ORATORS I HAVE ENJOYED

MARGOT ASQUITH December 15 1920

ORATORS I HAVE ENJOYED

MARGOT ASQUITH December 15 1920

MY HUSBAND was the son of Joseph Dixon Asquith, a cloth merchant in Morley—at that time a small town outside Leeds. He was a man of high character who held Bible classes for young men. He married a daughter of William Willans, of Huddersfield, who sprang of an old Yorkshire Puritan stock.

He died when he was thirty-five, leaving four children—William Willans, Herbert Henry, Emily Evelyn, and Lilian Josephine. They were brought up by their mother, who was a woman of genius.

I named my daughter after Goethe’s mother, but was glad to find out afterwards that her great grandmother Willans had been christened Elizabeth.

William Willans—who is dead—was the eldest and a clever little man. He taught at Clifton College for over thirty years.

Lilian Josephine died when she was a small child and Emily Evelyn is the only near relation of my husband still living. She is the best of women and has shown me nothing but affection.

Although Henry’s mother was an invalid she had a moral, religious, and intellectual influence over her family that cannot be exaggerated. She was a profound reader and brilliant talker and belonged to what was called orthodox nonconformity.

She had to live on the south coast because of the delicacy of her lungs, and when her two sons went to the City of London school they lived together in lodgings in Islington.

After my husband’s first marriage he made money by writing, lecturing and examining at Oxford. When he was called to the Bar success did not come to him at once.

It was said that Gladstone only promoted people by seniority and never before knowing what they were like. It was not so in my husband’s case—Henry’s political rise was unique.

He had no rich patron, and no one to push him forward. He had made for himself a great Oxford reputation: he was a fine scholar and lawyer, but socially was not known to a large circle. It was through devilling the Affirmation Bill for Lord James of Hereford—the then Attorney General—that my husband became acquainted with Gladstone, and from that moment both the Attorney General and the Prime Minister marked him out for distinction.

The Best Orators of Forty Years

FROM being a back bench member of Parliament he became without the intermediary step of an under-secretaryship a Cabinet Minister.

When we were married in 1894 he was Home Secretary in the Liberal government and had already made his reputation as a speaker.

I am an expert listener to public speaking, having heard every one from William Ewart Gladstone to Woodrow Wilson, and I am not very susceptible to rhetoric. There are men who are life-sized imitations of orators but who never really rise above the level of the highest journalism: there are others who in spite of logic and cogency leave you chilly or dusty; and there are some who seem unable to choose between their many perorations at what moment to sit down—but my husband’s speaking has seldom failed him or his hearers.

The intellectual fineness that makes a scholar and the forensic concentration that makes a lawyer would in most cases prevent his becoming a demagogue, but Henry s speaking never had any turn that way; no one has played up with more freedom and conscience to high political standards throughout his public life than he has. If his speaking is somewhat wanting in fire it never lacks light and weight, and when he leaves the ground his strength of wing takes his audience with him. He speaks with equal ease whether he is prepared or not, and throughout the whole of his Paisley campaign early this year I hardly ever observed him use a note. He has form without flummery and his character seems to illuminate the background of everything he says.

I think Lord Buckmaster and Mr. Lloyd George are probably the best platform speakers in this country, but I have not heard the Prime Minister for so many years that I do not know if he fills the gaps between his own and his audience’s demonstrations. Perorated opinions expressed with fire and gesture, however intimately they may link you to your listeners, will not carry conviction unless they are backed by something else; and the momentary magic which fills people with excitement and emotion does not go home with you. I have come to the definite conclusion after hearing every famous orator since 1880, that however wonderfully a man may speak, unless eloquence conveys character and is accompanied by action, it is as “sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.”

Lord Buckmaster is a great artist. He is a man of feeling, courage and cultivation; and when you get this combined with swiftness, sincerity, and a fastidious choice of words, you find true oratory; lie has “fire in his belly,” as Carlyle expressed it. It is when the fashion of the phrase exceeds the depth of the thought, or the grandeur of the sentiment expressed appears lacking in sincerity, that you lose hold.

I enjoyed hearing President Wilson at the lunch given to him in the City on December 28th, 1918, more almost than anything I could have imagined. His is the kind of speaking I like best. Lord Hugh Cecil has white fire and is more brilliant and more elevated, but the President has a quality of his own which is impossible to put on paper. His refined, egotistical face, thin, slightly sensual mouth, and quiet but thrilling voice add to his unusualness.

What Margot Thinks of Wilson

 I SHOULD like to say a word here about President A Wilson and the Peace Conference. No man ever had such a position or such an opportunity as he had in Paris.

He was the only one of the four who went there with a great ideal. There are as many stupid things said about Americans as there were about Kitchener. The idea, for instance, that they are hustling and quick seems all wrong to me; hustling, possibly—but quick, not. They are generous, impulsive, virile, and full of energy, but what I miss in so many Americans is atmosphere, imagination, distinction and idealism They are neither artists nor poets, they are materialists.

The idealism which President Wilson brought to Versailles was what all mankind was starving for and every country needed—its soldiers and sailors, enemies and allies—but the men who made the Peace did not fight the war, and as representatives of conquest they were not in the mood for Peace.

The President’s ideas jarred on Americans, infuriated France, confused Italy, and were neglected by England.

Christening the four “Big” was fantastic! If any one of them had had any size, or even a little greatness, the stupid Peace of 1919 could never have been perpetrated. The Paris Peace was weakened, first by the unconscientious delay of an insensate general election brought about by the personal ambition of the British Prime Minister; secondly by a breathless, though natural desire for revenge in France, later by the complete collapse of America through its President on one side and its people on the other—and ultimately by a general policy of greed, grab, and intrigue, which reduced Versailles to a thieves’ kitchen. The worst qualities of every nation, instead of the best, were as violently visible as the flags flown from ships.

In estimating the part the French played in the Peace we must never forget that they were brutally attacked without any provocation—one might almost say preparation—on their part. It is difficult for us to realize what they have suffered. The deliberate and wanton laying waste of their orchards, their factories and lands by the Germans even after they knew they had been defeated will never be forgiven. It was in consequence of this peculiar Prussian arrogance that the big and little nations grouped together originally, and it is the subsequent ruthlessness shown by the Germans that has brought about the ardent desire to keep them punished which is pursuing people like an evil spirit all over the world to-day.

It was the business of the Big Four to put a stop to all this revenge and unwisdom at Versailles.

Did they try to? Have they succeeded? Can anyone say that this is a good Peace?

There are people even in this sane country who say that if we had been better prepared for war in August, 1914, it could not have taken place. To these I would put one question: Was not Germany prepared for war? The very reverse is true: if you are sufficiently prepared for war you will certainly get it. What Prime Minister would have stayed in office, or what Government could have carried on, if they had asked any House of Commons at any time to allow them to have a standing army of four million men kept fully equipped on the chance of war with Germany or with any other country? To keep an immense army, a huge navy, and have a vast trade by which you pay for both is asking too much of Fortune. However well prepared we might have been the war would have taken place just the same, and the very strength of our position in Europe on the 4th of August, 1914, was that we had not provoked Germany or any other country by huge Prussian preparations. It was more than lucky for Europe that the Liberal Party was in office in that fateful year—as it is conceivable the Tory Jingoes might not have inspired the same confidence.

A Good War and a Bad Case

POLITICAL memories are short, but I have not forgotten the Boer War. There was quite a good case for that war, but no one could say if was well presented. I will go further, there was not a country in Europe or the Continent that understood it. Still less did people understand our South African Peace. The Lyttleton Constitution, which the Unionists approved, was giving with one hand and taking away with the other. When my husband proposed giving with both he was lost to the world! When he tried during the war with his usual foresight to fix up Irish self-government he reminded Arthur Balfour of the attitude he and his party had foolishly adopted in the South African Peace. He said:

“When I heard the right hon. gentleman just now in his spirited peroration, which evoked so much enthusiasm on the benches behind him, predict in fuliginous language what was at least likely to happen on the grant of self-government to Ireland, when he compared us and spoke of us, I think his phrase was, as the assassins, or prospective, contingent possible assassins at any rate, of British liberties and of the British Constitution, I could not help recalling how, not more than six years ago, from that very same place, I heard the same right hon. gentleman predict, with equal confidence and in equally lurid language, the consequences which would follow from what he described as the most reckless experiment that political folly had ever conceived in the grant of responsible self-government to the Transvaal. In building up a great Empire it is always necessary to take risks. As the old Roman poet said, and it is equally true of us, tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. You must take risks. The risks we have run have been invariably justified by subsequent experience, because in devolving from ourselves the control of local affairs upon local communities, and in building up their separate life upon a basis of self-government, with the fullest freedom of self-development, we have invariably found that we have had our reward, and more than our reward, in their increased loyalty and affection to the Empire as a whole.” 

In Proverbs, Chapter 29, Verse 18, it says: “Where there is no vision the people perish....” The case for England going into this war was nobly presented, and by a man who, foreseeing the futility of Force, made a Peace Settlement with the aid of the British Prime Minister of the day in South Africa, which staggered Europe.

Forget You are a Conqueror

THE critics who say we Liberals were criminal not to keep a standing army of four million men are the men who called themselves Loyalists then, and who, if they had been listened to, would have lost us not only South Africa, but our good name all over the world. If these critics are teachable, Prussia’s perfection of military preparation should be an object lesson of the most formidable kind.

She prepared for war on a bigger scale than any country in the world and for a longer time. Can it be said to have brought her success?

She may not have been sufficiently punished for this wicked preparing and its inevitable culmination, but the mills of God grind exceeding slow. In hurrying them, let us make quite sure that we ourselves shall not be entangled. It was pride and vanity over her success in life that turned Germany’s head and heart. Let us be careful that pride in our even greater successes does not turn ours also. There is only one antidote to vanity after war—or indeed at any time—and that is to forget you are a conqueror and remember God.

“In the days when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves... when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in their way....

“For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.”