One of the commonest complaints about British politicians these days is one of a lack of personality in many of them: thanks in no small part to an unforgiving and prying media, we now have a generation of politicians who, on making it to the top of their parties, receive media training in how to duck and dive, equivocate, waffle, and answer questions in such a way that they end up not actually being answered. The same wasn’t true of statesmen of a century ago: similarly, thanks in no small part to a media that largely avoided public figures’ private lives, politicians could actually speak their minds and positively glow in the public arena of the day. Arguably the greatest of them all was one of the UK’s greatest-ever prime ministers, who fell from power exactly 95 years ago.
Even in our supposedly more enlightened and more socially mobile times, it is still remarkable how such a figure as David Lloyd George rose to the top in politics. He was Britain’s first (and thus far only) Welsh prime minister, as well as the first prime minister not to go to university, and came to politics via law, becoming renowned in his Llanystumdwy home in North Wales for fighting for Welsh-speaking Nonconformist tenants in their disputes with English-speaking Anglican landlords. It was a combination of this career, and the self-confidence instilled into him by his uncle, Richard Lloyd, that marked him out among the Liberal Party hierarchy. He was elected to parliament on a by-election in 1890, and fifteen years later, when the Liberals returned to power, he was appointed to the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade. Three years later he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, the No 2 man in the UK government, and under his tenure at the Treasury he introduced such innovations as Old Age Pensions, National Insurance, unemployment benefits, labour exchanges, and pay-bargaining boards.
When the Liberals were forced to form an all-party Coalition in 1915 Lloyd George changed jobs (on his request), becoming the new Minister for Munitions. His drive, energy and charisma, not to mention his inspired results in boosting munitions production at a crucial time, contrasted sharply with Prime Minister H H Asquith’s failure to impress as a war leader. After a string of military disasters Asquith was forced to resign in December 1916, following a complicated sequence of events in which Lloyd George had proposed a radical re-jig of the war cabinet. The then Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, was the next obvious choice to become PM, but he agreed to take on the job only on condition that Asquith join the cabinet too, but Asquith said no. The job thus went to the Welsh ex-lawyer – though Lloyd George did not relish the intrigue or challenge anything like as much as his enemies (and many biographers) would later claim.
Lloyd George would of course later gain much acclamation as the Man Who Won The War, with his presidential style and charismatic presence being key factors in jolting the country’s war effort. Even after his fall from power he regularly drew huge, appreciative crowds whenever he spoke publicly. This nonetheless couldn’t make up for the fact that, in the wake of the Liberal Party’s splits from 1915 onwards (and the rot really did set in with the formation of the first Coalition, not the second, as is popularly assumed), he was a prisoner of the Conservatives, and could only hope to get to No 10 Downing Street with their help (or sufferance). The British political system is fundamentally a parliamentary one, not a presidential one, and so no aspiring politician can get anywhere without a strong and united party base. In such circumstances, therefore, it is more remarkable not how Lloyd George fell but rather how he managed to stay at the top for as long as he did.
For a man who everyone knew was a captive of the Tories (who, for their part, saw the Welshman as a useful tool in fending off socialism, and keeping their Liberal opponents weak and divided), Lloyd George nonetheless remained a diligent operator. In his five years and ten months at No 10 he succeeded in securing the Versailles peace agreement with the Allies and Germany, extending unemployment relief, improving tenants’ rights, disestablishing the Welsh Church, and answering the Irish Question (or so it was assumed at the time, at least). There were also less laudable events: unemployment rose sharply after 1920, and the government seemed at a loss on how to bring it down; industrial disputes rose in number, and Lloyd George’s skill as a conciliator was somewhat hampered by his Conservative ministers insisting on breaking strikes rather than resolving them; and of course there was the Honours Scandal, whereby peerages and baronetcies were being flagrantly offered in return for campaign donations. The existence of this “Lloyd George Fund”, and its owner’s reluctance to part with it, would prove an ongoing sore point in efforts to reunite the opposing factions in the Liberal Party.
What finally tipped his Tory allies’ patience with him over the edge was Lloyd George’s grossly irresponsible sabre-rattling in the eastern Mediterranean, and threatening to go to war with Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist government in Turkey, after the latter had breached the 1920 Sèvres Treaty. An emergency meeting was called at the Conservatives’ private Carlton Club on 19 October 1922, and the party voted by a large margin to pull the plug on the Coalition with Lloyd George and his wing of the Liberals. It came after a dramatic speech by the rising Tory star Stanley Baldwin, who predicted that the prime minister would before long split their party, just as he had done with the Liberals, if they didn’t throw him out there and then, and he called Lloyd George a “dynamic force“, which was “a great and terrible thing“. Lloyd George took the hint, and resigned later that afternoon.
It’s been said that if Lloyd George were alive today he wouldn’t last ten minutes under the glare of the 24-hour media, and his sexual peccadilloes would definitely not be covered up by sympathetic media barons. I’m not so sure myself: the existence and flourishing of such figures as Boris Johnson prove that it’s perfectly possible even in this day and age to be immersed in scandal and yet still rise high in the political world. Furthermore, as for his deviousness and problems with inspiring trust, what politician in any age has not in some way behaved deviously from time to time? Such accusations may well have stuck to Lloyd George possibly because he got to the top without the usual advantages of a boarding-school and then university education, rich parents, or (whisper it quietly) coming from South East England… It’s as if his critics were saying to him, ‘How dare you be different from us and yet still be successful!’
The tragedy of Lloyd George is that, after being released from the prison of a Tory-dominated coalition government, he then remained trapped in an even more unforgiving prison: that of the British parliamentary system, and all the while his fractured political machine in the Liberal Party continued to atrophy and decline, while the Conservatives and Labour increasingly attracted more and more of their voters. The Welsh wizard may well have had the best answers to the problems of unemployment, economic decline, and an uncertain international environment in the ’20s and ’30s, but without a strong party to back him up, he was always going to be, as one of his many biographers once dubbed him, ‘the Goat in the Wilderness’. The best that he could do was write opinionated newspaper columns and hope that enough influential people would read them. His spectacularly ill-advised visit to Germany in 1936, after which he called Hitler the “George Washington of Germany” and blissfully informed the readers of one column that the Nazi government definitely weren’t planning another war, hardly helped his reputation much, either. This, coupled with his pessimistically-toned House of Commons speeches as the Second World War ploughed on, did much to dissuade his old friend Winston Churchill (by this time occupying No 10) from offering Lloyd George a government job.
One of Lloyd George’s biggest fans among historians was the great troublemaker A J P Taylor. Perhaps he should have the last word on his hero:
He was the most inspired and creative British statesman of the twentieth century. But he had fatal flaws. He was devious and unscrupulous in his methods. He aroused every feeling except trust. In all his greatest acts, there was an element of self-seeking. Above all, he lacked stability. He tied himself to no men, to no party, to no single cause.