H. H. Asquith
|The Right Honourable
The Earl of Oxford and Asquith
KG PC KC
|Prime Minister of the United Kingdom|
5 April 1908 – 5 December 1916
|Preceded by||Henry Campbell-Bannerman|
|Succeeded by||David Lloyd George|
|Leader of the Opposition|
12 February 1920 – 21 November 1922
|Prime Minister||David Lloyd George
|Preceded by||Donald Maclean|
|Succeeded by||Ramsay MacDonald|
6 December 1916 – 14 December 1918
|Prime Minister||David Lloyd George|
|Preceded by||Edward Carson|
|Succeeded by||Donald Maclean|
|Secretary of State for War|
30 March 1914 – 5 August 1914
|Preceded by||J. E. B. Seely|
|Succeeded by||The Earl Kitchener|
|Leader of the Liberal Party|
30 April 1908 – 14 October 1926
|Preceded by||Henry Campbell-Bannerman|
|Succeeded by||David Lloyd George|
|Leader of the House of Commons|
5 April 1908 – 5 December 1916
|Preceded by||Henry Campbell-Bannerman|
|Succeeded by||Bonar Law|
|Chancellor of the Exchequer|
10 December 1905 – 12 April 1908
|Prime Minister||Henry Campbell-Bannerman|
|Preceded by||Austen Chamberlain|
|Succeeded by||David Lloyd George|
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
12 February 1920 – 4 November 1924
|Preceded by||John Mills McCallum|
|Succeeded by||Edward Rosslyn Mitchell|
|Member of Parliament
for East Fife
27 July 1886 – 14 December 1918
|Preceded by||John Boyd Kinnear|
|Succeeded by||Alexander Sprot|
|Born||Herbert Henry Asquith
12 September 1852
Morley, West Riding of Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
|Died||15 February 1928
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)
|Alma mater||Balliol College, Oxford
Inns of Court School of Law
City of London School
Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, KG, PC, KC (12 September 1852 – 15 February 1928), served as the Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916. Until 5 January 1988, he was the longest continuously serving prime minister in the 20th century.
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. 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. 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.
According to Roy Jenkins, writing in 1993, Asquith presided over, during his time as prime minister, “one of the only two major reforming left-of-centre governments of the past hundred years.”
- 1 Childhood, education and legal career
- 2 Personal life
- 3 Early political career (1886–1908)
- 4 Peacetime prime minister (1908–1914)
- 4.1 Appointments and cabinet
- 4.2 Domestic policy
- 4.3 Ireland
- 4.4 Foreign and military policy
- 5 First World War
- 6 Later life (1916–1928)
- 7 Asquith's final years and death
- 8 Styles of address
- 9 Asquith's descendants
- 10 Asquith's governments
- 11 See also
- 12 Notes
- 13 References
- 14 Bibliography
- 15 External links
Childhood, education and legal career
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). 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. His opponents gave him the nickname "Squiff" or "Squiffy", a derogatory reference to his fondness for drink.
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. Raymond was killed during the First World War.
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).
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.[lower-alpha 1]
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". Within days of his rejection by Venetia, Asquith started an intense relationship with her older sister Sylvia, which lasted for several years.
As he grew older, and after his second marriage, Asquith displayed a noticeably increased appetite for alcohol and socialising. By 1915 Lady Ottoline Morrell, at whose home Garsington Manor the Asquiths had become regular visitors, described him as “a genial self-indulgent old man” who had lost the habit of austerity which had made him so effective earlier in his career.
Lady Diana Cooper wrote of how he loved to "hold one's hand" at dinner parties at Number 10, and at how at his 67th birthday party at Venice in 1919, dressed as a Venetian Doge, he "delighted in the young and young people's conversation". Other young women were less appreciative of his attentions. Clementine Churchill complained of his habit of peering down the top of dresses, while 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'.
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 mentions his “Roman profile”, and also that young women were reluctant to go on car journeys alone with him.
Early political career (1886–1908)
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. In 1905 Asquith had to give up a £10,000 brief (almost £1,000,000 at 2015 prices) to act for the Khedive of Egypt in order to return to Government.
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, 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. Asquith was, however, supportive his successor's initiatives, such as National Insurance and the People’s Budget. 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, 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.
Peacetime prime minister (1908–1914)
Appointments and cabinet
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). He initiated a cabinet reshuffle. Lloyd George was promoted to be Asquith's replacement as chancellor. Winston Churchill was made President of the Board of Trade despite his youth (34) and the fact that he had crossed the floor to become a Liberal only four years previously.
Asquith demoted or dismissed a number of Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet ministers. Lord Tweedmouth, the First Lord, 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."[lower-alpha 2]
Historian Cameron Hazlehurst wrote that "the new men, with the old, made a powerful team. To most students of Asquith's premiership, the ability of the prime minister to keep so gifted and divergently-inclined a group in harness is seen as one of his major achievements." 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.
Reforming the House of Lords
People's Budget and January 1910 election
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. Although the Liberals had a massive majority in the House of Commons, the Tories had overwhelming support in the unelected upper chamber.[lower-alpha 3] 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. 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. 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.
None of these bills were important enough to dissolve parliament and seek a voter mandate at a general election. 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.
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 the following year greatly expanded social welfare programmes. To pay for them, it significantly increased both direct and indirect taxes. 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 1⁄2d in the pound[lower-alpha 4] on undeveloped land. A graduated income tax was imposed, and there were increases in imposts on tobacco and spirits. 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, there was opposition from some other Liberals; Rosebery described the budget as "inquisitorial, tyrannical, and Socialistic".
The budget divided the country and provoked bitter debate through the summer of 1909.[lower-alpha 5] Though the Liberals had an ample and supportive majority in the Commons, from July it became increasingly clear that the Tory peers would reject the budget, partly in the hope of forcing an election. If they rejected it, Asquith determined, he would have to ask King Edward to dissolve parliament, four years into a seven-year term, as it would mean the legislature had refused supply. 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. 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.
The January 1910 general election was dominated by talk of removing the Lords' veto. In his speech at the Albert Hall opening the campaign, Asquith warned that "unless we can secure the safeguards which experience shows to be necessary for the legislative utility and honour of the party of progress". 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' 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.[lower-alpha 6]
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 Nationalists 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.[lower-alpha 7]
December 1910 election and Parliament Act
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, as the King's Speech opening parliament was vague on what was to be done to neutralise the Lords' veto, and Asquith dispirited his supporters by stating in Parliament that he had neither asked for nor received a commitment from King Edward to create peers. The Cabinet considered resigning and leaving it up to Balfour to try to form a Conservative Government.
The budget passed the Commons again, and – now that it had an electoral mandate – was approved by the Lords in April without a division. 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, the government would resign and allow Balfour to form a government, leaving the matter to be debated at the ensuing general election. 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 their veto of other bills to a two-year power of delay, and also to reduce the term of Parliament from seven years to five. 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).[lower-alpha 8]
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' ability to veto Irish Home Rule. When the Parliament Bill was submitted to the Lords, they suggested alternative proposals that were not acceptable to the government.
On 11 November, Asquith asked King George to dissolve parliament for a 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 reluctant, and Asquith and his cabinet informed him they would resign if he did not make the commitment. Balfour had told King Edward that the Conservative leader would form a government if the Liberals resigned but George 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".
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. 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."
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 in April again passed the House of Commons, 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 the Lords voted narrowly not to insist on their amendments, with many Tory peers abstaining and a few voting in favour of the government, and the bill was passed into law.
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." Churchill wrote to Asquith after the second 1910 election, "your leadership was the main and conspicuous feature of the whole fight". 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."
Social, religious and labour matters
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.
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. Jenkins notes that the scheme (which provided five shillings a week to single pensioners, 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."
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, 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.
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 by the Suspensory Act 1914 until war's end.
Votes for women
Asquith had opposed votes for women as early as 1882, and he remained well known as an adversary throughout his peacetime period as prime minister. 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."
Asquith's opposition to votes for women placed him in a minority in both his cabinet and the Liberal parliamentary party. He 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. He was 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 latter 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.
As support within the cabinet grew—Churchill and Lloyd George were leading exponents—Asquith was pressed to allow consideration of a private member's bill to give women the vote. The majority of Liberal MPs were in favour of women's suffrage, but Asquith remained an opponent. Although opposed to women's suffrage he believed it was up to the House of Commons to decide. 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. 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.
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. Papers released in 2006 indicated the government's fears of an assassination attempt on Asquith.
Asquith belatedly came around to support women's suffrage in 1917, in part aided by the abandonment of direct action by the WSPU. 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.
The support of the Irish Nationalists was essential to Asquith's government after the January 1910 election deprived him of the Liberal majority in the Commons. Keeping Ireland in the Union was then the declared intent of all the 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. The Conservatives' desire to retain a veto for the Lords on Home Rule bills had been a major difference between the parties in the constitutional talks prior to the second 1910 election.
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. Nevertheless, the bill as introduced April 1912 contained no such provision.
Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists in parliament, had threatened a revolt if Home Rule was enacted. Without the traditional protection of the Lords' veto against any plan for a separated Ireland, the new Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, campaigned in parliament and in northern Ireland, warning Ulstermen against "Rome Rule".
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 identified with 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.
Foreign and military policy
Soon after Asquith kissed hands, he made Reginald McKenna First Lord of the Admiralty, an appointment approved by King Edward with the stipulation that Admiral Jacky Fisher remain as First Sea Lord. The King thought McKenna to favour economy in naval construction; this proved not to be the case. Many Liberals did want to cut both army and naval estimates, even at the cost of forsaking the Two-Power Standard, by which Britain maintained a fleet larger than that of any two other nations. The public, incensed by reports of German naval expansion, generally wanted Britain to increase her fleet of dreadnoughts. Those who sought cuts were not successful in gaining their cuts in the 1908 budget, but the conflict was a threat to Asquith's government.
First World War
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.”
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).
At the Calais Conference in July 1915 Asquith caused some dismay by protesting at a meeting being scheduled for 8am, as he usually got up at 8.30am. 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.
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. 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. 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". 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, 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.
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.
In domestic policy, Asquith's wartime coalition presided over the passage of numerous reforms in social welfare. From October 1914 onwards, allowances were paid by the government to the families of members of the armed forces (previously, such allowances had been provided by charitable funds). From November 1915 onwards, pensions were paid to the orphans and widows of the war deceased.
Fall from power
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.
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.
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-in-law 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.
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.
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”.
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.
Later life (1916–1928)
Wartime Opposition Leader
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) in 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), amid 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.
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.
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.
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.
Postwar Liberal leader
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 February 1920 by-election in Paisley and once again became Leader of the Opposition.
Concerned at Labour by-election victories, during meetings in mid-1921 with Grey, other Liberals and the dissident Conservative Lord Robert Cecil, Asquith sought to lay the foundations of a centre-left opposition that would also include moderate Labourites and left-wing Conservatives. As noted by Kevin Theakston, however, Asquith’s attempts to create a new centre-left group “did not get far.”
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. 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.
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.
Asquith's final years and death
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, 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.
Asquith's estate was valued at £9,345 on 9 June 1928 (about £500,000 today using CPI, or £2.2 million when compared to average earnings), 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. A London County Council blue plaque unveiled in 1951 commemorates Asquith at Cavendish Square.
Styles of address
- 1852-1886: Mr Herbert Henry Asquith
- 1886-1890: Mr Herbert Henry Asquith MP
- 1890-1892: Mr Herbert Henry Asquith KC MP
- 1892-1918: The Rt Hon Herbert Henry Asquith KC MP
- 1918-1922: The Rt Hon Herbert Henry Asquith KC
- 1922-1924: The Rt Hon Herbert Henry Asquith KC MP
- 1924-1925: The Rt Hon Herbert Henry Asquith KC
- 1925: The Rt Hon The First Earl of Oxford and Asquith PC KC
- 1925-1928: The Rt Hon The First Earl of Oxford and Asquith KG PC KC
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).
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.
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.
- 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.
- Notice before one's employment is terminated
- 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.
- 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 1⁄480 of the land's value, annually.
- 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 1913, 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. 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. 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". 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).
- Some in the Cabinet suggested that the right of creating peers be given to the prime minister. Balfour at this time was refusing 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.
- 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 – Irish nationalists 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.
- 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 – 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".
- "HH Asquith (1852–1928)". BBC. Retrieved 16 December 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
- 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
- Hazlehurst (1970)[page needed]; Koss (1976)[page needed]; Taylor (1965)[page needed]
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- Koss, pp. 107–108
- The Longman Companion to Britain in the Era of the Two World Wars 1914-45 by Andrew Thorpe
- De Courcy 2014, p289 in fairness he often used to work until 3am, and Parliament often used to sit for much of the night at that time
- Jeffery 2006, pp 180–1
- Woodward, 1998, pp14, 16–17
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- Woodward, 1998, pp77–8
- Groot 1988, pp.238–9.
- Blake 1988, pp.289–90.
- Foundations of the Welfare State: 2nd Edition by Pat Thane, published 1996
- Woodward, 1998, pp30–1
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- John Gordon Little, "H. H. Asquith and Britain's Manpower Problem, 1914–1915," History (1997) 82# 267 pp 397–409
- Jeffery 2006, pp 207–8
- Woodward, 1998, pp192–4
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- De Courcy 2014, p347
- The future Lady Salisbury wrote that the title was "like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles" (De Courcy 2014, p350)
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- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by the Earl of Oxford
- Bodleian Library catalogue record (finding aid) of H.H. Asquith's private papers
- Bodleian Library catalogue record (finding aid) of Margot Asquith's private papers
- Bodleian Library catalogue record (finding aid) of Lady Violet Bonham Carter's private papers
-  Catalogue record of items related to Asquith and Women's Suffrage held at The Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics
- Extended entry in the 1937 Dictionary of National Biography (Lundy, Darryl. "Asquith, Herbert Henry, first Earl of Oxford and Asquith 1852–1928". The Peerage. External link in
- Asquith biography from BBC History
- Asquith entry in Encyclopædia Britannica
- Blue plaque to Asquith on his house in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Scheme
- Portraits of Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- Archival material relating to H. H. Asquith listed at the UK National Archives
- Works by H. H. Asquith at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)