Margot Asquith - obsessed by the political game
Published: 28 August, 2014
by ILLTYD HARRINGTON
WE seem to be having a daily infusion of World War I. It pours out of the TV, features, radio programmes, exhibitions, tours of the trenches, poets past and present, arguing military historians, and diaries from the lowest to the highest – all managing to hide the unprecedented slaughter and the major blunder, topped by a class system.
This was the time of the third maid and the fourth butler. They managed to control the news by controlling the navy and the army, with loyal and enthusiastic support from the working classes and their party. Labour entered into a wartime coalition. Margot Tennant married the Liberal politician Herbert Henry Asquith in 1894. Between 1908 and 1915 he was prime minister.
She writes about the first two years of the Great War and the reforming Liberal government of 1905. It was they who sowed the seeds of the welfare state but their lifestyle was based on social ritual and routine, at the centre of which was the king and queen.
Margot was obsessed by the political game and, according to these pages, a constant intruder into policy and patronage. Asquith was a brilliant orator and successful lawyer, whose unruffled composure was wrapped up in the phrase “wait and see”. To Margot, he is perfection personified, and she lashes out at his detractors.
Yet she tolerated and encouraged his friendship with a very young woman, Venetia Stanley, which began in 1911. He even wrote to Venetia at tense moments during the cabinet, unaware of the impact on excitable colleagues.
Margot played a hard game, opposing compulsory military service, and she was always there to put spine into Asquith. All the while the killing machine gobbled up men in their tens of thousands on the blood-soaked fields of France.
It is hard now to think of a prime minister’s wife who supported higher wages and better conditions for the workers, but she did, while Churchill called them “curs” who ought to be jailed. Sadly for her, the terminal railway stations were filling up with the mutilated who had succumbed to German fire. Her stepson Raymond Asquith, was killed, as were so many of her class. It affected her deeply.
But life for these people seemed to be a ceaseless round of luncheons and dinners and, for her, sitting in the gallery of the House of Commons. At a dinner in Walmer Castle in January 1914, Churchill licked his lips and talked of “the delicious feeling of war”.
Margot spread energy and unpleasantness.
Of course, David Lloyd George was the snake in the grass, conspiring, intriguing, leching and smiling; but she too had a stash of venom. He was “cowardly, a stranger to the truth and, above all, Welsh”.
At the end of 1916, the conspirators pulled the rug from under Asquith, whose inertia and drink habit was disastrous. Margot raged like an exploding volcano. Lloyd George replaced Asquith, while the exiting PM refused all alternative positions and, for a time, honours. He eventually became the Earl of Oxford and she the countess. She nursed her wrath to keep it warm. What a woman, a silent assassin spraying acid, vinegar and peppermint effectively, but always the constant wife.
• Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street, edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock, Oxford University Press, £30.