Book review: Lloyd George, Statesman or Scoundrel
Richard Wilkinson confirms that Lloyd George was consummate politician who ducked and weaved for his own advantage.
As you walk through the Members Lobby in the House of Commons the outer doors to the Chamber are flanked by large statues of Britain’s two wartime prime ministers. The most familiar is Winston Churchill the hero of the World War Two. The other less familiar is of David Lloyd George, the wartime prime minister from 1916 to 1918. Like Churchill a controversial figure, his reputation was thus even as he resigned in 1922.
Unlike Churchill whose career was in decline in the 1930s, Lloyd George saw his political career effectively ended in 1922 although he remained a powerful figure on the backbenches until his death in 1945.
Lloyd George has been the subject of numerous biographies, including the familiar ones by John Grigg, John Campbell and Roy Hattersley. Richard Wilkinson has looked at the various Lloyd George archives and read all the biographies and relevant books. Although not a Lloyd George specialist he has been fascinated by Lloyd George and the contradictions in his personality and his actions – hence the title of this volume.
Wilkinson expresses his views and prejudices but always after presenting the reader with at times the contradictory evidence. Lloyd George’s political career was virtually unique given his humble Welsh upbringing, and he relied upon the inspiration and support of his Uncle Lloyd, his bother William who uncomplainingly supported him financially, and the loyalty of his wife Margaret
and his mistress Frances Stevenson.
At one level Lloyd George displayed moral and physical cou, rage when he opposed the war against the Boers, at another level he was a physical coward terrified of air raids in the first and second world wars.
What Wilkinson confirms is that Lloyd George was a professional politician, a radical in the context of Wales and the underdog, but a man of “push and go” who looked for results. Lloyd George was a powerful orator before he struggled with radio and sound films. He was a consummate politician who ducked and weaved for his own advantage and to achieve results.
The collapse of the Conservative government and the formation of a Liberal one in 1906 gave Lloyd George the chance to be a formidable cabinet minister. At the Board of Trade and then at the Treasury he was seen as an active social reformer and a Liberal who was prepared to take on the Tory establishment. Wilkinson examines the role of Lloyd George as a chancellor of the Exchequer in 1914 and his crucial decision to back a declaration of war on Germany.
As minister for munitions he galvanised British industry but then was marooned as secretary of sta te for war in 1916. Wilkinson examines the government crisis of December 1916 and whilst Lloyd George was on manoeuvres claims the collapse of the Liberal Government owed more to Asquith’s miscalculations and Bonar Law’s lack of contribution.
As prime minster, Lloyd George was a controversial figure of a Coalition government dominated by the Conservat ves. Wilkinson condemns LloydGeorge for failing to remove Haig over the controversial plans for Third Ypres in 1917. Between 1918 and 1922 Lloyd George was more presidential and failed to address the chronic problems Britain faced at home. Wilkinson concurs with other historians who see the downfall of the coalition government in 1922 as the culmination of industrial, social and financial sleaze and then the crisis over Turkey. After 1922 Lloyd George was cast adrift by the Conservatives.
Throughout this admirable book – good for the general reader and the undergraduate – Wilkinson brings together Lloyd George’s private and political lives. Lloyd George was a sexual predator who had numerous affairs with married women, took as his mistress a young woman old enough to be hisdaught er, and left his wife to look after his constituency interests.
How did Lloyd George get away with it? Wilkinson concludes that charm was partly the answer. Both women and men responded to his cheerfulness, wit and good humour. He was lively company, a vivacious conversationalist, the life and soul of any party who brought noise and laughter to any gathering. He loved children and animals.But Lloyd George’s undoubted achievements will continue to be overshadowed by his sexual and financial sleaze and in the 1920s his outspoken admiration for Hitler. We have to remember that for most of Churchill’s political life he was the junior partner of Lloyd George and like him wore his party affiliations lightly.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.