Asquith vs Lloyd George. Who is the real Liberal Hero?

Party Politics and Historical Debate
This post is inspired by a cross over between party political debate and historical debate. Recently the British Liberal Democrats have debated who the greatest British liberal was, and that discussion has been revised on the Liberal Democrat blog space by a debate in Liberal Democrat Voice, which I access via the LibDemBlogs aggregate about heroes selected by the two current contenders for leadership of the Liberal Democrats. J.S. Mill was a worthy overall winner, regrettably David Lloyd George made it onto the final short list, and H.H. Asquith did not. This is in part a riposte.

Huhne’s as new Lloyd George; Nick Clegg as new Asquith?
One contender, Chris Huhne, has identified David Loyd George as his liberal hero. I do not want to deal with the current leadership issue here, I have already given strong support to Clegg in three earlier posts about this election and a post last year hoping for a Clegg leadership to arise. I will comment on LG (as David Lloyd George is often known) and the other main figure in British Liberal politics of that time, H.H. Asquith. However, I see Clegg as very Asquith like, and Huhne as very LG like. Since Huhne has identified LG as his model, this may not be completely fanciful.

The Rise of Asquith and LG
LG rose to prominence as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908, replacing Asquith who had himself just replaced Henry Campbell Bannerman as Prime Minister. LG was brought up in a small town Wales in a lower middle class background, Asquith was from a more upper class family, studied Classics at Christchurch College Oxford. This was the college of the British political élite at that time. Asquith went on to be a successful lawyer of great intellectual distinction and then a politician. As a politician he continue to have the reputation of intellectual distinction. His views were inclined towards a moderate shift of the Liberal party into ‘constructive liberalism’, that is liberalism concerned with social goals as opposed to the liberalism of the main figure of Nineteenth liberalism, William Ewart Gladstone, who thought poverty should be dealt with by charity (and he was a very generous donor himself). Constructive liberalism kept Gladstone’s commitments to free trade and a government policy oriented to general principles of government rather than sectional interest, but thought the state should intervene socially and economically to prevent poverty. Asquith was a moderate supporter of the British Empire and had no interest in grandiose imperial ideology, and certainly did not think the Empire should interfere with free trade.

L.G. was not completely committed to the Liberal party in several parts of his career. In an early stage, he leaned towards Welsh nationalism. Later on, in the internal currents of the Nineteenth Century Liberal Party, LG was a supporter of Joseph Chamberlain at the time Chamberlain was considered to represent Radicals in the Liberal Party. The ‘Radical’ label shifted in reference over time. At that point it meant a mixture of constitutional and social reform. Chamberlain was a Radical interested in state led social reforms. Later he moved towards ‘Social Imperialism (imperialism, protectionism and social measures), and defected to the Conservative Party. LG did not follow Chamberlain into the Conservative Party at that time, but later was interested in Liberal-Conservative fusion.

Asquith and LG in Government
LG and Asquith benefitted from the collapse of a Conservative Government in 1905, a minority liberal government was followed by a Liberal landslide in the 1906 General Election. The Conservative Party was at that time split over free trade, leading to a promising young Conservative politician defecting to the Liberal Party, Winston Churchill. Churchill and LG were closely associated until Churchill returned to the Conservatives. Like the early enthusiasm for Chamberlain, it shows LG as someone always drawn to people who were not deep liberals themselves.

LG the Radical Hero of 1909
Asquith succeeded Prime Minister in 1908 with LG as his Chancellor. LG’s time as Chancellor established him as a Radical hero. This largely came out of the People’s Budget of 1909 which proposed redistributive taxation and land value taxation to finance social measures. It was fiercely opposed by the aristocratic interest in the House of Lords, leading to two general elections and the threat of flooding the House with new peers before the Lords backed down. Land value taxation was not implemented but remained an enthusiasm for one current with Britsh liberalism until the present day. At its most modest land value taxation is a way of raising revenue through a tax on the value of land, that may also have the result of leading land owners to make use of land by investing in developing it, or selling it someone who wants toı develop it. For real enthusiasts, this is a whole basis of government referring to the Mutualist philosophy of Henry George, which will end class society and the economic cycle. LG is a heroic symbols for the LV enthusiasts, but LG himself abandoned it as a post-war Prime Minister.

LG and Liberal-Conservative Fusion
At the same time as LG was becoming the Radical hero he was contemplating merging the Liberals with the Conservatives, on a program of anti-socialism, social reform and armament for a possible war. He was greatly taken with a juggernaut political force wielding a huge state power nationally and internationally. Such a huge block devoted to keeping the then emergent Labour Party out of power could not have been healthy for a genuine parliamentary democracy. Though LG was a talented parliamentarian, he had an attraction to forms of hegemonic power which would have made the parliamentary arena marginal. LG was a consistent social reformist and also a consistent enthusiast for the strong state internally and externally. Asquith’s views were developed from a clear basis in Gladstonian liberalism, and even his non-Gladstonian ‘Constructive’ liberalism has something in common with Gladstone’s pragmatic measures to ameliorate social conditions, most obviously in the case of reform to ırish tenancy laws. Some continuity with Gladstone is clear in comparison with LG’s enthusiasm for the state and creating a crushingly hegemonic political force. LG’s basic ideas seem better defined as Progressive Statism than as liberalism. LG’s ideal was a dominating leader in charge of a hegemonic party able to introduce polices to improve social welfare through statist means, and building up a strong state machine for imperial and military purposes.

LG and American Progressivism
Comparisons with Theodore Roosevelt in the United States seem apt, and maybe we should bring in Woodrow Wilson as well. Both were part of the Progressive current in early Twentieth Century America which favoured social improvement through strengthened federal government and foreign intervention, though Wilson was more pacific in principle. Roosevelt was a Republican and Wilson was a Democrat, but party distinctions are very fluid in America and the President is much more distinct from the party in comparison with the relation in Europe between the head of government and the party behind that person.

LG becomes Wartime Prime Minister
The First World War led to LG becoming Prime Minister as Asquith lost credibility as war leader by 1916. LG, along with Churchill, is given great credit for improvements in the war effort against resistance from the General Staff. Possibly some of this is exaggerated, and possibly earlier supposed failures of Asquith and the General Staff have been exaggerated, but no one can take away a large part of the credit for leading Britain to a victorious conclusion in the war. Unfortunately LG’s contribution to British liberalism at this time is less creditable.

LG and Peacetime Caeserism
LG was determined to be Liberal leader, though this was perhaps more a
desire to have a party to lead than to be a liberal leader. Asquith was not willing to create a vacancy and LG was not strong enough in the Liberal Party to force him out. For LG the solution was obvious, he created an electoral alliance between his supporters ,in Parliament and the Conservative Party. This swept to power and enable LG to keep up a war time style of government dominated by big figures in an inner cabinet, more of the attraction of power with LG as a Caeser like figure dominating everything through his personalised power. LG wanted to turn this into a Centre Party, which would crush the now weak and weakening Liberal Party and the Labour Party which was taking over former Liberal territory. Perhaps fortunately for pluralist politics and British parliamentarianism most Conservative MPs did not see any reason to accept the continuing leadership of someone whose real base was one half of a declining Liberal Party. LG dropped Land Value taxation during this period, one of the sources of his legend. LG’s weak political base led him to raise political funds by the sale of state honours, though the dirty work was done not by him but the criminal Maundy Gregory. LG was dumped in 1922, the immediate cause was the presence of British troops in Turkey.

LG, Atatürk and Venizelos
LG’s grandiose imagination and fascination with power play led him to support the ill conceived Greek invasion of Izmir and western Anatolia in 1919. The forces of the Turkish National Assembly under Mustafa Kemal Paşa (later Kemal Atatürk) defeated the Greeks, all other occupying forces, the Sultan’s government in Istanbul, and the whole Sevres Treaty partition of the Ottoman heartlands which now comprise Turkey. LG had been infatuated with Eletherio Venizelos, the Liberal Greek Prime Minister and his desire to revive Greek dominance in a large part of the Byzantine, Alexandrian and Ancient Greek sphere. LG praised Venizelos as a new Pericles (the most distinguished leader of Ancient Athenian democracy). Venizelos was an admirable reformer and democrat but his grandiose Hellenism and misconceived invasion undermined Greek democracy. Venizelos was later gracious enough to nominate Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize, and LG himself referred to Atatürk as a genius. In some ways LG was always trying to be an Atatürk figure, the Caeserist leader of a hegemonic statist progressivist force. The difference is that such a thing was more appropriate to early Republican Turkey, where Atatürk was trying to build new secular modernist state system in an illiterate imam dominated peasant country, out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Britain’s Parliament was in its seventh century of existence, and had been the dominant element in the political system since 1688. The country was literate, urbanised, religiously moderate and had a deeply rooted party system and a strong tradition of private assocations, and a developed market economy. Not the conditions for a Caeser.

LG went back to a unified Liberal Party and was able to become leader after Asquith’s death. He showed his creative and radical side by becoming an early adherent of the economics of Keynes, they wrote a Yellow Book of liberal economic policy together which resisted a return to the Gold standard for Sterling and advocated state intervention to relieve economic recession. None of this could prevent the continuing decline of the Liberal Party, which LG had set the scene for by splitting the party. The decline was only reversed in the 1950s and it is only recently that the Liberal Democrats have returned liberal parliamentary representation to the level of the 1920s.

LG: Statist, Hegemonist, and Caeserist
LG was a great reformer and leader. He was also a Caeserist in political practice, a hegemonist in his attitude to the party system, and a statist progressivist in ideology rather than a liberal believer in individualism and a limited defined role for the state. LG was more lower class in origin than Asquith, but was much more able to accommodate himself to the party of the upper classes. Early on he admired Chamberlain, the defector to the Conservatives and later he was an associate of Churchill, a Conservative for most of his life. Churchill’s mix of social reformism and imperialism, and identification with a strong British state always willing to impose itself by force all seem close to LG.

Asquith: Liberal Loyalty and Principles
Asquith could never have joined the Conservatives, he was a liberal in principles and could only be at home in a liberal political culture, more universalist and individualist than the conservative culture of privileged leaders and special interests in the state and the economy. The conservative political culture certainly never accepted Asquith. It denied him the last role he hoped for, as Chancellor of Oxford University. At Oxford Asquith was a distinguished classics student, he want on to be a distinguished lawyer and then a significant Prime Minister. Nevertheless conservative graduates, particularly clergy could not stand the idea of him as Chancellor and voted him down.

Asquith was always a cabinet Prime Minister, in a full cabinet. He relied on reason and while his speeches may not have been as exciting as LG’s they were considered great examples of intellectual construction. He was often under the influence of alcohol in parliament but never failed as a speaker, and never became a strong man bypassing Parliament. There was a lot of the patrician about Asquith, but he never needed to be part of the Conservative establishment and was happier in a party that wanted to constrain and limit institutions and centres of power, not absorb them into a hegemonic party-state system under a strong leader. Asquith never got into the moral catastrophe LG did with regard to sale of political honours, Asquith understood there are moral constraints on the pursuit of power. Asquith was not perfect of course. Sadly he opposed Women’s Suffrage before the First World War, which LG did support, and private papers show he could be express himself offensively about those from other ethnic backgrounds. However, there were few who would seem good to us now from that point of view at the time; and certainly attempts to label Asquith as anti-Semitic must be balanced with the large role Jews played in the Liberal Party, sometimes as Asquith’s colleagues. LG certainly thought military action to maintain the implicitly racist system of empire was justifiable.

If we look for absolute correctness, we will condemn all the past leaders. In a balanced assessment Asquith emerges as the model British Liberal leader after Gladstone and a Prime Minister of great distinction presiding over a government which reaffirmed free trade, sought a rule governed international order and pursued a major program of social reform, accompanied by major constitutional reform and a decisive defeat of entrenched privilege in the House of Lords.

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