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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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Why Labour's dismal poll ratings won't harm Jeremy Corbyn's re-election chances

Members didn't vote for him on electoral grounds and believe his opponents would fare no better.

On the day of Theresa May's coronation as Conservative leader, a Labour MP texted me: "Can you imagine how big the Tory lead will be?!" We need imagine no more. An ICM poll yesterday gave the Tories a 16-point lead over Labour, their biggest since October 2009, while YouGov put them 12 ahead. The latter showed that 2.7 million people who voted for the opposition in 2015 believe that Theresa May would make a better prime minister than Jeremy Corbyn (she leads among all voters by 52-18).

One might expect these subterranean ratings to reduce Corbyn's chances of victory in the Labour leadership contest. But any effect is likely to be negligible. Corbyn was not elected last summer because members regarded him as best-placed to win a general election (polling showed Andy Burnham ahead on that front) but because his views aligned with theirs on austerity, immigration and foreign policy. Some explicitly stated that they regarded the next election as lost in advance and thought it better to devote themselves to the long-term task of movement building (a sentiment that current polling will only encourage). Their backing for Corbyn was not conditional on improved performance among the public. The surge in party membership from 200,000 last year to 515,000 is far more worthy of note. 

To the extent to which electoral considerations influence their judgement, Corbyn's supporters do not blame the Labour leader for his party's parlous position. He inherited an outfit that had lost two general elections, neither on a hard-left policy platform. From the start, Corbyn has been opposed by the majority of Labour MPs; the latest polls follow 81 per cent voting no confidence in him. It is this disunity, rather than Corbyn's leadership, that many members regard as the cause of the party's malady. Alongside this, data is cherry picked in order to paint a more rosy picture. It was widely claimed yesterday that Labour was polling level with the Tories until the challenge against Corbyn. In reality, the party has trailed by an average of eight points this year, only matching he Conservatives in a sole Survation survey.

But it is Labour's disunity, rather than Corbyn, that most members hold responsible. MPs contend that division is necessary to ensure the selection of a more electable figure. The problem for them is that members believe they would do little, if any, better. A YouGov poll published on 19 July found that just 8 per cent believed Smith was "likely to lead Labour to victory at the next general election", compared to 24 per cent for Corbyn.

The former shadow work and pensions secretary hopes to eradicate this gap as the campaign progresses. He has made the claim that he combines Corbyn's radicalism with superior electability his defining offer. But as Burnham's fate showed, being seen as a winner is no guarantee of success. Despite his insistence to the contrary, many fear that Smith would too willingly trade principle for power. As YouGov's Marcus Roberts told me: "One of the big reasons candidates like Tessa Jowell and Andy Burnham struggled last summer was that they put too much emphasis on winning. When you say 'winning' to the PLP they think of landslides. But when you say 'winning' to today's membership they often think it implies some kind of moral compromise." When Corbyn supporters hear the words "Labour government" many think first of the Iraq war, top-up fees and privatisation, rather than the minimum wage, tax credits and public sector investment.

It was the overwhelming desire for a break with the politics of New Labour that delivered Corbyn victory. It is the fear of its return that ensures his survival. The hitherto low-profile Smith was swiftly framed by his opponents as a Big Pharma lobbyist (he was formerly Pfizer's head of policy) and an NHS privatiser (he suggested in 2006 that firms could provide “valuable services”). His decision to make Trident renewal and patriotism dividing lines with Corbyn are unlikely to help him overcome this disadvantage (though he belatedly unveiled 20 left-wing policies this morning).

Short of Corbyn dramatically reneging on his life-long stances, it is hard to conceive of circumstances in which the current Labour selectorate would turn against him. For this reason, if you want to predict the outcome, the polls are not the place to look.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.