Herbert Henry Asquith Oxford and Asquith, 1st earl of

Oxford and Asquith, Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st earl of, 1852–1928, British statesman. Of a middle-class family, he attended Oxford, became a barrister in London in 1876, and was elected to Parliament as a Liberal in 1886. He attracted attention as junior counsel for Charles Parnell before the Parnell Commission of 1889 and was home secretary (1892–95) in William Gladstone's last ministry. After the outbreak (1899) of the South African War, Asquith was associated with the so-called Liberal imperialists, who favored the war and proposed that the Liberals adopt a generally more aggressive foreign policy. His powerful championship of the traditional Liberal free-trade policy was an important factor in bringing the party back to power in 1905. He was chancellor of the exchequer under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and succeeded him as prime minister in 1908.

In the next six years Asquith's government put through an advanced program of social welfare legislation, including old-age pensions (1908) and unemployment insurance (1911). It also embarked on a program of naval expansion to match Germany's. To finance both programs, Asquith's chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced (1909) a radical budget that was rejected by the House of Lords. This caused a constitutional crisis. After two general elections (Jan. and Dec., 1910), Asquith secured passage of the Parliament Act of 1911, which stripped the House of Lords of its veto power (see Parliament). In 1912, Asquith renewed Liberal efforts to establish Irish Home Rule, a course that provoked a violent reaction from Protestants in Ulster, who were firmly supported by the Conservative party. Ireland appeared to be on the verge of civil war but the outbreak (1914) of World War I forestalled it.

Having brought Great Britain into the war, Asquith proved a less than successful wartime leader. In 1915 he formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, but conflicts within the cabinet, continued reverses in the field, and a virulent campaign waged against him by the newspapers of Lord Northcliffe made his position increasingly difficult. At the end of 1916 a complicated intrigue on the part of Lloyd George and the Conservative leaders resulted in Asquith's resignation. He remained leader of the declining Liberal party until 1926, having been raised to the peerage in 1925.

Asquith's second wife, Margot (Tennant) Asquith, countess of Oxford and Asquith, 1864–1945, whom he married in 1894, was prominent in London society and noted for her wit. Her frank autobiography (1920–22) created a minor sensation. She wrote a novel and several volumes of personal reminiscence, including Places and Persons (1925), More Memories (1933), and Off the Record (1944).

See his Occasional Addresses, 1893–1916 (1918, repr. 1969), Speeches (1927); biographies of him by J. A. Spender and C. Asquith (2 vol., 1932), R. Jenkins (1964, repr. 1986), and N. Levine (1991).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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