Asquith, the Maurice debate and the historians – after 36 years

In 1985, I published an article on the political tactics of the former British Liberal prime minister, H.H. Asquith, in the Maurice debate of 9 May 1918

(Australian Journal of Politics and History, xxxi, 435-44). Following massive German attacks on the Western Front in March and April 1918 which caused the retreat of British forces, General Sir Frederick Maurice wrote to The Times (and other London newspapers) alleging that the prime minister, David Lloyd George, had misled the House of Commons about the fighting strength of the British Army in France. His letter appeared on 7 May 1918. It is given in full in Robert Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister… (London, 1955), 369-70, part of one of the best accounts of the debate, 368-75. (A version of the letter, as published by the Daily Chronicle, was quoted extensively by the North-Western Advocate (Tasmania) on 9 May, and may be consulted, without charge, through the National Library of Australia's Trove website: Australian and New Zealand newspapers were evidently patriotically reluctant to quote Maurice's charges in full.) In the House of Commons on 9 May, Asquith moved for a select committee to enquire into Maurice's charges. Lloyd George vigorously defended himself, and the motion was rejected. Asquith's speech may be consulted through https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1918/may/09/index.html. There is a good account of the atmosphere of the debate by an Australian news agency correspondent in Queensland Times, 13 May 1918 (again, via the Trove website). This observer's verdict of "an extraordinarily high standard of debate around a trivial subject" is of interest.

The Maurice debate has been regarded as a landmark in the division of the Liberal Party, and Asquith's handling of the issue has been generally condemned. Arguing that historians had misunderstood his tactics, my article concentrated on rebutting the specific criticisms directed against Asquith: the usual constraints of space in an academic journal ruled out wider exploration of the circumstances. I acknowledge here two earlier studies of the subject. In 1968, John Gooch had explored the issue as an example of the relations between the military and the politicians ("The Maurice Debate 1918", Journal of Contemporary History, iii, 211-28). In 1972, Nancy Maurice edited The Maurice Case…, a book based on the private papers of her father, which robustly defended his integrity. Both touched upon Asquith's handling of the matter in the House of Commons, without much enthusiasm for his performance. In addition, Edward David had placed the Maurice debate, fairly briefly, within the wider context of "The Liberal Party Divided 1916–1918" (Historical Journal, xiii (1970), 509-32). More specific discussions of Asquith's performance were referred to in the 1985 article, which is reproduced below, with some minor editorial changes.

Asquith, the Maurice Debate and the Historians

The Commons debate of 9 May 1918 on allegations by General Sir Frederick Maurice that Lloyd George had misled Parliament about the strength of the British army in France has assumed legendary proportions in the history of the Liberal party. Asquith's only major parliamentary attempt to question his supplanter's handling of the war, it came after seventeen months of quiescence and just six months before the Armistice and the "coupon" election. Asquith's motives and tactics have puzzled both biographers and historians. Far from assaulting the government outright, he moved for the creation of a select committee in a low-key speech usually seen as indicating a loss of political grip for it enabled Lloyd George to reply in devastating terms, converting the issue into one of both confidence and patriotism. Further indication of directionless tactics seemed provided by the failure of the opposition front bench to make any attempt to wind up the scrappy debate and pose some definite challenge.

It is, however, possible to argue that, properly reconstructed, Asquith's tactics were more subtle than his detractors have allowed. Perhaps this has not been attempted because the Maurice debate involved three other elements of more interest to historians. Two of these do not concern this paper. First, there is the nature of Maurice's allegations themselves. The issue of whether Lloyd George misled the House of Commons on 9 April 1918 involves a number of questions of a kind particularly appealing to historians. Had there been an elementary mistake in the calculation? Was there a "missing document", perhaps destroyed by Lloyd George's loyal staff? Was Lloyd George attempting to brazen his way out of a 'cover-up'? It suggests a first-rate conspiratorial mystery, and has attracted an appropriate amount of attention.[1] Secondly, the Maurice debate has been overshadowed by the ensuing general election in December 1918, in which the division lists were allegedly used to distinguish Liberal sheep from goats, and so became the death warrant for a declining party. More recent work has considerably modified this dramatic view, and it seems reasonable to conclude that the Maurice debate was the occasion rather than the cause of a breach Lloyd George would have been forced to make anyway to secure Unionist electoral support.[2]

Thirdly, historians have tended to dismiss Asquith as an effective force after 1916 and, in a dangerously circular process, his performance in the Maurice debate has been assimilated into an overall picture of a politician in decline. This unfavourable view owes much to Beaverbrook, whose unreliability as an historian has recently been demonstrated by Peter Fraser.[3] There is a sharp difference between the inferences drawn from remarkably similar descriptions of Asquith as a coming man and Asquith in his later years. "Asquith is simply a healthy machine, with a firm intelligent brain," commented A.C. Benson after dining in his company in 1904. "He ate, drank and smoked deep – five or six cigars – much champagne, port and a liqueur. His clean, pink, smooth face, with no hollows to the eyes and no touch of sweat, was that of a man in prime condition".[4]  Sixteen years had taken their toll but it is instructive to see how the same elements were summed up by Cowling in dismissing the Asquith of 1920: "Asquith at sixty-six was a dignified wreck. His wife was an embarrassment. He drank too much, had lost touch with the movement of events and the spirit of the time, had too much contempt for all his rivals".[5]  There are ample reasons for accepting the picture, yet its political significance may be discounted. A mildly vulgar spouse, not to mention a publicly combative daughter, was no necessary disadvantage with the new electorate, which is more than could be said for Lloyd George's domestic arrangements. In any case, politicians were not subjected to the minute and constant scrutiny of the television age. Private pathos could coexist with public stature: Asquith was at the height of his reputation in the years just before 1914, the time of his hopeless passion for Venetia Stanley.[6] In public he continued to be an effective performer. It is his witticism which still tags the 1918 election, and at Paisley in 1920 there was heady talk of Midlothian.[7] Even C.P. Scott, the source of so many dismissive remarks, was moved to comment in the 1923 election, "I don't remember ever to have seen Asquith in such fine form".[8] Nor should it be forgotten that the man allegedly stuck in a pre-war mould was admired by Maynard Keynes. Many yearned to return to the Edwardian certainties which Asquith undoubtedly continued to embody. Few men so quintessentially embodied the discredited prewar diplomacy more than Viscount Grey who could easily have been dismissed as a rural recluse determined to devote his fading eyesight to bird-watching. Yet for much of 1921-22 Grey was seen as an alternative prime minister, an intrigue which Asquith was to manipulate with the same deft sense of personal advantage which he had shown at Relugas.[9] It is not necessary to accept Cowling's view of 'high politics' to endorse his statement that between 1920 and 1924 "there was something resembling equality of opportunity for all the groups concerned".[10] Asquith's chances of returning to high office or effective power – both of which he arguably came close to achieving in 1923-24 – were surely greater than the artificial disaster of 1918 indicated. The Liberal party itself and men of the stamp of Peel, Palmerston, Russell and – most recently – Balfour had recovered from similar smashes. At the very least, Asquith's qualities should no more be denigrated than those of Bonar Law, broken by bereavement and dying of cancer, or Baldwin, so desperate at his own prospects that he seriously considered becoming governor-general of Australia, or MacDonald, an illegitimate pacifist who had never held office.

Historians have not found it easy to understand Asquith's tactics in the Maurice debate, and have tended to condemn them. Spender claimed that Asquith "had no illusions about the amount of support he was likely to get", despite alleged tenders of Unionist support, when he decided to raise the matter, but thought that Lloyd George's "dazzling Parliamentary performance" made it impossible for the motion to be withdrawn. Yet "from this point onwards the debate was seriously mishandled, and the division was taken before any reply had been made from the Liberal front bench, or any clear guidance been given Liberal members by their leaders". Spender could only conclude that it was "one of those occasions on which no one seemed to know exactly what had happened", a product of the highly charged wartime atmosphere: "A clever tactician who foresaw the use which might be made of this incident would no doubt have avoided a division by withdrawing the resolution . . . and thus thrown on the Government the onus of burking an enquiry which they themselves had declared to be necessary. Asquith was not a clever tactician".[11] Jenkins thought Asquith "uncertain and therefore unconvincing in tone", ending "without any attempt to weave his own points into a final crescendo of argument. . . . He had chosen a minor key and had played it without his usual sureness of touch".

His procedural approach opened the way for a devastating rebuttal from Lloyd George, but Asquith "watched passively the unsatisfactory unfolding of the debate", declining to respond even to a backbench appeal for guidance. "McKenna was there, Runciman was there, Samuel was there. But none of them rose to wind up". Thus the debate "petered out", with the Asquithians "badly out-manoeuvred". "Asquith and his followers went gloomily home. They could not have been pleased with themselves".[12]  Koss concluded that Asquith sought to embarrass Lloyd George without forcing him to an election. "A muddled strategy, it was foredoomed to failure".[13] Trevor Wilson similarly described Asquith's performance as "a half-hearted display, especially after he had let slip so many better opportunities for attacking the government" and surmised "that even now he could not bring himself to act as an opposition leader". Wilson could see that Asquith "hoped that an inquiry into Maurice's allegations would damage the government and shake Lloyd George's hold on Parliament and the country" but since he entertained such a hatred of the government "why did Asquith not wage war upon it?"[14] Blake felt that Asquith "made a serious tactical error in pressing his motion to a division and it is far from clear what his motives were. . . Possibly Asquith still hoped for Unionist support and a real Parliamentary victory. If that was his intention it would have been better to have challenged Lloyd George openly and not in this somewhat indirect manner." Failing any alternative explanation, Blake could only suggest that "the whole affair was the result of muddle, drift, confusion, and vacillation — factors too often ignored by tidy-minded historians".[15] Taylor did not even attempt a charitable explanation. Asquith was "pushed ... into demanding a select committee" by his supporters, the "Squiffites", and, when faced with "an unexpectedly good case" by Lloyd George, remained "supinely obstinate to the last. . . The attack had been bungled, as were most things which Asquith, or for that matter Maurice, had a hand in".[16] Barry McGill implicitly condemned Asquith's tactics by saying that "only a great parliamentary victory could have strengthened Asquith's position"."[17]

The case against Asquith thus rests on two charges. The first is that after restraining himself for a year and a half he chose to launch an attack on Lloyd George's handling of the war just six months before that war was to end, thereby handing Lloyd George the pretext for the division and decimation of the old Liberal party. The second is that he presented his case in a halfhearted and inept manner which enabled Lloyd George to win a debating triumph. Closely examined, neither of these charges is wholly convincing. On the question of tactics alone, it should be remembered that Asquith, whatever his limitations, was a great House of Commons man and had indeed dominated that very Parliament for the first half of its life. Similarly, if his performance was undramatic, that is not to say it was ineffective, as Lloyd George well knew. "A halting speech may often be the best to secure the aim in view", he had commented to Riddell in March 1918."[18] McKenna, Runciman, and Samuel were hardly the men to be embarrassed into silence. It would not have been impossible to have retorted that, if Lloyd George had such confidence in his case and in the judgement of the House as a whole, it was curious that he showed such reticence in submitting himself to the confidential scrutiny of one of its select committees. That none of them rose to reply surely suggests that Asquith had reasons for not wishing any further speeches.

Equally he must be acquitted of the charge that he had wilfully chosen to throw his troops on the barbed wire within months of the ending of the war. Asquith can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee that the war was going to end in November. In fact, if prospects are examined as they appeared from the standpoint of May 1918, Asquith's handling of the Maurice affair appears more comprehensible. On 21 March 1918, strengthened by reinforcements switched from the East, the Germans had launched a massive attack in Flanders. The Allied front came close to breaking: on 12 April Haig issued his "backs to the wall" order. Allowance must be made for Lloyd George's feud with the generals, but he was accurate enough in recalling "that we had no clear realization in May of the extent to which the tremendous battles of March and April had crippled the Germans". Rather, "we were under the impression that by withdrawing fresh divisions from Russia they were increasing their strength week by week, and that they would shortly be in a position to launch a greater attack than ever upon the Allied Front". Haig expected an early attack by eighty divisions; Sir Henry Wilson predicted an assault by 100 divisions, an even larger force than that which had wrought such havoc in March. As late as July, Wilson did not include an Allied advance among the operational possibilities for the remainder of the year, and was not even sure that an effective counter-blow could be struck in 1919.[19] It was an open secret that American forces were arriving "with what seemed to be disconcerting and perplexing slowness" and a danger that Italy and perhaps France might drop out of the fighting in the meantime.[20] Thus in May 1918 the Allies faced a desperate summer of defensive warfare, followed by the prospect in 1919 or after of a peace negotiated largely under American auspices, in which British interests might be at risk.[21] Thus in May 1918, the outlook for Lloyd George, either as war minister or as peacemaker, was not encouraging.

Lloyd George had always interested himself in foreign policy questions and he had deftly detached himself from his little England past in September 1914.[22] Nonetheless, he had no obvious qualifications in the realm of high diplomacy – the very areas where Asquith and Grey were politically strong. Asquith had been positioning himself well: an effective speech welcoming US entry into the war in April 1917, support for Wilson's attitude to Polish independence in September – a move which infuriated Lloyd George – and a mild endorsement of Lansdowne's call for a negotiated settlement in December 1917.[23] At a peace conference, a British prime minister would have to work towards a world settlement – of colonies, of collapsing empires in Europe and the Middle East, of a new international order – in what might become a junior partnership with the Americans. Although Asquith was the last major British figure never to visit the United States, he was a good deal more plausible a spokesman for the British empire in dealing with the gentlemanly, anglophile president than was the Welsh wizard who, gossip had it, had only just discovered the location of New Zealand.[24] Little confidence could have been inspired by Lloyd George's previous attempt to deal with Wilson, the "knock-out blow" interview two years previously, nor by his jaunty defence of his unauthorised public warning.[25] When Wilson arrived in London at the end of 1918, Asquith for once dropped his languid pose. "I confess he is one of the few people in the world I want to see and talk to", he wrote to one of his lady correspondents.[26]

Although Lloyd George on several occasions offered him subordinate though prestigious office, Asquith made only one request – or challenge – for a position. In an interview with Lloyd George shortly after the Armistice, Asquith agreed that he did not wish to join the government but "added that the only service he thought he could render the Government would be if he were to go to Versailles, as from what he knew both of President Wilson and M. Clemenceau he was pretty sure they knew little of International Law or Finance, and that these two problems would be found all-important in view of fixing future Frontiers and the havoc the war was likely to create in all the Foreign Exchanges." If Margot Asquith's account is to be credited, it was a rare occasion on which Lloyd George was lost for words.[27] Was this because Asquith's request was preposterous, a further instance of an old man blinded by his own arrogance? Not if the king may be taken as a barometer of middle opinion, for on 19 November he too wrote to Lloyd George urging him to consider the inclusion of Asquith in the delegation to the Peace Conference. "One always took it for granted that no Peace Conference would be possible without Asquith and Grey", Stamfordham wryly commented, when the royal request failed.[28] Lloyd George had been prepared to make Asquith lord chancellor but could not tolerate his going to Versailles: in the former position he would be permanently neutralised, in the latter a dangerous rival.

Asquith's use of the Maurice allegations, then, should be seen not as a stumbling sequel to 1916, but as a skilful prelude to 1919. 1f 1919 beckoned invitingly to a proven statesman, 1918 promised to be a nightmare for a war minister. On the one hand, a Labour peace-by-negotiation candidate had just polled thirty per cent of the votes in a Yorkshire by-election; on the other, Unionist backbenchers were restive after the dismissal of Robertson and seething with rumours that the army was short of men.[29] Most attractive of all, Maurice's allegations did not require Asquith to discredit Lloyd George, but rather provided an opportunity for Lloyd George to discredit himself. The only way Lloyd George could combat the charge that he had misled the House over the strength of the army in France was to turn the whole question into one of confidence in himself as a war leader. At a time when further disasters seemed likely to befall the British forces, Asquith was in fact forcing him on to very insecure ground.

If we see Lloyd George solely as a great war leader, it is easy to conclude that such charges could not be made to stick. However, there was another aspect to his political personality, that of a man who could mislead without actually lying and whose protestations of sincerity could omit the small print of vital detail. In short, behind Maurice stood Marconi. In October 1912, Lloyd George and Isaacs had solemnly denied any association with the Marconi Company which had just received a major wireless contract from the British government. A select committee investigated the charges, and by the time it reported in June 1913 it had been revealed that both ministers had in fact invested in Marconi's American sister company. The two men were cleared of financial irregularity and abased themselves appropriately before the same House of Commons that Lloyd George was now appealing to for support.[30] McKenna may have been premature in concluding that "so far as his value as a public statesman with serious people was concerned that was gone forever" but Lloyd George's reputation for veracity was badly damaged, and the scandal reverberated.[31] Quite apart from the general imputation of unreliability associated with Lloyd George, the Marconi scandal had two aspects of relevance to Asquith's tactics in the Maurice debate. First, Lloyd George had initially attempted to brazen his way out and had thereby increased his own humiliation when the full truth emerged a few months later. Secondly, the dodge which he had attempted to employ in 1912 had involved the United States. If Lloyd George could be lured into a denial of Maurice which would prove as ragged as his Marconi plea—an exposure which the Germans seemed all too likely to arrange— then the two episodes would become conflated, underlining the unsuitability of the shifty Welshman to negotiate with the idealistic Woodrow Wilson.[32]

Seen in this light, Asquith's decision to press for a select committee involved something more subtle than arid proceduralism. Committees are the bane of academic life and there is something in the term "select committee" which conveys a precious irrelevance. Taylor, that constructor of glittering patterns, was particularly tart about "Asquith's taste for a select committee" because it enabled him to link the Maurice debate with the Campbell case of 1924.[33] In fact, since select committees were appointed in proportion to party strengths, simply to raise the issue was either to force a division among the Liberals, or to underline the isolation of Lloyd George from a regular party following, especially as Asquith talked of a committee of five, giving far less room for manoeuvre than the fifteen-member Marconi investigation. The obvious disadvantage of such a committee was that it would probably divide along party lines – an objection raised by Law in what even the partisan L.S. Amery thought "an indiscreet interruption".[34] It would certainly place the Unionists in an unenviable position, since in 1913 it had been they who had offered a minority report censuring Lloyd George. All in all, the demand for a select committee to enquire into Lloyd George's veracity was a feline reminder of Marconi. When a heckler shouted "Marconi!" at Asquith's insistence that a select committee would give "an authoritative, and a respected decision", Jenkins feels that "he returned no adequate answer". It might be retorted that, having succeeded in conjuring the ghost, he had no need to say more. In fact, Jenkins may well have misread a very effective piece of parliamentary gamesmanship.[35]

What, then, of the charge that Asquith was playing politics with men's lives and, worse still, playing so ineptly that Lloyd George was enabled to slaughter him with a patriotic rebuke?[36] Asquith, surely, should have been exempt from such a charge, and anyone making it was as likely to damage himself as his target. Political biography is necessarily linear and narrative in form and is thus hampered in digesting underlying private crises in a subject's life. Yet the death of Raymond Asquith in September 1916 was more than the passing incident which it assumes in the biographies.[37] Even forty years later, Oliver Lyttelton was moved to cry, "Oh, Raymond, the senseless waste that you should have died this day".[38] Another son, Arthur, lost a leg in December 1917: a bar to his D.S.O was gazetted a fortnight before the Maurice debate.[39] When Taylor jibes that Asquith led the old libertarian and pacifistic Liberal party to disaster "on behalf of generals and against the authority of civilian government",[40] he is wide of the mark. In the close atmosphere of the House of Commons it would have been known that Asquith had paid dearly for the right to speak for the men in the trenches.[41]

Asquith's decision to allow the debate to end inconclusively was more astute than has been allowed. The Unionist War Commiteee, a backbench forum, remained hostile to Asquith but many of its members sought to dissociate their party from Lloyd George. At a meeting on 8 May, Carson had suggested that they "should as a body take an independent attitude by moving the previous question, thus neither endorsing Asquith nor approving of L.G.".[42] A low-key approach by Asquith was his only means of forcing tender consciences into the open. Hence he disclaimed any intention of displacing the government, least of all by taking office himself. To have wound up the debate in the aftermath of Lloyd George's barnstorming oration would have been to have risen to his bait. Better by far to be silent, and thus leave the issue as Lloyd George versus truth, rather than allow troubled Unionists to rally round the ministry by converting it into Lloyd George versus Asquith.

The defeat of Asquith's motion by 293 votes to 106, was less disastrous than first appears. Asquith had won the support of a much larger number of Liberals than his rival, 100 against seventy-one, a wider margin of defeat than Carson had inflicted on Law in the Nigeria debate in November 1915, the prelude to the fall of Asquith's own coalition. The Liberal party habitually fed on its own past. The last time a secession of members had heeded a patriotic cry to follow a glamorous radical had been in 1886, and, if history repeated itself, the defectors would be steadily sapped by reconversion and a disappearing electoral base. Seventy-odd votes for Lloyd George was in fact about right if the Maurice debate was to be the beginning of a campaign: small enough to place him in a minority in the Liberal party from the outset, large enough to be susceptible of an embarrassing but steady erosion. Furthermore, as Taylor and Douglas have noted, the margin of defeat itself was less of a triumph for Lloyd George than it appeared.[43] Only one Irish nationalist voted. The rest were engaged in a parliamentary strike, and over in Ireland attempting to maintain their position in the anti-conscription campaign. They were hardly likely to vote for a motion which implied a dangerous shortage of manpower, but it was not inconceivable that they would seek a subsequent pretext for returning to Westminster, if only because they could not otherwise counter Sinn Féin's policy of abstention.[44] A suitable issue might thus swell the opposition to around 180 votes—or over 200 if Labour joined in as well. Lloyd George's margin of safety was thus a good deal less impressive than the Maurice vote indicated. A trickle of desertions among his own Liberal following could easily become a stampede if he seemed a doomed man, at which point he could be toppled by a revolt of even a few dozen Unionist backbenchers.

The hypothesis that Asquith intended the Maurice debate as part of a campaign to erode Lloyd George's position can be criticised for ignoring the weapon of dissolution. But did that weapon really exist? To call an election, Lloyd George would have required the assent of Bonar Law and the king. Too many issues had separated the prime minister from his current allies to make a detailed program credible, and "no peace with the Hohenzollern" would stir an orgy of Hun-hating at a time when peace negotiations were in prospect. The practical difficulties of a wartime election were overwhelming, as Asquith's whip Geoffrey Howard explained to Scott. The Irish parliamentary party would be destroyed. It would be virtually impossible for soldiers to take part, all the more so if the Germans attacked during the campaign.[45] In any case, politics since 1915 had revolved around the avoidance of a wartime election, and it would be hard to explain why a fresh mandate should be needed now. Lloyd George was indeed attracted to this desperate throw,[46] but he had no automatic right to secure a dissolution. Even in November 1918, in the changed circumstances of victory, George V consented truculently and Lloyd George was reminded that "he was aware from previous conversations with the King that he did not favourably view such a step".[47] It was dangerous for the Crown to quarrel with a party leader who sought a dissolution, but Lloyd George was not a party leader. Again, Asquith's tactics were sound: an immediate election was unlikely, any wartime election would be a confession of Lloyd George's weakness. That Lloyd George was making plans for one was a measure of his desperation. Riddell had asked him after the Maurice debate whether his government had "lasted as long or longer than you thought it would?". Lloyd George replied that it had "lasted longer than I thought", adding that he had been more optimistic than most. The debate had made him wish for "the support of a Party who would be prepared to stand by the Government" on difficult issues.[48] His closest allies were bitter about Asquith, and their contempt has coloured historians' perceptions. It is not usual for a bumbling irrelevance to excite such sustained hatred. Asquith should not be blamed for losing the Maurice division, since it is doubtful if he had hoped to win it. He should not be blamed for failing to provide a parliamentary Paschendaele, since frontal assault would have consolidated rather than eroded Lloyd George's support. Asquith failed in 1918 because the war unexpectedly veered round to an Allied victory. Lloyd George had by far the greater luck, but we should not discount the possibility that Asquith displayed the superior cunning.

Postscript  Looking back from 2021 over the thirty-six years since the publication of "Asquith, the Maurice Debate and the Historians", it seems fair to conclude that it has made absolutely no impact on academic debate.[49] There may be many reasons for this. One must be that the article is so obviously incorrect it has seemed kinder to ignore it, although there are many instances where wayward scholarly fandangos have intruded, cuckoo-like, upon subsequent historical controversy. In fact, it is sadly true that very many solidly researched and cogently argued journal articles are never heard of again. Publication in Australia may also have been factor, and in a journal that was probably not widely available on library shelves overseas. By the time computerised bibliographies and globalised digitisation arrived in the twenty-first century, the era of the doorstopper biographies of the prime ministers of yesteryear had passed. Most of the notable political leaders since the mid-nineteenth century had the subject of major studies: with Asquith, handsomely treated by Jenkins and carefully dissected by Koss, there was little scope, and probably less market, for a fresh whole-life story.[50]

In the twenty-first century, Asquith's career has been the subject of two overviews. In 2004, Colin Matthew briefly touched upon the Maurice episode in an authoritative Oxford Dictionary of National Biography essay. "The Liberals mishandled the debate, taken aback by Lloyd George's impassioned reaction".[51] The shifting of responsibility away from Asquith himself is of interest, since it invites the reflection that, in reality, "the Liberals" adopted a good cop-bad cop approach. After Asquith had delivered his "calm, moderate, dispassionate, and judicial speech", he was followed by W.M.R. Pringle (quoted here), who less temperately denounced Lloyd George for leading "a Government which has reduced this country to the lowest extremity in which it has ever stood at any period of its history".[52] In 2006, Stephen Bates contributed a study of Asquith to a lively series of short studies about twentieth-century prime ministers: he did not comment on the Maurice debate.[53]

In more general histories, the Maurice debate has receded from view, recalled principally as Lloyd George's alleged reason for endorsing or dismissing Liberal candidates at the 1918 general election. Perhaps curiously, two distinguished historians seemed more interested in the hoary tale of a document destroyed to ensure that nobody would ever discover that Lloyd George had indeed lied to Parliament about the strength of the British Army in France. Robert Blake savoured as an "ironic footnote" the tale of Lloyd George's secretary, J.T. Davies, burning the paper that had inconveniently corrected an earlier return. Peter Clark, even more unkindly, alleged that there was "little doubt … that Lloyd George destroyed the relevant evidence".[54] The destroyed document story is merely a silly sideshow. Had a full investigation been held, the Army's own paper trail would have established that revised figures had been submitted to Downing Street. Such a document not only existed but, far from having been burned, was discovered by the historian David R. Woodward among Lloyd George's papers. Of course, Woodward's conclusion that there can be "no doubt that Lloyd George misled parliament" may only increase posterity's condemnation of Asquith: if, on 9 May 1918, he was right to press for an inquiry into Maurice's charges, it is surely all the more to be regretted that he failed in his attack?[55] This might well be the implication of G.R. Searle's description in 2004 of Asquith's speech as "limp". Searle felt that Asquith was wrong to allow his motion to go to a vote, a decision that he suggested was made "perhaps out of a misplaced sense of parliamentary propriety".[56] Once again, interpretation of Asquith's tactics was filtered through a pejorative hypothesis: one of the great House of Commons personalities of his generation was no longer the master of parliamentary culture, but its victim.

If, by contrast, we assume that Asquith knew perfectly well  what he was doing in allowing his motion to go down to defeat in the lobbies, it might be more constructive to ask what he achieved. We could start with the entertaining account by Stanley Baldwin, a Unionist (Conservative) junior minister in the coalition, of his light-hearted chat with Lloyd George as they strolled along Whitehall to attend the debate. Baldwin remarked to the prime minister that for ten years the Tories had had tried "to catch you deviating by an inch from the strict path of veracity", and now his opponents would find that they "have caught you out speaking the truth". Lloyd George "roared with laughter" and was so delighted with the jest that he recounted it to his cabinet colleagues.[57] This pleasant vignette perhaps carries a deeper message. The Maurice debate revealed the extent of Lloyd George's dependence upon the Unionists, a stranglehold that he would make all the more severe when he (allegedly) used the 9 May division lists to cull opponents from the Liberal ranks at the subsequent general election. It was no "misplaced sense of parliamentary propriety" that propelled Asquith to allow his motion to go to a division, but a determination to tighten the trap around Lloyd George by revealing the weakness of his rival's support among Liberal MPs.  When he rose to speak on 9 May, Asquith would have known that the Unionist War Committee – the Tory backbenchers – had already determined to back the government. In the circumstances, a barnstorming Oxford Union-style diatribe was pointless, while a low-key prising apart of the Liberal vote was sufficient to expose Lloyd George's dependence upon his former opponents. In any case, Baldwin's joke was based on a deception: Lloyd George did not tell the truth about the Maurice allegations. Over the next four years, he came to believe that the Welsh Wizard rarely if ever engaged in the practice of veracity. At the Carlton Club meeting in 1922, Baldwin denounced Lloyd George so effectively that he swept the coalition aside. Even so, it would be straining for effect to draw a direct line between the Maurice debate and the Carlton Club meeting.[58] The division on 9 May 1918 simply highlighted the extent to which Lloyd George was already primarily dependent upon Unionist support.

Essentially, the evaluation of Asquith's handling of the Maurice debate challenges the process by which historians construct explanations. It is standard procedure to look for evidence from the people who were there.  What did contemporaries think? Who was hailed as the winner or dismissed as the loser? Naturally, the motives of the witnesses are evaluated, but historians' verdicts tend to reflect the winnowed echoes from the time.  Of course, such sources are especially valuable in conveying atmosphere and tone, the elements that cannot be captured by Hansard or wafted through the pages of newspapers. Where contemporary assessments are offered in celebration, sympathy or sorrow, historians have a decent chance of conflating them into a workmanlike explanatory package. The problems arise when, as in May 1918, the contemporary evidence is tainted by four years of grinding warfare and must be set against a background of a decade of vicious and mistrustful partisan conflict.[59] Here historians face a dilemma. On the one hand, simply to accept a consensus of abuse as a scholarly explanation can risk obscuring the real motives behind an episode. On the other, historians who sweep aside a file of contemporary comments to impose their own interpretation may be open to the charge of random arrogance.

This problem has been confronted in the case of another British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who came to be censured for the Second World War in much the same way as Asquith was blamed for the failures of 1914-18. Michael Foot's sensational journalistic attack in Guilty Men, published in 1940, was transmuted into literary judgement by Churchill in The Gathering Storm eight years later. (Feline index entry for Baldwin include "speaks for rearmament and denies its need" and, notoriously, "confesses putting party before country".)  It was a short step to the scholarly verdict (predominantly one of condemnation) in a biography, which Baldwin himself had commissioned, by the historian G.M. Young, published in 1952.  On all sides, Baldwin was consistently belittled. Historians of statesmanship were neither interested in, nor approving of, his vaguely portrayed background as some sort of Midlands manufacturer: Young not only gave few details of the family business, but rushed his subject to the age of fifty in his first eight pages. Readers were left to deduce that his knowledge of book-keeping explained his first government appointment, as financial secretary to the treasury in 1917. "Baldwin's qualifications were that he was honest, amenable and acceptable to the House," were Young's words of faint praise. Taylor facetiously added that he was appointed by the chancellor of the exchequer, Bonar Law, "to do the treasury entertaining which Law disliked".[60] Young can certainly be acquitted of overselling his subject. "To be Financial Secretary at fifty and stay Financial Secretary till fifty-four is no great thing".[61] Promotion eventually came, but to the equally unromantic office of president of the board of trade. When Bonar Law became prime minister in 1922, without the support of those party grandees who still supported Lloyd George, Baldwin was the strongest candidate in a weak field to become chancellor of the exchequer.   Within months, the new prime minister succumbed to cancer, and Baldwin, who was suddenly found to possess the valuable quality of not being Lord Curzon, moved into Number Ten. Thus a politician formed, so it seems, by manufacture of pots and pans in a Worcestershire canal town became the incubus who anaesthetised British public life for most of the next fifteen years.  From stray self-deprecating comments and the mood-music of his own autumnal speeches, an image was constructed of a semi-detached, do-nothing prime minister who hankered after social harmony (hypocritically, since he took on the workers in the 1926 general strike) and would himself have preferred a rural life breeding pigs. Even Baldwin's supposedly rare bursts of determined energy were held against him: he forced Edward VIII to abdicate, but – said his detractors – wrung his hands at the rise of Hitler, leaving Britain dangerously unprepared when the inevitable war broke out.

This comparison with Baldwin highlights the methodological importance of the 1999 revisionist study by Philip Williamson, and its implications for how we view Asquith. In evaluating Baldwin's career, Williamson certainly did not see his task as the compilation of a mosaic of contemporary (or near-contemporary) repetitive denigration. "More nonsense has been written about him than about any other modern prime minister." Nor could standard biography provide the necessary antidote. "Narration of a life is easy upon the mind of author and reader, but it is not obviously a powerful or even an effective form of explanation. Too often it is a substitute for such explanation."[62] In 1969, Baldwin had been the subject of a massive biography by Keith Middlemas and John Barnes. Over a thousand pages – the equivalent of half a dozen monographs – it could hardly fail to illuminate many episodes in Baldwin's career. The authors defended their subject, insisting that Baldwin had been "harshly stereotyped", his reputation trashed under the "outworn comments and partisan judgements of the Second World War and the late 1940s."  He had left no memoirs, had outlived allies who might have defended him, and was certainly "ill-served" by Young's truculent book. Thus the field had been left clear for his enemies, who "castigated him, not merely in their published recollections but in accounts which claimed to amount to definitive history."[63] Unfortunately, the sheer scale of the Middlemas and Barnes biography obscured as much as it revealed. Williamson adopted a radically different approach, examining Baldwin's career through a series of thematic chapters. Among the many points that had been hiding in plain historical sight was the obvious and formative fact that the Baldwins were a family of dynamic businessmen who were among Britain's leading industrialists. "Here the biographical tradition has been remarkable for its lack of serious curiosity, its condescension towards non-political and non-metropolitan activities, and its perpetuation of factual errors."[64] To evaluate Stanley Baldwin, it was necessary to begin by appreciating that his pre-political career in industry had made him very well informed about the British economy, and had also given him extensive experience of working with, and managing, people.

The counterpart basic fact about Asquith is surely that he was a barrister. It is true that, lacking influential connections, he got off to a slow start at the Bar, but by 1886 his practice was capable of supporting parliamentary ambitions. It is also probably true that his strength lay more in cross-examination than in advocacy, as he demonstrated in the destruction of a key witness during the Parnell Commission.  Nonetheless, if we sought a single label that would identify and encapsulate Asquith, one starting point from which all else would follow, it would be 'barrister'. An effective courtroom performer needed not only mastery of his brief, but also a sense of the tone needed to present his case. It may be argued that, on 9 May 1918, Asquith appreciated that an all-out attack on the government would be unwise and unconvincing: Maurice's allegations gave cause for concern but were as yet unproven. If there is a risk of arrogance in the historian dismissing the critical opinions of contemporaries, there is also a danger of hubris in asserting that a man who had been so successful in his profession should have suddenly lost his courtroom skills.

With that reflection in mind, it is worth evaluating three negative comments on Asquith's performance, all made immediately after the Maurice debate, two in private diaries, one in an influential London newspaper.  William Bridgeman noted that Asquith "pretended … that it was no vote of censure, but only a proposal for a select c[ommit]tee. He did not make much of a case".[65] Bridgeman was a junior member and it would have been frankly astounding if so rigid a Tory had written anything else. "Asquith opened very hesitatingly and made the poorest speech I have ever heard from him," wrote Leopold Amery. "I am more than half inclined to think that this finishes Asquith as a possible alternative Prime Minister. People won't follow a man who has shown to such a degree both bad judgment and lack of courage." This is indeed strong stuff, but Amery was no neutral observer. Although not formally a member of Lloyd George's government, he was attached to it as an adviser to Lord Milner. The previous day, he had intervened – very effectively, according to his own account – in the discussion at the Unionist War Committee, when the consensus seemed to be drifting towards refusing to choose between Asquith and Lloyd George. He argued that the debate "was a manoeuvre to get in Asquith and that [by abstaining] we should only weaken the Government at this moment in Asquith's interest." The meeting broke up without a formal decision, but Amery was sure there was "a general sense that, whatever happened, we were not prepared to let Asquith come back [as prime minister]." It is not surprising that he subsequently tried to persuade himself ("more than half inclined to think") that the ex-prime minister had destroyed his own prospects.[66] However, we must surely pause when confronted by a similar verdict delivered by a major London newspaper the day after the Maurice debate: "Mr. Asquith is not even an adroit Parliamentarian now."[67] It would be tempting to embrace this under the title of contemporary evidence, but alarm bells will sound on noting that this ringside observer was the Daily Mail, a newspaper with a particular hostility to Asquith, embellished by what might mildly be termed a tendency to colourful overstatement. Read out of context, these statements do indeed paint a negative picture of Asquith's handling of the Maurice allegations. In reality, there are indications of a real fear among Lloyd George's supporters that Asquith might be poised to return to office. Two weeks before the debate, Lord Rothermere had reported "a great push among 'dud' politicians and 'dud' generals … to make [Sir Edward] Grey prime minister". Rothermere ridiculed the rumoured inclusion in the proposed cabinet of General Sir William Robertson, in his opinion unsuccessful on the Western Front, and Admiral Jellicoe, who had "failed at Jutland". Nonetheless, "this intrigue might, if [Lloyd] George is in difficulties during the next month, pull off a Grey Premiership." Carson was open for a deal. "Asquith, of course, will join".[68] There was an element in wishful thinking in the chorus asserting that Asquith had failed in the House of Commons and was no longer capable of leading the country. It was not so much a verdict deduced from the events as a message that they needed to project.

The Daily Mail comment also points to one of the misleading features of biography, its tendency – in fact, its vital need – to impose elegant patterns upon the life cycles of its subjects. Asquith lost office in December 1916 and died in February 1928. The obvious linking theme for the disparate events of the last nine years of his life is one of decline. Physical strength in his eighth decade was, quite naturally, giving way; but that does not impose an obligation on historians to view each and every episode  through the negative lens of decline. At the time of the Maurice debate, Asquith was 65, the same age as Churchill when he became prime minister in 1940.[69]  He is entitled to the assumption that he knew what he was doing on 9 May 1918.

Fundamental to the dialogue between present and past that we call historical explanation is the complication of hindsight. We have the advantage of knowing what was going to happen down the line, or sometimes was unexpectedly coming round the corner. That retrospective understanding becomes a liability if we allow it subtly to influence us into assuming that the people we study had the power to predict, or should have possessed the insight to foresee, the future. Four months after the Maurice debate, the German armies in the West began to crumble. Within six months, the fighting was over. Had Asquith known that victory was so close, he would indeed have been foolish to break the fragile political truce, and suicidal to launch a tentative attack that opened the way for Lloyd George's crushing response. But in May 1918, everyone expected that the War would continue at least until 1919, and that the British and French were likely to face fresh disasters before the Americans arrived in sufficient strength to swing the balance. What Matthew called "Lloyd George's impassioned reaction" did indeed provide the government with a short-term triumph, but – from the standpoint of the time – his defence of suspect military statistics was more likely to prove both a hostage and a time-bomb. Hence, thirty-six years after the publication of "Asquith, the Maurice Debate and the Historians", I stand by my original conclusion. On 9 May 1918, Lloyd George had by far the greater luck, but we should not discount the possibility that Asquith displayed the superior cunning.

ENDNOTES Websites were consulted in May 2021. 

[1] The allegations are discussed by J.A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, Lord Oxford and Asquith (2 vols, London, 1932), ii, 306-7 [cited as Spender, Oxford]; Roy Jenkins, Asquith (rev. ed., London, 1968), 472-4; A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford, 1965), 117-18.  The "missing document" story comes from Lord Beaverbrook, Men and Power: 1917-1918 (London, 1956), 248-64. The protagonists added little in Lord Oxford and Asquith, Memories and Reflections 1852-1927 (2 vols, London, 1928), ii, 167-70 and D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs (2 vol. edition, London, 1938), ii, 1778-91.

[2] Beaverbrook, Men and Power, 260-1; Trevor Wilson, "The Coupon and the British General Election of 1918", Journal of Modern History, xxxvi, 1964, 28-42; Trevor Wilson, The Downfall of the Liberal Party 1914-1933 (London, 1966), 144-9; Michael Kinnear, The Fall of Lloyd George: the Political Crisis of 1922 (London, 1973), 37-8, 42-3; Roy Douglas, "The Background to the 'Coupon' Election Arrangements", English Historical Review, lxxxvi, 1971, 318-36.

[3] Peter Fraser, "Lord Beaverbrook's Fabrications in Politicians and the War, 1914-1916 ", Historical Journal, xxv, 1982, 147-66.

[4] Quoted by D. Newsome, On the Edge of Paradise: A.C. Benson: the Diarist (London, 1980), 122.

[5]  Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Labour 1920-1924: the Beginning of Modern British Politics (Cambridge, 1971), 100.

[6] M. and E. Brock, eds, H.H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley (Oxford, 1982), 1-18, 111-21.

[7] Robert Kelley, "Asquith at Paisley: the Content of British Liberalism at the End of its Era", Journal of British Studies, iv, 1964, esp. 134-8; Jenkins, Asquith, 484-8. Asquith paid tribute to Violet in [D. MacCartney, ed.,] H.H.A.: Letters of the Earl of Oxford and Asquith to a Friend (1st series, London, 1933), 125-6, 129-31 and Oxford and Asquith, Memories and Reflections, ii, 178-82. The real mystery of the by-election is why Asquith chose to attempt to return to parliament for Paisley which, as he said, was entirely different from his previous seat at East Fife, rather than for Spen Valley. Only Stephen Koss, Asquith (London. 1976), 242-3, seems to have speculated on the matter, concluding that the chances of being squeezed between a coalition and a Labour challenge perhaps deterred him. The same objections applied to Paisley. Spen Valley marked a further stage in the Liberal split, with a coalition candidate standing against Simon, and thereby letting Labour in. Asquith, who had not had a 'coupon' issued against him in 1918, would have been less likely to have been so opposed and more likely to have overcome the opposition. So well had Asquith covered his own tracks that no historian seems to have noted that he was actually born and reared in the nearby towns of Morley and Huddersfield, delivering in the latter his "coupon" speech in November 1918.  It is hard to think that in similar circumstances Lloyd George would have turned down a chance to fight a by-election in North Wales, even though his lifestyle had moved as far.

[8] Trevor Wilson, ed., The Political Diaries of C. P. Scott 1911-1928 (London, 1970), 448 (30 November 1923).

[9]  For the Grey premiership intrigues, Cowling, Impact of Labour, 102-7: Kenneth O. Morgan, Consensus and Disunity: the Lloyd George Coalition Government 1918-1922 (Oxford, 1979), 208-12; K. Robbins, Sir Edward Grey: a Biography of Lord Grey of Falloden (London, 1971), 355-8. The compartmentalisation of Asquith's career into prewar (successful) and the rest (inept) has obscured both Asquith's tactical skill in playing out the Grey-Cecil intrigue without ever committing himself to give up the Liberal leadership, and the parallel with Relugas, in which Asquith used, and abandoned, the idea of a fainéant premier in the Lords, while manipulating Grey's high-mindedness to secure his own position with Campbell-Bannerman. J. Wilson, CB: a Life of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (London, 1973), 427-33.

[10] Cowling, The Impact of Labour, 2.

[11] Spender, Oxford, ii, 304-8. In his own memoirs, Spender wrote that "the Maurice debate was badly bungled". J.A. Spender, Life, Journalism and Politics (2 vols, London, 1927), ii, 76.

[12] Jenkins, Asquith, 470-2.

[13] Koss, Asquith, 233.

[14] Wilson, Downfall of the Liberal Party, 110.

[15]  Robert Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister: the Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858-1923 (London, 1955), 373-4.

[16] Taylor, English History, 105. Taylor's views of the period are coloured by his admiration for Beaverbrook. He took pride in having been the first academic to accord Beaverbrook the status of historian. A.J.P. Taylor, Beaverbrook (New York, 1972), 629-30.

[17] Barry McGill, "Asquith's Predicament, 1914-1918", Journal of Modern History, xxxix, 1967, 300.

[18] Lord Riddell's War Diary, 1914-1918 (London, 1933), 319 (16 March 1918).

[19] Lloyd George, War Memoirs, ii, 1838, 1857-67.

[20] Ibid., ii, 1793. Amery's opinion of slow American preparedness came from press reports. Scott had urged Lloyd George in December 1917 to agree on peace terms "as if we waited for America to come in force Italy and even France might fall out and leave us alone with America". J. Barnes and D. Nicholson, eds, The Leo Amery Diaries:  vol. i, 1896-1929 (London, 1980), 213 (31 March 1918); Wilson, ed., Scott Diaries, 322 (17 December 1917).

[21] So thought Haig, who was prepared to abandon the French while Britain was strong, for "America will get stronger, and will finally dictate her peace which may not suit Great Britain". Robert Blake, ed., The Private Papers of Douglas Haig 1914-1919 (London, 1952), 294 (19 March 1918). Asquith warned in March 1918 that the war might go on for another year. The Times, 23 March 1918.

[22] C. Hazlehurst, Politicians at War: July 1914 to May 1915 (London, 1971), 175-9; M.G. Fry, Lloyd George and Foreign Policy: the Education of a Statesman (Montreal, 1977): M. Dockrill, "David Lloyd George and Foreign Policy before 1914" in A.J.P. Taylor, ed., Lloyd George: Twelve Essays (London, 1971), 3-31.

[23] Asquith welcomed the American entry into the war on 18 April 1917, and endorsed Wilson's views on Polish independence at Leeds on 26 September 1917. At Birmingham on 11 December 1917 he defended Lansdowne against charges of defeatism and called for a "clean peace". Hansard, xcii, 18 April 1917, cols 1670-2; The Times, 27 September, 12 December 1917. Lloyd George was convinced that these moves were intended to outbid any peace terms he might conclude himself. Wilson, ed., Scott Diaries, 303-4, 322 (28 September, 19 December 1917).

[24]  Barnes and Nicholson, eds, Amery Diaries, 240 (30 October 1918). There were reports that Asquith had been invited to visit the USA. The Times, 24 January 1918.

[25] "I know that American politician. He has no international conscience", Lloyd George wrote to a protesting Grey. Scott broke off relations for a time in disgust. Jenkins, Asquith, 416; Wilson, ed., Downfall of the Liberal Party, 227-31, 236 (October-November 1916). Cf. Lloyd George, War Memoirs, i, 509-513.

[26] [MacCarthy ed.), H.H.A. Letters, i, 83.

[27] The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (2 vols, London, 1920-22), ii, 302-3. In reality, no such offer was being made.

[28] H. Nicolson, King George V: his Life and Reign (London, 1952), 331-2.

[29] The by-election was at Keighley. For Unionist discontent, see Barnes and Nicholson, eds, Amery Diaries, 219-20 and the recollection of Baroness Asquith quoted by Douglas, "'Coupon' Election", 325, who followed her stepmother's Autobiography, ii, 276-77. Haig had given the king the substance of Maurice's charges on 30 March 1918, and on 9 April "gathered that L.G. expects to be attacked in the House of Commons for not tackling the manpower problem before". Blake, ed., Private papers of Haig, 298-9, 300-1.

[30] Jenkins, Asquith, 250-5; Oxford and Asquith, Memories and Reflections, i, 207-12. "He has had a Select Committee into his veracity before," said Pringle, alleging that this explained Lloyd George's reluctance. But Page Croft was opposed to "a second Marconi farce". Hansard, cv, 9 May 1918, cols 2375, 2387.

[31] E. David, ed., Inside Asquith's Cabinet: from the Diaries of Charles Hobhouse (London, 1977), 138 (13 June 1913). McKenna and Lloyd George were on poor terms, but Scott in November 1916 thought Lloyd George's casual decision to accept a furnished flat provided by David Davies was "like the lack of sensitiveness shown in the Marconi affair". Wilson, ed., Scott Diaries, 236.

[32] Speaking at the Aldwych Club a month later, Asquith said, "let us be able to feel, whatever comes or goes, that we know the truth and the whole truth", arguing that in "an unexampled situation" there was more to be gained than lost by the government taking the people into its confidence. The sentiment, which was loudly cheered, suggests that the Maurice debate was only the opening shot of a campaign to convict Lloyd George of concealment and distortion. The Times, 15 June 1918. Lloyd George was irritated by the implication. Lord Riddell's War Diary, 333-4 (17 June 1918).

[33] Taylor, English History, 219.

[34] Hansard, cv, 9 May 1918, cols 2351-2, 2354; Barnes and Nicholson, eds, Amery Diaries, 220 (9 May 1918).

[35] Jenkins, Asquith, 470; Hansard, cv, 9 May 1918, col. 2351: "An Hon. Member: Marconi! Mr Asquith: I did not catch what the hon. Member said. An Hon. Member: He said "Marconi!" Mr Asquith: Well, I do not know what the hon. Member meant. I do not see the relevance of the observation."

[36]  For the danger invoked, see Amery's disgust at parliamentary sniping by Asquithian members (whom he wished to have roughed up in the lobby) during the British rout at Messines. Barnes and Nicholson, eds, Amery Diaries, 215 (10 April 1918). Edward Cadbury was opposed to attempting to change the government during the German offensive. Cadbury to Gardiner, 10 May 1918, quoted in S. Koss, Fleet Street Radical: A.G. Gardiner and the Daily News (London, 1973), 240.

[37]  Spender, Oxford, ii, 226-7 (who calls Raymond's death "a maiming blow"); Jenkins, Asquith, 413-15; Koss, Asquith, 212-13. Accounts of the political crisis of December 1916 do not stress that Asquith was coping with bereavement. Lloyd George recognised "the personal tragedy, which shattered his nerve". Raymond's death "came upon with stunning effect, and he reeled visibly under the blow". Lloyd George, War Memoirs, i, 603. Margot Asquith confessed her inability as a "stepwife" to console him. Autobiography, i, 278. She hinted that Asquith's grief was exploited to unseat him. Ibid., i, 277.

[38] Oliver Lyttelton, The Memoirs of Lord Chandos (London, 1962), 66. Derby Liberals unveiled a memorial portrait of Raymond in their Club in January 1918. The Times, 11 January 1918.

[39] The Times, 26 December 1917, 26 April 1918.

[40] Taylor, English History, 105.

[41]  Lloyd George noted the force given to a speech on war aims made by Asquith in October 1916, just after his son's death. Lloyd George, War Memoirs, i, 532. The claim by a Lloyd George Liberal, E.G. Hemmerde, that Bonar Law would not have misled the House since he had "suffered deeply in the War", was open to a charge of poor taste. Hansard, cv, 9 May 1918, cols 2399-400.

[42] Barnes and Nicholson, eds, Amery Diaries, 219-20.

[43] Taylor, English History, 105n; Roy Douglas, The History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970 (London, 1971), 114-15. Harmsworth recalled "the Chamberlain split of many years ago". University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Runciman Papers, Cecil Harmsworth to Runciman, private, 10 May 1918.

[44]  When Asquith disclaimed any intention of censuring the government, a heckler interjected , "The Irish are not here!". Lloyd George alleged during the election campaign that the Irish members had been "begged to come over" for the Maurice vote. In April 1918 he had regarded T.M. Healy as "the really formidable opponent" of Irish conscription because he was arguing that leadership, not manpower, was the real problem. On 10 May 1918 Scott urged Dillon to return to Westminster and cooperate with Asquith in opposing conscription, adding "as you well know it is impossible to foresee at what moment (often quite unexpected) the opportunity for effective intervention may not occur". Dillon later agreed that boycotting Westminster meant surrndering the initiative to Sinn Féin. On the day of the Maurice debate Smuts warned Lloyd George that his government might fall over Home Rule. Hansard, cv, 9 May 1918, col. 2347; Spender, Oxford, ii, 316-17. Thomas Jones, Whitehall Diary, i… (ed. Keith Middlemas), (Oxford, 1969), 56 (10 April 1918); J.L. Hammond, C.P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian (London, 1934), 242; Wilson, ed., Scott Diaries, 349 (26 July 1918); Smuts to Lloyd George, 9 May 1918; W.K. Hancock and J. van der Poel, eds, Selections from the Smuts Papers (1st series, 4 vols, Cambridge, 1966), iii, 634-6.

[45] Wilson, ed., Scott Diaries, 351-2 (7 August 1918). But Howard agreed that "we were steadily drifting towards one (i.e. an election)", although Scott felt Lloyd George "cannot dissolve". Ibid., 353.

[46] Douglas, "'Coupon' Election", 323, 325-6 indicates that it was not until July 1918 that serious consideration was given to the division of seats, and (329) that policy discussions were still in progress in October (when Lloyd George expounded his views on coalition policy to Scott, Wilson, ed., Scott Diaries, 359). He had been angry with Beaverbrook when on 29 August the Daily Express had warned against a khaki election and enquired what coalition policy would be on tariffs, the Welsh Church and Ireland. Beaverbrook, Men and Power, 299-301.

[47] Nicolson, King George V, 328.

[48] Lord Riddell's War Diary, pp. 330, 329 (12 May 1918). Asquith had buoyantly celebrated ten years as leader in a speech to the National Liberal Federation executive in March. "He had not resigned that position, and was not aware that he had been deposed from it, and until the day came that his natural faculties deserted him . . . he had no intention of resigning". The Times, 23 March 1918.

[49] As of May 2021, it is referred to in the Wikipedia entry on the Maurice debate, although I do not recognise the point to which it is footnoted.

[50] Gladstone and Churchill are the titanic exceptions who continue to attract biographers. Thatcher will probably be a third.

[51] H. C. G. Matthew, "Asquith, Herbert Henry, First Earl of Oxford and Asquith", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The statement appears in each of the edited versions of the article from 2004 to 2021. Colin Matthew had died in 1999.

[52] Hansard, cv, 9 May 1918, 2379.

[53] S. Bates, Asquith (London, 2006).  (I am the author of a short study of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and well know the constraints of covering a long life within a tight word limit.) Another short biography, C. Wrigley, Lloyd George (Oxford, 1992), 89-90, naturally enough focused upon Lloyd George's successful handling of the challenge. R.J.Q. Adams, Bonar Law (London, 1999), 271 said Asquith "blundered … [his] speech lacked fire and conviction".

[54] R. Blake, The Decline of Power 1915-1964 (London, 1986 ed., cf. 1st ed. 1985), 54-5; P. Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990 (London, 1996), 89.

[55] D.R. Woodward, "Did Lloyd George Starve the British Army of Men Prior to the German Offensive of

21 March 1918?" Historical Journal, xxvii, 1984, 241-252, esp. 242n.

[56] G.R. Searle, A New England: Peace and War 1886-1918 (Oxford, 2004), 731-2.

[57] K. Middlemas and J. Barnes, Baldwin: a Biography (London, 1969), 68; P. Williamson and E. Baldwin, eds, Baldwin Papers… (Cambridge, 2004), 36 for the location.

[58] Much as Taylor tried in his attempt to link the Maurice debate to the 1924 Campbell case: "Asquith's taste for a select committee again ruined the Liberal party". English History, 219.

[59] Seven years earlier, many of the Tories who trooped through the Noe lobby in the Maurice debate had literally howled Asquith down, abusing him as a traitor and accusing him of driving Edward VII to his grave.

[60] G.M. Young, Stanley Baldwin (London, 1952), 25; Taylor, English History, 125.

[61] Young, Stanley Baldwin, 27.

[62] P. Williamson, Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Values and National Leadership (Cambridge, 1999), 1, 12.

[63] K. Middlemas and J. Barnes, Baldwin: a Biography (London, 1969), xiii.

[64] Williamson, Stanley Baldwin: Conservative Values and National Leadership, 88.

[65] P. Williamson, ed., The Modernisation of Conservative Politics … (London, 1988), 132.

[66] Barnes and Nicholson, eds, Leo Amery Diaries, 219-20. Quoting these entries in his memoirs 35 years later, Amery stressed his concerns about "the state of mind of the Unionist rank and file", who were sympathetic to the generals in their distrust of Lloyd George. L.S. Amery, My Political Life (3 vols, London, 1953-5), ii, 154-5.

[67] Daily Mail, 10 May, quoted Mail (Adelaide), 11 May 1918, via the National Library of Australia's Trove website.

[68] R. Pound and G. Harmsworth, Northcliffe (London, 1959), 636. There seems to be no supporting evidence for the alleged plot.

[69] Campbell-Bannerman had become prime minister at 69, Bonar Law would follow at 64.

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