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H. H. Asquith

08/04/190805/12/1916

H. H. Asquith

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith (12 September 1852 – 15 February 1928), generally known as H. H. Asquith, was a British statesman and Liberal politician who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1908 to 1916. He was the last prime minister to lead a majority Liberal government, and he played a central role in the design and passage of major liberal legislation and a reduction of the power of the House of Lords. In August 1914, Asquith took Great Britain and the British Empire into the First World War. In 1915, his government was vigorously attacked for a shortage of munitions and the failure of the Gallipoli Campaign. He formed a coalition government with other parties, but failed to satisfy critics. As a result, he was forced to resign in December 1916, and he never regained power.

After attending Balliol College, Oxford, he became a successful barrister. In 1886 he was the Liberal candidate for East Fife, a seat he held for over thirty years. In 1892 he was appointed as Home Secretary in Gladstone's fourth ministry, remaining in the post until the Liberals lost the 1895 election. In the decade of opposition that followed Asquith became a major figure in the party, and when the Liberals regained power under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1906 Asquith was named Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1908 Asquith succeeded him as prime minister. The Liberals were determined to advance their reform agenda. An impediment to this was the House of Lords, which rejected the People's Budget of 1909. Meanwhile the South Africa Act 1909 passed. Asquith called an election for January 1910, and the Liberals won, though were reduced to a minority government. After another general election in December 1910 he gained passage of the Parliament Act 1911, allowing a bill three times passed by the Commons in consecutive sessions to be enacted regardless of the Lords. Asquith was less successful in dealing with Irish Home Rule. Repeated crises led to gun running and violence, verging on civil war.

When Britain declared war on Germany in response to the German invasion of Belgium, high profile domestic conflicts were suspended regarding Ireland and women's suffrage. Asquith was more of a committee chair than a dynamic leader. He oversaw national mobilisation; the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front, the creation of a mass army, and the development of an industrial strategy designed to support the country's war aims. The war became bogged down and the demand rose for better leadership. He was forced to form a coalition with the Conservatives and Labour early in 1915. He was weakened by his own indecision over strategy, conscription, and financing. Lloyd George replaced him as prime minister in December 1916. They became bitter enemies and fought for control of the fast-declining Liberal Party. His role in creating the modern British welfare state (1906–1911) has been celebrated, but his weaknesses as a war leader and as a party leader after 1914 have been highlighted by historians.


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Published in 10/09/2020

Updated in 19/02/2021

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