Last of the Romans?
By ROBERT RHODES JAMES OF all political attributes, that of stature is by far the most difficult to define and com- municate. The impression of Mr. Asquith that remains with me,' Duff Cooper has written, 'is of a man of great dignity, somewhat aloof and Olympian.'
Certainly it is the aura of size that survives. Asquith was built on the large scale. His in- tellect was muscular. He was naturally authori- tarian. He wrote and spoke sonorously, but with formidable lucidity. From his earliest years he had a gravity which never degenerated into pom- posity, although on occasion it was a near thing. His scholarship was massively competent, if somewhat narrow in outlook and often ponderous in expression. On most subjects outside politics he was conservative, and he could be very in- tolerant. His speeches were trenchant, powerful and inexorably reasoned, but he coined only one memorable phrase, and that rebounded badly on him. He did not have the relentless mental vigour of Gladstone, nor the glamour of Rose- bery, nor the fire and imagery of Lloyd George. But although he was never a really popular figure, even in the shades he had a considerable presence. He was a big man. But when he was ousted from the Premiership in 1916, after over eight years in the highest office and thirty years in public life, he was already sadly discredited and even, in some quarters, excoriated. The laurels had withered on his brow. A sigh of relief rather than a sob of regret greeted his downfall. His nickname `Squiffy' tells all of his exaggerated reputation as a lover of good drink. He had entirely lost his hold on the House of Commons and the nation. Lloyd George was always 'The Man Who Won the War,' Asquith always The Man Who Nearly Lost It.'
The inevitable official biographical monument, a joint production by J. A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, was a long, glum, admiring chronicle. Asquith was depicted in an heroic, indeed almost saintly, light. Political reviewers were caustic and even derisive. Churchill, in one of the sharpest of all his personal essays, drew a very different portrait. Lloyd George's War Memoirs, Churchill's World Crisis, Beaverbrook's Politicians and the War and Haldane's Auto- biography all combined to diminish Asquith's reputation. The counter-attacks of Asquith's apologists were shrill, but feeble. A new bio- graphy, now attempted by Mr. Roy Jenkins,* has long been overdue.
Asquith sprang from the north-country manu- facturing middle class. His grey and undis- tinguished background may partly explain his unattractive lifelong disgust—his own word—for the world of trade and business. His passport out of this world was academic prowess. Sub- sequently he seemed to go out of his way to em- phasise that Jowett and T. H. Green had had little practical influence on his Oxford successes. He was the cat that walked alone. Then, he went to the Bar. But his career was slow to progress, and he never stood in the front rank of his profession. He married a quiet and retiring girl, and lived a very modest existence in Hampstead. His entry into the House of Commons in 1886 owed more to luck and the assistance of a new friend, Haldane, than to his impact on the Liberals of East Fife. But it was the turning-point.
In the following six years he made barely a dozen speeches in the Commons, of which only one—the first—was particularly notable. But on Liberal platforms outside Westminster he quickly made his name. His merciless cross-examination of the hapless manager of The Times in the 'Pigott Commission' made him a national figure. When the Liberals returned to office in 1892, Asquith's entry into the Cabinet caused no sur- prise. Occasionally a man arrives who at once seems inevitably destined for high office. Impresarios would call it `star quality,' that in- definable something which the Commons quickly recognises. Asquith very definitely had it.
His tenure of the Home Office from 1892 to 1895 won him a great reputation. Again, at this remove of time, it is difficult to point to any single reason. Mr. Jenkins says that 'he was the one Minister who could be depended upon never to make a bad speech.' But this is an unsatis- factory and even questionable statement. The Gladstone-Rosebery Governments mounted big guns. Campbell-Bannerman, Fowler, Acland and Grey were rising stars; Haldane, although still on the back benches, was another coming man. Furthermore, Asquith offended radical opinion by his somewhat heavy-handed treatment both of the Featherstone Colliery riot and of the 'Celtic fringe' revolt—led by Lloyd George—over Welsh Disestablishment. Nevertheless, there had been something exceptionally impressive about his rugged competence. Dilke, who did not like him, described him as 'a bold, disagreeable, strong man, of great intellectual power.' A year later Rosebery, in his valedictory speech at *Asourrn. By Roy Jenkins. (Collins, 45s.)
Edinburgh, singled him out as the future leader of the party.
Asquith's first marriage, which ended with the death of his wife in 1891, was a curious episode. It was placidly happy, but perhaps something vital was missing. Asquith once wrote, reveal- ingly, that she had been 'a restricting rather than a stimulating influence.' Perhaps also she came to be associated with a period of his life which he wanted to forget. 'No one who has not been through it,' he wrote a year after her death, 'can know the chilly, paralysing, deadening depression of hope deferred and energy wasted and vitality tun to seed.'
His second marriage, in 1894, to the almost neurotically vivacious Margot Tennant, was so tempestuously different that perhaps he took his desire for stimulation too far. It is conspicuous that at each stage in his advance he deliberately cut himself off from the last. And perhaps this step, from the quiet and almost frugal Hampstead existence to the glamour and pace of 20 Caven- dish Square, was too big. Haldane later con- sidered that it had harmed Asquith's character in the long run, and he was not alone in this view. Mr. Jenkins is a sensitive and perceptive commentator on Asquith's first marriage, but is oddly vague and unrevealing about the second.
But at this stage of his career Asquith showed a clear sign of his political shrewdness. In 1896 he refused a personal invitation from Chamber- lain to serve on the committee of inquiry into the Jameson Raid. Mr. Jenkins, puzzled, sug- gests that Asquith thought that it would be too long and unrewarding; he goes on to say that Harcourb and Campbell-Bannerman served oft that farcical whitewashing operation `without ill consequence suffering any loss of standing in the Liberal Party.' This is surely a major error of
fact and judgment. Harcourt's leadership never really recovered from the part he played in the inquiry. Asquith had clearly discerned the perils of being a member of a body dominated by Chamberlain, and his instinct had been sure. It was, indeed, partly because his hands were so clean and Campbell-Bannerman's were not that he was so seriously considered for the leader- ship when Harcourt made his peevish departure in 1898. Asquith handled this delicate situation With consummate caution and coolness, not only gaining credit for his apparent self-abnegation, but also quietly confirming his high position.
For the next seven years, while the Liberals Split asunder over the future direction of the party, Asquith kept his cards very close indeed to his chest. He was a leading member of the Roseberyite Liberal League, but he took care not to sever his relations with the party hierarchy. It was a prolonged, careful and superbly executed exercise on a political tightrope. Tariff Reform gave him the chance, brilliantly seized, of gaining the applause of all wings of the party. By 1905 he was at the same time a member of the anti- Bannerman 'Relugas Compact' and yet close enough to the leader he was endeavouring to supplant to read through and approve his state- ments on Home Rule. When Campbell-Banner- man received the King's Commission, Asquith Moved swiftly from the Relugas Compact into high office. Only a really strong and confident man could have got away with it, and only an exceptionally astute and quick-witted man could have executed such a volte-face without _com- promising his reputation
Mr. Jenkins states that Asquith 'never trimmed for office.' But surely he did not reach this mag- nificent tactical position by accident? He was a man dedicated to the pursuit Of power. There is nothing remotely discreditable in this.
Asquith's peace-time Premiership, from 1908 to 1914, was a remarkable personal tour de force. He presided over a brilliant but eclectic Govern- ment. But he presided rather than led. In a deeply interesting self-analysis discovered by Mr. Jen- kins, Asquith wrote of himself in March 1915: Some people, sadly wanting in perspecttve, went so far as to call you 'chivalrous'; it would be nearer the truth to say that you had, or ' acquired, a rather specialised faculty of insight and manipulation in dealing with diversities of character and temperament.
Asquith was a master of political judo. He
• Waited upon events, and then shaped his actions accordingly. He could act decisively when he judged that the moment had arrived, but, ,Intig before 1914, there were indications that his powers of judgment were failing. Too Many important situations got out of control. 'Wait and see' was more than a phrase which became a sneer. Leo Amery, in a long-forgotten sPeech in 1916, said of Asquith that 'his instinct for putting off difficulties, for waiting upon his ePponents' false moves, for trusting to the im- provisation of the moment, has in his case leached an almost morbid degree of develop- inent.' It was a harsh judgment, but not a wholly unfair one. His ability to turn easily away from Politics to more congenial matters, which had been a source of strength; was in the long run a serious weakness. His intolerance for his oppo- nents became a fatally supercilious over-confi- dence. Perhaps Haldane's sharp implications that .ears of easy living and success had made him '"ft were wide of the mark, but one wonders.
Asquith's relationship with Venetia Stanley, Who was his daughter's exact contemporary, was very curious. Mr. Jenkins handles this episode With such obviously elaborate care that sus- picions are inevitably aroused. Mr. Jenkins also studiously avoids the strong prima facie evidence that Asquith was badly misled about the inter- national situation by the German Ambassador, Lichnowsky, and this is a very unfortunate omission.
Asquith's war leadership—or, rather, the almost total absence of it—vividly illuminated the de- ficiencies of his methods of political judo and the marked decline of his powers. Asquith cannot escape much of the blame for the shambles of the War Council's spasmodic, hap- hazard and amateurish proceedings. His personal refusal to circulate the Admiralty memorandum opposing the naval attack on the Dardanelles is not mentioned by Mr. Jenkins, but it was a critical, and highly significant, error of judgment.
The collapse of Asquith's house of cards in May 1915 at the first puff Was the beginning of the end. Here was a man fighting for his sur- vival with some of the old toughness, ruthlessness and expertise. But it was a fatally compromised survival. When, after eighteen months of painful anti-climax, Lloyd George and Law struck, Asquith went down almost soundlessly. There was to be no return. One wishes that there had been no attempt. But in all vicissitudes in that poignant political and personal twilight, he never lost the aura of size.
Mr. Jenkins's portrait is the polished work of a professional. The lights are delicate, the brush- work is immaculate, and there are many deft touches. Much valuable new material is skilfully handled. But Asquith was surely a tougher, stronger, more acute man—particularly in his early years—than Mr. Jenkins would have us be- lieve. The fascinating enigma of his complete decline is never really analysed, nor even under-
stood. The technical quality is such that this fundamental failure of comprehension is made all the more glaring. We required a Sutherland: but we have got an Annigoni.