Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, KG, PC, KC, FRS
(12 September 1852 – 15 February 1928), generally known as H.
H. Asquith, was a British statesman of the Liberal Party who served as
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916. He was the
last Prime Minister to lead a majority Liberal government and played a
central role in the design and passage of major liberal legislation.
In August 1914, Asquith took the
United Kingdom into the First World
War, but resigned amid political conflict in December 1916 and was
succeeded by his War Secretary, David Lloyd George.
Asquith's father owned a small business but died when Asquith was
seven. Asquith was educated at
City of London School
City of London School and Balliol
College, Oxford. He trained as a barrister and after a slow start to
his career achieved great success. In 1886, he was adopted as Liberal
candidate for East Fife, a seat he held for over thirty years. In
1892, he was appointed as
Home Secretary in Gladstone's fourth
ministry, remaining in the post until the Liberals lost the 1895
election. In the decade of opposition that followed, Asquith became a
major figure in the party, and when the Liberals regained power under
Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1905, Asquith was named Chancellor of
the Exchequer. In 1908, Asquith succeeded him as Prime Minister, with
David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George as Chancellor.
With their first majority government since the 1880s, the Liberals
were determined to advance their agenda. An impediment to this was the
unelected House of Lords, dominated by the Conservatives. When Lloyd
George proposed, and the House of Commons passed, the People's Budget
of 1909, the Lords rejected it. Meanwhile the South Africa Act 1909
passed. Asquith called an election for January 1910, and the Liberals
won, though were reduced to a minority government.
Although the Lords then passed the budget, Asquith was determined to
reform the upper house, and following the general election in December
1910 gained passage of the Parliament Act 1911, allowing a bill three
times passed by the Commons in consecutive sessions to be enacted
regardless of the Lords. Asquith was less successful in dealing with
Irish Home Rule. Repeated crises led to gun running and violence,
verging on civil war.
Asquith's action in taking the country to war was one of the most
important individual ministerial decisions of modern times; he did it
with Britain united and with the postponement of the issues of Ireland
and women's suffrage. He assisted Britain's ultimate success in the
war through his early decisions on national mobilisation; the despatch
of the British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front, the creation
of a mass army, and the development of an industrial strategy designed
to support the country's war aims.
But Asquith's technique of acting as mediator among talented cabinet
members such as Lloyd George and
Winston Churchill was less effective
in war than in peace, and setbacks in the war effort forced him to
form a coalition government with the Conservatives and Labour early in
1915. Bitter rivalries inside and between the three major parties
worsened when Asquith was unable to forge the coalition into a
harmonious team. It was weakened by his own indecision over strategy,
conscription, and financing. Lloyd George organised his overthrow
and replaced him as Prime Minister in December 1916.
Asquith remained as leader of the Liberal Party, but was unable to
quell the internal conflict. The party rapidly declined in popularity
and was ruined by the 1918 general election. Asquith accepted a
peerage in 1925 and died, aged 75, in 1928. His role in creating the
modern British welfare state (1906–1911) has been celebrated, but
his weaknesses as a war leader and as a party leader after 1914 have
been highlighted by historians.
1 Early life and career: 1852–1908
1.1 Family background
1.2 Childhood and schooling
1.4 Early professional career
1.5 Member of Parliament and Queen's Counsel
1.6 Widower and cabinet minister
1.7 Out of office, 1895–1905
1.8 Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1905–1908
2 Peacetime prime minister: 1908–1914
2.1 Appointments and cabinet
2.2 Prime minister at play
2.3 Domestic policy
2.3.1 Reforming the House of Lords
2.3.2 1909: People's Budget
2.3.3 1910: election and constitutional deadlock
126.96.36.199 1910–1911: second election and Parliament Act
2.3.4 Social, religious and labour matters
2.3.5 Votes for women
2.4 Irish Home Rule
2.5 Foreign and defence policy
2.6 Impending catastrophe
3 First year of the war: August 1914 – May 1915
3.1 Asquith's wartime government
3.2 Dardanelles Campaign
3.3 Shell Crisis of May 1915
3.4 Other events
4 First Coalition: May 1915 – December 1916
4.1 War re-organisation
4.4 Progress of the war
5 Fall: November–December 1916
Nigeria debate and Lord Lansdowne's memorandum
5.2 Triumvirate gathers
5.3 Power without responsibility
5.4 To-ing and fro-ing
5.5 Last four days: Sunday 3 December to Wednesday 6 December
5.5.1 Sunday 3 December
5.5.2 Monday 4 December
5.5.3 Tuesday 5 December
5.5.4 Wednesday 6 December
6 Wartime Opposition Leader: 1916–1918
6.1 Maurice Debate
6.2 End of the war
7 Decline and eclipse: 1918–1926
7.1 Coupon Election
7.2 1919: out of Parliament
7.4 Leader of the Opposition: 1920–1921
7.5 Leader of the Opposition: 1922
7.6 Liberal reunion
7.7 Putting Labour in power
7.8 Labour government and the Campbell Case
7.9 1924 election
8 Final years: 1926–1928
14 Further reading
15 External links
Early life and career: 1852–1908
Asquith (left) with his sister Emily and elder brother William,
Asquith was born in Morley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the
younger son of Joseph Dixon Asquith (1825–1860) and his wife Emily,
née Willans (1828–1888). The couple also had three daughters, of
whom only one survived infancy.[a] The Asquiths were an old
Yorkshire family, with a long nonconformist tradition.[b] It was a
matter of family pride, shared by Asquith, that an ancestor, Joseph
Asquith, was imprisoned for his part in the pro-
Roundhead Farnley Wood
Plot of 1664.
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". Emily suffered persistent poor
health, but was of strong character, and a formative influence on her
Childhood and schooling
In his younger days he was called Herbert ("Bertie" as a child) 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
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. 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 came under the care of Emily's brother,
John. The boys went to live with him in London; when he moved back to
Yorkshire in 1864 for business reasons, they remained in London and
were lodged with various families. The biographer Naomi Levine writes
that in effect Asquith was "treated like an orphan" for the rest of
his childhood. The departure of his uncle effectively severed
Asquith's ties with his native Yorkshire, and he described himself
thereafter as "to all intents and purposes a Londoner". 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
The boys were sent to the
City of London School
City of London School as dayboys. Under the
school's headmaster, the Rev E. A. Abbott, a distinguished classical
scholar, Asquith became an outstanding pupil. He later said that he
was under deeper obligations to his old headmaster than to any man
living; 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. Asquith later recalled seeing, as a schoolboy, the
corpses of five murderers left hanging outside Newgate.
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
Early press mention of Asquith, 1869
Asquith's university career was distinguished—"striking without
being sensational" in the words of his biographer, Roy Jenkins. An
easy grasp of his studies left him ample time to indulge his liking
for debate. In the first month at university he spoke at the Oxford
Union. His official biographers,
J. A. Spender
J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith,
commented that in his first months at Oxford "he voiced the orthodox
Liberal view, speaking in support, inter alia, of the disestablishment
of the Church of England, and of non-intervention in the
Franco-Prussian War". He sometimes debated against his Balliol
contemporary Alfred Milner, who although then a Liberal was already an
advocate of British imperialism. He was elected Treasurer of the
Union in 1872 but was defeated at his first attempt at the
Presidency. During the General Election in January and February
1874 he spoke against Lord Randolph Churchill, who was not yet a
prominent politician, at nearby Woodstock. He eventually became
President of the Union in Trinity (summer) Term 1874, his last term as
Asquith was proxime accessit (runner-up) for the Hertford Prize in
1872, again proxime accessit for the Ireland Prize in 1873, and again
for the Ireland in 1874, on that occasion coming so close that the
examiners awarded him a special prize of books. However, he won the
Craven Scholarship and graduated with what his biographers describe as
an "easy" double first class degree in Mods and Greats. After
graduating he was elected to a prize fellowship of Balliol.
Early professional career
Perhaps because of his stark beginnings, Asquith was always attracted
to the comforts and accoutrements that money can buy. He was
personally extravagant, always enjoying the good life—good food,
good companions, good conversation and attractive women.
Naomi Levine, in a 1991 biography
After his graduation in 1874, Asquith spent several months coaching
Viscount Lymington, the 18-year-old son and heir of the Earl of
Portsmouth. He found the experience of aristocratic country-house life
agreeable. He liked less the austere side of the nonconformist
Liberal tradition, with its strong temperance movement. He was proud
of ridding himself of "the Puritanism in which I was bred". 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 but
unmoneyed young men was through the law.  While still at Oxford
Asquith had already entered
Lincoln's Inn to train as a barrister, and
in 1875 he served a pupillage under Charles Bowen. 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.[c] Those
that came his way he argued capably, but he was too fastidious to
learn the wilier tricks of the legal trade: "he was constitutionally
incapable of making a discreet fog … nor could he prevail on
himself to dispense the conventional patter". He did not allow his
lack of money to stop him marrying. His bride, Helen Kelsall Melland
(c.1855–1891), 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 consented
after making inquiries about the young man's potential. 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 Asquith (6 November 1878-15 September 1916) he married
Katharine Horner (daughter of Sir John Horner) on 25 July 1907. They
have three children.
Herbert Asquith (11 March 1881-5 August 1947) he married Lady Cynthia
Charteris (daughter of Hugo Richard Charteris, 11th Earl of Wemyss,
7th Earl of March) on 28 July 1910. They have three children.
Arthur Asquith ( 24 April 1883-25 August 1939) he married The
Honorable Betty Constance Manners (daughter of John Manners-Sutton,
3rd Baron Manners) on 30 April 1918. They have four daughters.
Violet Asquith (15 April 1887-19 February 1969) she married Sir
Maurice Bonham Carter on 30 November 1915. They have four children.
Cyril Asquith, Baron Asquith of Bishopstone
Cyril Asquith, Baron Asquith of Bishopstone (5 February 1890-24 August
1954). he married Anne Pollock (daughter of Sir Adrian Donald
Wilde Pollock) on 12 February 1918. They have four children.
Asquith in 1876
Between 1876 and 1884 Asquith supplemented his income by writing
regularly for The Spectator, which at that time had a broadly Liberal
outlook. Matthew comments that the articles Asquith wrote for the
magazine give a good overview of his political views as a young man.
He was staunchly radical, but as unconvinced by extreme left-wing
views as by Toryism. Among the topics that caused debate among
Liberals were British imperialism, the union of Great Britain and
Ireland, and female suffrage. Asquith was a strong, though not
jingoistic, proponent of the Empire, and, after initial caution, came
to support home rule for Ireland. He opposed votes for women for most
of his political career.[d] There was also an element of party
interest: Asquith believed that votes for women would
disproportionately benefit the Conservatives. In a 2001 study of the
extension of the franchise between 1832 and 1931, Bob Whitfield
concluded that Asquith's surmise about the electoral impact was
correct. 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
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 at East Fife, where the sitting Liberal member,
John Boyd Kinnear, had been deselected by his local Liberal
Association for voting against Irish Home Rule. Richard Haldane, a
close friend of Asquith's and also a struggling young barrister, had
been Liberal MP for the nearby Haddingtonshire constituency since
December 1885. He put Asquith's name forward as a replacement for
Kinnear, and only ten days before polling Asquith was formally
nominated in a vote of the local Liberals. The Conservatives did
not contest the seat, putting their support behind Kinnear, who stood
against Asquith as a Liberal Unionist. Asquith was elected with 2,863
votes to Kinnear's 2,489.
The Liberals lost the 1886 election, and Asquith joined the House of
Commons as an opposition backbencher. He waited until March 1887 to
make his maiden speech, which opposed the Conservative
administration's proposal to give special priority to an Irish Crimes
Bill. From the start of his parliamentary career Asquith
impressed other MPs with his air of authority as well as his lucidity
of expression. For the remainder of this Parliament, which lasted
until 1892, Asquith spoke occasionally but effectively, mostly on
Asquith's legal practice was flourishing, and took up much of his
time. In the late 1880s Anthony Hope, who later gave up the bar to
become a novelist, was his pupil. Asquith disliked arguing in front of
a jury because of the repetitiveness and "platitudes" required, but
excelled at arguing fine points of civil law before a judge or in
front of courts of appeal. These cases, in which his clients were
generally large businesses, were unspectacular but financially
Asquith, caricatured by Spy, in Vanity Fair, 1891
From time to time Asquith appeared in high-profile criminal cases. In
1887 and 1888 he defended the radical Liberal MP, Cunninghame Graham,
who was charged with assaulting police officers when they attempted to
break up a demonstration in Trafalgar Square. 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 named junior counsel to Sir Charles Russell at the Parnell
Commission of Enquiry. The commission had been set up in the aftermath
of damaging statements in The Times, based on forged letters, that
Charles Stuart Parnell
Charles Stuart Parnell had expressed approval of Dublin's
Phoenix Park killings. When the manager of The Times, J. C. 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
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 shown to be
The Times was obliged to make a full apology, and Asquith's
reputation was assured. Within a year he had gained
advancement to the senior rank of the bar, Queen's Counsel.
Asquith appeared in two important cases in the early 1890s. He played
an effective low-key role in the sensational Tranby Croft libel trial
(1891), helping to show that the plaintiff had not been libelled. He
was on the losing side in
Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co
Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co (1892), a
landmark English contract law case that established that a company was
obliged to meet its advertised pledges.
Widower and cabinet minister
In September 1891 Helen Asquith died of typhoid fever following a few
days' illness while the family were on holiday in Scotland.
Asquith bought a house in Surrey, and hired nannies and other domestic
staff. He sold the
Hampstead property and took a flat in Mount Street,
Mayfair, where he lived during the working week.
Margot Asquith at about the time of her marriage
The general election of July 1892 returned Gladstone and the Liberals
to office, with intermittent support from the Irish Nationalist MPs.
Asquith, who was then only 39 and had never served as a junior
minister, accepted the post of Home Secretary, a senior Cabinet
position. The Conservatives and
Liberal Unionists jointly outnumbered
the Liberals in the Commons, which, together with a permanent Unionist
majority in the House of Lords, restricted the government's capacity
to put reforming measures in place. Asquith failed to secure a
majority for a bill to disestablish the Church of Wales, and another
to protect workers injured at work, but he built up a reputation as a
capable and fair minister.
In 1893, Asquith responded to a request from Magistrates in the
Wakefield area for reinforcements to police a mining strike. Asquith
sent 400 Metropolitan policeman. After two civilians were killed in
Featherstone when soldiers opened fire on a crowd, Asquith was subject
to protests at public meetings for a period. He responded to a taunt,
"Why did you murder the miners at
Featherstone in '92?" by saying, "It
was not '92, it was '93."
When Gladstone retired in March 1894,
Queen Victoria chose the Foreign
Secretary, Lord Rosebery, as the new prime minister. Asquith thought
Rosebery preferable to the other possible candidate, the Chancellor of
the Exchequer, Sir William Harcourt, whom he deemed too
anti-imperialist—one of the so-called "Little Englanders"—and too
abrasive. Asquith remained at the Home Office 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 years as a
widower. On 10 May 1894 they were married at St George's, Hanover
Square. Asquith became a son in law of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st
Baronet. 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 survived infancy.:
Anthony Asquith (9 November 1902-21 February 1968)
Elizabeth Asquith (26 February 1897–7 April 1945) she married Prince
Antoine Bibesco on 30 April 1919. They have one daughter/
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 divided his time between politics and a
return to his law practice.[e] Jenkins comments that in this period
Asquith earned a substantial, though not stellar, income and was never
worse off and often much higher-paid than when in office. Matthew
writes that his income as a QC in the following years was around
£5,000 to £10,000 per annum (around £500,000–£1,000,000 at 2015
prices). According to Haldane, on returning to government in
1905 Asquith had to give up a £10,000 brief to act for the Khedive of
Egypt. Margot later claimed (in the 1920s, when they were short of
money) that he could have made £50,000 per annum had he remained at
Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal leader from 1899
The Liberal Party, with a leadership—Harcourt in the Commons and
Rosebery in the Lords—who detested each other, once again suffered
factional divisions. Rosebery resigned in October 1896 and Harcourt
followed him in December 1898. Asquith came under strong
pressure to accept the nomination to take over as Liberal leader, but
the post of Leader of the Opposition, though full-time, was then
unpaid, and he could not afford to give up his income as a barrister.
He and others prevailed on the former Secretary of State for War, Sir
Henry Campbell-Bannerman to accept the post.
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. 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, 1905–1908
Asquith as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the House of Commons
Salisbury's Conservative successor as Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour,
resigned in December 1905, but did not seek a dissolution of
Parliament and a general election.[f] King
Edward VII invited
Campbell-Bannerman to form a minority government. Asquith and his
close political allies Haldane and Sir Edward Grey tried to pressure
him into taking a peerage to become a figurehead Prime Minister in the
House of Lords, giving the pro-empire wing of the party greater
dominance in the House of Commons. Campbell-Bannerman called their
bluff and refused to move. Asquith was appointed Chancellor of
the Exchequer. He held the post for over two years, and introduced
A month after taking office, Campbell-Bannerman called a general
election, in which the Liberals gained a landslide majority of
132. However, Asquith's first budget, in 1906, was constrained by
the annual income and expenditure plans he had inherited from his
predecessor Austen Chamberlain. The only income for which Chamberlain
had over-budgeted was the duty from sales of alcohol.[g] With a
balanced budget, and a realistic assessment of future public
expenditure, Asquith was able, in his second and third budgets, to lay
the foundations for limited redistribution of wealth and welfare
provisions for the poor. Blocked at first by Treasury officials from
setting a variable rate of income tax with higher rates on those with
high incomes, he set up a committee under Sir
Charles Dilke which
recommended not only variable income tax rates but also a supertax 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
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
Biarritz on 7 April.
Peacetime prime minister: 1908–1914
Further information: Liberal government, 1905–1915
Appointments and cabinet
Asquith in 1908
On Asquith's return from Biarritz, his leadership of the Liberals was
affirmed by a party meeting (the first time this had been done for a
prime minister). He initiated a cabinet reshuffle. Lloyd George
was promoted to be Asquith's replacement as chancellor. Winston
Churchill succeeded Lloyd George as President of the Board of Trade,
entering the Cabinet despite his youth (aged 33) and the fact that he
had crossed the floor to become a Liberal only four years
Asquith demoted or dismissed a number of Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet
ministers. Lord Tweedmouth, the First Lord of the Admiralty, was
relegated to the nominal post of Lord President of the Council. Lord
Elgin was sacked from the Colonial Office and the Earl of Portsmouth
(whom Asquith had tutored) was too, as undersecretary at the War
Office. The abruptness of their dismissals caused hard feelings; Elgin
wrote to Tweedmouth, "I venture to think that even a prime minister
may have some regard for the usages common among gentlemen … I
feel that even a housemaid gets a better warning."[h]
Historian Cameron Hazlehurst wrote that "the new men, with the old,
made a powerful team". 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 Reginald
McKenna's appointment as First Lord.
Prime minister at play
Possessed of "a faculty for working quickly", Asquith had
considerable time for leisure. Reading the classics, poetry and a
vast range of English literature consumed much of his time. So did
correspondence; intensely disliking the telephone, Asquith was a
prolific letter writer. Travelling, often to country houses owned
by members of Margot's family, was almost constant, Asquith being a
devoted "weekender". He spent part of each summer in Scotland,
with golf, constituency matters, and time at Balmoral as duty
minister. He and Margot divided their time between Downing Street
and The Wharf, a country house at
Sutton Courtenay in Berkshire
which they bought in 1912; their London mansion, 20 Cavendish
Square, was let during his premiership. Other recreations included
bridge, to which he was addicted, and drink, which, friends and
enemies alike, considered sometimes became close to an addiction.
Above all else, Asquith thrived on company and conversation. A
clubbable man, he enjoyed "the companionship of clever and attractive
women" even more. Throughout his life, Asquith had a circle of
close female friends, which Margot termed his "harem". In 1912,
one of these, Venetia Stanley became much closer. Meeting first in
1909–1910, by 1912 she was Asquith's constant correspondent and
companion. Between that point and 1915, he wrote her some 560 letters,
at a rate of up to four a day. Although it remains uncertain
whether or not they were lovers, she became of central importance
to him. Asquith's thorough enjoyment of "comfort and luxury"
during peacetime, and his unwillingness to adjust his behaviour during
conflict, ultimately contributed to the impression of a man out of
touch. Lady Tree's teasing question, asked at the height of the
conflict; "Tell me, Mr Asquith, do you take an interest in the
war;" conveyed a commonly held view.
Reforming the House of Lords
Asquith hoped to act as a mediator between members of his cabinet as
they pushed Liberal legislation through Parliament. Events, including
conflict with the House of Lords, forced him to the front from the
start of his premiership. Despite the Liberals's massive majority in
the House of Commons, the Tories had overwhelming support in the
unelected upper chamber.[i] Campbell-Bannerman had favoured
reforming the Lords by providing that a bill thrice passed by the
Commons at least six months apart could become law without the Lords'
consent, while diminishing the power of the Commons by reducing the
maximum term of a parliament from seven to five years. 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 new 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
Tory peers, the Lords would yield to policy changes wrapped
within a budget bill.
1909: People's Budget
This 1909 Punch cartoon suggests the Liberals were delighted when the
Lords forced an election. Back row: Haldane, Churchill with arms up,
being hugged by his ally Lloyd George. Asquith standing at right.
Bottom row: McKenna, Lord Crewe (with moustache), Augustine Birrell
In a major speech in December 1908, Asquith announced that the
upcoming budget would reflect the Liberals' policy agenda, and the
People's Budget that was submitted to Parliament by Lloyd George the
following year greatly expanded social welfare programmes. To pay for
them, it significantly increased both direct and indirect taxes.
These included a 20 per cent 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[j] on undeveloped land. A
graduated income tax was imposed, and there were increases in imposts
on tobacco, beer 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 Liberals; Rosebery
described the budget as "inquisitorial, tyrannical, and
The budget divided the country and provoked bitter debate through the
summer of 1909. The Northcliffe Press (
The Times and the Daily
Mail) urged rejection of the budget to give tariff reform (indirect
taxes on imported goods which, it was felt, would encourage British
industry and trade within the Empire) a chance; there were many public
meetings, some of them organised by dukes, in protest at the
budget. Many Liberal politicians attacked the peers, including
Lloyd George in his
Limehouse speech, in which he said "a
Duke costs as much to keep up as two dreadnoughts
(battleships)" and was "less easy to scrap". King Edward
privately urged Conservative leaders Balfour and Lord Lansdowne to
pass the Budget (this was not unusual, as
Queen Victoria had helped to
broker agreement between the two Houses over the Irish Church Act 1869
and the Third Reform Act in 1884). 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.[k] The budget passed the Commons on 4
November 1909, but was voted down in the Lords on the 30th, the Lords
passing a resolution by Lord Lansdowne stating that they were entitled
to oppose the finance bill as it lacked an electoral mandate.
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
1910: election and constitutional deadlock
The January 1910 general election was dominated by talk of removing
the Lords' veto. A possible solution was to threaten to have
the King pack the
House of Lords
House of Lords with freshly minted Liberal peers,
who would override the Lords's veto; Asquith's talk of safeguards was
taken by many to mean that he had secured King Edward's agreement to
this. They were mistaken; the King had informed Asquith that he would
not consider a mass creation of peers until after a second general
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,
Cannes with such speed that he neglected an engagement
with an annoyed King Edward. The result was a hung parliament. The
Liberals lost heavily from their great majority of 1906, but still
finished with two more seats than the Conservatives. With Irish
Nationalist and Labour support, the government would have ample
support on most issues, and Asquith stated that his majority compared
favourably with those enjoyed by Palmerston and Lord John
Asquith caricatured in Vanity Fair, 1910
Immediate further pressure to remove the Lords' veto now came from the
Irish MPs, who wanted to remove the Lords' ability to block the
introduction of Irish Home Rule. They threatened to vote against the
Budget unless they had their way.[l] With another general
election likely before long, Asquith had to make clear the Liberal
policy on constitutional change to the country without alienating the
Irish and Labour. This initially proved difficult, and the King's
speech opening Parliament was vague on what was to be done to
neutralise the Lords' veto. Asquith dispirited his supporters by
stating in Parliament that he had neither asked for nor received a
commitment from King Edward to create peers. The cabinet
considered resigning and leaving it up to Balfour to try to form a
The budget passed the Commons again, and—now that it had an
electoral mandate—it was approved by the Lords in April without a
division. The cabinet finally decided to back a plan based on
Campbell-Bannerman's, that a bill passed by the Commons in three
consecutive annual sessions would become law notwithstanding the
Lords' objections. Unless King Edward guaranteed that he would create
enough Liberal peers to pass the bill, ministers would resign and
allow Balfour to form a government, leaving the matter to be debated
at the ensuing general election. On 14 April 1910, the Commons
passed resolutions that would become the basis of the eventual
Parliament Act 1911: to remove the power of the Lords to veto money
bills, to reduce blocking of other bills to a two-year power of delay,
and also to reduce the term of a parliament from seven years to
five. 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).[m]
These plans were scuttled by the death of
Edward VII on 6 May 1910.
Asquith and his ministers were initially reluctant to press the new
king, George V, in mourning for his father, for commitments on
constitutional change, and the monarch's views were not yet known.
With a strong feeling in the country that the parties should
compromise, Asquith and other Liberals met with Conservative leaders
in a number of conferences through much of the remainder of 1910.
These talks failed in November over Conservative insistence that there
be no limits on the Lords's ability to veto Irish Home Rule. When
the Parliament Bill was submitted to the Lords, they made amendments
that were not acceptable to the government.
1910–1911: second election and Parliament Act
Punch 1911 cartoon shows Asquith and Lloyd George preparing coronets
for 500 new peers
On 11 November, Asquith asked King George to dissolve Parliament for
another general election in December, and on the 14th met again with
the King and demanded assurances the monarch would create an adequate
number of Liberal peers to carry the Parliament Bill. The King was
slow to agree, and Asquith and his cabinet informed him they would
resign if he did not make the commitment. Balfour had told King Edward
that he would form a Conservative government if the Liberals left
office but the new King did not know this. The King reluctantly gave
in to Asquith's demand, writing in his diary that, "I disliked having
to do this very much, but agreed that this was the only alternative to
the Cabinet resigning, which at this moment would be disastrous".
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
Samuel Begg's depiction of the passing of the Parliament Bill in the
House of Lords, 1911
The election resulted in little change to the party strengths (the
Liberal and Conservative parties were exactly equal in size; by 1914
the Conservative Party would actually be larger owing to by-election
victories). Nevertheless, Asquith remained in Number Ten, with a large
majority in the Commons on the issue of the House of Lords. The
Parliament Bill again passed the House of Commons in April 1911, and
was heavily amended in the Lords. Asquith advised King George that the
monarch would be called upon to create the peers, and the King agreed,
asking that his pledge be made public, and that the Lords be allowed
to reconsider their opposition. Once it was, there was a raging
internal debate within the
Tory party on whether to give in, or to
continue to vote no even when outnumbered by hundreds of newly created
peers. After lengthy debate, on 10 August 1911 the Lords voted
narrowly not to insist on their amendments, with many
abstaining and a few voting in favour of the government; 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
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." Keen to keep the support of the
Labour Party, the Asquith government passed bills urged by that party,
Trade Union Act 1913 (reversing the Osborne judgment)
and in 1911 granting MPs a salary, making it more feasible for
working-class people to serve in the House of Commons.
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 noted that the scheme (which provided five
shillings a week to single pensioners aged seventy and over, and
slightly less than twice that to married couples) "to modern ears
sounds cautious and meagre. But it was violently criticised at the
time for showing a reckless generosity."
Asquith's new government became embroiled in a controversy over the
Eucharistic Congress of 1908, held in London. Following the Roman
Catholic Relief Act 1829, the
Roman Catholic Church
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 until war's end.
Votes for women
Early 20th century suffragist lapel pin
Asquith had opposed votes for women as early as 1882, and he remained
well known as an adversary throughout his time as prime minister.
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."
In 1906 suffragettes Annie Kenney, Adelaide Knight, and Mrs.
Sparborough were arrested when they tried to obtain an audience with
Asquith. Offered either six weeks in prison or giving up
campaigning for one year, the women all chose prison. Asquith was
a target for militant suffragettes as they abandoned hope of achieving
the vote through peaceful means. He was several times the subject of
their tactics: confronted (to his annoyance) at evening parties,
accosted on the golf course, and ambushed while driving to Stirling to
dedicate a memorial to Campbell-Bannerman. On the last occasion, his
top hat proved adequate protection against the dog whips wielded by
the women. These incidents left him unmoved, as he did not believe
them a true manifestation of public opinion.
With a growing majority of the Cabinet, including Lloyd George and
Churchill, in favour of women's suffrage, Asquith was pressed to allow
consideration of a private member's bill to give women the vote. The
majority of Liberal MPs were also in favour. Jenkins deemed him
one of the two main prewar obstacles to women gaining the vote, the
other being the suffragists's own militancy. In 1912, Asquith
reluctantly agreed to permit a free vote on an amendment to a pending
reform bill, allowing women the vote on the same terms as men. This
would have satisfied Liberal suffrage supporters, and many
suffragists, but the Speaker in January 1913 ruled that the amendment
changed the nature of the bill, which would have to be withdrawn.
Asquith was loud in his complaints against the Speaker, but was
Asquith belatedly came around to support women's suffrage in 1917, by
which time he was out of office. Women over the age of thirty
were eventually given the vote by Lloyd George's government under the
Representation of the People Act 1918. Asquith's reforms to the House
of Lords eased the way for the passage of the bill.
Irish Home Rule
Members of the
Ulster Volunteer Force
Ulster Volunteer Force march through Belfast, 1914
The question of
Irish Home Rule
Irish Home Rule consumed much of Asquith's time during
the final two peacetime years. Support for self-government for
Ireland had been a tenet of the Liberal Party since 1886, but Asquith
had not been as enthusiastic, stating in 1903 (while in opposition)
that the party should never take office if that government would be
dependent for survival on the support of the Irish Nationalist
Party. After 1910, though, Irish Nationalist support helped keep
Asquith in office for the remainder of the prewar period. Retaining
Ireland in the Union was the declared intent of all parties, and the
Nationalists, as part of the majority that kept Asquith in office,
were entitled to seek enactment of their plans for Home Rule, and to
expect Liberal and Labour support. The Conservatives were strongly
opposed to Home Rule; the desire to retain a veto for the Lords on
such bills had been an unbridgeable gap between the parties in the
constitutional talks prior to the second 1910 election.
The cabinet committee (not including Asquith) that in 1911 planned the
Third Home Rule Bill opposed any special status for Protestant Ulster
within majority-Catholic Ireland. Asquith later (in 1913) wrote to
Churchill, stating that the Prime Minister had always believed and
stated that the price of Home Rule should be a special status for
Ulster. In spite of this, the bill as introduced in April 1912
contained no such provision, and was meant to apply to all
Ireland. Neither partition nor a special status for
likely to satisfy either side. The self-government offered by the
bill was very limited, but Irish Nationalists, expecting Home Rule to
come by gradual parliamentary steps, favoured it. The Conservatives
Ulster Unionists opposed it. Both Nationalists and Unionists began
preparing to get their way by force if necessary, and the Unionists
were in general better financed and more organised.
Since the Parliament Act the Unionists could no longer block Home Rule
in the House of Lords, but only delay Royal Assent by two years.
Asquith decided to postpone any concessions to the Unionists until the
bill's third passage through the Commons, when he believed the
Unionists would be desperate for a compromise. Jenkins concluded
that had Asquith tried for an earlier agreement, he would have had no
luck, as many of his opponents wanted a fight and the opportunity to
smash his government. Sir Edward Carson, MP for
and leader of the Irish Unionists in Parliament, threatened a revolt
if Home Rule was enacted. The new Conservative leader, Bonar Law,
campaigned in Parliament and in northern Ireland, warning Ulstermen
against "Rome Rule", that is, domination by the island's Catholic
majority. Many who opposed Home Rule felt that the Liberals had
violated the Constitution—by pushing through major constitutional
change without a clear electoral mandate, with the House of Lords,
formerly the "watchdog of the constitution", not reformed as had been
promised in the preamble of the 1911 Act—and thus justified actions
that in other circumstances might be treason.
The passions generated by the Irish question contrasted with Asquith's
cool detachment, and he wrote about the prospective partition of the
county of Tyrone, which had a mixed population, deeming it "an
impasse, with unspeakable consequences, upon a matter which to English
eyes seems inconceivably small, & to Irish eyes immeasurably
big". As the Commons debated the Home Rule bill in late 1912 and
early 1913, the north of Ireland mobilised, with talk of Carson
declaring a Provisional Government and
Ulster Volunteer Forces (UVF)
built around the Orange Lodges, but in the cabinet, only Churchill
viewed this with alarm. These forces, insisting on their loyalty
to the British Crown but increasingly well-armed with smuggled
weapons, prepared to do battle with the British Army, but Unionist
leaders were confident that the army would not aid in forcing Home
Rule on Ulster. As the Home Rule bill awaited its third passage
through the Commons, the so-called
Curragh incident occurred in April
1914. With deployment of troops into
Ulster imminent and threatening
language by Churchill and the Secretary of State for War, John Seely,
around sixty army officers, led by Brigadier-General Hubert Gough,
announced that they would rather be dismissed from the service than
obey. With unrest spreading to army officers in England, the
Cabinet acted to placate the officers with a statement written by
Asquith reiterating the duty of officers to obey lawful orders but
claiming that the incident had been a misunderstanding. Seely then
added an unauthorised assurance, countersigned by
Sir John French
Sir John French (the
professional head of the army), that the government had no intention
of using force against Ulster. Asquith repudiated the addition, and
required Seely and French to resign, taking on the War Office
himself, retaining the additional responsibility until
hostilities against Germany began.
Within a month of the start of Asquith's tenure at the War Office, the
UVF landed a large cargo of guns and ammunition at Larne, but the
Cabinet did not deem it prudent to arrest their leaders. On 12 May,
Asquith announced that he would secure Home Rule's third passage
through the Commons (accomplished on 25 May), but that there would be
an amending bill with it, making special provision for Ulster. But the
Lords made changes to the amending bill unacceptable to Asquith, and
with no way to invoke the Parliament Act on the amending bill, Asquith
agreed to meet other leaders at an all-party conference on 21 July at
Buckingham Palace, chaired by the King. When no solution could be
found, Asquith and his cabinet planned further concessions to the
Unionists, but this did not occur as the crisis on the Continent
erupted into war. In September 1914, after the outbreak of the
conflict, Asquith announced that the Home Rule bill would go on the
statute book (as the Government of Ireland Act 1914) but would not go
into force until after the war; in the interim a bill granting special
Ulster would be considered. This solution satisfied neither
Foreign and defence policy
Asquith led a deeply divided Liberal Party as Prime Minister, not
least on questions of foreign relations and defence spending.
Under Balfour, Britain and France had agreed upon the Entente
Cordiale. In 1906, at the time the Liberals took office, there
was an ongoing crisis between France and Germany over Morocco, and the
French asked for British help in the event of conflict. Grey, the
Foreign Secretary, refused any formal arrangement, but gave it as his
personal opinion that in the event of war Britain would aid France.
France then asked for military conversations aimed at co-ordination in
such an event. Grey agreed, and these went on in the following years,
without cabinet knowledge—Asquith most likely did not know of them
until 1911. When he learned of them, Asquith was concerned that the
French took for granted British aid in the event of war, but Grey
persuaded him the talks must continue.
More public was the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. The
Moroccan crisis had been settled at the Algeciras Conference, and
Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet approved reduced naval estimates,
including postponing the laying down of a second Dreadnought-class
battleship. Tenser relationships with Germany, and that nation moving
ahead with its own dreadnoughts, led Reginald McKenna, when Asquith
First Lord of the Admiralty
First Lord of the Admiralty in 1908, to propose the
laying down of eight more British ones in the following three years.
This prompted conflict in the Cabinet between those who supported this
programme, such as McKenna, and the "economists" who promoted economy
in naval estimates, led by Lloyd George and Churchill. There was
much public sentiment for building as many ships as possible to
maintain British naval superiority. Asquith mediated among his
colleagues and secured a compromise whereby four ships would be laid
down at once, and four more if there proved to be a need. The
armaments matter was put to the side during the domestic crises over
the 1909 budget and then the Parliament Act, though the building of
warships continued at an accelerated rate.
Agadir crisis of 1911 was again between France and Germany over
Moroccan interests, but Asquith's government signalled its
friendliness towards France in Lloyd George's
Mansion House speech
Mansion House speech on
21 July. Late that year, the Lord President of the Council,
Viscount Morley, brought the question of the communications with the
French to the attention of the Cabinet. The Cabinet agreed (at
Asquith's instigation) that no talks could be held that committed
Britain to war, and required cabinet approval for co-ordinated
military actions. Nevertheless, by 1912, the French had requested
additional naval co-ordination and late in the year, the various
understandings were committed to writing in an exchange of letters
between Grey and French Ambassador Paul Cambon. The relationship
with France disquieted some Liberal backbenchers and Asquith felt
obliged to assure them that nothing had been secretly agreed that
would commit Britain to war. This quieted Asquith's foreign policy
critics until another naval estimates dispute erupted early in
Causes of World War I
Causes of World War I and July Crisis
Sir Edward Grey
The assassination of
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo
on 28 June 1914 initiated a month of unsuccessful diplomatic attempts
to avoid war. These attempts ended with Grey's proposal for a
four-power conference of Britain, Germany, France and Italy, following
the Austrian ultimatum to
Serbia on the evening of 23 July. Grey's
initiative was rejected by Germany as "not practicable". During
this period, Cassar considers that; "The country was overwhelmingly
opposed to intervention." Much of Asquith's cabinet was similarly
inclined, Lloyd George writing in his memoirs; "The Cabinet was
hopelessly divided—fully one third, if not one half, being opposed
to our entry into the War." This overlooked his own opposition;
on 27 July, he told a journalist; "There could be no question of our
taking part in any war in the first instance. He knew of no Minister
who would be in favour of it." Asquith himself, while growing
more aware of the impending catastrophe, was still uncertain of the
necessity for Britain's involvement. On 24 July, he wrote to Venetia;
"We are within measurable, or imaginable, distance of a real
Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be
anything more than spectators."
During the continuing escalation Asquith "used all his experience and
authority to keep his options open" and adamantly refused to
commit his government; "The worst thing we could do would be to
announce to the world at the present moment that in no circumstances
would we intervene." But he recognised Grey's clear commitment to
Anglo-French unity and, following Russian mobilisation on 30
July, and the Kaiser's ultimatum to the Tsar on 1 August, he
recognised the inevitability of war. From this point, he
committed himself to participation, despite continuing Cabinet
opposition; "There is a strong party reinforced by Ll George[,] Morley
and Harcourt who are against any kind of intervention. Grey will never
consent and I shall not separate myself from him." Also, on 2
August, he received confirmation of
Tory support from Bonar Law.
In one of two extraordinary Cabinets held on that Sunday, Grey
informed members of the 1912 Anglo-French naval talks and Asquith
secured agreement to mobilise the fleet.
On Monday 3 August, the Belgian Government rejected the German demand
for free passage through its country and in the afternoon, "with
gravity and unexpected eloquence", Grey spoke in the Commons and
called for British action "against the unmeasured aggrandisement of
any power". Liddell Hart considered that this speech saw the
"hardening (of) British opinion to the point of intervention".
The following day Asquith saw the King and an ultimatum to Germany
demanding withdrawal from Belgian soil was issued with a deadline of
midnight Berlin time, 11.00 p.m. (GMT).
Margot Asquith described the
moment of expiry, somewhat inaccurately; "(I joined) Henry in the
Cabinet room. Lord Crewe and Sir Edward Grey were already there and we
sat smoking cigarettes in silence … The clock on the
mantelpiece hammered out the hour and when the last beat of midnight
struck it was as silent as dawn. We were at War."
First year of the war: August 1914 – May 1915
Main article: History of the
United Kingdom during World War I
Asquith's wartime government
The declaration of war on 4 August 1914 saw Asquith as the head of an
almost united Liberal Party. Having persuaded Sir John Simon and Lord
Beauchamp to remain, Asquith suffered only two resignations from
his cabinet, those of
John Morley and John Burns. With other
parties promising to co-operate, Asquith's government declared war on
behalf of a united nation, Asquith bringing "the country into war
without civil disturbance or political schism".
The first months of the War saw a revival in Asquith's popularity.
Bitterness from earlier struggles temporarily receded and the nation
looked to Asquith, "steady, massive, self-reliant and
unswerving", to lead them to victory. But Asquith's peacetime
strengths ill-equipped him for what was to become perhaps the first
total war and, before its end, he would be out of office forever and
his party would never again form a majority government.
Beyond the replacement of Morley and Burns, Asquith made one
other significant change to his cabinet. He relinquished the War
Office and appointed the non-partisan but Tory-inclined Lord Kitchener
of Khartoum. Kitchener was a figure of national renown and his
participation strengthened the reputation of the government.
Whether it increased its effectiveness is less certain. Overall,
it was a government of considerable talent with Lloyd George remaining
as chancellor, Grey as Foreign Secretary, and Churchill at
The invasion of Belgium by German forces, the touch paper for British
intervention, saw the Kaiser's armies attempt a lightning strike
through Belgium against France, while holding Russian forces on the
Eastern Front. To support the French, Asquith's cabinet
authorised the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force. The
Battle of the Frontiers
Battle of the Frontiers in the late summer and early autumn of
1914 saw the final halt of the German advance at the First Battle of
the Marne, which established the pattern of attritional trench warfare
on the Western Front that continued until 1918. This stalemate
brought deepening resentment against the government, and against
Asquith personally, as the population at large and the press lords in
particular, blamed him for a lack of energy in the prosecution of the
war. It also created divisions within the Cabinet between the
"Westerners", including Asquith, who supported the generals in
believing that the key to victory lay in ever greater investment of
men and munitions in France and Belgium, and the "Easterners",
led by Churchill and Lloyd George, who believed that the Western Front
was in a state of irreversible stasis and sought victory through
action in the East. Lastly, it highlighted divisions between
those politicians, and newspaper owners, who thought that military
strategy and actions should be determined by the generals, and those
who thought politicians should make those decisions. Asquith's
view was made clear in his memoirs: "Once the governing objectives
have been decided by Ministers at home—the execution should always
be left to the untrammeled discretion of the commanders on the
spot." Lloyd George's counter view was expressed in a letter of
early 1916 in which he asked "whether I have a right to express an
independent view on the War or must (be) a pure advocate of opinions
expressed by my military advisers?" These divergent opinions lay
behind the two great crises that would, within 14 months, see the
collapse of the last ever fully Liberal administration and the advent
of the first coalition, the Dardanelles Campaign and the Shell
Main article: Gallipoli Campaign
Admiral "Jacky" Fisher
The Dardanelles Campaign was an attempt by those favouring an Eastern
strategy to end the stalemate on the Western Front. It envisaged
an Anglo-French landing on Turkey's Gallipoli Peninsula and a rapid
advance to Constantinople which would see the exit of Turkey from the
conflict. However, the plan never enjoyed the full support of
Admiral Fisher, the First Sea Lord, or of Kitchener and, rather
than providing decisive leadership, Asquith sought to arbitrate
between these two and Churchill, leading to procrastination and
delay. After an initial failed attempt to force the Dardanelles
by naval gunfire, Allied troops established bridgeheads on the
Gallipoli Peninsula, but a delay in providing sufficient
reinforcements allowed the Turks to regroup, leading to a stalemate
Jenkins described "as immobile as that which prevailed on the Western
Shell Crisis of May 1915
Main article: Shell Crisis of 1915
The opening of 1915 saw growing division between Lloyd George and
Kitchener over the supply of munitions for the army. Lloyd George
considered that a munitions department, under his control, was
essential to co-ordinate "the nation's entire engineering
capacity". Kitchener favoured the continuance of the current
arrangement whereby munitions were sourced through contracts between
the War Office and the country's armaments manufacturers. As so often,
Asquith sought compromise through committee, establishing a group to
"consider the much vexed question of putting the contracts for
munitions on a proper footing". This did little to dampen press
criticism and, on 20 April, Asquith sought to challenge his
detractors in a major speech at Newcastle; "I saw a statement the
other day that the operations of our army were being crippled by our
failure to provide the necessary ammunition. There is not a word of
truth in that statement."
The press response was savage: 14 May 1915 saw the publication in The
Times of a letter from their correspondent Charles à Court Repington
which ascribed the British failure at the
Battle of Aubers Ridge
Battle of Aubers Ridge to a
shortage of high explosive shells. Thus opened a fully-fledged crisis,
the Shell Crisis. The prime minister's wife correctly identified her
husband's chief opponent, the Press baron, and owner of The Times,
Lord Northcliffe; "I'm quite sure Northcliffe is at the bottom of all
this," but failed to recognise the clandestine involvement of Sir
John French, who leaked the details of the shells shortage to
Repington. Northcliffe claimed that "the whole question of the
supply of the munitions of war is one on which the Cabinet cannot be
arraigned too sharply." Attacks on the government and on
Asquith's personal lethargy came from the left as well as the right,
C. P. Scott, the editor of
The Manchester Guardian
The Manchester Guardian writing; "The
Government has failed most frightfully and discreditably in the matter
Failures in both the East and the West began a tide of events that was
to overwhelm Asquith's Liberal Government. Strategic setbacks
combined with a shattering personal blow when, on 12 May 1915, Venetia
Stanley announced her engagement to Edwin Montagu. Asquith's reply was
immediate and brief, "As you know well, this breaks my heart. I
couldn't bear to come and see you. I can only pray God to bless
you—and help me." Venetia's importance to him is illustrated by
a letter written in mid-1914; "Keep close to me beloved in this most
critical time of my life. I know you will not fail." Her
engagement; "a very treacherous return after all the joy you've given
me", left him devastated. Significant though the loss was
personally, its impact on Asquith politically can be overstated.
Stephen Koss notes that Asquith "was always able to
divide his public and private lives into separate compartments (and)
soon found new confidantes to whom he was writing with no less
frequency, ardour and indiscretion."
This personal loss was immediately followed, on 15 May, by the
resignation of Admiral Fisher after continuing disagreements with
Churchill and in frustration at the disappointing developments in
Gallipoli. Aged 74, Fisher's behaviour had grown increasingly
erratic and, in frequent letters to Lloyd George, he gave vent to his
frustrations with the First Lord of the Admiralty; "Fisher writes to
me every day or two to let me know how things are going. He has a
great deal of trouble with his chief, who is always wanting to do
something big and striking." Adverse events, press hostility,
Tory opposition and personal sorrows assailed Asquith, and his
position was further weakened by his Liberal colleagues. Cassar
considers that Lloyd George displayed a distinct lack of loyalty,
and Koss writes of the contemporary rumours that Churchill had "been
up to his old game of intriguing all round" and reports a claim that
Churchill "unquestionably inspired" the Repington Letter, in collusion
with Sir John French. Lacking cohesion internally, and attacked
from without, Asquith determined that his government could not
continue and he wrote to the King, "I have come decidedly to the
conclusion that the [Government] must be reconstituted on a broad and
First Coalition: May 1915 – December 1916
Further information: Asquith coalition ministry
The formation of the First Coalition saw Asquith display the political
acuteness that seemed to have deserted him. But it came at a
cost. This involved the sacrifice of two old political comrades:
Churchill, who was blamed for the Dardanelles fiasco, and Haldane, who
was wrongly accused in the press of pro-German sympathies. The
Bonar Law made these removals a condition of entering
government and, in sacking Haldane, who "made no difficulty", 
Asquith, committed "the most uncharacteristic fault of (his) whole
career". In a letter to Grey, Asquith wrote of Haldane; "He is
the oldest personal and political friend that I have in the world and,
with him, you and I have stood together for the best part of 30
years." But he was unable to express these sentiments directly to
Haldane, who was greatly hurt. Asquith handled the allocation of
offices more successfully, appointing
Bonar Law to the relatively
minor post of Colonial Secretary, taking responsibility for
munitions from Kitchener and giving it, as a new ministry, to Lloyd
George and placing Balfour at the Admiralty, in place of Churchill,
who was demoted to the sinecure Cabinet post of Chancellor of the
Duchy of Lancaster. Overall the Liberals held 12 Cabinet seats,
including most of the important ones, while the Tories held 8.
Despite this outcome, many Liberals were dismayed, the sacked Charles
Hobhouse writing; "The disintegration of the Liberal Party is
complete. Ll.G. and his
Tory friends will soon get rid of
Asquith." From a party, and a personal, perspective, the creation
of the First Coalition was seen as a "notable victory for (Asquith),
if not for the allied cause". But Asquith's dismissive handling
Bonar Law also contributed to his own and his party's later
Having reconstructed his government, Asquith attempted a
re-configuration of his war-making apparatus. The most important
element of this was the establishment of the Ministry of
Munitions, followed by the re-ordering of the War Council into a
Dardanelles Committee, with Maurice Hankey as secretary and with a
remit to consider all questions of war strategy.
Munitions of War Act 1915 brought private companies supplying the
armed forces under the tight control of the Lloyd George. The policy,
according to J. A. R. Marriott, was that:
no private interest was to be permitted to obstruct the service, or
imperil the safety, of the State. Trade Union regulations must be
suspended; employers' profits must be limited, skilled men must fight,
if not in the trenches, in the factories; man-power must be economised
by the dilution of labour and the employment of women; Private
factories must pass under the control of the State, and new national
factories be set up. Results justified the new policy: the output was
prodigious; the goods were at last delivered.
Nevertheless, criticism of Asquith's leadership style continued. The
Earl of Crawford, who had joined the Government as Minister of
Agriculture, described his first Cabinet meeting; "It was a huge
gathering, so big that it is hopeless for more than one or two to
express opinions on each detail […] Asquith somnolent—hands shaky
and cheeks pendulous. He exercised little control over debate, seemed
rather bored, but good humoured throughout." Lloyd George was less
tolerant, Lord Riddell recording in his diary; "(He) says the P.M.
should lead not follow and (Asquith) never moves until he is forced,
and then it is usually too late." And crises, as well as
criticism, continued to assail the Prime Minister, "envenomed by
intra-party as well as inter-party rancour".
Main article: Recruitment to the British Army during the First World
Lord Kitchener's call to arms
The insatiable demand for manpower for the Western Front had been
foreseen early on. A volunteer system had been introduced at the
outbreak of war, and Asquith was reluctant to change it for political
reasons, as many Liberals, and almost all of their Irish Nationalist
and Labour allies, were strongly opposed to conscription.
Volunteer numbers dropped, not meeting the demands for more
troops for Gallipoli, and much more strongly, for the Western
Front. This made the voluntary system increasingly untenable;
Asquith's daughter Violet wrote in March 1915; "Gradually every man
with the average number of limbs and faculties is being sucked out to
the war." In July 1915, the National Registration Act was passed,
requiring compulsory registration for all men between the ages of 18
and 65. This was seen by many as the prelude to conscription but
the appointment of Lord Derby as Director-General of Recruiting
instead saw an attempt to rejuvenate the voluntary system, the Derby
Scheme. Asquith's slow steps towards conscription continued to
infuriate his opponents, Sir Henry Wilson writing to Leo Amery; "What
is going to be the result of these debates? Will 'wait and see' win,
or can that part of the Cabinet that is in earnest and is honest force
that damned old Squiff into action?" The Prime Minister's
balancing act, within Parliament and within his own party, was not
assisted by a strident campaign against conscription conducted by his
wife. Describing herself as "passionately against it", Margot
Asquith engaged in one of her frequent influencing drives, by letters
and through conversations, which had little impact other than doing
"great harm" to Asquith's reputation and position.
By the end of 1915, it was clear that conscription was essential and
Asquith laid the Military Service Act in the House of Commons on 5
January 1916. The Act introduced conscription of bachelors, and
was extended to married men later in the year. Asquith's main
opposition came from within his own party, particularly from Sir John
Simon, who resigned. Asquith described Simon's stance in a letter to
Sylvia Henley; "I felt really like a man who had been struck publicly
in the face by his son." Some years later, Simon acknowledged his
error; "I have long since realised that my opposition was a
mistake." Asquith's achievement in bringing the bill through
without breaking up the government was considerable, his wife writing;
"Henry's patience and skill in keeping Labour in this amazing change
in England have stunned everyone," but the long struggle "hurt
his own reputation and the unity of his party".
Main article: Easter Rising
On Easter Monday 1916, a group of
Irish Volunteers and members of the
Irish Citizen Army
Irish Citizen Army seized a number of key buildings and locations in
Dublin and elsewhere. There was heavy fighting over the next week
before the Volunteers were forced to surrender. Distracted by
conscription, Asquith and the Government were slow to appreciate the
developing danger,  which was exacerbated when, after hasty
courts martial, a number of the Irish leaders were executed. On 11 May
Asquith crossed to
Dublin and, after a week of investigation, decided
that the island's governance system was irredeemably broken, He
turned to Lloyd George for a solution. With his customary energy,
Lloyd George brokered a settlement which would have seen Home Rule
introduced at the end of the War, with the exclusion of Ulster.
However, neither he, nor Asquith, appreciated the extent of Tory
opposition, the plan was strongly attacked in the House of Lords, and
was abandoned thereafter. The episode damaged Lloyd George's
reputation, but also that of Asquith, Walter Long speaking of the
latter as; "terribly lacking in decision". It also further
widened the divide between Asquith and Lloyd George, and encouraged
the latter in his plans for government reconstruction; "Mr. A gets
very few cheers nowadays."
Progress of the war
Asquith visits the front during the Battle of the Somme, 1916
Continued Allied failure and heavy losses at the Battle of Loos
between September and October 1915 ended any remaining confidence in
the British commander,
Sir John French
Sir John French and in the judgement of Lord
Kitchener. Asquith resorted to a favoured stratagem and,
persuading Kitchener to undertake a tour of the Gallipoli battlefield
in the hope that he could be persuaded to remain in the Mediterranean
as Commander-in-Chief, took temporary charge of the War Office
himself. He then replaced French with Sir Douglas Haig; the
latter recording in his diary for 10 December 1915; "About 7 pm I
received a letter from the Prime Minister marked 'Secret' and enclosed
in three envelopes. It ran 'Sir J. French has placed in my hands his
resignation … Subject to the King's approval, I have the
pleasure of proposing to you that you should be his successor.'"
Asquith also appointed Sir William Robertson as Chief of the Imperial
General Staff with increased powers, reporting directly to the Cabinet
and with the sole right to give them military advice, relegating the
Secretary of State for War
Secretary of State for War to the tasks of recruiting and supplying
the army. Lastly, he instituted a smaller Dardanelles Committee,
re-christened the War Committee, with himself, Balfour, Bonar
Law, Lloyd George and
Reginald McKenna as members although, as
this soon increased, the Committee continued the failings of its
predecessor, being "too large and lack(ing) executive authority".
None of this saved the Dardanelles Campaign and the decision to
evacuate was taken in December, resulting in the resignation from
the Duchy of Lancaster of Churchill, who wrote, "I could not
accept a position of general responsibility for war policy without any
effective share in its guidance and control." Further reverses
took place in the Balkans: the
Central Powers overran Serbia, forcing
the Allied troops which had attempted to intervene back towards
Early 1916 saw the start of the German offensive at Verdun, the
"greatest battle of attrition in history". In late May, the only
significant Anglo-German naval engagement of the War took place at The
Battle of Jutland. Although a strategic success, the greater loss
of ships on the Allied side brought early dismay. Lord Newton,
Paymaster General and Parliamentary spokesman for the War office in
Kitchener's absence, recorded in his diary; "Stupefying news of naval
battle off Jutland. Whilst listening to the list of ships lost, I
thought it the worst disaster that we had ever suffered." This
despondency was compounded, for the nation, if not for his colleagues,
when Lord Kitchener was killed in the sinking of HMS Hampshire on 5
Asquith first considered taking the vacant War Office himself but then
offered it to Bonar Law, who declined it in favour of Lloyd
George. This was an important sign of growing unity of action
between the two men and it filled
Margot Asquith with foreboding; "I
look upon this as the greatest political blunder of Henry's lifetime,
… We are out: it can only be a question of time now when we shall
have to leave Downing Street."
Asquith followed this by agreeing to hold Commissions of Inquiry into
the conduct of the Dardanelles and of the Mesopotamian campaign, where
Allied forces had been forced to surrender at Kut. Sir Maurice
Hankey, Secretary to the War Committee, considered that; "the
Coalition never recovered. For (its) last five months, the function of
the Supreme Command was carried out under the shadow of these
inquests." But these mistakes were overshadowed by the limited
progress and immense casualties of the Battle of the Somme, which
began on 1 July 1916, and then by another devastating personal loss,
the death of Asquith's son Raymond, on 15 September at the Battle of
Flers–Courcelette. Asquith's relationship with his eldest son
had not been easy. Raymond wrote to his wife in early 1916; "If Margot
talks any more bosh to you about the inhumanity of her stepchildren
you can stop her mouth by telling her that during my 10 months exile
here the P.M. has never written me a line of any description."
But Raymond's death was shattering, Violet writing; "…to see Father
suffering so wrings one", and Asquith passed much of the
following months "withdrawn and difficult to approach". The War
brought no respite, Churchill writing that; "The failure to break the
German line in the Somme, the recovery of the Germanic powers in the
East [i.e. the defeat of the Brusilov Offensive], the ruin of Roumania
and the beginnings of renewed submarine warfare strengthened and
stimulated all those forces which insisted upon still greater vigour
in the conduct of affairs."
Fall: November–December 1916
The events that led to the collapse of the First Coalition were
exhaustively chronicled by almost all of the major participants,
(although Asquith himself was a notable exception), and have been
minutely studied by historians in the 100 years since. Although
many of the accounts and studies differ in detail, and present a
somewhat confusing picture overall, the outline is clear. As Adams
wrote; "The Prime Minister depended upon [a] majority [in] Parliament.
The faith of that majority in Asquith's leadership had been shaken and
the appearance of a logical alternative destroyed him."
Nigeria debate and Lord Lansdowne's memorandum
"a man called Max Aitken"
The touch paper for the final crisis was the unlikely subject of the
sale of captured German assets in Nigeria. As Colonial Secretary,
the Conservative leader
Bonar Law led the debate and was subject to a
furious attack by Sir Edward Carson. The issue itself was
trivial, but the fact that Law had been attacked by a leading
member of his own party, and was not supported by Lloyd George (who
absented himself from the House only to dine with Carson later in the
evening), was not.
Margot Asquith immediately sensed the coming danger; "From that night
it was quite clear that Northcliffe, Rothermere, Bonar, Carson, Ll.G
(and a man called Max Aitken) were going to run the Government. I knew
it was the end." Grey was similarly prescient, writing; "Lloyd
George means to break up the Government."
Bonar Law saw the
debate as a threat to his own political position, as well as
another instance of lack of grip by the government.
The situation was further inflamed by the publication of a memorandum
on future prospects in the war by Lord Lansdowne. Circulated on
13 November, it considered, and did not dismiss, the possibility of a
negotiated settlement with the Central Powers. Asquith's critics
immediately assumed that the memorandum represented his own views and
that Lansdowne was being used as a stalking horse, Lord Crewe
going so far as to suggest that the Lansdowne Memorandum was the
"veritable causa causans[n] of the final break-up".
On 20 November 1916 Lloyd George, Carson and
Bonar Law met at the Hyde
Park Hotel. The meeting was organised by Max Aitken who was to
play central roles both in the forthcoming crisis and in its
subsequent historiography. Max Aitken was a Canadian adventurer,
millionaire, and close friend of Bonar Law. His book on the fall
of the First Coalition, Politicians and the War 1914–1916, although
always partial and sometimes inaccurate, gives a detailed insider's
view of the events leading up to Asquith's political demise. The
trio agreed on the necessity of overhauling the government and further
agreed on the mechanism for doing so; the establishment of a small War
Council, chaired by Lloyd George, with no more than five members and
with full executive authority for the conduct of the war.
Asquith was to be retained as prime minister, and given honorific
oversight of the War Council, but day to day operations would be
directed by Lloyd George. This scheme, although often reworked,
remained the basis of all proposals to reform the government until
Asquith's fall on 6 December. Until almost the end, both Bonar
Law, and Lloyd George, wished to retain Asquith as premier.
But Aitken, Carson and
Lord Northcliffe emphatically did
Power without responsibility
Lord Northcliffe teeing up
Lord Northcliffe's role was critical, as was the use Lloyd George made
of him, and of the press in general. Northcliffe's involvement also
highlights the limitations of both Aitken's and Lloyd George's
accounts of Asquith's fall. Both minimised Northcliffe's part in the
events. In his War Memoirs, Lloyd George stated emphatically "Lord
Northcliffe was never, at any stage, brought into our
consultations." Aitken supported this; "
Lord Northcliffe was not
in active co-operation with Lloyd George." But these claims are
contradicted by others. In their biography of Northcliffe, Pound and
Harmsworth record Northcliffe's brother Rothermere writing
contemporaneously; "Alfred has been actively at work with Ll.G. with a
view to bringing about a change." Riddell wrote in his diary for
27 May 1916: "LG never mentions directly that he sees Northcliffe but
I am sure they are in daily contact."
Margot Asquith was also
certain of Northcliffe's role, and of Lloyd George's involvement,
although she obscured both of their names when writing in her diary;
"I only hope the man responsible for giving information to Lord N-
will be heavily punished: God may forgive him; I never can." They
are also contradicted by events; Northcliffe met with Lloyd George on
each of the three days just prior to Lloyd George's resignation, on 1,
2, and 3 December, including two meetings on 1 December, both
before and after Lloyd George put his revised proposals for the War
Council to Asquith. It seems improbable that ongoing events were
not discussed and that the two men confined their conversations to
negotiating article circulation rights for Lloyd George once he had
resigned, as Pound and Harmsworth weakly suggest. The attempts
made by others to use Northcliffe and the wider press also merit
consideration. In this regard, some senior military officers were
extremely active. Robertson, for example, wrote to Northcliffe in
October 1916, "The Boche gives me no trouble compared with what I meet
in London. So any help you can give me will be of Imperial
value." Lastly, the actions of Northcliffe's newspapers must be
The Times editorial on 4 December which led
Asquith to reject Lloyd George's final War Council proposals.
Thompson, Northcliffe's most recent biographer, concludes; "From the
evidence, it appears that Northcliffe and his newspapers should be
given more credit than they have generally received for the demise of
the Asquith government in December 1916."
To-ing and fro-ing
Bonar Law met again with Carson and Lloyd George on 25 November and,
with Aitken's help, drafted a memorandum for Asquith's signature.
This would see a "Civilian General Staff", with Lloyd George as
chairman and Asquith as president, attending irregularly but with the
right of referral to Cabinet as desired. This, Bonar Law
presented to Asquith, who committed to reply on Monday the following
His reply was an outright rejection; the proposal was impossible
"without fatally impairing the confidence of colleagues, and
undermining my own authority." Law took Asquith's response to
Carson and Lloyd George at Law's office in the Colonial Office. All
were uncertain of the next steps.
Bonar Law decided it would be
appropriate to meet with his senior Conservative colleagues, something
he had not previously done. He saw Austen Chamberlain, Lord
Curzon and Lord Robert Cecil on Thursday 30 November. All were united
in opposition to Lloyd George's War Council plans, Chamberlain
writing; "(we) were unanimously of opinion (sic) that (the plans) were
open to grave objection and made certain alternative proposals."
Lloyd George had also been reflecting on the substance of the scheme
and, on Friday 1 December, he met with Asquith to put forward an
alternative. This would see a War Council of three, the two Service
ministers and a third without portfolio. One of the three, presumably
Lloyd George although this was not explicit, would be chairman.
Asquith, as Prime Minister, would retain "supreme control."
Asquith's reply the same day did not constitute an outright rejection,
but he did demand that he retain the chairmanship of the council.
As such, it was unacceptable to Lloyd George and he wrote to Bonar Law
the next day (Saturday 2 December); "I enclose copy of P.M.'s letter.
The life of the country depends on resolute action by you now."
Last four days: Sunday 3 December to Wednesday 6 December
Sunday 3 December
Sunday 3 December saw the Conservative leadership meet at Bonar Law's
house, Pembroke Lodge. They gathered against a backdrop of
ever-growing press involvement, in part fermented by Max Aitken.
That morning's Reynold's News, owned and edited by Lloyd George's
close associate Henry Dalziel, had published an article setting out
Lloyd George's demands to Asquith and claiming that he intended to
resign and take his case to the country if they were not met. At
Law's house, the Conservatives present drew up a resolution which they
demanded Law present to Asquith.
This document, subsequently the source of much debate, stated that
"the Government cannot continue as it is; the Prime Minister (should)
tender the resignation of the Government" and, if Asquith was
unwilling to do that, the Conservative members of the Government would
"tender (their) resignations." The meaning of this resolution is
unclear, and even those who contributed to it took away differing
Chamberlain felt that it left open the option of either Asquith or
Lloyd George as premier, dependent on who could gain greater support.
Curzon, in a letter of that day to Lansdowne, stated no one at the
Pembroke Lodge meeting felt that the war could be won under Asquith's
continued leadership and that the issue for the Liberal politicians to
resolve was whether Asquith remained in a Lloyd George administration
in a subordinate role, or left the government altogether. Max
Aitken's claim that the resolution's purpose was to ensure that "Lloyd
George should go" is not supported by most of the contemporary
accounts, or by the assessments of most subsequent historians.
As one example, Gilmour, Curzon's biographer, writes that the Unionist
ministers; "did not, as Beaverbrook alleged, decide to resign
themselves in order to strengthen the Prime Minister's hand against
Lloyd George..(their intentions) were completely different."
Similarly, Adams, Bonar Law's latest biographer, describes Aitken's
interpretation of the resolution as "convincingly overturned."
Ramsden is equally clear; "the Unionist ministers acted to strengthen
Lloyd George's hand, from a conviction that only greater power for
Lloyd George could put enough drive into the war effort."
Bonar Law then took the resolution to Asquith, who had, unusually,
broken his weekend at
Walmer Castle to return to Downing Street.
At their meeting,
Bonar Law sought to convey the content of his
colleagues' earlier discussion but failed to produce the resolution
itself. That it was never actually shown to Asquith is
incontrovertible, and Asquith confirmed this in his writings.
Bonar Law's motives in not handing it over are more controversial. Law
himself maintained he simply forgot. Jenkins charges him with bad
faith, or neglect of duty. Adams suggests Law's motives were more
complex—the resolution also contained a clause condemning the
involvement of the press—prompted by the
Reynold's News story of
that morning—and that, in continuing to seek an accommodation
between Asquith and Lloyd George, Law felt it prudent not to share the
The outcome of the interview between Law and Asquith was clear, even
if Law had not been. Asquith immediately decided that an
accommodation with Lloyd George, and a substantial reconstruction to
placate the Unionist ministers, were required. He summoned Lloyd
George and together they agreed a compromise that was, in fact, little
different to Lloyd George's 1 December proposals. The only
substantial amendment was that Asquith would have daily oversight of
the War Council's work and a right of veto. Grigg sees this
compromise as "very favourable to Asquith." Cassar is less
certain; "The new formula left him in a much weaker position[, his]
authority merely on paper for he was unlikely to exercise his veto
lest it bring on the collective resignation of the War Council."
Nevertheless, both Asquith, Lloyd George, and
Bonar Law who had
rejoined them at 5.00 pm, felt a basis for a compromise had been
reached and they agreed that Asquith would issue a bulletin that
evening announcing the reconstruction of the Government. Crewe,
who joined Asquith at Montagu's house at 10.00 p.m. recorded;
"accommodation with Mr. Lloyd George would ultimately be achieved,
without sacrifice of (Asquith's) position as chief of the War
Committee; a large measure of reconstruction would satisfy the
Despite Lloyd George's denials of collaboration, the diary for 3
December by Northcliffe's factotum Tom Clarke, records that; "The
Chief returned to town and at 7.00 o'clock he was at the War Office
with Lloyd George." Meanwhile
Duff Cooper was invited to dinner
Queen Anne's Gate
Queen Anne's Gate house, he afterwards played bridge with
Asquith, Venetia Montagu and Churchill's sister-in-law "Goonie",
recording in his diary : "..the P.M. more drunk than I have ever
seen him, (..) so drunk that one felt uncomfortable … an
Monday 4 December
The bulletin was published on the morning of Monday 4 December. It was
accompanied by an avalanche of press criticism, all of it intensely
hostile to Asquith. The worst was a leader in Northcliffe's
Times. This had full details of the compromise reached the day
before, including the names of those suggested as members of the War
Council. More damagingly still, it ridiculed Asquith, claimed he had
conspired in his own humiliation and would henceforth be "Prime
Minister in name only." Lloyd George's involvement is uncertain;
he denied any, but Asquith was certain he was the source.
The author was certainly the editor, Geoffrey Dawson, with some
assistance from Carson. But it seems likely that Carson's source was
The leak prompted an immediate reaction from Asquith; "Unless the
impression is at once corrected that I am being relegated to the
position of an irresponsible spectator of the War, I cannot possibly
go on." Lloyd George's reply was prompt and conciliatory; "I
cannot restrain nor I fear influence Northcliffe. I fully accept in
letter and in spirit your summary of the suggested
arrangement—subject of course to personnel." But Asquith's mind
was already turning to rejection of the Sunday compromise and outright
confrontation with Lloyd George.
It is unclear exactly whom Asquith spoke with on 4 December.
Beaverbrook and Crewe state he met Chamberlain, Curzon and
Cecil. Cassar follows these opinions, to a degree. But
Chamberlain himself was adamant that he and his colleagues met Asquith
only once during the crisis and that was on the following day, Tuesday
5 December. Chamberlain wrote at the time "On Tuesday afternoon the
Prime Minister sent for Curzon, Bob Cecil and myself. This is the
first and only time the three of us met Asquith during those fateful
days." His recollection is supported by details of their meetings
Bonar Law and other colleagues, in the afternoon, and then
in the evening of the 4th, and by most modern historians, e.g.
Gilmour and Adams. Crawford records how little he and his
senior Unionist colleagues were involved in the key discussions, and
by implication, how much better informed were the press lords, writing
in his diary; "We were all in such doubt as to what had actually
occurred, and we sent out for an evening paper to see if there was any
news!" Asquith certainly did meet his senior Liberal colleagues
on the evening of 4 December, who were unanimously opposed to
compromise with Lloyd George and who supported Asquith's growing
determination to fight. His way forward had been cleared by his
tendering the resignation of his government to the King earlier in the
day. Asquith also saw
Bonar Law who confirmed that he would
resign if Asquith failed to implement the War Council agreement as
discussed only the day before. In the evening, and having
declined two requests for meetings, Asquith threw down the gauntlet to
Lloyd George by rejecting the War Council proposal.
Tuesday 5 December
Lloyd George accepted the challenge by return of post, writing; "As
all delay is fatal in war, I place my office without further parley at
your disposal." Asquith had anticipated this response, but was
surprised by a letter from Arthur Balfour, who until that point had
been removed from the crisis by illness. On its face, this letter
merely offered confirmation that Balfour believed that Lloyd George's
scheme for a smaller War Council deserved a chance and that he had no
wish to remain at the Admiralty if Lloyd George wished him out.
Jenkins argues that Asquith should have recognised it as a shift of
allegiance. Asquith discussed the crisis with Lord Crewe and they
agreed an early meeting with the Unionist ministers was essential.
Without their support, "it would be impossible for Asquith to
Asquith's meeting with Chamberlain, Curzon and Cecil at 3.00 p.m. only
highlighted the weakness of his position. They unanimously
declined to serve in a Government that did not include
Bonar Law and
Lloyd George, as a Government so constituted offered no "prospect
of stability." Their reply to Asquith's follow-up question as to
whether they were serve under Lloyd George caused him even more
concern. The "Three Cs" stated they would serve under Lloyd George if
he could create the stable Government they considered essential for
the effective prosecution of the War. The end was near and a
further letter from Balfour declining to reconsider his earlier
decision brought it about. The Home Secretary, Herbert Samuel,
recorded in a contemporaneous note; "We were all strongly of opinion,
from which [Asquith] did not dissent, that there was no alternative
[to resignation]. We could not carry on without LlG and the Unionists
and ought not to give the appearance of wishing to do so." At
7.00 pm, having been Prime Minister for eight years and 241 days,
Asquith went to Buckingham Palace and tendered his resignation.
Describing the event to a friend sometime later, Asquith wrote; "When
I fully realised what a position had been created, I saw that I could
not go on without dishonour or impotence, or both." That evening,
he dined at Downing Street with family and friends, his
daughter-in-law Cynthia describing the scene; "I sat next to the
P.M.—he was too darling—rubicund, serene, puffing a guinea cigar
and talking of going to Honolulu." Cynthia believed that he would
be back "in the saddle" within a fortnight with his position
Later that evening Bonar Law, who had been to the Palace to receive
the King's commission, arrived to enquire whether Asquith would serve
under him. Lord Crewe described Asquith's reply as "altogether
discouraging, if not definitely in the negative."[o]
Wednesday 6 December
I am personally very sorry for poor old Squiff. He has had a hard time
and even when 'exhilarated' seems to have had more capacity and brain
power than any of the others. However, I expect more action and less
talk is needed now
General Douglas Haig on Asquith's fall (6 December)
Wednesday saw an afternoon conference at Buckingham Palace, hosted by
the King and chaired by Balfour. There is some doubt as to the
originator of the idea, although Adams considers that it was
Bonar Law. This is supported by a handwritten note of Aitken's,
reproduced in A.J.P. Taylor's life of that politician, which reads:
"6th Wed. Meeting at BL house with G. (Lloyd George) and C.
(Carson)—Decide on Palace Conference." Conversely, Crewe
suggests that the suggestion came jointly from Lord Derby and Edwin
Montagu. However it came about, it did not bring the compromise
the King sought. Within two hours of its break-up, Asquith, after
consulting his Liberal colleagues, except for Lloyd George,
declined to serve under Bonar Law, who accordingly declined the
King's commission. At 7.00 pm. Lloyd George was invited to
form a Government. In just over twenty four hours he had done so,
forming a small War Cabinet instead of the mooted War Council, and at
7.30 p.m. on Thursday 7 December he kissed hands as Prime
Minister. His achievement in creating a government was
considerable, given that almost all of the senior Liberals sided with
Asquith. Balfour's acceptance of the Foreign Office made it
possible. Others placed a greater responsibility on Asquith as
the author of his own downfall, Churchill writing; "A fierce, resolute
Asquith, fighting with all his powers would have conquered easily. But
the whole trouble arose from the fact that there was no fierce
resolute Asquith to win this war or any other."
Wartime Opposition Leader: 1916–1918
The Asquiths finally vacated
10 Downing Street
10 Downing Street on 9 December. Asquith,
not normally given to displays of emotion, confided to his wife that
he felt he had been stabbed. He likened himself (10 December) to
the Biblical character Job, although he also commented that Aristide
Briand's government was also under strain in France. Lord Newton
wrote in his diary of meeting Asquith at dinner a few days after the
fall; "It became painfully evident that he was suffering from an
incipient nervous breakdown and before leaving the poor man completely
collapsed." Asquith was particularly appalled at Balfour's
behaviour, especially as he had argued against Lloyd George to
retain Balfour at the Admiralty. Writing years later, Margot's
spleen was still evident; "between you and me, this is what hurt my
husband more than anything else. That Lloyd George (a Welshman!)
should betray him, he dimly did understand, but that Arthur should
join his enemy and help to ruin him, he never understood."
Asquith's fall was met with rejoicing in much of the British and
Allied press and sterling rallied against the German mark on the New
York markets. Press attacks on Asquith continued and indeed increased
after the publication of the Dardanelles Report.
Robert Peel after 1846 Asquith still controlled the party
machinery and resented those who had ousted him, but showed no real
interest in reuniting his party. Asquith did not put any pressure on
Liberals not to join the government but few did, as the Liberal MPs as
a body were intensely loyal to him and felt that he alone should not
be left to face the criticism. On 8 December a gathering of Liberal
MPs gave Asquith a vote of confidence as Leader of the Liberal Party,
followed unanimously a few days later by the executive of the National
Liberal Federation. There was much hostility to Lloyd George at these
Within Parliament, Asquith pursued a course of quiet support,
retaining a "heavy, continuing responsibility for the decision of
August 4, 1914." Gardiner in the Daily News (9 December) stated
explicitly that Lloyd George's government should not have to live
under the constant barrage of criticism that Asquith's coalition had
endured. In a "gracious" reply to Lloyd George's first speech in
the House of Commons as Prime Minister on 19 December 1916, made clear
that he did not see his role "in any sense to be the leader of what is
called an opposition". From around the spring of 1917 Asquith's
reluctance to criticise the government at all began to exasperate some
of his press supporters.
Outside of the Commons, Margot and he returned to 20 Cavendish Square
and he divided his life between there, The Wharf and visiting. Money,
in the absence of his premier's salary, became more of a concern.
In March 1917 he was informally offered the Lord Chancellorship, with
the highest salary in government, but he declined. Personal
sadness continued in December 1917 when Asquith's third son Arthur,
known in the family as "Oc", was badly wounded fighting in France; his
leg was amputated in January 1918. Asquith's daughter-in-law recorded
in her diary; "The Old Boy (Asquith) sent me fifteen pounds and also,
in a letter, told me the sad news of poor, dear Oc having been badly
Main article: Maurice Debate
On 7 May 1918 a letter from a serving officer, Major-General Sir
Frederick Maurice appeared in four London newspapers, accusing Lloyd
Bonar Law of having misled the House of Commons in debates
the previous month as to the manpower strength of the army in
France. Asquith, who received a letter from Maurice on 6
May, and had also been in contact with the sacked Robertson,
with whom Maurice discussed the letter, called for a Select Committee
of the House to investigate the charges. In response to a private
Bonar Law had offered a judicial inquiry, with
Asquith free to choose the judges, but Asquith declined this offer on
the evening of 7 May, thinking it contrary to the dignity of
Parliament. Prior to the debate, he received a surprising
communication (8 May) from H.A. Gwynne, the editor of the Morning
Post, and previously a fervent opponent. "The effect of the Maurice
letter, and your motion, must be the dissolution of the present
government (and) your accession to power." Asquith's opening
speech on the Select Committee motion was lengthy and lacked
punch. Bridgeman recorded; "He did not make much of a case, and
did not even condemn Maurice's breach of the King's Regulations, for
which he got a very heavy blow from L.G.". Lloyd George's one and
a quarter-hour long reply was "a stunning solo display by the greatest
rhetorician of his age" in which he threatened the House with the
inevitable political consequence of a vote for Asquith's motion. "…
if this motion is carried, he (Asquith) will again be responsible for
the conduct of the War. Make no mistake!" John Ramsden summed up
the opinion in the House of Commons; "Lloyd George's lies were
(preferred to) Asquith's half-measures." The motion was defeated
by 293 votes to 106, more an "utter rejection of Asquith, than (a)
wholehearted endorsement of Lloyd George", and the latter's
position in Parliament was not seriously threatened for the remainder
of the War.
End of the war
Main article: Armistice of 11 November 1918
Asquith was left politically discredited by the
Maurice Debate and by
the clear turn of the war in the Allies' favour from the summer of
1918. He devoted far more effort to his Romanes Lecture "Some Aspects
of the Victorian Age" at Oxford in June 1918 than to any political
speech. However, Lady Ottoline Morrell thought it "a dull
address". A letter of July 1918 describes a typical couple of
days. "Nothing much is happening here. I dined with the usual crowd at
Mrs. Astor's last night. The
Duke of Connaught lunches here on Friday:
don't you wish you were coming!"
The beginning of the end of the war began where it had begun, with the
last German offensive on the Western Front, the Second Battle of the
Marne. "The tide of German success was stemmed and the ebb began
under pressure of the great Allied counter-stroke." In response
to the Allied offensives, "the governments of the
Central Powers were
everywhere in collapse".
Decline and eclipse: 1918–1926
Even before the Armistice, Lloyd George had been considering the
political landscape and, on 2 November 1918, wrote to Bonar Law
proposing an immediate election with a formal endorsement—for which
Asquith coined the name "Coupon", with overtones of wartime food
rationing—for Coalition candidates. News of his plans soon
reached Asquith, causing considerable concern. On 6 November he wrote
to Hilda Henderson; "I suppose that tomorrow we shall be told the
final decision about this accursed election." A Liberal
delegation met Lloyd George in the week of 6 November to propose
Liberal reunification but was swiftly rebuffed.
Asquith joined in the celebrations of the Armistice, speaking in the
Commons, attending the service of thanksgiving at St Margaret's,
Westminster and afterwards lunching with King George. Asquith had
a friendly meeting with Lloyd George a few days after the Armistice
(the exact date is unclear), which Lloyd George began by saying "I
understand you don't wish to join the government."  Asquith was
instead keen to go to the Peace Conference, where he considered his
expertise at finance and international law would have been an
asset. As he refused to accept public subordination, Lloyd
George, despite lobbying from the King and Churchill, refused to
Asquith led the Liberal Party into the election, but with a singular
lack of enthusiasm, writing on 25 November: "I doubt whether there is
much interest. The whole thing is a wicked fraud." The Liberal
leaders expected to lose the 1918 election badly, as they had lost the
"Khaki Election" in 1900, but did not foresee the sheer scale of the
defeat. Asquith hoped for 100 Liberal MPs to be returned. He
began by attacking the Conservatives, but was eventually driven to
attack the "blank cheque" which the government was demanding.
Asquith was one of five people given a free pass by the Coalition but
the East Fife Unionist Association defied national instructions and
put up a candidate, Sprot, against him. Sprot was refused a
Coalition "coupon." Asquith assumed his own seat would be safe
and spent only two and half days there, speaking only to closed
meetings; in one speech there on 11 December he conceded that he did
not want to "displace" the current government. He scoffed at press
rumours that he was being barracked by a gang of discharged
soldiers. Postwar reconstruction, the desire for harsh peace
terms, and Asquith's desire to attend the peace talks, were campaign
issues, with posters asking: "Asquith nearly lost you the War. Are you
going to let him spoil the Peace?" James Scott, his chairman at
East Fife, wrote of "a swarm of women going from door to door
indulging in a slander for which they had not a shadow of proof. This
was used for such a purpose as to influence the female vote very much
At the poll on 14 December, Lloyd George's coalition won a landslide,
with Asquith and every other former Liberal Cabinet minister losing
his seat. Margot later recorded having telephoned Liberal
headquarters for the results; "Give me the East Fife figures: Asquith
6994—Sprott (sic) 8996." She claimed to have exclaimed "Asquith
beat? … Thank God!"
Augustine Birrell also wrote to him "You
are surely better off out of it for the time, than watching Ll.G. lead
apes to Hell". But for Asquith personally, "the blow was
crippling, a personal humiliation which destroyed his hope of
exercising any influence on the peace settlement."
1919: out of Parliament
1919 portrait by André Cluysenaar
Asquith remained leader of the Liberal Party, despite McKenna vainly
urging him, almost immediately after the election, to offer his
resignation to the National Liberal Federation and help with building
an alliance with Labour. At first Asquith was extremely
unpopular, and there is no evidence that he was invited to address any
Liberal Association anywhere in the country for the first six months
of 1919. He continued to be calumnied in the press and Parliament
over the supposed presence of Germans in Downing Street during the
Although accounts differ as to the exact numbers, around 29 uncouponed
Liberals had been elected, only 3 with any junior ministerial
experience, not all of them opponents of the coalition. There was
widespread discontent at Asquith's leadership, and Sir T.A. Bramsdon,
who claimed that he had been elected at Portsmouth only by promising
not to support Asquith, protested openly at his remaining leader from
outside the Commons. At first Lloyd George extended the government
whip to all Liberal MPs. On 3 February 23 non-coalition Liberals
formed themselves into a "Free Liberal" group (soon known as the "Wee
Frees" after a Scottish religious sect of that name); they accepted
Asquith's appointment of Sir Donald Maclean as chairman in his absence
but insisted that George Rennie Thorne, whom Asquith had appointed
Chief Whip, hold that job jointly with James Myles Hogge, of whom
Asquith and Maclean had a low opinion. After a brief attempt to set up
a joint committee with the Coalition Liberal MPs to explore reunion,
the "Wee Frees" resigned the government whip on 4 April, although some
Liberal MPs still remained of uncertain allegiance. The Liberals
won by-elections in March and April 1919, but thereafter Labour
performed better than the Liberals in by-elections.
In April 1919 Asquith gave a weak speech to Liberal candidates, his
first public speech since the election. In Newcastle (15 May) he gave
a slightly stronger speech, encouraged by his audience to "Hit
Out!" Asquith was also disappointed by the "terms and spirit" of
Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles in May, but did not oppose it very strongly
in public. On 31 July 1919, after a lunch in honour of former
Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch, Asquith wrote "he talked a
lot of nonsense about Germany sinking never to rise again."
In August 1919 Asquith was asked to preside over a Royal Commission
into the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, although the report
when it came was, in line with Asquith's own academic views, somewhat
conservative. The commission began hearings in January 1920; many
dons would have preferred Haldane as chair. Asquith's public
rehabilitation continued with the receipt in late 1919 of the 1914
British War Medal
British War Medal and the Victory Medal, honours which the
War Office, under Churchill, had originally intended only to be
awarded to Lloyd George, until the King insisted Asquith receive them
Maclean and others urged Asquith to stand in the Spen Valley
by-election in December 1919, but it is unclear whether he ever
considered the idea. This was just as well, as it had become clear
that Labour were going to fight the seat hard and they defeated Sir
John Simon when Lloyd George insisted on splitting the Liberal vote by
running a Coalition Liberal candidate.
Main article: Paisley by-election, 1920
A Parliamentary seat was essential if Asquith was again to play any
serious part in future events. By the autumn of 1919 J.M. Hogge was
openly critical of Asquith's leadership, and by January 1920 it was
rumoured that he had given Asquith an ultimatum that unless he
returned to Parliament in a by-election the Independent Liberal MPs
would repudiate him as their leader (had he lost a by-election, his
position would have been untenable anyway, as he well knew).
In January 1920, an opportunity arose at Paisley, in Scotland like his
previous seat, after the death of the Liberal MP. The Liberals
had held the seat by only 106 votes in 1918. Asquith's adoption was
not a foregone conclusion: the local Association was split between
pro- and anti-coalition factions, and he was selected by a vote of
20:17 by the executive and then 92:75 of the wider members. He was
formally adopted on 21 January 1920 and soon united the local Liberal
Association behind him. Asquith was lukewarm at the thought
of returning to Scotland, and regarded his gamble with trepidation,
although he grew more confident as the campaign progressed.
Travelling with Margot, his daughter Violet and a small staff, Asquith
directed most of his campaign not against Labour, who were already in
second place, but against the Coalition, calling for a less harsh line
on German reparations and the Irish War of Independence. Some
"thought fit to compare [the campaign] with Gladstone's Midlothian
campaign, although Asquith himself was more circumspect. 
The result was stupendous, with Asquith defeating his Labour opponent
by a majority of over 2000 votes, with the Coalition candidate a very
poor third. Violet was ecstatic; "every star in the political
skies favoured Father when we left Paisley, he became there what he
has never before been in his life, the 'popular' candidate, the
darling of the crowd." The poll was up by 8,000 from 1918.
Asquith's surprise victory was helped by the support of the press
baron Lord Rothermere.
He was seen off by tumultuous crowds at Glasgow, and greeted by
further crowds at Euston the next morning, and along the road on his
first return to Parliament. However, he received only a chilly
greeting inside the Chamber, and no personal congratulations from
Coalition politicians, except, ironically from Lord Cave who was to be
his nemesis at Oxford in 1925.
Leader of the Opposition: 1920–1921
Paisley was a false dawn, for the Liberals and for Asquith personally.
Jenkins wrote that "The post-war Liberal day never achieved more than
a grey and short-lived light. By 1924, it was dusk again. By 1926, for
Asquith, it was political night."
Maurice Cowling characterised
Asquith at this time as; "a dignified wreck, neither effective in the
House of Commons nor attractive as a public reputation, (who) drank
too much and (who) had lost touch with the movement of events and the
spirit of the time."
Money, or its lack, also became an increasing concern. Margot's
extravagance was legendary and Asquith was no longer earning
either the legal fees or the prime ministerial salary they had enjoyed
in earlier years. Additionally, there were on-going difficulties with
Margot's inheritance. In 1920, as an economy measure, 20
Cavendish Square was sold to Viscountess Cowdray and Asquith
and Margot moved to 44, Bedford Square.
Criticism of Asquith's weak leadership continued. Lloyd George's
Frances Stevenson wrote (18 March) that he was "finished …
no fight left in him"; the press baron Lord Rothermere, who had
supported him at Paisley, wrote on 1 April of his "obvious incapacity
for the position he is expected to fill". In fact Asquith spoke
in the House of Commons far more frequently than he had ever
previously done when not a minister. He also spoke frequently around
the country, in June 1921 topping the Liberal Chief Whip's list of the
most active speakers. The issue was the quality of his
contributions. Asquith still maintained friendly relations with Lloyd
George, although Margot made no secret of her enmity for him.
Until the Paisley by-election Asquith had accepted that the next
government must be some kind of Liberal-Labour coalition, but Labour
had distanced themselves because of his policies on the mines, the
Russo-Polish War, education, the prewar secret treaties and the
suppression of the Easter Rebellion. The success of Anti-Waste
League candidates at by-elections made leading Liberals feel that
there was a strong anti-Coalition vote which might be tapped by a
wider-based and more credible opposition. By late June 1921
Asquith's leadership was still under strong attack from within the Wee
Free group, although Frances Stevenson's claim in her diary that most
of them now wanted Lloyd George as their leader is not corroborated by
the report in "The Times". Lord Robert Cecil, a moderate and
League of Nations
League of Nations Conservative, had been having talks with Edward
Grey about a possible coalition, and Asquith and leading Liberals
Crewe, Runciman and Maclean had a meeting with them on 5 July 1921,
and two subsequent ones. Cecil wanted a genuine coalition rather than
a de facto Liberal government, with Grey rather than Asquith as Prime
Minister, but the Liberals did not, and little came of the
Asquith did fiercely oppose "the hellish policy of reprisals" in
Ireland, impressing the young Oswald Mosley. J.M. Hogge even
urged Sir Donald Maclean (31 August) to "knock Asquith into the middle
of next week" and seize back the chairmanship of the Liberal MPs.
Late in 1921 the National Liberal Federation adopted an industrial
programme without Asquith's agreement. On 24 October 1921 Asquith
commented "if one tries to strike a bold true note half one's friends
shiver and cower, and implore one not to get in front of the
Leader of the Opposition: 1922
In January 1922
C.P. Scott of the
Manchester Guardian told Asquith
that he supported a centre-left grouping, but only if moderate Labour
was included—in reality Labour leaders were unable to deliver the
support of their local members for such a realignment. Asquith
achieved more success with a major speech at Westminster Central Hall
in January 1922, in reply to a speech by Lloyd George a few days
earlier. Asquith had with some difficulty been persuaded to make the
maximum possible reference to his renewed alliance with Grey, but
Haldane had refused to join the platform. Five days later Churchill
replied with a pro-Coalition speech in which he accused Asquith and
other Liberals of having "stood carefully aside" during the war,
causing deep offence.[q]
By the summer of 1922 Asquith's interest in politics was at a very low
ebb. He was observed to be "very heavily loaded" at a party of
Sir Philip Sassoon's on 16 July 1922, whilst his reputation was
further damaged by his portrayal in Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow
and by the publication of the first volume of Margot's memoirs, which
sold well in the UK and the USA, but were thought an undignified way
for a former Prime Minister to make money. On 13 September 1922
Sir Donald Maclean told
Harold Laski that Asquith was devoted to
bridge and small talk and did not do enough real work. Asquith
was increasingly attracted by the thought of making money from
writing, with Churchill doing very well from his "The World Crisis"
and Lloyd George rumoured to be being paid handsomely for his memoirs
(which in the event did not appear until the mid-1930s).
Asquith's books The Genesis of the War finally appeared in September
1923 and Studies and Sketches in 1924. His second son Herbert
recorded; "A large part of my father's later years was occupied with
authorship and it was during this period that he wrote most of his
Asquith played no part in Lloyd George's fall from power in October
1922, which happened because the rank-and-file majority of his Tory
coalition partners, led by
Stanley Baldwin and Lloyd George's former
colleague Bonar Law, deserted him.
Bonar Law formed a purely
Conservative government, and the following month, at the 1922 general
election, Asquith ceased to be Leader of the Opposition as more Labour
MPs were elected than the two Liberal factions combined. 138 Labour
members outnumbered the combined Liberal number of 117, with 60
Asquith supporters and 57 "National Liberals" (adherents to Lloyd
George). Asquith had thought Paisley would be safe but was only
narrowly returned with a 316 majority (50.5 per cent of the votes cast
in a two-candidate battle with Labour), despite a rise in the Liberal
vote. He put this down to the 5,000 unemployed at Paisley after the
slump of 1920–1921. He wrote that he "gloated" over the senior
Coalition Liberals—Churchill, Hamar Greenwood, Freddie Guest and
Edwin Montagu—who lost their seats.
In March 1923 a petition for reunion among Liberal backbenchers
received 73 signatures, backed by the Lloyd Georgeite "Daily
Chronicle" and the Asquithian "Liberal Magazine". But reunion was
opposed by senior Asquithian Liberals like Sir John Simon, Viscount
Gladstone and Charles Masterman, and as late as 30 June by journalists
such as Massingham and Gardiner of "The Nation". By July Asquith was
friendly to Lloyd George and conferred with him, but excluded him from
the Shadow Cabinet just as Campbell-Bannerman had sometimes excluded
Asquith and the other Liberal Imperialists at the time of the Boer
War. Asquith wanted Lloyd George to make the first move but
although he put out feelers to senior Asquith supporters he insisted
that he was "neither a suppliant nor a penitent". Viscount
Gladstone felt that "it was generally recognised that Asquith was no
longer effective as an active leader" but that Lloyd George must not
The political situation was transformed when Baldwin, now Prime
Minister, came out in favour of Protection at Plymouth on 22 October
1923. Coming out for Free Trade himself, Lloyd George was
obliged, at least formally, to submit to Asquith's leadership.
Parliament was dissolved. Asquith and Lloyd George reached agreement
on 13 November, followed by a Free Trade manifesto, followed by a more
general one. Lloyd George, accompanied by his daughter Megan, came to
Paisley to speak in Asquith's support on 24 November.
Asquith fought an energetic national campaign on free trade in 1923,
with echoes of 1903. He spoke at Nottingham and Manchester, but
did not privately expect more than 200 Liberals to be
elected—although he hoped to overtake Labour and become Leader of
the Opposition once again—and hoped for Baldwin to win by a tiny
The poll at Paisley was split by an independent extreme socialist and
a Tory. Asquith won with 33.4 per cent of the vote.
Nationally, the outcome of the election in December 1923 was a hung
Parliament (258 Conservatives, 191 Labour, 158 Liberals); the Liberals
had gained seats but were still in third place. A quarter of the
seats were held by majority less than 1,000. In general, Asquith
Liberals did better than Lloyd George Liberals, which Gladstone and
Maclean saw as a reason to prevent close co-operation between the
Putting Labour in power
There was no question of the Liberals supporting a continuation of the
Conservative government, not least as it was feared that an alliance
of the two "bourgeois" parties would antagonise Labour. Asquith
commented that "If a Labour Government is ever to be tried in this
country, as it will be sooner or later, it could hardly be tried under
safer conditions". Asquith's decision to support a minority Labour
Government was seconded by Lloyd George and approved by a party
meeting on 18 December.
Baldwin's view was similar, as he rejected Sir Robert Horne's scheme
for a Conservative-Liberal pact. Roy Douglas called the decision to
Ramsay MacDonald "the most disastrous single action ever
performed by a Liberal towards his party." Other historians such as
Trevor Wilson and Koss reject this view, arguing that Asquith had
Asquith was never in doubt as to the correctness of his approach,
although a deluge of correspondence urged him to save the country from
Socialism. He wrote on 28 December "I have been intreated during
these weeks, cajoled, wheedled, almost caressed, tortured, threatened,
brow-beaten and all but blackmailed to step in as the saviour of
The Liberals thus supported Britain's first ever (minority) Labour
Government under Ramsay MacDonald. The Liberal Party voted for the
Labour amendment to the Address, causing Baldwin to resign (Asquith
believed that Baldwin could have ignored the vote and carried on
attempting to govern without a majority). He thought the new Labour
Government "a beggarly array" although he remarked that the Foreign
Office staff were glad to see the back of "the Archduke Curzon".
Asquith believed that MacDonald would soon be discredited both in the
eyes of the country and of his own more extreme supporters, and the
Liberal revival would continue.
Labour government and the Campbell Case
Asquith's decision only hastened his party's destruction, the
Austen Chamberlain writing to his colleague Sir Samuel
Hoare; "We have got (unexpectedly and by our own blunders and
Asquith's greater folly) a second chance. Have we got the wit to take
Relations with Labour soon became very tense, with Liberal MPs
increasingly angered at having to support a Labour Government which
treated them which such open hostility. Many Liberals were also
angered at MacDonald's pursuit of a trade agreement with the USSR,
although Asquith rather less so. The intervention of a Labour
candidate at a by-election in Oxford in June handed the seat to the
As Asquith brought MacDonald in so, later in the same year, he had
significant responsibility for forcing him out over the Campbell Case
and the Russian Treaty. The Conservatives proposed a vote of
censure against the Government for withdrawing their prosecution for
sedition against the Daily Worker, and Asquith moved an amendment
calling for a select committee (the same tactic he had employed over
Marconi scandal and the Maurice Debate). Asquith's
contribution to the debate showed an increasingly rare return to
Parliamentary form. "Almost every one of his delightful sentences
filled the Chamber with laughter." Asquith's motion was passed by
364–198. As in the Maurice Debate, his sense of political
tactics was, in Jenkins' view, overcome by his sense of Parliamentary
propriety. He could not bring himself to withdraw the amendment, but
could not support the government either.
Instead of resigning MacDonald requested, and was granted, a General
Election. The 1924 election was intended by MacDonald to cripple
the Liberals, and it did. Lloyd George refused to hand over money
from his fund until he had more say over the Liberal whips office,
Liberal Party Headquarters at Arlington Street and an election there
was a chance of winning.
Meetings at Paisley were tumultuous and Asquith was barracked by
hecklers singing "The Red Flag". Asquith was widely expected to
lose his seat and did so by 2,228. He received 46.5 per cent of
the vote in his final parliamentary election, a straight fight against
Labour. Violet wrote; "Father was absolutely controlled. He just
said to me, 'I'm out by 2,000'."
It was a political, as well as a personal, disaster. Baldwin won a
landslide victory, with over "400 Conservatives returned and only 40
Liberals", far behind Labour which entrenched its position as the
"chief party of Opposition." Labour's vote actually increased
somewhat (partly as a result of their fielding more candidates than
before). The Liberal vote collapsed, much of it coalescing to the
Conservatives as a result of the scare around the forged Zinoviev
The Liberal grandees, who hated Lloyd George, did not press Asquith to
retire. Sir Robert Hudson and Maclean called on him (31 October) and
insisted he firmly keep the chair at the next meeting and nominate the
new Chief Whip himself.
The 1924 election was Asquith's last Parliamentary campaign, and there
was no realistic chance of a return to the Commons. He told Charles
Masterman "I'd sooner go to hell than to Wales," the only part of the
country where Liberal support remained strong. The King offered him a
peerage (4 November 1924). Asquith felt he was not rich
enough to accept, and would have preferred to die a commoner like Pitt
or Gladstone. He accepted in January 1925 after a holiday in Egypt
with his son Oc. He deliberately chose the title "Earl of Oxford",
saying it had a splendid history as the title chosen by Robert Harley,
Tory statesman of Queen Anne's reign. He was thought by some to
have delusions of grandeur, Lady Salisbury writing to him that the
title was "like a suburban villa calling itself Versailles."
Asquith found the controversy amusing but the College of Heralds
insisted that he add "and Asquith" to the final title, after protests
from Harley's descendants. In practice he was known as "Lord
Oxford". He never enjoyed the House of Lords, and thought the
quality of debates there poor. 
In 1924 the Liberal party had only been able to put up 343 candidates
due to lack of money. At one point the Liberal Shadow Cabinet
suggested obtaining the opinion of a Chancery Lawyer as to whether the
Liberal Party was entitled under trust law to Lloyd George's money,
which he had obtained from the sale of honours. On 29 January
1925, at a two-day London convention, Asquith launched a Million Fund
Appeal in an unsuccessful attempt to raise Liberal Party funds
independent of Lloyd George.
Main article: University of Oxford Chancellor election, 1925
I have had a noble offer from Lady Bredalbane who proposes to give me
her late husband's Garter robes as a present. I shall jump at this, as
it will save me a lot of money
Asquith on an additional benefit of The Order of the Garter
One more disappointment remained. In 1925 he stood for the
Chancellorship of Oxford University, vacant on the death of Lord
Curzon. He was eminently suited and was described by Lord Birkenhead,
one of his many
Tory supporters, as "the greatest living
Asquith suspected he might lose because of country clergy's hostility
to Welsh Disestablishment, blaming "
Zadok the Priest and
Priest—with their half-literate followers in the rural parsonages".
The election was also seen as a settling of party scores and a mockery
of his title. He lost to the
Tory candidate, Lord Cave, by 987 votes
to 441 on 20 March. He claimed to be "more disappointed than
surprised", but his friend
Desmond MacCarthy wrote that it affected
him "more than any disappointment, save one, in his life after he
ceased to be Prime Minister."
In May 1925 Asquith accepted the
Order of the Garter
Order of the Garter from Baldwin, who
was known to be a personal admirer of his.
Difficulties continued with Lloyd George, who had been chairman of the
Liberal MPs since 1924, over the party leadership and over party
funds. In the autumn of 1925 Hobhouse, Runciman and the
industrialist Sir Alfred Mond protested to Asquith at Lloyd George
organising his own campaign for reform of land ownership. Asquith was
"not enthusiastic" but Lloyd George ignored him and arranged for
Asquith to be sent reports and calculations ("Lord Oxford likes sums"
he wrote). At a meeting on 25 November 1925 Grey, Maclean, Simon,
Gladstone and Runciman urged Asquith to have a showdown with Lloyd
George over money. Asquith wanted to think it over, and at the
December 1925 Federation executive he left the meeting before the
topic came up. To the horror of his followers Asquith reached an
agreement in principle with Lloyd George over land reform on 2
December, then together they presented plans to the National Liberal
Federation on 26 February 1926. But, wrote Maclean, "in private
Asquith's language about Lloyd George was lurid."
In January 1926 Mond withdrew his financial support from the Liberal
Party. The loss of wealthy donors and the failure of the
Million Fund Appeal further weakened Asquith's position, and there is
some evidence that his frequent requests for money irritated donors
Robert Perks who had given a good deal to the Party over the
years, and that outside his inner circle of devotees he was bad at
keeping on good terms with potential donors.
This was followed by a near final breach with Lloyd George over the
General Strike. The Liberal Shadow Cabinet unequivocally backed
Baldwin's handling of the strike on 3 May. Asquith viewed the strike
as "criminal folly" and condemned it in the House of Lords,
whilst in the Commons Sir John Simon declared it to be illegal. But
whereas Asquith and Grey both contributed to the British Gazette,
Churchill's pro-government newssheet, Lloyd George, who had not
previously expressed a contrary opinion at Shadow Cabinet, wrote an
article for the American press more sympathetic to the strikers, and
did not attend the Shadow Cabinet on 10 May, sending his apologies on
"policy grounds". Asquith at first assumed him to be trying to
ingratiate himself with the Churches and Labour, but then (20 May)
sent him a public letter rebuking him for not attending the meeting to
discuss his opinions with colleagues in private.
In private, both sides were incandescent; one of Asquith's colleagues
describing him as; "far more indignant at L.G. than I have ever
seen", whilst Lloyd George expressed his private feelings in a
Frances Stevenson on 24 May "(Asquith) is a silly old man
drunk with hidden conceit. When he listens to those poor creatures he
has a weakness for gathering around him he generally makes a fool of
himself. They are really 'beat'. Dirty dogs—and bitches."
Lloyd George's letter of 10 May had not been published, making it
appear that Asquith had fired the first shot, and Lloyd George sent a
moderate public reply, on 25 May. Asquith then wrote another public
letter (1 June) stating that he regarded Lloyd George's behaviour as
tantamount to resignation, the same as if a Cabinet Minister had
refused to abide by the principle of collective responsibility. Twelve
leading Liberals (including Grey, Lord Buckmaster, Simon, Maclean and
Runciman) wrote in Asquith's support to "The Times" (1 June). However,
Lloyd George had more support amongst the wider party than amongst the
grandees. The executive of the National Liberal Federation, despite
backing Asquith by 16:8, had already urged a reconciliation in late
May, and the London Liberal Candidates' Association (3 June) and the
Liberal MPs (8 June) did the same. Asquith had planned to launch a
fightback at the National Liberal Federation in Weston-Super-Mare, due
on 17 June, but on the eve of the conference he suffered a stroke (12
June) which put him out of action for three months.
Margot is said to have later claimed that her husband regretted the
breach and had acted after several rich donors had threatened to
quit. Asquith finally resigned the Liberal leadership on 15
Final years: 1926–1928
Asquith's grave at Sutton Courtenay
Asquith filled his retirement with reading, writing, a little
golf, travelling and meeting with friends. Since 1918 he had
developed an interest in modern painting and sculpture.
His health remained reasonable, almost to the end, though financial
concerns increasingly beset him. A perhaps surprising contributor
to an endowment fund established to support Asquith in 1927 was Max
Aitken, now Lord Beaverbrook, who contributed £1,000. Violet was
highly embarrassed by her step-mother's attempts to enlist the aid of
Aitken, Lord Reading and others of her husband's friends and
acquaintances. "It is monstrous that other people (should) be made to
foot Margot's bridge bills. How she has dragged his name through the
Asquith suffered a second stroke in January 1927, disabling his
left leg for a while and leaving him a wheelchair-user for the spring
and early summer of 1927. Asquith's last visit was see the
widowed Venetia Montagu in Norfolk. On his return to The Wharf,
in autumn 1927, he was unable to get out of his car and "he was never
again able to go upstairs to his own room." He suffered a third
stroke at the end of 1927. His last months were difficult, and he
became increasingly confused, his daughter Violet writing; "To watch
Father's glorious mind breaking up and sinking—like a great
ship—is a pain beyond all my imagining."
Asquith died, aged 75, at The Wharf on the morning of 15 February
1928. "He was buried, at his own wish, with great
simplicity," in the churchyard of All Saints' at Sutton
Courtenay, his gravestone recording his name, title, and the dates of
his birth and death. A blue plaque records his long residence at 20
Cavendish Square and a memorial tablet was subsequently erected
in Westminster Abbey. Viscount Grey, with Haldane Asquith's
oldest political friends, wrote; "I have felt (his) death very much:
it is true that his work was done but we were very close together for
so many years. I saw the beginning of his Parliamentary life; and to
witness the close is the end of a long chapter of my own."
Main article: Asquith family
Asquith's great-granddaughter, the actress Helena Bonham Carter
Asquith had five children by his first wife, Helen, and two surviving
children (three others died at birth or in infancy) by his second
His eldest son Raymond, after an academic career that outstripped his
father's was killed at the Somme in 1916. His second son
Herbert (1881–1947) became a writer and poet and married Cynthia
Charteris. His later life was marred by alcoholism. His
third son Arthur (1883–1939), became a soldier and businessman.
His only daughter by his first wife, Violet, later Violet Bonham
Carter (1887–1969), became a well-regarded writer and a life peeress
as Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury. She married Asquith's Personal
Maurice Bonham Carter in 1915. His fourth son Cyril
(1890–1954) was born on the day Asquith became a QC  and later
became a Law Lord.
His two children by Margot were Elizabeth, later Princess Antoine
Bibesco (1897–1945), a writer, who also struggled with alcohol
Anthony Asquith (1902–1968), known as "Puffin", a
film-maker, whose life was also severely affected by alcoholism.
Among his living descendants are his great-granddaughter, the actress
Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter (b. 1966), and two great-grandsons, Dominic
Asquith, British High Commissioner to India since March 2016, and
Raymond Asquith, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith, the heir to Asquith's
earldom. Another leading British actress,
Anna Chancellor (b.
1965), is also a descendant, being Asquith's great-great-granddaughter
on her mother's side.
Memorial to Asquith, Westminster Abbey
According to Matthew, "Asquith's decision for war with Germany was the
most important taken by a British prime minister in the twentieth
century, and was more important than any prime ministerial decision of
the nineteenth century. It not only dictated the involvement of the
United Kingdom in war but affected much of the pattern of imperial,
foreign, and economic history for the rest of the century."
Matthew deemed the decision Asquith's, in that without prime
ministerial support, it was not likely Britain would have entered the
war. Given the deep divisions in the Liberal Party, Pearce and
Goodlad noted, "it was a measure of (Asquith's) skill that he took
Britain into the war with only two relatively minor Cabinet
ministers … choosing to resign".
Asquith's reputation will always be heavily influenced by his downfall
at the height of the First World War. In 1930, Basil Liddell Hart
summed up opinion as to the reasons for his fall; "Lloyd George (came
to) power as the spokesman for a widespread demand for a more vigorous
as well as a more efficient prosecution of the war." Asquith's
collegiate approach; his tendency to "wait and see;" his
stance as the chairman of the cabinet, rather than leader of a
government—"content to preside without directing;" his
"contempt for the press, regard(ing) journalists as ignorant, spiteful
and unpatriotic;" and his weakness for alcohol—"I had occasion
to speak to the P.M. twice yesterday and on both occasions I was
nearly gassed by the alcoholic fumes he discharged;" all
contributed to a prevailing sense that Asquith was unable to rise to
"the necessities of total warfare." Grigg concludes, "In certain
vital respects, he was not qualified to run the war. A great head of
government in peacetime, by the end of 1916 he was in a general state
of decline, his obvious defects as a war leader (exposed)."
Cassar, reflecting on Asquith's work to bring a united country to war,
and his efforts in the year thereafter, goes towards a reassessment;
"His achievements are sufficiently impressive to earn him a place as
one of the outstanding figures of the Great War"  His
contemporary opponent, Lord Birkenhead paid tribute to his bringing
Britain united into the War, ""A statesman who rendered great service
to his country at a time when no other living Englishman could have
done what he did." The Coalition Whip, William Bridgeman,
provided an alternative
Tory view, comparing Lloyd George to Asquith
at the time of the latter's fall; "however unpopular or mistrusted
(Lloyd George) was in the House, he carried much more weight in the
Country than Asquith, who was almost everywhere looked on as a lazy
and dilatory man." Sheffield and Bourne provide a recent
historical reassessment; "Asquith's governments arguably took all the
key decisions of the War: the decision to intervene, to send the BEF;
to raise a mass volunteer army; to start and end the Gallipoli
Campaign; the creation of a Coalition government; the mobilisation of
industry; the introduction of conscription." But the weight of
opinion continues to agree with Asquith's own candid assessment, in a
letter written in the midst of war in July 1916; "I am (as usual)
encompassed by a cloud of worries, anxieties, problems and the rest.
'The time is out of joint' and sometimes I am tempted to say with
Hamlet 'O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.' Perhaps
Asquith's fall also saw the end of the "Liberal Party as one of the
great parties of state." According to Koss, Asquith's memory,
"has lingered over the successive crises that continued to afflict his
party. Each glimmer of a Liberal revival has enhanced his historical
stature, if only as the victim or agent of the Liberal decline."
After 1922 the Liberals did not hold office again, except as junior
partners in coalition governments in 1931–1932, in 1940–1945,[r]
and (as today's Liberal Democrats) in 2010–2015. Leonard considers
that responsibility for this must also be carried, in part, by
Asquith; "this gifted, fastidious, proud yet ultimately indecisive man
must bear his share of the blame."
Koss concludes that, in a "long, eventful and complex career, (that)
does not admit easily of a summing up, Asquith's failings were no less
manifest than his achievements." Michael and Eleanor Brock
maintain that "his peacetime record of legislative achievement should
not be overshadowed by his wartime inadequacy." Of those
achievements, his colleague Lord Buckmaster wrote; "The dull senses
and heavy lidded eyes of the public prevent them from seeing now all
that you have accomplished, but history will record it and the
accomplishment is vast." Among his greatest domestic
accomplishments, reform of the
House of Lords
House of Lords is at the zenith. Yet
Asquith's premiership was also marked by many difficulties, leading
McKenna to write in his memoirs, "friends began to wonder whether the
highest statesmanship consisted of overcoming one crisis by creating
another". Hazlehurst, writing in 1970, felt there was still much
to be gleaned from a critical review of Asquith's peacetime
premiership, "certainly, the record of a prime minister under whom the
nation goes to the brink of civil war [over Ireland] must be subjected
to the severest scrutiny."
Blue plaque, 20 Cavendish Square, London
Perhaps Asquith's greatest personal attainment was his parliamentary
dominance. From his earliest days in the House, "he spoke with the
authority of a leader and not as a backbencher." As
Campbell-Bannerman's "sledgehammer", his "debating power was
Lord Curzon extolled his skill in parliamentary
dialectic; "Whenever I have heard him on a first-rate occasion, there
rises in my mind the image of some great military parade. The words,
the arguments, the points, follow each other with the steady tramp of
regiments across the field; each unit is in its place, the whole
marching in rhythmical order; the sunshine glints on the bayonets and
ever, and anon, is heard the roll of the drums."
Jenkins considered Asquith as foremost amongst the great social
reforming premiers of the twentieth century. His Government's social
and political reforms were unprecedented and far-sighted; "paving the
way for the welfare state legislation of the Attlee government in
1945–1951 as well as Blair's constitutional reforms after
1997." According to Roy Hattersley, a changed Britain entered the
war in 1914, "the political, social and cultural revolution had
already happened. Modern Britain was born in the opening years of the
twentieth century." Asquith also worked strenuously to secure a
settlement of the Irish question and, although unsuccessful, his work
contributed to the 1922 settlement. Lastly, as a "great head of a
Cabinet", Asquith directed and developed the talents of an
extraordinary array of parliamentarians, for an extraordinarily long
period. Hazlehurst contends that this "ability to keep so gifted
and divergently-inclined a group in harness (was) one of his major
achievements." Overall, the Brocks argue that; "on the basis of
his achievements 1908 to 1914 he must rank among the greatest British
statesmen of any era." His oldest political and personal friend,
Haldane, wrote to Asquith on the latter's final resignation; "My Dear
A., a time has come in both of our lives when the bulk of work has
been done. That work does not pass away. It is not by overt signs that
its enduring character is to be judged. It is by the changes made in
the spirit of things into which the work has entered."
^ Some sources mention only two daughters. See Bates, p. 9. The
brother and sister who survived into adulthood were William Willans
and Emily Evelyn. See
Margot Asquith 1962, p. 263.
^ The surname, a variant of Askwith, a village in North Yorkshire,
derives from Old Norse ask-viðr – "ash-wood". See Ekwall,
^ The English legal profession is split into two branches. At that
time, any member of the public needing legal representation in the
High Court or Court of Appeal had to engage a solicitor – who would
in turn "instruct" or "brief" a barrister – who had the sole right
to appear before the higher courts, but was not permitted to take work
direct from the public without a solicitor as intermediary. A
barrister without good contacts with solicitors would therefore go
short of work. The distinctions between the two branches of the
profession have been relaxed to some extent since Asquith's time, but
to a considerable degree barristers remain dependent on solicitors for
work. See Terrill, p. 58.
^ According to the official biography by
J. A. Spender
J. A. Spender and Cyril
Asquith, "he had a profound respect for the mind and intelligence of
women … But he considered politics to be peculiarly the male
sphere, and it offended his sense of decorum and chivalry to think of
them as engaged in the rough and tumble of this masculine business and
exposed to its publicity. He always vehemently denied that the
question had any relation to democratic theory or that the exclusion
of women from the franchises was any reflection on their sex." See
Spender & Asquith, p. 360.
^ He was the first former cabinet minister to resume practice at the
bar after leaving government office. All cabinet ministers were, and
are, appointed as lifetime members of the Privy Council, and there had
been an uncodified feeling before 1895 that it was inappropriate for a
Privy Councillor to appear as an advocate in court, submitting to the
rulings of judges who, for the most part, ranked below him in the
official order of precedence. See Jenkins, pp. 90–91.
^ 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
^ 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.
^ 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
1892–1895, a number of bills were voted down by the
House of Lords
House of Lords during Campbell-Bannerman's
premiership. Although the Lords passed the Trade Disputes Act, the
Workmens' Compensation Act and the Eight Hours Act, they rejected the
Education Bill of 1906, an important measure in the eyes of Liberal
nonconformist voters. See Magnus 1964, p. 532
^ 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 a
Cabinet Meeting (21 July 1909) telling him to keep out of "matters of
high policy", as the monarch's permission was needed to dissolve
Parliament prematurely. See Magnus 1964, p. 527
^ Irish nationalists, unlike Liberals, favoured tariff reform, and
opposed the planned increase in whisky duty, but an attempt by Lloyd
George to win their support by cancelling it was abandoned as the
Cabinet felt that this was recasting the Budget too much, and because
it would also have annoyed nonconformist voters. See Magnus 1964,
^ By April the King was being advised by Balfour and the Archbishop of
Canterbury (to whom he had turned for relatively neutral
constitutional advice) that the Liberals did not have sufficient
electoral mandate to demand creation of peers. See Magnus 1964,
pp. 555–556. King Edward thought the whole proposal "simply
disgusting" and that the government was "in the hands of Redmond &
Co". Lord Crewe, Liberal leader in the Lords, announced publicly that
the government's wish to create peers should be treated as formal
"ministerial advice" (which, by convention, the monarch must obey)
although Lord Esher argued that the monarch was entitled in extremis
to dismiss the Government rather than take their "advice". See Heffer,
^ Definition: The real, effective cause of damage
^ That evening, Aitken and Churchill were dining with F. E. Smith at
the latter's Grosvenor Gardens home. The dinner ended acrimoniously,
as Aitken records: "'Smith,' said Winston with great emphasis, 'This
man knows I am not to be in the Government.' He picked up his coat and
hat and dashed into the street ... a curious end to the day."
Churchill was detested by the Conservatives for his defection to the
Liberals in 1904, for his role as an active, partisan Liberal
thereafter, and for his role in disastrous Dardanelles Campaign;
despite his energy and ability Lloyd George was not able to bring him
back into the government until the summer of 1917.
^ The exact nature of the slander is not specified. The Asquiths had
been the subject of rumour about their supposed pro-German sympathies,
Noel Pemberton Billing
Noel Pemberton Billing had put it about that they had been amongst
public figures seduced by German agents with sexual favours, lesbian
ones in Margot's case.
^ Churchill's wife remonstrated with him that Asquith had seen his
sons killed and maimed. Churchill replied that Asquith had left him to
be a scapegoat over the Dardanelles, had refused to appoint him
Commander-in-Chief in East Africa or to give him the brigade command
on the Western Front which he had promised him at the end of 1915, or
to appoint him to the vacancy for
Minister of Munitions
Minister of Munitions in the summer
of 1916. Asquith re-established friendly relations with Churchill
after they were sat together at the wedding of the
Duke of York and
Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, writing of him as
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Chancellor of the Exchequer in
1925 that he was "a Chimborazo or Everest among the sandhills of the
^ The National Liberals, a breakaway faction confusingly bearing the
same name as Lloyd George's followers of the early 1920s, and led by
Asquith's former protégé Sir John Simon, were in coalition
throughout the 1931–1945 period and eventually merged with the
^ Cameron Hazelhurst, "Herbert Henry Asquith" in John P McIntosh, ed.
British Prime Ministers in the 20th Century (1977) 105-6
^ a b c Jenkins, p. 13.
^ Davies, Edward J. "The Ancestry of Herbert Henry Asquith",
Genealogists' Magazine, 30 (2010–12), pp. 471–479
^ Alderson, p. 1.
Margot Asquith 1962, pp. 194–195.
Margot Asquith 1962, p. 195.
^ Jenkins, p. 15.
^ Levine, p. 75.
^ Bates, p. 10.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac
Matthew, H. C. G. "Asquith, Herbert Henry, first earl of Oxford and
Asquith (1852–1928)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 6 June 2015 (subscription or
UK public library membership required)
^ a b Dinner to Mr. Asquith", The Times, 25 November 1892, p. 6
^ Alderson, p. 10.
^ Bates, pp. 10–11.
^ Alderson, p. 3.
^ Jenkins, p. 17.
^ Spender & Asquith, p. 30.
^ "Political Notes", The Times, 23 July 1908, p. 12
^ Spender, J. A. and Cyril Asquith. "Lord Oxford", The Times, 12
September 1932, p. 11
^ Spender & Asquith, p. 31–32.
^ Spender & Asquith, p. 33.
^ Spender & Asquith, p. 34.
^ Spender & Asquith, p. 33–34.
^ Jenkins, p. 24.
^ Spender & Asquith, p. 32.
^ Jenkins, p. 23.
^ Levine, p. 76.
^ Bates, p. 12.
^ a b Jenkins, p. 25.
^ Rintala, p. 111.
^ Rintala, p. 118.
^ a b Jenkins, p. 27.
^ Alderson, p. 36.
^ a b Spender, J. A. and Cyril Asquith. "Lord Oxford", The Times, 13
September 1932, p. 13
^ Whitfield, p. 228.
^ Jenkins, pp. 31–32.
^ a b "Death of Mr. Justice Wright", The Times, 15 May 1904, p. 2
^ Jenkins, p. 37.
^ Douglas, p. 71.
^ Jenkins, 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 & Asquith, p. 52.
^ Alderson, pp. 37–38.
^ Jenkins, pp. 42–43.
^ Alderson, p. 44.
^ Jenkins, p. 44.
^ Spender & Asquith, p. 48.
^ Jenkins, p. 47.
^ "The Riots in London", The Manchester Guardian, 15 November 1887, p.
^ "Central Criminal Court", The Times, 19 January 1888, p. 10.
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