Herbert Henry Asquith (generally known as H. H. Asquith), the second son of the two sons and three daughters of Joseph Dixon Asquith and his wife, Emily Willans Asquith, was born in Morley on 12th September 1852. His father was a wool merchant, supplying the local mills with top quality cloth from all over Europe. (1)
Asquith's biographer, Colin Matthew, has pointed out: "Two of his sisters died early, and his brother suffered a sports injury which stunted his growth; his father died when he was eight, from an intestine twisted while playing cricket. His mother was an invalid, with a heart condition and frequent bronchitis. The young Herbert Asquith soon of necessity developed the imperturbable, slightly withdrawn, self-sufficiency and good health which was his life's standby." (2)
The Asquith family were strong supporters of the Liberal Party. Asquith had a good relationship with both parents. He later described his mother as being a profoundly religious woman who was "a devoted and sagacious mother" who "made herself the companion and intimate friend of her children." (3)
After the death of his father in 1860, his grandfather, William Willans, took responsibility for the family, sending Asquith to Huddersfield College, and then in 1861 to the Fulneck Moravian School, near Leeds. He then went onto the City of London School. His mother moved to St Leonards, but Asquith remained in London and was "treated like an orphan" for the rest of his childhood. (4)
In November 1869, Asquith won a classical scholarship at Balliol College. While at Oxford University he came under the influence of Benjamin Jowett, his philosophy teacher. Asquith later commented to John Morley that Jowett's "talk is like one of those wines that have more bouquet than body." (5)
Asquith was described as being someone with "effortless superiority" while others claimed it was a disguise for shyness: "I am hedged in and hampered in these ways by a kind of native reserve, of which I am not at all proud". To another of his friends he was "a man who had a plan of life well under control" with "a remarkable power of using every gift he possessed to full capacity." (6)
Asquith was an outstanding student and eventually achieved a first-class honours degree. He also took an active role in politics and in 1874 he became president of the Oxford Union. While at university he made several imprtant friends including Alfred Milner, Andrew C. Bradley, Thomas Herbert Warren, Charles Gore, William P. Ker, and William H. Mallock. (7)
Asquith entered Lincoln's Inn to train as a barrister. He was called to the bar in June 1876. Asquith had falled in love with Helen Melland when he had first met her at the age of fifteen in 1869. In September 1876, asked Dr. Frederick Melland for permission to marry his daughter. After a two month delay he replied: "I have the fullest conviction that your industry and ability will procure for you in due time that success in your profession which has attended you in your past career." (8)
H. H. Asquith married Helen on 23rd August 1877. He later told a friend: "Her mind was clear and strong, but it was not cut in facets and did not flash lights, and no one would call her clever or intellectual. What gave her rare quality was her character, which everyone who knew her agrees was the most selfless and unworldly that they have ever encountered. She was warm, impulsive, naturally quick-tempered, and generous almost to a fault." (9)
Over the next thirteen years Helen gave birth to five children: Raymond (1878), Herbert (1881), Arthur (1883), Violet (1887) and Cyril (1890). The couple were devoted to their children. Herbert Asquith pointed out that both his parents "allowed their children a full measure of liberty; they used the snaffle rather than the curb and their control was very elastic in nature." (10)
Asquith later wrote: "I was content with my early love, and never looked outside. So we settled down in a little suburban villa, and our children were born, and every day I went by train to the Temple, and sat and worked and dreamed in my chambers, and listened with feverish expectation for a knock on the door, hoping it might be a client with a brief. But years passed and he hardly ever came." (11)
During this period wrote regular articles for The Spectator: "These articles... show his lifelong Liberalism early and clearly defined. They reflect a staunch radicalism tempered by realism (on condition that it worked from within the Liberal Party), a hostility to radical factionalists, and an admiration for party spirit." (12) Asquith warned about the dangers of the growth of socialism, something he described as "the English extreme left". (13)
In 1885, Asquith's close friend, Richard Haldane, was elected as Liberal Party MP for East Lothian. He persuaded Asquith to apply for the vacant Liberal candidacy in the neighbouring consistency of East Fife. In 1886 William Gladstone proposed a Home Rule Bill that stated there should be a separate parliament for Ireland in Dublin and that there would be no Irish MPs in the House of Commons. The Irish Parliament would manage affairs inside Ireland, such as education, transport and agriculture. However, it would not be allowed to have a separate army or navy, nor would it be able to make separate treaties or trade agreements with foreign countries. (14)
The Conservative Party opposed the measure. So did some members of the Liberal Party, led by Joseph Chamberlain, also disagreed with Gladstone's plan. Chamberlain main objection to Gladstone's Home Rule Bill was that as there would be no Irish MPs at Westminster, Britain and Ireland would drift apart. He added that this would be amounting to the start of the break-up of the British Empire. When a vote was taken, there were 313 MPs in favour, but 343 against. Of those voting against, 93 were Liberals. They became known as Liberal Unionists. (15)
Gladstone responded to the vote by dissolving parliament rather than resign. During the 1886 General Election he had great difficultly leading a divided party. According to Colin Matthew: "So dedicated was Gladstone to the campaign that he agreed to break the habit of the previous forty years and cease his attempts to convert prostitutes, for fear, for the first time, of causing a scandal (Liberal agents had heard that the Unionists were monitoring Gladstone's nocturnal movements in London with a view to a press exposé)". (16)
Asquith was a keen advocate of Home Rule and this was one of the reasons why he won his seat with a majority of only 376. In the election the number of Liberal MPs fell from 333 in 1885 to 196, though no party gained an overall majority. Gladstone resigned on 30th July. Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, once again became prime minister. Queen Victoria wrote him a letter where she said she always thought that his Irish policy was bound to fail and "that a period of silence from him on this issue would now be most welcome, as well as his clear patriotic duty." (17)
Asquith's early years as an MP were marked by intense hard work as he tried to juggle his political commitments with the need to support his growing family from his earnings at the Bar. He did not make his maiden speech until 24th March 1887. Gladstone was impressed by his contribution and invited him to dinner. Gladstone told his friends that he considered Asquith to be a future leader of the Liberal Party. Although he spoke rarely in the House of Commons he developed a reputation for political oratory. (18)
Asquith, as a good-looking and charming MP, was a much sought after dinner-party guest. Frances Horner commented: "We never thought any party complete without him." (19) In March, 1891, he found himself seated next to Margot Tennant, the vivacious twenty-seven-year-old youngest daughter of his fellow Liberal MP Sir Charles Tennant. Margot commented that she "was deeply impressed by his conversation and his clear Cromwellian face... he had a way of putting you not only at your ease but at your best when talking to him which is given to few men of note." (20) Asquith later commented that "Margot... took possession of me... The passion which comes, I suppose, to everyone once in life, visited and conquered me." (21)
In the summer of 1891 the Asquiths had a holiday on the Isle of Arran. On 20th August, their son, Herbert Asquith, became feverish and Helen Asquith moved in to his room to nurse him. The following day Helen was taken ill. A doctor was called and he diagnosed typhoid and she died on 11th September. Herbert Henry Asquith wrote that night: "She died at nine this morning. So end twenty years of love and fourteen of unclouded union. I was not worthy of it, and God has taken her. Pray for me." (22)
In the 1892 General Election held in July, Gladstone's Liberal Party won the most seats (272) but he did not have an overall majority and the opposition was divided into three groups: Conservatives (268), Irish Nationalists (85) and Liberal Unionists (77). Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, refused to resign on hearing the election results and waited to be defeated in a vote of no confidence on 11th August. Gladstone, now 84 years old, formed a minority government dependent on Irish Nationalist support. (23)
Asquith was appointed as Gladstone's Home Secretary. On hearing the news he wrote to Margot Tennant. "Here I am, full from my earliest days of political ambition, still young, and just admitted to one of the best places in the Cabinet, and yet I undertake to say that there is hardly a man in London more profoundly depressed than I am today. You know why... What use to me... are honours, power, a career, if I am to be cut off from the hope and promise of all that is purest and highest in my life?" (24)
The reason for this depression was that Margot had rejected his proposal of marriage. Asquith was twelve years older than Margot and she was in love with another man. However, she eventually changed her mind and they were married on 10th May 1894. Margot wrote in her diary five days after her marriage to Asquith: "I realized that in some ways with all his tact and delicacy, all his intellect and bigness, all his attributes, he had a common place side to him which nothing could alter... It is not in his nature to feel the subtlety of love making, the dazzle and fun of it, the tiny almost untouchable fellowship of it... He has passion, devotion, self-mastery, but not the nameless something that charms and compels and receives and combats a woman's most fastidious advances." (25)
Margot later confessed that she had been wrong to doubt the wisdom of marrying Asquith: "I can truly say no words of mine today can at all, describe how differently things have turned out for me!!!! My in-loveness (for 9 years) with Peter Flower - my love for Evan Charteris, my hundred and one loves and friendships are like so much waste paper! My criticisms of Henry are pathetically stupid, narrow and crass. The fact is I was... a sort of drunkard of all social caresses up to the moment of marriage." (26)
Over the next few years Margot had five children but only Elizabeth Asquith (1897–1945) and Anthony Asquith (1902–1968) survived as three of them died at birth. Margot had a reputation for speaking her mind and relations with her step-children were difficult. This was especially true of her dealings with Raymond Asquith, the eldest, and Violet Bonham Carter, the only daughter.
William Gladstone and John Morley concentrated on Irish Home Rule, whereas Henry Asquith and his under-secretary, Herbert Gladstone, the prime minister's son, were put in charge of important aspects of the Liberals' programme of domestic reform. Asquith's position was difficult, for the Liberals in the Commons had only 272 MPs to the combined Unionist vote of 314, and thus relied on the Irish home-rulers for their majority. "It soon became clear that the Unionists intended to use their own majority in the Lords not merely to stop home rule but to spoil whatever items of the Liberals' legislative programme they disliked". (27)
The Irish Home Rule Bill was introduced on 13th February 1893. William Gladstone personally took the bill through the "committee stage in a remarkable feat of physical and mental endurance". After eighty-two days of debate it was passed in the House of Commons on 1st September by 43 votes (347 to 304). Gladstone wrote in his diary, "This is a great step. Thanks be to God." (28)
On 8th September, 1893, after four short days of debate, the House of Lords rejected the bill, by a vote of 419 to 41. "It was a division without precedent, both for the size of the majority and the strength of the vote. There were only 560 entitled to vote, and 82 per cent of them did did so, even though there was no incentive of uncertainty to bring remote peers to London." (29)
Gladstone considered resigning and calling a new general election on the issue. However, he suspected that he could not mount a successful electoral indictment of the House of Lords on Irish Home Rule. He therefore pushed ahead with the Workmen's Compensation Act, a measure that was extremely unpopular with employers. Asquith was given responsibility for taking the bill through Parliament. The act dealt with the right of workers for compensation for personal injury. It replaced the Employer's Liability Act 1880, which required the injured worker the right to sue the employer and put the burden of proof on the employee. (30)
In the autumn of 1893 Asquith prepared a Welsh Disestablishment and Disendowment Bill. In Parliament the measure was opposed by Conservative Party, who hated the slightest interference with the privileges of the established church. It was also attacked by the radical wing of the Liberal Party, who felt that the legislation did not go far enough. The leader of this group was David Lloyd George, who wanted the church stripped of the bulk of its wealth. Asquith complained to the Chief Whip, Tom Ellis, that he was far too lenient with Lloyd George's "underhand and disloyal" tactics. (31)
In December 1893, Gladstone came into conflict with his own party over the issue of defence spending. The Conservative Party began arguing for an expansion of the Royal Navy. Gladstone made it clear that he was opposed to this policy. William Harcourt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was willing to increase naval expenditure by £3 million. John Poyntz Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed with Harcourt. Gladstone refused to budge on the issue and wrote that he would not "break to pieces the continuous action of my political life, nor trample on the tradition received from every colleague who has ever been my teacher" by supporting naval rearmament. (32)
Conservatives continued to block the government's legislation. After accepting the Lords' amendments to the Local Government Bill "under protest" he decided to resign. In his last speech to the House of Commons on 1st March, 1894, he suggested that the time had come to change the rules of the British Parliament so that the House of Lords would no longer have the power to refuse to pass Bills which had been passed by the House of Commons. (33)
Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, became the new prime minister. His period in power was only short as the Liberal Party was defeated in the 1895 General Election. Rosebery resigned the leadership of the Liberal Party in October 1896. Asquith was seen by many as his natural successor but he rejected the offer as he did not have a private income and could not afford to give up his income from his work as a lawyer. (34)
The job went instead to Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Asquith was convinced that he would eventually replace Campbell-Bannerman, as he was sixty-two years old and fifteen years his senior. He expected his financial situation to improve and in a couple of yerars time he would be ready to take over the leadership. As Margot Asquith pointed out: "Campbell-Bannerman is not young or very strong and is not likely to prove a formidable long-term rival." (35)
The Boers (Dutch settlers in South Africa), under the leadership of Paul Kruger, resented the colonial policy of Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner which they feared would deprive the Transvaal of its independence. After receiving military equipment from Germany, the Boers had a series of successes on the borders of Cape Colony and Natal between October 1899 and January 1900. Although the Boers only had 88,000 soldiers, led by the outstanding soldiers such as Louis Botha, and Jan Smuts, the Boers were able to successfully besiege the British garrisons at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. On the outbreak of the Boer War, the conservative government announced a national emergency and sent in extra troops. (36)
Asquith called for support for the government and "an unbroken front" and became known as a "Liberal Imperialist". Campbell-Bannerman disagreed with Asquith and refused to to endorse the despatch of ten thousand troops to South Africa as he thought the move "dangerous when the the government did not know what it might lead to". David Lloyd George also disagreed with Asquith and complained that this was a war that had been started by Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary. (37)
It has been claimed that Lloyd George "sympathised with the Boers, seeing them as a pastrol community like Welshmen before the industrial revolution". He supported their claim for independence under his slogan "Home Rule All Round" assuming "it would lead to a free association within the British Empire". He argued that the Boers "would only be sudued after much suffering, cruelty and cost." (38)
Lloyd George also saw this anti-war campaign as an opportunity to stop Asquith becoming the next leader of the Liberals. Lloyd George was on the left of the party and had been campaigning with little success for the introduction of old age pensions. The idea had been rejected by the Conservative government as being "too expensive". In one speech he made the point: "The war, I am told, has already cost £16,000,000 and I ask you to compare that sum with what it would cost to fund the old age pension schemes.... when a shell exploded it carried away an old age pension and the only satisfaction was that it killed 200 Boers - fathers of families, sons of mothers. Are you satisfied to give up your old age pension for that?" (39)
The overwhelmingly majority of the public remained fervently jingoistic. David Lloyd George came under increasing attack and after a speech at Bangor on 4th April 1900, he was interrupted throughout his speech, and after the meeting, as he was walking away, he was struck over the head with a bludgeon. His hat took the impact and although stunned, he was able to take refuge in a cafe, guarded by the police.
On 5th July, 1900, at a meeting addressed by Lloyd George in Liskeard ended in pandemonium. Around fifty "young roughs stormed the platform and occupied part of it, while a soldier in khaki was carried shoulder-high from end to end of the hall and ladies in the front seats escaped hurriedly by way of the platform door." Lloyd George tried to keep speaking and it was only when some members of the audience began throwing chairs at him that he left the hall. (40)
On 25th July, a motion on the Boer War, caused a three way split in the Liberal Party. A total of 40 "Liberal Imperialists" that included H. H. Asquith, Edward Grey, Richard Haldane, and Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, supported the government's policy in South Africa. Henry Campbell-Bannerman and 34 others abstained, whereas 31 Liberals, led by Lloyd George voted against the motion.
Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, decided to take advantage of the divided Liberal Party and on 25th September 1900, he dissolved Parliament and called a general election. Lloyd George, admitted in one speech he was in a minority but it was his duty as a member of the House of Commons to give his constituents honest advice. He went on to make an attack on Tory jingoism. "The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than the man who fires upon it." (41)
Henry Campbell-Bannerman with a difficult task of holding together the strongly divided Liberal Party and they were unsurprisingly defeated in the 1900 General Election. The Conservative Party won 402 seats against the 183 achieved by Liberal Party. However, anti-war MPs did better than those who defended the war. David Lloyd George increased the size of his majority in Caernarvon Borough. Other anti-war MPs such as Henry Labouchere and John Burns both increased their majorities. In Wales, of ten Liberal candidates hostile to the war, nine were returned, while in Scotland every major critic was victorious.
John Grigg argues that it was not the anti-war Liberals who lost the party the election. "The Liberals were beaten because they were disunited and hopelessly disorganised. The war certainly added to their confusion, but this was already so flagrant that they were virtually bound to lose, war or no war. The government also had the advantage of improved trade since 1895, which the war, admittedly, turned into a boom. All things considered, the Liberals did remarkably well." (42)
Emily Hobhouse, formed the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children in 1900. It was an organisation set up: "To feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children - Boer, English and other - who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families or other incidents resulting from the military operations". Except for members of the Society of Friends, very few people were willing to contribute to this fund. (43)
Hobhouse arrived in South Africa on 27th December, 1900. Hobhouse argued that Lord Kitchener’s "Scorched Earth" policy included the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. Civilians were then forcibly moved into the concentration camps. Although this tactic had been used by Spain (Ten Years' War) and the United States (Philippine-American War), it was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted. She pointed this out in a report that she sent to the government led by Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury. (44)
When she returned to England, Hobhouse campaigned against the British Army's scorched earth and concentration camp policy. William St John Fremantle Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War argued that the interned Boers were "contented and comfortable" and stated that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps. David Lloyd George took up the case in the House of Commons and accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. (45)
After meeting Hobhouse, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, gave his support to Lloyd George against Asquith and the Liberal Imperialists on the subject of the Boer War. In a speech to the National Reform Union he provided a detailed account of Hobhouse's report. He asked "When is a war not a war?" and then provided his own answer "When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa". (46)
The British action in South Africa grew increasingly unpopular and anti-war Liberal MPs and the leaders of the Labour Party saw it as an example of the worst excesses of imperialism. The Boer War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. The peace settlement brought to an end the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as Boer republics. However, the British granted the Boers £3 million for restocking and repairing farm lands and promised eventual self-government. David Lloyd George commented: "They are generous terms for the Boers. Much better than those we offered them 15 months ago - after spending £50,000 in the meantime". (47)
On 24th March 1902, Arthur Balfour presented to the House of Commons an Education Bill that attempted to overturn the 1870 Education Act that had been brought in by William Gladstone. It had been popular with radicals as they were elected by ratepayers in each district. This enabled nonconformists and socialists to obtain control over local schools.
The new legislation abolished all 2,568 school boards and handed over their duties to local borough or county councils. These new Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were given powers to establish new secondary and technical schools as well as developing the existing system of elementary schools. At the time more than half the elementary pupils in England and Wales. For the first time, as a result of this legislation, church schools were to receive public funds. (48)
Nonconformists and supporters of the Liberal and Labour parties campaigned against the proposed act. David Lloyd George led the campaign in the House of Commons as he resented the idea that Nonconformists contributing to the upkeep of Anglican schools. It was also argued that school boards had introduced more progressive methods of education. "The school boards are to be destroyed because they stand for enlightenment and progress." (49)
In July, 1902, a by-election at Leeds demonstrated what the education controversy was doing to party fortunes, when a Conservative Party majority of over 2,500 was turned into a Liberal majority of over 750. The following month a Baptist came near to capturing Sevenoaks from the Tories and in November, 1902, Orkney and Shetland fell to the Liberals. That month also saw a huge anti-Bill rally held in London, at Alexandra Palace. (50)
Despite the opposition the Education Act was passed in December, 1902. John Clifford, the leader of the Baptist World Alliance, wrote several pamphlets about the legislation that had a readership that ran into hundreds of thousands. Balfour accused him of being a victim of his own rhetoric: "Distortion and exaggeration are of its very essence. If he has to speak of our pending differences, acute no doubt, but not unprecedented, he must needs compare them to the great Civil War. If he has to describe a deputation of Nonconformist ministers presenting their case to the leader of the House of Commons, nothing less will serve him as a parallel than Luther's appearance before the Diet of Worms." (51)
Clifford formed the National Passive Resistance Committee and over the next four years 170 men went to prison for refusing to pay their school taxes. This included 60 Primitive Methodists, 48 Baptists, 40 Congregationalists and 15 Wesleyan Methodists. The father of Kingsley Martin, was one of those who refused to pay: "Each year father and the other resisters all over the country refused to pay their rates for the upkeep of Church Schools. The passive resistors thought the issue of principle paramount and annually surrendered their goods instead of paying their rates. I well remember how each year one or two of our chairs and a silver teapot and jug were put out on the hall table for the local officers to take away. They were auctioned in the Market Place and brought back to us." (52)
David Lloyd George made clear that this was a terrible way to try and change people's opinions: "There is no greater tactical mistake possible than to prosecute an agitation against an injustice in such a way as to alienate a large number of men who, whilst they resent that injustice as keenly as anyone, either from tradition or timidity to be associated with anything savouring of revolutionary action. Such action should always be the last desperate resort of reformers... The interests of a whole generation of children will be sacrificed. It is not too big a price to pay for freedom, if this is the only resource available to us. But is it? I think not. My advice is, let us capture the enemy's artillery and turn his guns against him." (53)
Arthur Balfour became prime minister in June 1902. With the Liberal Party divided over the issue of the British Empire, it appeared that their chances of regaining office in the foreseeable future seemed remote. Then on 15th May 1903, Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, exploded a political bombshell with a speech in Birmingham advocating a system of preferential colonial tariffs. Asquith was convinced that Chamberlain had made a serious political mistake and after reading a report of the speech in The Times he told his wife: "Wonderful news today and it is only a question of time when we shall sweep the country". (54)
Asquith saw his opportunity and pointed out in speech after speech that a system of "preferential colonial tariffs" would mean taxes on food imported from outside the British Empire. Colin Clifford has pointed out: "Chamberlain had picked the one issue guaranteed to split the Unionist and unite the Liberals in the defence of Free Trade. The topic was tailor-made for Asquith and the next few months he shadowed Chamberlain's every speech, systematically tearing his arguement to shreds. The Liberals were on the march again." (55)
As well as uniting the Liberal Party it created a split in the Conservative Party as several members of the cabinet believed strongly in Free Trade, including Charles T. Richie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Leo Amery argued: "The Birmingham speech was a challenge to free trade as direct and provocative as the theses which Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg." (56)
Arthur Balfour now began to have second thoughts on this policy and warned Joseph Chamberlain about the impact on the electorate in the next general election: "The prejudice against a small tax on food is not the fad of a few imperfectly informed theorists, it is a deep rooted prejudice affecting a large mass of voters, especially the poorest class, which it will be a matter of extreme difficulty to overcome." (57)
Asquith made speeches that attempted to frighten the growing working-class electorate "to whom cheap food had been a much cherished boon for the last quarter of a century and it annoyed the middle class who saw the prospect of a reduction in the purchasing power of their fixed incomes." As well as spliting the Conservative Party it united "the Liberals who had been hitherto hopelessly divided on all the main political issues." (58)
Arthur Balfour resigned on 4th December 1905. Henry Campbell-Bannerman refused to form a minority government and insisted on an immediate dissolution of Parliament. It has been claimed that the Liberal Party "was on the crest of a wave and it was clear that the man who had put them there was not their leader, Campbell-Bannerman, but his deputy, Asquith." (59)
The 1906 General Election took place the following month. The Liberal Party won 397 seats (48.9%) compared to the Conservative Party's 156 seats (43.4%). The Labour Party, led by Keir Hardie did well, increasing their seats from 2 to 29. In the landslide victory Balfour lost his seat as did most of his cabinet ministers. Margot Asquith wrote: "When the final figures of the Elections were published everyone was stunned, and it certainly looks as if it were the end of the great Tory Party as we have known it." (60)
Campbell-Bannerman appointed Asquith as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Other important appointments included Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary), David Lloyd George (Board of Trade), Richard Haldane (Secretary of State for War) and John Burns (President of the Local Government Board). Cambell-Bannerman announced that: "Our purpose is to substitute morality for egoism, honesty for honour, principles for usages, duties for properties, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion; dignity for insolence, nobleness for vanity, love of glory for the love of lucre... powerful and happy people for an amiable, frivolous and wretched people: that is to say every virtue of a Republic that will replace the vices and absurdities of a Monarchy." (61)
Asquith had to sacrifice his lucrative legal practice for the more modest salary of a cabinet minister. At first he expected to live on the money inherited by his wife, from her father, Sir Charles Tennant, who died soon after the election. However, all the money went to her three brothers, who were bequeated sufficient capital to give them an income of £40,000 a year. To balance the family budget, Margot had to sell her horses and to give up hunting. (62)
Asquith's first budget was on 30th April 1906. According to his permanent secretary, Asquith spoke "with such lucidity and fluency as if he had been making Budget speeches all his life". Asquith made it clear that the safeguarding of free trade his chief objective. With the government only four months in office, this first budget was bound, as Asquith said, to be "provisional". His budget abolished the coal tax, reduced the tea tax, and announced a reduction of £1.5 million in naval expenditure. (63)
Asquith also told the House of Commons that it was his intention both to reduce income tax and to avoid further tariffs. He also hoped to increase land taxes and to introduce a system of graduating income tax. However, Treasury officials persuaded him against this. He therefore appointed a select committee under Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke "to inquire into differentiation and graduation, thus indicating the direction of his thinking on revenue raising". (64)
Asquith was committed to balancing the budget. For example, between 1906 and 1908 he reduced the national debt by an average of £15,000,000 a year, and in spite of having a substantial surplus for each year of his Chancellorship, was extremely hesitant and cautious about providing public money to the direct relief of poverty. He set aside £1,500,000 towards the possibility of providing old age pensions, sometime in the future. The vagueness of Asquith's language on the subject, annoyed many left-wing Liberals. The public shared these views and in July 1907, the Liberal Party suffered two humiliating by-election defeats, at Jarrow (Pete Curran) and Colne Valley (Victor Grayson), at the hands of the Labour Party. (65)
Henry Campbell-Bannerman suffered a severe stroke in November, 1907. He returned to work following two months rest but it soon became clear that the 71 year-old prime minister was unable to continue. On 27th March, 1908, he asked to see Asquith. According to Margot Asquith: "Henry came into my room at 7.30 p.m. and told me that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman had sent for him that day to tell him that he was dying... He began by telling him the text he had chosen out of the Psalms to put on his grave, and the manner of his funeral... Henry was deeply moved when he went on to tell me that Campbell-Bannerman had thanked him for being a wonderful colleague." (66)
Campbell-Bannerman suggested to Edward VII that Asquith should replace him as Prime Minister. However, the King with characteristic selfishness was reluctant to break his holiday in Biarritz and ordered him to continue. On 1st April, the dying Campbell-Bannerman, sent a letter to the King seeking his permission to give up office. He agreed as long as Asquith was willing to travel to France to "kiss hands". Colin Clifford has argued that "Campbell-Bannerman... for all his defects, was probably the most decent man ever to hold the office of Prime Minister. Childless and a widower since the death of his beloved wife the year before, he was now facing death bravely, with no family to comfort him." Cambell-Bannerman died later that month. (67)
Asquith appointed David Lloyd George as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Other members of his team included Winston Churchill (Board of Trade), Herbert Gladstone (Home Secretary), Charles Trevelyan (Board of Education), Richard Haldane (Secretary of State for War), Reginald McKenna (First Lord of the Admiralty) and John Burns (President of the Local Government Board).
Asquith took a gamble when he appointed Lloyd George to such a senior position. He was far to the left of Asquith but he reasoned that a disgruntled Lloyd George would be less of a problem inside the government as out. Asquith wrote: "The offer which I make is a well-deserved tribute to your long and eminent service to our party and to the splendid capacity which you have shown in your administration of the Board of Trade." (68)
David Lloyd George in one speech had warned that if the Liberal Party did not pass radical legislation, at the next election, the working-class would vote for the Labour Party: "If at the end of our term of office it were found that the present Parliament had done nothing to cope seriously with the social condition of the people, to remove the national degradation of slums and widespread poverty and destitution in a land glittering with wealth, if they do not provide an honourable sustenance for deserving old age, if they tamely allow the House of Lords to extract all virtue out of their bills, so that when the Liberal statute book is produced it is simply a bundle of sapless legislative faggots fit only for the fire - then a new cry will arise for a land with a new party, and many of us will join in that cry." (69)
Lloyd George had been a long opponent of the Poor Law in Britain. He was determined to take action that in his words would "lift the shadow of the workhouse from the homes of the poor". He believed the best way of doing this was to guarantee an income to people who were to old to work. Based on the ideas of Tom Paine that first appeared in his book Rights of Man, Lloyd George's proposed the Old Age Pensions Act in his first budget.
In a speech on 15th June 1908, he pointed out: "You have never had a scheme of this kind tried in a great country like ours, with its thronging millions, with its rooted complexities... This is, therefore, a great experiment... We do not say that it deals with all the problem of unmerited destitution in this country. We do not even contend that it deals with the worst part of that problem. It might be held that many an old man dependent on the charity of the parish was better off than many a young man, broken down in health, or who cannot find a market for his labour." (70)
However, the Labour Party was disappointed by the proposal. Along with the Trade Union Congress they had demanded a pension of at least five shillings a week for everybody of sixty or over, Lloyd George's scheme gave five shillings a week to individuals over seventy; and for couples the pension was to be 7s. 6d. Moreover, even among the seventy-year-olds not everyone was to qualify; as well as criminals and lunatics, people with incomes of more than £26 a year (or £39 a year in the case of couples) and people who would have received poor relief during the year prior to the scheme's coming into effect, were also disqualified." (71)
To pay for these pensions Lloyd George had to raise government revenues by an additional £16 million a year. In 1909 Lloyd George announced what became known as the People's Budget. This included increases in taxation. Whereas people on lower incomes were to pay 9d. in the pound, those on annual incomes of over £3,000 had to pay 1s. 2d. in the pound. Lloyd George also introduced a new supertax of 6d. in the pound for those earning £5,000 a year. Other measures included an increase in death duties on the estates of the rich and heavy taxes on profits gained from the ownership and sale of property. Other innovations in Lloyd George's budget included labour exchanges and a children's allowance on income tax. (72)
Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, the former Liberal Party leader, stated that: "The Budget, was not a Budget, but a revolution: a social and political revolution of the first magnitude... To say this is not to judge it, still less to condemn it, for there have been several beneficent revolutions." However, he opposed the Budget because it was "pure socialism... and the end of all, the negation of faith, of family, of property, of Monarchy, of Empire." (73)
David Lloyd George admitted that he would never have got his proposals through the Cabinet without the strong support of Asquith. He told his brother: "Budgetting all day... the Cabinet was very divided... Prime Minister decided in my favour to my delight". He told a friend: "The Prime Minister has backed me up through thick and thin with splendid loyalty. I have the deepest respect for him and he has real sympathy for the ordinary and the poor." (74)
His other main supporter in the Cabinet was Winston Churchill. He spoke at a large number of public meetings of the pressure group he formed, the Budget League. Churchill rarely missed a debate on the issue and one newspaper report suggested that he had attended one late night debate in the House of Commons in his pyjamas. Some historians have claimed that both men were using the measure to further their political careers.
Robert Lloyd George, the author of David & Winston: How a Friendship Changed History (2005) has suggested that their main motive was to prevent socialism in Britain: "Churchill and Lloyd George intuitively saw the real danger of socialism in the global situation of that time, when economic classes were so divided. In other European countries, reolution would indeed sweep away monarchs and landlords within the next ten years. But thanks to the reforming programme of the pre-war Liberal government, Britain evolved peacefully towards a more egalitarian society. It is arguable that the peaceful revolution of the People's Budget prevented a much more bloody revolution." (75)
The Conservatives, who had a large majority in the House of Lords, objected to this attempt to redistribute wealth, and made it clear that they intended to block these proposals. Lloyd George reacted by touring the country making speeches in working-class areas on behalf of the budget and portraying the nobility as men who were using their privileged position to stop the poor from receiving their old age pensions. The historian, George Dangerfield, has argued that Lloyd George had created a budget that would destroy the House of Lords: "It was like a kid, which sportsmen tie up to a tree in order to persuade a tiger to its death." (76)
Asquith's strategy was to offer the peers the minimum of provocation and hope to finesse them into passing the legislation. Lloyd George had a different style and in a speech on 30th July, 1909, in the working-class district of Limehouse in London on the selfishness of rich men unwilling "to provide for the sick and the widows and orphans". He concluded his speech with the threat that if the peers resisted, they would be brushed aside "like chaff before us". (77)
Edward VII was furious and suggested to Asquith that Lloyd George was a "revolutionary" and a "socialist". Asquith explained that the support of the King was vital if the House of Lords was to be outmanoeuvred. Asquith explained to Lloyd George that the King "sees in the general tone, and especially in the concluding parts, of your speech, a menace to property and a Socialistic spirit". He added it was important "to avoid alienating the King's goodwill... and... what is needed is reasoned appeal to moderate and reasonable men" and not to "rouse the suspicions and fears of the middle class". (78)
It was clear that the House of Lords would block the budget. Asquith asked the King to create a large number of Peers that would give the Liberals a majority. Edward VII refused and his private secretary, Francis Knollys, wrote to Asquith that "to create 570 new Peers, which I am told would be the number required... would practically be almost an impossibility, and if asked for would place the King in an awkward position". (79)
On 30th November, 1909, the Peers rejected the Finance Bill by 350 votes to 75. Asquith had no option but to call a general election. In January 1910, the Liberals lost votes and was forced to rely on the support of the 42 Labour Party MPs to govern. Asquith increased his own majority in East Fife but he was prevented from delivering his acceptance speech by members of the Women Social & Political Union who were demanding "Votes for Women". (80)
John Grigg, the author of The People's Champion (1978) argues that the reason why the "people failed to give a sweeping, massive endorsement to the People's Budget" was that the electorate in 1910 was "by no means representative of the whole British nation". He points out that "only 58 per cent of adult males had the vote, and it is a fair assumption that the remaining 42 per cent would, if enfranchized, have voted in very large numbers for Liberal or Labour candidates. In what was still a disproportionately middle-class electorate the fear of Socialism was strong, and many voters were susceptible to the argument that the Budget was a first instalment of Socialism." (81)
Some of his critics on the left of the party believed that Asquith had not mounted a more aggressive campaign against the House of Lords. It was argued that instead of threatening its power to veto legislation, he should have advocated making it a directly elected second chamber. Asquith felt this was a step to far and was more interested in a negotiated settlement. However, to Colin Clifford, this made Asquith look "weak and indecisive". (82)
In a speech on 21st February, 1910, Asquith outlined his plans for reform: "Recent experience has disclosed serious difficulties due to recurring differences of strong opinion between the two branches of the Legislature. Proposals will be laid before you, with convenient speed, to define the relations between the Houses of Parliament, so as to secure the undivided authority of the House of Commons over finance and its predominance in legislation." (83)
The Parliament Bill was introduced later that month. "Any measure passed three times by the House of Commons would be treated as if it had been passed by both Houses, and would receive the Royal Assent... The House of Lords was to be shorn absolutely of power to delay the passage of any measure certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as a money bill, but was to retain the power to delay any other measure for a period of not less than two years." (84)
Edward VII died in his sleep on 6th May 1910. His son, George V, now had the responsibility of dealing with this difficult constitutional question. David Lloyd George had a meeting with the new king and had an "exceedingly frank and satisfactory talk about the political crisis". He told his wife that he was not very intelligent as "there's not much in his head". However, he "expressed the desire to try his hand at conciliation... whether he will succeed is somewhat doubtful." (85)
James Garvin, the editor of The Observer, argued it was time that the government reached a negotiated settlement with the House of Lords: "If King Edward upon his deathbed could have sent a last message to his people, he would have asked us to lay party passion aside, to sign a truce of God over his grave, to seek... some fair means of making a common effort for our common country... Let conference take place before conflict is irrevocably joined." (86)
A Constitutional Conference was established with eight members, four cabinet ministers and four representatives from the Conservative Party. Over the next six months the men met on twenty-one occasions. However, they never came close to an agreement and the last meeting took place in November. George Barnes, the Labour Party MP, called for an immediate creation of left-wing peers. However, when a by-election at Walthamstow suggested a slight swing to the Liberals, Asquith decided to call another General Election. (87)
David Lloyd George called on the British people to vote for a change in the parliamentary system: "How could anyone defend the Constitution in its present form? No country in the world would look at our system - no free country, I mean... France has a Senate, the United States has a Senate, the Colonies have Senates, but they are all chosen either directly or indirectly by the people." (88)
The general election of December, 1910, produced a House of Commons which was almost identical to the one that had been elected in January. The Liberals won 272 seats and the Conservatives 271, but the Labour Party (42) and the Irish (a combined total of 84) ensured the government's survival as long as it proceeded with constitutional reform and Home Rule.
The Parliament Bill, which removed the peers' right to amend or defeat finance bills and reduced their powers from the defeat to the delay of other legislation, was introduced into the House of Commons on 21st February 1911. It completed its passage through the Commons on 15th May. A committee of the House of Lords then amended the bill out of all recognition. (89)
According to Lucy Masterman, the wife of Charles Masterman, the Liberal MP for West Ham North, that David Lloyd George had a secret meeting with Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Conservative Party. Lloyd George had bluffed Balfour into believing that George V had agreed to create enough Liberal supporting peers to pass a new Parliament Bill. (90)
Although a list of 249 candidates for ennoblement, including Thomas Hardy, Bertrand Russell, Gilbert Murray and J. M. Barrie, had been drawn up, they had not yet been presented to the King. After the meeting Balfour told Conservative peers that to prevent the Liberals having a permanent majority in the House of Lords, they must pass the bill. On 10th August 1911, the Parliament Act was passed by 131 votes to 114 in the Lords. (91)
Although several leading members of the government favoured granting women the vote, Asquith still opposed the measure. However, during the 1910 General Election campaign Asquith announced that if he was returned to power he would make sure that women with property would get the franchise. When Asquith changed his mind in November 1911 and instead announced legislation that would enable all adult males to vote, the WSPU organised a window breaking campaign including an attack on Asquith's home.
After the outbreak of the First World War his son, Raymond Asquith, although he was 36 year old, he thought that as his father was prime minister, he was duty bound to enlist in the British Army. In January 1915 he joined the Queen's Westminster Rifles. Aware that he would not see active service in this regiment he transferred as a lieutenant into the 3rd battalion of the Grenadier Guards and went out to the Western Front. Asquith was furious with his son and refused to write to him while he was on the front-line.
Asquith made strenuous attempts to achieve political solidarity and in May 1915 formed a coalition government. Gradually the Conservatives in the cabinet began to question Asquith's abilities as a war leader. So also did Lord Northcliffe, the powerful newspaper baron, and his newspapers, The Daly Mail and The Times led the attack on Asquith.
Raymond Asquith resisted attempts by his father to use his influence to transfer him onto the General Staff but against his wishes he did serve for four months at general headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force. In May, 1916, Asquith insisted on returning to the front-line and took part in the Somme offensive. As Mark Pottle has pointed out: "Though the staff position had been arranged without his knowledge and against his will, it naturally invited the conclusion that he had used his influence to escape the expected spring offensive. By returning to his regiment Raymond had set the record straight."
On 7th September, 1916, Asquith visited the front-line and managed to obtain a meeting with his son. He wrote to Margot Asquith that evening: "He was very well and in good spirits. Our guns were firing all round and just as we were walking to the top of the little hill to visit the wonderful dug-out, a German shell came whizzing over our heads and fell a little way beyond ... We went in all haste to the dug-out - 3 storeys underground with ventilating pipes electric light and all sorts of conveniences, made by the Germans. Here we found Generals Horne and Walls (who have done the lion's share of all the fighting): also Bongie's brother who is on Walls's staff. They were rather disturbed about the shell, as the Germans rarely pay them such attention, and told us to stay with them underground for a time. One or two more shells came, but no harm was done. The two generals are splendid fellows and we had a very interesting time with them."
On 15th September, Raymond Asquith led his men on a attack on the German trenches at Lesboeufs. He was hit in the chest by a bullet and died on the way to the dressing station. According to a soldier quoted by John Jolliffe: "there is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we had thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King's uniform, and he did not know what fear was." Only five of the twenty-two officers in Asquith's battalion survived the battle unscathed."
His sister, Violet Bonham Carter, wrote: "He was shot through the chest and carried back to a shell-hole where there was an improvised dressing station. There they gave him morphia and he died an hour later. God bless him. How he has vindicated himself - before all those who thought him merely a scoffer - by the modest heroism with which he chose the simplest and most dangerous form of service - and having so much to keep for England gave it all to her with his life."
The consequences of the Battle of the Somme put further pressure on Asquith. Colin Matthew has commented: "The huge casualties of the Somme implied a further drain on manpower and further problems for an economy now struggling to meet the demands made of it... Shipping losses from the U-boats had begun to be significant... Early in November 1916 he called for all departments to write memoranda on how they saw the pattern of 1917, the prologue to a general reconsideration of the allies' position."
At a meeting in Paris on 4th November, 1916, David Lloyd George came to the conclusion that the present structure of command and direction of policy could not win the war and might well lose it. Lloyd George agreed with Maurice Hankey, secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet, that he should talk to Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party, about the situation. Bonar Law remained loyal to Asquith and so Lloyd George contacted Max Aitken instead and told him about his suggested reforms.
On 18th November, Aitken lunched with Bonar Law and put Lloyd George's case for reform. He also put forward the arguments for Lloyd George becoming the leader of the coalition. Aitken later recalled in his book, Politicians and the War (1928): "Once he had taken up war as his metier he seemed to breathe its true spirit; all other thoughts and schemes were abandoned, and he lived for, thought of and talked of nothing but the war. Ruthless to inefficiency and muddle-headedness in his conduct, sometimes devious, if you like, in the means employed when indirect methods would serve him in his aim, he yet exhibited in his country's death-grapple a kind of splendid sincerity."
Together, Aitken, Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Edward Carson, drafted a statement addressed to Asquith, proposing a war council triumvirate and the Prime Minister as overlord. On 25th November, Bonar Law took the proposal to Asquith, who agreed to think it over. The next day he rejected it. Further negotiations took place and on 2nd December Asquith agreed to the setting up of "a small War Committee to handle the day to day conduct of the war, with full powers", independent of the cabinet. This information was leaked to the press by Carson. On 4th December The Times used these details of the War Committee to make a strong attack on Asquith. The following day he resigned from office.
On 7th December George V asked Lloyd George to form a second coalition government. Max Aitken later recalled that it was the most important thing that he had done in politics: "The destruction of the Asquith Government which was brought about by an honest intrigue. If the Asquith government had gone on, the country would have gone down."
Virginia Woolf dined with the Asquiths "two nights after their downfall; though Asquith himself was quite unmoved, Margot started to cry into the soup." His biographer, Colin Matthew, believes he was pleased that he was out of power: "He was not a great war leader, and he never attempted to portray himself as such. But he was not a bad one, either. Wartime to him was an aberration, not a fulfilment. In terms of the political style of Britain's conduct of the war, that was an important virtue, but it led Asquith to underestimate the extent to which twentieth-century warfare was an all-embracing experience, and his sometimes almost perverse personal reluctance to appear constantly busy and unceasingly active told against him in the political and press world generally."
One of Asquith's main critics in the House of Commons was Noel Pemberton Billing, the Independent MP for East Hertfordshire. Relying on information supplied by Harold S. Spencer, Billing published an article in The Imperialist on 26th January, 1918, revealing the existence of a Black Book: "There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute."
Billing claimed the book listed the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts, mostly in high places, being blackmailed by the German Secret Service. He added: "It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence." Billing went onto argue that "the thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".
In February, 1918, it was announced by theatrical producer, Jack Grein, that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wildes's Salomé in April. It had to be a private showing because the play had long been banned by the Lord Chancellor as being blasphemous. Noel Pemberton Billing had heard rumours Allan was a lesbian and was having an affair with Margot Asquith. He also believed that Allan and the Asquiths were all members of the Unseen Hand.
On 16th February, 1918, the front page of The Vigilante had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000."
As soon as Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. During this period Billing was approached by Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times. He was concerned about the decision by David Lloyd George to begin peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Talk of peace outraged the Generals, who found allies in the British far right. Repington suggested that Billing get his trial postponed and use the mythical Black Book to smear senior politicians and inflame anti-alien feeling in the Commons. By this logic, the current peace talks would be ruined and Lloyd George's authority undermined."
The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling.
Billing's first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stewart. She explained that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians since killed in action in the First World War. As Christopher Andrew has pointed out in Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers Stewart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception." During the cross-examination Villiers-Stewart claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane were in the Black Book. Judge Charles Darling now ordered her to leave the witness-box. She retaliated by saying that Darling's name was also in the book.
The next witness was Harold S. Spencer. He claimed that he had seen the Black Book while looking through the private papers of Prince William of Wied of Albania in 1914. Spencer claimed that Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, was a member of the Unseen Hand and has visited Holland as a go-between in supposed peace talks with Germany.
On 4th June, 1918, Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."
Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stewart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."
Lloyd George's decision to join the Conservatives in removing Asquith split the Liberal Party. In the 1918 General Election, many Liberals supported candidates who remained loyal to Asquith. Despite this, Lloyd George's Coalition group won 459 seats and had a large majority over the Labour Party and the Liberal Party.
Asquith lost his seat in East Fife in 1918 and William Wedgwood Benn led the groups opposed to Lloyd George's government. John Benn, who was also opposed to David Lloyd George, gave the group the name, Wee Frees, after a small group of Free Church of Scotland members who refused to accept the union of their church with the United Presbyterian Church.
Margot Asquith decided to write her Autobiography, based on her diary. As Eleanor Brock has pointed out: "The publication of the first volume in 1920 was preceded by extracts in English and American newspapers. Immediate offence was given to some of her friends by her unvarnished descriptions of them - Curzon was never reconciled to her. The excessive candour and the egotism of the author were severely commented on by critics, and surprise was expressed at her account, in the newspaper version, of a conversation with Lord Salisbury which was held apparently after his death." A second volume was published in 1922.
The Conservative members of the coalition government decided to replace David Lloyd George with Andrew Bonar Law in October, 1922. In the General Election that followed, the Conservatives won 345 seats. Only 54 Liberals in the House of Commons supported Lloyd George whereas Asquith had the support of 62 MPs.
Herbert Asquith, who was granted the title, the Earl of Oxford in 1925, died on 15th February, 1928.
I realized that in some ways with all his tact and delicacy, all his intellect and bigness, all his attributes, he had a common place side to him which nothing could alter... It is not in his nature to feel the subtlety of love making, the dazzle and fun of it, the tiny almost untouchable fellowship of it... He has passion, devotion, self-mastery, but not the nameless something that charms and compels and receives and combats a woman's most fastidious advances.
At the opening of the new Parliament in 1910, with Asquith's Liberals still in power, scenes occurred as stormy as any I have ever seen at Westminster. I refer to the disgraceful behaviour exhibited when the Liberal Prime Minister entered the House for the first time in this new session. "Who killed King Edward? Dirty traitor! Don't bully King George!" was yelled from the Tory benches.
At 11.17 last night it was announced that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany.
Late last night it was reported that the Government had received news of the sinking of a British mine-laying vessel by the German navy. The destroyer Pathfinder was chased, but eluded her persuers.
Great Britain delievered an ultimatum to Germany yesterday, and demanded a reply by midnight. The action followed Germany Germany's declaration of war on France and Belgium and the receipt of official news during the forenoon of the invasion of British territory.
He (David Lloyd George) spoke very strongly about the Daily Chronicle article, which he described as indiscreet and foolish. He said that the Prime Minister is much perturbed. "The old boy was in tears," Lloyd George continued. "I shall not let this rest. I have never intrigued for place or office. I have intrigued to carry through my schemes, but that is a different matter. The Prime Minister has been so good to me that I would never be disloyal to him in the smallest detail."
I called on Mr. Asquith at 10 Downing Street, at 4 o'clock. He was sitting at the large table in the Cabinet room, his back to the fire. He looked a very lonely figure and a tired man. Lying in front of him were a few letters, just received from a political friends. He had a quiet and severe expression.
He said that Mr. Lloyd George had always professed to be the most friendly with him and no rift had occurred in their personal relations. He had the greatest admiration for him. Lloyd George possessed unique gifts, a real flare for politics, foresight, inspiration, etc. He would not say that Lloyd George owed everything to him, but he certainly owed a great deal. He saved him during the Budget of 1909, when all the Cabinet turned against him, and he came to his rescue and risked his own fate with Lloyd George's.
On Sunday, September the 17th, we were entertaining a weekend party, which included General and Florry Bridges, Lady Tree, Nan Tennant, Bogie Harris, Arnold Ward, and Sir John Cowans. While we were playing tennis in the afternoon my husband went for a drive with my cousin, Nan Tennant. He looked well, and had been delighted with his visit to the front and all he saw of the improvement in our organization there: the tanks and the troops as well as the guns. Our Offensive for the time being was going amazingly well. The French were fighting magnificently, the House of Commons was shut, the Cabinet more united, and from what we heard on good authority the Germans more discouraged. Henry told us about Raymond, whom he had seen as recently as the 6th at Fricourt.
As it was my little son's last Sunday before going back to Winchester I told him he might run across from the Barn in his pyjamas after dinner and sit with us while the men were in the dining-room.
While we were playing games Clouder, our servant - of whom Elizabeth said, "He makes perfect ladies of us all" - came in to say that I was wanted.
I left the room, and the moment I took up the telephone I said to myself, "Raymond is killed".
With the receiver in my hand, I asked what it was, and if the news was bad.
Our secretary, Davies, answered, "Terrible, terrible news. Raymond was shot dead on the 15th. Haig writes full of sympathy, but no details. The Guards were in and he was shot leading his men the moment he had gone over the parapet."
I put back the receiver and sat down. I heard Elizabeth's delicious laugh, and a hum of talk and smell of cigars came down the passage from the dining-room.
I went back into the sitting-room.
"Raymond is dead," I said, "he was shot leading his men over the top on Friday."
Puffin got up from his game and hanging his head took my hand; Elizabeth burst into tears, for though she had not seen Raymond since her return from Munich she was devoted to him. Maud Tree and Florry Bridges suggested I should put off telling Henry the terrible news as he was happy.
I walked away with the two children and rang the bell:
"Tell the Prime Minister to come and speak to me", I said to the servant.
Leaving the children, I paused at the end of the dining-room passage; Henry opened the door and we stood facing each other.
He saw my thin, wet face, and while he put his arm round me I said: "Terrible, terrible news."
At this he stopped me and said: "I know... I've known it.... Raymond is dead."
He put his hands over his face and we walked into an empty room and sat down in silence.
When Margot Tennant burst into his life, Herbert Asquith was a barrister and Liberal MP leading a Pooterish domestic existence in Hampstead, where he lived with his young family. On holiday in Scotland his wife Helen Melland suddenly died of typhoid. Only a few weeks later, Asquith was writing love letters to Margot.
After consulting her men friends, Margot decided to drop her fox-hunting boyfriends and marry Henry, as she called Asquith (she disliked the name Herbert). She was not at all in love with him - Colin Clifford gives Margot's hilarious account of their wedding night when, after her bedtime milk and biscuits, she lay stiffly in Henry's arms and nothing happened. Soon she was regretting the whole thing and dismissing Asquith as "commonplace". Her five stepchildren were a trial, especially Violet, the only daughter, to whom she took an instant dislike: "a hard, commonplace, clever little girl with a frightful voice".
But Margot had picked the right man. Asquith rose effortlessly up the Liberal ladder, and Margot became almost pathetically dependent on him. She had two children, but wrecked her health with a series of ghastly childbirths (why, one wonders, did she have such trouble?). She became hysterical, lost weight, couldn't sleep, lost her power of speech (that must have been a relief). She was a political liability, constantly trying to meddle behind Henry's back and eaten up with jealousy of clever Violet, who eclipsed her as the centre of Henry's attention. "How dare you become Prime Minister when I'm away," Violet wired her father in 1908.
The Asquith children turned out to be the most brilliant of their generation. ("The whole Asquith family overvalue brains," complained Margot. "I'm a little tired of brains: they are apt to go to the head.") Yet, as Colin Clifford suggests, the children were subtly affected by the death of their mother Helen. The most complex of the Asquiths was Raymond, who was academically a star performer like his father, but strangely tortured and unfulfilled. The leader of the "lost generation", he was killed at the Somme in 1916. Colin Clifford states in his acknowledgments that Raymond's family felt unable to agree with much of what is written in this book, but Raymond's subversive black sarcasm and refusal to act the part of officer and gentleman make him if anything more interesting.
Clifford valiantly defends Asquith against his critics. He denies, for example, that Asquith drank too much - though who can blame poor Squiff if he did become over-fond of champagne with a wife like Margot? But Asquith's indifference to his sons is chilling. He didn't write to Raymond once during the war - and this at a time when he was writing three or four times a day to 28-year-old Venetia Stanley, with whom he was obsessed.
Asquith was a notorious groper, but his affair with Venetia Stanley was almost too much for Margot, who became more bonkers than ever. She was criticised for doing no "war work" as the prime minister's wife, and one can't help feeling the critics had a point. If only she had poured her formidable energies into something more worthwhile than wallowing in self-pity - and what a fool she was to write it all down.