Herbert Henry Asquith

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Herbert Henry Asquith

The English statesman Herbert Henry Asquith, Ist Earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852-1928), was prime minister of Great Britain from 1908 to 1916. His government sponsored significant social legislation, restricted the power of the House of Lords, and led Britain into World War I.

Herbert Asquith was born in Morley (near Leeds), Yorkshire, on Sept. 12, 1852, the son of a small employer in wool spinning and weaving. The death of his father when Herbert was 8 years old brought the family under the care of his mother's father, a wool stapler in Huddersfield. There Herbert and his brother, William Willans, went to day school; later they attended a Moravian boarding school in Fulneck. At the age of 11 Herbert was sent to London with his brother to live with relatives and to attend the City of London School, then under a celebrated headmaster, Dr. Edwin Abbott. Young Asquith distinguished himself as a classical scholar and, more pertinent to his ultimate career, displayed remarkable talents as a public speaker. Winner of a classical scholarship, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, in 1870. There he achieved first-class honors in humane letters, served as president of the Oxford Union, and was elected a fellow of Balliol.

The 7-year stipend from the fellowship smoothed his way as a student at Lincoln's Inn, for he chose not classical studies but the law for his career. He was admitted to the bar in 1876. The next year he married Helen Melland, daughter of a prominent Manchester physician, and settled in Hampstead on the edge of London.

Early Political Career

Asquith's law practice developed slowly, and his real ambitions, it soon became clear, were in politics. He entered the House of Commons in 1886 as Liberal member for East Fife, a Scottish constituency which he represented for the next 32 years. His extraordinary maiden speech marked him out for future greatness. His defense (though unsuccessful) in 1888 of R. B. Cunninghame-Graham for unlawful assembly in Trafalgar Square on "Bloody Sunday" and his services (extraordinarily successful) in 1889 as junior counsel for Charles Parnell before the Commission of Enquiry (investigating Parnell's alleged approval of the Phoenix Park murders in Dublin) brought him to public notice. In 1890 he became a queen's counsel.

When William Gladstone and the Liberals returned to power in 1892, Asquith, now 40, was given Cabinet office as home secretary. In a government sharply divided over fundamental issues, he occupied himself largely with departmental details, working out a thoroughly satisfactory arrangement for public meetings in Trafalgar Square and enacting the Factory Act of 1895, which applied new standards of protection in industry. And though the Liberal government went from indifferent success under Gladstone to total failure under Lord Rosebury, Asquith emerged as a future leader of his party.

Asquith's wife had died in 1891, leaving him with five young children. Three years later he married Emma Alice Margaret (Margot) Tennant, daughter of a wealthy landed aristocrat and a woman distinguished in her own right in intellectual and social circles. Brilliant, vivacious, witty, even frivolous, she was a person altogether different from Asquith's first wife, and indeed, to all appearances, from Asquith himself. But it was an aspect of his character that, though serious in politics, for relaxation he preferred feminine company to masculine, especially if accompanied with wit and charm.

Asquith's political prospects seemed dimmed by the long Tory rule from 1895 to 1905; moreover, the Liberal party, already seriously weakened with the defection of the Unionists after 1886, was now almost hopelessly divided by the issues of the Boer War. Asquith, himself a supporter of the war, was often in conflict with Henry Campbell-Bannerman, party leader from 1898. In 1903, however, the Conservatives divided over the tariff issue, and the Liberals, the traditional party of free trade, reunited, with Asquith's oratory an instrument of revival.

Prime Minister

In the Liberal government of 1905 Asquith, as chancellor of the Exchequer, was second in command to Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman. His extraordinary capacity in the Commons made him a leading spokesman for government policy, and when Campbell-Bannerman resigned in 1908, Asquith's succession to the premiership was a matter of course. The Asquith government represented the transition from Gladstonian liberalism with emphasis upon "Peace, Retrenchment and Reform" to the "New Liberalism" of the 20th century with objectives of social and economic reform. Under Asquith the Liberal party reached the height of its power but also suffered the first stages in its disintegration.

Asquith legislated old age pensions and national insurance against illness, disability, and unemployment. The chief obstacle was the Conservative-dominated House of Lords. Asquith forced the Lords to accept a revolutionary budget to finance pensions as well as dreadnoughts. He went on to attack the veto power of the Lords. The Lords finally gave way, and the Parliament Bill, which sharply restricted the Lords' role in legislation, became law in 1911.

However, the Asquith government was now beset with even more serious problems—the threat of prolonged turmoil in the agitation of "votes for women"; protracted and intense industrial strife, often syndicalist in spirit; and the possibility of mutiny in Ulster, supported by the Conservatives and the military in England, in opposition to imminent Irish home rule. Asquith's qualities as advocate and orator were now ineffective. They could not mask his lack of any clear philosophy of government, his failure of positive leadership, and his "wait and see" attitude.

In August 1914 the Asquith government declared Britain's entry into World War I, despite the traditional Liberal adherence to peace. Asquith's ineffectiveness as a war prime minister led to the formation of a coalition Cabinet in 1915. In December 1916 the Cabinet forced Asquith's resignation; he was replaced as prime minister by David Lloyd George. Neither the Liberal party nor Asquith ever recovered from this crisis.

Last Years

Lloyd George led the coalition until 1922 but with Liberals in Parliament divided between his adherents and those of Asquith. In the election of 1918 the Asquith Liberals were reduced to 33, and Asquith himself was not reelected. In 1920, however, he returned to the Commons; while he was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in the streets, his reappearance in the Commons chamber brought only a "thin cheer." But it was now Lloyd George who was discredited, and the Liberals, under Asquith, made considerable recovery, although remaining less powerful than the Conservatives and Labour in the House of Commons.

In January 1924 Asquith refused overtures from the Conservatives for a new coalition, and with his support the first Labour government was formed. But later in the year the Conservatives returned to power, and Asquith again lost his seat. In 1925 he was created 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Some reconciliation came within the Liberal party but very little between Asquith and Lloyd George, now the chairman of the small parliamentary party. Asquith resigned his titular party leadership in 1926. Soon after, his health failed, and he died on Feb. 15, 1928.

Further Reading

Asquith told his own story in Memories and Reflections, 1852-1927 (2 vols., 1928), and Margot Asquith hers in An Autobiography (2 vols., 1920). There are two good biographies of Asquith: J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, Lord Oxford and Asquith (2 vols., 1932), is more detailed but less objective than Roy Jenkins, Asquith (1978, 1964). Both are based on the Asquith papers now in the Bodleian at Oxford. See also Winston Churchill, Great Contemporaries (1937), and for background Trevor Wilson, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935 (1966).

Additional Sources

Koss, Stephen E., Asquith, New York: Columbia University Press, 1985, 1976; St. Martin's Press, 1976.

Levine, Naomi B., Politics, Religion, and Love: the story of H.H. Asquith, Venetia Stanley, and Edwin Montagu, based on the life and letters of Edwin Samuel Montagu, New York: New York University Press, 1991. □

Asquith, Herbert Henry

views updated May 23 2018


ASQUITH, HERBERT HENRY (1852–1928), British politician.

Herbert Henry Asquith was born 12 September 1852, in Morley, Yorkshire, the son of a minor textile owner. He demonstrated a formidable intellect early on at the City of London School, enough to win the first classical scholarship from that school to Balliol College. Asquith won a first in classics and after finishing went into the law. He was called to the bar in 1876, married Helen Melland, the unassuming daughter of a doctor, in 1877, and had his first son, Raymond, in 1878. His first step in politics came in 1886, when he won the seat for the Scottish borough of East Fife.

Asquith rose steadily in Parliament, becoming home secretary under William Ewart Gladstone in 1892. Asquith could not enjoy his achievement fully, for his office came shortly after the death of his wife from typhoid. He quickly remarried, this time to Margot Tennant, the daughter of a rich Scottish baronet, in 1894. She was everything Helen had not been: outgoing, ambitious, and often irreverent, for good and ill.

The Liberals were out of power from 1895 to 1905. But when they returned, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal leader, offered Asquith the office of chancellor of the Exchequer. In the election that followed in 1906, the Liberals defeated the Unionists, ending up with a majority of 356, the largest in the House since 1832. The Liberal government seemed well positioned to put into place a substantially progressive program.

Campbell-Bannerman's health proved not up to premiership and he resigned in April 1908. Asquith replaced him. Asquith's achievements as prime minister have been dulled by the difficulties of World War I, and by the strange death of the party in the years after 1918, but it should not be forgotten that his government laid the foundations upon which Labour built the welfare state in the period from 1945 to 1951.

The first years were frustrating. The House of Lords refused to pass reformist legislation, and the Liberals had no effective way to overcome the veto, despite their immense majority. The breaking of that blockade started in 1909, with the introduction of the so-called People's Budget by David Lloyd George (1863–1945), the chancellor of the Exchequer. The budget loaded a number of reforms on the back of a finance bill, which the Lords traditionally did not touch. The Lords, however, summarily rejected the budget, provoking a constitutional crisis.

The election that resulted in January 1910, returned the Liberals to power, though with a reduced majority. Asquith pushed ahead with the confrontation and the Conservatives remained stubborn. The only way for the Liberals to break the impasse was to have the king flood the House of Lords by appointing hundreds of Liberal peers. This idea was unpopular, and Edward VII (r. 1901–1910) insisted on another election before he would contemplate it. The situation worsened when Edward died unexpectedly in May 1910 and was replaced by his son, George V (r. 1910–1936). The new king was reluctant to make his first major act a constitutional hamstringing of the House of Lords. But here Asquith was firm, and after the second general election of 1910, in November, the Lords caved in under pressure and passed the Parliamentary Bill of 1911, which ended their veto. It was a massive shift of power, indisputably confirming the Commons as the dominant House.

Perhaps the most difficult period of Asquith's premiership followed this signal triumph. The issue of Irish Home Rule caused a continuing series of crises, including mutterings of unrest within the army. There was a substantial amount of industrial unrest, the most since the 1890s, and the prospect of a general strike loomed large. Finally, many women's suffrage groups turned to violence to press their case, violence that included attacks on ministers. Asquith did not handle these as well as he might have. Irish Home Rule was likely an impossible task, but he showed a tin ear in dealing with the women's groups and with labor. By 1914, none of the crises had really been resolved.

Despite that, Asquith's position was mostly secure. Liberal by-election losses had not been severe, and another general election was not due until late 1915. Within the party, the only real threat was Lloyd George, and the two of them had a friendly relationship. The issue of relations between the Liberals and the Labour Party loomed, but Labour was not strong enough to be an independent electoral threat. The Irish problem remained, but it had been that way for centuries. Asquith could not know that his sternest test lay ahead.

See alsoGreat Britain; Lloyd George, David.


Brock, Michael, and Eleanor Brock, eds. H. H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley. Oxford, U.K., 1982.

Hobhouse, Charles. Inside Asquith's Cabinet: From the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse. Edited by Edward David. New York, 1978.

James, Robert Rhodes. The British Revolution: British Politics, 1880–1939. Volume 1: From Gladstone to Asquith, 1880–1914. London, 1976.

Jenkins, Roy. Asquith. New York, 1964.

David Silbey

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