British politician Herbert Henry (also known as H.H.) Asquith (1852-1928), a reform-minded member of the Liberal Party, served in the British House of Commons for three decades and was prime minister from 1908 to 1916, leading Britain during the first years of World War I (1914-18). As prime minister he introduced significant reforms including pensions and social insurance, which were financed by the so-called People's Budget of 1909. Asquith also successfully reduced the power of the Conservative-controlled House of Lords, whose members traditionally inherited their seats, through the Parliament Act of 1911, leading to the growing democratization of the British system. Although not remembered as a great statesman or war leader, Asquith's contribution to the democratization of the British system was a notable achievement.
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(born Jan. 17, 1863, Manchester—died March 26, 1945, Ty-newydd, near Llanystumdwy, Caernarvonshire, Wales) British prime minister (1916–22) who dominated the British political scene in the latter part of World War I.
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Did You Know?
H.H. Asquith advocated denying women the right to vote. As a result, his house became a target of the British suffragette movement's mass window-breaking campaign in the early 20th century. Despite the views of Asquith and others, in 1928, all British women over age 21 were granted the right to vote.
Education and Early Career
Herbert Henry Asquith was born in Morley, a town near the city of Leeds, in Yorkshire, England, on September 12, 1852. After the death of his father, a wool merchant, in 1860, Asquith and his family moved to Huddersfield, England. In 1863, he was sent to study at the City of London School. In 1870, Asquith won a scholarship to attend Balliol College, part of the University of Oxford, where he studied the classics. He went on to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1876. In 1877, he married Helen Melland, who died in 1891. The couple had five children. Three years later, Asquith married Margot Tennant, with whom he had two children.
While practicing law, Asquith pursued his political ambitions, and in 1886 he became the Liberal member for East Fife in the British House of Commons (the lower house of Parliament; its members are democratically elected), a position he held for the next 32 years. His speaking skills impressed his fellow Liberals as well as other members of the House. In the late 1880s, Asquith served as junior counsel for Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91), a fellow member of Parliament and an Irish nationalist, when Parnell was accused of supporting a pair of politically motivated murders in Dublin. The accusation was based on a collection of letters reputedly written by Parnell and published in the British newspaper The Times. The letters proved to be forgeries.
Rise to Power
Asquith's political fortunes rose quickly after his defense of Parnell. When the Liberals regained power in 1892, the new prime minister, William Gladstone (1809-98), appointed Asquith home secretary, a position responsible for overseeing security-related issues in Great Britain. Asquith disagreed with Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) strenuously over the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa, but their rift proved to be temporary. Indeed, when Campbell-Bannerman became prime minister as the Liberals returned to power in 1905, he appointed Asquith chancellor of the exchequer, a powerful Cabinet-level financial position, second only to the prime minister. Asquith was extremely influential in the House, and when Campbell-Bannerman became seriously ill and resigned from office in early1908, Asquith smoothly transitioned to the position of prime minister.
Asquith appointed David Lloyd George (1863-1945) chancellor of the exchequer, and the two men set the stage for one of the biggest constitutional changes in modern British history. Asquith introduced legislation that would provide pensions for the elderly as well as social insurance for the unemployed, disabled and ill. In 1909, Lloyd George presented a radical budget to finance these reforms through land and income taxes. In addition, the budget provided for the expansion of the British navy, a step deemed necessary by Asquith and Lloyd George to counter the growing threat posed by the rapid buildup of the German navy.
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