Life and career
Asquith was born in Morley, 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.[n 1] The Asquiths were an old Yorkshire family, with a long nonconformist tradition.[n 2]
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. He was described as "a man of high character who held Bible classes for young men".Cite error: The
<ref> tag has too many names (see the help page). Emily suffered persistent poor health, but was of strong character, and a formative influence on her sons.
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. 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 was taken 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.. The departure of his uncle effectively severed Asquith's ties with his native county, and he described himself thereafter as "to all intents and purposes a Londoner". 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."
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 grew into an outstanding pupil. He later said that he was under deeper obligations to his old headmaster than to any man living; 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." 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. Abbott remarked on the cogency and clarity of his pupil's speeches, qualities for which Asquith became celebrated throughout the rest of his life.
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". 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.
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 of his first term he spoke at the Oxford Union. His official biographers, J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, comment, "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". At the same time as he was progressing to a first class degree in Greats and the Craven Scholarship, Asquith rose through the ranks of the Oxford Union to its presidency. After graduating he was elected to a prize fellowship of Balliol.
Early professional career
After his graduation in 1874, Asquith spent several months coaching Viscount Lymington, the 18-year-old son of the Earl of Portsmouth. He found the experience of aristocratic country-house life novel and agreeable. He was not attracted to the austere side of the nonconformist Liberal tradition, with its substantial temperance movement. He was proud of ridding himself of "the Puritanism in which I was bred". His fondness for fine wines and spirits, which began at this period, eventually earned him the sobriquet "Squiffy".
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 young men from unmoneyed backgrounds was through the legal profession. While still at Oxford Asquith had already entered Lincoln's Inn as a pupil barrister, and in 1875 he served a pupillage under Charles Bowen.Cite error: The
<ref> tag has too many names (see the help page). He was called to the bar in June 1876.
There followed what Jenkins calls "seven extremely lean years". Asquith set up a legal practice with two other junior barristers. With no personal contacts with solicitors, he received few briefs.[n 3] 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". 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. 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).
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.[n 4] 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.
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", whose function included giving legal advice to ministers and government departments. 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 him.
Member of Parliament and Queen's Counsel
In June 1886, with the Liberal party split on the question of Irish home rule, Gladstone called a general election. There was a last-minute vacancy for a Liberal candidate for the East Fife constituency. The sitting Liberal member, John Boyd Kinnear, a strong supporter of the union of Britain and Ireland, had voted against his party in the House of Commons; for this he was repudiated by his local Liberal Association. 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; the local Liberals voted to act on Haldane's proposal, and with only ten days to go before polling Asquith was formally nominated. The Conservatives did not contest the seat, putting their support behind Kinnear, who stood against Asquith as a Liberal Unionist. Asquith won with 2,863 votes to Kinnear's 2,489.
The Liberals lost the 1886 election, and Asquith joined the House of Commons as an oppposition 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. From the start of his parliamentary career he impressed other MPs with his air of authority as well as his lucidity of expression. For the rest of this Parliament, which lasted until 1892, Asquith spoke occasionally but effectively, mostly on Irish matters. His legal practice was now flourishing, and took up much of his time. He concentrated on civil cases, especially those in courts of appeal. These cases, in which his clients were generally large businesses, were unspectacular but financially rewarding.
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. Graham was later convicted of the lesser charge of unlawful assembly. 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".
Asquith's law career received a great and unforeseen boost in 1889 when he was 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 Charles Stuart Parnell had expressed approval of the 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. 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." 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." The accusations against Parnell were seen to be false, The Times was obliged to make a full apology, and Asquith's reputation was assured. Within a year he had successfully applied for advancement to the senior rank of the bar, Queen's Counsel.
Among the cases in which Asquith appeared in the early 1890s were the Tranby Croft libel trial (1891) and Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co (1892). The first of these two cases was a popular sensation, but Asquith's role in it was low-key, although effective in helping to show that the plaintiff had not been libelled. In the second he was on the losing side in a case, a landmark in English contract law, that established that a company was obliged to meet its advertised pledges.
Widower and cabinet minister
In September 1891 Asquith's tranquil domestic life was destroyed by the death of his wife, who contracted typhoid fever while the family were on holiday in Scotland; she died after a few days' illness. Asquith bought a house in Surrey for his family, and hired nannies and other domestic staff. He sold the Hampstead house and took a flat in Mount Street, Mayfair, where he lived during the working week.
The general election of July 1892 returned Gladstone and the Liberals to office. Asquith, who was then thirty-nine, accepted the post of Home Secretary. The Conservatives and Liberal Unionists jointly outnumbered the Liberals in the Commons, which, together with a permanent Conservative 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 in Wales, and another to protect workers injured at work, but he built up a reputation as a capable and fair minister. When Gladstone retired in March 1894, Queen Victoria appointed 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, who was too anti-imperialist – one of the so-called "Little Englanders" – and too abrasive to appeal to Asquith. Rosebery left Asquith in place at the Home Office, where he remained until the government fell in 1895.
Asquith had known Margot Tennant slightly since before his wife's death, and grew increasingly attached to her in his early 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. 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.
Out of office, 1895–1905
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 returned to his law practice.[n 5] Dividing his time between the bar and politics he earned a substantial, though not stellar, income. Ministerial salaries were not large, and Jenkins comments that in this period Asquith was never worse off and often much higher-paid than when in office.
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. 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 only source of income. He and others prevailed on the former Secretary of State for War, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman to accept the post.
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. He worked hard to move the focus of public attention away from the war to the question of protectionism versus free trade. 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." 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.
Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1905–08
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.[n 6] 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 their leader into taking a peerage and leading the administration from the House of Lords. This attempt to give the pro-empire wing of the party greater dominance in the House of Commons was thwarted when Campbell-Bannerman called their bluff and refused to move. Asquith was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. He held the post for just over two years, and introduced three budgets.
A month after taking office, Campbell-Bannerman called a general election, in which the Liberals gained a Commons majority of 129. Despite this large majority the first Asquith budget, in 1906, was constrained by the annual income and expenditure plans the new Chancellor had inherited from his Conservative predecessor, Austen Chamberlain. The only income for which Chamberlain had over-budgeted was the duty from sales of alcohol. (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.) 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 to bear more heavily on those with high incomes, he set up a committee under Sir Charles Dilke which recommended not only variable rates of income tax 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.
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. Asquith was universally accepted as the natural successor. 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.
Notes, references and sources
- Some sources mention only two daughters. The brother and sister who survived into adulthood were William Willans and Emily Evelyn.
- The surname, a variant of Askwith, a village in North Yorkshire, derives from Old Norse ask-viðr – "ash-wood". 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.
- 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.
- 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." 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 concludes that Asquith's surmise about the electoral impact was correct.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jenkins (1986), p. 13; and Davies, Edward J. "The Ancestry of Herbert Henry Asquith", Genealogists' Magazine, 30 (2010–12), pp. 471–479
- Bates, p. 9
- Asquith, M, p. 263
- Ekwall, p. 16
- Alderson, p. 1
- Quoted in Jenkins (1986), p. 13
- Jenkins (1986), p. 14
- Levine, p. 75
- Bates, p. 10
- 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)
- Dinner to Mr. Asquith", The Times, 25 November 1892, p. 6
- Alderson, p. 10
- Bates, pp. 10–11
- Alderson, p. 3; and Jenkins (1986), p. 17
- "Political Notes", The Times, 23 July 1908, p. 12
- Spender, J. A. and Cyril Asquith. "Lord Oxford", The Times, 12 September 1932, p. 11
- Jenkins (1986), pp. 23–24
- Levine, p. 76
- Bates, p. 12; and Jenkins (1986), p. 25
- Rintala, p. 111
- Rintala, p. 118
- Jenkins (1986), p. 25
- Jenkins (1986), p. 27
- Alderson, p. 36
- Terrill, p. 58
- Spender, J. A. and Cyril Asquith. "Lord Oxford", The Times, 13 September 1932, p. 13
- Spender and Asquith, Vol. 1, p. 360
- Whitfield, p. 228
- Jenkins (1986), pp. 31–32
- "Death Of Mr. Justice Wright", The Times, 15 May 1904, p. 2
- Jenkins (1986), pp. 36–37
- Douglas, pp. 71–71
- Jenkins (1986), pp. 38–40
- "The General Election", The Times, 9 July 1886, p. 10; and "The Election", The Manchester Guardian, 9 July 1886, p. 8
- Spender and Asquith, Vol. 1, p. 52; and Alderson, pp. 37–38
- Jenkins (1986), p. 42
- Alderson, p. 44; and Jenkins (1986), p. 44
- Jenkins (1986), p. 47
- "The Riots in London", The Manchester Guardian, 15 November 1887, p. 8
- "Central Criminal Court", The Times, 19 January 1888, p. 10
- "Police", The Times, 11 August 1888, p. 13; and "Central Criminal Court", The Times, 1 November 1888, p. 13
- Alderson, p. 33
- Jenkins (1986), p. 49
- "Parnell Commission", The Manchester Guardian, 20 February 1889, p. 5
- Popplewell, pp. 24–25; and Alderson, pp. 33–34
- Popplewell, p. 25
- Popplewell, pp. 28–30
- "The Baccarat Case", The Times, 2 June 1891, p. 11; and "Queen's Bench Division", The Times, 20 June 1892, p. 3
- Jenkins (1986), p. 52
- Jenkins (1986), p. 56
- Jenkins (1986), p. 72
- 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)
- Jenkins (1986), pp. 90–91
- Jenkins (1986), p. 92
- Hattersley, p. 60; and Jenkins (1986), pp. 200 and 105
- Hattersley, p. 65
- Jenkins (1986), p. 140
- 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)
- Jenkins (1986), p. 155
- Spender and Asquith, Vol. 1, pp. 172–173; and Jenkins (1998), p. 158
- Jenkins (1998), p. 160
- Jenkins (1998), pp. 162–164
- Hattersley, pp. 132–136
- Douglas, p. 123
- Jenkins (1986), pp. 179–180
- Alderson, J. P. (1905). Mr. Asquith. London: Methuen. OCLC 1107438.
- Asquith, Margot (1920). The Autobiography of Margot Asquith. London: Thornton Butterworth. OCLC 10445873.
- Bates, Stephen (2006). Asquith. London: Haus. ISBN 978-1-904950-57-8.
- Douglas, Roy. The Liberals: The History of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat Parties. London and New York: Hambledon and London. ISBN 978-1-85285-353-2.
- Ekwall, Eilert (1960). Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-869103-7.
- Hattersley, Roy (2006). Campbell-Bannerman. London: Haus. ISBN 978-1-904950-56-1.
- Jenkins, Roy (1986) . Asquith (third ed.). London: Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-217358-2.
- Jenkins, Roy (1998). The Chancellors. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-73057-7.
- Levine, Naomi (1991). Politics, Religion and Love: the story of H. H. Asquith, Venetia Stanley and Edwin Montagu. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-5057-5.
- Popplewell, Oliver (2014). The Prime Minister and His Mistress. Raleigh, US: Lulu Press. ISBN 978-1-4834-1429-4.
- Rintala, Marvin (Spring 1993). "Taking the Pledge: H. H. Asquith and Drink". Biography: 103–135. (subscription required)
- Spender, J. A.; Cyril Asquith (1932). Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, Lord Oxford and Asquith, Volume 1. London: Hutchinson. OCLC 314116510.
- Terrill, Richard (2013). World Criminal Justice Systems: A Comparative Survey. Waltham, US: Anderson. ISBN 978-1-4557-2589-2.
- Whitfield, Bob (2001). The Extension of the Franchise, 1832–1931. Oxford: Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-435-32717-0.