1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Asquith, Herbert Henry

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15661891911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 2 — Asquith, Herbert HenryHugh Chisholm

ASQUITH, HERBERT HENRY (1852–), English statesman, son of Joseph Dixon Asquith, was born at Morley, Yorkshire, on the 12th of September 1852. He came of a middle-class Yorkshire family of pronounced Liberal and Nonconformist views, and was educated under Dr Edwin Abbott at the City of London school, from which he went as a scholar to Balliol, Oxford; there he had a distinguished career, taking a first-class in classics, winning the Craven scholarship and being elected a fellow of his college. He was president of the Union, and impressed all his contemporaries with his intellectual ability, Dr Jowett himself confidently predicting his signal success in any career he adopted. On leaving Oxford he went to the bar, and as early as 1890 became a K.C. In 1887 he unsuccessfully defended Mr R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Mr John Burns for their share in the riot in Trafalgar Square; and in 1889 he was junior to Sir Charles (afterwards Lord) Russell as counsel for the Irish Nationalists before the Parnell Commission—an association afterwards bitterly commented upon by Mr T. Healy in the House of Commons (March 30, 1908). But though he attained a fair practice at the bar, and was recognized as a lawyer of unusual mental distinction and clarity, his forensic success was not nearly so conspicuous as that of some of his contemporaries. His ambitions lay rather in the direction of the House of Commons. He had taken a prominent part in politics as a Liberal since his university days, especially in work for the Eighty Club, and in 1886 was elected member of parliament for East Fife, a seat which he retained in subsequent elections. Mr Gladstone was attracted by his vigorous ability as a speaker, and his evidence of sound political judgment; and in August 1892, though comparatively unknown to the general public, he was selected to move the vote of want of confidence which overthrew Lord Salisbury’s government, and was made home secretary in the new Liberal ministry. At the Home Office he proved his capacity as an administrator; he was the first to appoint women as factory inspectors, and he was responsible for opening Trafalgar Square to Labour demonstrations; but he firmly refused to sanction the proposed amnesty for the dynamiters, and he was violently abused by extremists on account of the shooting of two men by the military at the strike riot at Featherstone in August 1893. It was he who coined the phrase (Birmingham, 1894) as to the government’s “ploughing the sands” in their endeavour to pass Liberal legislation with a hostile House of Lords. His Employers’ Liability Bill 1893 was lost because the government refused to accept the Lords’ amendment as to “contracting-out.” His suspensory bill, with a view to the disestablishment of the church in Wales, was abortive (1895), but it served to recommend him to the Welsh Nationalists as well as to the disestablishment party in England and Scotland. During his three years of office he more than confirmed the high opinion formed of his abilities.

The Liberal defeat in 1895 left him out of office for eleven years. He had married Miss Helen Melland in 1877, and was left with a family when she died in 1891; in 1894, however, he had married again, his second wife being the accomplished Miss Margaret (“Margot”) Tennant, daughter of the wealthy ironmaster, Sir Charles Tennant, Bart., a lady well known in London society as a member of the côterie known as “Souls,” and commonly identified as the original of Mr E. F. Benson’s Dodo (1893). On leaving the Home Office in 1895, Mr Asquith decided to return to his work at the bar, a course which excited much comment, since it was unprecedented that a minister who had exercised judicial functions in that capacity should take up again the position of an advocate; but it was obvious that to maintain the tradition was difficult in the case of a man who had no sufficient independent means. During the years of Unionist ascendancy Mr Asquith divided his energies between his legal work and politics; but his adhesion to Lord Rosebery (q.v.) as a Liberal Imperialist at the time of the Boer War, while it strengthened his position in the eyes of the public, put him in some difficulty with his own party, led as it was by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (q.v.), who was identified with the “pro-Boer” policy. He was one of the founders of the Liberal League, and his courageous definiteness of view and intellectual vigour marked him out as Lord Rosebery’s chief lieutenant if that statesman should ever return to power. He thus became identified with the Roseberyite attitude towards Irish Home Rule; and, while he continued to uphold the Gladstonian policy in theory, in practice the Irish Nationalists felt that very little could be expected from his advocacy. In spite of his Imperialist views, however, he did much to smooth over the party difficulties, and when the tariff-reform movement began in 1903, he seized the opportunity for rallying the Liberals to the banner of free-trade and championing the “orthodox” English political economy, on which indeed he had been a lecturer in his younger days. During the critical years of Mr Chamberlain’s crusade (1903–1906) he made himself the chief spokesman of the Liberal party, delivering a series of speeches in answer to those of the tariff-reform leader; and his persistent following and answering of Mr Chamberlain had undoubted effect. He also made useful party capital out of the necessity for financial retrenchment, owing to the large increase in public expenditure, maintained by the Unionist government even after the Boer War was over; and his mastery of statistical detail and argument made his appointment as chancellor of the exchequer part of the natural order of things when in December 1905 Mr Balfour resigned and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (q.v.) became prime minister.

During Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s premiership, Mr Asquith gradually rose in political importance, and in 1907 the prime minister’s ill-health resulted in much of the leadership in the Commons devolving on the chancellor of the exchequer. At first the party as a whole had regarded him somewhat coldly. And his unbending common-sense, and sobriety of criticism in matters which deeply interested the less academic Radicals who were enthusiasts for extreme courses, would have made the parliamentary situation difficult but for the exceptional popularity of the prime minister. In the autumn of 1907, however, as the latter’s retention of office became more and more improbable, it became evident that no other possible successor had equal qualifications. The session of 1908 opened with Mr Asquith acting avowedly as the prime minister’s deputy, and the course of business was itself of a nature to emphasize his claims. After two rather humdrum budgets he was pledged to inaugurate a system of old-age pensions (forming the chief feature of the budget of 1908, personally introduced by him at the beginning of May), and his speech in April on the Licensing Bill was a triumph of clear exposition, though later in the year, after passing the Commons, it was thrown out by the Lords. On the 5th of April it was announced that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman had resigned and Mr Asquith been sent for by the king. As the latter was staying at Biarritz, the unprecedented course was followed of Mr Asquith journeying there for the purpose, and on the 8th he resigned the chancellorship of the exchequer and kissed hands as prime minister. The names of the new cabinet were announced on the 13th. The new appointments were: Lord Tweedmouth as lord president of the council (instead of the admiralty); Lord Crewe as colonial secretary (instead of lord president of the council); Mr D. Lloyd George, chancellor of the exchequer (transferred from the Board of Trade); Mr R. McKenna, first lord of the admiralty (instead of minister of education); Mr Winston Churchill, president of the Board of Trade; and Mr Walter Runciman, minister of education. Lord Elgin ceased to be colonial secretary, but Lord Loreburn (lord chancellor), Lord Ripon (lord privy seal), Mr H. Gladstone (Home Office), Sir E. Grey (foreign affairs), Mr Haldane (War Office), Mr Sinclair (secretary for Scotland; created in 1909 Lord Pentland), Mr Burns (Local Government Board), Lord Carrington (Board of Agriculture), Mr Birrell (Irish secretary), Mr S. Buxton (postmaster-general), Mr L. Harcourt (commissioner of works), Mr John Morley (India) and Sir Henry Fowler (duchy of Lancaster) retained their offices, the two latter being created peers. The Budget (see Lloyd George) was the sole feature of political interest in 1909, and its rejection in December by the Lords led to the general election of January 1910, which left the Liberals and Unionists practically equal, with the Labour and Irish parties dominating the situation (L. 275, U. 273, Lab. 40, I. 82). Mr Asquith was in a difficult position, but the ministry remained in office; and he had developed a concentration of forces with a view to attacking the veto of the House of Lords (see Parliament), when the death of the king in May caused a suspension of hostilities. A conference between the leaders on both sides was arranged, to discuss whether any compromise was possible, and controversy was postponed to an autumn session.  (H. Ch.)