HL Deb 16 February 1928 vol 70 cc159-72

My Lords, in token of our sorrow for the death of Lord Oxford and Asquith, and as a mark of our respect for his memory, I rise to move that this House do now adjourn. I am well aware that there are several noble Lords whom I am addressing who have a far greater title to speak of Lord Oxford and Asquith than I have, from intimate personal friendship and from close association with his political career; but I had the great honour and pleasure of his acquaintance, and I think to all of us were well known his great social gifts, and his cultivated intellect—a culture which, as I conceive, was not only wide but deep. Speaking, however, in this House as a member of Parliament, it was his great position as a Parliamentary leader, as a statesman, and as a great administrator, that has impressed itself upon our minds. We all recognised his wonderful gifts, his eloquence, especially his command of English, and his lucidity of style, which, I suppose, was almost unmatched. Without any adventitious advantages at the beginning he rose to the loftiest position under the King in this country, or in the British Empire.

He was Prime Minister, and he was Prime Minister at a very special period of our history—at the time when a great change and adjustment of social and political conditions was taking place at the beginning of the twentieth century. And, above all, he was Prime Minister at the great crisis of 1914. He was the Prime Minister who had the moral courage to accept the arbitrament of war. I suppose there was no man who was more opposed to war than he was and to its horrors and sorrows, of which he himself was destined to experience the bitterness. But he accepted it. That will be a tremendous position throughout all English history. And he stands out famous in that respect above all. Then, in the evening of his days, when the chief of his life-work was done, as has happened to other statesmen, he came to your Lordships' House, and we had the privilege to listen to his words of wisdom and his unsurpassed eloquence for several years. I am sure that I shall carry with me the sentiments of every one of your Lordships in trying, as I do by this Motion, to record our sorrow for his death and our deep sympathy with those he has left behind him. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do now adjourn as a mark of respect for the memory of the late Earl of Oxford and Asquith.—(The Marquess of Salisbury.)


My Lords, I rise to second the Motion. It had been my personal wish that it should have been seconded by my noble friend Lord Grey of Fallodon, who had been in the later years in even closer political relations with him who has gone than I had been. But we felt that the tie which bound us to him was far deeper than any ordinary political tie and that it was one so close that the all-severing wave of time had never impaired. We thought that the intimacy, the long and close intimacy which bound Lord Grey with myself to Lord Oxford was one which had begun still earlier in my own case than it had in his; and so it falls to me to follow the Leader of the House in speaking of Lord Oxford.

I first knew him in 1882, and it is right to go back to those days in order to make intelligible the extraordinary intellectual quality and the magnitude of personality which he always embodied. We met as young barristers. He was married, he had children. He had no private fortune; he had to earn a living, and he came to the Bar. The Bar never attracted Herbert Henry Asquith; he never cared for its distinctions. But such was the trenchant character of his intellect and such the force of his personality that he almost immediately developed very great capacity. He was not what is called a magnetic advocate, but nobody had such power of grasping and disentangling the most complicated facts and of reducing the question to its real point. So he gained, and began to increase in, the confidence of the Judges, who felt in him their equal.

But, as I have said, he never looked forward to success at the Bar. He might have had, if he had desired it, the highest position that the Constitution of our country offers to a lawyer, but he never thought of it, and that was not from any vanity on his part for from vanity he was perfectly free during his whole life, but because of this, that he felt within himself a certain capacity and, quite modestly and quite simply, sought to give effect to that capacity. His mind turned to public life and he entered into public life with rare advantages. There was his commanding intelligence, there was his conspicuous sanity even in those early days, and there was also the power of oratory which he possessed even then, and which never departed from him. My Lords, Herbert Henry Asquith is an example of a man who showed early the qualities which he displayed later on, and in the same degree. His powers of speech when he first came into the House of Commons in 1886 were, indeed, remarkable. He was a highly finished classical scholar. Jowett had marked him out as probably the man of most promise among all those he had superintended, but he also had, what was less known, marvellous command of English literature. The result was that, although he never was a man who made a quotation for the sake of distinguishing himself, he yet had at his command all the resources of literature, and could illustrate his point with quotations which were sometimes new to those who were listening to him, but were expressed with such precision that the clinched the point.

He entered the House of Commons in 1886. Almost from the beginning he was marked out for high eminence. When, in 1892, Mr. Gladstone made him Home Secretary no one was surprised, and he at once distinguished himself. At that time one of the great questions was what was called the right of public meeting in Trafalgar Square and other places. Immense mobs assembled to assert this right and previous Home Secretaries advised that the proceeding was wholly illegal and had endeavoured to restrain them. Asquith took a different course. He said to them: "You are wrong, at least I think so, but I do not mind. If you wish to be in Trafalgar Square or in the other places go there and the police will facilitate all the arrangements." Well they went and I remember that on the first two or three occasions the weather was bad, with the result that they ceased to desire to go and London became the quiet place on a Sunday afternoon that it is to-day. That is just an illustration of the scope which he brought to bear while Home Secretary upon the administrative problems that came before him. Later on, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, he showed just the same qualities. He had an intelligence so powerful that he could always work with his permanent advisers. If he differed from them, they had to argue out their points and he considered them judicially, and, such was his wisdom and insight, it generally turned out that he was in the right. So it happened with two or three things, now commonplaces on the Statute Book, that in those days seemed an impossibility.

Then, when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman passed away in 1908, it was inevitable, it was the sense of the Liberal Party, that the Sovereign would be wise to choose Asquith as the successor in the Prime Ministership. That was done and then he had a stormy eight years as Prime Minister. I will not go into the events of that time. He fought great controversies on which many of your Lordships may disagree with the course which he took, but none, I think, will refuse him a tribute to the power of mind and of character which he showed throughout; because, he was essentially a man of character. Having taken a decision, he did not ask whether it was popular, or whether he would get glory by it; he simply went on upon the lines of the conclusion to which he had come. And that was his character right through the course of his public life.

The noble Marquess has alluded to the decision which Lord Oxford took to enter the War. I remember that decision well. My noble friend Lord Grey and I were with him on the night of Sunday, August 2, 1914. We saw him, and immediately, without hesitation, his mind was made up. He did not wish to consult anybody. He did not wish to look beyond his own surroundings. He simply decided that a situation had arisen in which, much as we hated war, war was inevitable if we were to be saved from war in a further form which might entail disaster to this nation. Then he pursued his course with dignity to the end, and he preserved unbroken the devoted personal attachment of his friends. He has gone from us and the nation is the poorer. His was a great figure, a figure that could, as others had before him, but few others, wield the House of Commons. But there is something still more. Your Lordships knew him by those qualities to which the noble Marquess has alluded; but among his intimate friends, who, like Lord Grey and myself, had been, as he always used to say, his oldest political friends, there was something that brought us still more closely to him. We had worked and lived closely together through all those years and now that he has passed away, speaking for myself, I feel that much of my interest has gone out of public life.


My Lords, I must associate myself with all that my noble friend Lord Haldane has said with regard to our close personal association with Lord Oxford. From the moment when we all three entered the House of Commons for the first time in 1886, we were drawn closely together in the political co-operation which became terms of the most intimate and unbroken friendship. Now, naturally, when the close has come, one's mind goes back to the beginnings that one knew. The noble Marquess spoke of Lord Oxford's rise to the first place without any adventitious advantages. There was one thing in my experience amongst our contemporaries unique in that rise—that was its suddenness. I have heard many successful maiden speeches in the House of Commons which have genuinely roused the enthusiasm of the House; but in the applause that followed even the most successful of them, there was always a note very creditable to the House of desire to encourage a new member in his first effort. The success of Asquith's maiden speech transcended anything of that kind. It was unique in this, that the recognition of the House of Commons of his maiden speech was the immediate recognition, not merely of a promising new member, but of a master mind. The comment of the Press was that the House listened to him as a leader. Of him alone, of all his contemporaries, I think it may be said that he never made a single Parliamentary speech except as a leader. He took that position at once, and maintained it, as we all know, ever afterwards.

He was a good and strong Party man. Members of other Parties will realise what the Liberal Party feels about him. It was not because he was a partisan. He had nothing of the narrowness or of the thin temperament that sometimes goes with partisanship. Quite the contrary. He was a good Party man because he had a real intellectual conviction that Party politics were the most wholesome way in which the business of democracy can be carried on. By his own example he made Party politics honourable, and no one was more ready than himself to appreciate a corresponding part, a correspondingly honourable Party part played by an opponent belonging to another Party.

A criticism which has often been made upon him is that he was slow to take decisions. Well, there is a weakness in being too hasty to take decisions as well as a weakness in being too slow to take them. Perhaps nobody entirely achieves the perfect mean at all times. But it would be a great mistake to suppose that the reluctance to take decisions which he often exhibited in any way implied an incapacity to take decisions. On the contrary, we who were his colleagues all felt that when a decision was taken no one would announce it so clearly, no one would defend it so powerfully and maintain it so firmly, as he would do. We had an example that is valuable to the country of his quality with regard to decision in that week preceding the War. It is well known that in the early days of the last week of July the Government were so deeply divided that the division was apparently irreconcilable. The House of Commons was divided. The country was divided. It is my opinion that if there had been a precipitate attempt to force a decision it would not have healed those divisions of opinions, it would have brought them out and made them irreparable. It would be an error to suppose that he in his own mind had not settled what the ultimate decision would be. But if the Prime Minister, as Asquith then was, had precipitated a decision, I believe the consequences would have been that at the moment of crisis we should have confronted the world with a divided Government, a divided Parliament and a divided country.

That is an obvious reflection. There is another reflection I would like to make which is less obvious but, I think, equally true. It is this: that unless his colleagues in the Cabinet had thought he would ultimately take a decision, if they had felt that he was the sort of Prime Minister who might let things go on without a decision being taken, then one or other group in his Government would have attempted to force a decision, and the fact that this country came into the War, as it did, practically united, is due, I believe, to that quality of Asquith's that while he did not precipitate a decision, those who differed amongst themselves were content to wait knowing that in the end his decision would be given and there would be no weakening.

Then, when we came to the dark days which followed the declaration of war, when it seemed as if the whole fate of the Expeditionary Force and even of the French Army itself was involved, there was one man in the Cabinet whose position was most arduous, and on whom anxiety beat most directly and that was the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener. Lord Kitchener was peculiarly a self-supporting man. He never sought relief in sharing responsibility, but he put it on record in conversation that of all his colleagues it was the Prime Minister whom he found never shaken in the darkest days. We all felt that those two men, Asquith and Kitchener, were drawn together by the exceeding danger of the time and that the Secretary of State for War felt it a relief to be able to go to the Prime Minister and discuss the perils with him, knowing that he could depend at any hour on finding an intellect that was clear and cool and a mind which was neither excited by crisis nor stunned by what appeared to be the approach, sometimes, of impending disaster. We all felt that the two men drew together and were drawn together by Asquith's wonderful quality of remaining unperturbed, clear and cool, in the face of the greatest danger.

I will not dwell upon the gifts on which the noble Marquess opposite (the Marquess of Salisbury) and my noble friend Lord Haldane have touched. Those gifts of speech were the common admiration of men of all Parties—the aptness of phrase, the beautiful, clear arrangement of facts and thought, the stately diction, the perfect form of every sentence. It must be a common sadness to us all to think that we shall not listen to those gifts and that voice again. One thing more. I would go on to an intimate recollection of a colleague and it is just this, that in the highest offices he was most conspicuously free from all self-seeking, absolutely free from all petty suspicions or even any feeling of rivalry. If the Government were threatened with discredit he was ready to stand in front and take the full responsibility without any nice questioning of whether responsibility might be allocated among colleagues. If, on the other hand, things had gone well, he never was forward to claim any share of the credit for himself and it was a genuine pleasure to him to see credit bestowed on any one else whom he thought deserved it. In fact it was as if he was willing that his personality should be a shelter in adversity but in fair weather that it should stand aside lest it should throw a shadow on any colleague who was entitled to the light. And it was all done so naturally. When he was chivalrous he did not seem to be conscious of chivalry. He acted as if it was nothing special in him but that it was just what any ordinary human nature would do.

A year ago he still had both physical and intellectual strength easily equal to any demands that were likely to be made upon him in public life or to any part which he himself might still wish to take. It is only in the last months that he has physically failed and I am glad to think, as far as we know, those last months have not been clouded by physical pain. We know they were certainly not disturbed by any restless longings or strivings or desire to take a part which he himself had voluntarily resigned. We believe that those closing days were calm and serene, and I feel that the widespread manifestation of sorrow, so remarkably genuine in its good will and sincere in its sympathy, must be a consolation to the wife and to the family to whom he was most dear.

Speaking as one who was closely associated with him for so long in public life, who was always in touch with him for over forty years without any ripple disturbing our intimacy and our public work together, I can only say, reflecting upon the close, that it brings naturally to oneself a quickening of the sense of mortality. It seems so strange to be still in the political arena when he is no longer here, but as long as we live he will live in our memories and in our affections. I am glad of the opportunity of associating myself, which I do very gratefully, with what the noble Marquess opposite has said, with what my noble friend Lord Haldane has said, and with this manifestation of sympathy on the part of your Lordships' House.


My Lords, I need not tell you that I make no pretence to rivalling either the eloquence or the intimate political knowledge which has been displayed before us this afternoon, in connection with the loss we have all sustained, in the speeches made from different public standpoints by our leading men, but perhaps it is not inappropriate that a very few words, and they shall be very few, should be said from the Bishops' Bench, a position peculiar to our political and Parliamentary system. And I may add that a close intimacy of friendship for not less than thirty-four years enhances my sense of the privilege of being for a moment or two the spokesman.

It has fallen to me for a quarter of a century to occupy, however inadequately, one of the most responsible and anxious positions in the land or in the Empire, a position the duties of which no sane man would try to discharge without endeavouring to keep in careful and constant touch with those on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of the government of the Empire. I have during those many years been privileged to know, I may say to serve with, seven Prime Ministers. Some of them have been my very intimate friends. I have not turned in vain to any one of them in anxious hours, but to none have I gone with more certainty of wise counsel and weighty aims in what concerned my own responsibility than to Herbert Henry Asquith. Upon the Prime Minister rests in a peculiar degree a grave responsibility with regard to those who are to sit on the Episcopal Bench. Speaking generally, nominations are not made leading to that office without the most anxious and careful consideration, and enquiries that range far. Owing to circumstances it happens to be the case that I have known the inner workings of that system, not for twenty-five years but for more than forty years, and I say, without any doubt, that no man since Mr. Gladstone gave the same amount of time, care and what I can only call elaborate study to the qualifications of those he desired to nominate as did Mr. Asquith.

I have been asked, not once or twice, to amplify such guidance or counsel as I had given by something more. Mr. Asquith has said: "Send me his latest book," and in a few days I have found that he has read it, that he knows all about it. Whatever decision he reached in the end, whether I agreed with it or differed from it, I knew to be based upon an elaboration of care which is, I think, without parallel and certainly very remarkable in one holding that kind of office with all its responsibilities and its duties. But that, of course, is only a little part of what we Bishops speak of when we refer to the responsibilities belonging to the Government, and especially to the Prime Minister, in relation to duties which we are discharging and are peculiarly our own. Certainly there was, in one whom we never can think of other than as Asquith, a readiness of quiet and continuous thought about the higher and deeper issues in which we have some special share of responsibility. I have been privileged, whether he was in office or not, to draw guidance and counsel from him in these matters literally times without number.

Nor can any competent critic have listened at any time to his utterances on public affairs in general—not necessarily political partisan affairs, but public affairs in general—without feeling that there was a forcefulness of clear, cogent thought finding expression in that combination of lucidity and terseness which made his utterances stand altogether by themselves in our Parliamentary armoury. Let any one look at the speeches delivered at critical hours, and what I think he will find, if he is not prepared for it beforehand, almost startling is that cogent brevity, and yet those speeches contained just what needed saying said in the best possible way. Take as an example the little speech which he made—and I think I heard most of his Parliamentary speeches in those August weeks of which we have been hearing—when expressing sympathy with and confidence in the Belgian Government. It was a speech of four or five minutes, not more, but it contained pointed, cogent reference to things in the historic past and the living present as illustrations of what he felt to be what England must express at that hour.

There are many more examples that could be given, not least his tributes to friends who have passed away. I can say that I for one in those long years have learned much from personal intercourse with him and much from listening to his voice on great occasions, much, too, from his example of the making of decisions, based always, whether you agreed with them or not, upon elaborate thought and careful weighing of all that was to be said or put forward upon either side of the subject. We have had reference to that already to-day. To me it has been marked throughout all his public life. I am one who, in common with your Lordships, mourns him as a national leader and misses him with inexpressible sorrow as a personal friend.


My Lords, I do not rise to attempt to add anything to the tribute that has been paid to the Earl of Oxford and Asquith. His brilliant attainments, his statesmanlike attitude, and his supreme counsel are known to you all. Tribute has already been paid to them by previous speakers. But as one who was privileged to be Chief Whip and to be in constant communication with him during the first two years of his Premiership, I want to strike a personal note in connection with some of the wonderful qualities which he possessed—qualities which one saw owing to the position one occupied, possessing his confidence and having intimate and continuous relationship with him, not only at Downing Street but in the House of Commons during those two years, in which the House was in almost continuous Session.

For one moment I wish to express a feeling which was entertained, not merely by his colleagues, but by the rank and file of his supporters throughout the country. He was a man who was always accessible to his supporters. He never resented being approached and he was never irritated, even when he was interrupted on great occasions by having to answer comparatively trivial questions. Not only was he never provoked, but so far as I can remember—and I saw a great deal of him and was constantly with him during the first six months of the War—I never saw him lose his temper and I never knew him rattled in any way. His judgment was the same throughout the whole of his public career. Few people realise how many decisions a Prime Minister is called upon to take. He never hesitated to hear every argument and every consideration that was placed before him, and as soon as a question had been addressed to him, and he had asked questions in connection with the subject, he summed up the situation, giving value to all the considerations before him, and came to his decision. That decision was always one that seemed to remove troubles, and when one left his presence one realised that the right decision had been taken.

He had an enormous following in the House of Commons. He retained office for over eight years and during that time many subjects of great controversy arose. They were the very kind of subjects that tended to disintegrate his followers, and yet he retained his position, owing to the trust that his supporters placed in him and their reliance upon his judgment and ability. He was the most magnanimous of men, loyal to his King, to his country, to his Party and to the House of Commons. He never condemned, but condoned disloyalty if it was shown to himself. He seemed to remove every trouble that was brought to him and to clear it away by the wonderful, lucid exposition that was peculiar to himself. Those of us who knew him best, loved him most and were most devoted to him, were always filled with admiration at his many qualities. Words of mine fail to describe the devotion that was felt by his colleagues and by his supporters in the country. Many of us have lost a great friend, this House has lost a great figure, and the country has lost a great servant.

On Question, Motion agreed to nemine dissentiente.

House adjourned at five minutes past five o'clock.