Allan Massie

Life & Letters: A PM’s summer reading

Life & Letters: A PM’s summer reading
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One of the weaknesses of many political biographies is that they are so often all about politics. The authors either forget that politicians are people, and sometimes interesting people, or they assume that their private life is of neither interest nor importance. So the book becomes a record of what the politician did rather than a picture of what the man, or indeed woman, was.

There are exceptions. One of the best of these is Roy Jenkins’s biography of H. H. Asquith. Jenkins of course covers Asquith’s public life in detail, acutely if at times rather indulgently. As a politician himself he is very good on the difficult matters Asquith had to deal with — notably the Irish Question, the House of Lords, the first two years of the Great War, and the relations between the governing Liberal party and the Conservatives. His analysis of the crisis which forced Asquith out of Downing Street is masterly.

Yet there is so much more in the book than politics, in part because politicians then were not oppressed by the demands of round-the-clock news management. They had time for a life beyond politics, and Asquith, it may be said, had more time than most. He enjoyed a full social life, partly, Jenkins insists, because he was unusually capable of ‘transacting his official business with great speed, but without any suggestion of neglect’. So ‘he left himself plenty of time for his family and his friends, for a wider but by no means undiscriminating social life, for golf and bridge, for general reading, and for private letter writing.’ Many of these private letters were to young ladies, especially Venetia Stanley, with whom he was more than a little in love.

There was a lunch party at Downing Street most days of the week, with a varied, often, as he put it, ‘incongruous’, selection of guests. These lunches were his wife Margot’s responsibility, but Asquith was usually present, and even when Margot was away, ‘often went to some trouble to find guests of his own’. He would also dine out several times a month, sometimes complaining if there was no bridge after dinner. Weekends were usually spent at his house, The Wharf, on the Thames near Oxford.

His reading, even as Prime Minister, was wide, and as eclectic as Margot’s choice of lunch guests. In 1914 we find him reading Gosse’s Ibsen, a book about spiders, Dean Stanley’s Annals of Westminster Abbey, a history of the Wars of the Roses, ‘a book by a Jew called Hirsch about the fortunes of his race in the Middle Ages’, T. H. Green’s Prolegomena to Ethics, and ‘two volumes of Chamberlain’s (the German) Kant, translated by old Redesdale who gave it to me’. He also read Our Mutual Friend as, Jenkins writes, ‘one of a number of Dickens novels he had re-discovered that summer’. It is difficult — impossible? — to imagine Tony Blair or David Cameron enjoying such a range of reading.

Holidays were spent on a round of country-house visiting, but some of his holiday activities would cause more than a raised eyebrow now. On at least three occasions, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, Asquith was his guest on a cruise in the Admiralty yacht, once boarding it in the Tay and spending four days sailing south to Chatham; another time cruising round the north of Scotland; then, more ambitiously, after travelling by train to Venice, joining it for a three-week cruise to Dalmatia, Greece, Malta and Sicily. It was, Jenkins wrote, ‘an almost ideal holiday for Asquith. It enabled him to play bridge at night, to read a great deal at all hours, and to indulge his taste for minute classical scholarship.’

He was amused that ‘Winston never set foot on shore at Syracuse, but dictated in his cabin a treatise (which I am about to read) on the world’s supplies of oil’. Churchill may have been working (that day anyway), but what a hoo-ha there would be now if the Navy Minister (if we had one) commandeered the Admiralty yacht (if there was one) for a pleasure cruise in the Mediterranean, with the Prime Minister as his guest, amused to find his First Lord of the Admiralty regarding Diocletian’s palace at Spoleto and declaring ‘I should like to bombard the swine.’ (In a footnote Jenkins asks ‘but who were the swine?’ — not, however, hazarding an answer.)

How curious the contrast between the leisure enjoyed by Asquith, Prime Minister of one of the Great Powers of the world, and the busy-ness today of the leaders of our greatly diminished country. They buzz about like bees. Perhaps we may wonder, as Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend wondered of the bees, whether ‘they overdo it’.