David Lloyd George and Herbert Asquith: Liberals at war

Inspired by the political upheaval in many of our political parties after the Brexit vote, we’ve been looking this summer at some historic party splits. In today’s blog we move into the 20th century, and the personal and political rivalry between two Liberal Prime Ministers that pulled their party apart…

At the declaration of war in August 1914, Herbert Asquith had been Liberal Prime Minister for six years. Together with his ‘fiery’ Chancellor, David Lloyd George, his government had passed the ‘People’s Budget’, introduced old age pensions and had reformed the House of Lords, in spite of troubles over Irish Home Rule, industrial unrest and electoral reform (in particular the campaign for votes for women). The government’s two leading figures were very different characters: Asquith the accomplished legislator, Lloyd George the populist, radical Welshman. By the end of the war, Lloyd George was Prime Minister leading a coalition government and Asquith head of a group of Liberals in opposition: the party had split in two. The details of this clash of personalities and politics have also divided historians ever since.

Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George
Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George

Political differences between the two men, both in substance and style, were exposed during the first years of the war. Asquith’s initial approach was similar to that followed during the Napoleonic era: Britain’s role would largely be at sea and in funding operations on the continent. For Lloyd George, modern warfare required the total mobilisation of British society and its economy. When the creation of a coalition government with the Conservatives and the Labour party in 1915 moved Lloyd George to a new post as Minister for Munitions, he wasted no time in using sweeping powers to boost production – including deals with Trade Unions and limits on alcohol sales. The clash of ideas came to a head over the issue of conscription: for traditional Liberals, directly ordering men to the front was against basic civil liberties; for Lloyd George and the Unionists, the war effort needed increased government planning in both the armed forces and the economy. Asquith’s attempts to implement a compromise during 1915 were eventually rolled back as conscription was introduced for single, then married, men in 1916. In some ways this was a success for Asquith: his efforts at compromise ensured only one Liberal resigned from the cabinet over the issue. However, by being forced to ‘give in’ he appeared weak, and faced criticism for hesitation.

Differences in style only underlined this split. Asquith’s ‘business as usual’ and ‘wait and see’ politics came under increasing criticism in the face of military setbacks in the Dardanelles and the Somme. His reluctance to change the mechanisms of government to allow for quick decisions and increased control over the military came under attack from the more dynamic Lloyd George (whose own style would later be criticised for being too authoritarian). In November 1916 a Conservative back bench rebellion threatened the government, and Lloyd George (with Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law and Lord Beaverbrook) decided to act. They proposed Asquith set up a three-man ‘war council’, chaired by Lloyd George, which would retain control of war policy. Asquith would remain Prime Minister, but he would not have a seat on this committee. After first acquiescing, Asquith later rejected the deal, and offered his resignation. On 7th December Lloyd George became Prime Minister.

Historians have long debated whether Lloyd George treacherously plotted to grab the premiership, or whether his frustrations over the war caused him to seize his chance. Either way, the consequences for the Liberals were disastrous. Asquith was left with a ‘permanent sense of affront’ [H. C. G. Matthew, ODNB, ‘Asquith, Herbert Henry‘] at his usurpation, but he remained leader of the Liberal party, and many resigned with him from the government. Although Lloyd George was Prime Minister, supported by a group of younger Liberal MPs, he was reliant on the support of the Conservatives – a strange position for the man behind the ‘People’s Budget’.

Before the end of the war the split grew deeper. Following the German spring offensive in 1918, Lloyd George was accused by General Sir Frederick Maurice of denying British generals the troops they asked for on the Western Front. Lloyd George strongly denied this politically-explosive accusation, even if there was some truth in it (he did not always approve of his generals’ tactics and may have limited troop numbers as an attempt to influence them). Asquith proposed a vote of censure against Lloyd George in the Commons, and despite Lloyd George’s barnstorming speech and – probably massaged – troop figures denying the claims, 98 Liberals voted with Asquith. Although Lloyd George won the vote convincingly, this division proved decisive at the general election held after the armistice.

Without the full backing of the Liberal party, Lloyd George declared he would fight the 1918 election on behalf of the governing coalition. Government-approved candidates were given a ‘coupon’ of approval, and very few of those Liberals who voted against him in the Maurice debate received this approval. Standing against the coalition were the Asquith Liberals and the Labour party – the latter going it alone for the first time in their electoral history. The result was decisive. The government won by a landslide, in a coalition of 380 Conservatives and 133 Lloyd George Liberals. Asquith’s Liberals were out-performed by the Labour party, and Asquith himself lost his seat.

When Lloyd George fell in 1922 after the Conservatives pulled out of the coalition following a backbench revolt (which gave its name to the party’s powerful committee of MPs), the divided Liberals were soon eclipsed even in opposition by Labour. Both men remained in the party in an uneasy arrangement, but it never recovered from the disastrous battle of two leaders.


Further Reading:

The History of Parliament’s annual lecture for 2016 will be given by our Trustee Lord Morgan, and focus on David Lloyd George. Details will follow on our website shortly.

For the rest of the post in this series on internal party wrangling, click here. Watch this space for more!

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