The End of Asquith: The Downing Street Coup – December 1916 by Michael Byrne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this hot on the heels of Asquith’s biography (by Roy Jenkins) because I was in the mood, and because I thought it’d help me get to grips with what happened when Lloyd George barged in and took over.

It is a fictionalised account, so it mainly reads like a novel, and Byrne does a pretty decent job to keep it going considering there isn’t really enough going on to justify a novel, and we already know the ending.

It leans a lot on Jenkins’s biography, but is more critical of Asquith than Jenkins was. In this book you understand a lot more the negative side of his premiership. You see the mix of respect and frustration felt by his colleagues – respect for the man, his skills and his achievements, frustration at his drinking, distractions (female), laziness (or maybe his half-hearted commitment is a better way of saying it), and most of all his consensual approach to government by committee which was too slow and cumbersome for the needs of wartime.

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He’s talked about as a tired old man, the last of a Victorian era whose time had ended. A great man who hadn’t adapted to rapidly changing times and who needed to get out the way for the next generation – especially urgent because of the war. This is convincing, but given Lloyd George’s narcissism and lack of scruples, there’s always a hint of convenience about the argument … would DLG say that anyway, even if it weren’t so bad? Were other solutions possible that might have preserved the government and the Liberal Party, and not led us to the hugely damaging post-war Versailles settlement?

Bonar Law also comes across in better light. Jenkins had no time for the Tory leader, seeing him as cowardly and indecisive. He’s still a shitty leader in Byrne’s book, but he grows a bit of backbone. Considering he was the leader of the UK’s second major party, it seems likely he had some positive attributes.

The main lesson we can take from this for leadership is around adapting leadership style to context. At first Asquith’s consensual and deliberate approach was positive, it meant compromise and a ploddy pace, but things got done and he succeeded in delivering quite a lot of change. However this meant it was more difficult to prepare for the possible war – the problem with being too inclusive is that you’re not necessarily discerning, some voices should be shouted louder because they know what they’re talking about, although when it comes to predicting the future, it’s not always obvious who you should be listening to – and then when was came, it was necessary to have a much tighter focus on key industries (e.g. munitions) and a much quicker decision-making process.

This is the niche Lloyd-George exploited so successfully.

I enjoyed the book and read it quickly, it served its purpose in helping me build my understanding of this critical moment in political history, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who isn’t a political junkie.

 

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