Herbert Asquith : Biography

Herbert Asquith

Herbert Asquith, the second son of the two sons and three daughters of Joseph Dixon Asquith (1825-1860), a small businessman, and his wife, Emily Willans, was born in Morley, West Yorkshire on 12th September 1852. His 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 The young Herbert Asquith soon of necessity developed the imperturbable, slightly withdrawn, self-sufficiency and good health which was his life's standby."

After the death of his father, his grandfather, William Willans, took responsibility for the family, sending Asquith to Huddersfield College, and then in 1861 to the Moravian school in Fulneck, near Leeds. He then went onto the City of London School. In November 1869 he won a classical scholarship at Balliol College. While at Oxford University he came under the influence of Benjamin Jowett, his philosophy teacher. In 1874 he was president of the Oxford Union. After leaving university he became a lawyer.

Asquith married Helen Melland on 23rd August 1877. Over the next few years she gave birth to five children: Raymond (1878), Herbert (1881), Arthur (1883), Violet (1887) and Cyril Asquith (1890). He 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."

In the 1886 General Election Asquith was elected as the Liberal MP for East Fife. He was a talented orator and after his maiden speech on 24th March 1887 he was invited to dinner by party leader, William Gladstone, who believed he had the ability to go to the very top. During this period he became a close associate of Richard Haldane.

Helen Asquith died of typhoid on 11th September 1891 while on the family's holiday on the Isle of Arran. After the 1892 General Election, William Gladstone formed a new Liberal administration and Asquith was appointed as Home Secretary.

Asquith asked Margot Tennant to marry him. He was twelve years older than Margot and at first she rejected the idea but she 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."

Over the next few years Margot had five children but only Elizabeth Asquith (1897–1945) and Anthony Asquith (1902–1968) survived, three dying 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.

Asquith held the post of Home Secretary until the Marquees of Salisbury and the Conservatives took power in 1895. The Liberals were out of power until the 1906 General Election. The new Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, gave Asquith the important post of Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Asquith's strong opposition to women's suffrage made him extremely unpopular with the NUWSS. Suffragists were particularly angry that the man who was responsible for deciding how much tax they paid, should deny them political representation. Several times in 1906 members of the WSPU made attempts to disrupt meetings where he was speaking.

In April, 1908, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman resigned and Asquith replaced him as Prime Minister. Working closely with David Lloyd George, his radical Chancellor of the Exchequer, Asquith introduced a whole series of reforms including the Old Age Pensions Act and the People's Budget that resulted to a conflict with the House of Lords.

Eleanor Brock has argued: "It is difficult to assess what influence, if any, was exerted by Margot, especially during the premiership. On the personal side she was highly demanding and critical, and poor health frequently made her difficult. She was capable of making terrible scenes (as she herself recounted). All this meant a far from restful home life for Asquith. On the other hand she was fiercely loyal to him, and seldom complained of her husband's close friendships with other women." Margot did try to influence government policies and after one conversation with Lloyd George, he complained about this to Asquith. Margot recorded in her diary: "Henry hated her missionary tendencies".

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. David 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. After a long struggle with the House of Lords Asquith and the Liberal government finally got his budget through parliament.

With the House of Lords extremely unpopular with the British people, the Liberal government decided to take action to reduce its powers. The 1911 Parliament Act drastically cut the powers of the Lords. They were no longer allowed to prevent the passage of "money bills" and it also restricted their ability to delay other legislation to three sessions of parliament.

When the House of Lords attempted to stop this bill's passage, Asquith, appealed to George V for help. Asquith, who had just obtained a victory in the 1910 General Election, was in a strong position, and the king agreed that if necessary he would create 250 new Liberal peers to remove the Conservative majority in the Lords. Faced with the prospect of a House of Lords with a permanent Liberal majority, the Conservatives agreed to let the 1911 Parliament Act to become law.

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.

Asquith returned to the House of Commons after the 1923 General Election when he was elected to represent Paisley and Renfrewshire.

Herbert Asquith, who was granted the title, the Earl of Oxford in 1925, died on 15th February, 1928.

Primary Sources

(1) Margot Asquith, diary entry on Herbert Henry Asquith (15th May, 1894)

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.

(2) J. R. Clynes, Memoirs (1937)

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.

(3) On 30th March 1915, Robert Donald wrote an article in the Daily Chronicle claiming that a group of cabinet ministers were conspiring against the prime minister, Herbert Asquith. Lord Riddell recorded how David Lloyd George reacted to the article.

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."

(4) Robert Donald, diary entry (7th December, 1916)

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.

(5) Margot Asquith, Autobiography (1920)

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.

(6) Jane Ridley, The Spectator (28th September, 2002)

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.