No political rumination of mine, again, could ever leave out the effect of a war upon Home Rule. What more certain to impair the chances of a good settlement of Home Rule than the bottomless agitations of a great war? I travelled in my mind over all the well-trodden ground of the diplomacies of the last fortnight. I recalled a conversation, recorded in some blue print, between Grey and Lichnowsky, in which there was almost a glow and fervour not common in such: affairs, over the blessed improvement in the relations of England and Germany during the last three or four years. Why was not this great new fact, instead of the Entente, made the centre, the pivot, the starting-point of new negotiations? Grey’s fine character had achieved an influence in Europe that was the noblest asset for the fame of England and the glory of peace. In a few hours it would be gone. I could not but be penetrated by the precipitancy of it all. What grounds for expecting that the ruinous waste and havoc of war would be repaid by peace on better terms than were already within reach of reason and persistent patience. When we counted our gains, what would they amount to, when reckoned against the ferocious hatred that would burn with inextinguishable fire, for a whole generation at least, between two great communities better fitted to understand one another than any other pair in Europe? This moral devastation is a worse incident of war even than human carnage, and all the other curses with which war lashes its victims and its dupes. With a fleet of overwhelming power, a disinterestedness beyond suspicion, a Foreign Minister of proved ability, truthfulness and self-control, when the smoke of battle-fields had cleared from the European sky, England might have exerted an influence not to be acquired by a hundred of her little Expeditionary Forces. Grey, after too long delay, had wisely and manfully posed the issue of the hour for his colleagues, when he declared that we must now decide between intervention and neutrality, and that for neutrality he was not the man. Nor am I the man, said I to myself, to sit in the Council of War into which Campbell Bannerman’s Cabinet is to be transformed. It is after all not to be endured that not even two men in it should be found to ‘testify’ for convictions. Nor were these convictions merely abstract or general. They were supported by my full and accurate knowledge of the facts of the particular situation. I could not be sure that the fervid tone of the colleagues whom I had just left, sincere though it was, would last. I saw no standard-bearer. The power of Asquith and Grey, and the natural ‘cohesion of office’, would prove too hard for an isolated group to resist. The motives of Lloyd George were a riddle. He knew that his ‘stock’ had sunk dangerously low; peace might be the popular card against the adventurous energy of Winston; war would make mince-meat of the Land Question. And the break-up of Government and Party might well make any man pause quite apart from demagogic calculations. In plain truth the Liberal party was already shattered and could not win the approaching election, mainly life. Let him and others do what they would, and with a balance of motives in their minds as legitimate as my own. For me at any rate—the future being what it must inevitably be—no choice was open.
So I wrestled all the afternoon, and in this vein I made my way through the crowds in Whitehall to Downing Street. My decision was due to no one particular conversation, telegram, despatch; to none of the private correspondence from abroad, which Grey used to confide to me as representing the Foreign Office in the House of Lords. It was the result of a whole train of circumstance and reflection.
Cabinet at 6.30. Grey reported his conversation with Cambon. Burns said he must go. The Prime Minister still bespoke him for a talk at the close of the Cabinet. As we got up from our chairs, I said quietly to Asquith that I feared I, too, must go. He looked at me with his clear open eye. ‘One favour at any rate’, he said, ‘I would ask you. Sleep on it.’ ‘Of course I will’, I answered. I left him trying to deal with Burns—in vain. III
Monday, August 3.—
After breakfast, composed my letter to Asquith, copied it fair at the Privy Council Office, and sent it in to him.
J. M. to Asquith.
August 3, 1914.
MY DEAR ASQUITH,
I have, as you wished, taken a night to think over my retirement. I have given earnest pains to reach a sensible conclusion.
The thing is clear. Nothing can be so fatal in present circumstances as a Cabinet with divided counsels. Grey has pointed out the essential difference between two views of Neutrality in the present case. Well, I deplore to think that I incline one way, and three or four of my leading colleagues incline the other way. This being so, I could contribute nothing useful to your deliberations, and my presence could only hamper the concentrated energy, the zealous and convinced accord, that are indispensable.
You remember the Peelites entering Palmerston’s Cabinet in the Crimean War: they entered it, and resigned in two or three days. If we abandon Neutrality, I fear that within two or three days, vital points might arise that would make my presence a tiresome nuisance.
I press you, therefore, to release me. I propose to come to the Cabinet to-day after the P.C. at the Palace. But I don’t expect to be affected by what will pass there. (Cabinet.)
You will believe that I write this with heartfelt pain.
Privy Council at the Palace and talked with the King. Nothing particular passed, though he seemed to scent what was afoot. Then to Cabinet. Saw Lloyd George, and told him that I had sent in my resignation. He seemed astonished. ‘But if you go, it will put us who don’t go, in a great hole.’ I made the obvious reply to this truly singular remark. He asked if I had considered the news of Germany bullying Belgium, etc. ‘Yes’, said I, ‘and it is bad enough, but, in my view, war is not the only reply, and it does not alter my aversion to the French entente policy and its extended application.’ He told me that it changed Runciman’s line and his own. My impression is that he (Loyd George0 must have begun the day with one of his customary morning talks with the splendid condottiere at the Admiralty, had revised his calculations, as he had a perfect right to do; had made up his mind to swing round, as he had done about the Panther in 1911 to the politics of adventure; and found in the German ultimatum to Belgium a sufficiently plausible excuse. I should be ashamed of this want of charity, in the case of any other of my colleagues except Churchill, and possibly the Lord Chancellor. Yet if there is a war, Winston will beat Lloyd George hollow, in spite of ingenious computation.
Then the Prime Minister arrived, with a grave look on his usually undisturbed face. We began with some miscellaneous business of secondary import, I forget what. The Prime Minister then drew himself together in his chair (next to mine), and opened with some severity of tone and aspect 1—’I have to tell the Cabinet that I have this morning the resignations of four of its members in my hands. Burns you all heard.
I afterwards read to Burns this version of what Asquith said, and he pronounced it ‘admirably right’ last night. To-day I have heard to the sarme effect from the senior of us all, the one who is the greatest source of the moral authority of the Government…. Besides these two, we are to lose Simon and Beauchamp. I understand further that many others in the Cabinet, perhaps a majority, share their views, though not at present following the same course. Then it is represented to me that a majority of our party in the House of Commons lean pretty strongly in the same direction. Well, if the circumstances in which the country is placed were of an ordinary kind, my course would be perfectly clear. I should go at once to the King and beg him to seek other Ministers. But the national situation is far from ordinary, and I cannot persuade myself that the other party is led by men, or contains men, capable of dealing with it. Then the idea of a Coalition naturally occurs to me. But Coalitions have hardly ever turned out well in our history. I could not look hopefully forward to that course. You [or we] might shape a partial Coalition. At any rate it is my duty to place my [or the] position plainly before the Cabinet.’
They looked as if they expected me to say something. Naturally and most sincerely I expressed my regret at adding to the embarrassments of the hour, and repeated the points made in my letter of that morning. What could I look forward to but everlasting wrestles with Winston (at whom I looked with paternal benignity), without being able to contribute a single useful word. If I agreed and held on, I should be like the Peelites, who withdrew from Palmerston’s Government two or three days after joining. I feared I must be the Prime Minister to let me hold to my letter. Simon followed; briefly, but with much emotion, quivering lip and tears in his eyes. He was even firmer than I was. Beauchamp said that he felt bound to associate himself with me. Lloyd George earnestly expostulated, especially to my address. Crewe said a word about his wretched position in the House of Lords, depleted of Beauchamp and me, and he remarked that he could never imagine himself a member of any Government not predominantly and substantially Liberal—in which I thoroughly believe him. Grey, in a lowish tone of suppressed feeling, said how unhappy it made him to be the cause of such dissent and trouble among such friends. By the way, I have forgotten to put down that Asquith, almost at the beginning of his appeal, said with some emphasis that nothing would induce him to separate from Grey.
We then broke up without further ceremony, in that vague frame in which Cabinets so often disperse, it being understood that we three resigners present had in fact resigned. So ended my last Cabinet, eight and twenty years after my first. Beauchamp took me to his house to luncheon; I have seldom felt such relief, such lightness of heart—the reaction after all those days of tension. My host said he felt just the same. We gossipped about our successors. ‘Who will take your office?’ he asked. ‘Well’, said I with a laugh, ‘looking round the House of Lords, I can see nobody but my predecessor’. ‘Oh, but how could I take your place, sharing the opinions for which you have left it?’
After luncheon, I went to the Club to rest an hour; then to House of Lords where everybody was talking of Grey’s ‘convincing’ exposition of his policy. Nothing passed in the House of Lords, and I soon found myself with the trees and fresh grass and open skies of my home.
Late in the evening Burns arrived. ‘Have you heard the news? Simon has been got over by the Prime Minister, with some stipulations, this afternoon, and after him, Beauchamp. So you and I are the only two!’
By partial coalition, I suppose that Asquith was thinking of Pitt in 1804. Temporary Co-operation about war, and the conversations and conferences about Home Rule, Amending Bill, etc., might naturally ripen into a formal party engagement. The old liberalism had done its work, and the time had come for openly changing imperial landmarks, and extinguishing beacons that needed new luminants. IV
Tuesday, August 4.—
Found the usual Cabinet summons on the breakfast table. Of course had no idea of going. While I was munching my dry toast as complacent as man could be, a messenger from Downing Street arrives, bringing a letter marked ‘Urgent’ from the Prime Minister:
3 Aug. 1914,
MY DEAR MORLEY,
This is, to me, a most afflicting moment.
You know well after nearly 30 years of close and most affectionate association, in the course of which we have not always held the same point of view in regard to accidentals, though in essentials I think we have rarely differed, that to lose you in the stress of a great crisis, is a calamity which I shudder to contemplate, and which (if it should become a reality) I shall never cease to deplore.
I, therefore, beg you, with all my heart, to think twice and thrice, and as many times more as arithmetic can number, before you take a step which impoverishes the Government, and leaves me stranded and almost alone.
H. H. Asquith (signed).