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Herbert Henry Asquith

H H Asquith Born: 12 September 1852 in Morley, Yorkshire

First entered Parliament: 9 July 1886

Age he became PM: 55 years, 198 days

Maiden Speech: 24 March 1887 during a motion to give precedence over all other business to the Irish Crimes Bill

Total time as PM: Eight years, 244 days

Died: 15 February 1928 at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire

Asquith speaks on the Budget

In 1909 a controversial budget proposed a large rise in taxes to pay for a programme of social reform and rearmament. Asquith took the lead in what was the first concerted effort in Britain to use commercial sound recordings to win over public opinion.

Facts and figures

Nickname: “The Sledgehammer” (given by former PM Campbell-Bannerman)

Education: Huddersfield College and Moravian School, Leeds

Family: Asquith was the second son of five children. He was married twice, and had five sons and two daughters

Interests: Golf, bridge, chess and reading

Biography

Yorkshireman through and through

Herbert Henry Asquith was the son of a Yorkshire clothing manufacturer. He was educated at City of London School and Balliol College Oxford, where he became President of the Union, and was later called to the Bar in 1876.

In 1886 Asquith was elected as the Liberal MP for East Fife, despite the constraints of being a young widower with five children. He had married Helen Kelsall Mellard but she dies from typhoid.

He was a strong believer in free trade, Home Rule for Ireland, and social reform, all vital issues of the day.

With his intellectual and a oratorical gifts he was quick to make his mark on the Commons. Despite the lack of previous ministerial experience, he became Home Secretary under Gladstone in 1892, and then again under Rosebery. Out of office for a decade from 1895, he returned to his barrister’s practice, but also toured the country making influential speeches in favour of free trade.

In 1905 Asquith, a stocky man with clean-cut features, became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the new Liberal government. He introduced higher taxes on unearned income, which helped pay for another innovation - pensions for senior citizens over 70.

Taking on the House of Lords

In 1908 he became PM following the resignation of Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Asquith now took on the House of Lords, which often blocked reforming Liberal bills, preventing them becoming law.

Asquith's time as PM was dominated by the Suffragette movement The Lords unwisely rejected his Chancellor’s (Lloyd George) budget of 1909. The December 1910 election was billed as a referendum on this Lords vs. Commons issue.

After the election Asquith had no overall majority but it gave him the public support he needed.

He introduced the Parliament Bill, which stripped the Lords of any veto over money bills or public legislation. The Bill became law in 1911. The Lords were forced into passing the bill by the threat that hundreds of new Liberal peers would be created if they did not approve the bill.

As PM, Asquith presided over a period of national upheaval, with the issues of Irish Home Rule, and womens suffrage dominating the era. Asquith also brought Britain into World War One.

To maximise government support he formed a coalition government in 1915. But this government was unsuccessful and unpopular for the war was going badly. The press blamed the deadlock on the battlefields on Asquith’s procrastination.

Sidelined

Asquith appeared sidelined when he accepted Lloyd George’s suggestion that a small cabinet committee direct the war, to the exclusion of the PM himself.

His subsequent change of mind led to a rift with Lloyd George which forced Asquith to resign in December 1916, on the same day as his Chancellor resigned.

The success of Lloyd George’s government consigned Asquith to the political wilderness, a situation compounded by the loss of his seat, and those of many of his allies in 1918.

He had enjoyed a very odd position as he stubbornly remained Leader of the Liberal Party, despite lacking a seat.

Two years later he won a seat in a by-election in 1920 but would not govern again. In 1925 Asquith was granted the title of Earl of Oxford and elevated to the House of Lords. He died of a stroke in 1928.

Quote unquote

“Youth would be an ideal state if it came a little later in life.”

Did you know?

Among his descendants is the British-born Hollywood actress Helena Bonham-Carter.

First wife - Helen Melland

Calm and assured with a strong, clear mind, she had a ‘beautiful and simple spirit’. She had five children by Asquith but died aged just 36.

Second wife - Emma Tennant

Asquith remarried and Emma happily took over the five children from his first marriage. She was a leader of fashion, a socialist and successful hostess. All her pregnancies were difficult and she lost three children at birth.

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