WHEN after-generations come to assign a place in the history of the English people to Herbert Henry Asquith, they will have to rank him among the personal forces that shaped their destiny. He was, through years more decisive than any since the Napoleonic Wars, something more than the executive hand through which a stream of history passed -- he diverted, and in some small measure canalized it, by the peculiarities of his own character and mind. He affected its pace, if not its direction. Looking at the man and the scene he left behind him, one is driven to conclude that neither English, nor Irish, nor even European history would have followed exactly the course that we know, if the elements of talent and deficiency in this powerful but limited personality had been mixed in slightly different proportions. Because this man combined a formidable dialectical machine with an emotional nature compressed within the tightest of Victorian stays, he was able in years of calm to win an ascendancy over his nation, which in years of tense feeling and animal excitement he gradually lost. History will rate him rather as a gifted than a great man, an executant rather than a creator; but while it describes him in negatives, it still must read his sign manual legible upon the events and institutions of his age.

The character of this unusual man emerges clearly from the able Life which has just been published.[i] By its careful dissection of the evidence relating to the less-known episodes -- the inner history of the Irish crisis, and the intrigues that broke the First Coalition -- it is much more than a biography: it is packed with materials for history. They do not obscure the man. One sees him as the product of an education which at once formed and suppressed. He acquired to excess that "stoic" reserve which is the ideal of English upper class schooling. It made him incapable of display, averse from drama, unwilling by word or tone, whether in daily intercourse or on the platform, to betray emotion. The instinctive in him had been driven underground so completely that to all but his intimates he seemed a pachyderm, a mere reasoning machine. It is significant that he found no pleasure in music, and disliked animals. The style of his public writings and speeches belonged wholly to this realm of the intellect. Lucid, cogent, and terse, it was also ponderous and unrhythmic. One finds oneself reflecting as one reads it, "How well that would sound in Latin!" And Latin, indeed, it was, in structure and vocabulary. He loved literature and was an omnivorous and industrious reader, but for subtlety he never cared: he passed Hardy and Meredith by, to revel in Scott and Balzac. His was not a speculative mind. He detested metaphysics and had no interest in science. Save for the usual party commonplaces, one does not gather that he had a political philosophy. About his religious views one learns nothing from these two big volumes, save that he was a stout Protestant. Concentrated by these very limitations, this quick and powerful mind was the perfect instrument for action. Silent, observant, with a quick eye for fallacy and egoism, careless of the impression he made on men, he listened, balanced, and then like a tense spring, reacted. To his decision he stuck without introspection or regret. Self-reliance, even arrogance he had, yet few men were ever less interested in themselves. Drafting judgments and decisions, composing quarrels, elaborating compromises, he was the happy craftsman, bent only on the object to be attained.

One learns in reading this book, if not to revise this estimate of the man formed as one watched him at work, at least to see its implications. Education did not destroy the instinctive emotional man: it only buried him, still alive. Sometimes he broke loose. He would, among close intimates, talk recklessly with whimsical exaggeration. His love letters in this book have a grace and ease of language wholly absent from his studied writings. It is recorded of him that he wept when he accepted his friend Birrell's resignation. Outwardly calm and unmoved through the sordid intrigues that destroyed him, his body bore the brunt of his suppressed feelings. That is the evident meaning of his paralytic stroke. He was Aristotle's "magnanimous man," armed to dominate men of a like training to his own, but helpless when he faced the Celtic genius of his younger rival, or the vulgar resources of the Northcliffe and Beaverbrook press.

Where, in the interpretation of this full and eventful career, lies the centre of gravity? Must we seek it in Asquith's considerable achievements in the field of social reform? Shall we write on his pedestal that he made inevitable, though he could not complete, the emancipation of Ireland? Is it his claim to fame that he presided over British policy during the decisive years of the Armed Peace, and conducted, till its latter stages, the war in which that epoch exploded? It may be that history will find the clue to this man rather in his struggle with the House of Lords. The rest, indeed, can be grouped around it. His real significance for history is that he completed the middle class revolution in England. He finally fulfilled the objects of the Liberal Party, and in so doing destroyed it.

The singularity of English history is that it protracted over more than two and a half centuries a transformation which other peoples compressed into a few years or decades. The Civil War, the Revolution of 1688, the Reform Act of 1832 are well-marked and decisive stages in the fluctuating struggle of the middle class against the aristocracy and the monarchy. But the twentieth century broke upon this island of vestiges and compromises with the work of emancipation still incomplete. A chaotic electoral system endowed property with plural votes, and fell far short of manhood suffrage. An hereditary Upper House survived with unlimited powers not merely of obstruction, delay and revision, but also of rejection. These it habitually used to frustrate all but the less contentious of Liberal measures, and finally stretched them till it challenged even the supremacy of the Commons over finance. To break this veto, if not to end it completely, was Asquith's work. Until that was done, the trading and manufacturing middle class had only half won the struggle that began in the seventeenth century against the landed, feudal class.

This, while the foreground of politics was littered with lesser things, was the central issue of English politics throughout Asquith's generation. Everyone knew that one day the struggle must come: the challenge was formulated in many a premature speech and motion long before the battle was joined. In some few minds consciously, in others subconsciously, it governed day-today strategy. Till it was settled, the Liberal Party retained its vitality, kept its identity, and believed itself to be separated by an impassable barrier from its Tory opponents. While it had the will to survive for the completion of its historic mission, it knew how to buy support far beyond its own ranks. It still kept the allegiance of a great part of the urban working class by its instalments of social reform, and even after a separate Labor Party was formed, compelled it to revolve as a satellite in its own orbit. Irish Home Rule had no direct connection with its central aims, but the support of the Irish Party was essential, and could be purchased at no lower price. The same strategic sagacity may have influenced Asquith and the Liberals of his school in departing, first during the Boer War, and then in the long rivalry with Germany, from the austerer doctrines of the Liberal tradition. It was no accident that when the battle with the House of Lords was won, and the franchise widened to include the whole adult population, the Liberal Party broke in a series of dissensions so disastrous and irremediable that one cannot imagine a recovery that may ever again permit it, save as an item in a coalition, to form a government. Its mission was ended: the middle class had disarmed its ancient rival; henceforth they might fuse. It required its ally in the working masses no longer. It was no accident that precisely at this moment Labor emerged as a self-conscious power, a closely-knit class organization, which contrived to form its own ministries. Asquith's career, in power and in impotence, was the epitome of this historical development. He held the pen for destiny to write the inevitable page. That is the central meaning of his story. Yet, accident and personality play their part. Had the voltage of his magnetism been a little higher, had the temperature of his emotions been a little warmer, had he possessed the instinct for dramatizing himself, he might have survived at the head of his government to celebrate victory in 1918, and to write a somewhat cleaner settlement. With the least streak of exhibitionism in his character, he might have vied with Lloyd George for the trust of an electorate which he could have controlled. In that event, the decline of Liberalism would have been less catastrophic, and the rise of Labor less sudden.

The man whom history named for this part grew up in the right environment. He came of a typical middle class family, which owned woolen mills in Yorkshire. It belonged to the Congregational or "Independent" Church, the sect most closely associated with the Puritan tradition and the Liberal Party. A vague family memory linked one of his ancestors with Cromwell. A brilliant and precocious boy, he cared nothing for games or athletics, read widely, and developed from an absurdly early age an interest in politics. First at the City of London School and then at Balliol College, Oxford, he won almost every distinction open to a student of the classics. Though he obtained a fellowship, he was not drawn to the life of a scholar. This sedentary young man, who wrote Latin just a little better than he ever wrote English, was built for a life of action. His ambitions lay in politics and he chose the usual road of the legal profession. At the bar his rise was slow. He had from the first a rare mastery of lucid speech and a still rarer sledge-hammer power in argument, combined with a sure sense for order and form. The technicalities of the law interested him, but he was not particularly successful in handling juries, for he disdained any appeal to the emotions. As in later life he left a popular audience cold, yet dominated the House of Commons, so in his legal practice he impressed a judge, but rarely moved a jury. In the House of Commons he made his mark at once by his readiness in debate. No one could call him an orator, but he had a devastating skill in argument and the art of marshalling facts: he could improvise with a minimum of preparation, and he inspired respect by a certain integrity of mind that conceded the strong points of an opponent's case and drove straight to the centre of the subject. Few were surprised when in 1892, at the early age of forty, he entered Gladstone's last cabinet as Home Secretary.

This was a decade of uneasiness and dissension within the Liberal Party. The veteran Gladstone was driven into resignation by his cabinet's insistence upon naval estimates that offended his zeal for economy and peace. The wayward, neurotic personality of Lord Rosebery made a disastrous substitute for his leadership. Harcourt and Morley were difficult colleagues, and apart from these personal dissensions, the Party was torn between the relics of its old laissez-faire individualism and the mild reformist socialism with which the Fabians had begun to "permeate" it. A deeper rift came with the Boer War. The imperialism which Asquith advocated at the head of the closely-knit group of friends, Rosebery, Grey and Haldane, who formed the dissentient Liberal League, reflected an economic change that took place in English middle class interests during the second half of the nineteenth century. The export of consumers' goods, notably cotton cloth, was no longer their dominant concern. The export of capital, whether for railways, engineering works, factories, plantations or mines, was now the aggressive, expanding interest that shaped foreign policy and demanded, more imperiously than the marketing of merchandise had ever done, a permanent political control over the territories in which it operated. At Oxford, Asquith had led in a debate in support of a motion welcoming the break-up of the British Empire. That attitude, usual among the Manchester School, he abandoned in early manhood, and logically enough backed, with some qualifications, the policy of Chamberlain, Milner and Rhodes, which aimed at bringing the Transvaal and its gold mines within the Empire. On the surface there was here a curious contrast with his later attitude in the Great War. The pro-Boers (notably Lloyd George) stressed the rights of little nationalities, which Asquith and his school dismissed in 1899 as sentimentality, but found extremely useful to buttress their policy in 1914. The contradiction belonged only to the realm of propaganda. In 1914, as in 1899, Asquith's policy was at bottom severely realistic, with the Empire's interests as its decisive criterion. This controversy over the Boer War nearly wrecked the Liberal Party. Common ground was found, however, in advocating prompt and complete self-government for the conquered republics. Liberal imperialism had the same economic root as the Tory variety, but in South Africa, as in Ireland and India, it kept, albeit in subordination, its faith in democracy.

Joseph Chamberlain's crusade for an Imperial Customs Union revived the Liberal Party. As a propagandist for free trade, Asquith had no equal; the theme suited his precise, argumentative and somewhat pedestrian style. Inevitably he took his place as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the ministry which Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed at the close of 1905. With an immense majority behind it, no longer depending on the Irish vote, the Party postponed the less popular issue of Home Rule and concentrated on social reform. For this postponement it had a good reason: it was useless to attempt to carry Home Rule until the Lords' veto was removed, and plainly if the English democracy was to be mobilized for that supreme effort it was wiser to fight on a domestic controversy. As Chancellor, Asquith's chief contribution was the grant of old age pensions to the workers. The mortal illness of Campbell-Bannerman brought him in 1908 the Premiership, which he held through nine crowded years. Lloyd George took his place as Chancellor and continued, with a great scheme of health insurance for the workers (including maternity benefit), Asquith's policy of social reform. Asquith's personality aroused in the rank and file of the party only a moderate enthusiasm: he was cold, and he lacked creative imagination. He made no appeal to the masses, wavering between their old attachment to Liberalism and the attraction of the Labor Party: their hero was Lloyd George. Yet Asquith had only to rise in his place in the House to assert an ascendancy that rested not on intellect alone, but even more upon a transparent integrity of mind and character. With a united party, a huge majority and a singularly able team of ministers, Asquith enjoyed the reality of power as no Liberal Premier had done since Gladstone split the party in 1885.

Two main preoccupations filled the years of this eventful ministry: the class struggle at home, the preliminaries to the Great War abroad. Vaster events have so nearly obliterated the memory of these years that it is difficult to recall their passions; their printed records seem incredible. Partly by his pungent and deliberately provocative oratory, partly by his taxes (trivial as these seem in comparison with the burdens of post-war years), partly by his proposals to undermine the prestige and limit the wealth of the landed class, Lloyd George made an atmosphere of class war such as England had not known since the Reform Bill of 1832. When the Lords threw out his budget the issue of power was inevitably raised, and had to be fought to a finish. The House of Commons lost its traditional decorum, and men of intellectual distinction, who bore illustrious names, behaved of set purpose like hooligans. The Lords, with the greater part of the Tory Party behind them, were determined to "die-hard" and "damn the consequences." Two general elections and the explicit threat of the use of the King's prerogative to create a large number of peers were required to place the Parliament Act finally on the statute book. Lloyd George throughout this contest was the exuberant class warrior, who joyfully widened the breach, manifestly seeking revenge for the centuries of inferiority and exploitation that rankled in the memory of the small tenant farmer class from which he sprang. Asquith never touched that stop: he fought for abstract democracy and the rights of the Commons: yet beneath his reserve the same order of motives must have worked. Sharp as the contrast was, the two men were in harmony and complemented one another. If one supplied the dynamic and aggressive will, the other was the sagacious strategist, who kept the struggle within constitutional forms, and contrived -- a delicate task -- to gain the support both of King Edward and King George. The solution, which left to the Lords a suspensory veto limited to two years, was adequate for Liberal purposes: it would serve to carry such bills as Welsh Disestab-blishment or Irish Home Rule. A Labor Government, on the other hand, if in a crisis of grave economic emergency it seeks to introduce fundamental changes in the structure of industry and finance, will find it a hampering obstacle, for it will have to act promptly.

The passing of the Parliament Act rather aggravated the class struggle than ended it. The battle was now transferred to Ireland, and down to August 1914 civil war was an imminent possibility. Reading over Mr. Spender's close and accurate narrative, one has the impression that the English Tory Party was actually more intransigent than the Ulstermen. Certainly Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Bonar Law were more irresponsible than Sir Edward Carson. The atmosphere was even more revolutionary than it had been while the budget was the issue. The Tories were playing for a third election on ground more favorable to themselves, and they used the revolt of Ulster and the disaffection in the army to frighten the English electorate. If they had had their way, they would have undone not the Irish settlement only, but the Parliament Act and the budget as well. Never since the seventeenth century has the English governing class played so recklessly with fire.

Mr. Spender, the least critical of biographers, is not happy over his hero's handling of this situation. One recognizes that he could not have coerced Ulster, and was wise not to attempt it: for the maladroit handling of the army he was not personally to blame. Where it seems to me that he failed, through weakness or lack of imagination, was in the last stages of this affair. It was folly to suppose that Ireland, with Home Rule on the statute book yet suspended, would wait indefinitely, through an interminable war for its realization, knowing very well that an untoward election in England might still dash the cup from her lips. The chance to realize Home Rule promptly came after the Easter Rebellion in 1916 under the First Coalition. Asquith, Balfour, Redmond and Carson were agreed, but the minor Tory leaders were allowed to wreck the settlement which the bigger men had reached. Had Asquith insisted, to the point of offering his resignation, Ireland would have been spared the miseries and England the shame of the Black-and-Tan repression, nor need a civil war have darkened the early years of freedom.

To assess objectively Asquith's part in the events that led up to the war is an impossible task for one who lived actively through this time, and was throughout it in the opposite camp. Two things an honest critic must concede and stress. Neither Asquith nor Grey was the initiator of the policy which placed Britain within one of the two armed camps that divided Europe. That was the work for good and evil of Lord Lansdowne and, as some would add, of King Edward; and it was soon the accepted policy of the governing class. The dissentients on the Liberal Left and in the then inconsiderable Labor Party, though they had with them the Manchester Guardian, the Nation and the Daily News, were never able, for lack of clear evidence, to challenge it seriously. The democracy was never allowed to know the extent of these commitments. It is fair to remember that for the early yet decisive phases of this policy, when military conversations began secretly at the end of 1905, between the British and the French, Campbell-Bannerman, who was no imperialist, bore a more direct responsibility than Asquith. In the second place, one recognizes that within the fatal framework of this virtual alliance with France, Grey and Asquith sought periodically, and not without resource, to find a road to peace -- now through the Haldane conversations, again through the Baghdad and African bargains, and finally in their proposals of the last hour for mediation. War was latent in their policy; they knew it; they prepared for it; yet again and again they looked for a way of escape. Given the French alliance (and it is pedantry to use any other word), they would have been dishonored had they shirked the consequences in 1914.

There is not much fresh light within these two big volumes on the reasons which made Asquith a firm partisan of the French connection. His was a lucid and trenchant but not a discursive intellect. His ultimate reason was the simplest possible application of the traditional British principle of the balance of power. British interests forbade him to allow France to be weakened. Not only could he not permit an attack on her coasts: it would be "infamous" to let her be despoiled of her colonies -- a fate which she once suffered at British hands. Belgium, though one does not question the sincerity of official indignation, was a secondary consideration. There is nothing in Asquith's papers or in his contemporary utterance to suggest that he ever pictured to himself the kind of Europe that would emerge from the war. He used phrases, indeed, about the majesty of law, but did he realize that in resisting a German hegemony over Europe he was fastening on the Continent the yoke of France? Believing, as for long he did, in the solidity of Tsarist Russia, how did he envisage the influence of this Power, swollen, as she was to be, by the addition of a reunited, yet subject Poland, and by the acquisition of Constantinople? He had his blind eye, and turned his telescope always to the West. Nothing is more puzzling in his record than his refusal, both at the time and afterwards, to see the significance of the Russian mobilization. It may be that every man of action must equip himself with blinkers. Asquith saw in sharp definition the consequences for England of the possible elimination of France from the front rank of Great Powers, and all the documents in this book suggest that he saw nothing else. It would mean the inferiority of his own country and her isolation in the future phases of the great rivalry. On that he acted, with a power of concentration characteristic of him through life. Sure of himself, he had no regrets, nor did he hesitate over any of the consequential steps that his main purpose required. On him, as directly as on Grey, falls the responsibility for the secret treaties.

One does not judge a man so impersonal and objective as Asquith. His very limitations, his blinkered imagination, his engineer's habit of reasoning straight from ends to means, made him the embodiment, if not of the national will, at least of the purposes of the middle and governing class. It is a fascinating exercise to ask oneself whether, by some variant of its policy, the British Government might have averted the war. One school maintains, plausibly enough, that a frank avowal of Britain's unconditional solidarity with the Dual Alliance would have availed to impose prudence on Berlin. That is possible: but to do it, Asquith and Grey must have wrecked the Liberal Party, which would not have sanctioned such a course. It is also possible that if at the outbreak of the Serbian crisis the British Government had announced its decision to intervene with arms against the Power which so acted as to render war inevitable, it might have kept the peace. Berlin might then have moved more promptly and decidedly than it did to restrain Vienna, and the Russian mobilization might have been prevented. But this hypothetical solution is even more fantastic. Tied to France as the Foreign Office was, it could not act with this extreme detachment.

The ultimate judgment of British policy turns on our answer to this question: What was it that drove the governing class to revive in this very conscious, very resolute form, its traditional doctrine of the balance of power? Was it a disinterested abhorrence of something peculiar in German militarism? Or was it the consequence of a world-wide struggle for economic power, inevitable in an era when in Morocco as in China, in Turkey as in Persia, economic expansion was sought by diplomatic pressure, and every ambassador cast the shadow of an ironclad as he moved? That is, I think, the thesis which the realistic historian will defend. In its light Asquith's career gains a luminous consistency. He represented the new middle class which had become so widely a body of investors with a stake in an expanding empire. He led the Liberal half of it in the South African war: with masterly skill he carried it with him into the Great War. But economic imperialism could not be sewn like a patch upon the historic robe of Liberalism. The end was coming, as much by the rise of Labor as by this questionable evolution. Like a man who knew that Liberalism's hour was short, Asquith completed its historic mission, and shattered it in the act.

[i] "The Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, Lord Oxford and Asquith." By J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith. London: Hutchinson, 1932, 2 v.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • H. N. BRAILSFORD, formerly Editor of The New Leader; author of "The War of Steel and Gold," "Olives of Endless Age," and other works
  • More By Henry N. Brailsford