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Mile End Institute

The Asquithian Traits of the Next (Likely) Prime Minister

As it becomes clear the Labour Party is on course to win the next general election, the question that think tanks, journalists, and the public are increasingly asking is: who is Keir Starmer? More specifically, as Sanjit Nagi explores, what can we expect from him as Prime Minister of the first Labour government in fourteen years?

Keir Starmer during one of his 5 Missions speeches. Starmer is wearing a white shirt, red tie, and is standing at a lectern in front of the '5 Missions for a Better Britain' slogan
Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes.

There are several ways to answer this question. First, Starmer’s ideological position could be examined. However, recent academic and political publications have acknowledged that there is little to trace in this respect. For example, in a A Century of Labour, Jon Cruddas argues Starmer has ‘yet to produce a clear narrative’ of his leadership and ‘remains an elusive leader, difficult to find’ within the intellectual traditions of the Labour Party. While Tom Baldwin, in Keir Starmer: The Biography, and Oliver Eagleton, in The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right, similarly point to the ambiguity and ‘unpolitical’ politics of the former Director of Public Prosecutions.

Secondly, Starmer could be likened to Labour Party leaders of old. However, this might prove to be a fruitless exercise as it becomes apparent he shares little in common with said figures. For example, he cannot be placed within the organicism espoused by Ramsay MacDonald (a belief in slow evolutionary socialistic change), the ethical socialism of George Lansbury and Clement Attlee (support for public ownership and fostering fellowship in society), the revisionism of Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson (advancing individual choice and freedom), the constitutional orthodoxy of Jim Callaghan (a rejection of liberal constitutionalism), nor the third way of Tony Blair’s New Labour (advancing a social democratic variant of neo-liberalism).

Lastly, by focusing on the traits Starmer has exhibited, comparisons can be made to figures outside of Labour Party history. To that end, I would argue that he shares three distinct characteristics possessed by 20th century Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith: a disposition for administrative solutions, a preference for maximising existing legislation, and a cautious pragmatism that informs policy decision-making.

There are always caveats when comparing two political figures from different periods of British history. Asquith was shaped by Victorian Britain, came from a different class background to Starmer, was an effective orator, and held two of the Great Offices of State before becoming Prime Minister. Like Starmer, however, Asquith had a successful career as a barrister, an eye for detail, a certain stoicism, and was considered to be a politician with little ideological drive or underpinnings. John Maynard Keynes claimed Asquith had an ‘absence of originality and creative power’ and ‘no intellectual fantasies to lead him astray’ – instead, he was built for dealing with the facts before him.[1] Similarly, a commentator in the Daily News depicted Asquith as a ‘man of no visions’; but when convinced of a cause and its practicality he would ‘take it up with a quiet, undemonstrated firmness that means success’.[2]

Administrative Resolution

The first Asquithian trait Starmer possesses is the disposition to administratively resolve issues. More specifically, working to control situations through clarification, guidance, and clear regulations.

As Home Secretary from 1892 to 1895, Asquith demonstrated this trait when dealing with freedom of assembly and protest matters at Trafalgar Square. Between 1840 and 1886, public demonstrations swayed between being sanctioned and banned as Asquith’s Conservative predecessor instructed the Metropolitan Police to prevent all public gatherings at Trafalgar Square with demonstrators being arrested for unlawful assembly. On the Liberal Party’s return to government, pressure began to mount with the progressive wing of the Liberal Party, the emerging Labour Party, and the Social Democratic Foundation (which sought to challenge the ban in court) urging Asquith to lift the ban. Asquith also faced pressure from the Conservative Party on maintaining law and order, local businesses who claimed they would be affected by the demonstrations, and even Queen Victoria.

With such competing pressures and civil liberties in question, Asquith might have been tempted to either lift the ban citing the freedom to protest or legislate to restrict protests at specific sites like Trafalgar Square. However, Asquith believed the issue was not a substantive question of legal right or of total bans but of ‘administrative expediency’ and ‘regulating by reasonable restrictions’. Asquith concluded the ban should be lifted subject to any public assemblies or demonstrations in Trafalgar Square having a lawful purpose and being conducted in a peaceful and orderly manner. To achieve this, Asquith set out detailed guidance that managed the situation and provided a framework for future uses of the site. This included: protest organisers providing adequate warning to the relevant authorities, both organisers and the police working together to minimise public disruption, assemblies at Trafalgar Square were limited to specific times on the weekends and bank holidays, and the Metropolitan Police were given powers to place restrictions on the routes taken by demonstrators. After meeting with trade unions, organisers, and obtaining Gladstone’s approval for his administrative response the ban on demonstrations was lifted.

Furthermore, Asquith showed his propensity for administrative solutions when tackling the disestablishment of religious institutions, which he described as ‘essentially a modern practical problem’.[3] The freedom for citizens to dissent meant the inviolable societal position of the church was unsustainable. As such, Asquith believed that Parliament could regulate and adjust the relationship to reflect present-day circumstances. The Liberal government fell before any meaningful disestablishment was possible, but Asquith’s initial response of suspending funds to new churches in Wales, again, revealed his preference for administrative responses.

Starmer has shown the same trait when responding to demonstrations held by Black Lives Matter, Just Stop Oil, and pro-Palestinian groups. Since 2020, Britain has seen waves of public demonstrations in support of Black lives and victims of police/racial violence and against the British government’s continued support of the fossil fuel industry. While these demonstrations have largely been peaceful, civil disorder tactics have been used – resulting in the defacing of government buildings, disruption to public transport, and damage to property. In response, the Conservative government passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act 2022 and Public Order Act 2023 to restrict protests and give police enhanced powers. As a result, Starmer has faced questions about the curtailment of the right to protest and assemble – with Labour Party MPs and human rights organisations criticising the Government for attacking democratic freedoms. Equally, Starmer has been put under pressure from the Conservatives to support the measures on grounds of law and order.

Like Asquith before him, Starmer has preferred administrative reconciliation of the two competing positions, opting to circumvent discussions about substantive aspects of the rights, the various organisations’ entitlement to demonstrate, and the necessity of firmer protest-related legislation. Instead, Starmer has claimed while he did not think the new legislation was necessary, as the measures within already existed, the powers were ‘on the books’ and should be allowed to ‘settle in’. He went on to argue that ‘just because there’s a power to do something it doesn’t mean they [the police] have to do it in every circumstance, that often results in case law, in guidance that sets out a framework for decision making’. Starmer has repeatedly supported the publication of new guidance, so that it could help the legislation to operate more effectively. Likewise, when responding to pro-Palestinian demonstrations against the Israeli government’s conduct in the Israel-Hamas war, Starmer responded to a question about a small number of demonstrators using extremist chants by pointing to a recent government commission that identified ways to address this and the ‘gaps in the law’.

Labour’s commitment to renationalise the railways is another example of Starmer’s preference for administrative resolution. Despite being one of the Party’s few transformative policies, Starmer has not presented it as regaining public control from private interests – as the 1945 Labour government once did. Instead, the Labour Party has framed renationalisation as an administrative solution to rail contracts expiring in 2030. With the expiry of existing contracts, the low standards provided by the current rail operators, and a small number of services already under public control, Starmer has claimed, ‘pragmatically’, renationalisation is the answer.

Maximising Existing Legislation 

Secondly, Asquith favoured enforcing existing laws, as far as possible, before legislating.

This was evident when Asquith took a pro-active approach to working conditions –  overcrowding, safety, and sanitation – in factories and sweatshops. He was particularly motivated by a coal mining disaster in Cardiff, where he saw a child die, and believed that the existing Factory and Workshop Act 1891 had not been used appropriately, especially in relation to inspection and enforcement. The Act contained provisions that required factory owners to keep a list of personnel and mandated sanitation inspections, but these measures had only been used for the worst abuses and were not applicable to ‘outworkers’ in sweatshops. Asquith viewed this as unsatisfactory and extended the legislation’s jurisdiction so that the reporting requirements and sanitation inspections applied to workers in both factories and sweatshops. He also used the existing legislation to increase the number of inspectors and support staff – notably allowing working-class and women inspectors. Lastly, the existing law was reframed around cooperation between central and local government, to ensure maximum compliance. It was only after such steps were taken, and pressing the legislation as far as he could, Asquith introduced his own bill to further regulate working conditions in factories and workshops.

Similarly, Starmer has indicated a future Labour government would maximise a range of existing legislation. For example, Britain is considered to be in the midst of a water pollution crisis – with 2022 seeing 300,000 sewage spillages and few consequences for the privatised water companies overseeing the country’s rivers and seas. Instead of legislating anew or renationalising the water industry, Starmer has simply pledged to expand the water regulator Ofwat’s power under the Water Industry Act 1991. Like Asquith’s fortifying of factory legislation, Starmer has committed to enhancing existing water-related legislation by: mandatory monitoring of water companies, a ban on bonus payments to water industry bosses responsible for pumping significant levels of sewage into British water, personal criminal liability for water industry executives who consistently flout regulations, automatic fines, and forcing all water companies to monitor every single water outlet. Starmer has confidently asserted that to tackle the issue of water pollution the ‘better route is regulation and enforcing it’.

Other examples of Starmer wanting to maximise existing laws include: bankers bonus caps, utilising rules on gender recognition certificates more efficiently, modifying the Equality Act to tackle issues around same-sex spaces, bolstering the Conservative government’s approach to artificial intelligence regulation, and enhancing consumer legislation so the Competition and Market Authority can tackle ticket touting and resale prices.

Cautious Pragmatism

The final Asquithian trait that Starmer shares is a cautious pragmatism. According to V. Markham Lester, Asquith’s ‘careful, deliberative, and exacting leadership style’ doubtless ‘frustrated those in the Cabinet’.[4] While Stephen Bates describes the social and economic policies of Asquith’s Liberal government as ‘liberalising and progressive measures, both moderate and cautious in nature and, where they were allowed to be, effective in operation’.[5] This cautious pragmatism, or ‘practical philosophy’, informed many of the policies Asquith supported as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1905 to 1908) and Prime Minister (1908 to 1916).

Firstly, Asquith’s commitment to social reform and progression was firmly rooted in and tempered by strict fiscal policies. No reforms would be sanctioned unless a funding source could be identified and, considering the circumstances, there was a practical way to achieve them. As Chancellor, Asquith described his budgets as simultaneously being suitable for a respectable financier of a ‘conservative type’ but also successful in achieving the maximum radical result without arousing much conservative opposition.[6] Indeed, this pragmatism was reflected by ‘the cautious beginnings of old age pensions’ in the 1907 budget.[7] Asquith supported the policy only because of a £4 million surplus available to him that it brought England into line with other European countries. Despite, as Roy Jenkins argued, these non-contributory pensions scheme being ‘the most important piece of social legislation for several decades past’, Asquith did not deploy evocative depictions of ‘secure and contented’ lives of idealised old couples.[8]

Secondly, when considering taxation proposals to fund ‘costly’ social policies, Asquith was hesitant to increase direct taxation too far. He opposed a ‘super tax’ (wealth tax) on the grounds that it was impractical; in reality, this was too bold for Asquith to endorse. Instead, he preferred a more considered tax that distinguished between earned and unearned income, believing it would keep more conservative Liberals on side and not stifle the general Liberal belief in individual work-ethic and effort. Asquith clearly had an appetite, like his new Liberal colleagues, to use national resources via taxation to fund social policies and advance society, but this was firmly rooted in a cautious pragmatism which only allowed Britain to move forward moderately. Lester aptly argues, ‘ever politically sensitive to just how far he could proceed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer wisely applied a step-by-step approach’.[9]

As Chancellor, Asquith was also involved discussions about how, not whether, to reverse the infamous Taff Vale judgment, which held unions liable for damages because of striking activity. Asquith rejected suggestions from trade unions and the Labour Party to simply legislate against the judgment. Instead, Asquith preferred a ‘middle road’ which included gradual changes and proposals that still held trade unions liable in limited circumstances. This cautious approach was informed by Asquith wanting to represent a broad range of classes, not giving the public the impression trade unions had blanket immunity and, importantly, concern that reversal of the judgment would disrupt many years of settled law.[10] Asquith’s eventual support for total reversal of Taff Vale only came when Liberal Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman, surprisingly supported such a move.

Lastly, Asquith’s cautious pragmatism continued to dictate his approach as Prime Minister – often, to his detriment. The constitutional struggle that positioned the House of Lords to pass the ‘People’s Budget’ took two years, two general elections, sowed Cabinet confusion, and lost the large Liberal majority in the House of Commons. Whilst Asquith’s tact and patience allowed him to navigate the ‘political minefield’, his search for pragmatic solutions and desire for steps to be ‘slowly and deliberately considered’ doubtless prolonged the House of Lords impasse.[11] Moreover, Asquith’s cautious pragmatism also led him to underappreciate the emotive question of women’s suffrage. Mistakenly, he believed the issue should be settled, not based on abstract rights but practical questions - i.e. would allowing women the vote improve the system of government – and never engaged with the cause imaginatively or sympathetically. Consequently, a Private Members Bill that granted women’s suffrage was opposed and defeated in Parliament.

As Leader of the Labour Party, Starmer has displayed the same cautious pragmatism on a number of significant occasions. When asked about his plan for illegal immigration and preventing small boats crossing the Channel, he suggested support for practical measures, rather than ‘political gimmicks’ like the Government’s Rwanda Bill. The solutions that Starmer has proposed include a returns agreement with the European Union and a new task force to tackle criminal gangs. Secondly, Starmer is committed to strict fiscal discipline and has limited plans for social reform, with the Party pledging that breakfast clubs in primary schools, NHS recruitment, and spending for schools will specifically be funded by savings and Value-Added Tax on private school fees. Like Asquith, it appears that Starmer believes that social reform is firmly rooted in what is possible at the time, rather than seeking to create the economic and political conditions for transformative social change.

Furthermore, Starmer has gone to great lengths to distance himself from trade union leadership and striking workers in order to appeal to voters outside the organised labour movement and to blunt the Conservatives’ attacks. Britain’s recent wave of industrial action saw Starmer ban shadow ministers from appearing on the picket line and there has been restrained criticism of the Conservative government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023. For example, while promising that any government he leads will repeal the legislation, Starmer stressed that this was because the legsialtion was simply unworkable. This response was not, as one might expect from the Leader of the Labour Party, a firm rebuff of draconian anti-union legislation, particularly given that recent polling suggests that the public continue to support industrial action.

Lastly, his cautious pragmatism has also led Starmer to be slow to make difficult decisions on the evolution of Labour’s policy positions, such as his decision – after two years of defending the policy – to water down the ‘Green Prosperity Plan’. Starmer and his Shadow Chancellor have justified the move on grounds of circumstances changing and the economic inheritance not being the one they would have wanted. While a faction of the Labour Party have welcomed this U-turn, business leaders and environmental groups have criticised it, believing it represents the Party’s lack of consistency in meeting the challenges of the climate crisis. Not dissimilarly, Starmer’s slow progress from calling for a ‘humanitarian pause’ to a ‘sustainable ceasefire’ to the ‘cessation of hostilities’ and a ‘lasting ceasefire’ to end the conflict in Gaza has led some to suggest he 'misread the room' and lacked 'moral courage’.

Like Asquith, Starmer’s preference for lengthy and considered deliberation, rather than a bold and empathetic response, has seen him presented as flatfooted and indecisive. Indeed, Tom Baldwin has suggested that Starmer’s ideals – not least to improve the lives of working people - will be shaped by subordinate to and rooted in practicalities, while Starmer himself has described his own brand of politics as ‘pragmatic, not ideological’. This cautious pragmatism may only increase when faced with the immense pressures of government, resulting in highly-nuanced policy programmes that will take the country a few considered steps forward.


Although the most likely candidate to be our next Prime Minster will be from the Labour Party, his political and personal traits are distinctly Asquithian. Of course, we must remember that trying to get elected, after 14 years in opposition does, in some circumstances, require caution, moderation, and tempering policy and, if and when elected, a more assured and impulsive side to the Labour leader might emerge. Until then, Starmer’s careful decision-making will be - like Asquith's was by David Lloyd George - unfairly maligned as being hopelessly unable to make up his mind about anything at all.

Sanjit Nagi is a PhD Researcher at SOAS University of London. His research interests include Labour Party history, constitutional law, and rights.


[1] John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Biography (W.W. Norton, 1951), pp.45 – 47.

[2] Stephen Koss, Asquith (Columbia University Press, 1985), p.90.

[3] J.P Alderson, Mr Asquith (Forgotten Books, 2018), pp.132 – 133.

[4] V. Markham Lester, H.H. Asquith (Lexington Books, 2019), p.238.

[5] Stephen Bates, Asquith (Haus Publishing, 2006), p.33.

[6] Roy Jenkins, Asquith: Portrait of a Man and Era (Collins, 1978), p.165.

[7] Ibid, pp.166 – 167.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Markham Lester, H.H. Asquith, p.132.

[10] Ibid, p.135.

[11] Ibid, p.161.



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