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Herbert Asquith

Prime Minister 1908 - 1915

Herbert Asquith was born 12th September 1852, son of a cloth manufacturer. After an excellent school career at the City of London School and Balliol College, Oxford, entry to Parliament came in 1886 as MP for East Fife. By 1892 Asquith was appointed home secretary in William Gladstone's government. Gladstone was to be a major influence, and persuaded his home secretary that politics was a heroic crusade to make life better in all its aspects. As chancellor for Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith was involved in developments which would change the relationship of government and society. The foundations for the welfare state were being laid, with government becoming much more involved in people's lives. No one event or person can take credit for bringing about the welfare state, but when Asquith became prime minister in 1908 changes gathered momentum. With David Lloyd-George as chancellor, 1908 saw the introduction of a non-contributory old age pension of five shillings a week for those "over seventy whose total income did not exceed ten shillings" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P202). The old age pension was followed by unemployment insurance and employment exchanges.

 

 

Buckingham Palace - Asquith's modern government continued to work with an ancient monarchy

In this new age of welfare government, government was fast becoming a huge administrative machine. Nevertheless even in this new age, much more ancient symbolic aspects of government were still at work. On June 22nd 1911 George V was crowned king, following the death of Edward VII. In 1912 Asquith was struggling with the situation in Ireland. A decision to create a united Ireland would infuriate stubbornly British Ulster and probably lead to civil war. A decision to create an independent Ireland without including Ulster would infuriate those in southern Ireland who would only accept a united Ireland. Once again the consequence would probably be civil war. Nobody wanted to make the impossible decision about what to do, and in a 1912 speech Asquith seemed to intimate that the king would have to decide. It was not the king's job to take these decisions, as was soon made clear. But what the king could do was support those who had to make such choices. In many ways the decisions facing politicians at this time were impossible, and there must have been many dark days when there seemed to be no way forward. Tension in the Balkans widened via a web of international alliances into the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. For a political leader in moments of the most intense stress, the fact that there was no one left to turn to for support must have been hard to bear. Fortunately for British politicians there was someone to turn to, one last source of authority which symbolically at least went beyond their own. And the symbolic nature of this authority did not rule out its practical usefulness. In 1915 the government of Herbert Asquith was falling apart over the proposed policy of compulsory conscription. Asquith was trying to force conscription through, in the face of determined opposition from the home secretary John Simon. The king hurried down from Sandringham where he had intended to spend Christmas and gave Asquith his personal support. According to George V's biographer Harold Nicolson it was this support that persuaded Asquith to fight on, and saved the government from collapsing.

So in this new age of modern government the symbolic nature of leadership continued beyond the influence of bureaucrats in Whitehall instigating social security benefits. This is illustrated once again as the First World War descended on Europe, a time when Asquith no longer appeared to be the right leader for Britain. Quite why Asquith should have been judged in this way is not clear. Britain was certainly well prepared for war. Under Arthur Balfour the army and navy had been modernised, and heavy investment made. Asquith did not do anything to reverse this momentum of military build up, and he was not in the position of Harold Macmillan in later decades who would be seen as an appeaser to dictators. Military disasters might be blamed on Asquith, but military disasters continued under his successor Lloyd George. Asquith was replaced by Lloyd George in 1916 simply because Lloyd George had the image of a powerful wartime leader. In reality, however, Lloyd George had surprisingly little power over the military. He wanted to sack the commander-in-chief of British forces in France, General Haig, but found it was politically impossible to do so. There is an argument, put forward by Jo Grimmond, and Peter Lowe for example, that Lloyd George was in practice no better as a war leader than Asquith. But it wasn't a question of practicalities so much as a question of image. Asquith simply did not inspire confidence in time of war. He was not a war like man. A new symbol was needed, and the naturally more aggressive, dictatorial Lloyd George fitted that image better, even if it might be harder to argue that he did a better practical job.

 

 

Asquith could be looked upon as a figure illustrating the start of modern government. So many innovations of government involvement in society date from his administration. He could also be seen as a figure confirming ancient realities of leadership where simple administrative competence is only part of the picture. Olga Soffer has described the possible emergence of leadership in formerly egalitarian, leaderless hunter gatherer societies during the last ice age. This emergence did not only rely on unusual competence among a favoured few. In fact it may have depended more on holy men with apparent access to a kind of knowledge that could not be checked, that was beyond competence (see The Neandertal Enigma by James Shreeve P317). If William Gladstone gave Asquith early lessons in government as an idealistic crusade, Asquith's own later career gives us lessons in politics as a kind of charade. In the disastrous days of World War One the public did not need a competent, even endearingly ordinary sort of man who Jo Grimmond describes as never having a government car. Instead they needed someone who spoke to the gods of war, and could simply inspire confidence in those dark times. That man was Lloyd George, and Asquith was forced out. He continued in politics intermittently until retiring in 1926. Asquith died 15th February 1928.

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