In praise of Lloyd George
One hundred years ago today David Lloyd George became Prime Minister. He was Britain’s greatest radical leader. His liberal radicalism was unchecked by any vestiges of class background and little dimmed by religion. He is, so far, the only Welshman to lead our country (though Cromwell was of Welsh descent) and was the first from humble origins. He stormed the heights from outside the political establishment, without any of the advantages of family background, schooling, wealth or military accomplishment. His ascendancy a hundred years ago, when Britain was at the height of its imperial power, looks all the more remarkable when you look at the backgrounds of most 21st century leaders.
He is remembered for his achievements in both peace and war, unlike his colleague and friend Churchill who has eclipsed him in popular memory but is celebrated solely for his wartime leadership. In peacetime as Chancellor he worked in partnership with Asquith to give us old age pensions and payments for sickness and unemployment, financed by the scheme of national insurance that endures today. As Prime Minister of a war time coalition he delivered votes for all men over 21 and women over 30. He built the first council houses and wanted all new homes to be “fit for heroes”. As a Liberal coalition housing minister myself I visited the Building Research Establishment that he founded.
As Prime Minister during a war crisis he was the most powerful man in the land. The establishment needed his dynamism and leadership, yet he had nothing but contempt for most of them. He paid little heed to their rules of etiquette, having an active sex life outside an otherwise loving and long lasting marriage to Margaret. He railed against the House of Lords when it blocked his 1909 “People’s Budget”, using language about the men “drawn at random from the unemployed” that outraged polite society. Later he would sell peerages and honours to raise money for political funds. A parallel may be drawn with King James I, a ruler from the Celtic fringe who also had little time for English manners.
Lloyd George spent 55 years unbroken service in the House of Commons and was a minister in continuous office from 1905 to 1922. He was ousted at the height of his abilities, with so much more to give but never again given the chance to lead. He was kept out of office as the non-Conservative forces fragmented around Asquith’s pride and stubborn refusal to stand aside and MacDonald’s determination for Labour to supplant the Liberals, at all costs. The 1920s echo nine decades later.
It is a shame that the most significant years of Lloyd George’s career were before the age of film and sound recording. He was a great political showman, taking a pride in his appearance as well as care with his words. His oratory, read today off a printed page and imagining the cadence and style of delivery, is stunning. His ability to deploy words as a political weapon probably owed much to childhood listening to chapel sermons (many from the uncle who brought him up in Llanystumdwy) and close study of fellow political orators. His verbal dexterity may also stem from his bilingualism, with his famous words delivered in his second language.
As a liberal politician from a Welsh background I have always revered Lloyd George. The history books have not always been kind to him, highlighting his sex life, cavalier attitude to money and a tendency for political shiftiness. But which great political career did not feature elements of betrayal and vice? When his nation needed him, with 1916 being as critical a time as 1940, he did not flinch from the task.
There is a song “Lloyd George knew my father” but in my case they certainly never met. But I did have the pleasure of meeting one of his daughters (by his first wife) Lady Olwen Carey Evans. Thirty years ago she was the guest of honour at a Welsh Liberal SDP Alliance conference. She was the oldest attendee and I was the youngest and we were photographed together. Unfortunately I never got a copy. Lloyd George himself, a great moderniser, would have been a star in our current age of social media.
A century after he became Prime Minister David Lloyd George deserves to be remembered as one of the great holders of that office. As a war leader he is up there with Pitt the Younger and Churchill. As a radical reformer he matches Gladstone and surpasses Attlee. Much of what he achieved endures today and all modern liberals, radicals and progressives should celebrate his life and legacy.