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Biography

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Overview (4)

Born in Morley, Yorkshire, England, UK
Died in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, England  (stroke)
Birth NameHerbert Henry Asquith
Nicknames Herbert
Henry

Mini Bio (1)

H.H. Asquith, considered the founder of the British welfare state, was the prime minister of the United Kingdom who led the British Empire into the monumental debacle that was World War I.

The son of a cloth merchant, Henry Herbert Asquith was born in Morley, Yorkshire, and attended Balliol College, Oxford. After graduation he became a barrister and was called to the bar in 1876. He married Helen Kelsall Melland, the daughter of a Manchester physician, in 1877. By the early 1880s he had become financially well-off from his law practice, enough so to consider politics (members of Parliament were not paid a real salary until the 1970s). He was first elected to Parliament in 1886, standing as the Liberal candidate for East Fife.

His first wife gave him four sons and one daughter before dying from typhoid in 1891. He remarried in 1894, taking Margot Tennant, the daughter of Sir Charles Tennant, 1st Baronet, as his second wife. She bore several children, but only a son and daughter survived into adulthood. Asquith was called Herbert by his family, but his second wife called him Henry, and those who called him by his Christian name made the switch. However, in public he was addressed only as H.H. Asquith.

In 1892 he became Home Secretary during William Gladstone's last government (as Home Secretary Asquith signed the arrest order for Oscar Wilde, who was eventually incarcerated for lewd behavior). Three years after the Liberals went out of power in 1895, he was offered the party leadership but turned it down. After the Liberals' landslide victory in the 1906 general election, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer under Campbell Bannerman, a post in which he proved a stalwart proponent of free trade. Bannerman resigned the premiership due to illness in April 1908 and Asquith succeeded him, becoming the first member of the professional middle class to serve as Prime Minister.

His first government launched a guns-and-butter legislative program, building up the British Navy in an arms race with Germany while introducing social welfare programs. Asquith can be considered the father of the British welfare state, as his government introduced government pensions in 1908. The program was fiercely resisted by the Tories, which provoked a constitutional crisis in 1909 when the Conservative majority in the House of Lords rejected the government's "People's Budget." Traditionally finance was the province of the House of Commons, and the resulting constitutional crisis forced a general election in January 1910. Though the Liberals were returned to government with a majority, their numbers in the Commons were much reduced, and the crisis continued.

King Edward VII consented to filling the House of Lords with freshly-minted Liberal peers, who would override the Lords' veto, if Asquith agreed to hold another general election, after which he would act if the impasse continued. However, Edward VII died in May 1910, before the second general election. Asquith had to use his considerable powers of persuasion to get Edward's successor, King George V, to agree to the plan. The new king was hesitant, as packing the Lords would undermine the power of the hereditary aristocracy. Before the December 1910 general election (the last held for eight years), Asquith's persuasion paid off, and George V agreed to pack the House of Lords. The Liberals won their second election of 1910, though the balance of power in the government rested with peers from Ireland, who demanded a Home Rule bill as the price of support for Asquith's third government.

The Parliament Act of 1911 circumscribed the legislative power of the House of Lords, as the upper chamber of Parliament was limited to delaying, but not defeating outright, any bill passed by the House of Commons. Asquith paid off the Irish block with the Third Irish Home Rule Bill, which achieved Royal Assent in late 1914, though implementation of the law was suspended for the duration of World War I, which the UK had become involved in due to a spider web of treaties. The Irish question remained a tinderbox, and while civil war in Ireland over the fate of Ulster was averted in 1914 by the outbreak of the war in Europe, simmering tensions would lead to the Easter Rebellion of 1916, which would prove to be one of the factors that contributed to Asquith's loss of power. The other was the war.

In May 1915 the Cabinet split over a scandal involving the dearth of munitions available at the front. Asquith ultimately was held responsible for the shortcomings in British war production. The "Shell Crisis" underscored the need for the British economy to be put on a wartime footing. Responding to the discord, Asquith formed a new government, creating a national coalition that included members of the Opposition (though an election should have been held in 1915, elections were suspended for the duration of the war). David Lloyd George, the most dynamic of the Liberal ministers from the old cabinet, was made minister of munitions.

The new coalition government did nothing to bolster Asquith's premiership. Both Liberals and Tories criticized his performance over the conduct of the war and assigned him some of the blame for the failed offensives at the Somme (in which Asquith's eldest son Raymond died) and Gallipoli (which led to the resignation of Winston Churchill, then a Liberal MP, as First Sea Lord). He was also blamed for his handling of the armed Easter Rebellion of Irish Catholics in Dublin in April 1916 and the resulting civil war. The Machiavellian Lloyd George undermined Asquith by splitting the Liberal Party into pro- and anti-Asquith factions. The result was that Asquith resigned as prime minister on December 5, 1916, and was succeeded by Lloyd George.

After resigning, Asquith continued in his post as Liberal Party leader, even after losing his seat in the 1918 elections. He returned to the House of Commons in a 1920 by-election and played a key role in helping the Labour Party form a minority in 1924, which gave Ramsay MacDonald his first--though short-lived--premiership.

The minority Labour government fell in 1924, and in the subsequent election won by the Tories, Asquith lost his seat in the Commons. He was raised to the hereditary peerage as Viscount Asquith, of Morley in the West Riding of the County of York, and Earl of Oxford and Asquith in 1925. Asquith moved over to the House of Lords and finally resigned the Liberal Party leadership in 1926. He died in 1928.

Violet Bonham Carter (maiden name Violet Asquith), Asquith's only daughter by his first wife, was a successful writer who was made a Life Peeress in her own right (she is the grandmother of Oscar-nominated actress Helena Bonham Carter). His son Cyril became a Law Lord, and two other sons married well, one being the poet Herbert Asquith. His two children by Margot were Elizabeth (later Princess Antoine Bibesco), a writer, and Anthony Asquith, a well-regarded film director.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood (qv's & corrections by A. Nonymous)

Spouse (2)

Emma Alice Margaret (Margot) Tennant (10 May 1894 - 15 February 1928) ( his death) ( 2 children)
Helen Kelsall Melland (23 August 1877 - 11 September 1891) ( her death) ( 5 children)

Trivia (3)

British Prime Minister from 1908 until 1916.
Great-grandfather of Helena Bonham Carter.
Father of Anthony Asquith.

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