The Prime Ministers: Herbert Henry Asquith

H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister 1908-1916

Herbert Henry Asquith was born on September 12th, 1852, in Yorkshire to a middle-class family. He was educated at Oxford, and became President of the Oxford Union and a fellow at Balliol College. He entered a legal career, and quickly made a name for himself in the 1880s for his skill in law. He decided to enter Parliament in the mid 1880s, and was elected as member for East Fife in 1886, and became Home Secretary for Gladstone’s fourth ministry in 1892. When the Liberal Party lost power in 1895, the party was deeply divided, so Asquith declined to become party leader because he knew it would be injurious for his career. He returned to law until the early 1900s, becoming deputy leader to Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Campbell-Bannerman was known for requesting his presence at debates with the phrase “send for the sledge-hammer”, referencing Asquith’s incredible debating prowess and ability to dominate the Commons. Asquith began to chafe under Campbell-Bannerman’s leadership however, and secretly agreed with his political allies not to serve in a government unless Campbell-Bannerman accepted a peerage, leaving Asquith leader in the Commons. This fell apart when Asquith agreed to serve as Campbell-Bannerman’s Chancellor when the Liberals won the 1906 election; he began the Liberal reforms, creating the first system of old-age pensions in Britain. Campbell-Bannerman resigned due to ill health in 1908, and died less than 3 weeks later. Asquith was left as leader of the party and Prime Minister.

Asquith in 1908.

Asquith in 1908.

Asquith’s Ministry before the war was dominated by five issues: Germany, Women’s Suffrage, Social Reform, Ireland and the House of Lords. With respect to Germany, Britain entered an expensive naval arms race with its neighbour across the North Sea, which cost tremendous money and deeply soured Anglo-German relations. The Suffrage movement became more and more militant during his ministry, with mass protests, hunger strikes, and an adamant refusal of the government to give the movement what it wanted. It would not be achieved until 1918. Asquith’s ministry also presided over the great period of Liberal reform in Britain, which was linked with reform of the House of Lords. The Lords opposed a very Liberal budget in 1909, the so-called People’s Budget, creating a crisis, for although technically allowed to do so, the Lords had not rejected a budget in living memory. If social reform was to be continued, the power of the Lords had to be stopped, resulting in the Parliament Act of 1911, which ended the Lords’ power to veto bills outright. Finally, in Ireland, the government faced a rising insurgency for independence, which culminated in the Curragh Mutiny of 1914, when British army officers refused to fight Ulster Volunteers who were contemplating violent action against Irish Home Rule which was die to become law that year. The Asquith ministry was characterised by domestic turmoil from the various protest movements and record levels of industrial strife and discontent, along with the height of the power of the British Empire abroad. All of this changed when the First World War came. Asquith had to fight hard to get the Commons to agree to British entry to the war, and formed a coalition government to more effectively prosecute the conflict. Asquith’s leadership began to fall apart; his time was increasingly spent mediating between various ministers rather than actual war leadership. His ministers, especially David Lloyd George came to dominate him, and he resigned in December 1916, becoming the opposition to the coalition. This was the end of his real career; he never regained ministerial office, and lost his seat in 1924. He died on February 15th, 1928.

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Asquith’s peacetime leadership was consistently strong but not exceptional; he managed to direct the largest empire in the world, and keep relative domestic peace against various forces which sought to disturb it. This legacy is overshadowed, however, by his wartime leadership, which was overwhelmingly characterised by vacillation and weakness. I view Barbara Tuchman’s judgement of him as the Prime Minister “without a face” to be the most accurate assessment one could make. He was good but not great, but did not have the element of personal charisma which he needed to not be forgotten by history.

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