by Norman St. John-Stevas
WIT the passing of Laidly Asquith one of England's brightest lights has been extinguished. I give thanks for the shining witness of her life—I mourn and grieve for the loss of one whose friendship was and remains one of the great experiences of my life.
What first drew me to Lady Asquith and fascinated me when we first met a decade ago was that she constituted in her person a living link with a period of politics which I had long thought constituted' one of the peaks of parliamentary life—the period of Liberal greatness, of Churchill, Grey and Haldane, of Augustine Birrell and John Morley. and of her own father Henry Asquith.
Under her magic flow of words the great days of Liberalism, perhaps the most civilised political philosophy to which England has given birth, lived and glowed again.
But Lady Asquith was not a kind of historical relic, she was deeply involved in contemporary events. This was one reason why her death. although in one sense expected (she was over 80 and had suffered three heart attacks) came as such a shock to me. She seemed woven in with the events not only of the past but of our time.
At times the intensity with which she cared about what was going on in the political world about her astonished and amazed me. It was as though she had a lifetime ahead of her not a few brief years.
Resignation was no part of her makeup. Last year alone she had been to France to take on the Gaullist regime on television, she had visited Canada to broadcast there, and I was with her at the Hague in November to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the setting up of the Council of Europe. She scorned to husband her energy and resources in order to squeeze a few more years out of life.
Like her father Lady Asquith cared about issues in politics; manoeuvring and struggling for power were not her concerns. She was a great moralist and her moral sense was strong and sure. She was right about all the great issues of our times, about the Nazis, about Europe, about Racialism, as well as on the lesser issues such as capital punishment and homosexual law reform.
The only question on which we ever fundamentally disagreed was abortion but she understood my views while she did not share them. We were agreed about ends but not always on means. Precisely hecause she was not engaged in the hurly burly of party politics Lady Asquith was impatient and a little intolerant of the compromises which such a life inevitably brings.
She could consign one to the wilderness with a cheerfulness which no one holding a parliamentary seat could possibly share. Some have regretted that she never sat in the Commons but I wonder whether they are right.
Loyalty kept her out of the House, loyalty to her father (for she could not serve Lloyd George), and loyalty to the liberal party, which she would not abandon even though cajoled to do so by her closest friend, Winston Churchill. The frustration for her was great but she had the reward of her sacrifices: she enjoyed the inestimable permission to he herself.
She was able to be for many a plumb line on the great issues of the time by which they were able to measure themselves and their fidelity. Her exclusion from the daily turmoil of political existence gave her free reign for her prophetic gift.
One of the last causes to which she gave herself was the struggle for the rights of con
science within the Catholic Church. She had little intellectual or emotional sympathy for the Catholic system but she cared passionately for the rights of the individual.
When I asked her to become a trustee of the Freedom of Conscience Fund her assent— in sharp contrast to some others approached — was immediate and unhesitating and she enjoyed the paradox of coming so late in life into an ecclesiastical world which was somewhat bizarre and foreign to her. If there were priests suffering for their conscientious beliefs she was ready and eager to do what she could to help.
Lady Asquith was not a disembodied supporter of causes; she was intensely human and profoundly feminine. She loved to know what was going on and to receive the latest news. She enjoyed a little flattery and attention and was happy at the receipt of presents.
She dressed impeccably and with a correct elegance which was a legacy of her Edwardian youth. She loved parties and conversation and fun. She added to the shine on the surface of life although her lasting contribution was in the depths. Her command of the English language was extraordinary. Words were precious to her and she used them with such individuality and precision that they took on new meanings.
Talking to her the slovenliness and laziness of one's own speech dropped away. She took one with her up to the heights.
Lady Asquith was religious in the truest and deepest meaning of the word although she was not a regular Sunday churchgoer. She had a firm belief in the after life and discussed that, too, with lively interest. She was fond of referring to a conversation she had once had with Maurice Baring when he remarked to her that our arrival in the other world would be like the opening of an envelope and the finding of the letter inside. We would be, she thought, more, not less, ourselves.
And so, too, 1 believe it will he, and I look forward to another encounter with that brilliant and coruscant personality shining in the reflection of a greater light and whom I will recall with love and gratitude for as long as I live.