A Man without Regrets

R.W. Johnson

  • David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider by Roy Hattersley
    Little, Brown, 709 pp, £25.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 4087 0097 6

Reading this Life of Lloyd George is like watching one of those old James Cagney movies where it’s established early on that the protagonist isn’t simply an anti-hero but, for all that he’s lionised, an irredeemable villain. The fun comes from watching him get away with all sorts of caddishness early on and then carry on the virtuoso act long after everyone has got his number. Then, most enjoyable of all, there follows the long, slow decline, in which the villain continues to dream of greatness because he is so self-obsessed he can’t understand that the game was up long ago.

Roy Hattersley has rightly drawn praise for this portrait: he is better able than most to understand how powerful a parliamentary presence someone of Lloyd George’s rhetorical gifts could be while also doing justice to his dazzling unscrupulousness. There is no doubt that in the annals of British radicalism there has never been a more romantic or sympathetic figure than Lloyd George, the People’s Chancellor, leading the battle against the House of Lords in order to legislate old age pensions into existence. The only real comparison might be with Aneurin Bevan, legislating the NHS into existence, though the determining factor there was Bevan’s recognition that the new system would never work unless the class enemy, the BMA, could be persuaded to buy into it: not such a romantic story.

The key to understanding Lloyd George is knowing that he was a spoiled child, adored by his family, whence both his extreme egoism and his celebrated charm. It was by a stroke of good fortune that he first became a solicitor’s articled clerk, but he thought nothing later of repaying the firm that had given him his start by setting up in opposition to it; just as he thought nothing of getting his brother to devil away in the new firm so that he could enjoy an (unpaid) political career, supported by the money his brother made. His even greater good fortune was to have an uncle, Richard Lloyd, who believed in him and backed him, convinced that he was a prodigy – an opinion Lloyd George shared. From the earliest days, there were scandals relating to affairs and paternity suits to be hushed up; the list of his conquests would include even his own daughter-in-law. Things were always arranged so that the woman paid the full price of the indiscretion and Lloyd George got away scot-free. His wife, Margaret, at first resisted his proposal on the reasonable ground that she couldn’t trust him. Later, she put up with his multiple infidelities uncomplainingly and did most of the child-rearing, while he devoted himself to politics and other women.

It seemed at first that he was bound to remain a parochial figure. As a country solicitor sitting for a rural seat, he was a passionate nationalist (he often addressed meetings in Welsh) whose main concern was to free Nonconformists from having to pay tithes for the support of the Anglican Church. In his mind the Anglican land-owning class in Wales was an exact equivalent of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. Yet, as Hattersley notes, while Lloyd George loved the idea of Wales he was in fact soon bored by it and greatly preferred London. (It was the same with his family: he proclaimed his devotion very loudly but consistently neglected it.) In effect he was making the whole principality of Wales his political base and gradually extending his role from spokesman for Welsh Nonconformity to tribune of Nonconformists nationwide. He was a speaker of great fire, verve and wit, a populist willing to play both sides of the street against the middle.

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