British prime minister Herbert Asquith walked onto the stage of the Theatre Royal in Dublin in July 1912 to a rapturous reception from a specially invited audience who had come to hear him speak in favour of Home Rule.
“A remarkable scene ensued,” recorded the anti-Home Rule Irish Times the following day. “The entire audience rose to their feet and, waving hats, handkerchiefs and papers, cheered enthusiastically, with a growing rather than diminishing volume of sound. The prime minister, a quiet smile lighting up his features, stood facing the assembly for close on five minutes.”
Not until Tony Blair was welcomed at a State dinner in Dublin Castle in 1998, after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, did a British prime minister get such an enthusiastic reception from an Irish gathering.
Asquith, who served as prime minister from 1908 until 1916, was in the first rank of those who held that office. He presided with calm assurance over one of the most reforming governments in the history of the United Kingdom. Among his government’s many reforms were the introduction of social insurance and the old-age pension, increased taxes on the rich, the reduction in the power of the House of Lords, and Home Rule for Ireland.
One glaring blind spot in Asquith’s liberalism was his opposition to giving the vote to women. It provoked huge outrage and a suffragette attempted to assassinate him with a hatchet during his 1912 visit to Dublin.
A native of Morley in West Yorkshire, he was born in 1852 and was at the height of his powers when he made the trip to Dublin to counter the Conservative opposition’s near-treasonous support for Ulster resistance. A successful barrister before he entered politics, Asquith was married twice. He had five children by his first marriage; his wife died of typhoid fever in 1891. Three years later he married Margo Tennant, a famous society beauty and wit, and the couple had two children.
Asquith enjoyed the good life and was reputed to drink at least a bottle of claret with dinner most evenings. That prompted his political opponents to nickname him “Squiffy”. He also enjoyed the society of women and was on close personal terms with some of the best-known society figures of his day.
“His friends were numerous and attached, both men and women: and how ridiculous it would be to deny that he took peculiar pleasure in the society of the women he liked,” his cabinet colleague and friend Augustine Birrell, who served for a decade as chief secretary for Ireland, remarked in his memoirs.
In 1910 Asquith met Venetia Stanley, a beautiful young woman of 23 and a friend of his daughter Violet. He quickly began a correspondence with Venetia, although at that stage she was just one of several women with whom he exchanged letters. However, in 1912 Venetia went on holiday to Sicily with Asquith, Violet and the young Liberal junior minister, Edwin Samuel Montagu, a protege of the prime minister.
It appears that both men fell in love with Venetia during this trip. Asquith began to write to Venetia every day and sometimes two and three times a day. Those letters, many of them written during cabinet meetings, give an extraordinary insight into the workings of his government, with detailed descriptions of the political business of the day, including the fluctuating fortunes of the Home Rule Bill. They are now a treasure trove of information for historians of the period.
It is doubtful if the relationship was sexually consummated, but there is no doubt that the prime minister became emotionally dependant on Venetia, in whom he confided completely, sharing military secrets that were often unknown to the Cabinet or to naval and military commanders. He described political intrigues and wrote openly of his colleagues, including Lloyd George, Churchill and Kitchener. Venetia preserved all Asquith’s letters but never betrayed his confidence. He destroyed all her letters.
Venetia rejected a proposal of marriage from Montagu in 1913 but, in 1915, overwhelmed by Asquith’s attentions and incapable of dealing with them any longer, she accepted the younger man and the pair were married. Asquith was devastated and Venetia’s marriage proved to be an unhappy one.
The outbreak of war changed the dynamic in government and Asquith, the great reforming prime minister, did not prove the ideal war leader. Birrell summed it up thus: “When the hell-hounds of war began barking, he was easily out-yelped.”
A growing lack of confidence in him as a war leader prompted a cabinet split in May 1915, and Asquith was forced to form a coalition with the Tories. The criticism of his war leadership continued in the first half of 1916. He was blamed for taking too soft a line in Ireland before the 1916 Rising and for the high casualties in the Battle of the Somme in the summer of that year in which his eldest son Raymond was killed.
His war minister, Lloyd George, orchestrated a conspiracy against him and Asquith was forced from office in December, 1916. Lloyd George succeeded as prime minister but the Liberal party was split as the two men led different factions of the party into the 1918 post-war general election.
Asquith remained a significant political figure in the Commons in the early 1920s and played a major role in putting Ramsey MacDonald into office to lead the first-ever Labour government in January 1924.
Asquith went to the House of Lords in 1925 and died three years later. Birrell recalled travelling through the English countryside to Asquith’s funeral “in the company of two of his friends, both ladies, who loved him,” and smiling at the thought of how much his old leader would have enjoyed making that journey in such company.
A number of Asquith’s descendants achieved prominence in Britain in various walks of life. His best-known descendant today is his great-granddaughter, the actor Helena Bonham Carter.
Sealed with a prime minister's kiss
More than 560 letters numbering over 300,000 words, written by Asquith to Venetia Stanley between 1910 and 1915, have survived. The bulk of the correspondence dates from 1914 and 1915. The prime minister confided all his political secrets in the letters, many of which were written during or immediately after cabinet meetings.
An excerpt from August 27th, 1914, shortly after the outbreak of the first World War, gives a flavour of the correspondence and the continuing importance of the Irish issue, even after the outbreak of war:
“My darling, I have just now (at the end of Cabinet) got your dear letter wh. came by the 2nd post. As I wired you there is no news yet of names (of those killed in the first days of the war). . .
“There was practically nothing else of much interest at the Cabinet today: a lot of details. Birrell tells me that Redmond Dillon are not greatly impressed by the King’s letters: they think he might very well see Carson put pressure on him but are not inclined to expose their own icy fronts to the thawing influence of Court sunshine. Birrell himself thinks that my ‘ultimatum’ goes too far in the way of concessions to Carson, McKenna, to whom I spoke of it today, tho. strongly of the opinion that Redmond ought wd. be well advised to accept it, is sure that if he demurs protests he will carry the bulk of the party with him. The War has not softened them and they look upon Nationalist Ireland its cause claims as a second Belgium . . .
“A lot of whirligging we have seen – haven’t we darling? If only I can knock together the heads of those damned Irish politicians, I shld. feel that we cd. go full steam ahead. It this too long sweetest? I love you think of you treasure you all day every day.”