YORKSHIRE has contributed three Prime Ministers to the nation’s governance. Between them they illustrate the social evolution of our political leaders - from the landed gent of Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquess of Rockingham, through the barrister Herbert Asquith, the first from the professional middle classes, to the economist and statistician Harold Wilson, the first technocrat in No 10 Downing Street.
They were all liberal in outlook but none can be regarded as an outstanding Prime Minister, though each left his mark on politics and the nation. Indeed, the Rockingham Whigs, who opposed Britain’s war against the American colonists, are seen as the first manifestation of a modern political party with a programme they sought to carry through in office.
Asquith and Wilson pose two conundrums: what was in Huddersfield’s industrial atmosphere; and what peculiar political gifts did the Congregational Church bestow on its northern sons? Both were born into Congregational families and both first went to school in Huddersfield. Accordingly, I shall look at Asquith and Wilson together, and Rockingham separately.
Wilson was born in Cowersley, Huddersfield, in 1916 a few months before Asquith, born in Morley in 1852, was forced out of No 10 by the more charismatic and dynamic Lloyd George in the middle of the First World War.
Wilson’s education began at New Street Council School in Milnsbridge. Asquith went briefly to Huddersfield College when his maternal grandfather took responsibility for educating him and his elder brother on their father’s death when he was seven. Their different schools sixty years apart reflect their differing social status - Wilson the only son of an industrial chemist too often unemployed, and Asquith from a mill owner’s comfortable home.
Both went on to brilliant academic careers at Oxford - Asquith, the star classicist of Balliol, and Wilson the glittering PPE first at the more downmarket Jesus. Both were dons before becoming serious politicians. Asquith sat for East Fife for thirty-two years, led the Liberal Party for eighteen years and was Prime Minister for nearly nine.
Wilson was MP for Ormskirk or Huyton on the edge of Merseyside for 38 years, led the Labour Party for 13 years, served as Prime Minister for some eight years and, as he often boasted, won - some only ‘nobbut just’ - four out of the five elections he fought as Prime Minister. Both wrestled with strikes, Irish nationalism and the problems of governments with miniscule or no overall majorities. Both led their parties from left of centre, and both were reformers.
Asquith laid the foundations of the welfare state with the National Insurance Act of 1911, oversaw the Parliament Act of the same year, ending the Lords’ veto over financial legislation, and secured Royal assent for the Irish Home Rule Bill in 1914, though its operation was suspended for the duration of the First World War.
Wilson expanded higher education and established the Open University, perhaps his proudest achievement. He also presided over a welter of social legislation creating a more open, ‘permissive’ society and cemented Britain’s membership of what is now the European Union with a two to one vote in confirmation of it in a 1975 referendum.
Both Asquith and Wilson liked the company of women, though curiously Asquith was against women’s suffrage. Asquith maintained a voluminous correspondence with lady friends, and Wilson was dominated and often burdened, according to officials, by his personal and political secretary, Marcia Williams, later Lady Falkender.
There the similarities end. Asquith struggled for 10 years to establish himself at the bar before rising with the effortless ease of the Balliol man through the offices of Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Gladstone, Rosebery and Campbell-Bannerman to No 10. He made it as Prime Minister, even though he had to reject the first offer of the Liberal leadership in 1898 for financial reasons.
Wilson made his mark as the researcher for Sir William Beveridge, author of the report that brought the great social welfare reforms after the Second World War. He was then directed into the Civil Service at the beginning of the war and, as director of economics and statistics at the Ministry of Fuel and Power, produced a study of the coal mining industry and later a book, New Deal for Coal, which formed the basis for Labour’s nationalisation of the mines.
He was an MP by the age of 30 and, as President of the Board of Trade, the youngest member of the Cabinet (in this case Attlee’s) since 1806. He resigned from the Government in 1951 over the imposition of NHS charges but emerged as Labour leader on the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. He then promoted the idea of harnessing ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’ through indicative planning.
Asquith always commanded the Commons, whereas Wilson was initially a most boring performer. Asquith first married a domesticated Manchester woman who died of typhoid, leaving him with five young children. He remarried money in the electric form of Margot Tennant, a hard-riding hunts-woman and opinionated political wife, and readily took to the country house life of the gentry with whom he indulged his passion for bridge. Wilson married his first love, Mary, who guarded his domestic privacy. They were the very opposites of the socialite Asquiths.
Asquith was relaxed to a fault, the unflappable exponent of wait-and-see politics. It was his lackadaisical nature of conducting the First World War that forced him into his first coalition and then his replacement by Lloyd George. Wilson, always a bit of a show-off, displayed immense energy in his first period as Prime Minister (1964-70), not to mention ingenuity and cunning. None of his rivals in a fractious administration ever got up quite early enough to outwit him. He saw them all off before resigning of his own volition at sixty to launch a thousand fanciful, not to say scurrilous, theories as to why he went.
Wilson wore himself out on such diverse problems as Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence, containing the abuse of trade union power at which his Cabinet baulked, an economy unresponsive to his passion for central planning and, not least, holding his fissiparous party together. The much more measured Asquith was not made to be worn out but had plenty of traumas to endure: leading his nation into a bloody war and, in 1916, his annus horribilis, losing his brilliant eldest son on the Somme, misjudging the issue of conscription and Dublin’s Easter Rising.
If Labour came close to losing the plot in the 1980s after Wilson departed, the Liberals were never again a potent force after Asquith.
Their connection with Yorkshire ended with their schooling — Asquith when he left the Moravian school at Fulneck for the City of London School, and Wilson when he departed Royds Hall Grammar School, Huddersfield, for the Wirral. They perpetuated their links in their titles: the heir to the Earl of Oxford and Asquith KG became Viscount Asquith of Morley; Lord Wilson of Rievaulx KG took the title from the abbey lands that generations of Wilsons farmed until the mid-nineteenth century.
Charles Watson-Wentworth was born in 1750 in the family home, Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, that his father built with the longest front of any English country house. He was the fifth son in a family of 10 and, as the only son to survive to childhood, was heir to vast estates and the Whig leadership in Yorkshire. His education is somewhat uncertain - Eton or Westminster and possibly St John’s, Cambridge. But at the age of fifteen he became a colonel in his father’s regiment of volunteers at Pontefract, raised to meet Bonnie Prince Charlie’s threatened invasion. He must have been an adventurous lad because, to get nearer the enemy, he rode in winter to Carlisle to join the duke of Cumberland. It was the start of a lifelong friendship that was to make him Prime Minister.
After the excitements of 1745, Rockingham was packed off on the Grand Tour to get the idea of a military career out of his system. He was abroad when his father died in 1750. He took his seat in the Lords, where he spent his entire political career, married a 16-year-old for love at 22, and settled down to national and Yorkshire responsibilities, and his estates. He was a caring, accessible landlord, giving long leases to Roman Catholics, remitting or reducing rents in hard times and improving homes. He was also a good employer to Wentworth’s huge staff and farmworkers, and boosted the local economy with such schemes as an £85,000 stable block at Wentworth. As Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire, responsible for law and order, he defended Hull and the East Coast from American privateers, and brought to book the Cragg Vale coiners who made a business of clipping gold coins in Halifax.
He was Gentleman of the Bedchamber to George II and George III, and was made a Knight of the Garter in 1760. Two years later he lost his appointments under the Massacre of the Pelhamite Innocents - the wholesale removal of office holders to break the grip of the Whig Grandees. But you can’t keep a good man with high principles down. In 1776 Cumberland was asked to form a new ministry and made Rockingham his First Lord of the Treasury - ie Prime Minister. This ministry lasted only a year because of internal dissension, but in that year Rockingham tackled the colonial problem by repealing the hated Stamp Act, though only at the price of another law declaring Parliament’s right to make laws binding on the colonies.
For the next 16 years, Rockingham was in opposition supporting the colonies, and demanding Parliamentary reform and religious tolerance. Then, as leader of the largest group in Parliament, the king had no option in 1782 but to recall him. In the 14 weeks before his death from flu, this remarkable man, entirely deficient as an orator, initiated peace negotiations with the American colonists, secured legislative independence for the Irish parliament and limited the king’s patronage. Edmund Burke said of him: “He did not live for himself. He far exceeded all other statesmen in the art of drawing together, without the seduction of self-interest, the concurrence and co-operation of various dispositions and abilities of men.”
Bernard Ingham is The Yorkshire Post’s columnist every Wednesday and Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary. This is an extract from his acclaimed book Yorkshire Greats: The county’s fifty finest that was published by Dalesman, price £19.99.