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The Asquiths
Colin Clifford
London: John Murray, 2003 (first published John Murray, 2002).
£9.99, xvi-528 pages, ISBN 0719565251 (paperback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

Colin Clifford did not set himself an easy task: writing a biography of Herbert Asquith (1852-1928) or Margot Asquith (1864-1945) or Violet Bonham-Carter née Asquith (1887-1969) would be enough for most authors. But Clifford wanted to go one better and write the story of that remarkable (and large) elite family as a whole. In practice, as could be expected, Violet’s life-story tends to be neglected after her father’s death—after all Clifford wanted primarily to explore the complex relationships in this large and remarkable “political” family.

Herbert’s early years are given only a few pages. Serious business begins with his first marriage, to Helen Melland (1855-1891), in 1877. They had five children: Raymond (1878-1916), Herbert (1881-1947), Arthur (1883-1939), Violet and Cyril (1889-1954). Helen died of typhoid fever in 1891, and a second marriage (1894), with Margot Tennant (1864-1945), produced two more children: Elizabeth (1897-1945) and Anthony, the future film director (1902-1968). Altogether, therefore, Clifford has ten main characters to study: three parents and seven children—but he also devotes a lot of (deserved) attention to the children’s loves and spouses. And in theory he covers the period until Anthony Asquith’s death in 1968. In practice, however, the main narrative stops in 1918, with Asquith’s defeat at the General Election that followed the Armistice, the period 1918-1968 being covered in a short Epilogue. In fact, it may even be argued that the real story begins with Asquith’s remarriage to the formidable Margot in 1894. Clifford has a remarkable passage in which he describes Margot’s attitude towards her step-children:

Beneath her initially tactful exterior, however, Margot felt distinctly antipathetic towards her stepchildren. She never appreciated the traumatic effect, especially on the two younger children, of the loss of their mother; nor did she understand how intimidating her own powerful personality could be. All she could see was the contrast between the anarchic personalities of herself and her siblings and what appeared to her to be the overly serious Asquith children. [p. 63]

The next chapters are devoted to the complex family life resulting from having so many different children of different ages in a household in which the parents also had their separate pursuits: Margot her hunting, horses and expensive dresses, Asquith his political career, which was fashioned by the vagaries of party politics—as would still be case today—but also by the necessity of combining his income from the Bar with his progress in the Liberal Party hierarchy. In 1898, when the question of the leadership arose, Asquith “had no option but gracefully to support his only serious rival, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman” [p. 84] because Margot’s father refused to increase her allowance and he could not afford to leave the Bar, where he earned “between £5,000 and 10,000 a year.” Those were the days of course when professional politics carried little or no State pay. Margot's income from her father (£3,000) did not cover her extravagant style of life (£600 a year on clothes alone) [p. 72], and, Clifford tells us,

She resolved to make the biggest sacrifice she could to help finance her husband’s political career: “I’ve taken the bull by the horns and sold my horses and let my groom go and with tears in my heart said goodbye to hunting” (Letter to Lord Curzon, 9 April 1899). However, she soon had second thoughts; and it was to be another seven years before she would say her final Tally Ho! [p. 84]

The book also contains a lot of revealing details about the dependence of all these scions of great families on the financial good will of the pater familias—sometimes on that of the grandfather, when the father “had lost most of his own capital gambling on foolish investments,” as was the case with Lord Elcho [p. 172]. There is also a very interesting passage on how Margot’s father left most of his money to his two (mediocre) sons, with the three girls getting almost nothing [p. 112]. Later, the two brothers, even though Eddy was “one of the richest men in the country and owed his peerage to Asquith,” refused to encourage “their sister’s fecklessness and saw no reason to subsidize her stepchildren” [p. 215].

We get all the details of the education, career perspectives (Raymond being called to the Bar and very successful [p. 196], Arthur going to the newly-created Sudanase Civil Service [pp. 114-124], Cyril getting “the one Classics trophy that had eluded both his father and Raymond” [p. 188], Herbert (“Beb”) becoming a poet and friend of D.H. Lawrence [pp. 219-220 & 338-339]) and early loves of the older children in the context of London’s High Society; as, for instance, in this passage on Violet’s débutante days in 1905:

The rest of the summer passed in an exhausting whirl of dinners, dances and balls, the Eton versus Winchester cricket match, racing at Ascot and Violet’s first dinner at the House of Commons, hosted by Haldane. Violet rapidly found herself at the centre of a circle of young men, mostly friends of her brothers or the sons of her parents’ friends. […] Few would survive the Great War. [p. 108]

An adumbration of future trouble with Lloyd George appears during the episode of Campbell-Bannerman’s eventful succession in 1908 (with Asquith having to travel all the way to Biarritz, where the king was wintering, to “kiss hands”). A leak about the new Cabinet having been circulated, Margot set out to protect her husband from Lloyd George’s schemes:

However much Margot might agree in theory that she should not interfere in Government, she had not the slightest intention of heeding the advice. As soon as she got home she set about collecting evidence to prove that Lloyd George was indeed the source. She instinctively distrusted him, disliked his noisy radicalism and firmly believed—as she forcefully pointed out to Winston [Churchill]—he had been “boomed beyond his merits.” [p. 136]

The hints of the war to come start almost immediately after Asquith’s accession to Downing Street, because of the split in the Cabinet on the naval race with Germany, the expenditure involved, combined with the programme of social reform, straining the finances of the State at the risk of alienating the vital middle classes. The conflict culminated in 1912, when Winston Churchill confronted Lloyd George on the issue [p. 216]. Moreover Asquith had to face increasing tensions at home between his second wife Margot and his first wife’s daughter, Violet. He found some relief in the company of young women, because, as Clifford puts it, “Asquith, like many politicians, was an inveterate ‘groper’ ” [p. 207]. To top it all, he was violently attacked by Suffragettes whenever he appeared in public. Margot, “who had little respect for her own sex” [p. 146], was “spat at by one of the other women guests at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet” [p. 145]. Luckily for him, he never knew about the extraordinary letter which Margot sent to Lloyd George, implying that he was a vote-loser with his campaign against the Lords. Clifford sums it all up in one remarkably paragraph describing Asquith’s situation in 1911:

Few, if any, Prime Ministers have had to face so many problems at once: fierce Parliamentary struggles over Lloyd George’s Budget, the reform of the House of Lords, proposals for Irish Home Rule and disestablishment of the Church of Wales, and opposition within his own party to increased spending on the Navy. On top of this, there was the unrelenting campaign by the suffragette movement and serious strikes by miners and railwaymen. And, in the background there were the constant emotional demands of Margot’s volatile moods, terrible bouts of depression and irrational hostility towards Violet, as well as Violet’s fragile health and emotional instability. [p. 186]

With the outbreak of war in 1914 comes the inevitable discussion of the boys’ (sons and sons-in-law) participation in the war. Less expected is Margot’s own war, invited by “King Albert of the Belgians to visit him at his headquarters,” sporting leather breeches and a “patriotic black Belgian soldier hat” [p. 241]. At some stage, she drove to Ypres “to distribute brandy, biscuits, cigarettes and other goodies they had brought for the troops.” At Merville, when enemy mortar shells exploded some thirty yards from the door of the room where she was having tea with an officer, “Margot considered the danger to be less than that of the average fox hunt” [pp. 242-143].

Naturally, all the great political episodes of Asquith’s time as Prime Minister, the Marconi affair, the Dardanelles fiasco and Churchill’s subsequent disgrace, the munitions scandal (which at least one of Asquith’s officer sons denounced), are treated in detail. The story of Asquith’s fall and his replacement by Lloyd George in December 1916 has been told many times from the point of view of Lloyd George’s many biographers1. Here, as is common in biographies, Clifford takes the side of his hero:

Any fair assessment of Asquith as a war leader must conclude that, for all the mistakes that are a feature of any wartime administration, it was his Government which laid the foundations for the eventual victory, whether in terms of army manpower, munitions production or the selection of the most effective Commander-in-Chief and Quartermaster General—Haig and Cowans. The Lloyd George Government which followed, while taking the credit for winning the war […] very nearly lost it altogether. [p. 330]

In a curious way, Clifford does not seem to have fully grasped the implications of Total War, in the twentieth-century manner, for any Prime Minister of a democracy like Britain, whose survival ultimately depends on popular acquiescence. Clifford largely blames the Press barons, but it can be argued that Asquith had failed to understand the significance for British politics of the development and success of the “penny press” after 1901. Asquith should have lived with his times and perceived the new, but absolute necessity to cultivate and flatter the demagogues and manipulators of Fleet Street. It may have been contrary to his own code of honour, but then politics is a tough world, with only limited space for personal pangs of conscience, as many of his successors—Lloyd George foremost among them—have acknowledged, acting accordingly. Thus Clifford’s defence of Asquith is a double-edged weapon when he writes:

His Achilles heel—and ultimately the reason for his downfall—was his failure fully to explain the difficulties that must be overcome, to prepare the public for a long war and rally them behind himself , and, above all, to appreciate the damage done by a hostile Press both to his own reputation and to public morale. [p. 331]

With such judgements, Asquith appears both as the “anti-Churchill,” the Prime Minister who almost exaggerated Britain’s plight in May 1940, and the “anti-Lloyd George,” the Prime Minister who knew how to handle Fleet Street and cajole the public with his talk of “a fit country for heroes to live in.” That Lloyd George and Churchill are generally recognised as the two greatest British Prime Ministers of the twentieth century makes things even worse for Asquith’s standing. Still, Asquith’s feeble resistance in his last few weeks in Downing Street can largely be explained by the loss of Raymond, his eldest son, killed by a bullet in the chest during the offensive Somme in September 1916. The Battle of the Somme was a nemesis for Asquith in another sense, as Clifford explains:

Until the Battle of the Somme, Asquith’s popularity remained remarkably impervious to the best efforts of Northcliffe and others to undermine it, his calm unruffled manner presenting a soothing antidote to the panic mongers. The sense of national shock over a campaign which resulted in more than 400,000 British casualties for little apparent territorial gain was tremendous. [p. 379]

Clifford gives an excellent account of the carnage as seen from the point of view of Asquith’s sons and their friends—and also as seen at home by wives, lovers, friends, parents and relatives. All the sinister place names are here: Gallipoli, Ypres, Passchendaele, Messines Ridge, Ham. He also has all the details on the plotting and counter-plotting in Westminster between Asquith’s supporters, who never lost hope of ousting the usurper, and those of Lloyd George, who never ceased to fear an Asquith come-back, with even “wild allegations […] about a German-Jewish conspiracy to bring Asquith back to power” [p. 457]. In this no-holds-barred struggle (Clifford speaks of a “ruthless political crusade against his former leader” [p. 466]), the ultimate was perhaps “the ‘military fact’ propounded by Lloyd George’s Private Secretary […], that Raymond Asquith was so disliked by his own men that it was one of their bombs which accounted for his end’ ” [p. 459]. The outcome is well known, with Asquith losing his seat—held since 1886—at the General Election of December 1918. Adding insult to injury, Lloyd George refused to invite Asquith, “the most experienced statesman in Europe” according to Clifford [p. 469], to the Paris peace negotiations.

The Epilogue contains the sad news that Asquith was also compelled by financial reasons “to abandon their beloved 20 Cavendish Square […] for the more modest 44 Bedford Square” [p. 470]. From then on, the story becomes one of increasing humiliation. He regained a seat, at Paisley, at a by-election in February 1920, only to lose it again at the 1924 General Election. He then entered the House of Lords as Earl of Oxford and Asquith, but, as Clifford explains, “there was a final electoral blow in 1925 when Oxford University rejected him as its Chancellor in favour of the Tory Lord Cave” [p. 473]. Asquith died on 15 February 1928, after catching a bad cold. As an RIP notice, Clifford cannot refrain from trying to rehabilitate Asquith in the face of “his more flamboyant successor:”

Lloyd George, whose public relations skills have arguably never been surpassed in any British Prime Minister, was perhaps inevitably regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest statesmen. However, as the public tires of political policy decided by “spin doctors” and their ilk, it may be that the more substantial qualities and lasting achievements of Lloyd George’s thoroughly decent predecessor, Henry Asquith, will serve as a more fitting model for the politicians of the twenty-first century. [p. 477]

“Some hope!”, one can almost hear contemporary political commentators say, as they watch the example set by the first Prime Minister of the new century. And why should it be so? How could it be so? Born in 1852, Asquith had his formative years before even the Second Reform Act was passed (1867). It is obviously too much to expect him to be a model in a country which has universal suffrage (curiously, Clifford does not point out the coincidence in 1918 of his elimination from Parliament and the adoption of the new Representation of the People Act before the General Election) and Clifford probably does him a disservice in trying to present him as the last White Angel of British politics. It is otherworldliness in the real sense: just as Asquith was a prisoner of his time and was not able to adapt to the somewhat distateful demands of a popular electorate, it is vain to hope that the average semi-literate voter of the twenty-first century could be attracted to the high-flying values of decency propounded by Asquith.

As usual in volumes intended for the “general public,” the notes indicating the sources are relegated to a final section which is very inconvenient to consult, though curiously some explanatory comments, dates, biographical notices, etc., are given as footnotes. To compensate for this irritating trait, the book has an excellent Index and Bibliography, which make it a useful working tool for the historian—on whose desk it should undoubtedly lie when a study of the period 1900-1918 is undertaken.



1. The most recent being John Grigg. Lloyd George. [vol. 3]: From Peace to War, 1912-1916. London: Penguin, 2002. [vol. 4]: War Leader, 1916-1918. London: Penguin, 2003. See Cercles review: back



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