Herbert Asquith

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Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith, KG (1852-1928), was a British Liberal Party politician and Prime Minister (1908-1916); he led the Liberal party to a series of domestic reforms, including social insurance and the reduction of the power of the House of Lords. He led the nation into World War I, but his faltering leadership in the midst of military crises let to his replacement in late 1916 by David Lloyd George.

He was the last Liberal prime minister to win an outright majority. He sponsored Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1909. It was the most controversial in British history, for it systematically raised taxes on the rich, especially the landowners, to pay for the welfare programs (and for new battleships). He proposed old age pensions but the Conservative Party, in opposition, used its majority in the House of Lords to block it. This break with protocol - the Lords did not traditionally interfere with finance measures - led to a constitutional crisis that ultimately resulted in a severe reduction of the power of the Lords, through the Parliament Act of 1911.


Asquith was born at Morley, in Yorkshire, Sept. 12, 1852. Educated at the City of London School and at Balliol College, Oxford, he was admitted to the bar in 1876 and became a queen's counsel in 1890, having made his reputation as junior counsel to the Parnell Commission in 1889. He entered Parliament in 1886 as a Liberal and was home secretary under William Gladstone from 1892 to 1895. When Joseph Chamberlain raised the question of tariff reform (that is, imposing taxes on imports which had been untaxed), Asquith campaigned for free trade and as a result was made chancellor of the exchequer under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman from 1905 to 1908. He increased grants to local governments and reduced the national debt.

In the 1906 election the Liberals won their greatest landslide in history. In 1908 Asquith became prime minister with a stellar cabinet of leaders from all factions of the Liberal party. Working with David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill he passed the "New Liberalism" legislation setting up unemployment insurance and ending sweatshop conditions; he set the stage for the welfare state in Britain. In 1908 he introduced old age pensions.[1]

Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1909 was the most controversial in British history, for it systematically raised taxes on the rich, especially the landowners, to pay for the welfare programs (and for new battleships). The Conservatives, representing the landed aristocracy, controlled the House of Lords, which rejected the 1909 budget. The Liberals lost their majorities in the two general elections in 1910 but Asquith built a majority coalition with the Irish party, which won the promise of home rule in 1914. Asquith pushed through the Parliament bill of 1911 that abolished the veto power of the House of Lords. If the Lords tried to block it he had the King's promise that he could create hundreds of new peers who would overwhelm the Conservative majority in Lords. Asquith's victory marked the permanent end of the House of Lords as a major base of political power. His Irish Home Rule bill was not so successful. In 1912, over half a million Protestant Ulstermen signed the Ulster Covenant, pledging to resist Home Rule by any means (including violence); they had significant support in the Army. The Irish crisis was postponed by the outbreak of World War I and the bill was not enforced.

World War

Although the Liberals had traditionally been the pacifistic party, the German invasion of Belgium in violation of treaties angered the Liberals, and raised the spectre of German control of the entire continent, which was intolerable. Asquith led the nation to war in alliance with France. In 1915 the Asquith cabinet was vigorously attacked for the shortage of munitions and the naval failure at Gallipoli. A coalition cabinet proved no more successful, and the resignation of David Lloyd George and other members brought about its fall in December 1916. Lloyd George became Prime Minister. Asquith's achievements in peacetime have been overshadowed by his failures in wartime. Most historians portray a vacillating prime minister, barely handling forces he could not contain, at best acting as the crumbling fulcrum on which men of greater determination and ambition levered their way into power.

In the 1924 election Asquith was defeated, and in 1925 he entered the House of Lords as Earl of Oxford and Asquith. In 1926 he split finally with Lloyd George and the majority of the Liberal Party.


  • Bates, Stephen. Asquith (2006) 176pp excerpt online
  • Blewett, Neal. The Peers, the Parties, and the People: The British General Elections of 1910 (1971)
  • Cassar, George H. Asquith as War Leader. 1994. 295 pp.
  • Cregier, Don M. "The Murder of the British Liberal Party," The History Teacher Vol. 3, No. 4 (May, 1970), pp. 27–36 online edition, blames Asquith, Lloyd George and the voters
  • Fair, John D. "Politicians, Historians, and the War: A Reassessment of the Political Crisis of December 1916," The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 49, No. 3, On Demand Supplement. (Sep., 1977), pp. D1329-D1343. in JSTOR
  • Fry, Michael. "Political Change in Britain, August 1914 to December 1916: Lloyd George Replaces Asquith: The Issues Underlying the Drama," The Historical Journal Vol. 31, No. 3 (Sep., 1988), pp. 609–627 in JSTOR
  • Hankey, Lord. The Supreme Command, 1914-1918. 2 vols. 1961.
  • Havighurst, Alfred F. Twentieth-Century Britain. 1966. standard survey online edition
  • Hazlehurst, Cameron. "Asquith as Prime Minister, 1908-1916," The English Historical Review Vol. 85, No. 336 (Jul., 1970), pp. 502–531 in JSTOR
  • Jenkins, Roy. Asquith: Portrait of a man and an era (1978), a standard biography
  • Koss, Stephen. Asquith (1976), a standard biography
  • Little, John Gordon. "H. H. Asquith and Britain's Manpower Problem, 1914-1915." History 1997 82(267): 397–409. Issn: 0018–2648; admits the problem was bad but exonerates Asquith Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Matthew, H. C. G. "Asquith, Herbert Henry, first earl of Oxford and Asquith (1852–1928)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online , excellent starting point
  • Powell, David. British Politics, 1910-1935: The Crisis of the Party System (2004)
  • Rowland, Peter. The Last Liberal Governments: The Promised Land, 1905-1910 (1969) 404pp, highly detailed narrative
  • Rowland, Peter. The Last Liberal Governments: Unfinished Business, 1911-1914 (1971) 405pp
  • Taylor, A. J. P. English History, 1914-1945. 1965, standard political history of the era
  • Turner, John. British Politics and the Great War: Coalition and Conflict, 1915-1918 (1992)
  • Wilson, Trevor. The Downfall of the Liberal Party 1914-1935. (1966)
  • Woodward, Sir Llewellyn. Great Britain and the War of 1914-1918. (1967).

See also


  1. The pensions were small sums given to some people over age 70 who passed a means (poverty) test. The goal was to reduce poverty among the elderly.