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Earl of Oxford and Asquith Herbert Asquith

(1852—1928) prime minister

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British statesman, Liberal leader (1908–26), and prime minister (1908–16). Though his leadership of the nation was unconvincing, he is regarded as having been an outstanding parliamentarian. He accepted a peerage in 1925.

Asquith was born in Yorkshire, the son of a Congregationalist businessman. He became a barrister and, in 1886, MP for East Fife. In 1894 he married, as his second wife, Margot Tennant (1865–1945), who became famous as a political hostess. Following the landslide Liberal victory in 1905 he was chancellor of the exchequer until succeeding Campbell-Bannerman as party leader and prime minister in 1908. His government was responsible for some outstanding legislation. The Parliament Act 1911, giving legislative supremacy to the House of Commons, was a response to the rejection by the Lords of Lloyd George's ‘people's budget’ (1909). To secure the Bill's passage Asquith persuaded George V to threaten to create enough Liberal peers to overcome the opposition to reform. 1911 also saw the passage of the National Insurance Act, which introduced insurance against sickness and unemployment.

Asquith's leadership in World War I was less successful. He brought the Conservatives into a coalition government in 1915; however, his failure to consult his colleagues on the matter fatally divided the party. The split deepened when, with the failure of the Dardanelles expedition (1915) and the continuing stalemate on the Western Front, Asquith introduced conscription, a measure regarded by some Liberals as authoritarian. His unpopularity increased with the brutal suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin (1916), and manoeuvres by Lloyd George succeeded in forcing his resignation. The Liberal split was now irrevocable, and Asquith refused to serve under Lloyd George.

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