Asquith, Herbert Henry, Earl of Oxford and Asquith

(1852–1928)
   British prime minister from 1908 to 1916. Asquith entered politics on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, but in 1914 it was he who took the decision to lead Britain into World War I.
   Asquith won a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1870, went on to a career at the bar, and came to some prominence as a strongly Liberal voice in the columns of the Spectator and the Economist. Asquith was first elected to the Commons as a Gladstonian Liberal and supporter of Irish Home Rule in 1886, and his intellect and his forensic debating skills assured his rapid rise to prominence. He became Home Secretary in William Gladstones fourth government of 1892.
   Asquith was one of the most prominent of the so-called Liberal imperialists of the 1890s. Along with R. B. Haldane and Sir Edward Grey, he supported an assertive British foreign policy, in part because he saw the traditional radical suspicion of the Empire as impractical. Asquith and the Liberal imperialists supported the Tory government during the Boer War of 1899–1902. Asquith did much, however, to make the case for free trade against the former radical Joseph Chamberlain ’s 1903 proposals for tariff reform on imperial lines.
   After the resignation of A. J. Balfou r’s Tories in 1905, Asquith became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the government of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and succeeded him as prime minister in 1908. It was under Asquith’s premiership that David Lloyd Georges “peoples’ budgets,” including old age pensions and higher direct taxation, were pushed through Parliament against the opposition of the House of Lords. Having won two elections in 1910, Asquith’s government enacted the Parliament Act of 1911, limiting the powers of Lords, with the aid of a commitment from the new King George V to create peers if necessary to force the bill through the upper house.
   Asquith’s pre-1914 premiership was marked by extensive social conflict, including the suffragette movement, militant trade unionism, and Irish unrest. Nevertheless, his government’s most significant decision was to take Britain to war in August 1914. The German violation of Belgian neutrality - guaranteed by the Treaty of London of 1839, the famous “scrap of paper” - was the legal causus belli ; but it also caused great moral offence among the Liberal caucus, ensuring that Asquith was able to lead his otherwise antimilitarist cabinet and party to war with few defections. Asquith served as prime minister until 1916, when he was replaced by Lloyd George.
   See also <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Jenkins, Roy. Asquith. London: Collins, 1964;
    Matthew, H.C.G. The Liberal Imperialists. Oxford: University Press, 1973;
    Spender, J. A. The Life and Letters of Herbert Henry Asquith. 2 vols. London: Hutchinson, 1932.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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