Asquith stays on as PM, December 1916

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David Tenner

Oct 23, 2022, 7:51:32 PM10/23/22
"The exact nature of the ousting is surrounded in mystery and historians
continue to dispute the detailed course of events in the immediate days
prior to Asquith's forced resignation."

Chris Cook, in *A Short History of the Liberal Party: The Road Back to
Power* (pp. 68-69) writes:

"The destruction of the last Liberal Government, leading as it did to the
fatal split in the party, rapidly produced a wealth of historical
mythology, most notably in the conspiracy theory which lay most of the
blame at Lloyd George's hands. Recent historians have changed the
parameters of the debate. A. J. P. Taylor has argued that, rather than
being manoeuvred out of office, Asquith deliberately resigned office as a
manoeuvre to rout his critics. A more recent view has been put forward by
Hazelhurst [C. Hazelhurst, "The Conspiracy Myth," in Martin Gilbert (ed.)
*Lloyd George* (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1968)], who has argued that,
essentially, the destruction of the last Liberal Government and the fall
of Asquith was the outcome, not of the machinations of Lloyd George, but
of a Tory Party crisis. In their desire to prosecute the war more
efficiently, the aims of the Conservatives coincided with those of Lloyd
George. This does not mean that Lloyd George necessarily went over to the
Tories, nor indeed that he intrigued with them to *oust* Asquith, but that
Lloyd George, in company with Bonar Law and Sir Edward Carson, worked
together to persuade Asquith to change the political direction of the war.
As Dr. Hazelhurst rightly argues, neither of the two prime movers, Bonar
Law or Lloyd George, had any desire to remove Asquith from the
Premiership. Indeed, the replacement of Asquith was not considered as a
practical proposition by those later accused of conspiracy.

"Why, then, did the crisis of December 1916 end with the resignation of
Asquith and Lloyd George's assumption of the Premiership? It is now clear
that this was the result of something akin to a nervous breakdown on
Asquith's part after the compromise agreement of 3 December. By this
compromise, it was agreed that Lloyd George should head a small three- or
four-man War Commission under the supreme, though not immediate control of
Asquith, to whom all disputed decisions would be referred. This compromise
in fact marked a very wide area of agreement. Henceforth, Lloyd George
would have borne daily responsibility for the conduct of the war, without
the supreme authority to force through decisions.

"There was no need, following this agreement, for anything that called for
Asquith to resign. However, it was Asquith himself who, in a brief moment
of mental and emotional exhaustion, lost the will to go on ruling. A
combination of a deterioration in Asquith's relations with Lloyd George,
at a moment of great nervous strain, propelled the Premier into a
temporary capitulation. By the time Asquith had recovered his balance, it
was too late."

Did the December 3 agreement in fact offer a way for Asquith to stay in
office, and perhaps to avoid a split in the Liberal Party? Trevor Wilson
in *The Downfall of the Liberal Party 1914-1935* has argued to the
contrary, rejecting both the "failure of nerve" theory and Lord
Beaverbrook's version (strongly supported by A. J. P. Taylor) of Asquith's
resignation as a deliberate political maneuver:

(1) With respect to the Beaverbrook/Taylor theory: Taylor cited as
"decisive evidence" the interview between Robert Donald, editor of the
*Daily Chronicle* (a Liberal paper) and Asquith in which the latter
(according to Donald) expressed a belief that Lloyd George would fail:
"then he would have to come in on *my* terms." Wilson argues (pp. 102-3):

"The interview...does not provide 'decisive evidence' for the Beaverbrook
view. In the passage quoted, Asquith and Donald were discussing, not
whether Lloyd George would be able to form a government, but whether the
government he formed would be able to last long. They were doing so, not
while Asquith was contemplating resignation, but on the day *after* he
resigned. And at no stage was Asquith speaking about his *motives for
resigning.* Asquith may have said that if, as he seemed to anticipate,
Lloyd George failed to form a 'stable' government and he was recalled,
'then Mr. Lloyd George would have to come in on *my* terms.' But this is
not the same thing as saying that he resigned because he considered Lloyd
George incapable of forming any kind of government. As a matter of fact,
it is not a comment on his reasons for resigning at all. And certainly the
interview provides no proof, *before the event,* of what was in Asquith's
mind when he decided to relinquish office. It is not unusual for Prime
Ministers who have been driven from power to believe that their successors
must fail and that they themselves will soon be recalled--in the spirit,
one might say, of *apres moi le deluge, et, apres le deluge, moi.* [Some
very recent events might be cited here...-DT] The interview with Donald
seems no more than an example of a defeated man whistling to keep his
courage up, and there is support for this in Donald's account of the
interview. It begins: 'I called on Mr. Asquith at 10, Downing Street, at 4
o'clock. He was sitting at the large table in the Cabinet room, his back
to the fire. He looked a very lonely figure and a tired man.' (Taylor,
*Robert Donald*, pp. 118-23). This is hardly a portrait of an individual
who believed that he was engaged in publicly humiliating his rivals
[Beaverbrook had written that Asquith thought that by resigning he had put
his opponents 'to the humiliation of being unable to form a Government'] ,
and that 'within the week' he would be revealed as 'the only and
inevitable Prime Minister' [Beaverbrook's words] of Great Britain."

Wilson reiterates the conclusion he reached earlier in the book (p. 97)
that Asquith's "resignation was not a manoeuvre to strengthen his hold on
office, but a despairing act of recognition that the process of retreat
and surrender could go no further, and that the time had come to abandon a
position from which dignity and authority had already departed."

(2) But what about the argument that the December 3 compromise could have
worked and that Asquith's rejection of it on the following day was a
"failure of nerve" (perhaps motivated by a belief that Lloyd George had
inspired the attack on him in *The Times*)? Wilson (p. 93) rejects this,
arguing that "the true explanation may well be the obvious one, that he
had come to see Lloyd George's scheme as being not an alternative to his
expulsion from office but an expulsion in particularly humiliating
circumstances--'a protean compromise,' as Curzon called it in restating
the deliberations of the Conservative ministers, 'which, in our view,
could have no endurance.' It is possible to criticise Asquith for not
facing up to this from the outset. But it seems unjust to censure him for
eventually doing so."

In any event, Wilson continues, "What is certainly incorrect is to claim
that a final agreement had been reached between Asquith and Lloyd George
on 3 December, and that Asquith then 'went back' on it. When Asquith, on
the 4th, at last decided to stand and fight, it was in the knowledge that
even if he accepted the principles of Lloyd George's scheme, he would
still not have satisfied his colleague's apparently insatiable demands.
Clearly, as long as Asquith was to be excluded from the war cabinet, the
membership of this body was of the utmost importance to him. And we have
the testimony of Lloyd George as well as Asquith that at no stage did they
approach agreement on what the latter called 'the delicate and difficult
question of personnel.' Nor were they ever likely to. Indeed, failure was
more or less assured by Lloyd George's stipulation that 'the inclusion of
Sir Edward Carson' was an 'essential part' of his scheme."

Indeed, Wilson believes that Lloyd George's insistence on the inclusion of
Carson was designed specifically to prevent the negotiations from
succeeding: "Of all the men...whom Lloyd George might, without flippancy,
have nominated, Carson was the one most difficult for Asquith to accept.
Carson's contempt for the Prime Minister, and determination to drive him
from office, had been proclaimed throughout the land. It would be
humiliation enough for Asquith, while remaining nominal Prime Minister, to
be robbed of the direction of war policy. but for Carson to be among the
select group which appropriated control would be carrying the process of
humiliation beyond limits which could be considered tolerable."

In any event, whatever one's views of Asquith's motives for resigning--
whether he overestimated the difficulties Lloyd George would have in
forming a Government and thought that he himself would soon make a
comeback, or just concluded that Lloyd George's terms were too
humiliating--let's say that Asquith swallows his pride and agrees to stay
on as Prime Minister on Lloyd George's terms, even swallowing the
inclusion of the hated Carson on the War Commission. Wilson thinks this
would have reduced Asquith to a figurehead--that the only control the
Prime Minister and his Cabinet had over the War Commission was a veto that
they would not dare to use for fear of bringing on themselves the
collective resignation of the War Commission. Nevertheless, with the
Leader of the Liberal Party still being Prime Minister, even in a weakened
position, could the split in the Liberal Party have been avoided? At least
prior to December 1916 Liberals might have hoped that an improvement in
the war situation might rescue them from disaster. After December 1916 not
even success in battle could help them--indeed, every step toward Allied
victory helped to destroy the Liberal Party because it increased the
prestige of a basically non-Liberal Government (though one supported by a
section of the Liberal Party).

And there is also no doubt that whether or not Lloyd George had conspired
to bring about Asquith's downfall, a great many people *assumed* he had
done so, and this not only helped to keep the Liberal Party divided, but
also added to Lloyd George's reputation for unscrupulousness--which is one
reason why, when the Conservatives abandoned their Coalition with him a
few years later, it was difficult to find much sympathy for him or any
sense that *he* had been betrayed. As a popular rhyme put it:

Lloyd George, no doubt,
When his life ebbs out,
Will ride in a flaming chariot,
Seated in state
On a red-hot plate
'twixt Satan and Judas Iscariot;
Ananias that day
To the Devil will say,
"My claim for precedence fails,
So move me up higher,
Away from the fire,
And make way for that liar--from Wales!"

David Tenner


Oct 26, 2022, 6:58:34 PM10/26/22

Rich Rostrom

Nov 6, 2022, 12:06:09 PM11/6/22
On 10/23/22 6:51 PM, David Tenner wrote:
> Lloyd George, no doubt,
> When his life ebbs out,
> Will ride in a flaming chariot,
> Seated in state
> On a red-hot plate
> 'twixt Satan and Judas Iscariot;
> Ananias that day
> To the Devil will say,
> "My claim for precedence fails,
> So move me up higher,
> Away from the fire,
> And make way for that liar--from Wales!"

I know almost nothing about this area and cannot comment,
except: Wow!
Nous sommes dans une pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdés.
--- General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot at Sedan, 1870.

Nous sommes dans une pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdés.
--- General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot at Sedan, 1870.
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