H. H. Asquith

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Herbert Henry Asquith)
Jump to: navigation, search
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
Leader of the Opposition
In office
12 February 1920 – 21 November 1922
Monarch George V
Prime Minister David Lloyd George
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 Edward Carson
Succeeded by Donald Maclean
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 Liberal Party
In office
30 April 1908 – 14 October 1926
Preceded by Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Succeeded by David Lloyd George
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
5 April 1908 – 5 December 1916
Preceded by Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Succeeded by Bonar Law
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
10 December 1905 – 12 April 1908
Prime Minister 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
Member of Parliament
for Paisley
In office
12 February 1920 – 4 November 1924
Preceded by John Mills McCallum
Succeeded by Edward Rosslyn Mitchell
Member of Parliament
for East Fife
In office
27 July 1886 – 14 December 1918
Preceded by John Boyd Kinnear
Succeeded by Alexander Sprot
Personal details
Born Herbert Henry Asquith
(1852-09-12)12 September 1852
Morley, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
Died 15 February 1928(1928-02-15) (aged 75)
Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire, England, United Kingdom
Resting place All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay
Political party Liberal Party
Spouse(s) Helen Melland (1877–1891)
Margot Tennant (1894–1928)
Children 10
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Inns of Court School of Law
City of London School
Religion Congregationalist
Signature Cursive signature in ink
Asquith as caricatured by Spy, in Vanity Fair, 1891

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, KG, KC, PC (12 September 1852 – 15 February 1928), served as the Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916.[1] Until 5 January 1988, he had been the longest continuously serving Prime Minister in the 20th century.[2]

As Prime Minister, he led his Liberal party to a series of domestic reforms, including social insurance and the reduction of the power of the House of Lords. He led the nation into the First World War, but a series of military and political crises led to his replacement in late 1916 by David Lloyd George. His falling out with Lloyd George played a major part in the downfall of the Liberal Party.

Before his term as Prime Minister he served as Home Secretary (1892–95) and as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1905–08). He was known as H. H. Asquith until his elevation to the peerage (1925), when he became Earl of Oxford and Asquith.

Asquith's achievements in peacetime have been overshadowed by his weaknesses in wartime. Many historians portray a vacillating Prime Minister, unable to present the necessary image of action and dynamism to the public.[3] Others stress his continued high administrative ability, and argue that many of the major reforms popularly associated with Lloyd George as "the man who won the war" were actually implemented by Asquith.[4] The dominant historical verdict is that there were two Asquiths: the urbane and conciliatory Asquith, who was a successful peacetime leader, and the hesitant and increasingly exhausted Asquith, who practised the politics of muddle and delay during the Great War.[5]

Childhood, education and legal career[edit]

Asquith was born at Croft House in Morley, West Riding of Yorkshire, to Joseph Dixon Asquith (10 February 1825 – 16 June 1860) and his wife Emily Willans (4 May 1828 – 12 December 1888).[6] The Asquiths were a middle-class family and members of the Congregational church. Joseph was a wool merchant and came to own his own woollen mill.[7][8]

Herbert was seven years old when his father died. Emily and her children moved to the house of her father William Willans, a wool-stapler of Huddersfield. Herbert received schooling there and was later sent to a Moravian Church boarding school at Fulneck, near Leeds. In 1863, Herbert was sent to live with an uncle in London, where he entered the City of London School. He was educated there until 1870 and mentored by its headmaster Edwin Abbott Abbott.[7][8]

In 1870, Asquith won a classical scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. In 1874, Asquith was awarded the Craven scholarship. Despite the unpopularity of the Liberals during the dying days of Gladstone's First Government, he became president of the Oxford Union in the Trinity (summer) term of his fourth year. He graduated that year and soon was elected a fellow at Balliol. Meanwhile he entered Lincoln's Inn as a pupil barrister and for a year served a pupillage under Charles Bowen.[7][8]

He was called to the bar in 1876 and, although briefs were not initially forthcoming, became prosperous in the early 1880s from practising at the Chancery Bar. Among other cases he appeared for the defence in the famous case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co when the case was heard at first instance in the Queen's Bench Division.[9] His services were not employed when the case was heard on appeal in the Court of Appeal. Asquith took silk (was appointed QC) in 1890. It was at Lincoln's Inn that in 1882 Asquith met Richard Haldane, whom he would appoint as Lord Chancellor in 1912.[7][8]


In his younger days he was called Herbert within the family, but his second wife called him Henry. His biographer Stephen Koss entitled the first chapter of his biography "From Herbert to Henry", referring to upward social mobility and his abandonment of his Yorkshire Nonconformist roots with his second marriage. However, in public, he was invariably referred to only as H. H. Asquith. "There have been few major national figures whose Christian names were less well known to the public," writes his biographer Roy Jenkins.[10] His opponents gave him the nickname "Squiff" or "Squiffy", a derogatory reference to his fondness for drink.[7][8][11]

Personal life[edit]


He married Helen Kelsall Melland, daughter of a Manchester doctor, in 1877. They had four sons and one daughter before she died from typhoid fever in 1891. These children were Raymond (1878–1916), Herbert (1881–1947), Arthur (1883–1939), Violet (1887–1969), and Cyril (1890–1954). Of these children, Violet and Cyril became life peers in their own right, Cyril becoming a law lord.[7][8] Raymond was killed during the First World War.[12]

In 1894, he married Margot Tennant, a daughter of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Bt. They had two children, Elizabeth Charlotte Lucy, later Princess Antoine Bibesco, (1897–1945) and the film director Anthony (1902–1968).[7][8]

Venetia Stanley[edit]

In 1912, Asquith fell in love with Venetia Stanley, and his romantic obsession with her continued into 1915, when she married Edwin Montagu, a Liberal Cabinet Minister. A volume of Asquith's letters to Venetia, often written during Cabinet meetings and describing political business in some detail, has been published; but it is not known whether or not their relationship was sexually consummated.[7][8]

He sent over 560 letters and some government colleagues were concerned with what they saw as an obsession. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, viewed his endless letter writing as "England's greatest security risk".[13] Within days of his rejection by Venetia, Asquith started an intense relationship with her older sister Sylvia, which lasted for several years.[14]

In 2012, writer Bobbie Neate claimed that her stepfather Louis Stanley (eventually head of British Racing Motors) was the illegitimate son of Asquith and Venetia, although the evidence presented for this claim is entirely circumstantial, and largely rests on Neate believing that her late stepfather bore a physical resemblance to Asquith in some photographs, plus a great deal of uncorroborated speculation in the book.[15]

Later life[edit]

Asquith also had a reputation as a groper. Clementine Churchill complained of his habit of peering down the top of dresses, while the socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell claimed that Asquith "Would take a lady's hand as she sat beside him on the sofa, and make her feel his erected instrument under his trousers". Another woman complained of his ‘drooling, high thigh-stroking advances'.[13]

The 1921 Roman à clef "Crome Yellow", written by Lady Ottoline's friend Aldous Huxley, contains an unflattering portrait of the ageing Asquith (thinly disguised as Mr Callamay, "a ci-devant Prime Minister feebly toddling across the lawn after any pretty girl”). The novel mentioned his “Roman profile”, and also that young women were reluctant to go on car journeys alone with him. [16]

Early political career (1886–1908)[edit]

Asquith in 1895

Asquith was elected to Parliament in 1886 as the Liberal representative for East Fife, in Scotland. He never served as a junior minister; his first post was Home Secretary in Gladstone's fourth cabinet in 1892. He retained his position when Rosebery became Prime Minister in 1894. The Liberals lost power in the 1895 general election and for ten years were in opposition. In 1898 he turned down an opportunity to lead the Liberal Party, then deeply divided and unpopular, preferring to use the chance to earn money as a barrister.

He received the honorary degree Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) from the University of Edinburgh in April 1902.[17]

During Asquith's period as deputy to the new leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, "C. B." was known to request his presence in parliamentary debate by saying, "Send for the sledge-hammer," referring to Asquith's reliable command of facts and his ability to dominate verbal exchanges. Asquith toured the country refuting the arguments of Joseph Chamberlain, who had resigned from the Cabinet to campaign for tariffs against imported goods.

After the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour fell in December 1905, Asquith and his allies Richard Haldane and Sir Edward Grey agreed that they would refuse to serve unless Campbell-Bannerman accepted a peerage, which would have left Asquith as the real leader in the House of Commons. However, the plot (called the "Relugas Compact" after the Scottish lodge where the men met) collapsed when Asquith agreed to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Campbell-Bannerman (Grey became Foreign Secretary and Haldane Secretary of State for War). The party won a landslide victory in the 1906 general election.

Asquith demonstrated his staunch support of free trade at the Exchequer. One of the leading New Liberals,[18] he introduced the first of the so-called Liberal reforms, including (in 1908) small means-tested old age pensions for some people over age 70, with the aim of reducing poverty among the elderly. Asquith's old age pension reforms, while meaningful, were not as significant as those of David Lloyd George, Asquith's successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer. During Asquith's Chancellorship, the House of Lords still had a veto over legislation.

Campbell-Bannerman resigned due to illness on 3 April 1908, dying 19 days later,[19] and Asquith succeeded him as Prime Minister. The King, Edward VII, was holidaying in Biarritz, and refused to return to London, citing health grounds. Asquith was forced to travel to Biarritz for the official "kissing of hands" of the Monarch, the only time a British Prime Minister has formally taken office on foreign soil.

Prime Minister (1908–1916)[edit]

Asquith in 1908

Liberal reforms[edit]

The Asquith government became involved in an expensive naval arms race with the German Empire and began an extensive social welfare programme (see Liberal reforms), spearheaded by David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, at this stage, Winston Churchill, who at the Board of Trade had passed measures against sweatshop conditions. The social welfare programme proved controversial, and Asquith's government faced resistance from the Conservative Party. As had happened in the Liberal Governments of 1892–5, a number of bills were voted down by the Conservative-dominated House of Lords. The Lords passed the Trade Disputes Act, the Workmens' Compensation Act and the Eight Hours Act, but rejected the Education Bill of 1906 and the Licensing Bill of 1908, both of the latter being important measures in the eyes of Liberal nonconformist voters.[20]

House of Lords[edit]

Matters came to a head in 1909, when Lloyd George produced a deliberately provocative "People's Budget". Among the most controversial in British history, it systematically raised taxes on the rich, especially the landowners, to pay for the welfare programmes (and for new battleships). Many Conservatives continued to prefer tariffs (indirect taxes on imported goods) which, it was felt, would encourage British industry and trade within the Empire, although the proposal continued to be something of an electoral liability in the 1906 and 1910 General Elections as it also would have meant taxes on food imports.

The Conservatives, traditionally representing property owners and hoping to force an election by rejecting the budget,[21] planned to use their majority in the House of Lords to reject the bill. The Lords did not traditionally interfere with finance bills and their actions thus provoked a constitutional crisis. Asquith had to apologise to the King's adviser Lord Knollys for a Churchill speech calling for a Dissolution and rebuked Churchill at the Cabinet Meeting (21 July 1909) telling him to keep out of "matters of high policy" (no election was due until 1914, and the Monarch's permission was needed to dissolve Parliament prematurely). There were many public meetings, some of them organised by dukes, in protest at the budget.[22] The Northcliffe Press (The Times and the Daily Mail) urged rejection of the budget to give tariff reform a chance.[20] 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".[23] The King 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 Irish Disestablishment in 1869 and the Third Reform Act in 1884).[24]

The Finance Bill passed the Commons on 5 November 1909 but was rejected by the Lords on 30 November 1909; they instead passed a resolution by Lord Lansdowne stating that they were entitled to oppose the bill as it lacked an electoral mandate.[25] The country was forced to a general election in January 1910.

The election was dominated by talk of removing the Lords' veto. A possible radical solution was to threaten to have the king pack the House of Lords with freshly minted Liberal peers, who would override the Lords' veto. During the election campaign Lloyd George talked of "guarantees" and Asquith (in his Albert Hall Speech, December 1909) of "safeguards" which would be necessary before forming another Liberal government, but in fact the King informed Asquith that he would not even be willing to contemplate creating peers until after a second General Election. Some in the Cabinet suggested that the right of creating peers be given to the Prime Minister.[26] Balfour refused to be drawn on whether or not he would be willing to form a Conservative government, but advised the King not to promise to create peers until he had seen the terms of any proposed constitutional change.[27]

The election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Liberals having two more seats than the Conservatives, but lacking an overall majority. The Liberals formed a minority government dependent on the support of the Irish Nationalists. 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 – Irish nationalists favoured tariff reform, and opposed the planned increase in whisky duty,[28] 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.[29]

Asquith now revealed that there were no "guarantees" of the creation of peers. The Cabinet considered resigning and leaving it up to Balfour to try to form a Conservative Government.[30]

Asquith caricatured by XIT for Vanity Fair, 1910

The Commons passed resolutions (14 April) which would form the basis for the Parliament Act: to remove the power of the Lords to veto money bills, to reduce their veto of other bills to a power to delay for up to two years (the Bill would become law if passed a third time by the Commons), and also to reduce the term of Parliament from seven years to five (the King would have preferred four years[27]). But in that debate Asquith hinted – to ensure the support of the Irish MPs – that he would ask the King to break the deadlock "in that Parliament" (i.e. hinting that he would ask for the mass creation of peers, contrary to King Edward's earlier stipulation that there be a second election). The Budget – for which the Liberals had obtained an electoral mandate – was passed by both Commons and Lords in April, but the argument had moved on.[31]

The King – who by April was being advised by Balfour and the Archbishop of Canterbury that the Liberals did not have sufficient electoral mandate to demand creation of peers[32] – 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 Esher argued that the monarch was entitled in extremis to dismiss the Government rather than take their "advice".[33] King Edward VII died on 6 May 1910 (so heated had passions become that Asquith was accused of having "Killed the King" through stress).[citation needed]

The new King, George V, was reluctant to have the first act of his reign be the carrying out of such a drastic attack on the aristocracy and it required all of Asquith's considerable powers to convince him to make the promise. This the King finally did before the second election of 1910, in December, although Asquith did not make this promise public at the time.

In the December 1910 election the Liberals again won, though their majority in the Commons was now dependent on MPs from Ireland (at the election the Liberal and Conservative parties were exactly equal in size; by 1914 the Conservative Party was actually larger owing to by-election victories). Nonetheless, Asquith was able to curb the powers of the House of Lords through the Parliament Act 1911, which essentially broke the power of the House of Lords. The Lords could now delay for two years, but with some exceptions could not defeat outright, a bill passed by the Commons. Asquith's victory marked the permanent end of the House of Lords as a major base of political power.

Although regarded by some as a right-wing Liberal,[34][35] Asquith continued to work with Lloyd George in setting up unemployment insurance, helping to set the stage for the welfare state in Britain.

Women's suffrage[edit]

Although the majority of Liberal MPs were in favour of women's suffrage, Asquith remained a longtime opponent of it, his opposition going back to the 1880s.[36] Although opposed to women's suffrage he believed it was up to the House of Commons to decide.[37] During his premiership three Conciliation Bills were brought forth which would have extended the right to a limited number of women, however these foundered due to lack of parliamentary time and other delaying tactics.[37] During Asquith's time as premier the practice of force feeding was approved for routine use on hunger striking suffragette prisoners. In August 1912 an article appeared in medical journal The Lancet, condemning the practice as torture.[38]

Asquith was a key target amongst the suffragettes. The windows of 10 Downing Street had been smashed in 1908 and in 1912 in Dublin his carriage was attacked by Mary Leigh. In that attack Irish nationalist leader John Redmond was injured.[39] Papers released in 2006 indicated the government's fears of an assassination attempt on Asquith.[36]

In 1915 Asquith was forced to shore up his government with Conservatives in a coalition government,[40] and when Lloyd George took over from Asquith the following year it paved the way for the extension of the vote in 1918. Asquith belatedly came around to support women's suffrage in 1917,[41] in part aided by the abandonment of direct action by the WSPU.[42] Ironically, Asquith's reforms to the House of Lords eased the way for the passage of the bill.[43]


The price of Irish support in 1910 was the Third Irish Home Rule Bill, which Asquith delivered in legislation in 1912. Asquith's efforts over Irish Home Rule nearly provoked a civil war in Ireland over the province of Ulster, only averted by the outbreak of a European war. Ulster Protestants, who wanted no part of a semi-autonomous Ireland, smuggled in weapons and formed armed volunteer bands. British army officers (the so-called Curragh Mutiny) threatened to resign rather than move against Ulstermen whom they saw as loyal British subjects; Asquith was forced to take on the job of Secretary of State for War himself on the resignation of the incumbent, Seeley. The legislation for Irish Home Rule was due to come into effect in 1914, allowing for the two-year delay under the Parliament Act as a result of its defeat in the Lords – by which time the Cabinet were discussing allowing the six predominantly Protestant counties of north-east Ulster to opt out of the arrangement, which was ultimately suspended owing to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

World War I[edit]

Liberal government[edit]

Although the Liberals had traditionally been peace oriented, the German invasion of Belgium in violation of treaties angered the nation and raised the spectre of German control of the entire continent, which was intolerable. Asquith led the nation to war in alliance with France. The 1839 Treaty of London had committed Britain to guard Belgium's neutrality in the event of invasion, and talks with France since 1905 – kept secret even from most members of the Cabinet – had set up the mechanism for an expeditionary force to cooperate militarily with France.

Asquith and the Cabinet had the King declare war on the German Empire on 4 August 1914.

Asquith headed the Liberal government going into the war. Only two Cabinet Ministers (John Morley and John Burns) resigned. At first the dominant figures in the management of the war were Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) and Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, who had taken over the War Office from Asquith himself.

In social policy, pensions and allowances were granted to civilians injured while on war work in 1914, and in 1915 local authorities were obliged to set up depots “for the sale of milk to infants at cost price.”[44]

Coalition government[edit]

Following a Cabinet split on 25 May 1915, caused by the Shell Crisis (sometimes dubbed 'The Great Shell Shortage') and the failed offensive at the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli, Asquith became head of a new coalition government, bringing senior figures from the Opposition into the Cabinet. At first the Coalition was seen as a political masterstroke, as the Conservative leader Bonar Law was given a relatively minor job (Secretary for the Colonies), whilst former Conservative leader A. J. Balfour was given the Admiralty, replacing Churchill. Kitchener, popular with the public, was stripped of his powers over munitions (given to a new ministry under Lloyd George).

In November 1915 an Anglo-French "Standing Committee of an advisory character" (prime ministers and such other politicians and generals as were required, with Hankey and a French counterpart taking minutes) was set up, but the French Prime Minister Briand rejected Asquith's proposal of a permanent secretariat.[45]

By autumn 1915 Asquith's Coalition was close to breaking up over conscription, and in the absence of firm leadership ad hoc campaigns had developed in Sinai, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and Salonika.[46] Asquith sent Kitchener, who was much criticised by politicians and generals alike, on a fact-finding tour of the Mediterranean in the hopes he could be persuaded to remain there as Commander-in-Chief. Asquith, who thought Kitchener was "an impossible colleague" and "his veracity left much to be desired", again acted in charge of the War Office in his absence.[47] On his return Kitchener was stripped of his control over strategy. General Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was given the right to report directly to the Cabinet – Robertson was committed to a major British effort on the Western Front, and his enhanced position was one of several factors why the generals were felt to be under limited political control in the middle years of the war.

Critics increasingly complained about Asquith's lack of vigour over the conduct of the war. When he fell ill, Kitchener said "I thought he had exhausted all possible sources of delay; I never thought of the diarrhoea".[48] General Haig, recently appointed Commander-in-Chief of British forces in France, attended a Cabinet meeting in London (15 April 1916) to discuss the upcoming Somme offensive. The Cabinet agreed with some reluctance as Kitchener and Robertson were also both in favour, but were more concerned with the ongoing political crisis over the extension of conscription to married men, which could potentially have brought down the government. Haig recorded that Asquith attended the meeting dressed for golf and clearly keen to get away for the weekend,[49] although on a later occasion he recorded that Asquith was still capable of discussing military operations cogently despite being clearly the worse for drink. On Whit Monday 1916 Bonar Law discussed the succession to the job of Secretary of State for War (Kitchener had just drowned on a trip to Russia); he was irritated not only at having to travel to Asquith's home – the Wharf, at Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire – but also, he claimed, finding Asquith playing bridge with three ladies. (Asquith's daughter Violet Bonham-Carter later denied that this had been so and explained that he was at home preparing a speech as it was a public holiday). After Bonar Law had refused to wait until the hand was finished, Asquith offered him the job, but he declined as he had already agreed with Lloyd George that the latter should have the job.[50]

Women's Rights activists also turned against Asquith when he adopted the 'Business as Usual' policy at the beginning of the war, while the introduction of conscription was unpopular with mainstream Liberals. Opponents partly blamed Asquith for events such as the Easter Rising in Ireland (April 1916) and the slow progress and high casualties of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, at which Asquith's son Raymond was killed.

Fall from power[edit]

After the evacuation of the Gallipoli Bridgeheads at the start of 1916, Asquith reconstituted the Dardanelles Committee as a War Committee of 5 members (himself, Lloyd George (Munitions), Bonar Law, Balfour (Admiralty) and McKenna (Exchequer)) to discuss strategy. During 1916 it ballooned in size to 11, with Asquith spending much of his time making peace between factions.[51]

David Lloyd George, who had become Secretary of State for War but found himself frustrated by the reduced powers of that role, now campaigned with the support of the press baron Lord Northcliffe, to be made chairman of a small committee to manage the war. Asquith at first accepted (3 December), on condition that the committee reported to him daily and that he was allowed to attend if he chose, but then – furious at a report from the Times New York correspondent that made it clear that he was being sidelined, and recommended his replacement by Lloyd George (Edwin Montagu had seen Northcliffe calling on Lloyd George shortly before, suggesting that he may have inspired the article)  – withdrew his consent unless he were allowed to chair the committee personally. [52]

At this point Lloyd George resigned, as - despite Asquith’s urgings - did Balfour, whose tenure of the Admiralty had been a focus of criticism from Lloyd George and Carson, but who thought the expedient of a small War Committee should be tried. Asquith had obtained the King’s permission to demand his ministers’ resignations and reconstruct his government, but Balfour’s departure cost Asquith the support of the leading Conservatives Lord Curzon (who had just promised Asquith that he would retain substantial Conservative support), Austen Chamberlain and Lord Robert Cecil, leaving his government’s position untenable. Having assembled the other Liberal ministers and obtained their agreement, Asquith resigned as Prime Minister on the afternoon of 5 December 1916. His motives are unclear but he may have believed that nobody else would be able to form a government. That evening Bonar Law, who as Conservative Leader had been asked by the King to form a government, called on Asquith and asked him in vain to serve under himself or Balfour. Asquith’s daughter Cynthia recorded that he seemed happy that evening, and that she expected him to be back “in the saddle” within a fortnight with his position strengthened. [53]

The following afternoon (6 December) Asquith attended a conference at Buckingham Palace in front of the King. Also present were Balfour, Lloyd George and Bonar Law (the three of whom had met privately that morning) and the Labour leader Arthur Henderson. The others were agreed that a small War Committee was necessary but that Asquith should also serve in any new government, but he declined to serve under any other prime minister. Bonar Law again declined to form a government, citing as reasons Asquith's refusal to serve under him and the King’s reluctance to permit a General Election in wartime. Lloyd George was then asked to form a government, and in an unexpected move Balfour that evening agreed to serve under him as Foreign Secretary, ensuring solid Conservative support for a new government. The following morning the Labour ministers also agreed to serve under Lloyd George and having “formed a government” he was formally appointed (“kissed hands”) on the evening of 7 December – heading not a small War Committee but a small War Cabinet in place of the normal Cabinet. [54]

Asquith and his wife finally vacated 10, Downing Street on 9 December. They were furious with what they saw as Balfour’s treachery, especially after Asquith had defended him against criticism. Asquith, not normally given to displays of emotion, confided to his wife that after his departure from office he felt as though he had been stabbed. In the political world Asquith’s departure was regarded with less sorrow: General Haig had written to his wife (6 December): “I am personally very sorry for poor old Squiff. He has had a hard time and even when “exhilarated” seems to have more brainpower than any of the others. However, I expect more action and less talk is needed now”. [55]

Most historians have depicted Asquith's wartime leadership as feckless, says Little, who does not fully agree. They have depicted Asquith as a vacillating prime minister, overwhelmed by life and death decisions on a daily basis, barely able to handle the multitude of forces calling for decisions, and at best acting as an uncertain fulcrum on which men of greater determination and ambition made the great decisions.[56]

Later life (1916–1928)[edit]

Wartime Opposition Leader[edit]

Asquith, along with most leading Liberals, refused to serve in the new government. He remained Leader of the Liberal Party, but found it hard to conduct an official opposition in wartime. Late in 1917 Lloyd George moved to set up an inter-Allied Supreme War Council to reassert political control over strategy, contrary to the wishes of the British generals, who still enjoyed a great deal of press support. After Lloyd George's Paris speech (12 November) at which he scoffed at the Allies' Western Front "victories" and said that "when he saw the appalling casualty lists he wish(ed) it had not been necessary to win so many of them." Asquith (briefed by Robertson) rose to loud cheers to debate the matter in the Commons (19 November), amidst talk of Austen Chamberlain withdrawing support from the government. Lloyd George survived by claiming that the aim of the Supreme War Council was purely to "coordinate" policy.[57][58]

Asquith was also active in Parliament when Lloyd George, keen to refocus British efforts against Turkey rather than on the Western Front, removed Robertson as CIGS early in 1918. In a House of Commons made angry by the press war between allies of Lloyd George and the generals, and after Lloyd George had cited state secrecy as his reason for refusing to discuss the SWC machinery, Asquith (12 February) was greeted with cheers for two minutes. Lloyd George ended the debate by challenging the House of Commons to bring down the government; the unappealing thought of Asquith returning as Prime Minister was one of the factors in his surviving the crisis.[59][60]

The Liberal Party finally split openly during the Maurice Debate in 1918, at which Lloyd George was accused of hoarding manpower in the UK to prevent Haig from launching any fresh offensives (e.g. Passchendaele, 1917), possibly with a view to sending more troops to Palestine or Italy instead, and thus contributing to Allied weakness during the temporarily successful German offensives of spring 1918, in which British casualties were actually heavier than in their own offensives the previous year. Lloyd George survived the debate.[7][8]

In 1918 Asquith declined an offer of the job of Lord Chancellor, as this would have meant retiring from active politics in the House of Commons. By this time, Asquith had become very unpopular with large sections of the public, as Lloyd George was perceived to have "won the war" by displacing him, although he was pleased to be cheered by the crowd when he arrived at Parliament to listen to Lloyd George's announcement of the Armistice terms. He was keen to go to the Peace Conference, where his expertise at finance and international law would have been an asset to the British delegation, but despite lobbying by the King, Lloyd George refused to invite him. Along with most leading Liberals Asquith lost his seat in the 1918 elections, at which the Liberals split into Asquith and Lloyd George factions. Asquith was not opposed by a Coalition candidate; but the local Conservative Association eventually put up a candidate against him, who despite being refused the "Coupon" – the official endorsement given by Lloyd George and Bonar Law to Coalition candidates – defeated Asquith.[61]

Liberal reunion[edit]

Asquith in 1923

Asquith remained Leader of the Liberal Party, although Sir Donald Maclean acted in his place until he returned to the House of Commons in a 1920 by-election in Paisley and once again became Leader of the Opposition.

Lloyd George ceased to be Prime Minister in October 1922, and the following month Asquith ceased to be Leader of the Opposition after the 1922 General Election, at which for the first time more Labour MPs were elected than the two Liberal factions combined. The two Liberal factions began to enjoy an uneasy truce, which was deepened in late 1923 when Stanley Baldwin called an election on the issue of tariffs, which had been a major cause of the Liberal landslide of 1906. The election resulted in a hung Parliament, with the Liberals again in third place behind Labour. Asquith played a major role in putting the minority Labour government of January 1924 into office, elevating Ramsay MacDonald to the Prime Ministership.

Asquith again lost his seat in the 1924 election held after the fall of the Labour government—at which the Liberals were reduced to the status of a minor party with just over 40 MPs. In 1925 he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Asquith of Morley in the West Riding of the County of York and Earl of Oxford and Asquith.[62] Lloyd George succeeded him as chairman of the Liberal Members of Parliament, but Asquith remained overall head of the party until 1926, when Lloyd George, who had quarrelled with Asquith once again over whether or not to support the General Strike (Asquith supported the government), succeeded him in that position as well.[63]

In 1894 Asquith was elected a Bencher of Lincoln's Inn, and served as Treasurer in 1920. In 1925 he was nominated for the Chancellorship of the University of Oxford, but lost to Viscount Cave in a contest dominated by party political feeling, and despite the support of his former political enemy, the Earl of Birkenhead. On 6 November 1925 he was made a Freeman of Huddersfield.[7][8]

Asquith's final years and death[edit]

Asquith's Grave at All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay
Memorial to Asquith in Westminster Abbey
Blue plaque, 20 Cavendish Square, London

Towards the end of his life, Asquith became a wheelchair user after suffering a stroke. He died at his country home the Wharf, Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire,[64] in 1928. Margot died in 1945. They are both buried at All Saints' Church, Sutton Courtenay; Asquith requested that there should be no public funeral.[7][8]

Asquith's estate was valued at £9,345 on 9 June 1928 (about £500 thousand today using CPI, or £2.2million when compared to average earnings),[65] a modest amount for so prominent a man. In the 1880s and 1890s he had earned a handsome income as a barrister, but in later years had found it increasingly difficult to sustain his lavish lifestyle, and his mansion at 20 Cavendish Square had had to be sold in the 1920s.[7][8] A London County Council blue plaque unveiled in 1951 commemorates Asquith at Cavendish Square.[66]

Asquith's descendants[edit]

Asquith had five children by his first wife, Helen, and five by his second wife, Margot; but only his elder five children and two of his five younger children survived birth and infancy.[7][8]

His eldest son Raymond Asquith was killed at the Somme in 1916; thus, the peerage passed to Raymond's only son Julian, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Asquith (born in 1916, only a few months before his grandfather's resignation as Prime Minister).[7][8]

His only daughter by his first wife, Violet (later Violet Bonham Carter), became a well-regarded writer and a life peeress (as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury in her own right). His fourth son Sir Cyril, Baron Asquith of Bishopstone (1890–1954) became a Law Lord. His second and third sons married well. The poet Herbert Asquith (1881–1947) (who is often confused with his father) married Cynthia Charteris, the daughter of the Earl of Wemyss, and Brigadier-General Arthur Asquith (1883–1939) married the daughter of a baron.[7][8]

His two children by Margot were Elizabeth (later Princess Antoine Bibesco), a writer, and Anthony Asquith, a film-maker whose productions included The Browning Version and The Winslow Boy.[7][8]

Among his living descendants are his great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966), and his great-grandson, Dominic Asquith, who served as British Ambassador to Iraq, Egypt and Libya. Another leading British actress, Anna Chancellor (b. 1965), is also a descendant, being Herbert Asquith's great-great-granddaughter on her mother's side.[7][8]

Asquith's governments[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "HH Asquith (1852–1928)". BBC. Retrieved 16 December 2009. 
  2. ^ 5 January 1988 was the day on which his record was surpassed by Margaret Thatcher. Winston Churchill served longer, however, in two non-consecutive terms in office
  3. ^ Hazlehurst (1970); Koss (1976); Taylor (1965)
  4. ^ Cassar (1994)
  5. ^ Woodward notes that Cassar agrees with most of Asquith's contemporaries that Asquith was an exhausted leader who had lost his grip during the last half of 1916. David R. Woodward, review of Cassar, Albion Vol. 27, No. 3 (Autumn, 1995), p. 529
  6. ^ Edward J. Davies, "The Ancestry of Herbert Henry Asquith", Genealogists' Magazine, 30(2010–12):471–79.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Bates, Stephens (2006). Asquith. London: Haus Publishing Limited. ISBN 1-904950-57-4. Retrieved 13 October 2010. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Spender, J. A. (1932). Life of Lord Oxford and Asquith (2 vols). Hutchinson. 
  9. ^ Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1892] 2 Q.B. 484
  10. ^ Roy Jenkins, Asquith (1966), p. 13
  11. ^ "The politics of drinking in power". BBC News. 6 January 2006. Retrieved 9 August 2008. 
  12. ^ "Tombstone in Amiens Cathedral". plaque-et-histoire.fr. 
  13. ^ a b Venning, Annabel (27 April 2012). "The priapic PM who wrote love letters to his mistress as he sent a generation off to die in the trenches". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 13 April 2013. 
  14. ^ Walker, J. (2012). The Blue Beast: Power and Passion in the Great War. The History Press.
  15. ^ Neate, Bobbie (2012). London: Metro Books. ISBN 978-1843583721.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  16. ^ De Courcy 2014, p350
  17. ^ "University intelligence" The Times (London). Saturday, 12 April 1902. (36740), p. 12.
  18. ^ https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=EeUcBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA397&dq=the+elading+New+Liberals+included+Asquith,&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAGoVChMIwLWBg-OKxgIVgxfbCh2hIwBY#v=onepage&q=the%20elading%20New%20Liberals%20included%20Asquith%2C&f=false
  19. ^ "number10.gov.uk". number10.gov.uk. Retrieved 17 March 2012. 
  20. ^ a b Magnus 1964, p532
  21. ^ Magnus 1964, p534
  22. ^ Magnus 1964, p527
  23. ^ Heffer 1998, pp276–7
  24. ^ Heffer 1998, pp281–2
  25. ^ Heffer 1998, pp283–4
  26. ^ Heffer 1998, p285
  27. ^ a b Heffer 1998, pp286–8
  28. ^ Magnus 1964, p548
  29. ^ Magnus 1964, p553
  30. ^ Heffer 1998, pp290–3
  31. ^ Heffer 1998, p293
  32. ^ Magnus 1964, p555-6
  33. ^ Heffer 1998, pp294–6
  34. ^ The First Labour Government 1924 by Richard W. Lyman
  35. ^ https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=UEABAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA42&dq=herbert+asquith+right-wing+liberal&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CDwQ6AEwBWoVChMIpbqzkoWIxgIVFC_bCh2tiwAg#v=onepage&q=herbert%20asquith%20right-wing%20liberal&f=false
  36. ^ a b Kennedy, Maev (29 September 2006). "Government feared suffragette plot to kill Asquith". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  37. ^ a b Women's Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain. Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-5019-4. 
  38. ^ Niland, Lauren. Guardian Archives. The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2013/may/03/suffragette-force-feeding-1913. Retrieved 28 February 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  39. ^ "Starving Suffragist Ill". New York Times. 25 August 1912. Retrieved 13 April 2011. 
  40. ^ Simpson 2005, p. 62.
  41. ^ "Modernist Journals Project". Brown University. Retrieved 15 April 2011. 
  42. ^ Simpson 2005, p. 98.
  43. ^ Garner, Les. Stepping stones to women's liberty: feminist ideas in the women's suffrage. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-8386-3223-9. 
  44. ^ The Longman Companion to Britain in the Era of the Two World Wars 1914-45 by Andrew Thorpe
  45. ^ Jeffery 2006, pp 180–1
  46. ^ Woodward, 1998, pp14, 16–17
  47. ^ Woodward, 1998, p20
  48. ^ Woodward, 1998, pp77–8
  49. ^ Groot 1988, pp.238–9.
  50. ^ Blake 1988, pp.289–90.
  51. ^ Woodward, 1998, pp30–1
  52. ^ De Courcy 2014, pp330-40
  53. ^ De Courcy 2014, pp330-40
  54. ^ De Courcy 2014, pp330-40
  55. ^ De Courcy 2014, pp330-40
  56. ^ John Gordon Little, "H. H. Asquith and Britain's Manpower Problem, 1914–1915," History (1997) 82# 267 pp 397–409
  57. ^ Jeffery 2006, pp 207–8
  58. ^ Woodward, 1998, pp192–4
  59. ^ Jeffery 2006, pp 217
  60. ^ Woodward, 1998, pp199–200
  61. ^ De Courcy 2014, p347
  62. ^ The future Lady Salisbury wrote that the title was "like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles" (De Courcy 2014, p350)
  63. ^ "Lord Asquith Breaks Down on Platform". The Vancouver Sun. 16 October 1926. p. 2. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  64. ^ Lundy, Darryl. "A genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain as well as the royal families of Europe". Thepeerage.com. Retrieved 17 March 2012. [unreliable source?]
  65. ^ UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2015), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  66. ^ "ASQUITH, HERBERT HENRY, 1ST EARL OF OXFORD AND ASQUITH (1852–1928)". English Heritage. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 



  • Bates, Stephen. Asquith (2006) 176pp excerpt online
  • Cassar, George H. Asquith as War Leader. 1994. 295 pp.
  • Clifford, Colin. The Asquiths (John Murray, 2002)
  • De Courcy, Ann. Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916 (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2014) ISBN 978-0297869832
  • Hazlehurst, Cameron. "Asquith as Prime Minister, 1908–1916," The English Historical Review Vol. 85, No. 336 (Jul. 1970), pp. 502–531 in JSTOR
  • Jenkins, Roy. Asquith: Portrait of a man and an era (1978), a standard biography
  • Koss, Stephen. Asquith (1976), a standard biography
  • Little, John Gordon. "H. H. Asquith and Britain's Manpower Problem, 1914–1915." History 1997 82(267): 397–409. Issn: 0018-2648; admits the problem was bad but tries to exonerate Asquith; Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Matthew, H. C. G. "Asquith, Herbert Henry, first Earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online
  • McCallum, R.B., Asquith, Great Lives, (Duckworth, 1936)
  • Spender, J.A., and Cyril Asquith, Life of Lord Oxford and Asquith (2 vols) (Hutchinson, 1932)

Scholarly studies[edit]

  • Adams, R.J.Q. '"Andrew Bonar Law and the fall of the Asquith Coalition: The December 1916 cabinet crisis," Journal of History (1997) 32#2 pp 185–200; sees Bonar Law as the key player
  • Blake, Robert. The Unknown Prime Minister (1955) (a biography of Bonar Law)
  • Blewett, Neal. The Peers, the Parties, and the People: The British General Elections of 1910 (1971)
  • Cregier, Don M. "The Murder of the British Liberal Party," The History Teacher Vol. 3, No. 4 (May 1970), pp. 27–36 online edition, blames Asquith, Lloyd George and the voters
  • De Groot, Gerard Douglas Haig 1861–1928 (Larkfield, Maidstone: Unwin Hyman, 1988)
  • Fair, John D. "Politicians, Historians, and the War: A Reassessment of the Political Crisis of December 1916," The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 49, No. 3, On Demand Supplement. (Sep. 1977), pp. D1329-D1343. in JSTOR
  • Fry, Michael. "Political Change in Britain, August 1914 to December 1916: Lloyd George Replaces Asquith: The Issues Underlying the Drama," The Historical Journal Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep. 1988), pp. 609–627 in JSTOR
  • Hankey, Lord. The Supreme Command, 1914–1918. 2 vols. 1961.
  • Havighurst, Alfred F. Twentieth-Century Britain. 1966. standard survey online edition
  • Heffer, Simon (1998), Power and Place: the Political Consequences of King Edward VII, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, ISBN 978-0297842200 
  • Jeffery, Keith (2006). Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson: A Political Soldier. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-820358-2. 
  • Magnus, Philip (1964), King Edward The Seventh, London: John Murray, ISBN 0140026584 
  • Powell, David. British Politics, 1910–1935: The Crisis of the Party System (2004)
  • Rowland, Peter. The Last Liberal Governments: The Promised Land, 1905–1910 (1969) 404pp, highly detailed narrative
  • Rowland, Peter. The Last Liberal Governments: Unfinished Business, 1911–1914 (1971) 405pp
  • Taylor, A. J. P. English History, 1914–1945. 1965, standard political history of the era
  • Simpson, William. Twentieth Century British History: A Teaching Resource Book (2005), 978-0415311151.
  • Turner, John. British Politics and the Great War: Coalition and Conflict, 1915–1918 (1992)
  • Wilson, Trevor. The Downfall of the Liberal Party 1914–1935. 1966.
  • Woodward, Sir Llewellyn. Great Britain and the War of 1914–1918. 1967.
  • Woodward,David R. "Field Marshal Sir William Robertson", Westport Connecticut & London: Praeger, 1998, ISBN 0-275-95422-6

Primary sources[edit]

  • H.H. Asquith, H.H.A.: Letters of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith to a Friend (2 vols) (Geoffrey Bles, 1933-4)
  • H.H. Asquith, ed. Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock, Letters to Venetia Stanley (Oxford University Press, 1982)
  • Margot Asquith, Autobiography (2 vols) (Thornton Butterworth, 1920-2)
  • Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook). Politicians and the war, 1914–1916 (1928) on the crisis in late 1916
  • Lord Oxford and Asquith, Fifty Years in Parliament (2 vols) (Cassell, 1926)
  • Lord Oxford and Asquith, Memories and Recollections (2 vols) (Cassell, 1928)

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Matthews
Home Secretary
Succeeded by
Sir Matthew White Ridley, Bt
Preceded by
Austen Chamberlain
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
David Lloyd George
Preceded by
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
5 April 1908 – 5 December 1916
Leader of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
Andrew Bonar Law
Preceded by
J. E. B. Seely
Secretary of State for War
Succeeded by
The Earl Kitchener
Preceded by
Sir Edward Carson
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Sir Donald Maclean
Preceded by
Sir Donald Maclean
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Ramsay MacDonald
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Boyd Kinnear
Member of Parliament for East Fife
Succeeded by
Alexander Sprot
Preceded by
John Mills McCallum
Member of Parliament for Paisley
Succeeded by
Edward Rosslyn Mitchell
Party political offices
Preceded by
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Leader of the British Liberal Party
Succeeded by
David Lloyd George
Preceded by
President of the Scottish Liberal Federation
ca. 1924–1928
Succeeded by
Marquess of Aberdeen
Preceded by
President of the Liberal Party
ca. 1924–1928
Succeeded by
Post vacant
Academic offices
Preceded by
George Wyndham
Rector of the University of Glasgow
Succeeded by
The Lord Curzon of Kedleston
Preceded by
Sir Frederick Treves, Bt
Rector of the University of Aberdeen
1908 – bef. 1914
Next known title holder:
Winston Churchill
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Earl of Oxford and Asquith
Succeeded by
Julian Asquith
Awards and achievements
Preceded by
Samuel Gompers
Cover of Time Magazine
8 October 1923
Succeeded by
Frank O. Lowden