A very British Coup – Carson, the Press and the fall of Asquith
By Ed Mulhall
It was a very British coup, bloodless, polite, decisive. A Prime Minister toppled, a coalition Cabinet re-assembled in the middle of a World War. A political coup full of secret meetings and insider dealings, fashioned over dinner and drinks in dining rooms, clubs and country residences in the genteel fashion of 19th century parliamentarians. But a very modern coup too with the power of the Press a key weapon of execution and political advisors at the centre of the plot. The dramatic events of December 1916 were to have far reaching consequences for the war effort, for British politics and for the settlement of the Irish question.
At its heart was a struggle for control over the war effort between the two major figures of British politics, Hebert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George. Former and future Prime Ministers and the King played important roles in the unfolding crisis but at its centre, playing a decisive role in its outcome was the Dubliner, Unionist and then backbencher Sir Edward Carson.
It was his frustration with a lack of decisiveness in the war effort that had led Edward Carson to resign from the Cabinet in October 1915. Together with Lloyd George and Conservative and Unionist leader Bonar Law, Carson had wanted to wind up the Gallipoli campaign and strengthen the effort in Salonika and Serbia. When Asquith and Kitchener decided on neither option by moving troops – in a ‘wait and see’ operation – to Egypt, Carson left to oppose from outside the Cabinet and make the case from the backbenches. That crisis had seen Lloyd George too on the brink of resignation but he stayed within the Cabinet to try and effect change there. Carson told his friend General Sir Henry Wilson that he went as “absolute indecision and chaos reign in Cabinet, all due to Asquith who has gone to bed to gain more time”. In his resignation speech, delivered from his old position below the gangway in the House of Commons, he outlined that a new structure of decision-making was required: “What is wanted is a small body of competent men – the smaller the better, sitting not once a week, but from day to day, with the best expert advisors you can get, working out the problems that arise.”
Once freed from Cabinet responsibility, Carson began organising backbench support for these views and for a more vigorous approach to the war effort. A group of back bench conservative MPs was formed which became known as the Conservative ‘Ginger Group’ with Carson as chair and he began meeting weekly with a group of friends to plan strategy. This group – which often met in Carson’s London home – included Lord Milner, the former High Commissioner for South Africa; his protégé, F.S. Oliver, federalist and biographer of Alexander Hamilton; Leo Amery, the Conservative MP; Dr Jameson (of the distillery family and the Jameson Raid and Boer War) and Geoffrey Robinson (Dawson), the editor of The Times. Sir Henry Wilson often joined them when home on leave. Meetings were also attended by two who later became important protégés of Lloyd George: Waldorf Astor, the owner of The Observer and Philip Kerr, an associate of Milner. Carson’s wife Rudy described them as ‘his men’ and summed up their aims: “Lord Milner and Mr Geoffrey Robinson came over to tea, they all made plans that Asquith must be forced to go and say if not we will lose the war...” (Lady Carson Diary, 25 March 1916). Carson also kept up his contacts within the government and in March began having regular unofficial meetings with Lloyd George. About the first, arranged at fellow Unionist MP Ronald McNeill’s house, Rudy Carson gave her verdict: “Edward and I dined with the McNeill’s to meet Lloyd George as he wanted to see Edward quietly. I thought him quite attractive but quite the most dishonest looking face I have seen” (Lady Carson Diary, 31 March 1916).
The issue to the front at these March meetings was conscription. Carson, his group of advisors and his backbenchers were for more compulsion (including in Ireland) and were impatient at the incrementalist approach from Asquith who – at this time – was being supported by Bonar Law. The Northcliffe Press, The Times and Daily Mail, also kept pressure on the government. The issue built up to a Cabinet crisis in April with Lloyd George again frustrated and threatening resignation. Asquith, as was his style, played for time and a number of measures – short of general conscription – were proposed (single men, extension of time expired men, more voluntary effort for married men etc.). When one of the key bills, which dealt with the expiry issue was brought before the House, Carson opposed it. The Government withdrew the measure and Asquith replaced it with a Universal Compulsory Service Bill. The Cabinet crisis was averted but the power of the backbenchers and Carson was now evident.
Lloyd George and Carson also worked closely together in the aftermath of the Easter Rising to come to an agreement which would allow some form of parliamentary solution to the Irish crisis. The proposals after the War involved the implementation of the Home Rule Bill with the six counties of north-east Ulster excluded until at least after the war while maintaining Westminster representation and they were agreed to separately by Carson and by the Irish Party leader John Redmond. Both sought and got approval from their respective organisations for the proposals. Carson believed that from the proposals would come a united approach to the war effort and that both Home Rule and six county exclusion were inevitable. The agreement floundered when it emerged that Lloyd George had given each side different assurances as to what would happen to the partition proposal after the War (Carson got his assurance in writing) and when the English Unionists Walter Long, in Cabinet, and Lord Lansdowne came out against the proposals in the Lords. The failure of the proposals which Carson had gone out on a limb to support reflected both on Lloyd George’s negotiating style where neither side had a clear view of the other and on Carson’s separateness from the Conservative and Unionist old guard, who were not for compromise.
At the end of an acrimonious debate on the issue in the Commons, Carson in one last dramatic gesture held out his hand to Redmond, perhaps recognising the long term implications of the failure of a compromise which the two Irish leaders had agreed and supported. Redmond refused to shake hands, recognising too as his colleague Stephen Gwynn did, that his agreement to a solution that included partition would have long term consequences: “That day really finished the constitutional party and overthrew Redmond’s power.”
This failure was just one of the political failures of that summer. Carson pursued the Government for inquiries into the Dardanelles and Mesopotamia; he forced another climb-down on proposals to extend the franchise to soldiers overseas. These were tied into the prolonging of parliament – on which Asquith had equivocated – and Carson began to raise major issues on trade, via an Enemy Influence Committee, intent on protecting British interests. But it was the direction of the war effort that was of most concern. Following the death of Lord Kitchener, Carson had made efforts to get Lord Milner named as his replacement. Lloyd George was again threatening resignation until persuaded to stay by Bonar Law and agreeing to become War Minister (a decision Margot Asquith later believed sealed the fate of her husband). Lloyd George’s direct involvement, however, only led to his frustration firstly in getting approval for decisive action and, secondly, at the leadership being given by the army high-command under Sir William Robertson. There was also concern that there was a growing movement in favour of a negotiated settlement within the Cabinet and a memo prepared by Lord Lansdowne on Asquith’s suggestion on possible peace terms was circulated, bringing the issue into sharp focus. Lloyd George had earlier given a controversial interview to an American journalist saying that what was needed was ‘knock-out blow’ and this was a direct challenge to that strategy. So for him and those he was in contact with outside the Cabinet who were in favour of pushing on more forcibly, this was a serious development. He was also unhappy at the situation in the Admiralty where he had been pressing for the removal of Balfour. All the while, the massive impact of the War directly on the families and constituents of the MPs was increasing. The Battle of the Somme in particular was for Carson both a time of great pride in his Ulster followers and great tragedy as the death toll became known. For the Prime Minister, the death of his son in the battle in September had great personal impact.
The catalyst for the final political crisis was an unusual one: a debate in early November over the sale of properties seized from ‘enemy’ forces in Nigeria. The Minister in charge of the issue was the Conservative and Unionist leader Bonar Law as Minister for the Colonies. In keeping with the more liberal principles of his coalition partners, it was proposed that neutrals could bid in the auction. Carson and his supporters made it a point of principle; only British companies should be allowed to bid; these were the ‘Fruits of war’; “were they to go to the British who had paid the cost or to strangers, or, through neutrals, back to Germany?” Law effectively had to threaten dissolution to win the day but he did, having lost a large number of his own backbenchers and reliant on Liberal and Irish MPs Some Unionist even moved to the other side – seeing the Irish unusually voting with them. Winston Churchill also voted against. Bonar Law was in danger of losing his party. There were ominous signs for Asquith too when it was discovered that Lloyd George had failed to attend the vote. He said he had been paired, but that evening he had dined with Carson and Lord Milner and although Carson had managed to vote, he had not.
It was Bonar Law’s supporters who acted first in the aftermath of the vote and one in particular: Conservative MP and owner of The Daily Express, Max Aitken, later known as the powerful newspaper proprietor Lord Beaverbrook. Aitken, a Canadian, became a key conduit in the events which followed, according to an account which became the standard narrative of the crisis – ‘Politicians and the War’. Aitken met Bonar Law, Winston Churchill and the Attorney General F. E. Smith at Law’s country home and it was clear that Law was reluctant to be involved with any move against Asquith even though the current crisis could lead to an election. Aitken went the following day (13 November) to see Lloyd George at the War Office. They discussed the situation and the belief that Carson would force Bonar Law’s resignation. This could precipitate a general election which could strengthen Asquith’s hand and a growing prospect of a negotiated peace to which Lloyd George was very opposed. The circulation of the Lansdowne memo on that day had brought an urgency to their deliberations. While he was there, Carson also arrived to meet Lloyd George. According to Aitken, they met separately and he then resumed his meeting with Lloyd George where they discussed in detail his issue with the war structures. Lloyd George gave an account of the meetings to his secretary (then mistress and later wife) Frances Stevenson the following morning:
“Had breakfast with D. He told me that Max Aitken & Carson had been to him yesterday. Bonar Law thinks of resigning, & they came to ask him in the event of this, he would be willing to form a Ministry. He flatly declined. He said he wouldn’t think of being responsible for a Ministry to run the war at this stage. There is nothing but disaster ahead. Had they asked him, some months ago, he said, it would have been a different matter: but now he would simply be blamed for losing the war and have the negotiating of an unfavourable peace” (Frances Stevenson Diary, 14 November 1916).
When she told him he would not be able to refuse the Premiership he persisted in saying he would decline: “The Unionists although they would agree to him becoming Premier would still be distrustful of him and rightly too, he says, for his ideals are not theirs & he hates their regime & their policy, & always will.”
It was clear to Aitken that both Lloyd George and Carson wanted the War taken out of Asquith’s hands. Carson wanted him removed entirely; Lloyd George wanted a new structure but with Asquith still in place as PM. Looking back later, Lloyd George remarked that it was only Carson who saw the removal of Asquith as an inevitable and desired consequence of the new arrangement: “He argued that any shifts like a War Committee, whatever its composition, must necessarily fail so long as the chief responsibility and authority are vested in Mr Asquith. Certain ministers whom he named would be constantly at his ear and poisoning him against the new committee, and postponing, modifying and thwarting its decisions.”
Aitken, following these meetings, was convinced that Bonar Law had to work together with the other two. But when gave his report he found Bonar Law very suspicious of Lloyd George’s motives, feeling he was trying to take control away from Robertson and the Army. Bonar Law, though, was in favour of a smaller War committee or council to take control of the War and discussed this himself with Carson.
Aitken then set up a number of meetings between the three, Carson, Bonar Law and Lloyd George, to discuss the war council idea. The first such meeting was on 20 November in his rooms at the Hyde Park Hotel. Bonar Law, not wishing to do things behind the Prime Minister’s back, told him that he was discussing proposals for a smaller committee with Carson. The Prime Minister was not impressed with either the proposal or Carson’s involvement. At their first meeting, Lloyd George assured Law that he had not conspired with Carson on the Nigerian debate, an assurance confirmed by Carson. He also argued just for the War Council with the PM remaining to lead the Commons. Aitken believed that Carson was a reassuring presence at the meeting, agreeing to come back into government if a suitable formula was found.
There followed bilateral meetings between the main leaders and it became clear that one major part of Lloyd George’s proposal was that the Prime Minister was not to be a member of the smaller War Council. On 23 November, The Morning Post, edited by Carson’s associate H.A. Gwynne, signalled an agreement, saying Lloyd George was a “force to which the nation may adhere, which the nation may follow”. By their meeting of 25 November the three men had agreed a proposal and Aitken drafted a memorandum in the form of a Prime Ministerial announcement that outlined the new structure. There was to be a new Civilian General Staff, consisting of the Prime Minister, as President, and three other members of the Cabinet without portfolios. One of these would be Lloyd George who would chair the committee which would have executive power with necessary items being referred to the wider Cabinet by the Prime Minister. Though not stated, it was envisaged that the other two members would be Carson and Bonar Law. The proposal, having being agreed, was brought to Asquith by Bonar Law.
Asquith’s initial reaction to Bonar Law seems to have been positive – as long as the proposal was the final one and not just the beginning of a negotiation. He was, however, very opposed to Carson’s involvement. The following day he gave his formal reply to Bonar Law; he rejected the plan, stating that a War Committee must have the Heads of the War Office and Admiralty present; that Carson’s involvement would only be seen as “the price paid for shutting the mouth of our most formidable parliamentary critic, a manifest sign of weakness and cowardice”. He added that the only construction that would be put on Lloyd George’s role was that it has been engineered by George “with the purpose of, not perhaps at the moment, but as soon as a fitting pretext could be found of his displacing me” (Asquith letter to Bonar Law, 26 November 1916). Asquith had shown the text to Bonar Law before sending it and had, on his advice, watered down his references to Carson which had originally stated that he had been “vacillating in Cabinet and was far from capable in general affairs. He was perpetually striving after strength until this constituted a weakness.”
The three – Law, Carson and George – met with Aitken to discuss next moves and it was agreed that Lloyd George should go and talk to Asquith about the proposal. It was also clear from that meeting that there was disagreement between Bonar Law and the other two as to Asquith‘s future if he would not just accept a titular role. Aiken pointed out that by now the Press was beginning to take sides and credited Carson for influencing The Morning Post to support a greater role for Lloyd George. Law, too, had been talking to The Daily Chronicle editor, Robert Donald, as they were preparing a piece on the problems within the Cabinet on the war effort. The piece, published under the heading 'The Trials of the Coalition' and containing strong criticism of the indecision in Cabinet on the war and coming as it did from a Liberal supporting paper had an important impact in escalating the tensions in government .
Bonar Law had also to deal with his own party whom he had excluded so far and a meeting with the Conservative cabinet ministers was held on 30 November. Here he found implacable opposition to the plan from the ministers and particularly to the role envisaged for Lloyd George. They also stated that they were not afraid of Carson but their vehemence was such that Law did not mention he too would be part of the committee. They came up with a counter proposal of two councils: a war council of the fighting departments and a home council of the home services. Walter Long and Lord Lansdowne were again to the forefront of this opposition as they had been with the Irish negotiations. Law stressed the impracticability of these options and implied that he might resign.
On 1 December 1916 Aitken met with Lloyd George ahead of his proposed meeting with Asquith. Lloyd George had drafted a memorandum outlining the proposed council; the Prime Minister was not to be a member but would exercise, from outside, powers of initiation and veto; two of the members were now to be the First Lord of the Admiralty and the War Secretary. In conversation with Asquith, Lloyd George proposed that Balfour would be removed from the Admiralty – thus allowing Carson or Law to replace him – and they would constitute the committee. Law and Lloyd George met that evening to discuss tactics as they awaited the Prime Minister’s reply.
When it came, it effectively rejected the proposal, setting out instead that the PM must be chair of the War committee and that a second home committee (similar to the Unionist proposal) be set up. “I purposely do not in this letter discuss the delicate and difficult question of personnel”, he added (Asquith to Lloyd George, 1 December 1916). On the morning of Saturday, 2 December, Lloyd George wrote to Bonar Law: “I enclose copy of .M’s letter. The life of the country depends on resolute action by you now.”
The crisis too was now public. That morning, The Daily Chronicle published another Robert Donald article on the crisis with details of what was being proposed. Aitken’s own Daily Express had a very similar piece. Aitken had given Donald further detail through an intermediary, (an American journalist called Edward Bell of the Chicago Daily News) and briefed The Express on the crisis. The details were accurate. Lloyd George, Bonar Law and Carson were mentioned as essential members of a new War Council. Lloyd George also met Lord Northcliffe, the Conservative proprietor of The Daily Mail and The Times, on the Friday and Saturday, gaining support for the issues at stake despite the previous antipathy between the men. Then, on the Sunday morning, another Liberal paper Reynolds News was published with what was viewed like [an] “interview with Lloyd George published in the third person which stated that Lloyd George would resign unless the proposals were accepted and that he had the support of Carson, Bonar Law and Lord Derby and that having resigned he would appeal to public opinion against the Government for its incompetence in managing the war”.
On Saturday, 2 December, Carson was at his country cottage, Brichington, where the telephone bell rang twice. Rudy Carson wrote in her diary: “Lloyd George telephoned for Edward as he felt deserted. So he went up.” The second call was from Mrs Asquith. The Prime Minister had come down to Walmer in Deal which was nearby. But it was too late, Carson had returned to London. Lady Carson’s diary entry continues: “London, why has he gone to London, Mrs Asquith exclaimed and without waiting for a reply hung up a receiver.” Lady Carson had no doubts: “Asquith has gone away to Walmer thinking he will see Edward.” Thus flouted Asquith too returned to London for crisis meetings.
On the Sunday morning Carson had breakfast with Lloyd George and Lord Derby, both now prepared to resign. Bonar Law met at his home the Unionist ministers who were angered by the morning papers and the pressure that they felt Lloyd George was asserting. It was to be a controversial meeting with different accounts of the outcome. A resolution was passed:
“We share the view expressed to the Prime Minister by Mr Bonar Law some time ago, that the Government cannot go on as it is. It is evident that a change must be made, and in our opinion the publicity given to the intentions of Mr Lloyd George make reconstruction from within no longer possible. We therefore urge the Prime Minister to tender the resignation of the Government. If he feels unable to take that step we authorise Mr Bonar Law to tender our resignation.”
This moved the situation considerably; it was an effort not to have their hand forced by Lloyd George but also to ensure a resolution by insisting on resignation (which would require the King to ask another leader to take over) rather than reconstruction as envisaged in the plan of the triumvirate. If the outcome was that Lloyd George were to be asked to form an administration then that would act as a reality check for him as Lord Curzon explained in a letter to Lord Lansdowne – who hadn’t be able to attend the meeting:
“His Government will be dictated to him by others, not shaped exclusively by himself. For instance, no one of us would accept a dictatorship of Carson and himself. The following, both in the House of Commons and the country, of the Prime Minister will become apparent and Lloyd George will have to make terms with them. In other words he will for the first time have the responsibilities of his action in breaking up the Government” (Curzon to Lansdowne, 3 December 1916).
Bonar Law was to bring the resolution to the Prime Minister that afternoon and, following a meeting with Aitken and F.S. Smith, he did so. It proved to be a controversial meeting. Law did not show the text of the resolution with its reference to Lloyd George’s actions to Asquith so Asquith believed he had lost the support of the Unionists if he did not compromise. He did not realise that some Conservatives thought the resignation threat would strengthen his hand against Lloyd George. So Asquith agreed to the smaller War Council with Lloyd George as chairman and a statement was issued that evening announcing a restructuring. He wrote to a friend that night: “The ‘Crisis’ shows every sign of following its many predecessors to an early and dishonoured grave. But there were many wigs nearly on the green.”
Lloyd George had meetings throughout the weekend, including with Irish party MPs John Dillon and T.P. O’Connor, and had travelled back to London with C.P. Scott of The Manchester Guardian, a supporter, whom he briefed on the state of the crisis and the proposals being made. He asked Scott to update Lord Northcliffe. He told Scott of the proposed composition of the War Council and, knowing his support for Home Rule, said that one difficulty with Carson was “his demand for conscription for Ireland. He would have to abandon this. He Lloyd George would not countenance conscription until after Home Rule had been brought into operation. Then Ireland would have been put politically on the same footing as the rest of the Kingdom [and] must accept the same treatment.” Scott was told the next day by Dillon that, at their meeting, it was clear his friend Winston Churchill would not have a role in any changed administration. (This was something which Churchill was still hopeful of the following evening when he dined with Lloyd George. Aiken was later sent to him to disabuse him of the hope.)
Throughout the day in the Carson household different accounts of the meetings were being relayed: “Mr Gwynne, Mr Blumenfeld, Mr Robinson all came with different tales, the only true one all the Unionists in the Cabinet resigned, then wanted their little red boxes and withdrew. Bonar Law can’t make up his mind, but is slowing realising he wants to pull himself out his mess by Edward. The Unionists in the Cabinet want Edward kept out of the Cabinet at all costs” (Lady Carson Diary, 3 December 1916). That afternoon Carson met the editor of The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, who was writing his leading article for the following morning’s paper. Following his discussion with Carson, Dawson inserted in his editorial a passage that praised Lloyd George for finally succeeding in overturning ”the cumbrous methods of directing the war” and replacing it with a small war council fully charged with the direction of the war “of this council Mr Asquith himself is not to be a member” – the assumption being that the “Prime Minister has sufficient cares of a more general character without devoting himself wholly, as the new council must be, to be effective to the daily task of organising victory...his closest supporters and others who had no politics beyond the war must have convinced the Prime Minister that his own qualities are fitted better, as they are fond of saying, to ‘preserve the unity of the nation’ (though we have never doubted its unity) than to force the pace of the war council.” The editorial noted the importance of Bonar Law and Edward Carson to the new proposals: “The latter, most unwillingly, we are sure, forms an essential part of Mr Lloyd George’s scheme of reform. They have something of the old resolution and fighting instinct if it is not unnatural that the one should turn to the other at a moment when he is staking everything upon an offer to re-organise the direction of the war.” Concluding, it rejected accusations of ‘intrigue’ against Lloyd George: “It is just his passion for victory. It was only a matter of time before he found it impossible to work with the old digressive colleagues under the old unwieldy system.”
The editorial was read as it was intended as a major attack on the Prime Minister. Asquith saw it as a “Northcliffe” article. He had been told that Lloyd George had been meeting with Northcliffe that weekend so the piece “showed quite clearly the spirits in which the arrangement was going to be worked by the authors”. He noted that there was detail in the paper about a proposal to include the Labour leader Henderson that only he and Lloyd George discussed – although his Cabinet colleague Robert Montagu, who was trying to mediate between the factions, pointed out that Carson and Bonar Law would have been briefed on all aspects of the discussion. Other papers that morning had also shown the impact of the previous evening’s briefings: H. A. Gwynne’s Morning Post proclaimed Asquith’s defeat by saying “Cock Robin is dead” and Scott’s Manchester Guardian determined the proposal to be humiliation for the Prime Minister and offered a grudging but qualified welcome for Carson’s involvement in the proposals. It required assurances that his inclusion did not mean that there would be any attempt to force conscription in Ireland or any accentuation of the repressive policy in force there: “But Sir Edward Carson is not in all respects the sire Edward Carson of pre-war days and we cannot suppose that he, any more than Lloyd George, would be guilty of raising a storm within our gates when their whole thought and strength should be given to quelling the terrible storm without them.
Asquith, by now, had met many of his Liberal cabinet colleagues who were against the proposal and particularly the proposed membership of the Committee. His Chancellor Reginald McKenna was particularly vehement in his opposition. Asquith was also getting indications from the Unionist ministers that their resolution of Sunday was not as supportive of Lloyd George as he had originally interpreted it. Lord Curzon sent an ambiguous letter saying that their resolution was ‘far from having the sinister report’ that was being ascribed to it and Asquith met Lord Lansdowne, the Conservative minister most opposed to Lloyd George. The Prime Minister wrote to Lloyd George:
“Such productions as the first leading article in to-day’s Times, showing the infinite possibilities for misunderstanding and misrepresentation of such an arrangement as we considered yesterday, make me at least doubtful as to its feasibility. Unless the impression is at once corrected that I am being relegated to the position of an irresponsible spectator of the War, I cannot possibly go on” (Asquith to Lloyd George, 4 December 1916).
He added his understanding of the agreed structure with the Prime Minister was to retain “supreme and effective control of War policy”. Asquith then went to the King to tender the resignations of the ministers and to receive permission to reconstruct the Government.
Lloyd George had breakfasted with Carson that morning and spent some time discussing possible ministerial changes with him and Bonar Law. These included the possibility of Carson as Lord Chancellor, which he declined, or at the Admiralty, at which he was reluctant. On receipt of the PM’s message he sent back a conciliatory reply:
“I have not seen The Times article. But I hope you will not attach undue importance to these effusions. I have had these misrepresentations to put up with for months. Northcliffe frankly wants a smash. Derby and I do not. Northcliffe would like to make this and any other arrangement under your Premiership impossible. Derby and I attach great importance to your retaining your present position – effectively. I cannot restrain nor I fear influence Northcliffe. I fully accept in letter and in spirit your summary of the suggested arrangement – subject of course to personnel” (Lloyd George to Asquith, 4 December 1916).
Asquith returned from the Palace to the Commons and moved a motion adjourning the House for three days to allow the reconstruction to take place. Bonar Law had by then realised that Asquith might be changing his position and sought to meet him: “I was disturbed to find that, as it seemed to me, he was not so decided as to the appointment as he had been the previous evening.” Bonar Law followed the Prime Minister back to Downing Street where he found him in conclave with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, McKenna: ”I told him that in my opinion the only way to save the Government was to carry out the arrangement made the previous day. I added that the position had become extremely difficult partly through the action of the Press and partly through his own delay which had made it difficult for the arrangement to be brought into effect without loss of dignity for him. I told him, indeed that as the position was, there would be a certain amount of humiliation, but added that he had gone through this sort of thing before and in my opinion he was a big enough man to live it down.” It was clear to Asquith now that Bonar Law and Lloyd George would remain on the one side. He was now assured of strong support from his own Cabinet ministers and had some assurance from some of the other Unionist Cabinet members. He asked the House for an adjournment to allow the reconstruction to take place, saying in a reply to Dillon on the need for a “Food dictator” that he was against “Dictatorship”. The cheers which followed and the cheers which greeted Edward Carson’s arrival in the House showed where MPs considered the battle lines to be drawn.
Lord Milner summed up the frantic day of activity and intrigue: “L.G. is really making a gigantic effort to get rid of H.H.A., bring Carson back and form a real War Government. All the perfectly useless members of the Government – some 16 or perhaps 18 are clinging round H.H.A.’s knees and beseeching him not to give in. No thought of what is happening in the country – you may observe. It is just their positions.”
Asquith had avoided meeting Lloyd George during the day but he wrote to him that evening effectively rejecting the proposed War Committee proposal:
“After full consideration of the matter in all its aspects, I have come to the conclusion that it is not possible that such a Committee could be made workable or effective without the Prime Minister as its Chairman…I am satisfied on reflection that any other arrangement (such for instance as the one which I indicated to you in my letter of to-day) would be in experience impracticable and incompatible with the Prime Minister’s final and supreme control.”
He had also strong views on the composition of the Committee:
“I cannot be party to any suggestion that Mr Balfour should be displaced (as Lord of the Admiralty). I must add that Sir E. Carson (for whom personally I have the greatest regard) is not, from the only point which is significant to me (namely the most effective persecution of the War) the man best qualified among my colleagues, present and past, to be a member of the War Committee.”
He agreed that a smaller committee was desirable but that only he could determine its membership. As this letter was being dispatched from Downing Street, Carson himself was writing to Bonar Law:
“I am convinced from our talk this evening that no patchwork is possible. It would be unreal and couldn’t last – a system founded on mistrust and jealousy and dislike is doomed to failure. In a crisis like the present it would really be a disastrous on this account to the country. The only solution I see is for the P.M. to resign and for L.G. to form a Government – a very small one. If the House won’t support it he should go to the country and we would know where we are. I quite admit the want of patriotism of many Liberals may raise a good deal of opposition but it will either be overcome or it will lead to peace, and in this latter case we will not be worse off than in the gulf to which we are now heading. If the country is sound everything will come right. If not (and I think every day under the present regime is producing pacifists) we will save further sacrifices. I am breakfasting with Derby and L.G. to-morrow and will state my view.”
The following morning (Tuesday, 5 December) he went to that breakfast. His wife noted in her diary: “Edward went again to breakfast with Lord Derby. B.L. and Ll.G. were there. B.L. is strong for Edward now.” Following their meeting back in his office in Whitehall, Lloyd George sent his reply to Asquith, its phrasing a stinging comment on the equivocation in decision making that had caused the crisis:
“As all delay is fatal in war, I place my office without further parlay at your disposal…As I am fully conscious of the importance of preserving national unity, I propose to give your Government complete support in the vigorous prosecution of the war, but unity without action is nothing but futile carnage, and I cannot be responsible for that. Vigour and vision are the supreme need at this hour” (Lloyd George to Asquith, 5 December 1916).
That morning Asquith got the support of all his Liberal Cabinet colleagues in the face of the Lloyd George challenge. Next he met with the three Unionist cabinet ministers, Curzon, Chamberlain and Cecil, hoping to confirm indications of the previous day that they were not supporting Lloyd George against him. From the three however he was given a clear message that they could not remain in Government if both Lloyd George and Bonar Law resigned. At a Unionist party meeting that followed Bonar Law challenged the party to support him and assured them their position had not been misrepresented. The party sent a letter to Asquith: “After full consideration we are of the opinion that the course we have urged you on Sunday is a necessity, and that it is imperative that this course should be taken today. We hope that you have arrived at the same conclusion, but if this is not so, we feel that we have no choice but to ask you to act upon our resignations” (Bonar Law to Asquith, 5 December 1916).
At 7 o’clock that evening Asquith went to the King in Buckingham Palace and tendered his resignation and that of his whole Cabinet. He did so, still in the hope that no other leader would be able to form a government and that his chance would come again. He had been Prime Minister for eight years and 241 days. The King was unhappy with the turn of events he wrote in his diary: “I fear it will cause panic in the city and in America and do harm to the Allies. It is a great blow to me and will I fear buck up the Germans.” He did not want the instability of a wartime election. He summoned Bonar Law as the leader of the next largest party, he told him he would not agree to a dissolution in the present circumstances and that a government must be formed. Law told the King that he believed Lloyd George could form a Government but that he would see if unity could be maintained by Mr Asquith serving under him (or another neutral Prime Minister). Law having consulted with Lloyd George went to Asquith and asked him would he serve under him (Law) or under a neutral leader like Balfour. Asquith declined both suggestions.
Law went immediately to Carson’s house to confer with Carson and Lloyd George. Lady Carson noted: “Ll.G came here at 10 (pm) I just waited to wish him luck…He said ‘he and I are going to see this through’, meaning Edward. B. L. is there now and Addison, and they are making a Cabinet in Edward’s room, and I am waiting impatiently. I am sure that E. and Ll.G can manage it and all will be well.”
The three men met again the following morning and decided, given the potential weakness of resolve in some of the Unionist leaders, to try and get Balfour firmly on their side. Law and Lloyd George went to visit him at his home where he was still recovering from his illness. Balfour advised that nothing could be concluded until the King held a conference of all the leaders to discuss the potential for national government. Carson meanwhile had to deal with a crisis of his own. In an apparent fight back from his opponents that morning’s Daily Chronicle had reported that Carson was in favour of setting up a Home Rule parliament for the whole of Ireland, with Ulster being provisionally included for a period of three years, on condition that conscription was extended to Ireland. (The Conservative Agriculture minister David Lindsay had noted speculation on such a deal by Lloyd George and involving Irish Party MP Joseph Devlin and Carson the previous day) Carson issued a personal message to Belfast (carried in the evening papers and The Westminster Gazette, edited by Asquith loyalist, J.A. Spender) saying: “The statement is without foundation. Ulstermen know my views and my unabated loyalty to them.” Supporting this refutation, John Redmond issued a statement saying that he had had no negotiations with Mr Lloyd George, Sir Edward Carson or anybody else on the subject. The next day’s Times editorial listed the ‘fabricated kite’ of a story with other efforts of Liberal party newspapers to block the reform of Government by the men who had blocked it before.
The King held a conference of the main leaders in Buckingham Palace on Wednesday afternoon. In attendance were Asquith, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Balfour and Labour Leader Arthur Henderson. Asquith was asked formally if he would serve under Bonar Law. That evening, having consulted his Liberal colleagues, he replied in the negative. Bonar Law replied that “he greatly regretted his decision” and informed the King he was unable to form a government. The King would next ask Lloyd George. As the leaders drove back and forth from Buckingham Palace that evening, one of the evening newspaper placards proclaimed the headline ‘Carson’s Coup’. Carson had been with Bonar Law and Lloyd George throughout the day and was standing with Lloyd George at the window of his office in Whitehall looking out at the gathering expectant crowds when the summons from the Palace came. Carson said to Lloyd George: “Go and take what is coming to you.”
Lloyd George’s challenge was not to be underestimated. His secretary Frances Stevenson noted that a message from Asquith was received “to the effect that his Liberal colleagues had refused as a body to serve under D”. He would however have backbench support and a count said that he had 46 clear supporters and 126 others would support him if he could form a government. The cabinet though would now have to come primarily from Unionist ranks where Lloyd George was regarded with suspicion. Immediately having left Buckingham Palace, Lloyd George and Bonar Law met and agreed that Balfour should be offered the Foreign Office. Bonar Law relayed the request: “Mr Balfour rose from his seat and without a moment’s hesitation said: “That’s indeed putting a pistol at my head, but I at once say yes.”” It was a crucial decision; Balfour's stature as a former Prime Minister brought great credibility to the efforts to form a new administration.
George next sought to broaden the base of his administration. The following morning, Thursday 7 December he addressed the National Executive of the Labour Party. It was a successful meeting though the future Labour Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald probably summed it up accurately when he said: “He was exceedingly amiable, but excessively indefinite. He was like a piece of mercury.” He got their support and Henderson would be in the Cabinet. Lloyd George then began to meet with the Conservative leaders and to try and get those who had opposed him before onside. He met Long, Curzon, Cecil and Chamberlain. Curzon was the first of the three C’s to break from the rest agreeing to join when it was intimated that he may be a member of the War Cabinet. Long had a secret meeting with Lloyd George and Bonar Law earlier where he was offered his choice of Ministry apart from the War Office and the Admiralty; he got the Colonies.
Lloyd George then met formally with the four and Bonar Law where he gave details of the proposal for government and the extent of support he had gained from the backbenches and the Labour Party. A detailed memo was taken of the meeting. In it, Lloyd George is reported to have outlined to the meeting the arrangements he had agreed with Labour including a seat in the War Committee. That Committee and the Cabinet were to be identical and would consist of four members; the Prime Minister, Bonar Law as Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the Commons, could attend when he desired. To the deliberations could be added, as the occasion required, Mr Balfour as Foreign secretary, Sir W. Robertson representing the War Office and the First Lord of the Admiralty (for which the memo noted the Unionist members strongly pressed the claims of Lord Milner). He outlined other proposed Ministerial appointments including Lord Derby as Secretary of State for War, Mr Long as Secretary of State for the Colonies with Chamberlain, F.E. Smith and Cecil retaining their current positions. He said in reply to questions that he had no intention of asking Lord Northcliffe or Winston Churchill to join the Administration. He had given no assurances to the Irish party on military compulsion or Home Rule. He was asked, given recent events, whether there should be further curbs on the Press as had been done in France. He said he would look into that example but thought it undesirable to announce any restrictions in the early days of a new administration. Those assurances given, the memo concluded: “After these explanations the Unionist ex Members stated their willingness to accept office under Mr. Lloyd George, and the latter expressed his intention to inform the King without delay that he was now in a position definitely to accept the duty of forming an Administration.” At 7.30 pm, Lloyd George went to the Palace, informed the King he would be able to form a Ministry and ‘kissed hands’ as the new Prime Minister.
There was, however, further drama left before the appointments to the Cabinet and the Administration were officially made. Max Aitken who had been assistant to Bonar Law and Lloyd George during the crisis had expectations of getting the Board of Trade, but was told by both that it was given to Albert Stanley. Having declined another post he was offered a peerage and the job of representing the business departments in the House of Lords. He accepted and became Lord Beaverbrook. He was now a Press Lord; the other one, Northcliffe, would soon return to his critical stance regarding the retention of some Unionist ministers and declining an invitation from the new Prime Minister to attend at Downing Street. Aiken said of Carson during this period: “The moment that Asquith’s fall was accomplished a kind of incuriousness seemed to descend about him. He was like a man whose task was accomplished. He made no claim for himself. Nor did he make any claim for office on behalf of friends and allies in the House of Commons.”
So it was with his own position. Despite the expectation throughout the crisis and the outline proposal given to the Unionist leadership, Carson was not to be a member of the War Cabinet and was appointed to the Admiralty instead. Lord Milner took his place in the War Cabinet. It was a last minute change by the new Prime Minister. In his memoir he gave this explanation: “It was my original intention to make him a member of the War Cabinet. He had no administrative experience and I thought that his great talents could be better utilised in a consultative than in an executive position. Conservative ministers resented his promotion to the Cabinet that directed the war and I had reluctantly to give way.” The Conservative ministers had certainly pushed for Lord Milner’s inclusion at their meeting with Lloyd George. But Austen Chamberlain’s account does not point to a definite outcome. He wrote on the following day: “We pressed Lloyd George to include Milner either in addition to or in place of Carson but we were told it was impossible as it would necessitate the inclusion of another Liberal ….as to the substitution of Milner’s name for Carson’s, Bonar Law who was present for part of our interview could only say that it was useless to discuss it as Lloyd George was pledged up to the eyes to Carson.” Alternatively it has been suggested by Lloyd George’s biographer that it was an intervention by King George V that forced the change. The evidence for this is a memo from a later clash between the King and the new Prime Minister where Lloyd George refuses to budge on an appointment as “he had done what the King suggested on the Admiralty and nominated Sir E Carson instead of Lord Milner as first Lord so he hoped the King would not oppose...(this) appointment”.
Carson was also reported to have refused the Lord Chancellorship as it would limit his ability to intervene on the Irish question. So having been given assurances on administrative support he agreed to the switch. Lady Carson noted on the Friday: “We shall have to go and live at the Admiralty. Sir John Jellicoe came to see Edward after dinner. Sir Robert Finlay came in after tea. He is going to be Lord Chancellor. He is so pleased.”
On his first day at the Admiralty, Carson called together all the principal officers: “Some of you may possibly have heard of me as a lawyer of some eminence: but that is not why I am here. I am here gentlemen, because I know nothing at all about the job. My only great qualification for being put at the head of the Navy is that I am very much at sea.”
But the ‘coup’ for Carson was never about Ministerial office. It was about his belief that the conduct of the war was being mishandled. He had identified in his resignation speech the need for a much smaller Cabinet totally focussed on the war effort. That was now achieved. He had identified the need to replace Asquith with Lloyd George. That too was achieved. His close ally and mentor Milner was in that Cabinet. Soon changes would see other protégés such as Henry Wilson come to the fore on the military side. The Ulster Unionist MP James Craig became a junior minister. Of the original Monday night club, Leo Amery, Waldorf Astor and Philip Kerr joined the government in influential positions. The Cabinet was now dominated by Unionists and, together with Carson’s own close relationship with the new Prime Minister, strengthened his position for all dealings on the Irish question. He had strong influence in the Press and backbenches. But it was all about the war. Lady Carson wrote in her diary of Saturday, 9 December 1916: “Edward attended the War Council, he says more was done in a few hours than used to be done in a year.”
Because of illness, it was not until 19 December that the new Prime Minister addressed the Commons with his plans for Government. In his speech there was only a short passage on Ireland where he referred to the failed July talks saying:
“I felt the whole time that we were moving in an atmosphere of nervous suspicion and distrust, pervasive, universal, of everything and everybody. I was drenched with suspicion of Irishmen by Englishmen and of Englishmen by Irishmen and, worst and most fatal of all, suspicion by Irishmen of Irishmen. It was a quagmire of distrust which clogged the footsteps and made progress impossible. That is the real enemy of Ireland. If that could be slain, I believe that it would accomplish an act of reconciliation that would make Ireland greater and Britain greater and would make the United Kingdom and the Empire greater than they ever were before.”
He was followed by Herbert Asquith who said he was speaking from the opposition benches for the first time in eleven years but not, he wished to stress as ‘leader of the opposition’. Next to speak was the Irish Party leader John Redmond, who launched a bitter attack on the new Prime Minister for exactly those faults that Lloyd George and Carson had complained of the previous administration: “In the general programme of energy, promptness, quick decision, is the Irish question to be the only one to be allowed to drift? The enemies of the late Government were very fond of denouncing the policy of ‘Wait and see’. Is the policy of ‘Wait and see’ to be the policy of the Right Hon. Gentleman with reference to this urgent war problem of Ireland?”
Redmond condemned the continuance of martial law in Ireland and the failure to release the 600 men who had been imprisoned and brought to Britain without trial. Lloyd George repeatedly interrupted the speech to say that it was “not merely unfair but a trifle impolite”. He had been ill, action would be taken soon. But Redmond persisted, he warned against any move on Conscription unless there was a change of heart in Ireland and said that any future effort that Lloyd George made to deal with the problem should not be on the same basis as he had tried twice before but on a United Ireland basis:
“I believe that the time is ripe for such drastic, and decided and bold action on the part of the Right Hon. Gentleman. I believe it is within his power to put an end to this pressing war problem. He has powerful influences at his back on this subject, in the Press of all parties, and in the opinion of leading men of all parties… all I say to him on the subject is, under those circumstances, in Heaven's name, do not let him miss the tide.”
Listening to the exchange from the backbenches was the Irish Party MP and army officer Stephen Gwynn back from the front: “For the first time I noticed a lack of cordiality in the response of the House – not for want of agreement, but from a profound depression. The old temper of bickering had revived, especially between some of our party and those who disagreed with them. One was glad to get back to France for Christmas even in that grim winter.” The balance of power and influence had shifted. It was not just revolution that had diminished the Irish presence in the British parliament. It was Carson's coup.
Ed Mulhall is a former Managing Director of RTÉ News & Current Affairs and Editorial Advisor to Century Ireland
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