( Originally Published 1907 )
I ASKED Mr. Birrell on one occasion what he thought of the oratory of the present Parliament.
" Oratory' " he replied. There is none. Parliamentary oratory is dead-dead without hope of resurrection. The House wouldn't listen to it to-day. The speeches it likes best are in the style of Asquith —plain, lucid statements, gathering up all the arguments, the right word, the clean phrase and no frills."
And sincerity does that count ? " I said.
" Not a straw," he answered with that wholesome cynicism with which he checks all tendency to pretence or preachiness. " I left Rowland Hunt talking in the House just now. (We were dining below.) "He's as sincere as they make 'em, and the whole House is rocking with laughter. No, no--a plain tale without any missionary fervour that's the thing that counts. Asquith is the model.
I went into the House later in the evening, and there chanced to find Mr. Asquith in the midst of a speech. He stood at the table firm as a rock, hard as adamant, his heavy voice beating out his theme with great hammer strokes, his eye fixed implacably on the front Opposition bench. So had I seen him stand fifteen years ago on the platform of a Northern town, while " Featherstone ! Featherstone ! Murderer!" echoed round the hall. It was the greeting which always assailed him in those days. Possibly it assails him still. He stood with his arms folded, the massive head thrown back, the strong mouth clenched, the eye lit with a cold indifference and scorn. He made no protest, offered no comment, but allowed the cries to flicker out and then proceeded as though nothing had happened. Here was a man who at least was not afraid. He might be wrong; but he would never run away. A man of granite.
Mr. George Russell, I believe, has been heard to say that he envies the brain of Lord Milner more than that of any man living. Needless to say, he would have had it motived by other enthusiasms. If I were disposed to envy other people's brains and wanted power and not imagination, I should envy Mr. Asquith's. It is of the same class as Lord Milner's, and, I think, better of its class. It is the Balliol brain at its best. It is incomparably the most powerful intellect in the House of Commons today-not the finest, nor the subtlest, nor the most attractive, but the most effective. It has none of the nebulous haze that invests Mr. Balfour's mental evolutions, none of the cavalry swiftness of Mr. Churchill or Mr. Lloyd George, none of the spaciousness and moral exhilaration of Lord Morley. It is dry and hard, lacks colour and emotion; but it has weight, force, power. It is a piece of faultless mechanism. It works with the exactness of mathematics, with the massive, unhasting sureness of a natural force. It affects you like the machinery that you see pounding away in the hold so measured, so true, so irresistible. It is the Nasmyth hammer of politics. Go and bring the sledge-hammer," said " C. B." to one of his colleagues on the Treasury bench in the midst of an attack by Mr. Balfour. And Mr. Asquith duly appeared.
This mental precision is reflected in his tastes. He is an ingenious mechanic, and I have been told that years ago, when cycling was the sensation of the hour, he constructed and rode a machine with so many original devices that the King, then Prince of Wales, invited him to make him one like it. Perhaps- this is only one of those legends that gather about distinguished men; but it is in keeping with the character.
He has the directness of the Yorkshire stock from which he springs. Asquith will get on," said Jowett," he is so direct." He does not skirmish or finesse. He does not feint or flourish. He heaves himself on the enemy's centre and caves it in. The sentences of his orderly speech march into action like disciplined units, marshalled and drilled. Every word has its mark. At every sentence you see a man drop. He creates the impression of visible overthrow. It is as though you hear the blow crashing on his opponent's front, as though you see that opponent reeling to the ground. Take any of those speeches with which he pursued Mr. Chamberlain through the country the Cinderford speech for example. It read like a succession of bull's eyes " at a shooting range. You could see the flag go up at every sentence. " He talks like an advocate from a brief," said Mr. Chamberlain bitterly. Perhaps it was so. But what a brief! What an advocate!
He has the terseness of phrase that is taught by the pen rather than by the tongue. The art is natural to his clear intellect, but it was perfected in those days when briefs were scarce, and when as a contributor to the Economist he acquired that mastery of economics and finance which made him supreme when the Free Trade issue emerged. " I forgot Goschen," said Randolph Churchill. " I forgot Asquith " might be Mr. Chamberlain's summary of that Titanic duel. He understands the value of brevity as no other man does. He can be compact as an essay of Bacon.
Prophets, Priests, and Kings His capacious mind brings up all his legions at will into one massive movement, and discharges them in a series of shocks. Take that instance when the House had been engaged in the familiar task of trying to discover whether Mr. Balfour was a Free Trader or a Protectionist. The debate had reached its close. Mr. Balfour was still both and neither. Mr. Asquith rose, and in a speech of two minutes and half a dozen sentences left him a wreck, shattered fore and aft.
If the object of controversy is to clear the air and carry conviction to the mind, he is incomparably the most powerful debater of his time. As a boy his gift of lucid statement and breadth of comprehension was apparent. When he came up from Yorkshire to the City of London School, Dr. Abbott, the head-master, was at once struck by his powers of debate. While the boys' society debated Dr. Abbott corrected exercises. " But when Asquith entered the society," he said, I began to find this difficult. Finally, whenever he entered the lists of orators I resigned myself to a willing attention, and was content to take my exercises away with me uncorrected." He has nothing of the tumultuous energy and passion of Fox as pictured in Hazlitt.
Everything showed the agitation of his mind: his tongue faltered, his voice became almost suffocated, and his face was bathed in tears, He was lost in the magnitude of his subject. He reeled and staggered under the load of feeling which oppressed him, He rolled like the sea beaten by a tempest.
Mr. Asquith does not roll like the sea. He stands, as Pitt stood, like a rock beaten by the sea.
He creates confidence and carries conviction, but he does not inspire men with great passions. His eloquence keeps to the solid earth: it does not fly with wings. It assures you victory; but it denies you adventure. It is a favourite saying of Lord Morley that great thoughts spring from the heart." Mr. Asquith does not utter great thoughts. No Balliol man of the Jowett tradition does. The Balliol mind distrusts " great thoughts " even if it thinks them. It believes they come from weak minds and soft hearts—from zealous persons with good emotions but defective intellects. Balliol, in fact, is really atrophy of the heart. It is exhaustion of the emotions. It has produced the finest mental machines of this generation, but they are sometimes cold and cheerless. They lack atmosphere and the humanities. They have none of our frailties. They are intellectual sublimities beneath whose huge legs we creep, " peeping about to find ourselves dishonourable graves." We admire them, we respect them: we do not love them, for we feel that they would be insulted by the offer of so irrational a thing as love.
Mr. Asquith is handicapped by this apparent chill of the spirit. It gives him the sense of remoteness and hardness which those who know him best declare is unjust to the real man: Behind that exterior of adamant there are the shy virtues of geniality and even tenderness, and in personal contact you are impressed not merely by his masculine grip' of affairs, but by his courtesy and consideration. But a popular figure he is not, perhaps does not seek to be. He comes to the front by sheer authority of intellect, and owes nothing to the magnetism of personality. He meets the world in the office, not in the parlour of his thoughts, and no genial stories gather about his personality.
He has the merits as well as the defects of the Jowett tradition. It was material and unimaginative. It produced Curzonism and Milnerism. It lacked sympathy and insight, because sympathy and insight, like great thoughts, spring from the heart.
It built upon facts and scorned human sentiment, which is the greatest fact of all in the government of men. But it has the high quality of reserve. It cultivates no illusions, raises no false hopes. It under-states itself with a certain chill repudiation of popular applause. Its deeds are often better than its words; its Bills more drastic than its promises.
No one ever accused Mr. Asquith of being a demagogue, and when his opponents charge him with falsity of word or conduct they do it knowing that no one believes them, and not believing it themselves. For he moves in the clearest atmosphere of truth of any public man of his time. Artifice and affectation are as alien to him as excess or inexactness, and the firmness of his mind enables him to preserve a singular detachment from the momentary passions of debate. Violence and recrimination find in him no response. He may utter a rebuke and it may be severe, but it is free from venom or any personal taint, and is governed by the desire not to score a mere dialectical point,, but to elucidate a position.
This detachment from the pettiness and meanness of controversy is largely the source of the growing authority he has established over the House. He restores its self-respect, liberates its better emotions, and recalls to its rational self. I have seen him, following on the most embittered attacks, change the whole temper of the House and lift the discussion to an atmosphere of dispassionate calm by the firmness-with which he has put away all temptation to meet thunder with thunder, and has concentrated on the plain facts of the situation. The effect is like the shock of cold water upon an angry mob. It is not the " sweet reasonableness " of the quietist, nor is it the calculated persuasiveness of the advocate.
It is the judicial quality in its highest expression, grave, aloof, indifferent to the feelings aroused, concerned only with the facts and the principles involved in them. No party leader ever conveyed a more complete sense of disinterested aims and unbiassed judgment.
His power of work is unequalled, for the strength of his mind is backed by a physique equal to any burden. His capacious intellect grasps a subject in all its bearings with an ease and comprehensiveness that never fail to win the admiration of those who approach him. There is little subtlety in his thought, just as there is little delicacy in his utterance. It is a purely masculine understanding, powerful and direct. He was in other days one of the society of " Souls"; but Que diable? One would as soon look for Cromwell, of whom in feature and in some other respects he is reminiscent, among the curled Cavaliers, as for him in a dilettante circle. That was the natural element of Mr. Balfour, who was fitted for the rôle of Mr. Bunthorne. But there is nothing " precious " or transcendental in Mr. Asquith's equipment. He is precise as a time table. His vocabulary is abundant, but it consists wholly of plain, serviceable words, without a touch of emotion or imagination, and his vocabulary truly reflects his mental outlook. He is the constructive engineer of politics, not the seer of visions. He leaves the pioneering work to others and follows after with his levels and his compasses to lay out the new estate. No great cause will ever owe anything to him in its inception, but when he is convinced of its justice and practicability, he will take it up with a quiet, undemonstrative firmness that means success. It was so in the case of Old Age Pensions. He made no electoral capital out of them, seemed indeed to be unsympathetic. He had won the victory for you almost before you realised that he was on your side. No man in politics ever mortgaged the future less than he does, or lived more free from promissory notes.
If he is wanting in any essential of statesmanship, it is strong impulse to action. He has patience rather than momentum. He never seeks a quarrel, and does not raise issues for the joy of action. His temperament is easy-going, and, in strange contrast to his intellect, a little flaccid. Unlike Mr. Chamberlain or Mr. Lloyd George he does not disturb the sleeping dogs of politics willingly, and he would prefer a quiet life to the smoke of battle. Mr. Chamberlain's talk was wholly of the conflict. He lived on the battlefield and drew from it all the interest of his life and all the material of his talk. The conversation of Mr. Asquith, on the contrary, though it has not the encyclopaedic range and devouring intensity of Mr. Gladstone, has the same scholarly flavour, the same love of the classics and of the literature of thought. In his public utterance he conceals these interests with the reticence and dislike of display which are characteristic of him and which are so largely the secret of the small hold he has upon the affections of the public. To be a popular leader one must be expansive and self-revelatory, and Mr. Asquith is neither.
It follows from all this that he owes nothing of his success to pushfulness, ambition, or intrigue. His career has been singularly free from drama and sensation. He emerged with a natural inevitableness. Wherever he came he overcame, and opportunity never found him unequal to the occasion. When in the Parnell trial Russell, owing to indisposition, left the cross-examination of Macdonald of the Times to him, it was felt that it was a grave misfortune, for here was the crux of the case. If this went wrong all might go wrong. When Mr. Asquith sat down he had shattered the Times case and made his own reputation. When in 1892 Mr. Gladstone entrusted him with the final attack on the Salisbury Government, he did so with hesitation. But after it he had no hesitation in making him Home Secretary. Mr. Asquith, in fact, is the man who never fails. He is always intellectually bigger than his task.
Two incidents in his career cannot be ignored. He, on the repeated telegraphic appeal of the Mayor, permitted military to reinforce the police in the Feather-stone colliery riots and two men were shot dead. It was a regrettable incident, of which, whatever may be our view of the facts, he has been adequately reminded at a hundred meetings since. And, though he believed the Boer War unnecessary, he dissociated himself from Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman and was one of the founders of the Liberal League that gathered around the disturbing figure of Lord Rosebery. Balliol did not come well out of the Boer War. But he never embittered an unhappy situation, and when peace returned he was one of those who healed the breach. I am, I believe, revealing an open secret when I say that he stood loyally by Sir Henry when the last rally of Imperialism sought to drive him, a roi fainéant, to the House of Lords, and as his chief lieutenant his attitude won universal admiration, not for its cold correctitude, but for its generous and warm-hearted service. No one in the Cabinet was more loyal to the Premier than he was, and none of those who heard it will forget the noble speech he made on the occasion of his leader's death. It was a speech that sounded unsuspected depths of emotion, and seemed for once to lift the fire-proof curtain of his reserve.
His succession to the Premiership was a matter of course. And as Premier he is not inferior to a great lineage. He does not at present command the affection that Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman commanded, nor the reverence that was Gladstone's. But he commands in a rare degree the confidence of his party, and his handling of the Parliamentary machine, at once masterful and adroit, has won universal admiration. He is slow to take up adventurous causes, but, once convinced, he has unequalled power to give them shape and, in doing so, to carry the conviction that comes from his own secure and unimpassioned intellect to that timid public who see the dread form of " Socialism " in every effort after a more just and therefore more firmly-rooted State.