April 05, 2008

H.H Asquith and Gordon Brown

Martin Kettle argues in today's Guardian that Gordon Brown risks facing the fate of Herbert Henry Asquith in the early twentieth century. I think that Kettle seriously underestimates Asquith and overestimates Brown's possible position in the UK's political history. In order to understand things I think we need to briefly understand where Asquith stands and why he is one of the crucial British Prime Ministers of the Twentieth Century- and then understand where Brown stands, at the moment, in British political history and what dangers threaten the Premiership at the moment.

Asquith was Prime Minister for eight years. He took over two years after a general election, when Henry Campbell Bannerman retired from the Premiership and he stayed there through a second and third election (both in 1910). He was a great reforming Prime Minister- bringing in a great deal of reform over the years. Asquith brought in free medical treatment for children, free school meals, pensions, sick pay, health insurance for the poorest workers and unemployment insurance. Asquith presided over a ministry of great talents: Lyold George at the Treasury, Winston Churchill at the Home Office, Board of Trade and later Admiralty. Asquith ultimately was also significant because it was he as Prime Minister who presided over the UK's entry into the First World War. That led to his fall as Prime Minister in 1916, but as long as he was a peacetime Prime Minister he survived and did rather well.

Gordon Brown shares neither Asquith's circumstances nor his longevity (yet). Brown became Prime Minister over what looks like a tired government with many ministers having been in charge for ten years- people like Jack Straw are old figures on the political stage. The cabinet is in no way as attractive as the cabinet of 1908. Brown has not brought forward any marked reforms: he has not yet brought forward ideas which will really change Britain, rather this is a continuation of Blair's regime at Downing Street. That is the sense that Brown is really so much different from Asquith: he is a continuation of a previously charismatic Prime Minister, Asquith was the charismatic Prime Minister. The other difference is in their mentality: Brown is by all accounts an obsessive, Asquith was relaxed to the point of insouciance.

Kettle's article suggests to me one of the major perils of making historical analogies. It is attractive to think that Brown is underestimated as Prime Minister and to look for other underestimated Prime Ministers. You could possibly argue that Labour faces a threat to its position as one of the two great parties of state from the Liberals (more on that later, I do not beleive it) and look to the last time one of the two major parties was replaced by another party (the Liberals by Labour in the 1920s just after Asquith had been the last Liberal Prime Minister). But that brings you to an illusory parallel. Asquith's situation and Brown's were and are so fundementally different: their tempraments are almost opposite, they took the Premiership in different circumstances as well, Asquith's career was a casualty of the First World War, Brown's might be of the pressures of the Premiership itself and there are further distinctions about the degrees of reform that Asquith and Brown have made to Britain. In truth its a bad analogy because it doesn't instruct us as to Brown's possible future and Labour's possible trajectory.

13 comments:

Vino S said...

Interesting article. I agree with you about the great achievements of the 1908-14 government. I don't think the current government has the same boldness of vision - and lacks the determination to tackle right-wing forces in the same way that Asquith took on the House of Lords and the Ulster Unionists. As such, I think that Asquith is underestimated in a way Gordon Brown is not [although it is perhaps too soon to reach a verdict about GB's premiership]

Shuggy said...

This is very good. I agree in general that historical analogies should be chosen carefully and the point about the Cabinet is well-made: it's not that Brown's is merely unexciting; it's surely the weakest in British political history?

However, I think Kettle's article is better than you're arguing. For example:

It is attractive to think that Brown is underestimated as Prime Minister and to look for other underestimated Prime Ministers.

I don't think that's what he's doing - I'm not even sure Kettle thinks Brown is underestimated. In general I think he's making a point about parties rather than Prime Ministers - which brings us to your next point:

You could possibly argue that Labour faces a threat to its position as one of the two great parties of state from the Liberals (more on that later, I do not beleive it) and look to the last time one of the two major parties was replaced by another party (the Liberals by Labour in the 1920s just after Asquith had been the last Liberal Prime Minister). But that brings you to an illusory parallel.

Agreed that the details don't fit but I think Kettle is using the analogy only to touch on one point: it was the fate of the Liberals to no longer be seen as the vehicle for social change in British politics. Kettle is arguing that there is a danger Labour will suffer the same fate, whether there's anyone else available to become a repository for liberal-left votes or not. It's difficult to imagine how this might take shape and I'd agree the anaology he picks certainly isn't going to turn out to be template for the present. Nevertheless, one is left with the feeling that he has something resembling a point here.

Gracchi said...

Vino yes I think most of what you say is right.

Shuggy- good point about the party system. I wonder though whether there is a realistic danger to Labour at the moment- indeed I'd argue that the bigger danger to labour comes if they won the next election. I think they will just lose it- which puts them in a better position to recover. If they win the next election they will though suffer big time at the one after, I'd guess at the moment. The unknown is of course what would happen with a lib-Lab coalition and who would suffer more.

Gracchi said...

Rereading your comment Shuggy I think I got my response wrong. Its interesting that Kettle thinks that Labour might not be the vehicle for progressive ideas: that could be right I'd say its more that they are tired after so many years in power. However again the analogy isn't really right- if you think of the twenties the Liberals didn't die because of a lack of creative thinking- the 1929 manifesto was one of the most creative ever put forward and don't forget that young intellectuals like Keynes were attached to the Liberal party.

The reason I suppose that I really think you can't make this analogy work is that the Liberals were undone by two major factors- the Great War and also the fact that they split in two between Asquith and Lloyd George factions until 1926 and therefore didn't fight elections well. The kind of tiredness that we are seeing at the moment is very different from what happened to the Liberals. I would suggest that Labour needs somehow to recharge- its very much like Ken Livingstone's London administration- they have done lots of the things that they were planning to do (say in KL's case the congestion charge) and I'm not sure how much of the thinking now isn't just adhoc. I don't think thats a problem you can't come back from but I do wonder if it is a problem that Brown, with such a long record, might not be able to come back from.

asquith said...

I'm Asquith!

Gracchi said...

So you are...

Tim J said...

Interesting post, but just two quick points:

The first is one that I've had a bee in my bonnet about for a while - the foreign policy pursued by the Asquith Government both made a continental war more likely, and conspicuously failed to prepare Britain for it. This was so great a failing that it colours the rest of the Asquith leadership.

The second is that the death of the Liberal Party was less related to the rise of the Labour Party than to the catastrophic split between the Asquith Liberals and the Lloyd George Liberals. Had the two been reconciled before 1924 the Liberal Party would probably have survived a little longer...

dreadnought said...

Tim J - "conspicuously failed to prepare Britain for it (WW1)." - The Great War was no different to any other war Britain has fought, except for the numbers it eventually committed. Britain used its financial and naval strength to support a war fought for them by France and Russia. Britain committed like it did because the Dual alliance failed to match the military power of Germany. This was not meant to happen. Kitchener’s call for volunteers on 7 August 1914 has been misinterpreted. He had no intention of using the new armies until the main combatants on all sides had been worn down to a point where Britain could comfortably enter the war with minimal risk. The post war world had to be modeled in Britain’s interest so there was no point in risking the economy and population in a destructive war. So, Britain was ready to fight the war in 1914 because it was only meant to have a minor role in the land battle. The deployment of the army was exactly as planned; to take up position on the left wing of the French.

Tim J said...

Dreadnought - it was certainly the intention that Britain fought WWI as a naval based campaign with limited territorial intervention - that's why the BEF as originally constituted only 80,000 men. But a territorial war between Germany and Austria against France and Russia was *always* going to be a land-based manpower heavy campaign, for which Britain was entirely unprepared.

By committing to assisting the French with an army, Britain should have accepted as a corollary a significant increase in their army. As it was the Naval conflict was largely a sideshow.

dreadnought said...

Tim J- Britain had never, at any time in its history, fielded ‘a million man army’. It was not part of Britain’s ‘culture’. There was an inherent distrust of the military in the population that went back to Cromwell. The navy on the other hand was glamorous and the defender of the homeland and empire. The navy was the guarantor of Britain’s future. To say that Britain should have sustained a massive army is to view the era with the benefit of hindsight. Of course any European war would have been “manpower heavy” but that was to be an issue for the continental powers. Britain had always fought its European wars as a secondary member of a coalition, using its naval and financial strength. This meant that Britain always emerged with its economy and population intact and the peace could, therefore, be tailored to its requirements. The Great War was no different. It was only with the realization that France was in danger of imminent collapse, which would have meant a German victory, that Britain ‘crossed the Rubicon’. Only Britain could defeat Germany.

Fabian Tassano said...

Hi Gracchi. Interesting post about Asquith. BTW, I've just sent you an email re the possibility of having a joint post about movie violence. cheers, Fabian

Gracchi said...

Fabian I didn't get your email- its a double i just in case.

Fabian Tassano said...

I used Gracchii@gmail.com, as per your Blogger profile - let me know if I should use sth else. Or email me at mediocracyblog@yahoo.co.uk