home Rule bill awaited its third passage through the Commons, the so-called Curragh Incident occurred in April 1914. With deployment of troops into Ulster imminent and threatening language by Churchill and the Secretary of State for War, John Seely, around sixty army officers, led by Brigadier-General Hubert Gough, announced that they would rather be dismissed from the service than obey.[9] With unrest spreading to army officers in England, the Cabinet acted to placate the officers with a statement written by Asquith reiterating the duty of officers to obey lawful orders but claiming that the incident had been a misunderstanding. Seely then added an unauthorised assurance, countersigned by Sir John French (the professional head of the army), that the government had no intention of using force against Ulster. Asquith repudiated the addition, and required Seely and French to resign, taking on the War Office himself,[147] retaining the additional responsibility until hostilities against Germany began.[148]

Within a month of the start of Asquith's tenure at the War Office, the UVF landed a large cargo of guns and ammunition at Larne, but the Cabinet did not deem it prudent to arrest their leaders. On 12 May, Asquith announced that he would secure Home Rule's third passage through the Commons (accomplished on 25 May), but that there would be an amending bill with it, making special provision for Ulster. But the Lords made changes to the amending bill unacceptable to Asquith, and with no way to invoke the Parliament Act on the amending bill, Asquith agreed to meet other leaders at an all-party conference on 21 July at Buckingham Palace, chaired by the King. When no solution could be found, Asquith and his cabinet planned further concessions to the Unionists, but this did not occur as the crisis on the Continent erupted into war.[9] In September 1914, after the outbreak of the conflict, Asquith announced that the Home Rule bill would go on the statute book (as the Government of Ireland Act 1914) but would not go into force until after the war; in the interim a bill granting special status to Ulster would be considered. This solution satisfied neither side.[149]

Foreign and defence policy[edit]

Asquith led a deeply divided Liberal Party as Prime Minister, not least on questions of foreign relations and defence spending.[9] Under Balfour, Britain and France had agreed upon the Entente Cordiale.[150] 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.[151]

More public was the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. The Moroccan crisis had been settled at the Algeciras Conference, and Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet approved reduced naval estimates, including postponing the laying down of a second Dreadnought-class battleship. Tenser relationships with Germany, and that nation moving ahead with its own dreadnoughts, led Reginald McKenna, when Asquith appointed him First Lord of the Admiralty in 1908, to propose the laying down of eight more British ones in the following three years. This prompted conflict in the Cabinet between those who supported this programme, such as McKenna, and the "economists" who promoted economy in naval estimates, led by Lloyd George and Churchill.[152] There was much public sentiment for building as many ships as possible to maintain British naval superiority. Asquith mediated among his colleagues and secured a compromise whereby four ships would be laid down at once, and four more if there proved to be a need.[153] The armaments matter was put to the side during the domestic crises over the 1909 budget and then the Parliament Act.[154]

The Agadir crisis of 1911 was again between France and Germany over Moroccan interests, but Asquith's government signaled its friendliness towards France in Lloyd George's Mansion House speech on 21 July.[155] 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.[156] 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.[157]

Impending catastrophe[edit]

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 initiated a month of unsuccessful diplomatic attempts to avoid war.[158] These attempts ended with Grey's proposal for a four-power conference of Britain, Germany, France and Italy, following the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia on the evening of 23 July. Grey's initiative was rejected by Germany as "not practicable."[159] During this period, Cassar considers that; "The country was overwhelmingly opposed to intervention."[160] Much of Asquith's cabinet was similarly inclined, Lloyd George writing in his memoirs; "The Cabinet was hopelessly divided – fully one third, if not one half, being opposed to our entry into the War."[161] This overlooked his own opposition; on 27 July, he told a journalist; "There could be no question of our taking part in any war in the first instance. He knew of no Minister who would be in favour of it."[159] Asquith himself, while growing more aware of the impending catastrophe, was still uncertain of the necessity for Britain's involvement. On 24 July, he wrote to Venetia; "We are within measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators."[162]

During the continuing escalation Asquith "used all his experience and authority to keep his options open"[163] 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."[164] But he recognised Grey's clear commitment to Anglo-French unity and, following Russian mobilisation on 30 July,[165] and the Kaiser's ultimatum to the Tsar on 1 August, he recognised the inevitability of war.[166] 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."[167] Also, on 2 August, he received confirmation of Tory support from Bonar Law.[168] In one of two extraordinary Cabinets held on that Sunday, Grey informed members of the 1912 Anglo-French naval talks and Asquith secured agreement to mobilise the fleet.[169]

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,"[168] Grey spoke in the Commons and called for British action "against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any power."[170] Liddell Hart considered that this speech saw the "hardening (of) British opinion to the point of intervention"[171] and Asquith's cautious handling of his colleagues saw a "slump in resignations."[168] 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). Margot Asquith described the moment of expiry, somewhat inaccurately; "(I joined) Henry in the Cabinet room. Lord Crewe and Sir Edward Grey were already there and we sat smoking cigarettes in silence ... The clock on the mantelpiece hammered out the hour and when the last beat of midnight struck it was as silent as dawn. We were at War."[172]

First year of the war: August 1914 – May 1915[edit]

Asquith's wartime government[edit]

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,[173] Asquith suffered only two resignations from his cabinet, those of John Morley and John Burns.[174] 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."[175]

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",[176] 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.[177]

Beyond the replacement of Morley and Burns,[178] 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.[179] Kitchener was a figure of national renown and his participation strengthened the reputation of the government.[180] Whether it increased its effectiveness is less certain.[96] Overall, it was a government of considerable talent with Lloyd George remaining as chancellor,[181] Grey as Foreign Secretary,[182] and Churchill at the Admiralty.[179]

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.[183] To support the French, Asquith's cabinet authorised the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force.[184] 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.[185] 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.[186] 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,[187] and the "Easterners", led by Churchill and Lloyd George, who believed that the Western Front was in a state of irreversible statis and sought victory through action in the East.[188] 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.[189] 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."[190] 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?"[191] 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.[192]

Dardanelles Campaign[edit]

Main article: Gallipoli Campaign

The Dardanelles Campaign was an attempt by those favouring an Eastern strategy to end the stalemate on the Western Front.[193] 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.[194] However, the plan never enjoyed the full support of Admiral Fisher, the First Sea Lord,[195] or of Kitchener and, rather than providing decisive leadership, Asquith sought to arbitrate between these two and Churchill, leading to procrastination and delay.[196] 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."[196]

Shell Crisis of May 1915[edit]

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 coordinate "the nation's entire engineering capacity."[197] 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."[198] This did little to dampen press criticism[199] 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."[200]

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,"[201] but failed to recognise the clandestine involvement of Sir John French, who leaked the details of the shells shortage to Repington.[202] 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."[203] 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."[204]

Other events[edit]

Failures in both the East and the West began a tide of events that was to overwhelm Asquith's Liberal Government.[205] 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."[206] 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."[207] Her engagement; "a very treacherous return after all the joy you've given me", left him devastated.[208] Significant though the loss was personally, its impact on Asquith politically can be overstated.[209] 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."[210]

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.[211] 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."[212] 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,[213] 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.[214] 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 [Government] must be reconstituted on a broad and non-party basis."[215]

First Coalition: May 1915 – December 1916[edit]

The formation of the First Coalition saw Asquith display the political acuteness that seemed to have deserted him.[216] 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.[215] The Tories under Bonar Law made these removals a condition of entering government and, in sacking Haldane, who "made no difficulty," [217] Asquith, committed "the most uncharacteristic fault of (his) whole career."[218] In a letter to Grey, Asquith wrote of Haldane; "He is the oldest personal and political friend that I have in the world and, with him, you and I have stood together for the best part of 30 years."[219] But he was unable to express these sentiments directly to Haldane, who was greatly hurt. Asquith handled the allocation of offices more successfully, appointing Bonar Law to the relatively minor post of Colonial Secretary,[220] taking responsibility for munitions from Kitchener and giving it, as a new ministry, to Lloyd George and placing Balfour at the Admiralty, in place of Churchill, who was demoted to the sinecure Cabinet post of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Overall the Liberals held 12 Cabinet seats, including most of the important ones, while the Tories held 8.[221] Despite this outcome, many Liberals were dismayed, the sacked Charles Hobhouse writing; "The disintegration of the Liberal Party is complete. Ll.G. and his Tory friends will soon get rid of Asquith."[222] From a party, and a personal, perspective, the creation of the First Coalition was seen as a "notable victory for (Asquith), if not for the allied cause."[216] But Asquith's dismissive handling of Bonar Law also contributed to his own and his party's later destruction.[223]

War re-organisation[edit]

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,[224] 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.[225] But criticism of Asquith's 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. 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."[226] And crises, as well as criticism, continued to assail the Prime Minister, "envenomed by intra-party as well as inter-party rancour."[227]


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.[228] Volunteer numbers dropped,[229] not meeting the demands for more troops for Gallipoli, and much more strongly, for the Western Front.[230] 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."[231] In July 1915, the National Registration Act was passed, requiring compulsory registration for all men between the ages of 18 and 65.[232] 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.[233] 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?"[234] 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 agin it",[235] Margot Asquith engaged in one of her frequent influencing drives, by letters and through conversations, which had little impact other than doing "great harm" to Asquith's reputation and position.[236]

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.[237] 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."[238] Some years later, Simon acknowledged his error; "I have long since realised that my opposition was a mistake."[239] 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,"[240] but the long struggle "hurt his own reputation and the unity of his party."[241]


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 Dublin and elsewhere. There was heavy fighting over the next week before the Volunteers were forced to surrender.[242] Distracted by conscription, Asquith and the Government were slow to appreciate the developing danger, [243] which was exacerbated when, after hasty courts martial, a number of the Irish leaders were executed. On 11 May Asquith crossed to Dublin and, after a week of investigation, decided that the island's governance system was irredeemably broken,[244] He turned to Lloyd George for a solution. With his customary energy, Lloyd George brokered a settlement which would have seen Home Rule introduced at the end of the War, with the exclusion of Ulster.[245] However, neither he, nor Asquith, appreciated the extent of Tory opposition, the plan was strongly attacked in the House of Lords, and was abandoned thereafter.[246] The episode damaged Lloyd George's reputation, but also that of Asquith, Walter Long speaking of the latter as; "terribly lacking in decision."[247] It also further widened the divide between Asquith and Lloyd George, and encouraged the latter in his plans for government reconstruction; "Mr. A gets very few cheers nowadays."[248]

Progress of the war[edit]

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.[249] 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,[250] took temporary charge of the War Office himself.[251] 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.'"[252] 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.[253] Lastly, he instituted a smaller Dardanelles Committee, re-christened the War Committee,[254] with himself, Balfour, Bonar Law, Lloyd George and Reginald McKenna as members[255] although, as this soon increased, the Committee continued the failings of its predecessor, being "too large and lack(ing) executive authority."[256] None of this saved the Dardanelles Campaign and the decision to evacuate was taken in December,[257] resulting in the resignation from the Duchy of Lancaster of Churchill,[258] who wrote, "I could not accept a position of general responsibility for war policy without any effective share in its guidance and control."[255] Further reverses took place in the Balkans: the Central Powers overran Serbia, forcing the Allied troops which had attempted to intervene back towards Salonika.[259]

Early 1916 saw the start of the German offensive at Verdun, the "greatest battle of attrition in history."[260] In late May, the only significant Anglo-German naval engagement of the War took place at The Battle of Jutland. Although a strategic success,[261] the greater loss of ships on the Allied side brought early dismay.[262] 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."[263] 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.[264]

Asquith first considered taking the vacant War Office himself but then offered it to Bonar Law, who declined it in favour of Lloyd George.[265] This was an important sign of growing unity of action between the two men and it filled Margot Asquith with foreboding; "I look upon this as the greatest political blunder of Henry's lifetime, [266] (.) We are out: it can only be a question of time now when we shall have to leave Downing Street."[267]

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.[268] 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."[269] 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.[270] 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."[271] But Raymond's death was shattering, Violet writing; "..to see Father suffering so wrings one",[272] and Asquith passed much of the following months "withdrawn and difficult to approach."[273] 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 [i.e. the defeat of the Brusilov Offensive], 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."[274]

Fall: November–December 1916[edit]

The events that led to the collapse of the First Coalition were exhaustively chronicled by almost all of the major participants,[275] (although Asquith himself was a notable exception), and have been minutely studied by historians in the 100 years since.[276] 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 (a) majority (in) Parliament. The faith of that majority in Asquith's leadership had been shaken and the appearance of a logical alternative destroyed him."[277]

Nigeria debate and Lord Lansdowne's memorandum[edit]

"a man called Max Aitken"

The touch paper for the final crisis was the unlikely subject of the sale of captured German assets in Nigeria.[278] As Colonial Secretary, the Conservative leader Bonar Law led the debate and was subject to a furious attack by Sir Edward Carson. The issue itself was trivial,[279] but the fact that Law had been attacked by a leading member of his own party, and was not supported by Lloyd George (who absented himself from the House only to dine with Carson later in the evening), was not.[280] Margot Asquith immediately sensed the coming danger; "From that night it was quite clear that Northcliffe, Rothermere, Bonar, Carson, Ll.G (and a man called Max Aitken) were going to run the Government. I knew it was the end."[281] Grey was similarly prescient, writing; "Lloyd George means to break up the Government."[282] Bonar Law saw the debate as a threat to his own political position,[283] as well as another instance of lack of grip by the government.[284] The situation was further inflamed by the publication of a memorandum on future prospects in the war by Lord Lansdowne.[285] 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,[286] Lord Crewe going so far as to suggest that the Lansdowne Memorandum was the "veritable causa causans[n] of the final break-up."[287]

Triumvirate gathers[edit]

On 20 November 1916 Lloyd George, Carson and Bonar Law met at the Hyde Park Hotel.[288] The meeting was organised by Max Aitken who was to play central roles both in the forthcoming crisis and in its subsequent historiography.[289] Max Aitken was a Canadian adventurer, millionaire, and close friend of Bonar Law.[290] His book on the fall of the First Coalition, Politicians and the War 1914–1916, although always partial and sometimes inaccurate, gives a detailed insider's view of the events leading up to Asquith's political demise.[291] The trio agreed on the necessity of overhauling the government and further agreed on the mechanism for doing so; the establishment of a small War Council, chaired by Lloyd George, with no more than five members and with full executive authority for the conduct of the war.[292] 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.[288] 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,[293] and Lloyd George,[294] wished to retain Asquith as premier. But Aitken,[291] Carson[295] and Lord Northcliffe emphatically did not.[296]

Power without responsibility[edit]

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."[297] Aitken supported this; "Lord Northcliffe was not in active co-operation with Lloyd George."[298] 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."[299] Riddell recorded is his diary for 27 May 1916; "LG never mentions directly that he sees Northcliffe but I am sure they are in daily contact."[300] Margot Asquith was also certain of Northcliffe's role, and of Lloyd George's involvement, although she obscured both of their names when writing in her diary; "I only hope the man responsible for giving information to Lord N- will be heavily punished: God may forgive him; I never can."[301]They are also contradicted by events; Northcliffe met with Lloyd George on each of the three days just prior to Lloyd George's resignation, on 1, 2 and 3 December,[302] including two meetings on 1 December, both before and after Lloyd George put his revised proposals for the War Council to Asquith.[303] It seems improbable that ongoing events were not discussed and that the two men confined their conversations to negotiating article circulation rights for Lloyd George once he had resigned, as Pound and Harmsworth weakly suggest.[304] The attempts made by others to use Northcliffe and the wider press also merit consideration. In this regard, some senior military officers were extremely active; Robertson, for example, writing to Northcliffe in October 1916; "The Boche gives me no trouble compared with what I meet in London. So any help you can give me will be of Imperial value."[305] Lastly, the actions of Northcliffe's newspapers must be considered – in particular The Times editorial on 4 December which led Asquith to reject Lloyd George's final War Council proposals.[306] Thompson, Northcliffe's most recent biographer, concludes; "From the evidence, it appears that Northcliffe and his newspapers should be given more credit than they have generally received for the demise of the Asquith government in December 1916."[307]

To-ing and fro-ing[edit]

Bonar Law met again with Carson and Lloyd George on 25 November and, with Aitken's help, drafted a memorandum for Asquith's signature.[308] This would see a "Civilian General Staff", with Lloyd George as chairman and Asquith as president, attending irregularly but with the right of referral to Cabinet as desired.[308] This, Bonar Law presented to Asquith, who committed to reply on Monday the following week.[309] His reply was an outright rejection; the proposal was impossible "without fatally impairing the confidence of colleagues, and undermining my own authority."[309] 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.[310] Bonar Law decided it would be appropriate to meet with his senior Conservative colleagues, something he had not previously done.[311] He saw Austen Chamberlain, Lord Curzon and Lord Robert Cecil on Thursday 30 November. All were united in opposition to Lloyd George's War Council plans, Chamberlain writing; "(we) were unanimously of opinion (sic) that (the plans) were open to grave objection and made certain alternative proposals."[312] 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."[313] Asquith's reply the same day did not constitute an outright rejection, but he did demand that he retain the chairmanship of the council.[314] As such, it was unacceptable to Lloyd George and he wrote to Bonar Law the next day (Saturday 2 December); "I enclose copy of P.M.'s letter. The life of the country depends on resolute action by you now."[315]

Last four days: Sunday 3 December to Wednesday 6 December[edit]

Portrait by André Cluysenaar

Sunday 3 December[edit]

Sunday 3 December saw the Conservative leadership meet at Bonar Law's house, Pembroke Lodge.[316] They gathered against a backdrop of ever-growing press involvement, in part fermented by Max Aitken.[317] 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.[318] At Law's house, the Conservatives present drew up a resolution which they demanded Law present to Asquith.[319] 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."[320] The meaning of this resolution is unclear, and even those who contributed to it took away differing interpretations.[321] 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.[322] Max Aitken's claim that the resolution's purpose was to ensure that "Lloyd George should go"[323] is not supported by most of the contemporary accounts,[324] 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."[325] Similarly, Adams, Bonar Law's latest biographer, describes Aitken's interpretation of the resolution as "convincingly overturned."[326] 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."[327]

Bonar Law then took the resolution to Asquith, who had, unusually, broken his weekend at Walmer Castle to return to Downing Street.[328] At their meeting, Bonar Law sought to convey the content of his colleagues' earlier discussion but failed to produce the resolution itself.[329] That it was never actually shown to Asquith is incontrovertible, and Asquith confirmed this in his writings.[330] Bonar Law's motives in not handing it over are more controversial. Law himself maintained he simply forgot.[331] Jenkins charges him with bad faith, or neglect of duty.[332] Adams suggests Law's motives were more complex – the resolution also contained a clause condemning the involvement of the press - prompted by the Reynold's News story of that morning[333] – and that, in continuing to seek an accommodation between Asquith and Lloyd George, Law felt it prudent not to share the actual text.[334]

The outcome of the interview between Law and Asquith was clear, even if Law had not been.[335] Asquith immediately decided that an accommodation with Lloyd George, and a substantial reconstruction to placate the Unionist ministers, were required.[336] He summoned Lloyd George and together they agreed a compromise that was, in fact, little different to Lloyd George's 1 December proposals.[337] The only substantial amendment was that Asquith would have daily oversight of the War Council's work and a right of veto.[337] Grigg sees this compromise as "very favourable to Asquith."[338] Cassar is less certain; "The new formula left him in a much weaker position[, his] authority merely on paper for he was unlikely to exercise his veto lest it bring on the collective resignation of the War Council."[339] Nevertheless, both Asquith, Lloyd George, and Bonar Law who had rejoined them at 5.00 p.m., felt a basis for a compromise had been reached and they agreed that Asquith would issue a bulletin that evening announcing the reconstruction of the Government.[339] Crewe, who joined Asquith at Montagu's house at 10.00 p.m. recorded; "accommodation with Mr. Lloyd George would ultimately be achieved, without sacrifice of (Asquith's) position as chief of the War Committee; a large measure of reconstruction would satisfy the Unionist Ministers."[340]

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."[341] 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."[342]

Monday 4 December[edit]

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.[343] The worst was a leader in Northcliffe's Times.[344] 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."[343] Lloyd George's involvement is uncertain; he denied any,[345] but Asquith was certain he was the source.[346] The author was certainly the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, with some assistance from Carson. But it seems likely that Carson's source was Lloyd George.[302]

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."[345] 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."[347] But Asquith's mind was already turning to rejection of the Sunday compromise and outright confrontation with Lloyd George.[348]

It is unclear exactly whom Asquith spoke with on 4 December. Beaverbrook and Crewe state he met Chamberlain, Curzon and Cecil.[349][350] Cassar follows these opinions, to a degree.[351] 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."[352] His recollection is supported by details of their meetings with Bonar Law and other colleagues,[352] in the afternoon, and then in the evening of the 4th,[353] and by most modern historians, e.g. Gilmour[354] and Adams.[355] Crawford expresses 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, recording 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!"[356] 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.[348] His way forward had been cleared by his tendering the resignation of his government to the King earlier in the day.[351] Asquith also saw Bonar Law who confirmed that he would resign if Asquith failed to implement the War Council agreement as discussed only the day before.[357] In the evening, and having declined two requests for meetings, Asquith threw down the gauntlet to Lloyd George by rejecting the War Council proposal.[358]

Tuesday 5 December[edit]

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."[358] 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.[359] 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.[359] 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."[360]

Asquith's meeting with Chamberlain, Curzon and Cecil at 3.00 p.m. only highlighted the weakness of his position.[335] They unanimously declined to serve in a Government that did not include Bonar Law and Lloyd George,[361] as a Government so constituted offered no "prospect of stability." Their reply to Asquith's follow-up question as to whether they were serve under Lloyd George caused him even more concern. The "Three Cs" stated they would serve under Lloyd George if he could create the stable Government they considered essential for the effective prosecution of the War.[362] The end was near and a further letter from Balfour declining to reconsider his earlier decision brought it about. The Home Secretary, Herbert Samuel, recorded in a contemporaneous note; "We were all strongly of opinion, from which [Asquith] did not dissent, that there was no alternative [to resignation]. We could not carry on without LlG and the Unionists and ought not to give the appearance of wishing to do so."[363] At 7.00 p.m., having been Prime Minister for eight years and 241 days, Asquith went to Buckingham Palace and tendered his resignation.[364] Describing the event to a friend sometime later, Asquith wrote; "When I fully realised what a position had been created, I saw that I could not go on without dishonour or impotence, or both."[365] That evening, he dined at Downing Street with family and friends, his daughter-in-law Cynthia describing the scene; "I sat next to the P.M. – he was too darling – rubicund, serene, puffing a guinea cigar and talking of going to Honolulu."[366] Cynthia believed that he would be back "in the saddle" within a fortnight with his position strengthened.[367]

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."[364][o]

Wednesday 6 December[edit]

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

Douglas Haig on Asquith's fall[369]

Wednesday saw an afternoon conference at Buckingham Palace, hosted by the King and chaired by Balfour.[370] There is some doubt as to the originator of the idea,[370] although Adams considers that it was Bonar Law.[371] 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."[372] Conversely, Crewe suggests that the suggestion came jointly from Lord Derby and Edwin Montagu.[373] However it came about, it did not bring the compromise the King sought. Within two hours of its breakup, Asquith, after consulting his Liberal colleagues,[374] except for Lloyd George, declined to serve under Bonar Law,[371] who accordingly declined the King's commission.[375] At 7.00 p.m. 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.[376] His achievement in creating a government was considerable, given that almost all of the senior Liberals sided with Asquith.[377] Balfour's acceptance of the Foreign Office made it possible.[378] Asquith was appalled when he accepted Lloyd George's offer, conveyed by Bonar Law, on the Wednesday.[379] The sense of betrayal was even greater, given that he had argued against Lloyd George to retain Balfour at the Admiralty,[380] and it never diminished. Writing years later, Margot's spleen was still evident; "between you and me, this is what hurt my husband more than anything else. That Lloyd George (a Welshman!) should betray him, he dimly did understand, but that Arthur should join his enemy and help to ruin him, he never understood."[380] 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."[381]

Wartime Opposition Leader: 1916–1918[edit]

Asquith, along with most leading Liberals, refused to serve in the new government. He remained Leader of the Liberal Party but, 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."[382] So, within Parliament, he pursued a course of quiet support, retaining a "heavy, continuing responsibility for the decision of August 4, 1914."[383] The personal impact of his supersession was nonetheless apparent to former colleagues. Lord Newton wrote in his diary of meeting Asquith at dinner a few days after the fall; "It became painfully evident that he was suffering from an incipient nervous breakdown and before leaving the poor man completely collapsed."[384]

Outside of the Commons, Margot and he returned to 20 Cavendish Square and he divided his life between here, The Wharf, visiting and some light politics. 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 night. The Duke of Connaught lunches here on Friday: don't you wish you were coming!"[385] Money, in the absence of his premier's salary, became more of a concern.[386] In March 1917 he was informally offered the Lord Chancellorship, with the highest salary in government, but he declined.[387] Personal sadness continued in December 1917 when Asquith's third son Arthur, known in the family as "Oc", was badly wounded fighting in France. 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."[388] Arthur's leg was amputated in January 1918.

Maurice Debate[edit]

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 George and Bonar Law of having misled the House of Commons in debates the previous month as to the manpower strength of the army in France.[387] Asquith, who had seen Maurice on 6 May,[389] and had also been in contact with the sacked Robertson,[390] with whom Maurice discussed the letter, called for a Select Committee of the House to investigate the charges.[391] Prior to the debate, he received a surprising communication from H.A.Gwynne, the editor of the Morning Post, and previously a fervent opponent. "The effect of the Maurice letter, and your motion, must be the dissolution of the present government (and) your accession to power."[392] Asquith's opening speech on the Select Committee motion was lengthy and lacked punch.[393] Bridgeman recorded; "He did not make much of a case, and did not even condemn Maurice's breach of the King's Regulations, for which he got a very heavy blow from L.G.".[394] Lloyd George's one and a quarter hour long reply was "a stunning solo display by the greatest rhetorician of his age"[395] in which he threatened the House with the inevitable political consequence of a vote for Asquith's motion. "..if this motion is carried, he (Asquith) will again be responsible for the conduct of the War. Make no mistake!"[396] John Ramsden summed up the opinion in the House of Commons; "Lloyd George's lies were (preferred to) Asquith's half-measures."[397] The motion was defeated by 293 votes to 106, more an "utter rejection of Asquith, than (a) wholehearted endorsement of Lloyd George,"[398] and the latter's position in Parliament was not seriously threatened for the remainder of the War.

End of the war[edit]

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.[399] "The tide of German success was stemmed and the ebb began under pressure of the great Allied counter-stroke."[399] In response to the Allied offensives, "the governments of the Central Powers were everywhere in collapse."[400] 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.[401] He was keen to go to the Peace Conference, where he considered his expertise at finance and international law would have been an asset, but was unwilling to compromise his position by entering Lloyd George's government.[402] Without this public subordination, Lloyd George, despite lobbying from the King, refused to invite him.[403]

Decline and eclipse: 1918–1926[edit]

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 "Coupon" to identify Coalition candidates.[404] 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."[405] A Liberal delegation met Lloyd George to propose Liberal reunification but was swiftly rebuffed.[405] Therefore, 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."[403] At the poll on 14 December, defeat was absolute. Margot recorded telephoning Liberal headquarters for the results; "Give me the East Fife figures: Asquith 6994 – Sprott (sic) 8996."[406] And this although Sprot had been refused a Coalition "coupon."[407] Lloyd George's victory was "massive", with every former Liberal minister losing his seat.[408] For Asquith personally, "the blow was crippling, a personal humiliation which destroyed his hope of exercising any influence on the peace settlement."[407]

False dawn[edit]

Portrait by Sir James Guthrie

Asquith remained leader of the Liberal Party, with Sir Donald Maclean acting in the House of Commons. At first Asquith was extremely unpopular, and for the first six months of 1919 he was not invited to address any Liberal Association anywhere in the country.[409] The devastation of the East Fife defeat was slightly lessened by 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 an intervention by the King.[409]

A parliamentary seat was essential if Asquith was again to play any serious part in future events. In January 1920, an opportunity arose at Paisley, again in Scotland, after the death of the Liberal MP.[410] Travelling with Margot, his daughter Violet and a small staff, Asquith launched a full-frontal attack "against the Coalition,"[411] in a campaign that some "thought fit to compare with Gladstone's Midlothian campaign.[412] The result was stupendous, with Asquith defeating his Coalition opponent by a majority of over 2000 votes.[413] 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."[414] But it was a false dawn, for the Liberals and for Asquith personally. "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."[415] 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."[416]

Money, or its lack, also became an increasing concern. Margot's extravagance was legendary[417] 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.[417] In 1920, as an economy measure, 20 Cavendish Square was sold[418] to Viscountess Cowdray[419] and Asquith and Margot moved to 44, Bedford Square.[418] In October 1922 Lloyd George fell after the rank-and-file majority of his Tory coalition partners deserted him. At the Carlton Club meeting of the Conservative Party, Stanley Baldwin attacked Lloyd George as "a dynamic force" which had smashed the Liberal Party and would smash the Tories too.[420] Lloyd George's former colleague Bonar Law wielded the knife; "the leader chooses the policy, and if (the Party) does not like it, they have to get another leader."[421] The following month, at the 1922 general election, Asquith ceased to be Leader of the Opposition as more Labour MPs were elected than the two Liberal factions combined. 138 Labour members outranked the combined Liberal number of 117, with 60 Asquith supporters and 57 "National Liberals" (adherents to Lloyd George).[422] Asquith retained his parliamentary seat, though only receiving 50.5 percent of the ballots cast in a two-candidate battle with Labour, a majority of 316 votes.[423]

It was obvious to all of the Liberal members of parliament, and indeed to their leaders, that reunion was essential for survival. But the enmity between Asquith and Lloyd George would have been too strong[422] had not Baldwin called an election in December 1923 on Protection.[424] Coming out for Free Trade himself, Lloyd George was obliged, at least formally, to submit to Asquith's leadership.[425] At Paisley, Asquith won a four-way race with 33.4 percent of the vote.[423] Nationally, the outcome was a hung Parliament (258 Conservatives, 191 Labour, 158 Liberals); the Liberals had gained seats but were still in third place, and in part due to the actions of Asquith supported Britain's first ever (minority) Labour Government under Ramsay MacDonald.[426] 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.[427] "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."[428] But 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?"[429]

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.[430] 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."[431] But it was to prove a hollow victory, with Asquith losing his seat in the 1924 election. Violet wrote; "Father was absolutely controlled. He just said to me, 'I'm out by 2,000'."[432] Asquith received 46.5 percent of the vote in his final parliamentary election.[423] It was a political, as well as a personal, disaster, Baldwin's triumph seeing, "400 Conservatives returned and only 40 Liberals,"[433] far behind Labour which entrenched its position as the "chief party of Opposition."[434]

Elevation and resignation[edit]

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[435]

The 1924 election was Asquith's last political campaign. In November the King offered him a peerage and he accepted.[436] But this was not without controversy. Choosing the Earldom of Oxford, Asquith was assailed as being too grand; Lady Salisbury writing to him that the title was "like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles."[437] Asquith found the controversy amusing but felt obliged to add "and Asquith" to the final title.[438] Further honours came in 1925 when he accepted the offer of the Order of the Garter. But one more disappointment remained. In 1926 he stood for the Chancellorship of Oxford University, vacant on the death of Lord Curzon. Eminently suited, described by Lord Birkenhead, one of his many Tory supporters, as "the greatest living Oxonian,"[439] he lost to the Tory candidate, Lord Cave. A friend wrote that it affected him "more than any disappointment, save one, in his life after he ceased to be Prime Minister."[440] This was followed by a near final breach with Lloyd George over the General Strike. Asquith viewed the strike as "criminal folly"[441] while Lloyd George, who had been chairman of the Liberal MPs since 1924, was more supportive of the strikers. After consulting with senior colleagues, Asquith despatched a letter of rebuke which started a fruitless round of published correspondence. 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,"[442] whilst Lloyd George expressed his private feelings in a letter to Frances Stevenson. "(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."[443] But before this final smash between the two led to a complete breach, Asquith was incapacitated by a stroke on 12 June 1926, just days before the National Liberal Federation. Continuing difficulties with Lloyd George,[444] over the party leadership and over party funds,[445] led him to resign the Liberal leadership on 15 October 1926.[446]

Final years: 1926–1928[edit]

HH Asquith tomb
Asquith's grave at Sutton Courtenay

Asquith filled his retirement with reading, writing, a little golf,[447] travelling and meeting with friends.[446] His health remained good, almost to the end, though financial concerns increasingly beset him.[448] A perhaps surprising contributor to an endowment fund established to support Asquith in 1927 was Max Aitken, now Lord Beaverbrook, who contributed £1000.[449] 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!"[450] Asquith had also taken to writing on an significant scale in an attempt to plug the financial gap. 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."[451] Asquith's last visit was see the widowed Venetia Montagu in Norfolk.[452] 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."[453] 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."[450] He died at The Wharf on the morning of 15 February 1928.[448] "He was buried, at his own wish, with great simplicity,"[454] 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[455] and a memorial tablet was subsequently erected in Westminster Abbey.[456] Viscount Grey, with Haldane Asquith's oldest political friends, wrote; "I have felt (his) death very much: it is true that his work was done but we were very close together for so many years. I saw the beginning of his Parliamentary life; and to witness the close is the end of a long chapter of my own."[457]

Asquith's descendants[edit]

Main article: Asquith family
Asquith's great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter

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.[458]

His eldest son Raymond, after an academic career that outstripped his father's[459] was killed at the Somme in 1916.[459] His second son Herbert (1881–1947) became a writer and poet and married Cynthia Charteris.[460] His later life was marred by alcoholism.[461] His third son Arthur (1883–1939), became a soldier and businessman.[459] 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.[462] His fourth son Cyril (1890–1954) was born on the day Asquith became a QC [463] and later became a Law Lord.[459]

His two children by Margot were Elizabeth, later Princess Antoine Bibesco (1897–1945), a writer, who also struggled with alcohol[464] and Anthony Asquith (1902–1968),[465] known as "Puffin", a film-maker, whose life was also severely affected by alcoholism.[464]

Among his living descendants are his great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966),[466] and two great-grandsons, Dominic Asquith, British High Commissioner to India since March 2016,[467] and Raymond Asquith, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith, the heir to Asquith's earldom.[468] Another leading British actress, Anna Chancellor (b. 1965), is also a descendant, being Asquith's great-great-granddaughter on her mother's side.[469]


Memorial to Asquith, Westminster Abbey

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 United Kingdom in war but affected much of the pattern of imperial, foreign, and economic history for the rest of the century."[9] Matthew deemed the decision Asquith's, in that without prime ministerial support, it was not likely Britain would have entered the war.[9] Given the deep divisions in the Liberal Party, Pearce and Goodlad noted, "it was a measure of (Asquith's) skill that he took Britain into the war with only two relatively minor Cabinet ministers ... choosing to resign".[470]

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."[471] Asquith's collegiate approach;[472] his tendency to "wait and see;"[473] his stance as the chairman of the cabinet,[474] rather than leader of a government – "content to preside without directing;"[475] his "contempt for the press, regard(ing) journalists as ignorant, spiteful and unpatriotic;"[476] 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;"[477] all contributed to a prevailing sense that Asquith was unable to rise to "the necessities of total warfare."[478] 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)."[479] 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" [480] 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."[481] The Coalition Whip, William Bridgeman, provided an alternative Tory view, comparing Lloyd George to Asquith at the time of the latter's fall; "however unpopular or mistrusted (Lloyd George) was in the House, he carried much more weight in the Country than Asquith, who was almost everywhere looked on as a lazy and dilatory man."[482] Sheffield and Bourne provide a recent historical reassessment; "Asquith's governments arguably took all the key decisions of the War: the decision to intervene, to send the BEF; to raise a mass volunteer army; to start and end the Gallipoli Campaign; the creation of a Coalition government; the mobilisation of industry; the introduction of conscription."[483] But the weight of opinion continues to agree with Asquith's own candid assessment, in a letter written in the midst of war in July 1916; "I am (as usual) encompassed by a cloud of worries, anxieties, problems and the rest. 'The time is out of joint' and sometimes I am tempted to say with Hamlet 'O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.' Perhaps I wasn't."[484]

Asquith's fall also saw the end of the "Liberal Party as one of the great parties of state."[485] 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."[486] After 1922 the Liberals did not hold office again, except as junior partners in coalition governments in 1931-2, in 1940-5[p], and (as today's Liberal Democrats) in 2010–15. 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."[485]

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."[487] Brock maintains that "his peacetime record of legislative achievement should not be overshadowed by his wartime inadequacy."[488] 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."[489] Among his greatest domestic accomplishments, reform of the House of Lords is at the zenith. Yet Asquith's premiership was also marked by many difficulties, leading McKenna to write in his memoirs, "friends began to wonder whether the highest statesmanship consisted of overcoming one crisis by creating another".[490] Hazlehurst, writing in 1970, felt there was still much to be gleaned from a critical review of Asquith's peacetime premiership, "certainly, the record of a prime minister under whom the nation goes to the brink of civil war [over Ireland] must be subjected to the severest scrutiny."[490]

Blue plaque, 20 Cavendish Square, London

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."[491] As Campbell-Bannerman's "sledgehammer", his "debating power was unequalled."[492] 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."[493]

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 1945–51 as well as Blair's constitutional reforms after 1997."[485] 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."[494] Asquith also worked strenuously to secure a settlement of the Irish question and, although unsuccessful, his work contributed to the 1922 settlement.[495] Lastly, as a "great head of a Cabinet,"[496] Asquith directed and developed the talents of an extraordinary array of parliamentarians, for an extraordinarily long period.[472] Hazlehurst contends that this "ability to keep so gifted and divergently-inclined a group in harness (was) one of his major achievements."[80] Overall, Brock argues that; "on the basis of his achievements 1908 to 1914 he must rank among the greatest British statesmen of any era."[488] 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."[497]

Notes, references and sources[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ 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 Margot Asquith 1962, p. 263.
  2. ^ The surname, a variant of Askwith, a village in North Yorkshire, derives from Old Norse ask-viðr – "ash-wood". See Ekwall, p. 16.
  3. ^ In the English system of the time, the legal profession was split into two branches. Any member of the public needing legal representation in the High Court or Court of Appeal had to engage a member of the junior branch – a solicitor – who would in turn commission ("instruct" or "brief") a barrister – a member of the senior branch, which had sole right to appear before the higher courts, but was not permitted to take work direct from the public without a solicitor as intermediary. A barrister without good contacts with solicitors would therefore go short of work. The distinctions between the two branches of the profession have been relaxed to some extent since Asquith's time, but to a considerable degree barristers remain dependent on solicitors for work. See Terrill, p. 58.
  4. ^ According to the official biography by J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, "he had a profound respect for the mind and intelligence of women … But he considered politics to be peculiarly the male sphere, and it offended his sense of decorum and chivalry to think of them as engaged in the rough and tumble of this masculine business and exposed to its publicity. He always vehemently denied that the question had any relation to democratic theory or that the exclusion of women from the franchises was any reflection on their sex." See Spender & Asquith, p. 360.
  5. ^ He was the first former cabinet minister to resume practice at the bar after leaving government office. All cabinet ministers were, and are, appointed as lifetime members of the Privy Council, and there had been an uncodified feeling before 1895 that it was inappropriate for a Privy Councillor to appear as an advocate in court, submitting to the rulings of judges who, for the most part, ranked below him in the official order of precedence. See Jenkins, pp. 90–91.
  6. ^ A biographer of Balfour, A. J. A. Morris, suggests that Balfour was motivated in this unusual step by the vain hope that minority government would open up the many divisions within the Liberal party.[68]
  7. ^ Jenkins, with a reference to Asquith's own reputation in that sphere, comments that Asquith did his personal best to reverse the downward trend in alcohol sales.
  8. ^ Notice before one's employment is terminated
  9. ^ The imbalance in the Upper House had been caused by the Liberal split over the First Home Rule Bill in 1886, in which many Liberal peers had become Liberal Unionists, who by this time had almost merged with the Conservatives. As had happened in the Liberal Governments of 1892–5, a number of bills were voted down by the Conservative-dominated House of Lords during Campbell-Bannerman's premiership. Although the Lords passed the Trade Disputes Act, the Workmens' Compensation Act and the Eight Hours Act, they rejected the Education Bill of 1906, an important measure in the eyes of Liberal nonconformist voters. See Magnus 1964, p. 532
  10. ^ That is, half a penny in a pound at a time (until 1971) when the pound sterling was made up of 240 pence, thus the tax was 1480 of the land's value, annually.
  11. ^ Asquith had to apologise to the King's adviser Lord Knollys for a Churchill speech calling for a Dissolution and rebuked Churchill at a Cabinet Meeting (21 July 1909) telling him to keep out of "matters of high policy", as the monarch's permission was needed to dissolve Parliament prematurely. See Magnus 1964, p. 527
  12. ^ Irish nationalists, unlike Liberals, favoured tariff reform, and opposed the planned increase in whisky duty, but an attempt by Lloyd George to win their support by cancelling it was abandoned as the Cabinet felt that this was recasting the Budget too much, and because it would also have annoyed nonconformist voters. See Magnus 1964, p. 548,553
  13. ^ By April the King was being advised by Balfour and the Archbishop of Canterbury (to whom he had turned for relatively neutral constitutional advice) that the Liberals did not have sufficient electoral mandate to demand creation of peers. See Magnus 1964, pp. 555–556. King Edward thought the whole proposal "simply disgusting" and that the government was "in the hands of Redmond & Co". Lord Crewe, Liberal leader in the Lords, announced publicly that the government's wish to create peers should be treated as formal "ministerial advice" (which, by convention, the monarch must obey) although Lord Esher argued that the monarch was entitled in extremis to dismiss the Government rather than take their "advice". See Heffer, pp. 294–296.
  14. ^ Definition: The real, effective cause of damage
  15. ^ That evening, Aitken and Churchill were dining with F. E. Smith at the latter's Grosvenor Gardens home. The dinner ended acrimoniously, as Aitken records: "'Smith,' said Winston with great emphasis, 'This man knows I am not to be in the Government.' He picked up his coat and hat and dashed into the street ... a curious end to the day." Churchill was detested by the Conservatives for his defection to the Liberals in 1904, for his role as an active, partisan Liberal thereafter, and for his role in disastrous Dardanelles Campaign; despite his energy and ability Lloyd George was not able to bring him back into the government until the summer of 1917.[368]
  16. ^ The National Liberals, a breakaway faction confusingly bearing the same name as Lloyd George's followers of the early 1920s, and led by Asquith's former protégé Sir John Simon, were in coalition throughout the 1931-45 period and eventually merged with the Conservatives.


  1. ^ a b Jenkins, p. 13.
  2. ^ Davies, Edward J. "The Ancestry of Herbert Henry Asquith", Genealogists' Magazine, 30 (2010–12), pp. 471–479
  3. ^ Alderson, p. 1.
  4. ^ Margot Asquith 1962, pp. 194–195.
  5. ^ Margot Asquith 1962, p. 195.
  6. ^ Jenkins, p. 15.
  7. ^ Levine, p. 75.
  8. ^ Bates, p. 10.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac Matthew, H. C. G. "Asquith, Herbert Henry, first earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 6 June 2015 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  10. ^ a b Dinner to Mr. Asquith", The Times, 25 November 1892, p. 6
  11. ^ Alderson, p. 10.
  12. ^ Bates, pp. 10–11.
  13. ^ Alderson, p. 3.
  14. ^ Jenkins, p. 17.
  15. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 30.
  16. ^ "Political Notes", The Times, 23 July 1908, p. 12
  17. ^ Spender, J. A. and Cyril Asquith. "Lord Oxford", The Times, 12 September 1932, p. 11
  18. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 31-2.
  19. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 33.
  20. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 34.
  21. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 33-4.
  22. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 32.
  23. ^ Jenkins, p. 23.
  24. ^ Levine, p. 76.
  25. ^ Bates, p. 12.
  26. ^ a b Jenkins, p. 25.
  27. ^ Rintala, p. 111.
  28. ^ Rintala, p. 118.
  29. ^ a b Jenkins, p. 27.
  30. ^ Alderson, p. 36.
  31. ^ a b Spender, J. A. and Cyril Asquith. "Lord Oxford", The Times, 13 September 1932, p. 13
  32. ^ Whitfield, p. 228.
  33. ^ Jenkins, pp. 31–32.
  34. ^ a b "Death Of Mr. Justice Wright", The Times, 15 May 1904, p. 2
  35. ^ Jenkins, p. 37.
  36. ^ Douglas, p. 71.
  37. ^ Jenkins, pp. 38–40.
  38. ^ "The General Election", The Times, 9 July 1886, p. 10; and "The Election", The Manchester Guardian, 9 July 1886, p. 8
  39. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 52.
  40. ^ Alderson, pp. 37–38.
  41. ^ Jenkins, pp. 42–43.
  42. ^ Alderson, p. 44.
  43. ^ Jenkins, p. 44.
  44. ^ Spender & Asquith, p. 48.
  45. ^ Jenkins, p. 47.
  46. ^ "The Riots in London", The Manchester Guardian, 15 November 1887, p. 8
  47. ^ "Central Criminal Court", The Times, 19 January 1888, p. 10
  48. ^ "Police", The Times, 11 August 1888, p. 13; and "Central Criminal Court", The Times, 1 November 1888, p. 13
  49. ^ Alderson, p. 33.
  50. ^ Jenkins, p. 49.
  51. ^ "Parnell Commission", The Manchester Guardian, 20 February 1889, p. 5
  52. ^ Popplewell, pp. 24–25.
  53. ^ Alderson, pp. 33–34.
  54. ^ Popplewell, p. 25.
  55. ^ Popplewell, pp. 28–30.
  56. ^ "The Baccarat Case", The Times, 2 June 1891, p. 11; and "Queen's Bench Division", The Times, 20 June 1892, p. 3
  57. ^ Jenkins, p. 52.
  58. ^ Jenkins, p. 56.
  59. ^ Jenkins, pp. 72–73.
  60. ^ a b Brock, Eleanor, "Asquith, Margaret Emma Alice (Margot), countess of Oxford and Asquith (1864–1945)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2014. Retrieved 14 June 2015 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  61. ^ Jenkins, p. 92.
  62. ^ Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound
  63. ^ Bates, p. 33.
  64. ^ Hattersley, p. 60.
  65. ^ Jenkins, pp. 200 and 105.
  66. ^ Hattersley, p. 65.
  67. ^ Jenkins, p. 140.
  68. ^ a b Morris, A. J. A. "Bannerman, Sir Henry Campbell- (1836–1908)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2008. Retrieved 22 June 2015 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
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