Defending H.H. Asquith’s Reputation against the Nonsense peddled recently by Andrew Adonis and Martin Kettle

Andrew Adonis and Martin Kettle have recently tried to make points about Gordon Brown through remarkably poor and muddled accounts of Britain’s last 2 Liberal Prime Ministers.

I’ve already put a case for elevating H.H. Asquith about David Lloyd George in the history of British Liberalism. It’s necessary return to that topic since an article by Andrew Adonis in Prospect (a ‘New Labour’ magazine’), ‘A Liberal Tragedy’ (full version is subscribers only) has been taken up by Martin Kettle in The Guardian (left inclined British daily newspaper), ‘In Asquith’s Failure there is a Chilling Message for Brown’. Kettle generally takes a sympathetic line towards the Liberal Democrats, but is clearly New Labour in thinking. Adonis was a Liberal Democrat (I once saw his speak at a conference fringe meeting on liberal history), but jumped to New Labour in a very blatant bit of opportunism which led him to the House of Lords and a ministerial post promoting city academic (self governing state schools).

Both Adonis and Kettle assume that the Liberal/Liberal Democrat tradition in Birtish politics can be subsumed under the Labour tradition as the junior partner in Britsh centre-left or progressive tradition. Before the 1920s the Liberal Party was the largest part of this suppose group, but it clearly suits current New Labour types to emphasises this supposed tradition because since the 1920s the Labour Party has been the largest part. The last Liberal dominated government in Britain (1906-1916) had support from Labour and Irısh Nationalists, and there was a left or social shift in the New Liberalism of that era. Obviously it suits New Labour types to equate New Labour with New Liberalism, particularly if like Adonis they have made an oppotunistic jump between parties. As Adonis was reported to ahve regretted not joing the Conservatives in time for Major’s 1991 victory I think we can discount any ideological principles he claims to have.

On the issue of Asquith, Adonis/Kettle claim that Asquith was a failure compared with Lloyd George on three grounds
1. Asquith opposed voting rights for women
2. Asquith did not solve the ‘Irish Problem’
3. Asquith was responsible for leading Britain (which at that time meant not just the UK but the whole Empire) into the First World War, and was therefore responsible for the suffering of all parties to the war.

Answers
1. Only the first claim has much merit. Yes Asquith opposed woman’s suffrage at the time that most Liberals, including LG supported it. In a bizarre mirror image, the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour supported woman’s suffrage while most of his party opposed it. Asquith was very wrong and it’s a major mark against him. However, he did undergo some change of mind during the First World war, as did other previous opponents of female suffrage due to the contribution of women to the war economy and the support given to the war effort by the more moderate parts of the suffrage movement.

2. Asquith was unable to resolve the ‘Irish Problem’ like a series of predecessors. The problem he was faced with was that while most British politicians recognised that home rule for Ireland was inevitable, Ireland itself was divided between Nationalists (mostly Catholic) who wanted the whole of the island to become one self-governing entity and Unionists (strongest among the Protestants of northern Ireland) who wanted the province Ulster in the north of the island to remain a fully integrated part of the UK. The Unionist leader Carson was willing to contemplate violence against Home Rule for the whole of island, and received support from the Conservatives which then existed officially as the Unionist Party. There were considerable doubts about the loyalty of army officers to the government in case of a conflict between London and Belfast over Home Rule. Asquith was faced with an awful situation in which the government could do nothing without provoking violence from either side or violating two plausible sets of arguments for how self-determination should be defined in Ireland. The question went quiet during World War One, though the Nationalist leader John Redmond turned down the chance to become Secretary of state for Ireland in the wartime government, until April 1916, when militant Irish Republicans (in the Irısh context Republicans refers to the more radical part of the Nationalist movement) seized the General Post Office in Dublin and tried to provoke a nationalist war. The provocation initially had little support from the ırish, but the military authorities executed most of the leaders of the uprising, a policy opposed by Asquith, before London could get control of the situation. The executions had a disastrous effect in turning the executed into martyr figures.

What was LG’s solution to the Irish problem? As Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, he did arrive at a solution in the Anglo-Irısh Treaty of 1922, though this did not bring a final end to violence in Ulster/Northern Ireland and was followed in independent Ireland by a civil war about the Treaty. The Treaty was preceded by an Irish Independence war from 1919 to 1921, in which Black and Tan soldiers recruited, by LG’s government, from World War One veterans behaved with extreme brutality.

There really are no grounds for marking LG above Asquith on Irish policy.

3. Asquith did not ask the Serbian South Slavist Gavrilo Princip to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Nor did he ask the Austro-Hungarian government to issue an ultimatum to Serbia essentially demanding that it accede to major violations of its sovereignty. He certainly did not ask the Veinnese government to mobilise its army after Serbia rejected full implementation of the ultimatum. He very certainly did not ask Germany to invade France as a response to the general moblisation of Europe’s major powers. He very certainly did not ask Germany to invade France through neutral Belgium. The neutrality of Belgium had been considered a cornerstone of the European state system since the 1830s, the German violation of that neutrality confirms amongst other things that the German Imperial Government was aggressive and expansionistic in a manner not shared by the French and British governments. The violation of Belgian neutrality bolstered support in the Liberal cabinet for living up to its treaty obligations to France. Kettle and Adonis both appear to subscribe to the view of World War One in which Britain and France were morally equivalent with Germany. This is simply not the case if we compare their actions and if we compare their systems of government. I will just add that German war aims made clear in 1917, when Germany had the upper hand was to reconstruct Europe and the Middle East to be dominated by Germany and its junior partners. The Kaiser’s government was not the equivalent of the Nazis but it was bad enough. In any case, only one Liberal left the cabinet over the declaration of war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. LG certainly did not leave the cabinet, he took the opportunity to seize the Prime Ministership with Conservative support in 1916. His view of war history, which strongly influenced historians until recently was that he and Churchill led Britain to victory through triumphing over Asquith’s poor war leadership legacy and dim witted army generals. Both claims are less popular with recent historians. In any case, it is a complete nonsense to claim that LG was a greater and more successful Liberal leader than Asquith, because Asquith supported British entry into World War One. LG went onto destroy the Liberal Party by governing with the support of part of the Liberal Party and the Conservatives until the Conservatives got rid of him in 1922. Before then, LG supported the continuation of the War in Anatolia when he supported the Greek invasion of western Anatolia, defeated by the National Assembly and its armed forces, under the leader of Musta Kemal (later Kemal Atatürk).

Kettle’s and Adonis’ claim that Asquith was an irresponsible war mongerer while LG was not is total nonsense.

Both choose to support the Liberal leader who split the Liberal Party by choosing to lead a government dominated by conservatives. I guess that’s the role they would like Nick Clegg to take in relation to the Labour Party, supporting New Labour while abandoning any distinctive liberal vision. No thank you. Clegg is clearly prepared to co-operate with either of the other major parties depending on circumstances, and keeping a distinct liberal vision in all cases.

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