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A toxic reputation: Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary

One has the impression that the war was a prolonged drama for which she was a critic sitting in the audience. She certainly doesn’t seem to understand what part she was expected to play in it.

Edwardian ostentation: Margot Asquith

Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary (1914-16): the View from Downing Street
Edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock
Oxford University Press, 568pp, £30

Margot Asquith has something of a chequered reputation as a public figure and as a prime ministerial spouse. A lifetime of extravagance left her writing for a living after her husband lost his ministerial salary (at £5,000 a year in 1916, with negligible income tax, it was not to be forsaken lightly) and some of what she wrote was deemed sharp and indiscreet. Her autobiographies, the first volume of which was published in 1920, were especially controversial for their score-settling. These diaries, fascinating though they are and filled with acute observations of the great men of the day – Lloyd George, Grey, Kitchener, Churchill, Carson, Curzon, Balfour and Bonar Law – are unlikely to do much to improve her posthumous reputation. They are laced with her verbatim records of exchanges with the great and the good – or, in the case of Lloyd George, as she would have seen it, the great and the bad – and often involve taking her husband’s critics down a peg or two in order to assert the supremacy of Henry.

Herbert Henry Asquith married Margot Tennant in 1894, when he was home secretary, after three years of widowerhood. She became stepmother to his five children, most of whom found her something of a trial. A starkly different personality from her husband and from his demure and reserved first wife, who had died of typhoid, she was the daughter of a wealthy Scottish industrialist and MP. Used to having more or less what she wanted, she brought her material and emotional extravagance into her marriage. She started a salon at their vast house in Cavendish Square, where the establishment included more than a dozen servants, and it was continued at weekends at their house in Oxfordshire, the Wharf.

Asquith was from middle-class origins – his father was a West Riding wool merchant – but had lived with an uncle in London to attend the City of London School. He won a scholarship to Balliol under Benjamin Jowett and such was his academic distinction that he became a fellow soon after graduating. He joined the Chancery Bar and made a small fortune, which Margot contrived to spend after she married him. His return to government as chancellor of the Exchequer at the end of 1905 and then his succession to the premiership in 1908 ended his outside earnings after a decade in opposition and Margot worried about money ever after – a regular theme of these diaries.

This selection begins in July 1914, with the Liberal government realising it has a crisis on its hands because of events in Europe, and ends in December 1916, when Asquith is removed in a palace coup. Margot largely ignores in her diaries two faults that made Asquith a mild risk as a peacetime leader and a potential disaster as a wartime one – his increasingly heavy drinking (he was known as “Squiff” to some of his intimate detractors) and his attempted womanising, or more particularly his obsession with Venetia Stanley, to whom he would sit writing letters during cabinet meetings. Instead her diaries are a mixture of two themes: her admiration for her husband (which most other politicians, in her view, were too bovine or evil to share) and the evil and bovinity of those other politicians. Wrapped up in all this is a shocking absence of self-knowledge.

Margot was very good at deploying the rhetoric of horror when it came to the war but even when Asquith’s son Raymond was killed on the Western Front in 1916, she seemed to recover quite quickly. Her description of the arrival of the news of his death is vivid and shocking in its realism. Margot wasn’t a bad journalist – despite her occasional attacks on the trade as “vile”, she was earning a decent living writing for periodicals even when Asquith was still in Downing Street – and she sometimes writes with a news reporter’s detachment, as though her role were to relay the scene and not to participate in it.

One has the impression that the war was a prolonged drama for which she was a critic sitting in the audience. She certainly doesn’t seem to understand what part she was expected to play in it. She recounts the lavish dinner parties held in Downing Street well into the war, not to conduct business but so she and Henry could play bridge with their pals afterwards. It may well have been an essential relaxation for a brilliant and devoted public servant, stretched by the difficulties of fighting a war and keeping his government together.

However, at a time when all resources were being channelled towards the war effort, such Edwardian ostentation jarred with the public – as did Margot’s insistence, in 1915, that her stepdaughter Violet should be married with a full, elaborate trousseau. Nor did Margot engage in the extensive voluntary work that salved the consciences of many society ladies and took their minds off the horrors their sons were experiencing in battle. Joining the queen’s sewing circle was about as far as it went and again this did not widely impress the public.

The main difficulty Margot created for her husband, catalogued in great depth in these diaries, was in her very vocal opposition to conscription. In peacetime it was a perfectly commendable Liberal policy; at a time when the nation was fighting for its life, it was not such a good idea. She hectored Henry in private about it, warning that it would spell the end of him and his government. Henry was at liberty to disregard her and in the end he did; but she developed a toxic reputation for herself – and to a lesser extent for him – by her outbursts.

This diary is valuable not merely as a character study but for its vignettes of the mighty. She captures Kitchener’s caprice and the elements of his megalomania. The sheer deceitfulness, unscrupulousness and devilry of Lloyd George are laid out (Margot admits that she should have seen the threat he posed to Asquith much sooner and should have persuaded her husband to do more to keep the Liberal Party onside). Lloyd George, perhaps like David Cameron today, was keen on coalition because he preferred to be in government with people from other parties rather than from his own, many of whom were tired of his shiftiness and insincerity. It will come as little surprise to anyone who reads Margot’s thoughts on him that he could, 20 years later, have found something good to say about Hitler.

When Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, comes close to breaking point, Margot stops a little short of accusing him of treachery. Bonar Law she can barely believe exists, such is his mediocrity; she claims to love Curzon but bears him ill-will. Most interesting of all is Churchill, whose flaws she pinpoints with accuracy and for whom she predicts either death in battle or the utter failure of his political career. She lived long enough to see what she must have considered the fulfilment of her prophecy in the 1930s (Margot later praised Neville Chamberlain to the skies for avoiding, as she hoped, another Great War) but also to see Churchill leading the nation to victory in 1945.

To anyone studying the military or political history of this period, this is an indispensable volume. The Brocks have edited it superbly, with copious footnotes, biographical notes of the main players and a detailed introduction giving a clear context to the events that unfold. In the present torrent of books about the Great War, this deserves to stand out.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily Mail and author of “Simply English: an A-Z of Avoidable Errors” (Random House, £14.99) 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The elites vs the people

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.