Herbert Asquith

1908 - 1916

Asquith (1852-1928) was Britain’s first prime minister with working-class origins, although a modestly prosperous uncle sent him to public school and Oxford, where he achieved genuine academic distinction. After serving as Home Secretary under Gladstone and Rosebery, he turned down the Liberal leadership in 1898, needing the income from his Bar practice as he had married the intelligent, witty, outspoken, fashionable and expensive Margot Tennant (1864-1945) who later became the first politically active prime ministerial spouse.

After two years as Chancellor of Exchequer, Asquith occupied the premiership for 8½ years, during which the office’s requirements took on their modern heavy level, or even more. However, Asquith’s response to them didn’t. He carried on an active social life, much recreational reading, excessive alcohol consumption and an intense but probably Platonic love affair from 1912-15 with Venetia Stanley, to whom his letters involved outrageous breaches of the new 1911 Official Secrets Act. When not too drunk, he was an excellent Parliamentary speaker, a good administrator and a very quick study, mastering legislative detail with ease. Nevertheless, the latter years of his term in office, especially after war broke out, were marked by frequent complaints of lethargy and delay.

With much help from Lloyd George and Churchill Asquith was the true founder of the modern Welfare State, introducing Old Age Pensions in 1908 and a National Insurance scheme in 1911. What’s more, given Britain’s remarkable fiscal strength at this time, he managed to do this and build up the world’s most powerful fleet of Dreadnought battleships without running budget deficits or raising taxes beyond a still modest top rate of 13% income tax plus “super tax” in 1914.

There are two blots on Asquith’s peacetime record. First, he allowed Lloyd George to inflame the 1909-11 Budget/Constitutional crisis by excessive class war rhetoric (Balfour’s House of Lords strategy of blocking all Liberal legislation was also partly to blame). This poisoned relations between the parties, making the 1912-14 Irish Home Rule impasse impossible to settle on the compromise terms that were needed. Second, he not only deepened the French and Russian alliances, but (highly unconstitutionally) held military conversations with the French without informing his Cabinet, making British participation in any war almost inevitable. Since Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941), with a better spy system than the Cabinet, knew about these conversations, they worsened that monarch’s paranoia about “encirclement,” making war much more likely.1

Once war came, Asquith’s leadership was only intermittently effective. The government lurched from crisis to crisis, goaded by strong, uncompromising characters like Kitchener (1852-1916) and Lloyd George, with unscrupulous allies in the Press. Asquith’s government also did not raise taxes sufficiently to pay for the war, worsening Britain’s fiscal position more than was necessary. With all his qualities, Asquith’s departure in December 1916 was overdue.

Despite his fatherhood of the welfare state, for foreign policy and Irish reasons he does not deserve to be much above the middle of the list, perhaps in the low 20s. Nevertheless, one cannot help liking the man. Like North, another unsuccessful war leader, he would make an excellent dinner companion – and one would certainly also invite Margot!

[1] The best account of the developments leading to World War I is in “The Sleepwalkers – How Europe went to war in 1914” Christopher Clark, Harper, 2013.

© 2020 Martin Hutchinson