Asquith, Herbert Henry (1852–1928)

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British politician.

The son of a Yorkshire clothing manufacturer, Herbert Henry Asquith was born on 12 September 1852 in Morley, Yorkshire. Educated at the City of London and Balliol College, Oxford, Asquith became a lawyer in 1876. In the 1886 general election he was elected as the Liberal MP for East Fife. William Gladstone appointed him home secretary after the 1892 general election. He was granted the title Earl of Oxford in 1925. Asquith died on 15 February 1928 at Sutton Courtney, Oxfordshire.

By August 1914 Asquith had established himself as an outstanding figure in British political life. He had been prime minister of the Liberal government since 1908 and had worked efficiently as leader of a ministry with many outstanding figures. Certainly, he had failed so far to resolve some powerful difficulties. But he had presided over the introduction of striking pieces of social legislation and had led a long and successful battle against the powers of the House of Lords.

The collapse of international relations in July–August 1914 did not immediately undermine his position. While country and cabinet were divided about whether war on the Continent required British intervention, Asquith declined to rush to a decision. By 3 August it was evident that, from the British viewpoint, Germany was determined to impose its military hegemony on western Europe, maintain (and increase) its naval challenge to Britain, and crush the unoffending state of Belgium. This placed the issue of Britain's intervention beyond doubt. With only trivial exceptions, government, parliament, and the country followed Asquith's lead.

Asquith instantly brought Lord Kitchener into his Liberal government as war secretary and established a series of dramatic measures to guard national security, ensure the availability of railways for military as well as civilian purposes, and secure alternative sources of sugar.

Yet there was always an aspect of incongruity in this spectacle of a Liberal prime minister leading a government steadily obliged to implement state control. The Liberals were traditionally the party of peace, retrenchment, and reform, the first two of which were inapplicable in wartime and the third, when it occurred, an accidental by-product of war. The expression "business as usual," whereby Britain would just control the seas and meet war costs by developing its peacetime economy, suggested a Liberal position. But it was flatly contradicted by the government's decision to raise a mass (if still voluntary) army to participate in a continental war. The attempt to square this circle, along with problems in the actual conduct of the conflict, rendered Asquith's concluding two years as prime minister painful and ill rewarded.

It is usually claimed that everyone in Britain (excepting Kitchener) expected the war to be over by Christmas 1914. Asquith certainly did not and told the nation later in August that this would be "a protracted struggle." Yet he took little action to create the instruments that would convince the nation that it was being firmly directed. Nor, to all appearances, did he amend his own way of life or enhance his devotion to politics so as to create the impression of a firebrand driving affairs with utter conviction.

In December 1914 he established an eight-man War Council (subsequently the Dardanelles Committee and then the War Committee) as a subcommittee of the cabinet specifically to deal with war matters. But the cabinet retained, and often enough exercised, overall authority, so that the new body seemed rather to extend and even dilute the process of decision-making rather than concentrating it.

The overwhelming problem, of course, was the progress of the war. The small British Expeditionary Force had played a part in putting an end to Germany's bid for quick victory in the West. But Germany retained much of Belgium and France, and the predominance of weapons of defense over offense (at least until 1918) both preserved this situation and extinguished thousands of Allied lives.

So various members of the Liberal government began in early 1915 gestating ideas for a "quick" and even "decisive" victory elsewhere. Only one of these schemes was given serious application, and so was shown to be no improvement on the western front: the naval, and then combined, assault at the Dardanelles. This, it should be noted, was not a scheme imposed on helpless politicians by naval or military chiefs. It was something required of the armed forces by Asquith and other heads of government: a reassuring demonstration that the prime minister retained command of the war, but not, in its outcome, an event that redounded to his credit.

By May 1915 Asquith's difficulties had come sufficiently to a head that, in order to forestall the Conservatives' abandonment of the political truce, he resorted to the formation of a coalition government. His conduct toward some of his Liberal colleagues appeared cavalier, yet the fact remained that he retained many key posts in the government for the Liberals and fobbed off Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, with a quite minor post. In the event, with the course of the war driving politics in a conservative direction, and with the political position of his once principal Liberal colleague David Lloyd George increasingly open to doubt, this did not serve Asquith well.

Lloyd George, plainly, was advancing in the political stakes. As a consequence of a munitions "scandal" severely damaging to Kitchener, Asquith elevated him to the new (and very rewarding) post of minister of munitions. At the same time, Lloyd George was becoming powerfully identified with pressure from Conservative politicians and journalists for the introduction of conscription, a proposal that Asquith clearly disliked but in the end could not resist. Plainly what was keeping Asquith in office was the deep distrust that Lloyd George continued to arouse in the higher ranks of politics, Conservative as well as Liberal. But this meant that Asquith, increasingly, was dependent for his retention of the chief office on a singularly negative factor.

The year 1916 was not a happy one for the prime minister. First Asquith was forced to concede conscription for virtually all male Britons of military age, and then he had to deal with the consequences of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. Neither event redounded to his credit. Yet it was the Battle of the Somme, commencing on 1 July 1916 and continuing until the outset of winter four and a half months later, that dominated the political landscape. Its huge casualties and failure to take ground left Asquith powerless. People may have recognized that these sorry results were dictated by the nature of warfare in the early twentieth century, but they demanded a leader more visibly devoted to the struggle and more engulfed by hatred of the enemy.

Lloyd George struck in December 1916. He persuaded Bonar Law—aware of the fragility of his own position—to join him in demanding of Asquith the creation of "a small War Committee … with full powers" of which Asquith, although remaining prime minister, would not be a member. Briefly Asquith contemplated acceptance but recognition of his humiliating position under it, and the appearance of a particularly vicious interpretation in The Times, led to his refusal. This was as well, for he would have been an unwelcome fifth wheel on a coach he could not control. So Asquith went, and Lloyd George took power as head of a predominantly Conservative government with an element of Liberals and the qualified support of Labour.

For the rest of the war Asquith remained leader of the Liberal Party, occupying a role of unwavering support for the war and unforgiving, if unexpressed, separation from the government. Only once did he hint at his inner feelings toward Lloyd George, when General Frederick Maurice accused the prime minister in public of concealing his withholding of troops for the western front in the run-up to the Germany offensive of March 1918. The government having proposed an inquiry by judges, Asquith moved instead for a select committee. Lloyd George then realized that any inquiry would cause him great embarrassment and launched against Asquith's motion a withering attack. Asquith needed either to attack or to withdraw his motion but did neither. Lloyd George carried the day. This only mattered because the prime minister was making preparations for his postwar career, which he saw as the leader of a right-wing coalition consisting of the whole Conservative Party and a Liberal splinter group. So in the 1918 general election he selected 150 Liberals, whom he regarded as his particular supporters, and listed them on a "coupon"—a letter to voters co-signed by the unionist chancellor, Andrew Law—thereby guaranteeing a seat in parliament to nearly all of them, as they were unopposed by Conservative candidates. This somewhat disguised the fact that the result was a smashing Conservative victory. Asquith, whose Conservative opponent did not receive the coupon, was nevertheless firmly defeated. And the ruling Liberal Party of four years earlier was now not even an official opposition.

Yet this is not the last word to be said about Asquith. In part thanks to his direction in peace and war, Britain emerged from the conflict a partially welfare and a firmly liberal (if not Liberal) state, in which free trade and free service and freedom of opinion continued (anyway for the moment) unchallenged. It was not a small achievement.

See alsoLloyd George, David; World War I.


Primary Sources

Asquith, Henry Herbert. H. H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley. Edited by Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock. Oxford, U.K., 1982.

Secondary Sources

Cassar, George H. Asquith as War Leader. London, 1994.

Jenkins, Roy. Asquith. London, 1964.

Robin Prior