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Playing It Cool

Asquith

by Roy Jenkins
Chilmark, 572 pp., $7.95

The distinctive position which Roy Jenkins holds in the Labor Party makes him singularly suitable to be the biographer of Asquith. The son of an M.P. who began life as a miner, Jenkins made his name as a writer on Edwardian politics by his account of the curbing of the House of Lords by the Liberals and by his biography of Dilke. He also made it by fighting a brilliant battle in Parliament to reform the law on obscenity in literature against R. A. Butler and the Home Office and finally got his private member’s Bill passed—a change which enabled Lady Chatterley’s Lover at last to be sold publicly. When the Labor Government was formed Harold Wilson put him in the hot seat of the Ministry of Aviation where he had to liquidate part of the British aircraft industry, which was producing aircraft that had apparently every merit except that no other country would buy them and the cost of producing them was crippling the country’s economy. The suppleness and firmness with which he has handled the problem have made him talked of as one of the outstanding successes in Wilson’s team, marked out for promotion. He is not everyone’s image of a Labor politician. Liberal measures such as the reform of the obscenity laws, no less than the reform of those relating to homosexuality, are unfortunately thought by some of the Party’s stalwarts to be time-wasting and vote-losing measures, and those who introduce them to be dilettantes. Roy Jenkins enjoys refuting this title and at the same time giving it credence. His political acumen and mastery in debate are anything but dilettante and characteristic of the skilled professional; but debonair, dégagé, a Gaitskellite who is the reverse of the committed idealogue, a sociable figure with friends on both sides of the House, he is a pragmatist who despises mudslinging or bursts of temper, methods of political fighting which he regards as beneath him. He plays it cool, and as a Balliol man himself is not unlikely one of the young politicians whom, over fifty years ago, Asquith gathered round him.

Asquith was indeed their epitome. The son of a small woolen manufacturer, he had not gone to a public school but was one of the many triumphant successes of Jowett’s Balliol. A Balliol fellowship enabled him to get started at the Bar, thence into politics as a Liberal. His intellectual power as a debater and the stability which he showed as a politician, as much as anything else, induced Gladstone to make him Home Secretary in his last fatal administration. Stability was not a quality which either Rosebery or Harcourt exhibited, who were the contenders for the leadership of the party when Gladstone retired, and during the unhappy years in the wilderness from 1895-1905, Asquith emerged as the man most likely to unite and lead the Liberal Party. Although he had to serve under Campbell-Bannerman for two years when the Liberals at last swept into power, there was never any doubt that he would succeed that aging and sick man as Premier. His domestic life matched his rise to power. His first wife gave him children who were to be noted for their intellectual brilliance, but had she lived she would have been ill-fitted to the world into which Asquith was passing. As it was, on her death he set his cap for the fabulous young Margot Tennant, then at the height of her fame as an audacious and dashing wit lionized and lionizing in London society. After two years of doubt she married him and gave his political career a worldly glitter that hitherto it had lacked. Intellectually able though he was, it was worldly sagacity that was at the base of Asquith’s political achievement. Klaus Dockhorn once put forward the theory that it was T. H. Green’s teaching at Balliol which produced the new Liberalism and made Asquith capable of accepting the Welfare State measures that Lloyd George and Churchill introduced. But Asquith himself claimed that although he admired Green’s work as an ardent Liberal in Oxford municipal politics he was unaffected by Green’s metaphysics. He got his First in Greats by mastering the techniques of philosophy: but he was always totally uninterested in theories.

Gladstonian Liberalism was part of a coherent political philosophy: Asquith’s variant was practically devoid of ideological content. Jenkins does not even bother to define it, nor does he analyze the social and economic movements of the times and judge how far Asquith understood them. This is a biography almost devoid of general ideas. Even Asquith’s roles as father, husband, lover, and friend are subordinated to one theme—the politician in his everyday dealings in politics. Jenkins has given us better than any recent British political biographer the feel of the politician’s life; what was said in Cabinet, the resultant speeches in the House, the pourparlers, the putting out of feelers, the audiences with the King, the discussions that led to redrafting clauses in the Bill, the exigencies of patronage, the comings and going of dozens of personages as they flit in and out of Downing Street. It is not the politics of ideology, nor is it the politics which historians abstract and mould into an analytical narrative. It is the politics of judgment and decision-taking, mediated through the personalities of the statesman’s colleagues. It is the record of the never ending succession of problems which relentlessly move across the desk of a Prime Minister, from the indiscretions and quarrels of colleagues to the vicissitudes of international affairs. The very care with which Jenkins weighs his sources against each other to establish from different men’s diaries and letters and recollections who said what to whom and why, conveys even more vividly this conception of politics as a stream of disparate events occurring day in day out over the years. Intelligence, fastidiousness, the meticulous balancing of factors, principles and personalities in coming to judgment are the hallmarks of Jenkins’s narrative and give it a special authenticity. The judgments which he makes are upon Asquith’s handling of individual issues and affairs, that is to say of the stuff of which a politician’s papers are made—indeed of the way in which a politician regards his life.

Certainly this was how Asquith saw life; and perhaps this book is a reminder that statesmen only rarely are guided by a sense of policy. Asquith had principles; humane, tolerant, common-sense principles; a sense of honor and a sense that sweeping social legislation was inevitable. But one looks in vain for any sense of carrying through a comprehensive policy. He was content to preside over his young Turks such as Lloyd George, Churchill, and Masterman; and although he had complete mastery over his Cabinet, was usually admirable in the House, and enjoyed carrying out social engagements, his very ability in dealing wisely and patiently with day-to-day matters deterred him from stopping to consider where he and his administration were going in Europe and in Ireland. He was curiously unaware of the lengths to which Ulstermen and the Conservatives would go before 1914 in opposing Home Rule; and in 1916 he was weaker still and became yet another English statesman whose record is marked by failure with Ireland. Jenkins makes out the best case that can scrupulously be made for Asquith’s role in foreign affairs before 1914 and for his leadership in the war, but the way in which this biography is constructed is a clue to the truth. Like Asquith, the reader suddenly finds himself plunged into the Great War with hardly any preliminaries; and once the war was on, the biography confirms the common view that Asquith allowed events to dictate to him and rarely attempted to impose his will upon them. His virtues as a peacetime Prime Minister—his skill in running genuine Cabinet government where he was merely the first minister among his peers—were disastrous when faced with running total war. He clung to office although for many months there were all the signs that his colleagues had lost faith in his ability to run the war. During this time they all, including Lloyd George, remained astonishingly loyal, but the palace revolution which expelled him was inevitable. Once out he held on to the leadership of the Liberal Party on the undoubtedly valid ground that Liberal M. P.’s still regarded him as their leader. But his decision to do so smashed his party.

Why then did he evoke such loyalty? Why did so many of the pre-1914 intelligentsia and left-of-center middle-class opinion stick to him in the years of his defeat? Why did he become a symbol for them and why did so few of them depart to the Labor Party or throw in their lot with Lloyd George? At first sight it is odd. Asquith was not an intellectual. He disliked talking shop, still more theorizing about politics: he was well-read but there is little evidence that his reading affected his judgment or character. What he liked was to be able to quote better than the next man. Why did his regime have such réclame among the professional classes?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Asquith brought something that enhanced the quality of British political life. He symbolized decency and intellect in politics for the younger generation at a time when decency and intellect were threatened. In the past hundred years Britain has had only three great reforming governments: Gladstone’s in 1869, the Liberal administrations from 1905-14, and Attlee’s government in 1945. In 1869 and 1945 the country was ready for radical measures and Conservatism disarrayed. But Asquith encountered unexampled bitterness. The class struggle was raging between every class in society and threatened to tear it apart. Whatever the issue—imperialism, syndicalist trade unionism, votes for women, Ireland, abolition of the House of Lords’ veto, education, welfare legislation—the fury on both sides was intense and was fanned by the new popular press. When the Prime Minister was howled down in the House, the political restraints of the Victorian age seemed to have vanished. Asquith stood above the din.

But at the same time he did not fall into the category of the dull and respectable. Personality in British politics is all too often polarized. On the one side there are the rumbustious, gay, clever, agile, voluble, not over-scrupulous buccaneers in politics who live it up: Lord Randolph Churchill, Lloyd George, F. E. Smith, Winston Churchill, Beaverbrook, Brendan Bracken, and Boothby; on the other side the sober, cautious, respectable, austere, gray figures who by their very unadventurousness and seeming honesty and integrity inspire confidence: Stafford North-cote, Salisbury, Baldwin, Simon, Halifax, Snowden, and Clynes. In the period between the two wars Britain rejected the former and preferred the latter, and during those years the middle-class intelligentsia turned its back on politics and sighed for the days of Asquith.

For Asquith fulfilled a dream dear to the hearts of the middle-class intelligentsia—the dream that politics can at once be a decent calling, an intelligent pursuit, and at the same time a world where beauty, wit, brains, integrity, and principle all have a part to play. It is, of course, a dream. American intellectuals dreamt it when Kennedy was in the White House. Part of the difficulty of the Labor Party in the Twenties and Thirties sprang from the fact that it could not attract the support of those such as Keynes who had known the days of Asquith. Margot Asquith provided the glamor, the luncheon parties for the poets and wits, and for the clever and ambitious young who were knocking at the door and were unattracted by the chauvinism and hostility to welfare legislation of pre-1914 Toryism, and who were also unwilling to spend their lifetime in the political wilderness of austere Fabianism or populist trade unionism. Asquith himself, wearing, as Roy Jenkins puts it, a “look of dignified, benevolent slovenliness,” represented the attitude that a professional man and a scholar would bring to politics—of Budgets framed on Marshall’s and Pigou’s economics, and of foreign policy inspired by a distaste for absolutist or militarist regimes whether in Russia or in Germany. He not only supported policies which pleased the intelligent professional classes, he symbolized the rejection of hatred and violence in politics whether emanating from Lord Hugh Cecil, Lloyd George, or Tom Mann. Nor was he the kind of Liberal like Runciman or Simon who canonized the businessman’s ethic. “Disgusting,” he said when told of the enormous profits that were being made by shippers of food and munitions to Britain at the beginning of the war. A minister protested that there was nothing disgraceful in these normal operations of the market. “I did not say disgraceful,” replied Asquith, “I said disgusting.” The very fact that Asquith was brought down by the machinations of the odious North-cliffe and the smooth intrigue of Max Aitken rallied support behind him.

Perhaps he also endeared himself by not taking politics too seriously. He was attracted to Margot not only by her vitality but by her frivolity. He preferred the society of his family circle and his children’s gay friends; he enjoyed writing letters expressing his sense of the comicality of public affairs and personalities to his confidante. The confidante was Venetia Stanley, a young girl of talent and beauty with whom he became obsessed. He wrote to her every day during the first year of the war and usually contrived to take her for a drive whatever the state of politics, unguardedly revealing Cabinet secrets and war operations; and he was broken-hearted when after five years of voluminous correspondence she married his young friend and Cabinet Minister Edwin Montagu. He had to have relaxations: books, the evening rubber of bridge, and gossip. His relaxed rule, his habit of seeing other men’s energy and drive as slightly bizarre and unprofitable frenzy, was inappropriate in war and fatal in the post-war struggle for the future of the Liberal Party. He lived to see the ascendancy of another Prime Minister who was even more relaxed than he, who too liked browsing over a book (preferably the novels of Mary Webb), who would quote noble sounding passages about the beauty of rural England, and who stood for decency in politics and against Lloyd George’s shamelessness in the conduct of public affairs. But Baldwin was not to the taste of the Liberal intelligentsia. Since Asquith’s days many of them still move in limbo. Whereas the professoriate on the American campus are overwhelmingly Democrats, the universities in Britain are full of men and women who cannot find the style of politics which they like in either the alliance of the upper-class families and business men who dominate the Tory Party or in the dogmas of the Labor Party; and their detachment is reflected throughout the professional classes. They still look for a politician who will appear to embody those shadowy though distinct intellectual and moral qualities which they especially value. They prefer people who play it cool such as Sir Edward Boyle—or Roy Jenkins.

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