Herbert Henry Asquith

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

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

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

Early Political Career

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

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

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

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

Prime Minister

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

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

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

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

Last Years

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

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

Further Reading on Herbert Henry Asquith

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

Additional Biography Sources

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

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