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The Strange Death of Liberal England

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The Comet

The Right Honourable Herbert Henry Asquith was enjoying a brief holiday on the Admiralty yacht Enchantress, bound for the Mediterranean on some pleasant excuse of business. He had put in at Lisbon to dine with King Manoel of Portugal and his reception in this precarious capital had been very gratifying. The Enchantress then headed for Gibraltar and was rolling its valuable political freight about half-way between that rock and Cadiz when news was received that Edward VII was seriously ill. The yacht turned hurriedly and made for home, and was well past the Bay of Biscay when, at three in the morning of 7th May 1910, a second message arrived. 'I am deeply grieved to inform you that my beloved father the King passed away peacefully at a quarter to twelve tonight (the 6th). GEORGE.'

The Prime Minister, sad and shaken, went up on deck and stood there, gazing into the sky. Upon the chill and vacant twilight blazed Halley's Comet – which, visiting the European heavens but once in a century, had arrived with appalling promptness to blaze forth the death of a king.

In London, darkness was gradually relinquishing the bleak façade of the dead king's palace and the crowds which still surrounded it, like the rising of a curtain upon some expensive melodrama, where the electric dawn gradually reveals a scene thronged with mourners. But here Mr Asquith held the stage alone, the only visible human being within the ghostly margins of sea and sky, staring up at that punctual omen. A character from one of Voltaire's tragedies would have done justice to this magian situation with an où suis-je? or a Juste Ciel!; but neither Mr Asquith's temperament nor his rather stolid figure had any business to monopolize so pregnant a scene.

He has recorded it in one lightless sentence in his Fifty Years of British Parliament and one can imagine his face, faintly illuminated in the twilight, a bland and weary face, in which frankness and reserve had long fought themselves to a standstill. A touch of flamboyance in the long white hair, a hint of fantasy at the corners of the mouth gave this face a certain incongruity, as though a passage of correct and scholarly prose had been set up in too fanciful a type. Mr Asquith was essentially a prosaic character.

The historian of pre-war England is at one grave disadvantage. Upon the face of every character he deals with there has stiffened a mask of facts, which only the acid of time can dissolve. Two centuries from now, Mr Asquith will be a fiction, a contrivance of taste, sensibility and scholarship; perhaps they will see him then as a man extravagantly moderate, who was facing at this precise moment four of the most immoderate years in English history.

Such is the brief opening scene of a political tragi-comedy. And since dramatic irony consists of the audience's knowing what the actor does not know, it is at least an ironical scene. History unfortunately has decreed that the rest of the play should be somewhat wanting in nobility and balance; that it should be hysterical, violent and inconclusive: a mere fragment of a play, with the last act unwritten. Yet, before the curtain was hastily called down in August 1914, Mr Asquith and the Liberal Party of which he was such a placid leader had already been dealt a mortal wound; and this he had no means of telling as he stood on the damp deck, thinking kindly of the late king. Edward VII was an irritable man, but in his relations with his Prime Minister he had been frank and gracious, even when they disagreed. How would the new king behave, in the political crisis which lay just ahead? These thoughts occupied Mr Asquith all the way to Plymouth.

It was a full fortnight before the late king was permitted to rest with his fathers in St George's Chapel, Windsor. But there is hardly a recorded event in his last journey from London to Windsor – from the Highland lament in the late spring sunshine to the unseemly disarray of canons and choir in St George's Chapel – which does not recall some grief and disorder in the heart of things. Yet the melancholy pageant had been attended by a brave collection of foreign royalties, foreign diplomats and Mr Theodore Roosevelt; it had been marked with every appearance of public sorrow; and had, taken all in all, done much credit to the Duke of Norfolk who staged it, and even more to the corpse himself. Edward had been loved.

But in that ponderous flesh which had gone, thus gloriously mourned, to its long home, one part at least was silenced by nothing more than worry. Whatever sickness – whether a common cold, or pneumonia, or over-indulgence – it was that killed the King, it was political controversy which occupied and alarmed his brain and reduced his mental resistance to illness almost to a cipher.

When the funeral was over, there was a dinner at Buckingham Palace, where the visiting notabilities were served with the customary baked meats. After that nightmare dinner – so well described by Mr Roosevelt and M. Maurois – where the assisting royalties forgot the solemn purpose that had brought them there; where the King of Greece melted into tearful self-pity and harsh things were whispered about the Tsar of Bulgaria – after that dreadfully comic banquet, the Emperor of Germany composed a letter to his Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg. 'The outlook all round is black,' wrote this vigorous and partial observer. 'The Government is thoroughly hated. It is reported with satisfaction that in the days of the King's death and during his lying-in-state, the Prime Minister and others of his colleagues were publicly hissed in the streets and that expressions like “You have killed the King” were heard.'...

Some part of this hysterical missive was true. Though the Ministers had not been publicly hissed, nor were they hated, yet a certain controversy for which they were responsible had hastened King Edward into the shades. It is a controversy which has gone down into history attended with a great deal of frankly comic circumstance and assisted into an unjust oblivion by such a chorus of English peers as might have sprung, fully coroneted, from the brain of Sir William Gilbert: yet during its petty career the English constitution was gravely threatened and the Liberals emerged from it, flushed with one of the greatest victories of all time.

From that victory they never recovered.

Copyright © George Dangerfield, 2007

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