Courtesy Reuters

The Last of the English Liberals

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

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