Modern Lives: H. H. Asquith
Essays Politics

Modern Lives: H. H. Asquith

Eamonn Bellin

A Review of V. Markam Lester, H. H. Asquith: Last of the Romans (Lexington Books, 2019).

Among the most interesting yet least studied figures in modern European politics is Herbert Henry (H.H.) Asquith. Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland from 1908 until 1916, Asquith presided over legislative reforms of transformative scope and influence. His government laid cornerstones for the welfare state, progressive taxation, industrial regulation, and labor-business arbitration. Further, Asquith secured the primacy of the elected House of Commons over the hereditary House of Lords. In August 1914, he led the United Kingdom into war to defend Belgian freedom and thwart German hegemony over Europe.

Despite his achievements, however, Asquith is most often remembered for his failures: to enact Home Rule in Ireland and to defeat Germany on the Western Front. He is alleged to have let Ireland drift into insurrection and the war to descend into stalemate. Asquith’s likeness in many popular works bears resemblance to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray: elegance drained of vitality, ending as something pitiable and spoilt. In Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking With Destiny, he is an absentee PM in peacetime and a bewildered one in war, while in Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars Lord Milner is the war efforts’ wire-puller—Asquith is colorless, clueless, and soon forgotten. And, in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August as well as Robert Massie’s Dreadnought, it is Foreign Secretary Grey who authors Britain’s entry into the war, with Asquith almost a bystander. All these works depict Asquith as a placid, urbane, unexceptional Edwardian overmatched by crisis. He is an ordinary man adrift in extraordinary times.

Still, Asquith does have defenders. In his biography, Asquith: Portrait of a Man and an Era Lord Jenkins praises Asquith’s intellect and centers him in the great political fights of the era. More recently, V. Markam Lester has repurposed Asquith’s deprecatory moniker “Last of the Romans” for the title of his biography. Far from dismissing Asquith as a relic, Lester defends him as a paragon of classical virtues. His rationality, eloquence, and restraint, Lester argues, made Asquith the dominant statesman of his age. In Lester’s telling, Asquith adroitly led Britain through momentous social change before laying the groundwork for victory in war, all the while holding together a fissiparous political coalition.

So which is it? Should Asquith be numbered among Neville Chamberlain and Herbert Hoover, helpless victims of a new world they failed to understand? Or does he rank beside Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, and Franklin Roosevelt in the pantheon of inspired reformers? Asquith was certainly not a Chamberlain or Hoover. His government’s peacetime successes owed much to his talents, and Britain’s effective wartime organization took shape under his leadership. However, the classical virtues which Lester lauds, sagacity, moderation, patience, and composure, in truth, endangered Asquith’s command of government. At crucial moments, he failed to act with promptness and vigor, letting crises metastasize. His personal serenity caused him to neglect the public’s need for reassurance against the trials of war. He refused to counter the attacks of more ruthless and devious opponents. Struck down by the virtues that had raised him up, perhaps Asquith is not so much a Roman relic, but the subject of Greek tragedy.

Asquith was born in northern England in 1852. Having won a scholarship to Oxford in 1869, he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal in 1886, and was appointed Home Secretary in 1892. Out of office, he used his forensic gifts to make a lucrative career as a barrister. Asquith and the Liberals returned to power after a decade in the wilderness with a sweeping 1906 general election victory. Then finally, In 1908, after serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he became Prime Minister.

Asquith’s first major reform as Prime Minister was the 1909 “People’s Budget,” which adopted a graduated income tax and a surtax on great fortunes, bolstered the inheritance tax, and prepared a comprehensive land tax. The Budget financed Asquith’s social welfare initiatives, such as free meals for school-children, old age pensions, and health insurance. Such programs were pioneered in Germany decades earlier, but were unknown to much of the industrial world. Social spending in Britain was largely limited to the retrograde and reviled “new” Poor Laws of 1834, which administered minimal aid from local taxes and sowed deep resentments for the degrading conditions of the workhouses to which the needy were confined. The Budget also funded the expansion of Britain’s dreadnought battlefleet. This was judged an urgent reply to the naval menace posed by Germany, which was tirelessly laying keels for its High Seas Fleet in a bid to challenge British mastery of the waves.

The People’s Budget flew through the House of Commons, but like many previous Liberal reforms, was soundly flung down by the House of Lords. The Lords had a personal stake in opposing the Budget. As landed wealth belonged largely to the gentry, the Budget would raise taxes on the vast estates owned by the titled peers of parliament’s upper chamber. Lloyd George acidly observed, “a fully equipped Duke costs as much to keep up as two dreadnoughts.” Stymied, Asquith took the question to the people in 1910, and proceeded to win a popular mandate for the Budget in the new parliament.

The Budget battle precipitated Asquith’s next great reform: the Parliament Bill of 1911. This reduced the House of Lords’ veto to a suspensory power, preventing the Lords from delaying a bill’s enactment for more than two years. After a second Liberal election victory in 1910, the Parliament Bill became law. The Lords were remade as a consultative chamber, complimenting the elected legislature but not defying its authority. Restricting the Lords’ veto even opened the prospect of achieving a longstanding Liberal aim: Home Rule for Ireland in the form of a Dublin executive and legislature.

After another parliamentary struggle, shadowed by violence between Ulster Loyalists opposing Home Rule and Irish Nationalists supporting it, Asquith drew near his goal in July, 1914. The dilemma of “exclusion” for Ulster and the specter of European war, however, compelled Asquith to suspend Home Rule’s writ. The ill-starred bill was overtaken by the Easter Rising of 1916, which resulted, after much bloodshed, in the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

The last chapter of Asquith’s career was an unhappy one. The repeated setbacks of British arms buffeted his government, and the horrendous loss of young lives haunted his conscience, not least the death of his eldest son Raymond at the Somme (Asquith’s sons Herbert, Arthur and Cyril also served at the front). Yet these years were not unproductive. Asquith’s government shaped the institutions which sustained Britain’s war effort: expanded enlistment, mass conscription, the Ministry of Munitions, the War Council, and a cross-party coalition government.

Dogged by popular frustrations over the stalemate and weakened by attacks in the press, Asquith was maneuvered out of office in late 1916 by the new Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law. He went into bitter but ineffectual opposition. In his waning years, Asquith watched as his Liberal Party, once proudly ascendant, slid to the margins of politics.

This is the arc of Asquith’s career. During his decades in politics, what virtues accounted for his rise to power and subsequent use of power in achieving long standing Liberal aims? Conversely, how did these same qualities restrict and weaken Asquith’s leadership in peace as well as war?

In the words of his War Secretary, R. B. Haldane, Asquith possessed “the best intellectual apparatus, understanding and judgement that I ever saw in any man.” Asquith used these powers to defuse problems that other politicians deemed insoluble. During the Parliament Bill fight, Asquith realized that the threat of creating hundreds of new peers to flood the House of Lords was alone sufficient to secure the Bill’s acceptance in the upper chamber, allowing him to reject the advice, advanced by Churchill, to actually inflate the peerage. Doing so was not necessary for the Bill's passage and would undermine the King’s constitutional position. Characteristically, Asquith’s solution achieved his objective without unwanted disruptions.

Likewise, Asquith, grasping that the Unionists’ schism over free trade was the key to unseating their government in the 1906 election, prioritized the issue over other Liberal goals. Asquith was thus able to suppress the Liberals’ debilitating division over colonial policy, which pitted Lord Rosebery’s Liberal Imperialists against John Morely’s Gladstonians. Asquith sympathized with Rosebery, but recognized that neither faction commanded the party. He concentrated party rhetoric on unifying themes that would draw voters away from unpopular Unionist policies.

Asquith’s composure allowed him to approach controversy with patience, empathy, and generosity for colleagues and opponents. It was for this reason that during the Liberals’ decade in the wilderness, when the party was riven by factionalism, Asquith alone enjoyed the respect and trust of its feuding elements. In the 1909 dispute over naval estimates, Asquith’s Cabinet divided into apparently irreconcilable advocates and opponents of increased expenditures on battleships. Both sides claimed the question to be one of principle. In the ensuing fight, Asquith alienated neither faction, prevented Cabinet resignations, and devised a compromise acceptable to both groups.

During the even more rancorous fight over Irish Home Rule, Asquith uniquely affected his Unionist negotiating partners. He won the confidence of Balfour, who would loyally support him during the coming war. He even succeeded in moving the grimly partisan Bonar Law, who saw in Home Rule a cudgel with which to batter the Liberals. Asquith’s persuasive power was so great that Bonar Law came to dread personal meetings with him, fearing the concessions he would inevitably make. Though he failed in the end, Asquith came closer than any Prime Minister before him to achieving general support for a change in Ireland’s constitutional status.

Asquith pursued his objectives with shrewd patience. He moderated his demands with a sense of proportion. He was ever ready to compromise to enlist new recruits in his endeavors. He accordingly enjoyed support from diverse coalitions and unlikely partners. His lieutenants in domestic reform, Lloyd George and Churchill, were a cross section of Victorian society. Lloyd George was a radical reformer from Welsh coal country who lambasted the Boer War as reckless colonial aggression. Churchill was an ex-Conservative aristocrat who first achieved fame for his exploits on colonial battlefields. Under Asquith’s guidance, their partnership reshaped social welfare for generations.

Similarly, Asquith forged effective relationships with the chief Conservative-Unionist leaders—Balfour, Curzon, and Lansdowne—during the war, shepherding them into his government without conceding control to them. The same was true of Labour leaders, who accepted an electoral alliance with the Liberals in 1906, backed Liberal domestic reforms, and entered the wartime coalition. Strikingly, Asquith stands alone among British Prime Ministers in enjoying the trust of the Irish Parliamentary Party, shown in the willingness of John Redmond to make concessions on Home Rule that no previous Prime Minister could extract.

These virtues of judgement, patience, moderation, and compromise made Asquith a formidable statesman. He used them to reunify a divided Liberal Party. Its factions trusted him to impartially consider their interests and fairly arbitrate among them. Asquith’s virtues tempered his reforms with a sense of what was acceptable and practicable, ensuring their endurance. His virtues translated from peacetime into wartime: he first persuaded his divided Cabinet to stand against German aggression in Belgium and then organized a coalition ranging from trade unionists to aristocrats in order to sustain the war effort.

Asquith’s successes stemmed from these qualities. So too did his failings. He refused to consider decisive but controversial measures at key moments, most crucially during the fight over Irish Home Rule. This put him at the mercy of extremists, obliging him to appease unreasonable demands. Had Asquith been firmer after the Curragh Mutiny, or adopted Churchill’s advice to deter Loyalist militancy by deploying the Royal Navy, the Irish impasse may have been broken. Asquith’s moderation made him vulnerable to intrigue and malfeasance from subordinates. It is impossible to imagine Asquith crushing an upstart rival the way Lord Salisbury did Randolph Churchill, or cashiering disappointing generals as Churchill did. This weakened Asquith’s direction of his wartime coalition, which grew restive as challenges mounted.

When Lloyd George forced Asquith from power in 1916, wisdom was succeeded by ruthlessness. Yet, without some measure of ruthlessness, wisdom cannot hope to prevail in war. Lloyd George did not possess a strategic vision, ingenuity or will to victory that Asquith lacked. For all his zest and guile, Lloyd George did little to improve upon Asquith’s wartime administration. Lloyd George inherited the strategic priority of the Western Front, coalition government, War Council apparatus, and organization for levying troops and coordinating production. Subsequent changes made by Britain and her allies, like instituting naval convoys, are partly attributable to Lloyd George at most. Others, like the unification of command under Marshal Foch or America’s entry into the war, are not attributable to Lloyd George at all.

The contrast between Lloyd George and Asquith, though, does show how a range of qualities that Asquith lacked had assisted Lloyd George in withstanding the vicissitudes of war. Lloyd George surpassed Asquith in press relations, political manipulation, and public communication. Unlike Asquith, Lloyd George mitigated attacks from the irascible axis of the Northcliffe and Aitken newspapers. He accomplished this by regularly consulting the press barons, giving them (ceremonial) positions in government, and flattering them with his attentive concern. He also respected the idols of the press, above all by retaining Field Marshal Haig, who was as well-connected in London society as he was unsuited for the Western Front.

Lloyd George exploited Conservative resentment of Asquith to acquire the Premiership. Defeated by Asquith in three successive elections, the Conservatives lept at the opportunity to remove him and divide the Liberals. Lloyd George anticipated and accepted the overthrow of his leader and the fracturing of his party as the price of ascent to high office. He then gave premier places in his government to Tory grandees, especially Bonar Law, Curzon, and Milner, to guard against a palace coup. Lloyd George signed a Faustian pact with the Conservatives to cement his authority. As Asquith labored for consensus, Lloyd George manipulated division to overthrow him.

As wartime leaders, Lloyd George was reassuringly loquacious. Asquith was worryingly reticent. On the war, Lloyd George spoke to the people tirelessly and exuberantly in melodious tones. Asquith spoke sparingly and laconically. He saw no advantage in exciting passions, which could only interfere with the complexities of government. In attending to public image, Lloyd George conscientiously burnished his reputation for zeal in the public’s service. Asquith, who assumed the responsibilities of faltering subordinates to put their offices in order before the war and during it, allowed himself to be publicly cast as nonchalant and negligent. This was infamously expressed in Bonar Law’s claim that he found Asquith playing bridge with three ladies at his country estate during the war. Through inattention to his popular portrayal, Asquith even came to be derided as a “squiffy,” habitually drunk and chronically unfit for matters of state.

Asquith’s approach to statecraft—his judgment, patience, and moderation—made him an engine of legislative reform and the architect of Britain’s Great War victory. Yet these same virtues that brought Asquith his triumphs also tarnished them. His reforms were stunted, most damagingly on Home Rule, and his wartime leadership was undermined. In the final analysis, Asquith’s moniker “Last of the Romans” is fitting, if not definitive. Asquith represents a gentler, more thoughtful, perhaps even more humane approach to government than that which dominated the twentieth century. Still, Asquith’s favored approach brought him far, but not far enough: it could not endure his century’s stresses. Whether leaders in the twenty-first century can redeem Asquith’s approach to government, to make it durable against tumult, is unclear. Affirmatively answering this question should be taken as Asquith’s challenge to the future, and as motivation to continue the study of his life in politics.

Featured image: Henry Herbert Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, 1852 - 1928. Statesman painting by James Guthrie via Wikimedia Commons.

Eamonn Bellin is a Program Assistant at the Alexander Hamilton Society, supporting undergraduate education in foreign and defense policy. He recently graduated from George Washington University.