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.
The People’s Budget of 1909 and the Parliament Act of 1911
Conservative members of the House of Lords (the upper house of Parliament; its members traditionally held hereditary titles such as duke or earl and inherited their seats in the legislature) rebelled against Asquith’s proposed reforms and, in an unprecedented move, vetoed the budget, known popularly as the People’s Budget of 1909. This move, in turn, forced two general elections, a constitutional crisis and the passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which severely limited the power of the House of Lords. Like the People’s Budget of 1909, the Parliament Act of 1911 was endangered by the very power it sought to curtail, the veto power of the Conservative-controlled House of Lords. To ensure the bill’s passage, the Liberal government secured an agreement with King George V (1865-1936) that he would create 250 more peers (a position of British noble rank, such as duke and earl), all of them liberal. Faced with the threat of a permanent liberal majority or passage of the Parliament bill, the House of Lords chose the latter.
The Parliament Act of 1911 drastically changed the way the British government operated. The act prevented the Lords from vetoing any financial legislation, and also reduced the duration of any Parliament term from seven years to five years. In addition, the act provided that members of Parliament be paid for their service. In sum, the Parliament Act of 1911 greatly reduced the power that the House of Lords wielded in Britain.
Domestic and International Crises: Ireland and World War I
Although it was successful in implementing significant reforms, Asquith’s government faced additional challenges in the years between 1911 and 1914. Most pressing was the growing crisis over Ireland. Unionists, comprised largely of Conservatives and the military, wanted Ireland to remain a part of the British Union. An opposing group, led by Asquith and the Liberals, pushed for home rule for Ireland. The situation deteriorated to such an extent that in 1914 it appeared civil war would result. Asquith was successful in getting the Home Rule Law passed, but it was delayed by the outbreak of World War I, postponed further and never enacted.
In August 1914, Britain entered World War I. Asquith did not prove a strong wartime leader: His government was slow in decision making and developing tactical strategies. In 1915, a severe munitions shortage hampered the British military effort, and Asquith was forced to form a coalition Cabinet that included Conservatives. The Battle of the Somme (July 1-November 18, 1916) in France, with its heavy casualties, made Asquith the target of a brutal attack by the newspapers. Under pressure from his own Cabinet, he resigned in December 1916, and Lloyd George became prime minister.
With his resignation, Asquith’s political career began a long decline. Although he remained active in his party through the mid-1920s, he was in frequent conflict with those Liberals who supported Lloyd George. Asquith spent his final years writing books, and in 1925 accepted a peerage as Earl of Oxford and Asquith. He died on February 15, 1928, at age 75. Although not remembered as a great statesman or war leader, Asquith’s contribution to the democratization of the British system through the Parliament Act of 1911 was a notable achievement.