David Lloyd George

Article excerpt

Martin Pugh reasseses the long career of the one of the most unorthodox but charismatic and constructive figures in modern British history.

`Only Winston Churchill, another politician who lacked complete commitment to any party, was prepared to acknowledge that during the twentieth century Britain's fortunes in peace and in war probably owed more to Lloyd George than to any other single individual.'

`How can I convey to the reader who does not know him any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this siren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity?' Written in 1933 these comments on David Lloyd George by the famous economist J.M. Keynes now seem over the top. For us he is much easier to relate to, as a person, than a Gladstone, a Churchill or an Attlee. Lloyd George was someone people felt happy to sit next to at dinner. Talkative, responsive, amusing, keen to please, he lacked the pretentiousness of the typical politician, he worked his way up by passing examinations and by taking his chances, he played golf, pursued numerous affairs, took holidays in the sun, and generally enjoyed life. In short he was human; a bit too human for a supercilious academic like Keynes, not to mention the pious politicians with whom he associated.

The Hostile View

In view of Lloyd George's long parliamentary career -- from 1890 to the Second World War -- it is hardly surprising that wildly differing opinions were expressed about him. The pre-1914 biographies stressed his Welshness and his Radicalism, painting a sentimental and even heroic picture of a poor boy storming the English Establishment. This reached a brief peak around 1918 when he was dubbed `The Man who Won the War'. But even in the Edwardian period colleagues had identified innumerable failings: his opportunism, his search for temporary expedients, his disregard for principle and ideology, his lack of scruple in financial and sexual matters, his tendency to be all things to all men. `I always felt he was saying to me what he guessed I wanted to hear', as one contemporary put it. After the war these misgivings gained credibility from his displacement of his leader, Asquith, as prime minister, his alliance with his political opponents and the corruption during his premiership. Only Winston Churchill, another politician who lacked complete commitment to any party, was prepared to acknowledge that during the twentieth century Britain's fortunes in peace and in war probably owed more to Lloyd George than to any other single individual. Between the wars both Conservative and Labour leaders feared him for his ability to attract their own followers, and therefore found common cause in discrediting him. Above all, Lloyd George's own party, the Liberals, joined in the fashion for dissociating themselves from him, on the grounds that he had ceased to be an asset and could be identified as the prime reason for the party's decline. For years his reputation was coloured' by the family and friends of Asquith, including his sharp-tongued daughter, Lady Violet Bonham-Carter, who once remarked of him: `though he never sold his soul he sometimes pawned it.'

This tradition continued right up to the 1960s. In 1960 his eldest son, Richard, wrote a book which dwelt on his unfaithfulness to his wife, Margaret. Professor Trevor Wilson gave academic weight to the hostile view in his book, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935 (1966), which put the blame for the dwindling fortunes of Liberalism on Lloyd George rather than on Asquith.

The Sympathetic View

By this time, however, the tide had begun to turn in Lloyd George's favour. There were several reasons for this. A great deal of primary material had become available for early twentieth-century political history and for Lloyd George in particular. His political papers were open to scholars at the Beaverbrook Library from 1967 to 1975 and subsequently at the House of Lords Record Office, and family papers at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. …