The Chancellors (1): Herbert Asquith

asquithThe first part of a series: the chancellors from Asquith to Clarke.

The first is Hebert Asquith.

Herbert Asquith, 1905-08

Liberal (under Campbell-Bannerman)

Asquith was from a Victorian middle class background. It was also one that was marked by tragedy: two of his sisters died early, and his brother suffered a sports injury which stunted his growth; his father died when he was eight, from an intestine twisted while playing cricket; his mother was an invalid, with a heart condition and frequent bronchitis. His family were Congregationalists. He attended the City of London school, and Balliol, Oxford: he won a first and two brilliant scholarships, and remained a passionate Oxford man all his life. He became a successful barrister, before entering politics and making a splash. As such, he was home secretary in Gladstone’s last government. By the time of his second marriage, to the formidable Margot, the witnesses were Gladstone, Rosebery and Balfour: past, current and future prime ministers. By the time the Liberals returned to power in 1905, Asquith was very much Campbell-Bannerman’s number two and heir apparent. Thus, the Treasury made sense.

At the Treasury, Asquith paved the way for Lloyd George’s reforms, and his own way to number ten. As such, he held the office at a time when it was to be transformed in importance: Asquith began that process. He initiated one major reform, the Old Age Pension Act, 1908. In particular, the pension was paid for out of general taxation, setting an important precedent for welfare reform for the rest of the century. The Asquiths never moved into number 11, it being too small for his family; he also bought a house adjacent to Muirfield, where he played golf with the Tory leader Balfour, who also had a house nearby. He continued to find time for long dinners and games of cards, for conversations with women, and drink (his drinking was beginning to be talked about). After suffering two heart attacks, Campbell-Bannerman finally resigned in April 1908. Asquith was the certain successor (travelling incognito to kiss hands with Edward VIII in Biarritz).

Asquith was one of ten chancellors since 1900 to have gone on to be prime minister (one of twelve to go on to be party leader), and one of six to go direct from number 11 to number ten (seven directly to the party leadership). He is also one of only three men to have been chancellor, home secretary and prime minister (one of ten to have been at both the Treasury and Home Office). His time at the Treasury was inevitably overshadowed by his eight years at number ten, but he remains one of the more important chancellors, for pensions if nothing else.

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