Herbert Asquith, prime minister from 1908-1916

Asquith’s Coalition government of May 1915 changed little in terms of Britain’s war management. It was hardly likely to given that it was a basic reshuffle of old faces and older politics. Alfred Milner was well aware that this would be the case, and as such, it suited the Secret Elite to bide their time before catapulting their leader into front-line politics. Milner was initially stirred into action over Asquith’s inability to make clear decisions, and criticised the ‘contradictions and inconsistencies which have characterised our action as a nation’. [1] He began to turn the screw on the prime minister in the House of Lords early in 1916 and Sir Edward Carson did likewise in the Commons. [2] Carson had originally been the protege of Alfred Balfour, and was a fellow member of the Secret Elite. It did not take long for the unnatural coalition of conservatives and liberals to unravel inside the Cabinet.

Within the context of 1916, the British nation had no respite from disaster. The Somme [ref] produced heavy losses made more unpalatable by negligible gains. In the War Committee, Curzon and Balfour waged a bitter and prolonged inter-departmental dispute over the future of the Air Board [3] to the detriment of other critical business. Without Kitchener, the General Staff appeared complacent and Maurice Hankey feared the generals were ‘bleeding us to death’. [4] He warned Lloyd George that the British Army was led by ‘the most conservative class in the world, forming the most powerful trades union in the world’ [5] It was an astute observation. The Staff ‘ring’ (and these were Hankey’s words) which had been brought together under the pre-war influence of Milner’s great ally, and former head of the Army, Lord Roberts, [6] was indeed a closed union of former cavalry officers, so self satisfied and complacent that they ignored the views of others. [7] Whatever the obscene consequences of their mistakes, they continued to repeat them with the arrogance of those who are convinced that they know better.

Confirmed in their view that the democratic process had failed to provide the leadership and organisation which was needed to win the war on their terms, Milner and the Secret Elite began the process of completely undermining the government and replacing it with their own agents. In January 1916 a small group of Milner’s closest friends and disciples formed a very distinctive and secret cabal to prepare the nation for a change so radical, that it was nothing less than a coup; a planned take-over of government by men who sought to impose their own rule rather than seek a mandate from the general public. [8] Having ensured that the war was prolonged, they now sought to ensure that it would be waged to the utter destruction of Germany.

Waldorf and Nancy Astor: both identified by Carroll Quigley as members of Milner's cabal.

The men behind the carefully constructed conspiracy were Alfred Milner, Leo Amery, Sir Edward Carson, Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, F.S. Oliver the influential writer who believed that war was a necessity, [9] and Waldorf Astor, the owner of The Observer. They met regularly on Monday evenings to formulate their alternative plans for war management over dinner. These men were drawn from the inner-circle of Milner’s most trusted associates. [10] Others who were invited to join them included, Lloyd George, Sir Henry Wilson, (at that point a corps commander on the Western Front) Philip Kerr, another of Milner’s proteges from his days in South Africa, and Sir Leander Starr Jameson, the man who almost brought down the British government in 1896 in the wake of his abortive raid on the Transvaal. [11] Could anyone have anticipated that Jameson would have reemerged in London inside a very powerful conspiracy some twenty years after he had almost blown Cecil Rhode’s dream apart? [12] But then he was always the servant of the mighty South African arm of the Secret Elite.

On the rare occasions that this clique has been mentioned by historians, it is usually referred to as a ‘Ginger Group’. Yet another veneer of deception. Their objective was not to spice up the opposition to Herbert Asquith but to rule in his place. It was, as Alfred Milner’s biographer put it, a very powerful fellowship devoid of party hacks and faceless civil servants, [13] Carson, still the hero of Ulster Unionists, was the foremost of the Tory critics in the House of Commons; Dawson at The Times was probably the most influential journalist in the Empire and had the full backing of its owner, Lord Northcliffe; Astor’s Observer added hugely valuable weight to Milner’s battalions in the press; Oliver was fanatical in his disdain of grovelling peacemakers. He proposed that the whole nation rather than the armed forces must be conscripted. [14]

Viscount Alfred Milner, the undisputed leader of the Monday Night Cabal.

Alfred Milner was the undisputed leader of this ‘Monday Night Cabal’. [15] The agenda notes for one of the meetings in February demonstrated clearly that they planned to demolish the widely held notion that there was no alternative to a combination of Asquith and Bonar Law. Their solution was to repeat ‘in season and out of season’ that the current coalition was having a paralytic effect on the conduct of the war and it was absurd to believe that there was no alternative.  [16] They were the alternative.

Here we find one of the few examples of precisely how the Secret Elite worked to influence and dominate British politics. The cabal comprised the key players at the core of the opposition to Asquith. They instructed their supporters and agents to lobby both inside and outside parliament for the policies that were determined over their private dinners. The rank and file were never invited to these exclusive gatherings which remained the preserve of the select. [17] A second assault-route was through the press, whose influential leaders were also at the heart of the Monday Night Cabal. Public opinion had to be turned against the Asquith coalition. One of he most successful influences which the Secret Elite still wield is the power to make the public believe that they want the changes expounded by a corrupted press.

Geoffrey Dawson led the attack from his lofty office at The Times. Instructed in the Milnerite catechism of Coalition failure, his editorials began the campaign to champion Alfred Milner into high office without the niceties of a political mandate. On 14 April his leading article was the first salvo in that offensive:

‘Let there be no mistake about it. What the country want is leaders who are not afraid to go to all lengths or undergo also sacrifices, party or personal, in order to win the war… We believe that in Lord Milner they possess yet another leader whose courage and character are needed in a national crisis. It is a most damning indictment of the coalition, and especially of those Unionist leaders who had a free hand to strengthen its composition, that such a man should be out of harness at such a time.’ [18]

A J Balfour, an inner-circle member of Milner's Secret Elite. His position in Cabinet was safeguarded by his allegiance to the cabal.

The plot which had been carefully constructed over months of detailed planning was promoted in a series of newspaper editorials which advanced Milner’s intentions. Their new mantra was that change was needed; change was vital to save the country from disaster. But not everyone would be sacrificed. No. Not at all. What was proposed was far more subtle. They proposed that the Secret Elite’s chosen men in Cabinet (Balfour etc.) needed the support of a more organised system (behind them) and there was ‘no reason whatsoever why they should not continue…’. However, those who had served their purpose, who ‘were encrusted in the old party habit, worn out … by a period of office which has lasted continuously in some cases for more than a decade … are a sheer danger to the State.’ [19] Translated into personalities their targets were Herbert Asquith, Sir Edward Grey, Lord Lansdowne, Walter Runciman and the remnants of the original Liberal government.

Dawson rampaged against the ‘weak methods’ and ‘weak men’ who were failing the country. Unresolved problems of man-power, of food control and food production, of conflict over the output of aircraft and merchant ships were attributed to a system where, according to the clique, the country was being governed by a series of debating societies. He was disgusted that the War Committee had reverted back to the old habits of ‘interminable memoranda’ and raged about the impossibility of heads of great departments having additional collective responsibility for correlating all of the work of a war government. Every design which the Monday Night Cabal had agreed was promoted by Dawson at The Times.

Popular newspapers ensured that their message was unrelenting. Tom Clarke, then editor of the Daily Mail wrote in his diaries that he was instructed by Northcliffe in December 1916 to undermine the Prime Minister. He was told to find a smiling picture of Lloyd George and underneath it put the caption, “Do it Now” and get the worst possible picture of Asquith and label it, “Wait and See”. [20] It was to be billed as if it was Action-Man against the ditherer.

The major beneficiary from the conclusions of the Monday Night Cabal was David Lloyd George. Since the day he was given his first government post as President of the Board of Trade in 1905, Lloyd George had pursued his career with the singular intention of rising to the top. His firebrand oratory which made him a champion of the people not matched by his machiavellian self interest. While basking in the credit for providing pensions in old age, he befriended the leaders of industry, the bankers and financiers in the City, the money-men in New York and newspaper owners like Northcliffe and Max Aitken. (Lord Beaverbrook) The Secret Elite had identified Lloyd George many years before [21] as the man most likely to front popular appeal for their policies, but his negotiations between the conspirators in 1916 had to be carried out well away from prying eyes.

Arthue Lee, later Viscount Farnham. later he gifted Chequers as the country residence for the British prime minister

They chose Arthur Lee [22] as the facilitator for many of the secret meetings between Lloyd George, Maurice Hankey, Alfred Milner and Geoffrey Dawson at Lee’s house in the Abbey Garden at Westminster. [23] An opponent of Lloyd George in previous times, Lee had married into the New-York financial elite and his wife Ruth inherited a substantial fortune. He was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt with whom he corresponded frequently. [24] Lee had apparently become increasingly frustrated with the conduct of the war by the Asquith government and sought out David Lloyd George as the one member of the government whom he considered had ‘sufficient courage and dynamic energy … to insist upon things being done’ [25]. Note how Lee offered his services to Lloyd George who invited him into the Ministry of Munitions as parliamentary military secretary. Later, in his War Memoirs, Lloyd George went out of his way to praise Lee’s ‘untiring industry, great resource, and practical capacity’, [26] without mentioning his role as co-conspirator in Asquith’s removal.

On Lloyd George’s move to the War Office, Lee became his personal secretary. He was also a member of the Unionist war committee which acted as a focus of back-bench opposition to the Asquith coalition in 1916. [27] Whether he was aware of it or not, the Secret Elite ensured that Arthur Lee was well placed to watch over Lloyd George in the critical months leading up to the coup.

Safe from prying eyes, the conspirators drew an ever compliant Lloyd George to the centre of their web. His closest aide ensured that they could contact him with ease without rousing the suspicion of mere mortals. They organised their policies, decided their tactics and picked their chosen men. The Secret Elite were poised to take over the governance of the war and run it along their lines, but the old order had to be removed. As ever with Alfred Milner, he required his opponent, in this instance, Asquith, to make the first unforgivable mistake.

[1] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 20 December 1915 vol 20 cc696-744.
[2] A.M. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 320.
[3] Memorandum for the War Committee, Doc. 658, November 1916 and Reply to The First Report of the Air Board, Doc.658, November 1916 in Cabinet Memoranda 1905-1918, vol. IV, F.O. 899.
[4] Maurice Hankey, Diary entry 28th October 1916, quoted in Stephen Roskill, Hankey: Man of Secrets, p. 312.]
[5] Ibid.
[6] For a detailed examination of the influence which Lords Roberts exerted over the British Military Establishment see Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, chapter 15, The Roberts Academy, pp. 194-203.
[7] Gollin, Hankey, p. 313.
[8] Ibid., pp. 323-4.
[9] F.S. Oliver , Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, author, Richard Davenport-Hines.
[10] Alfred Milner, Leo Amery, Philip Kerr, Waldorf Astor and Geoffrey Dawson were specifically placed inside what Carroll Quigley called The Society of the Elect in his work, The Anglo-American Establishment, while Leander Starr Jameson was placed in the outer circle. [pp. 311-313.] We have enlarged the group under the collective title of the Secret Elite. [
[11] Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War, Prologue, pp. 1-5.
[12] Sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment for his involvement in the infamous Jameson Raid, he served barely three before being pardoned. His career flourished thereafter. From 1904-1908 Jameson was prime minister of the Cape Colony. He returned to England in 1912 and remained one of Alfred Milner’s trusted confidantes.
[13] Gollin, Hankey, p. 324.
[14] Davenport-Hines, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. See above.
[15] It is often interesting to consider the manner in which historians entitle events. In A.M. Collin’s Proconsul in Politics, he boldly christened Milner’s group as The Monday Night Cabal – which it certainly was, while Terence O’Brien, in his work, Milner, stepped away from controversy by calling it the Monday Night Group, thus omitting any hint of conspiracy. [Terence O’Brien, Milner, p. 266.]
[16] Amery Papers, “Notes for Monday’s Meeting, 19th February 1916.”
[17] Gollin, Hankey, p. 325.
[18] The Times, 14 April, 1916, p. 9.
[19] The Times, 1 December 1916, p. 9.
[20] Tom Clarke, My Northcliffe Diary, p.107.
[21] Docherty and Macgregor, Hidden History, chapter 12, Catch a Rising Star, pp. 161-171.
[22] Later Viscount Lee of Farnham. Typical of many Secret Elite associates, his loyalty was rewarded with political appointments including Director General of Food Production from 1917-18, President of the Board of Agriculture, 1919-21 and first Lord of the Admiralty, 1921-22. He donated Chequers, still the country residence of British prime ministers, for that purpose.
[23] Gollin, Hankey, p. 348 and p. 354.
[24] A. Clark, A Good Innings: the private papers of Viscount Lee of Fareham, p. 92.
[25] Ibid., p.140.
[26] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, p. 346.
[27] V.W. Baddeley, ‘Lee, Arthur Hamilton, Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868–1947)’, rev. Marc Brodie, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.