ASKWITH, George Ranken, Baron Askwith
17th February 1861 to 2nd June 1942
Askwith was a lawyer and arbitrator, best known for his work in industrial arbitration before and during the First World War.
George Ranken Askwith was born in Waltham Abbey, Essex on 17 February 1861, the son of a general in the Royal Artillery. He was educated at Marlborough and then Brasenose College, Oxford, where he took a degree in modern history in 1884. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple and Middle Temple in 1886. He practiced law in the chambers of Sir Henry James (later Baron James of Hereford and a cabinet minister from 1895-1902). Thanks to the James's patronage, Askwith was appointed council to HM Commissioners of Works, and also served on the tribunal that arbitrated the boundary dispute between British Guyana and Venezuela in 1899.
This case established Askwith's reputation as an arbitrator, and the government employed him frequently thereafter. In 1907 he entered the civil service with the Board of Trade as assistant secretary of the railways section. In 1908 he was appointed a King's Counsel, and also married Ellen Peel, great-niece of former Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel. In 1909 he became controller of the labour department of the Board of Trade, and was appointed chief industrial commissioner in 1911.
Askwith first came to public notice when he resolved the Music Hall Strike of 1907, when music hall performers and employees struck over pay and working hours. Askwith negotiated a minimum wage and improved conditions for performers and staff. More seriously, Askwith intervened to bring an end to the Liverpool Transport Strike of 1911, in which troops had opened fire on striking workers, killing two of the latter. For this service, Askwith was knighted KCB in 1911 (he had already been awarded the CB in 1909).
During the 'great unrest' of 1911-13, Askwith played a prominent role in ending strikes and settling disputes. When disputes broke out, it was increasingly to Askwith that the government turned, and he enjoyed the trust and favour of both Prime Minister Asquith and King George V. In 1911 Askwith was appointed chairman of the Industrial Council, a body intended to act as a central point of reference for the arbitration and settling disputes, and he was also appointed chairman of the Fair Wages Advisory Committee. In 1915 he was appointed chairman of the Government Arbitration Committee. He was, at least according to his own account (Askwith 1920), given almost complete freedom to intervene in disputes and arbitrate.
This freedom ended in 1916 when the incoming Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, established a Ministry of Labour and appointed a Labour MP and former trades unionist, John Hodge, as minister. Askwith was placed under the authority of the new ministry. Askwith resented Hodge's authority, and relations deteriorated rapidly. Unable to dismiss Askwith, Hodge and his successors instead eroded his authority and dispersed his workload around the ministry. At the end of the war the government finally compelled Askwith's resignation, he agreeing to go in exchange for a peerage, which was granted in 1919. Askwith took the title of Baron Askwith of St Ives.
Thereafter, Askwith held no senior government posts. He was chairman of the council of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce from 1922-4, before serving as the Society's treasurer from 1925-7 and vice-president from 1927-38. He served as a vice-president of the Federation of British Industries and chaired several government commissions of enquiry. He devoted himself otherwise to leisure pursuits, writing a biography of his mentor, Lord James of Hereford, and a book on the history of British taverns. Askwith died in London on 2 June 1942.
Askwith prided himself on his political neutrality – his only remotely political post was Mayor of St Ives in Huntingdonshire, elected in 1913 – and it seems likely that his success as an arbitrator was down to his perceived neutrality and impartiality. He was a skilled and patient negotiator, whose preferred tactic was to let both parties exhaust themselves with mutual recriminations before stepping in as the voice of sanity and calm. He was sympathetic to the demands and rights of workers, and more than once settled disputes in the workers' favour. During the 'great unrest', he was sharply critical of the efforts of cabinet ministers and other government officials to deal with disputes, and clearly regarded many of them as unfit for arbitration work (his trenchant criticisms were summarised in his later book, Industrial Problems and Disputes, published in 1920). Askwith also argued for a centralised arbitration service, similar to the modern ACAS, which would be independent and have the power to enforce settlements. This recommendation was rejected by both the Asquith and Lloyd George governments.
Askwith's lecture in 1923 came midway during his tenure as chairman of the Royal Society of Arts, and it was doubtless for this reason that he was invited. Sadly, Askwith's brilliance as an arbitrator is not reflected in his understanding of either economics or management. His lecture, 'Great Britain's present position as an industrial power', consists largely of a series of statistics purporting to show economic growth following the end of the war, followed by warnings that the future might more uncertain. Askwith accepts that new technologies – flight, the telephone, radio – have the power to disrupt the economy; he indicates that management needs to adopt more scientific methods, and he several times argues for the elimination of waste. For the most part, however, his solution to turbulent economic times is to fall back on tradition:
Now, what are the chief factors that may enable us to hold our own? One is the power of tradition, and of the old rules of trade. We have always considered ourselves a great maritime nation. We are proud of our sailors and our ships, and that tradition is of great value. We have, too, the tradition that London is the clearing-house of the world… London is a great trading centre, and a great monetary centre, and it has held its own.
The USA, Askwith maintains, will never dislodge Britain as the leading industrial nation because 'there was a good deal of commercial dishonesty in her methods'; Britain, on the other hand, has a tradition of honesty. There is generally in this lecture an immense lack of awareness and knowledge about the current state of British industry and the British economy, and one senses that the more perceptive members of Lord Askwith's audience must have squirmed uncomfortably in their seats as they listened.
Heath, A., The Life of George Ranken Askwith, 1861-1942, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013.
Lowe, R., 'Askwith, George Ranken, Baron Askwith', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Lowe, R., Adjusting to Democracy: The Role of the Ministry of Labour in British Politics, 1916-1939, Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.
Rodger, C., The Development of Industrial Relations in Britain, 1911-1939, London: Hutchinson, 1973.