Herbert Henry Asquith (generally known as H. H. Asquith), the second son of the two sons and three daughters of Joseph Dixon Asquith and his wife, Emily Willans Asquith, was born in Morley on 12th September 1852. His father was a wool merchant, supplying the local mills with top quality cloth from all over Europe. (1)
Asquith's 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 The young Herbert Asquith soon of necessity developed the imperturbable, slightly withdrawn, self-sufficiency and good health which was his life's standby." (2)
The Asquith family were strong supporters of the Liberal Party. Asquith had a good relationship with both parents. He later described his mother as being a profoundly religious woman who was "a devoted and sagacious mother" who "made herself the companion and intimate friend of her children." (3)
After the death of his father in 1860, his grandfather, William Willans, took responsibility for the family, sending Asquith to Huddersfield College, and then in 1861 to the Fulneck Moravian School, near Leeds. He then went onto the City of London School. His mother moved to St Leonards, but Asquith remained in London and was "treated like an orphan" for the rest of his childhood. (4)
In November 1869, Asquith won a classical scholarship at Balliol College. While at Oxford University he came under the influence of Benjamin Jowett, his philosophy teacher. Asquith later commented to John Morley that Jowett's "talk is like one of those wines that have more bouquet than body." (5)
Asquith was described as being someone with "effortless superiority" while others claimed it was a disguise for shyness: "I am hedged in and hampered in these ways by a kind of native reserve, of which I am not at all proud". To another of his friends he was "a man who had a plan of life well under control" with "a remarkable power of using every gift he possessed to full capacity." (6)
Asquith was an outstanding student and eventually achieved a first-class honours degree. He also took an active role in politics and in 1874 he became president of the Oxford Union. While at university he made several important friends including Alfred Milner, Andrew C. Bradley, Thomas Herbert Warren, Charles Gore, William P. Ker, and William H. Mallock. (7)
Asquith entered Lincoln's Inn to train as a barrister. He was called to the bar in June 1876. Asquith had fallen in love with Helen Melland when he had first met her at the age of fifteen in 1869. In September 1876, asked Dr. Frederick Melland for permission to marry his daughter. After a two month delay he replied: "I have the fullest conviction that your industry and ability will procure for you in due time that success in your profession which has attended you in your past career." (8)
H. H. Asquith married Helen on 23rd August 1877. He later told a friend: "Her mind was clear and strong, but it was not cut in facets and did not flash lights, and no one would call her clever or intellectual. What gave her rare quality was her character, which everyone who knew her agrees was the most selfless and unworldly that they have ever encountered. She was warm, impulsive, naturally quick-tempered, and generous almost to a fault." (9)
Over the next thirteen years Helen gave birth to five children: Raymond (1878), Herbert (1881), Arthur (1883), Violet (1887) and Cyril (1890). The couple were devoted to their children. Herbert Asquith pointed out that both his parents "allowed their children a full measure of liberty; they used the snaffle rather than the curb and their control was very elastic in nature." (10)
Asquith 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." (11)
During this period wrote regular articles for The Spectator: "These articles... show his lifelong Liberalism early and clearly defined. They reflect a staunch radicalism tempered by realism (on condition that it worked from within the Liberal Party), a hostility to radical factionalists, and an admiration for party spirit." (12) Asquith warned about the dangers of the growth of socialism, something he described as "the English extreme left". (13)
In 1885, Asquith's close friend, Richard Haldane, was elected as Liberal Party MP for East Lothian. He persuaded Asquith to apply for the vacant Liberal candidacy in the neighbouring consistency of East Fife. In 1886 William Gladstone proposed a Home Rule Bill that stated there should be a separate parliament for Ireland in Dublin and that there would be no Irish MPs in the House of Commons. The Irish Parliament would manage affairs inside Ireland, such as education, transport and agriculture. However, it would not be allowed to have a separate army or navy, nor would it be able to make separate treaties or trade agreements with foreign countries. (14)
The Conservative Party opposed the measure. So did some members of the Liberal Party, led by Joseph Chamberlain, also disagreed with Gladstone's plan. Chamberlain main objection to Gladstone's Home Rule Bill was that as there would be no Irish MPs at Westminster, Britain and Ireland would drift apart. He added that this would be amounting to the start of the break-up of the British Empire. When a vote was taken, there were 313 MPs in favour, but 343 against. Of those voting against, 93 were Liberals. They became known as Liberal Unionists. (15)
Gladstone responded to the vote by dissolving parliament rather than resign. During the 1886 General Election he had great difficultly leading a divided party. According to Colin Matthew: "So dedicated was Gladstone to the campaign that he agreed to break the habit of the previous forty years and cease his attempts to convert prostitutes, for fear, for the first time, of causing a scandal (Liberal agents had heard that the Unionists were monitoring Gladstone's nocturnal movements in London with a view to a press exposé)". (16)
Asquith was a keen advocate of Home Rule and this was one of the reasons why he won his seat with a majority of only 376. In the election the number of Liberal MPs fell from 333 in 1885 to 196, though no party gained an overall majority. Gladstone resigned on 30th July. Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, once again became prime minister. Queen Victoria wrote him a letter where she said she always thought that his Irish policy was bound to fail and "that a period of silence from him on this issue would now be most welcome, as well as his clear patriotic duty." (17)
Asquith's early years as an MP were marked by intense hard work as he tried to juggle his political commitments with the need to support his growing family from his earnings at the Bar. He did not make his maiden speech until 24th March 1887. Gladstone was impressed by his contribution and invited him to dinner. Gladstone told his friends that he considered Asquith to be a future leader of the Liberal Party. Although he spoke rarely in the House of Commons he developed a reputation for political oratory. (18)
Asquith, as a good-looking and charming MP, was a much sought after dinner-party guest. Frances Horner commented: "We never thought any party complete without him." (19) In March, 1891, he found himself seated next to Margot Tennant, the vivacious twenty-seven-year-old youngest daughter of his fellow Liberal MP Sir Charles Tennant. Margot commented that she "was deeply impressed by his conversation and his clear Cromwellian face... he had a way of putting you not only at your ease but at your best when talking to him which is given to few men of note." (20) Asquith later commented that "Margot... took possession of me... The passion which comes, I suppose, to everyone once in life, visited and conquered me." (21)
In the summer of 1891 the Asquiths had a holiday on the Isle of Arran. On 20th August, their son, Herbert Asquith, became feverish and Helen Asquith moved in to his room to nurse him. The following day Helen was taken ill. A doctor was called and he diagnosed typhoid and she died on 11th September. Herbert Henry Asquith wrote that night: "She died at nine this morning. So end twenty years of love and fourteen of unclouded union. I was not worthy of it, and God has taken her. Pray for me." (22)
In the 1892 General Election held in July, Gladstone's Liberal Party won the most seats (272) but he did not have an overall majority and the opposition was divided into three groups: Conservatives (268), Irish Nationalists (85) and Liberal Unionists (77). Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, refused to resign on hearing the election results and waited to be defeated in a vote of no confidence on 11th August. Gladstone, now 84 years old, formed a minority government dependent on Irish Nationalist support. (23)
Asquith was appointed as Gladstone's Home Secretary. On hearing the news he wrote to Margot Tennant. "Here I am, full from my earliest days of political ambition, still young, and just admitted to one of the best places in the Cabinet, and yet I undertake to say that there is hardly a man in London more profoundly depressed than I am today. You know why... What use to me... are honours, power, a career, if I am to be cut off from the hope and promise of all that is purest and highest in my life?" (24)
The reason for this depression was that Margot had rejected his proposal of marriage. Asquith was twelve years older than Margot and she was in love with another man. However, she eventually 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." (25)
Margot later confessed that she had been wrong to doubt the wisdom of marrying Asquith: "I can truly say no words of mine today can at all, describe how differently things have turned out for me!!!! My in-loveness (for 9 years) with Peter Flower - my love for Evan Charteris, my hundred and one loves and friendships are like so much waste paper! My criticisms of Henry are pathetically stupid, narrow and crass. The fact is I was... a sort of drunkard of all social caresses up to the moment of marriage." (26)
Over the next few years Margot had five children but only Elizabeth Asquith (1897–1945) and Anthony Asquith (1902–1968) survived as three of them died 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.
William Gladstone and John Morley concentrated on Irish Home Rule, whereas Henry Asquith and his under-secretary, Herbert Gladstone, the prime minister's son, were put in charge of important aspects of the Liberals' programme of domestic reform. Asquith's position was difficult, for the Liberals in the Commons had only 272 MPs to the combined Unionist vote of 314, and thus relied on the Irish home-rulers for their majority. "It soon became clear that the Unionists intended to use their own majority in the Lords not merely to stop home rule but to spoil whatever items of the Liberals' legislative programme they disliked". (27)
The Irish Home Rule Bill was introduced on 13th February 1893. William Gladstone personally took the bill through the "committee stage in a remarkable feat of physical and mental endurance". After eighty-two days of debate it was passed in the House of Commons on 1st September by 43 votes (347 to 304). Gladstone wrote in his diary, "This is a great step. Thanks be to God." (28)
On 8th September, 1893, after four short days of debate, the House of Lords rejected the bill, by a vote of 419 to 41. "It was a division without precedent, both for the size of the majority and the strength of the vote. There were only 560 entitled to vote, and 82 per cent of them did did so, even though there was no incentive of uncertainty to bring remote peers to London." (29)
Gladstone considered resigning and calling a new general election on the issue. However, he suspected that he could not mount a successful electoral indictment of the House of Lords on Irish Home Rule. He therefore pushed ahead with the Workmen's Compensation Act, a measure that was extremely unpopular with employers. Asquith was given responsibility for taking the bill through Parliament. The act dealt with the right of workers for compensation for personal injury. It replaced the Employer's Liability Act 1880, which required the injured worker the right to sue the employer and put the burden of proof on the employee. (30)
In the autumn of 1893 Asquith prepared a Welsh Disestablishment and Disendowment Bill. In Parliament the measure was opposed by Conservative Party, who hated the slightest interference with the privileges of the established church. It was also attacked by the radical wing of the Liberal Party, who felt that the legislation did not go far enough. The leader of this group was David Lloyd George, who wanted the church stripped of the bulk of its wealth. Asquith complained to the Chief Whip, Tom Ellis, that he was far too lenient with Lloyd George's "underhand and disloyal" tactics. (31)
In December 1893, Gladstone came into conflict with his own party over the issue of defence spending. The Conservative Party began arguing for an expansion of the Royal Navy. Gladstone made it clear that he was opposed to this policy. William Harcourt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was willing to increase naval expenditure by £3 million. John Poyntz Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty, agreed with Harcourt. Gladstone refused to budge on the issue and wrote that he would not "break to pieces the continuous action of my political life, nor trample on the tradition received from every colleague who has ever been my teacher" by supporting naval rearmament. (32)
Conservatives continued to block the government's legislation. After accepting the Lords' amendments to the Local Government Bill "under protest" he decided to resign. In his last speech to the House of Commons on 1st March, 1894, he suggested that the time had come to change the rules of the British Parliament so that the House of Lords would no longer have the power to refuse to pass Bills which had been passed by the House of Commons. (33)
Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, became the new prime minister. His period in power was only short as the Liberal Party was defeated in the 1895 General Election. Rosebery resigned the leadership of the Liberal Party in October 1896. Asquith was seen by many as his natural successor but he rejected the offer as he did not have a private income and could not afford to give up his income from his work as a lawyer. (34)
The job went instead to Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Asquith was convinced that he would eventually replace Campbell-Bannerman, as he was sixty-two years old and fifteen years his senior. He expected his financial situation to improve and in a couple of years time he would be ready to take over the leadership. As Margot Asquith pointed out: "Campbell-Bannerman is not young or very strong and is not likely to prove a formidable long-term rival." (35)
The Boers (Dutch settlers in South Africa), under the leadership of Paul Kruger, resented the colonial policy of Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner which they feared would deprive the Transvaal of its independence. After receiving military equipment from Germany, the Boers had a series of successes on the borders of Cape Colony and Natal between October 1899 and January 1900. Although the Boers only had 88,000 soldiers, led by the outstanding soldiers such as Louis Botha, and Jan Smuts, the Boers were able to successfully besiege the British garrisons at Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley. On the outbreak of the Boer War, the conservative government announced a national emergency and sent in extra troops. (36)
Asquith called for support for the government and "an unbroken front" and became known as a "Liberal Imperialist". Campbell-Bannerman disagreed with Asquith and refused to to endorse the despatch of ten thousand troops to South Africa as he thought the move "dangerous when the the government did not know what it might lead to". David Lloyd George also disagreed with Asquith and complained that this was a war that had been started by Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary. (37)
It has been claimed that Lloyd George "sympathised with the Boers, seeing them as a pastoral community like Welshmen before the industrial revolution". He supported their claim for independence under his slogan "Home Rule All Round" assuming "it would lead to a free association within the British Empire". He argued that the Boers "would only be subdued after much suffering, cruelty and cost." (38)
Lloyd George also saw this anti-war campaign as an opportunity to stop Asquith becoming the next leader of the Liberals. Lloyd George was on the left of the party and had been campaigning with little success for the introduction of old age pensions. The idea had been rejected by the Conservative government as being "too expensive". In one speech he made the point: "The war, I am told, has already cost £16,000,000 and I ask you to compare that sum with what it would cost to fund the old age pension schemes.... when a shell exploded it carried away an old age pension and the only satisfaction was that it killed 200 Boers - fathers of families, sons of mothers. Are you satisfied to give up your old age pension for that?" (39)
The overwhelmingly majority of the public remained fervently jingoistic. David Lloyd George came under increasing attack and after a speech at Bangor on 4th April 1900, he was interrupted throughout his speech, and after the meeting, as he was walking away, he was struck over the head with a bludgeon. His hat took the impact and although stunned, he was able to take refuge in a cafe, guarded by the police.
On 5th July, 1900, at a meeting addressed by Lloyd George in Liskeard ended in pandemonium. Around fifty "young roughs stormed the platform and occupied part of it, while a soldier in khaki was carried shoulder-high from end to end of the hall and ladies in the front seats escaped hurriedly by way of the platform door." Lloyd George tried to keep speaking and it was only when some members of the audience began throwing chairs at him that he left the hall. (40)
On 25th July, a motion on the Boer War, caused a three way split in the Liberal Party. A total of 40 "Liberal Imperialists" that included H. H. Asquith, Edward Grey, Richard Haldane, and Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, supported the government's policy in South Africa. Henry Campbell-Bannerman and 34 others abstained, whereas 31 Liberals, led by Lloyd George voted against the motion.
Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, decided to take advantage of the divided Liberal Party and on 25th September 1900, he dissolved Parliament and called a general election. Lloyd George, admitted in one speech he was in a minority but it was his duty as a member of the House of Commons to give his constituents honest advice. He went on to make an attack on Tory jingoism. "The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than the man who fires upon it." (41)
Henry Campbell-Bannerman with a difficult task of holding together the strongly divided Liberal Party and they were unsurprisingly defeated in the 1900 General Election. The Conservative Party won 402 seats against the 183 achieved by Liberal Party. However, anti-war MPs did better than those who defended the war. David Lloyd George increased the size of his majority in Caernarvon Borough. Other anti-war MPs such as Henry Labouchere and John Burns both increased their majorities. In Wales, of ten Liberal candidates hostile to the war, nine were returned, while in Scotland every major critic was victorious.
John Grigg argues that it was not the anti-war Liberals who lost the party the election. "The Liberals were beaten because they were disunited and hopelessly disorganised. The war certainly added to their confusion, but this was already so flagrant that they were virtually bound to lose, war or no war. The government also had the advantage of improved trade since 1895, which the war, admittedly, turned into a boom. All things considered, the Liberals did remarkably well." (42)
Emily Hobhouse, formed the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children in 1900. It was an organisation set up: "To feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children - Boer, English and other - who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families or other incidents resulting from the military operations". Except for members of the Society of Friends, very few people were willing to contribute to this fund. (43)
Hobhouse arrived in South Africa on 27th December, 1900. Hobhouse argued that Lord Kitchener’s "Scorched Earth" policy included the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. Civilians were then forcibly moved into the concentration camps. Although this tactic had been used by Spain (Ten Years' War) and the United States (Philippine-American War), it was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted. She pointed this out in a report that she sent to the government led by Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury. (44)
When she returned to England, Hobhouse campaigned against the British Army's scorched earth and concentration camp policy. William St John Fremantle Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War argued that the interned Boers were "contented and comfortable" and stated that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps. David Lloyd George took up the case in the House of Commons and accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. (45)
After meeting Hobhouse, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, gave his support to Lloyd George against Asquith and the Liberal Imperialists on the subject of the Boer War. In a speech to the National Reform Union he provided a detailed account of Hobhouse's report. He asked "When is a war not a war?" and then provided his own answer "When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa". (46)
The British action in South Africa grew increasingly unpopular and anti-war Liberal MPs and the leaders of the Labour Party saw it as an example of the worst excesses of imperialism. The Boer War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging in May 1902. The peace settlement brought to an end the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as Boer republics. However, the British granted the Boers £3 million for restocking and repairing farm lands and promised eventual self-government. David Lloyd George commented: "They are generous terms for the Boers. Much better than those we offered them 15 months ago - after spending £50,000 in the meantime". (47)
On 24th March 1902, Arthur Balfour presented to the House of Commons an Education Bill that attempted to overturn the 1870 Education Act that had been brought in by William Gladstone. It had been popular with radicals as they were elected by ratepayers in each district. This enabled nonconformists and socialists to obtain control over local schools.
The new legislation abolished all 2,568 school boards and handed over their duties to local borough or county councils. These new Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were given powers to establish new secondary and technical schools as well as developing the existing system of elementary schools. At the time more than half the elementary pupils in England and Wales. For the first time, as a result of this legislation, church schools were to receive public funds. (48)
Nonconformists and supporters of the Liberal and Labour parties campaigned against the proposed act. David Lloyd George led the campaign in the House of Commons as he resented the idea that Nonconformists contributing to the upkeep of Anglican schools. It was also argued that school boards had introduced more progressive methods of education. "The school boards are to be destroyed because they stand for enlightenment and progress." (49)
In July, 1902, a by-election at Leeds demonstrated what the education controversy was doing to party fortunes, when a Conservative Party majority of over 2,500 was turned into a Liberal majority of over 750. The following month a Baptist came near to capturing Sevenoaks from the Tories and in November, 1902, Orkney and Shetland fell to the Liberals. That month also saw a huge anti-Bill rally held in London, at Alexandra Palace. (50)
Despite the opposition the Education Act was passed in December, 1902. John Clifford, the leader of the Baptist World Alliance, wrote several pamphlets about the legislation that had a readership that ran into hundreds of thousands. Balfour accused him of being a victim of his own rhetoric: "Distortion and exaggeration are of its very essence. If he has to speak of our pending differences, acute no doubt, but not unprecedented, he must needs compare them to the great Civil War. If he has to describe a deputation of Nonconformist ministers presenting their case to the leader of the House of Commons, nothing less will serve him as a parallel than Luther's appearance before the Diet of Worms." (51)
Clifford formed the National Passive Resistance Committee and over the next four years 170 men went to prison for refusing to pay their school taxes. This included 60 Primitive Methodists, 48 Baptists, 40 Congregationalists and 15 Wesleyan Methodists. The father of Kingsley Martin, was one of those who refused to pay: "Each year father and the other resisters all over the country refused to pay their rates for the upkeep of Church Schools. The passive resistors thought the issue of principle paramount and annually surrendered their goods instead of paying their rates. I well remember how each year one or two of our chairs and a silver teapot and jug were put out on the hall table for the local officers to take away. They were auctioned in the Market Place and brought back to us." (52)
David Lloyd George made clear that this was a terrible way to try and change people's opinions: "There is no greater tactical mistake possible than to prosecute an agitation against an injustice in such a way as to alienate a large number of men who, whilst they resent that injustice as keenly as anyone, either from tradition or timidity to be associated with anything savouring of revolutionary action. Such action should always be the last desperate resort of reformers... The interests of a whole generation of children will be sacrificed. It is not too big a price to pay for freedom, if this is the only resource available to us. But is it? I think not. My advice is, let us capture the enemy's artillery and turn his guns against him." (53)
Arthur Balfour became prime minister in June 1902. With the Liberal Party divided over the issue of the British Empire, it appeared that their chances of regaining office in the foreseeable future seemed remote. Then on 15th May 1903, Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, exploded a political bombshell with a speech in Birmingham advocating a system of preferential colonial tariffs. Asquith was convinced that Chamberlain had made a serious political mistake and after reading a report of the speech in The Times he told his wife: "Wonderful news today and it is only a question of time when we shall sweep the country". (54)
Asquith saw his opportunity and pointed out in speech after speech that a system of "preferential colonial tariffs" would mean taxes on food imported from outside the British Empire. Colin Clifford has pointed out: "Chamberlain had picked the one issue guaranteed to split the Unionist and unite the Liberals in the defence of Free Trade. The topic was tailor-made for Asquith and the next few months he shadowed Chamberlain's every speech, systematically tearing his argument to shreds. The Liberals were on the march again." (55)
As well as uniting the Liberal Party it created a split in the Conservative Party as several members of the cabinet believed strongly in Free Trade, including Charles T. Richie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Leo Amery argued: "The Birmingham speech was a challenge to free trade as direct and provocative as the theses which Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg." (56)
Arthur Balfour now began to have second thoughts on this policy and warned Joseph Chamberlain about the impact on the electorate in the next general election: "The prejudice against a small tax on food is not the fad of a few imperfectly informed theorists, it is a deep rooted prejudice affecting a large mass of voters, especially the poorest class, which it will be a matter of extreme difficulty to overcome." (57)
Asquith made speeches that attempted to frighten the growing working-class electorate "to whom cheap food had been a much cherished boon for the last quarter of a century and it annoyed the middle class who saw the prospect of a reduction in the purchasing power of their fixed incomes." As well as splitting the Conservative Party it united "the Liberals who had been hitherto hopelessly divided on all the main political issues." (58)
Arthur Balfour resigned on 4th December 1905. Henry Campbell-Bannerman refused to form a minority government and insisted on an immediate dissolution of Parliament. It has been claimed that the Liberal Party "was on the crest of a wave and it was clear that the man who had put them there was not their leader, Campbell-Bannerman, but his deputy, Asquith." (59)
The 1906 General Election took place the following month. The Liberal Party won 397 seats (48.9%) compared to the Conservative Party's 156 seats (43.4%). The Labour Party, led by Keir Hardie did well, increasing their seats from 2 to 29. In the landslide victory Balfour lost his seat as did most of his cabinet ministers. Margot Asquith wrote: "When the final figures of the Elections were published everyone was stunned, and it certainly looks as if it were the end of the great Tory Party as we have known it." (60)
Campbell-Bannerman appointed Asquith as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Other important appointments included Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary), David Lloyd George (Board of Trade), Richard Haldane (Secretary of State for War) and John Burns (President of the Local Government Board). Cambell-Bannerman announced that: "Our purpose is to substitute morality for egoism, honesty for honour, principles for usages, duties for properties, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion; dignity for insolence, nobleness for vanity, love of glory for the love of lucre... powerful and happy people for an amiable, frivolous and wretched people: that is to say every virtue of a Republic that will replace the vices and absurdities of a Monarchy." (61)
Asquith had to sacrifice his lucrative legal practice for the more modest salary of a cabinet minister. At first he expected to live on the money inherited by his wife, from her father, Sir Charles Tennant, who died soon after the election. However, all the money went to her three brothers, who were bequeathed sufficient capital to give them an income of £40,000 a year. To balance the family budget, Margot had to sell her horses and to give up hunting. (62)
Asquith's first budget was on 30th April 1906. According to his permanent secretary, Asquith spoke "with such lucidity and fluency as if he had been making Budget speeches all his life". Asquith made it clear that the safeguarding of free trade his chief objective. With the government only four months in office, this first budget was bound, as Asquith said, to be "provisional". His budget abolished the coal tax, reduced the tea tax, and announced a reduction of £1.5 million in naval expenditure. (63)
Asquith also told the House of Commons that it was his intention both to reduce income tax and to avoid further tariffs. He also hoped to increase land taxes and to introduce a system of graduating income tax. However, Treasury officials persuaded him against this. He therefore appointed a select committee under Sir Charles Wentworth Dilke "to inquire into differentiation and graduation, thus indicating the direction of his thinking on revenue raising". (64)
Asquith was committed to balancing the budget. For example, between 1906 and 1908 he reduced the national debt by an average of £15,000,000 a year, and in spite of having a substantial surplus for each year of his Chancellorship, was extremely hesitant and cautious about providing public money to the direct relief of poverty. He set aside £1,500,000 towards the possibility of providing old age pensions, sometime in the future. The vagueness of Asquith's language on the subject, annoyed many left-wing Liberals. The public shared these views and in July 1907, the Liberal Party suffered two humiliating by-election defeats, at Jarrow (Pete Curran) and Colne Valley (Victor Grayson), at the hands of the Labour Party. (65)
Henry Campbell-Bannerman suffered a severe stroke in November, 1907. He returned to work following two months rest but it soon became clear that the 71 year-old prime minister was unable to continue. On 27th March, 1908, he asked to see Asquith. According to Margot Asquith: "Henry came into my room at 7.30 p.m. and told me that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman had sent for him that day to tell him that he was dying... He began by telling him the text he had chosen out of the Psalms to put on his grave, and the manner of his funeral... Henry was deeply moved when he went on to tell me that Campbell-Bannerman had thanked him for being a wonderful colleague." (66)
Campbell-Bannerman suggested to Edward VII that Asquith should replace him as Prime Minister. However, the King with characteristic selfishness was reluctant to break his holiday in Biarritz and ordered him to continue. On 1st April, the dying Campbell-Bannerman, sent a letter to the King seeking his permission to give up office. He agreed as long as Asquith was willing to travel to France to "kiss hands". Colin Clifford has argued that "Campbell-Bannerman... for all his defects, was probably the most decent man ever to hold the office of Prime Minister. Childless and a widower since the death of his beloved wife the year before, he was now facing death bravely, with no family to comfort him." Cambell-Bannerman died later that month. (67)
Asquith appointed David Lloyd George as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Other members of his team included Winston Churchill (Board of Trade), Herbert Gladstone (Home Secretary), Charles Trevelyan (Board of Education), Richard Haldane (Secretary of State for War), Reginald McKenna (First Lord of the Admiralty) and John Burns (President of the Local Government Board).
Asquith took a gamble when he appointed Lloyd George to such a senior position. He was far to the left of Asquith but he reasoned that a disgruntled Lloyd George would be less of a problem inside the government as out. Asquith wrote: "The offer which I make is a well-deserved tribute to your long and eminent service to our party and to the splendid capacity which you have shown in your administration of the Board of Trade." (68)
David Lloyd George in one speech had warned that if the Liberal Party did not pass radical legislation, at the next election, the working-class would vote for the Labour Party: "If at the end of our term of office it were found that the present Parliament had done nothing to cope seriously with the social condition of the people, to remove the national degradation of slums and widespread poverty and destitution in a land glittering with wealth, if they do not provide an honourable sustenance for deserving old age, if they tamely allow the House of Lords to extract all virtue out of their bills, so that when the Liberal statute book is produced it is simply a bundle of sapless legislative faggots fit only for the fire - then a new cry will arise for a land with a new party, and many of us will join in that cry." (69)
Lloyd George had been a long opponent of the Poor Law in Britain. He was determined to take action that in his words would "lift the shadow of the workhouse from the homes of the poor". He believed the best way of doing this was to guarantee an income to people who were to old to work. Based on the ideas of Tom Paine that first appeared in his book Rights of Man, Lloyd George's proposed the Old Age Pensions Act in his first budget.
In a speech on 15th June 1908, he pointed out: "You have never had a scheme of this kind tried in a great country like ours, with its thronging millions, with its rooted complexities... This is, therefore, a great experiment... We do not say that it deals with all the problem of unmerited destitution in this country. We do not even contend that it deals with the worst part of that problem. It might be held that many an old man dependent on the charity of the parish was better off than many a young man, broken down in health, or who cannot find a market for his labour." (70)
However, the Labour Party was disappointed by the proposal. Along with the Trade Union Congress they had demanded a pension of at least five shillings a week for everybody of sixty or over, Lloyd George's scheme gave five shillings a week to individuals over seventy; and for couples the pension was to be 7s. 6d. Moreover, even among the seventy-year-olds not everyone was to qualify; as well as criminals and lunatics, people with incomes of more than £26 a year (or £39 a year in the case of couples) and people who would have received poor relief during the year prior to the scheme's coming into effect, were also disqualified." (71)
To pay for these pensions Lloyd George had to raise government revenues by an additional £16 million a year. In 1909 Lloyd George announced what became known as the People's Budget. This included increases in taxation. Whereas people on lower incomes were to pay 9d. in the pound, those on annual incomes of over £3,000 had to pay 1s. 2d. in the pound. Lloyd George also introduced a new super-tax of 6d. in the pound for those earning £5,000 a year. Other measures included an increase in death duties on the estates of the rich and heavy taxes on profits gained from the ownership and sale of property. Other innovations in Lloyd George's budget included labour exchanges and a children's allowance on income tax. (72)
Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery, the former Liberal Party leader, stated that: "The Budget, was not a Budget, but a revolution: a social and political revolution of the first magnitude... To say this is not to judge it, still less to condemn it, for there have been several beneficent revolutions." However, he opposed the Budget because it was "pure socialism... and the end of all, the negation of faith, of family, of property, of Monarchy, of Empire." (73)
David Lloyd George admitted that he would never have got his proposals through the Cabinet without the strong support of Asquith. He told his brother: "Budgeting all day... the Cabinet was very divided... Prime Minister decided in my favour to my delight". He told a friend: "The Prime Minister has backed me up through thick and thin with splendid loyalty. I have the deepest respect for him and he has real sympathy for the ordinary and the poor." (74)
His other main supporter in the Cabinet was Winston Churchill. He spoke at a large number of public meetings of the pressure group he formed, the Budget League. Churchill rarely missed a debate on the issue and one newspaper report suggested that he had attended one late night debate in the House of Commons in his pajamas. Some historians have claimed that both men were using the measure to further their political careers.
Robert Lloyd George, the author of David & Winston: How a Friendship Changed History (2005) has suggested that their main motive was to prevent socialism in Britain: "Churchill and Lloyd George intuitively saw the real danger of socialism in the global situation of that time, when economic classes were so divided. In other European countries, revolution would indeed sweep away monarchs and landlords within the next ten years. But thanks to the reforming programme of the pre-war Liberal government, Britain evolved peacefully towards a more egalitarian society. It is arguable that the peaceful revolution of the People's Budget prevented a much more bloody revolution." (75)
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. 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. The historian, George Dangerfield, has argued that Lloyd George had created a budget that would destroy the House of Lords: "It was like a kid, which sportsmen tie up to a tree in order to persuade a tiger to its death." (76)
Asquith's strategy was to offer the peers the minimum of provocation and hope to finesse them into passing the legislation. Lloyd George had a different style and in a speech on 30th July, 1909, in the working-class district of Limehouse in London on the selfishness of rich men unwilling "to provide for the sick and the widows and orphans". He concluded his speech with the threat that if the peers resisted, they would be brushed aside "like chaff before us". (77)
Edward VII was furious and suggested to Asquith that Lloyd George was a "revolutionary" and a "socialist". Asquith explained that the support of the King was vital if the House of Lords was to be outmanoeuvred. Asquith explained to Lloyd George that the King "sees in the general tone, and especially in the concluding parts, of your speech, a menace to property and a Socialistic spirit". He added it was important "to avoid alienating the King's goodwill... and... what is needed is reasoned appeal to moderate and reasonable men" and not to "rouse the suspicions and fears of the middle class". (78)
It was clear that the House of Lords would block the budget. Asquith asked the King to create a large number of Peers that would give the Liberals a majority. Edward VII refused and his private secretary, Francis Knollys, wrote to Asquith that "to create 570 new Peers, which I am told would be the number required... would practically be almost an impossibility, and if asked for would place the King in an awkward position". (79)
On 30th November, 1909, the Peers rejected the Finance Bill by 350 votes to 75. Asquith had no option but to call a general election. In January 1910, the Liberals lost votes and was forced to rely on the support of the 42 Labour Party MPs to govern. Asquith increased his own majority in East Fife but he was prevented from delivering his acceptance speech by members of the Women Social & Political Union who were demanding "Votes for Women". (80)
John Grigg, the author of The People's Champion (1978) argues that the reason why the "people failed to give a sweeping, massive endorsement to the People's Budget" was that the electorate in 1910 was "by no means representative of the whole British nation". He points out that "only 58 per cent of adult males had the vote, and it is a fair assumption that the remaining 42 per cent would, if enfranchised, have voted in very large numbers for Liberal or Labour candidates. In what was still a disproportionately middle-class electorate the fear of Socialism was strong, and many voters were susceptible to the argument that the Budget was a first installment of Socialism." (81)
Some of his critics on the left of the party believed that Asquith had not mounted a more aggressive campaign against the House of Lords. It was argued that instead of threatening its power to veto legislation, he should have advocated making it a directly elected second chamber. Asquith felt this was a step to far and was more interested in a negotiated settlement. However, to Colin Clifford, this made Asquith look "weak and indecisive". (82)
In a speech on 21st February, 1910, Asquith outlined his plans for reform: "Recent experience has disclosed serious difficulties due to recurring differences of strong opinion between the two branches of the Legislature. Proposals will be laid before you, with convenient speed, to define the relations between the Houses of Parliament, so as to secure the undivided authority of the House of Commons over finance and its predominance in legislation." (83)
The Parliament Bill was introduced later that month. "Any measure passed three times by the House of Commons would be treated as if it had been passed by both Houses, and would receive the Royal Assent... The House of Lords was to be shorn absolutely of power to delay the passage of any measure certified by the Speaker of the House of Commons as a money bill, but was to retain the power to delay any other measure for a period of not less than two years." (84)
Edward VII died in his sleep on 6th May 1910. His son, George V, now had the responsibility of dealing with this difficult constitutional question. David Lloyd George had a meeting with the new king and had an "exceedingly frank and satisfactory talk about the political crisis". He told his wife that he was not very intelligent as "there's not much in his head". However, he "expressed the desire to try his hand at conciliation... whether he will succeed is somewhat doubtful." (85)
James Garvin, the editor of The Observer, argued it was time that the government reached a negotiated settlement with the House of Lords: "If King Edward upon his deathbed could have sent a last message to his people, he would have asked us to lay party passion aside, to sign a truce of God over his grave, to seek... some fair means of making a common effort for our common country... Let conference take place before conflict is irrevocably joined." (86)
A Constitutional Conference was established with eight members, four cabinet ministers and four representatives from the Conservative Party. Over the next six months the men met on twenty-one occasions. However, they never came close to an agreement and the last meeting took place in November. George Barnes, the Labour Party MP, called for an immediate creation of left-wing peers. However, when a by-election at Walthamstow suggested a slight swing to the Liberals, Asquith decided to call another General Election. (87)
David Lloyd George called on the British people to vote for a change in the parliamentary system: "How could anyone defend the Constitution in its present form? No country in the world would look at our system - no free country, I mean... France has a Senate, the United States has a Senate, the Colonies have Senates, but they are all chosen either directly or indirectly by the people." (88)
The general election of December, 1910, produced a House of Commons which was almost identical to the one that had been elected in January. The Liberals won 272 seats and the Conservatives 271, but the Labour Party (42) and the Irish (a combined total of 84) ensured the government's survival as long as it proceeded with constitutional reform and Home Rule.
The Parliament Bill, which removed the peers' right to amend or defeat finance bills and reduced their powers from the defeat to the delay of other legislation, was introduced into the House of Commons on 21st February 1911. It completed its passage through the Commons on 15th May. A committee of the House of Lords then amended the bill out of all recognition. (89)
According to Lucy Masterman, the wife of Charles Masterman, the Liberal MP for West Ham North, that David Lloyd George had a secret meeting with Arthur Balfour, the leader of the Conservative Party. Lloyd George had bluffed Balfour into believing that George V had agreed to create enough Liberal supporting peers to pass a new Parliament Bill. (90)
Although a list of 249 candidates for ennoblement, including Thomas Hardy, Bertrand Russell, Gilbert Murray and J. M. Barrie, had been drawn up, they had not yet been presented to the King. After the meeting Balfour told Conservative peers that to prevent the Liberals having a permanent majority in the House of Lords, they must pass the bill. On 10th August 1911, the Parliament Act was passed by 131 votes to 114 in the Lords. (91)
Asquith was opposed to giving women the vote. Henry Brailsford, a member of the Men's League For Women's Suffrage wrote to Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Woman's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), suggesting that he should attempt to establish a Conciliation Committee for Women's Suffrage. "My idea is that it should undertake the necessary diplomatic work of promoting an early settlement". (92)
Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) agreed to the idea and they declared a truce in which all militant activities would cease until the fate of the Conciliation Bill was clear. A Conciliation Committee, composed of 36 MPs (25 Liberals, 17 Conservatives, 6 Labour and 6 Irish Nationalists) all in favour of some sort of women's enfranchisement, was formed and drafted a Bill which would have enfranchised only a million women but which would, they hoped, gain the support of all but the most dedicated anti-suffragists. (93) Fawcett wrote that "personally many suffragists would prefer a less restricted measure, but the immense importance and gain to our movement is getting the most effective of all the existing franchises thrown upon to woman cannot be exaggerated." (94)
The Conciliation Bill was designed to conciliate the suffragist movement by giving a limited number of women the vote, according to their property holdings and marital status. After a two-day debate in July 1910, the Conciliation Bill was carried by 109 votes and it was agreed to send it away to be amended by a House of Commons committee. However, before they completed the task, Asquith called another election in order to get a clear majority. However, the result was very similar and Asquith still had to rely on the support of the Labour Party to govern the country. (95)
A new Conciliation Bill was passed by the House of Commons on 5th May 1911 with a majority of 167. The main opposition came from Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, who saw it as being "anti-democratic". He argued "Of the 18,000 women voters it is calculated that 90,000 are working women, earning their living. What about the other half? The basic principle of the Bill is to deny votes to those who are upon the whole the best of their sex. We are asked by the Bill to defend the proposition that a spinster of means living in the interest of man-made capital is to have a vote, and the working man's wife is to be denied a vote even if she is a wage-earner and a wife." (96)
David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was officially in favour of woman's suffrage. However, he had told his close associates, such as Charles Masterman, the Liberal MP in West Ham North: "He (David Lloyd George) was very much disturbed about the Conciliation Bill, of which he highly disapproved although he is a universal suffragist... We had promised a week (or more) for its full discussion. Again and again he cursed that promise. He could not see how we could get out of it, yet he regarded it as fatal (if passed)." (97)
Lloyd George was convinced that the chief effect of the Bill, if it became law, would be to hand more votes to the Conservative Party. During the debate on the Conciliation Bill he stated that justice and political necessity argued against enfranchising women of property but denying the vote to the working class. The following day Asquith announced that in the next session of Parliament he would introduce a Bill to enfranchise the four million men currently excluded from voting and suggested it could be amended to include women. Paul Foot has pointed out that as the Tories were against universal suffrage, the new Bill "smashed the fragile alliance between pro-suffrage Liberals and Tories that had been built on the Conciliation Bill." (98)
Millicent Fawcett still believed in the good faith of the Asquith government. However, the WSPU, reacted very differently: "Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst had invested a good deal of capital in the Conciliation Bill and had prepared themselves for the triumph which a women-only bill would entail. A general reform bill would have deprived them of some, at least, of the glory, for even though it seemed likely to give the vote to far more women, this was incidental to its main purpose." (99)
Christabel Pankhurst wrote in Votes for Women that Lloyd George's proposal to give votes to seven million instead of one million women was, she said, intended "not, as he professes, to secure to women a larger measure of enfranchisement but to prevent women from having the vote at all" because it would be impossible to get the legislation passed by Parliament. (100)
On 21st November, the WSPU carried out an "official" window smash along Whitehall and Fleet Street. This involved the offices of the Daily Mail and the Daily News and the official residences or homes of leading Liberal politicians such as Asquith, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Edward Grey, John Burns and Lewis Harcourt. It was reported that "160 suffragettes were arrested, but all except those charged with window-breaking or assault were discharged." (101)
The following month Millicent Fawcett wrote to her sister, Elizabeth Garrett: "We have the best chance of Women's Suffrage next session that we have ever had, by far, if it is not destroyed by disgusting masses of people by revolutionary violence." Elizabeth agreed and replied: "I am quite with you about the WSPU. I think they are quite wrong. I wrote to Miss Pankhurst... I have now told her I can go no more with them." (102)
Henry Brailsford went to see the Emmeline Pankhurst and asked her to control her members in order to get the legislation passed by Parliament. She replied "I wish I had never heard of that abominable Conciliation Bill!" and Christabel Pankhurst called for more militant actions. The Conciliation Bill was debated in March 1912, and was defeated by 14 votes. Asquith claimed that the reason why his government did not back the issue was because they were committed to a full franchise reform bill. However, he never kept his promise and a new bill never appeared before Parliament. (103)
Ray Strachey, the author of The Cause: A History of the Women's Movement in Great Britain (1928) pointed out that Millicent Fawcett now lost complete confidence in the Liberal Party to give women the vote: "Nothing more was ever hoped for the Liberal Party. The only prospect of successful lay in a change of Government, and to this end the women now devoted their energies." (104)
In early 1912 Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS took the decision to form an electoral alliance with the growing Labour Party, as it was the only political party which really supported women's suffrage. "It soon strengthened that alliance, setting up a special Election Fighting Fund in May-June so that the NUWSS could help Labour candidates more effectively at by-elections." (105)
Throughout his political career Asquith had close associations with young women. His wife described these women as his harem. The most important of these was Venetia Stanley, a close friend of his daughter, Violet Asquith. Venetia accompanied Violet and her father on a trip to Sicily in 1912. Also on holiday with them was the young Liberal Party MP, Edwin Montagu. Over the next two weeks both men fell in love with Venetia. Asquith, was 59 years old at the time and in a letter to her later he described the holiday as "the first stage in our intimacy... we had together one of the most interesting and delightful fortnights in all our lives... the scales dropped from my eyes… and I dimly felt… that I had come to a turning point in my life". (105a)
On their return from holiday Asquith invited Venetia to a house party, following this up with invitations to 10 Downing Street. However, he was unaware that Montagu was also besotted with Venetia. He wrote to her regularly and took her out whenever he could. It seems that Asquith was totally unaware of this developing relationship. In August 1912 he asked her to marry him. At first she accepted the proposal and later changed her mind. (105b)
If Venetia accepted his proposal he would have lost his inheritance as his father, Samuel Montagu, 1st Baron Swaythling, who had died in 1911, had stipulated in his will that he had to marry a Jewish woman. "Although Venetia, physically repelled by his huge head and course pock-marked face, refused him, she lapped up the waspish political gossip at which he excelled, and they continued to see a great deal of one another, with Montagu a regular house guest at the Stanley family homes at Alderley and Penrhos." (105c)
Lawrence Jones, who knew Venetia during this period, commented: "Venetia had dark-eyed, aquiline good looks and a masculine intellect. I delighted in her and we were close friends; but she permitted herself, in the morning of her youth, no recourse to her own femininity. She carried the Anthologies in her head, but rode like an Amazon, and walked the high garden walls of Alderley (her family's home in Cheshire) with the casual stride of a boy. She was a splendid, virginal, comradely creature, reserving herself for we knew not what use of her fine brain and hidden heart." (105d)
In 1913 Asquith began to write to Venetia Stanley on a regular basis and would meet her in London as often as possible. She admitted to Edwin Montagu: "It was delicious seeing him again... He was in very good spirits I thought in spite of the crisis (over Ireland). He didn't, as you can imagine, talk much about it and our conversation ran in very well worn lines, the sort that he enjoys on these occasions and which irritate Margot so much by their great dreariness. I love every well known word of them - with and for me familiarity in a large part of the charm." (105e)
Venetia Stanley began to spend more time with the Asquith family at 10 Downing Street. However, in the presence of his wife, Margot Asquith, he spent little time with her. After staying with them for over a week she told Montagu: "I saw not very much of the P.M. Do you remember saying how much he varied in his liking for me, and that sometimes he quite liked me and at others not at all? Well, this was one of the not at all times. He was horribly bored by my constant presence at breakfast, lunch and dinner". (105f)
Although she "had few pretensions to beauty", she was superbly equipped to be what Violet Asquith's called her father's "companion in brightness". Asquith admitted that he had "a slight weakness for the companionship of clever and attractive women" and became one of what his wife called his "little harem". Another attraction for Asquith was that Venetia showed no great anxiety to marry and settle down. (105g)
Edwin Montagu continued to try to persuade Venetia to marry him. Both his brother, Louis Montagu, 2nd Baron Swaythling, and his sister, Lilian Montagu, put pressure on him to stop seeing Venetia. He was told that "Christians are all so totally unlike the Jews". Venetia's sister, Sylvia Henley, thought that she was fond of Montagu and liked his company but did not love him. "After all, she could hardly even bare to kiss him. And if she was not in love with him, what would happen if she really fell in love with someone else?" (105h)
During this period Asquith was writing to Venetia explaining how she had become her "pole-star" who had rescued him "from sterility, impotence, despair" and his love for her enabled him "in the daily stress of almost intolerable burdens and anxieties, to see visions and dreams". Despite his passionate love letters, according to Venetia's friend, Diana Cooper, the relationship remained platonic. However, Bobbie Neate, the author of Conspiracy of Secrets (2012) believes that Venetia gave birth to Asquith's child in August 1911. From the evidence available this seems very unlikely. (105i)
There are several accounts of Asquith attempting to seduce young women in his company. Diana Cooper complained that on several occasions she had to defend her face "from his fumbly hands and mouth". (105j) The Asquith family were fully aware of his inappropriate behaviour. His daughter-in-law, Cynthia Asquith, wrote about it in her diary but according to her biographer, Nicola Beauman, she was forced to "ink over all references in her diary". Ottoline Morrell was another woman who complained about his behaviour. Apparently she told Lytton Strachey that Asquith "would take a lady's hand, as she sat beside him on the sofa, and make her feel his erected instrument under his trousers". (105k)
Venetia’s younger sister, Sylvia Henley, also complained about Asquith and commented that if she ever found herself alone with Asquith, "it was safest to sit either side of the fire... or to make sure there was a table between them." Another woman recalled an incident when "the Prime Minister had his head jammed down in to my shoulder and all my fingers in his mouth." (105l)
Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, used his newspapers to urge an increase in defence spending and a reduction in the amount of money being spent on social insurance schemes. In one letter to David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he suggested that the Asquith government was Pro-German. Lloyd George replied: "The only real pro-German whom I know of on the Liberal side of politics is Rosebery, and I sometimes wonder whether he is even a Liberal at all! Haldane, of course, from education and intellectual bent, is in sympathy with German ideas, but there is really nothing else on which to base a suspicion that we are inclined to a pro-German policy at the expense of the entente with France." (106)
Lloyd George complained bitterly to Asquith about the demands being made by Reginald McKenna, First Lord of the Admiralty, to spend more money on the navy. He reminded Asquith of "the emphatic pledges given by us before and during the general election campaign to reduce the gigantic expediture on armaments built up by our predecessors... but if Tory extravagance on armaments is seen to be exceeded, Liberals... will hardly think it worth their while to make any effort to keep in office a Liberal ministry... the Admiralty's proposals were a poor compromise between two scares - fear of the German navy abroad and fear of the Radical majority at home... You alone can save us from the prospect of squalid and sterile destruction." (107)
Lloyd George was constantly in conflict with McKenna and suggested that his friend, Winston Churchill, should become First Lord of the Admiralty. Asquith took this advice and Churchill was appointed to the post on 24th October, 1911. McKenna, with the greatest reluctance, replaced him at the Home Office. This move backfired on Lloyd George as the Admiralty cured Churchill's passion for "economy". The "new ruler of the King's navy demanded an expenditure on new battleships which made McKenna's claims seem modest". (108)
The Admiralty reported to the British government that by 1912 Germany would have 17 dreadnoughts, three-fourths the number planned by Britain for that date. At a cabinet meeting David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill both expressed doubts about the veracity of the Admiralty intelligence. Churchill even accused Admiral John Fisher, who had provided this information, of applying pressure on naval attachés in Europe to provide any sort of data he needed. (109)
Admiral Fisher refused to be beaten and contacted King Edward VII about his fears. He in turn discussed the issue with Asquith. Lloyd George wrote to Churchill explaining how Asquith had now given approval to Fisher's proposals: "I feared all along this would happen. Fisher is a very clever person and when he found his programme in danger he wired Davidson (assistant private secretary to the King) for something more panicky - and of course he got it." (110)
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand did not immediately cause a reaction in Britain. David Lloyd George admitted that he heard the news he suspected that it would result in a war in the Balkans but did not believe such a conflict would involve Britain. He also pointed out that the Cabinet, although it was meeting twice a day, because of the crisis in Ireland, they did not even discuss the issue of Serbia and the assassination for another three weeks. (111)
Lloyd George told C. P. Scott that there is "no question of our taking part in any war in the first instance... and knew of no minister who would be in favour of it". In a letter a few days later to King George V he described the impending conflict as "the greatest event for many years past" but he added "happily there seems no reason why we should be anything other than a spectator". Asquith instructed Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, to "inform the French and German ambassadors that, at this stage, we were unable to pledge ourselves in advance either under all conditions to stand aside or in any conditions to join in." (112)
On 28th July, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The following day the Kaiser promised to Britain that he would not annex any French territory in Europe provided the country remained neutral. This offer was immediately rejected by Sir Edward Grey in the House of Commons. On 30th July, Grey wrote to on Theobold von Bethmann Hollweg: "His Majesty's Government cannot for one moment entertain the Chancellor's proposal that they should bind themselves to neutrality on such terms. What he asks us in effect is to engage and stand by while French colonies are taken and France is beaten, so long as Germany does not take French territory as distinct from the colonies. From the material point of view the proposal is unacceptable, for France, without further territory in Europe being taken from her, could be so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power, and become subordinate to German policy. Altogether apart from that, it would be a disgrace to us to make this bargain with Germany at the expense of France, a disgrace from which the good name of this country would never recover. The Chancellor also in effect asks us to bargain away whatever obligation or interest we have as regards the neutrality of Belgium. We could not entertain that bargain either." (113)
C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, made it clear what he thought of the conflict. "Not only are we neutral now, but we could, and ought to remain neutral throughout the whole course of the war... We wish Serbia no ill; we are anxious for the peace of Europe. But Englishmen are not the guardians of Serbia well being, or even of the peace of Europe. Their first duty is to England and to the peace of England... We care as little for Belgrade as Belgrade does for Manchester." (114)
At a Cabinet meeting on Friday, 31st July, more than half the Cabinet, including David Lloyd George, Charles Trevelyan, John Burns, John Morley, John Simon and Charles Hobhouse, were bitterly opposed to Britain entering the war. Only two ministers, Sir Edward Grey and Winston Churchill, argued in favour and Asquith appeared to support them. At this point, Churchill suggested that it might be possible to continue if some senior members of the Conservative Party could be persuaded to form a Coalition government. (115)
On 1st August, Asquith wrote in his diary that his government was badly divided on the issue of war: "Lloyd George, all for peace, is more sensible and statesmanlike for keeping the position still open. Grey declares that if an out-and-out and uncompromising policy of Non-intervention at all costs is adopted he will go. Winston very bellicose and demanding immediate mobilization... Of course, if Grey went, I should go, and the whole thing would break up." (116)
Churchill wrote to Lloyd George after the Cabinet meeting: "I am most profoundly anxious that our long co-operation may not be severed... I implore you to come and bring your mighty aid to the discharge of our duty. Afterwards, by participating, we can regulate the settlement." He warned that if Lloyd George did not change his mind: "All the rest of our lives we shall be opposed. I am deeply attached to you and have followed your instructions and guidance for nearly 10 years."(117)
On 1st August the Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Walter Cunliffe, visited Lloyd George to inform him that the City was totally against British intervening in the war. Lloyd George later recalled: "Money was a frightened and trembling thing. Money shivered at the prospect. Big Business everywhere wanted to keep out." Three days later The Daily News argued that it would help business if Britain kept out of the war, "if we remained neutral we should be able to trade with all the belligerents... We should be able to capture the bulk of their trade in neutral markets." (118)
Later that day Grey told the French Ambassador in London that the British government would not stand by and see the German Fleet attack the French Channel Ports. When he heard what had happened, John Burns immediately resigned as he now knew war was inevitable. Charles Trevelyan, John Morley and John Simon also handed in letters of resignation with "at least another half-dozen waited upon the effective hour". (119)
According to the editor of the Manchester Guardian: "He (Lloyd George), Beauchamp, Morley and Burns had all resigned from the Cabinet on the Saturday (1st August) before the declaration of war on the ground that they could not agree to Grey's pledge to Cambon (the French ambassador in London) to protect north coast of France against Germans, regarding this as equivalent to war with Germany. On urgent representations of Asquith he (Lloyd George) and Beauchamp agreed on Monday evening to remain in the Cabinet without in the smallest degree, as far as he was concerned, withdrawing his objection to the policy but solely in order to prevent the appearance of disruption in face of a grave national danger. That remains his position. He is, as it were, an unattached member of the Cabinet." (120)
Lloyd George did not submit a resignation letter but he remained unconvinced that Britain should go to war over this issue. His friend, George Riddell, pointed out that he was coming under great pressure from pacifists in the Liberal Party. (121) Asquith argued: "Some ministers believed that we should declare now and at once that in no circumstances would we take a hand. There is no doubt that, for the moment, that is the view of the bulk of the party. Lloyd George - all for peace - is more sensible and statesmanlike, keeping the position open." (122)
However, in a letter to his wife, Lloyd George admitted he would support the war if Germany invaded Belgium: "I am moving through a nightmare world these days. I have fought hard for peace and succeeded, so far, in keeping the Cabinet out of it, but I am driven to the conclusion that if the small nationality of Belgium is attacked by Germany all my traditions and even my prejudices will be engaged on the side of war." (123)
Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party, heard about this dispute in Cabinet and wrote to Asquith giving him support on this matter: "Lord Lansdowne (leader of the House of Lords) and I feel it our duty to inform you that in our opinion as well as in that of all the colleagues whom we have been able to consult, it would be fatal to the honour and security of the United Kingdom to hesitate in supporting France and Russia at the present juncture; and we offer our unhesitating support to the Government in any measures they may consider necessary for that object." (124)
On 3rd August, 1914, Germany declared war on France. That afternoon Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, made the first official statement on the crisis. "The French fleet is now in the Mediterranean, and the northern and western coasts of France are absolutely undefended. The French fleet being concentrated in the Mediterranean, the situation is very different from what it used to be, because the friendship which has grown up between the two countries has given them a sense of security that there was nothing to be feared from us. My own feeling is that if a foreign fleet, engaged in a war which France had not sought, and in which she had not been the aggressor, came down the English Channel and bombarded and battered the undefended coasts of France, we could not stand aside."
Grey then went on to talk about Belgian neutrality. "Even if by agreement she admitted the violation of her neutrality, it is clear she could only do so under duress. The smaller States in that region of Europe ask but one thing. Their one desire is that they should be left alone and independent. The one thing they fear is, I think, not so much that their integrity but that their independence should be interfered with. If in this war, which is before Europe, the neutrality of those countries is violated, if the troops of one of the combatants violate its neutrality and no action be taken to resent it, at the end of war, whatever the integrity may be, the independence will be gone."
Grey explained why it was important to defend Belgian independence: "If her independence goes, the independence of Holland will follow. I ask the House from the point of view of British interests to consider what may be at stake. If France is beaten in a struggle of life and death, beaten to her knees, loses her position as a great power, becomes subordinate to the will and power of one greater than herself - consequences which I do not anticipate, because I am sure that France has the power to defend herself with all the energy and ability and patriotism which she has shown so often. Still, if that were to happen and if Belgium fell under the same dominating influence, and then Holland, and then Denmark, then would not Mr. Gladstone's words come true, that just opposite to us there would be a common interest against the unmeasured aggrandisement of any power?" (125)
That evening an estimated 30,000 people took to the streets. They gathered around Buckingham Palace and eventually King George V and the rest of the royal family appeared on the balcony. The crowd began singing "God Save the King" and then large numbers left to smash the windows of the German Embassy. Frank Owen points out that the previous day the crowds had been calling for a peaceful settlement of the crisis, now they were "clamouring for war". (126)
The following day the Germans marched into Belgium. According to the historian, A. J. P. Taylor: "At 10.30 p.m. on 4th August 1914 the king held a privy council at Buckingham Palace, which was attended only by one minister and two court officials. The council sanctioned the proclamation of a state of war with Germany from 11 p.m. That was all. The cabinet played no part once it had resolved to defend the neutrality of Belgium. It did not consider the ultimatum to Germany, which Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, sent after consulting only the prime minister, Asquith, and perhaps not even him." (127)
Charles Trevelyan, John Burns, and John Morley, all resigned from the government. However, David Lloyd George continued to serve in the cabinet. Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George's private secretary, later claimed: "My own opinion is that Lloyd George's mind was really made up from the first, that he knew that we would have to go in and the invasion of Belgium was, to be cynical, a heaven-sent opportunity for supporting a declaration of war." (128)
Asquith supported the war but was deeply disturbed by the way some Cabinet ministers such as Winston Churchill responded: "Winston dashed into the room radiant, his face bright, his manner keen and told us - one word pouring out on the other - how he was going to send telegrams to the Mediterranean, the North Sea and God knows where! You could see he was a really happy man, I wondered if this was the state of mind to be in at the opening of such a fearful war as this." (129)
On the outbreak of the First World War the editor of The Star newspaper blamed the press baron, Lord Northcliffe for the conflict: "Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war." Once the war had started Northcliffe used his newspaper empire to promote anti-German hysteria. It was The Daily Mail that first used the term "Huns" to describe the Germans and "thus at a stroke was created the image of a terrifying, ape-like savage that threatened to rape and plunder all of Europe, and beyond." (130)
As Philip Knightley, the author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker (1982) has pointed out: "The war was made to appear one of defence against a menacing aggressor. The Kaiser was painted as a beast in human form... The Germans were portrayed as only slightly better than the hordes of Genghis Khan, rapers of nuns, mutilators of children, and destroyers of civilisation." (131) In one report the newspaper referred to Kaiser Wilhelm II as a "lunatic," a "barbarian," a "madman," a "monster," a "modern judas," and a "criminal monarch". (132)
The main concern of Lord Northcliffe was a German invasion and was opposed to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) being sent to France. On 5th August, 1914, he warned Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, against any plan to dispatch the BEF. He told the editor of The Daily Mail: "I will not support the sending out of this country of a single British soldier. What about invasion? What about our own country? Put that in the leader. Do you hear? Not a single soldier will go with my consent. Say so in the paper tomorrow." (133)
However, Churchill ignored Northcliffe and it was decided that the 120,000 soldiers in the BEF should be sent to Maubeuge in France. "They (the Army Council) agreed that the fourteen Territorial divisions could protect the country from invasion. The BEF was free to go abroad. Where to? There could be no question of helping the Belgians, through this was why Great Britain had gone to war. The BEF had no choice: it must go to Maubeuge on the French left." (134)
Lord Northcliffe had considered David Lloyd George a dangerous radical and had opposed his plans for progressive taxation, old age pensions, national insurance and reform of the House of Lords. However, Northcliffe admired Lloyd George's "energy, competence and cynicism it required... and a deadly determination to carry out his will at any cost" and the two men developed a close relationship over the next four years. (135) According to George Riddell, one of Lloyd George's closest friends, there was "no doubt some sort of understanding between him and Northcliffe." (136)
However, Northcliffe remained hostile to Asquith and his wife, Margot Asquith, was convinced that he wanted him removed from office. The Asquith's were also appalled by the way Northcliffe's newspapers, The Times and The Daily Mail, had created this anti-German hysteria. Under pressure from stories that appeared in the press, the Asquith's were forced to sack their German-born maid. (137)
On 7th August, 1914, the House of Commons was told that Britain needed an army of 500,000 men. The same day Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War,issued his first appeal for 100,000 volunteers. He got an immediate response with 175,000 men volunteering in a single week. With the help of a war poster that featured Kitchener, and the words: "Join Your Country's Army".
David Lloyd George was asked to use his great skills as an orator to persuade men to join the armed forces. On 19th September, he spoke at the Queen's Hall in London. "There is no man in this room who has always regarded the prospect of engaging in a great war with greater reluctance and with greater repugnance than I have done through the whole period of my political life. There is no man inside or outside this room more convinced that we could not have avoided it without national dishonour... They think we cannot beat them. It will not be easy. It will be a long job. It will be a terrible war. But in the end we will march through terror to triumph. We shall need all our qualities - every quality that Britain and its people possess - prudence in counsel, daring in action, tenacity in purpose, courage in defeat, moderation in victory, in all things faith." (138)
Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, wept when he read the speech. Asquith told him that it was a wonderful speech and Charles Masterman claimed it was "the finest speech in the history of England". The speech was also praised by the Conservative Party supporting newspapers, who described the man who they had been attacking for many years as a "British patriot". By the end of the month over 750,000 men had enlisted in the British armed forces. (139)
However, Lloyd George did not want his own twenty-year old son, Gwilym Lloyd George, to join the army. He wrote to his wife explaining his own position: "They are pressing Territorials to volunteer for the War. Gwilym mustn't do that yet... I am dead against carrying on a war of conquest to crush Germany for the benefit of Russia... I am not going to sacrifice my nice boy for that purpose. You must write, telling him he must on no account be bullied into volunteering abroad." (140)
Three of Asquith's sons, Cyril (24), Arthur (31) and Herbert (33) immediately joined the armed forces. Herbert pointed out "England expects every man to do his duty" and if they did not offer their services "Father will be asked why he doesn't begin his recruiting at home". Arthur agreed and was the first to join: "I have two older brothers, both married, and one younger brother with an ailing colon... It is obviously fitting that one of my father's four sons ought to be prepared to fight". (141)
Raymond Asquith, was nearly 36 and was married with two young children, Helen and Perdita. A third child, Julian would be born soon afterwards. He was less enthusiastic about the war than his younger brothers. Raymond was on the left of the Liberal Party and had doubts about the wisdom of declaring war on Germany. He had no confidence in Lord Kitchener, who he described as the "King of Chaos" and expected the war to last at least three years and predicted that "sooner or later they (his brothers) would all be under the turf". (142)
Arthur Asquith was the first to see action in the 2nd Royal Naval Division, a collection of naval reservists that became known as the Anson Battalion that had been formed by Winston Churchill. A fellow officer was his friend Rupert Brooke. On 8th October, 1914, the battalion attempted to take the port of Antwerp, from the German Army. This ended in failure and they were forced to escape back to England.
Asquith later wrote to Venetia Stanley about what happened: "I can't tell you what I feel of the wicked folly of it all. The Marines of course are splendid troops and can go anywhere and do anything: but nothing excuses Winston Churchill (who knew all the facts)... I was assured that all the recruits were being left behind, and that the main body at any rate consisted of seasoned Naval Reserve men. As a matter of fact only about a quarter were Reservists, and the rest were a callow crowd of the rawest tiros, most of whom had never fired off a rifle, while none of them had ever handled an entrenching tool." (143)
Herbert Asquith was also sent to Belgium and saw action at Nieuwpoort. He later recalled: "The ground was scattered with large numbers of the dead, French and German, lying on that powdered and shell-pitted soil, on their faces or their backs, tangled on the barbs of the rusted wire, or tossed over the brink of a shell-hole, and here and there a rigid arm stretched upwards aimlessly to the sky." (144)
After the outbreak of the First World War Asquith began writing to Venetia Stanley daily. This included a "great many political and war secrets, and remained, as far as is known, completely discreet about them all". Venetia became concerned that Asquith was becoming increasing dependence on her friendship, and to have warned him that he could not remain the centre of her life. However, she found it difficult to break with him when she saw how much she had distressed him she would "make him happy again" by saying "anything he wanted". (144a)
Asquith's language became more passionate in 1915 and appeared to be more besotted with his young friend. "I love you more than ever - more than life!" (144b) Six days later he wrote: "I can honestly say that not an hour passes without thought of you." (144c) These letters were written at a time of national crisis and newspapers, especially those owned by Lord Northcliffe, were suggesting he was a poor war leader. On 22nd March, Asquith told Venetia that "I have never wanted you more." (144d)
When she suggested going overseas to work as a nurse with the British troops Asquith protested that he would not be able to cope with her "so far away". In several letters he expressed his fears of losing her. He confessed that "sometimes a horrible imagination seizes me that you may be taken from me - in one way or another". If she did try try to go abroad he feared she would be a victim of a submarine attack and this developed "a suicidal mood" in him. (144e)
Margot Asquith became increasingly jealous of Venetia and after an outburst of anger he wrote a letter about his situation. He explained how he had been under tremendous pressure: "These last 3 years I have lived under a perpetual strain, the like of which has I suppose been experienced by very few men living or dead. It is no exaggeration to say that I have on hand more often half-a-dozen problems than a single one - personal, political, Parliamentary etc - most days of the week... I admit that I am often irritated and impatient, and then I become curt and perhaps taciturn. I fear you have suffered from this more than anyone, and I am deeply sorry, but believe me darling it has not been due to want of confidence and love. Those remain and will always be unchanged."
He then went on to argue that Venetia had been very helpful during this period. "You have and always will have (as no one knows so well as I) far too large a nature - the largest I have known - to harbour anything in the nature of petty jealousies. But you would have just reason for complaint, and more, if it were true that I was transferring my confidence from you to anyone else. My fondness for Venetia has never interfered and never could with our relationship. She has a fine character as well as great intelligence, and often does less than justice to herself (as over this Hospital business) by her minimising way of talking." (144f)
On 30th March, 1915, Asquith wrote to Venetia four times. Disturbed by his intense love of her she decided to bring an end to the relationship by marrying Edwin Montague. He had recently joined the cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. John Grigg has pointed out: "Still only in his middle thirties, he had risen in politics as Asquith's protégé but was far from being a mere hanger-on... Rich and privileged, intellectually a late-developer, sensitive and emotional yet capable of a certain ruthlessness, he was now becoming a rather important figure." (144g)
Montagu now had status as well as money. Venetia Stanley decided to accept his proposal of marriage. "For Montagu, religion was a purely personal affair; he had no formal religious beliefs, was anti-Zionist, and constantly emphasized his foremost identity as a Briton". However, in order that Montagu could continue to receive an annual income of £10,000 from his father's estate, Venetia was compelled to convert to Judaism. (144h)
On 12th May 1915, Asquith was shocked and appalled to receive Venetia's letter announcing her engagement to the man who he recently appointed as his Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Asquith replied that this news "breaks my heart" and that he "couldn't bear to come and see you". (144i)
On the day he heard the news Asquith wrote three letters to Venetia's sister, Sylvia Henley, about the proposed marriage. In the second letter he pointed out: "I had never any illusions, and often told Venetia: and she also was always most frank about her someday getting married. But this. We have always treated it as a kind of freakish, but unimaginable venture. I don't believe there are two living people who, each in their separate ways, are more devoted to me than she and Montagu: and it is the way of fortune that they two should combine to deal a death-blow to me."
Asquith then went on to assess Venetia's choice as husband including: "I am really fond of him, recognise his intellectual merits, find him excellent company and have always been able to reckon on his loyalty and devotion. Anything but this! It is not merely the prohibitive physical side (bad as that is) - I won't say anything about race and religion though they are not quite negligible factors. But he is not a man: a shamble of words and nerves and symptoms, intensely self absorbed, and - but I won't go on with the dismal catalogue." (144j)
Violet Asquith was also upset by the news: "Curious and disturbing news reached us on Wednesday evening of Montagu's engagement to Venetia... Montagu's physical repulsiveness to me is such that I would lightly leap from the top story of Queen Anne's Mansions - or the Eiffel Tower itself to avoid the lightest contact - the thought of any erotic amenities with him is enough to freeze one's blood. Apart from this he is not only very unlike and Englishman - or indeed a European - but also extraordinarily unlike a man... He has no robustness, virility, courage, physical competency - he is devoured by hypochondria - which if it does not spring from a diseased body must indicate a very unhealthy mind." (144k)
Margot Asquith was pleased the relationship was over. She told her daughter: "That want of candour in Venetia is what has hurt him but she has suffered tortures of remorse poor darling and I feel sorry for her... He is wonderful over it all - courageous, convinced and very humble. They were both old enough to know their own minds and no one must tease them now. There's a good deal of bosh in the religion campaign, though superficially it takes one in... It is Montagu's physique that I could never get over not his religion". (144l)
The marriage between Venetia Stanley and Edwin Montagu took place on 26th July 1915, a few days after she had been received into the Jewish faith. Montagu's old friend from university, Raymond Asquith, defended the marriage: "I am entirely in favour of the Stanley/Montagu match. (i) Because for a woman any marriage is better than perpetual virginity, which after a certain age (not very far distant in Venetia's case) becomes insufferably absurd. (ii) Because, as you say yourself, she has had a fair chance of conceiving a romantic passion for someone or other during the last 12 years and has not done so and is probably incapable of doing so. This being so I think she is well advised to make a marriage of convenience. (iii) Because, in my opinion, this is a marriage of convenience. If a man has private means and private parts (specially if both are large) he is a convenience to a woman. (iv) Because it annoys Lord and Lady Sheffield. (v) Because it profoundly shocks the entire Christian community." (144m)
After the marriage of Venetia Stanley, Asquith turned his attentions to her sister, Sylvia Henley. Her husband, Anthony Morton Henley, was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and joined the staff of General John French, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front. Sylvia complained about his lack of letters and became Asquith's main confidante. Margot Asquith actually encouraged the relationship and she thought it would help her husband deal with losing Venetia. However, his daughter, Violet Asquith, did not agree as she "sensed a new, more dangerous challenge to her father's affections". (144xa)
Sylvia kept her husband informed about Asquith's growing affection for her. She wrote to him about a weekend she spent at Asquith's house. "As we went to bed, the PM said he must show me his room. I was rather against this, as his affectionate nature gets the better of his wisdom, as you know. But there was no gainsaying him. We were standing talking, his arm around me, of books... I knew for certain he would exact a kiss from me, and knowing this I was glad it should be one of sympathy for that part of his life that I know about. And I told him how much love and sympathy I felt for him and kissed him - he can't do without affection... To me it is always a blot that the PM cannot like one without the physical side coming in so much. I should like him so much better if he held my hand and did not paw so much." (144xb)
In another letter later that month Sylvia told her husband that Venetia was upset that Asquith had turned his affections to her: "I am certain it cuts her to see the PM is fond of me." He began to take her out in his car and she claimed that she was able to "cajole the PM out of his sullen mood". Sylvia told her husband she was doing her "patriotic duty" in consoling Asquith: "He is now very fond of me in just the most wonderfully nice way. I hope our relations will never change." (144xc) On 2nd June 1915, Asquith told Sylvia: "You are my anchor and I love you and need you." (144xd)
Sylvia had to constantly fend off his physical approaches, such as kissing or enveloping arms. She told him that she loved being with him she did not want it to become a sexual relationship. Sylvia insisted "that so long as it remained platonic there was nothing I wanted more, but as soon as I felt there was a danger of that form of love giving place to the other - it must be all over." (144xe) Asquith replied that "an erotic adventure was never my idea". (144xf)
Knowing that Sylvia had the ear of Asquith, she received house calls from irate wives of politicians axed in government reshuffles. This included a visit from her cousin, Clementine Churchill, after Winston Churchill had been replaced by Arthur Balfour, as First Lord of the Admiralty. Clementine was so angry that she told Sylvia that she wanted to "dance on his (Asquith's) grave." (144xg)
Asquith wrote to Sylvia every day and expected her to do the same. He urged her to "go on loving me dearest, it makes so much difference". He told Sylvia that he needed to hear from her "every day" and that he always "counted the hours" between letters. In one letter he asked her to "think of me always, every day, if possible at all hours of the day". In his all-consuming passion, he visualised her constantly. "How clearly I have before me now your face. I only hope and pray that it may come to me in my dreams." (144xh)
Sylvia warned him about the state secrets he was including in his letters. He replied: "What a heavenly team we are together despite your criticisms (about writing letters at War Councils) and your warnings (about limits!), I can't tell you what a supreme delight it is to me, to come to you and sit beside you and confide things to you"and to feel that the wisest of women is near me - and really loves me! I believe you do; and you don't know or imagine how much I love you." (144xi)
Sylvia also attempted to promote her husband's career and went on a car drive with General William Robertson where she argued that he should be given an active field command. However, she constantly complained about Henley's lack of letters from France. This turned to fury when she discovered that he was writing regularly to her sister, Venetia. She demanded to see the letters, but Venetia refused, but she did tell her that Henley had used the words "I long to be with you". Sylvia wrote to her husband: "I see you're so false, telling me I am everything to you. And now I know that as you said it, you were longing to be with her and not me." (144xj)
Sylvia Henley warned her husband that she would allow herself to get even closer to Asquith: "A rudderless ship is so easily blown onto a sea shore". When she told Asquith about the situation he gave her a ring and tried to persuade her to wear it on the little finger on her right hand. Venetia continued to write intimate letters to Anthony Morton Henley. This included a reference to meeting at a hotel at Folkestone on 12th July, 1915. (144xk)
H. H. Asquith had also developed other close relationships with other women during this period. These women were usually "married and therefore convention allowed close friendships to flourish with the opposite sex". (144xl) This included the actress, Viola Tree, Pamela McKenna, the wife of the cabinet member, Reginald McKenna, the sculptress Kathleen Scott, Christabel McLaren (later Lady Aberconway) and Hilda Harrison, whose husband had been killed during the First World War. (144xm)
Despite his doubts about the war, Raymond Asquith joined the Queen's Westminster Rifles in January 1915. "As the months went by with no sign of the regiment being sent abroad, Raymond... became increasingly frustrated with such futile tasks as stopping suspicious vehicles approaching London from the North-West." His wife, afraid that he would seek to serve abroad, tried to convince him to stand as a Liberal Party candidate in a by-election, but he rejected the idea as he saw it as an act of cowardice. (145)
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 in October, 1915. Margot Asquith wrote: "Raymond left this morning... I was almost surprised at how sad I felt at parting with him - there was something so pathetic and incongruous in seeing so perfect and highly finished a being going off into that raw brutal primitive hurly-burly." (146)
Asquith was furious with his son and refused to write to him while he was on the Western Front. However, he was posted to one of the comparatively quiet sections of the front line, where shelling was sporadic. He wrote to his friend, Diana Manners, that he was more concerned by the discomfort than the danger, complaining about "being up to his neck in dense, sticky blue clay; at the same time he was puzzled that while the sound of rifle fire seemed no more far off than the next gun in a partridge drive". (147)
In an early letter to his wife from the front he complained about the lack of dry trenches and the failures of the authorities in making no adequate preparations for winter, claiming that half of his men did not have trench boots. He also noted the contempt felt for staff officers behind the lines by those in the trenches, and felt that she would think he was right not to become one, "though of course one may find in the end that there are more uncomfortable things than general abuse". (148)
On the Western Front in December 1914 there was a spontaneous outburst of hostility towards the killing. On 24th December, arrangements were made between the two sides to go into No Mans Land to collect the dead. Negotiations also began to arrange a cease-fire for Christmas Day. On other parts of the front-line, German soldiers initiated a cease-fire through song. On Christmas Day the guns were silent and there were several examples of soldiers leaving their trenches and exchanging gifts. The men even played a game of football. (149)
In January 1916, Asquith was asked to work as defence counsel to Ian Colquhoun who was being court-martialled for "allowing his men to fraternise with the Germans on Christmas Day". Raymond was impressed by Colquhoun "for the vigour and nerve with which he faced his accusers" and in his "insolence, aplomb, courage and elegant virility". Despite his efforts, Colquhoun was convicted but escaped with a reprimand. (150)
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 (January to May 1916) at general headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force, at Saint-Omer, where he "served unenthusiastically in intelligence work". (151)
During this period he became greatly concerned about the influence of Lord Northcliffe and his newspapers, The Times and The Daily Mail. There were constant criticism of Asquith, especially over the reluctance of accepting the need of conscription (compulsory enrollment). "Raymond was an indignant as anyone, telling Katherine Asquith that he had reached the stage when he would rather defeat Northcliffe than defeat the Germans. The press lord seemed to him just as belligerently crass and crassly belligerent as the enemy were, but far less courageous and capable". (152)
Raymond Asquith returned to the Western Front on 16th May 1916. He became increasingly critical of the way the war was being fought. He told his wife that "almost every night there were raids on the German lines accompanied by the usual ridiculous artillery barrage" and he "considered the whole business to be a charade, usually causing far more British than German casualties". (153)
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." (154)
On 15th September, Raymond Asquith led his men on a attack on the German trenches at Lesboeufs. According to one of his men "such coolness under shell fire as he displayed would be difficult to equal". Soon after leaving the trench he was hit in the chest by a bullet. Raymond knew straightaway that his wound was fatal, but in order to reassure his men, he casually lit a cigarette as he was carried on a stretcher to the dressing station. A medical orderly wrote to his father to say he was not given morphia "as he was quite free from pain and just dying." (155)
Raymond Asquith 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. (156)
When his father was informed of his death "he put his head on his arms on the table and sobbed passionately". He told Margot Asquith: "The awful waste of a man like Raymond - the best brain of his age in our time - any career he liked lying in front of him. I always felt it would happen." Two days later he wrote to Sylvia Henley: "I can honestly say, that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope." (157)
On 22nd September, 1916, Raymond's 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." (158)
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.
Lord Northcliffe joined with Lloyd George in attempting to persuade Asquith and several of his cabinet, including Sir Edward Grey, Arthur Balfour, Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe and Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, to resign. It was reported that Lloyd George was trying to encourage Asquith to establish a small War Council to run the war and if he did not agree he would resign. (159)
Tom Clarke, the news editor of The Daily Mail, claims that Lord Northcliffe told him to take a message to the editor, Thomas Marlowe, that he was to run an article on the political crisis with the headline, "Asquith a National Danger". According to Clarke, Marlowe "put the brake on the Chief's impetuosity" and instead used the headline "The Limpets: A National Danger". He also told Clarke to print pictures of Lloyd George and Asquith side by side: "Get a smiling picture of Lloyd George and get the worst possible picture of Asquith." Clarke told Northcliffe that this was "rather unkind, to say the least". Northcliffe replied: "Rough methods are needed if we are not to lose the war... it's the only way." (160)
Those newspapers that supported the Liberal Party, became concerned that a leading supporter of the Conservative Party should be urging Asquith to resign. Alfred George Gardiner, the editor of The Daily News, objected to Lord Northcliffe's campaign against Asquith: "If the present Government falls, it will fall because Lord Northcliffe decreed that it should fall, and the Government that takes its place, no matter who compose it, will enter on its task as the tributary of Lord Northcliffe." (161)
Asquith was in great difficulty but he did have Cabinet ministers who did not want Lloyd George as prime minister. Roy Jenkins has argued that he should have had a meeting with "Cecil, Chamberlain, Curzon and Long might have had considerable effect. To begin with, he would no doubt have found them wavering. But he was not without influence over them. In the course of the discussion their doubts about Lloyd George would have come to the surface, and the conclusion might have been that they would have stiffened Asquith, and he would have stiffened them." (162) Lloyd George's biographer, John Grigg, disagrees with Jenkins. His research suggests that Asquith had very little support from Conservative Party members of the coalition government and if he had tried to use them against Lloyd George it would end in failure. (163)
On 4th December, 1916, The Times praised Lloyd George's stand against the present "cumbrous methods of directing the war" and urged Asquith to accept the "alternative scheme" of the small War Council, that he had proposed. Asquith should not be a member of the council and instead his qualities were "fitted better... to preserve the unity of the Nation". (164) Even the Liberal Party supporting Manchester Guardian, referred to the humiliation of Asquith, whose "natural course would be either to resist the demand for a War Council, which would partly supersede him as Premier, or alternatively himself to resign." (165)
Asquith came to the conclusion that Lloyd George had leaked embarrassing details of the conversation he had with Lloyd George, including the threat of resignation if he did not get what he wanted. That night he sent a note to Lloyd George: "Such productions as the leading article in today's Times, showing the infinite possibilities for misunderstanding and misrepresentation of such an arrangement as we discussed yesterday, make me at least doubtful of its feasibility. Unless the impression is at once corrected that I am being relegated to the position of an irresponsible spectator of the War, I cannot go on." (166)
Lloyd George denied the charge of leaking information but admitted that Lord Northcliffe wanted to "smash" his government. However, he went on to argue that Northcliffe also wanted to hurt him and had to put up with his newspaper's "misrepresentations... for months". He added "Northcliffe would like to make this (the formation of a small War Committee) and any other arrangement under your Premiership impossible... I cannot restrain nor I fear influence Northcliffe." (167)
At a Cabinet meeting the following day, Asquith refused to form a new War Council that did not include him. Lloyd George immediately resigned: "It is with great personal regret that I have come to this conclusion.... Nothing would have induced me to part now except an overwhelming sense that the course of action which has been pursued has put the country - and not merely the country, but throughout the world the principles for which you and I have always stood throughout our political lives - is the greatest peril that has ever overtaken them. As I am fully conscious of the importance of preserving national unity, I propose to give your Government complete support in the vigorous prosecution of the war; but unity without action is nothing but futile carnage, and I cannot be responsible for that." (168)
Conservative members of the coalition made it clear that they would no longer be willing to serve under Asquith. At 7 p.m. he drove to Buckingham Palace and tendered his resignation to King George V. Apparently, he told J. H. Thomas, that on "the advice of close friends that it was impossible for Lloyd George to form a Cabinet" and believed that "the King would send for him before the day was out." Thomas replied "I, wanting him to continue, pointed out that this advice was sheer madness." (169)
Asquith, who had been prime minister for over eight years, was replaced by Lloyd George. He brought in a War Cabinet that included only four other members: George Curzon, Alfred Milner, Andrew Bonar Law and Arthur Henderson. There was also the understanding that Arthur Balfour attended when foreign affairs were on the agenda. Lloyd George was therefore the only Liberal Party member in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George wanted Northcliffe to become a member of the War Cabinet, however, Henderson told him that if this happened he would resign and take away the support of the Labour Party from the government.
Max Aitken, the owner of The Daily Express, who also joined in the attack on Asquith, 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." The Liberal supporting The Daily Chronicle, disagreed and claimed that the Conservative Party supporting newspaper barons had removed a democratically elected government. It argued that the new government "will have to deal with the Press menace as well as the submarine menace; otherwise Ministries will be subject to tyranny and torture by daily attacks impugning their patriotism and earnestness to win the war." (170)
On 9th December, 1916, The Daily Mail front page, under the headline, "THE PASSING OF THE FAILURES" had a series of photographs showing the outgoing ministers, H. H. Asquith, Edward Grey, Reginald McKenna, Richard Haldane, John Simon and Winston Churchill, with accompanying captions across their chests attacking their records in government. Northcliffe had ordered this feature, and congratulated the newspaper's picture department.
Alfred George Gardiner, the editor of The Daily News, pointed out that David Lloyd George's new government's main advantage was that he had the support of Lord Northcliffe: "It will be subject to a friendly organised and responsible criticism which will aim at sustaining it and not destroying it. The fall of the late Government and most of its failures were due to the absence of such a criticism. It became the target... of a ruthless and uncritical press campaign which appealed directly to the passions of the mob against the authority of Parliament." (171)
Gardiner was right and the Lord Northcliffe press provided Lloyd George with a great deal of support. He was described as a "human dynamo" whose "every erg of energy is focused on the immediate task at hand. He combines the persuasiveness of the Irishman with the concentration of the American and the thoroughness of the Englishman." In another article, written by Northcliffe stated: "I believe that he will be the head of the Government that wins the war; that brings a settlement of the Irish question and maintains that essential factor goodwill between the people of the English speaking nations of the British Empire and the people of the United States". (172)
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." (173)
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.
Herbert Asquith, who was granted the title, the Earl of Oxford in 1925, died on 15th February, 1928.
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.
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.
At 11.17 last night it was announced that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany.
Late last night it was reported that the Government had received news of the sinking of a British mine-laying vessel by the German navy. The destroyer Pathfinder was chased, but eluded her persuers.
Great Britain delievered an ultimatum to Germany yesterday, and demanded a reply by midnight. The action followed Germany Germany's declaration of war on France and Belgium and the receipt of official news during the forenoon of the invasion of British territory.
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."
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.
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.
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.