Herbert Henry Asquith 1st earl of Oxford and Asquith

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Asquith, Herbert Henry, 1st earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928). Prime minister. Between 1908 and 1914 Asquith enjoyed an outstanding record, pushing through a series of major constitutional and social reforms. However, he had less success as a wartime premier from 1914 to 1916, and his reputation declined during the undignified period of infighting within the Liberal Party from 1918 to 1926.

Asquith's early life was spent in Morley and Huddersfield where his relatives were minor employers in the woollen trade. He soon left these modest origins behind him and advanced by means of a scholarship to Balliol College (1896), to the bar, and to a safe seat in Parliament—East Fife—which he held from 1885 to 1918. His first wife Helen, by whom he had five children, died in 1891, and when he remarried in 1894 it was to a very different character, Margot Tennant, the daughter of a wealthy Scots chemicals magnate, Sir Charles Tennant. Margot was a terrible snob who insisted on calling her husband Henry not Herbert, and described him as ‘incorrigibly middle-class’. Her chief motive in marrying him seems to have been ambition; she correctly saw him as prime ministerial material. Yet despite Margot's undoubted loyalty to Asquith and his party, the marriage was, for him, a very mixed blessing. Margot's extravagance severely stretched his barrister's income; her involvement with high society accelerated his own pronounced taste for the pleasures of metropolitan life; and her tactlessness and perpetual interference in politics compounded his hostility towards the enfranchisement of women.

Though his attendance at Westminster was restricted by the need to maintain his legal income, Asquith's abilities were quickly recognized. His systematic working habits, skill in mastering a brief, and capacity for retaining huge quantities of information made him a formidable parliamentarian. ‘Bring out the sledgehammer,’ Campbell Bannerman used to cry when he wished to strengthen his front bench with Asquith's debating talents. In 1892 Gladstone gave him the vital experience as home secretary which placed him in line for the premiership.

Subsequently, however, Asquith's career entered the doldrums for a time. In 1898 he declined the chance to lead the Liberals in the Commons, largely for financial reasons, though this problem was eased in 1901 when Sir Charles Tennant settled an annual income of £5,000 on Margot. Worse, Asquith became associated with the Liberal Imperialist cause during the South African War which detached him from the mainstream of the party. He even joined a cabal designed to force Campbell-Bannerman to go to the House of Lords when the Liberals next took office. However, between 1903 and 1905 he worked his passage back into favour by championing the free trade cause against the protectionism propagated by Joseph Chamberlain. When offered the Exchequer in December 1905 he quickly accepted.

Asquith proved to be one of the most important, innovative chancellors of modern times. He made it compulsory to provide an annual return of income to the Inland Revenue; he drew up the scheme for non-contributory old-age pensions; and he prepared the ground for the ‘People's Budget’ of 1909 by forcing the Treasury to abandon its opposition to a supertax on incomes above £5,000. This record puts Asquith in the school of New Liberalism, but he was too good a politician not to respect the traditional Liberal causes. He was, for example, a first-rate temperance speaker, notwithstanding his pronounced fondness for alcohol.

When Campbell-Bannerman retired in 1908 Asquith seemed to be the natural successor as prime minister. He presided over a highly talented cabinet, and was never afraid to promote able and ambitious men like Lloyd George and Winston Churchill. His working partnership with Lloyd George, whom he made chancellor, proved to be an immense source of strength to the party and the government until it broke down during the Great War. As premier Asquith played a key role in supporting Lloyd George's 1909 budget against criticism in the cabinet. As a result of the ensuing controversy he led the Liberals through two general elections in 1910 and ultimately resolved the problem that had hampered them since Gladstone's days; the 1911 Parliament Act curtailed the powers of the House of Lords and excluded it altogether from financial legislation.

The outbreak of war brought further proof of Asquith's skills. Against expectations he succeeded in taking his cabinet to war with only two resignations and thus kept the Liberal Party together; it was widely accepted that his leadership helped to maintain national unity over British participation in the war. However, his cold, legalistic temperament was not well suited to the emotional atmosphere of wartime. He began to suffer from a failure to cultivate the press and from a feeling that he lacked the determination to win the war. Asquithian cabinets—during which the prime minister often wrote long letters to Venetia Stanley, a young woman with whom he had become infatuated—were protracted and inconclusive affairs. But he was essentially unlucky that neither the generals nor the admirals proved capable of scoring a military victory. His decision to form a coalition government with the Conservative and Labour parties in May 1915 was the beginning of the end for Asquith, though it seemed a clever move at the time. Increasingly the Liberals began to blame him for right-wing policies like conscription. When presented with an ultimatum by Bonar Law and Lloyd George in December 1916, he misjudged his strength by resigning. The result was a new coalition under Lloyd George and a split in the Liberal party. This led to the disastrous ‘coupon’ election in 1918 in which Asquith lost his seat and the Liberals were displaced by Labour on the opposition front bench. Though he achieved a come-back by winning a by-election at Paisley in 1920, he was by then a largely negative force, intent upon keeping the party out of the hands of Lloyd George. He finally surrendered the leadership in 1926.

Martin Pugh

Bibliography

Jenkins, R. , Asquith (1964);
Koss, S. , Asquith (1976);
Spender, J. A., and and Asquith, C. , Asquith (2 vols., 1932).

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Asquith, Herbert Henry, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928) British statesman, last Liberal prime minister (1908–16). Asquith entered Parliament in 1886, later serving as home secretary to William Gladstone (1892–95). His support of free trade helped the Liberals win the 1905 general election. Asquith served as chancellor of the exchequer under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and succeeded him as prime minister. His administration was notable for its social welfare legislation, such as the introduction of old age pensions (1908) and unemployment insurance (1911). Asquith also passed the Parliament Act (1911), which ended the Lords' power of veto over Commons legislation. Other constitutional reforms included the introduction of salaries for MPs. However, Conservatives and Unionists rejected his attempts to establish Home Rule for Ireland. Asquith took Britain into World War I, but was an ineffective wartime leader. In 1915 he formed a coalition government with the Conservative Party. He was replaced as prime minister in a cabinet coup led by Lloyd George. Asquith stayed on as Liberal Party leader until 1926. He was ennobled in 1925.

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