Friday, December 2, 2011

Asquith, by Roy Jenkins

Living in a democracy--and it is a living experience that must be our theme—becomes a different thing in each generation…. Experiencing twenty first century democracy is radically different from what our ancestors cherished in 1901.”  -- Kenneth Minogue

I first came across Herbert Asquith in Roy Jenkins biography of Winston Churchill.  Winston, you will recall, started out in the Liberal Party which was led at that time by Asquith.  In that book, Asquith’s bemused comments and deft handling of the main subject are worthy of a best supporting character nomination.

Herbert Asquith served a little over eight years as Prime Minister (1908 to 1916) which was until Margaret Thatcher the longest consecutive term in British history.  Before and after that period he was the leader of the Liberal Party.  He was the Prime Minister when the country went into WWI, oversaw some of the first legislation in the direction of what we now consider entitlements, pushed through Irish Home Rule legislation resulting in a sticky constitutional confrontation with the House of Lords, and was at the center of a split which for all intents and purposes ended the Liberal Party, and yet I think the appeal of this book lies elsewhere.  What makes this biography enjoyable is that it takes you to a political climate which is almost completely gone.

Jenkins maintains that Asquith was the very last of his type which can perhaps be best boiled down to the aristocratic politician.  And it is that character which is such a pleasure to observe.  For example, on first being offered a government office Asquith the Liberal turns to Balfour the Conservative for advice on whether to accept it.  When the prior government resigns and Asquith has to meet with the King, who happens to be in Paris at the time, he travels by train without anyone else joining him.

Throughout Asquith we get a look at politics on a reduced scale.  Participants have plenty of time for other pursuits (Asquith was fond of bridge, golf, reading, and conversing with the ladies), campaigning for office is short, the amount of legislation put forward seems minimal, and even when events lead to large constitutional issues there remains a level of grace in the proceedings.

As in his other biographies, Roy Jenkins is great.  In particular, he gets to the point.  In under ten pages Asquith is at Oxford—his rise to prominence started from a distinguished academic career rather than an aristocratic family—and in twenty he’s a barrister.  As a former labor political figure himself Jenkins has a reliable eye for political moves, and as an Englishman he is good with words.  After sharing Margot Asquith’s entry on their travels, Jenkins has in the footnotes “St. Enoch was an unusual station from which to go to Euston; its trains when Margot was not in charge went to St. Pancras.”  The only criticism I would make is that he doesn’t explore in any real depth the validity of Lloyd George’s complaint on his handling of WWI, the event that casts him out of power.

As the book nears a conclusion, Asquith loses his last election and is finally out of the commons for good.  After the returns are revealed he returns home by train—he ran in Scotland but didn’t live there-- with a daughter who had become a very effective supporter:

I looked across at father in an agony of solicitude--for I knew the good-byes had moved him—then meeting his calm gaze I realized suddenly that he had already made his peace with events. Groping wildly for a life-line that might draw me into smooth waters by his side, I asked in as steady a voice as possible: ‘I suppose you haven’t by any chance got an old P.G. Wodehouse in your bag that you could lend me?’  A smile of instant response, mingled I thought with relief, lit up his face as he replied triumphantly: ‘Being a provident man I have got in my bag, not one, but four brand new ones!’  My wounds were healed—for I knew that he was invulnerable.”

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