David Lloyd George: A Political Life. The Architect of Change, 1863-1912 
by Bentley Brinkerhoff Gilbert.
Batsford, 546 pp., £25, April 1987, 0 7134 5558 6
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Bentley Gilbert is a historian well-equipped to strip off myths and expose facts. All his skills were needed here: during some seventeen years of ministerial life Lloyd George took a hand in five books about himself, and much distortion resulted. After the war, for instance, Ll.G. hoped that his long struggle against Naval expenditure had been forgotten. He recorded that in July 1908 he had told the German Ambassador of his willingness to borrow £100 million to maintain British naval supremacy. He did not record that in the same month he had blamed Britain for the naval arms race, telling a Queen’s Hall audience that the Dreadnoughts should not have been built. Other myths originated in Lloyd George’s tendency, especially when talking to an attractive young woman, to dramatise or improve on incidents in his past. He seems to have thought a spiritual crisis appropriate for a serious Welsh boy, especially for one who was later to exploit Nonconformist enthusiasm when himself an agnostic. He therefore gave arresting accounts of his spiritual torments on finding that ‘there was no one at the other end of the telephone.’ According to the careful estimate given here, there was some embroidery in these accounts.

By the end of his premiership Lloyd George hardly needed to embroider. The job was being done for him. To Baldwin he was a ‘dynamic force’. Keynes called him ‘this half human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity’. Professor Gilbert’s enormously thorough research has resulted in a more sober account, and every student of the subject will be in his debt. Yet the Lloyd George who emerges from the copious (though sometimes inaccurate) documentation now provided remains as remarkable, and often as baffling, as ever.

Perceptively, Professor Gilbert stresses that the background was not Wales tout court, but rural North Wales. Political leaders who are connected with a particular group are apt to dramatise their identification with it: they are too like actors to resist making the most of any fat part in which the celestial director has cast them. Flamboyantly as Disraeli championed Jewish rights, he was not in religion – the all-important touchstone for that age – a Jew at all, but a baptised member of the Church of England. Similarly Lloyd George’s equipment for championing his ‘small country’ was one-sided and defective: he knew next to nothing about the problems of industrial South Wales. This book highlights the limitations which his background imposed: the opportunities which it gave are less clearly outlined. We are left asking: how could someone whose gifts, though remarkable, were so patchy have reached the top?

‘Is he lucky?’ Napoleon would ask of a general. On that basis our hero would have been given a command at once. The 1902 Education Act, and Bryce’s inadequacies in opposing it, came at exactly the right time to make Lloyd George a leading opposition figure. His wife stood by him when his not-so-private life landed him in court. The Tory peers played into his hands over the 1909 budget. If the opposition had accepted the budget proposals, Asquith told Margot, ‘we should have been left high and dry ... they would have romped in.’ By the time Lloyd George made his blunders over Marconi and the 1914 budget he was too prominent to be thrown overboard safely. Asquith had no reason by then to abandon his usual generosity and forbearance. He may not have been the only prime minister to view the heir presumptive’s diminished eligibility without undue alarm.

The greatest piece of luck lay deeper. The third Reform Act, like the first, betokened a change to a more urban and less deferential Britain. Yet the radicals were not the immediate gainers. The measures of 1884-5 had aroused many fears, in the suburbs as much as anywhere; and, as had happened in the 1830s, the great change was followed by a period of Conservative ascendancy. This effect was heightened by the defection of the leading radical, Joseph Chamberlain. By the turn of the century the fears had faded: with Gladstone dead, and Chamberlainite imperialism at its zenith, dangerous schemes such as Home Rule seemed to be off the cards. A valuable radical inheritance was there to be won: Lloyd George was ideally equipped to claim it. As Professor Gilbert shows, land reform – or more crudely, attacks on landlords – constituted the one completely consistent theme of his career. This was the best stance for an Edwardian radical. The enemy for his followers was the landlord, the hereditary magnate depicted by Chesterton in 1912:

    Over private fields and wastes as wide
As a Greek city for which heroes died,
I owned the houses and the men inside.

The arts of the agitator and the demagogue have never been enough to bring an aspirant to the top in British politics: governmental abilities are needed as well. Lloyd George’s capacities and background did not make him an ideal administrator. As he said himself, he had no great power of concentration. His grasp of detail was apt to be defective. He did not inspire trust among people of rectitude who knew him well. ‘He has ideals, but not standards,’ said Lucy Masterman in 1913, ‘or perhaps it would be fairer to say, not many.’ And Mrs Masterman’s journal gives no evidence that she was a snob.

These defects were outweighed by the possession, to an unusual degree, of qualities valuable in high politics. Lloyd George had learned the trade in a hard school. Though incapable of self-criticism, he was shrewd at judging, and ruthless in exploiting, the reactions of others. He was a first-class negotiator. His political perceptions were extremely quick: he was never tied by inertia to his previous position. He kept his ear close to the ground and seemed to Asquith the perfect ‘foolometer’: if Ll.G. disliked a proposal the public would certainly not view it with favour. The disparaging name which Asquith gave to this characteristic suggests his failure to appreciate it at its full value.

The important episode with which this volume ends has been the subject of one of Professor Gilbert’s learned articles. It shows Lloyd George’s qualities at their highest pitch, and illustrates how difficult it is to fathom him. On 21 July 1911, at the height of the Agadir dispute, he electrified the chancelleries of Europe by a stark warning to Germany. ‘If,’ he told the assembled bankers at the Mansion House, ‘a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be preserved by ... allowing Britain to be treated where her interests were vitally affected as if she were of no account ... I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.’ Here was the pro-Boer, the anti-imperialist, the Cabinet’s leading isolationist, turning round and supporting Grey. A few weeks later Lloyd George shocked both A.J. Balfour and the King by suggesting that, as ‘Germany meant war,’ it might ‘be better to have it at once’.

In explanation of his volte-face Professor Gilbert writes that for Lloyd George:

international understanding was preferable to war ... Yet the principles of nationhood, Welsh or British, were likewise absolute. Britain should not suffer insults from German Junkers any more than Welsh Nonconformists should be bullied by Anglicised gentry. These sentiments, of course, were personal and the assortment of middle-class, well-to-do, non-Welsh, politicians, journalists and philanthropists who supported his projects ... did not share or understand them ... Lloyd George ... understood well before the fatal summer Bank Holiday weekend of 1914 that Britain would have to go to war. But he did not say so.

Professor Gilbert adds, on the strength of Lloyd George’s effort to reassure C.P. Scott immediately after the Mansion House speech, that, like his colleagues, Ll.G. believed British aid to be essential if France was to survive a German attack. This is not a wholly satisfying explanation either of Lloyd George’s speech in July 1911 or of his silence three years later.

Why should the despatch of a German gunboat to Agadir, and the failure of the German government to respond to Grey’s remarks on 4 July, have convinced Lloyd George so suddenly that Germany was not the peaceful country he had long supposed, but one run by Junkers? John Grigg, whose work receives all too little recognition in this book, has pointed out that Lloyd George’s sympathy with France was nothing new. He had shown it 13 years earlier over Fashoda. The new revelation concerned Germany. In Professor Gilbert’s account Lloyd George was ignorant of the thrust of German policy until the German action at Agadir. There are difficulties about this. ‘Asquith asked me to speak to him last night after the House rose,’ Balfour told Lansdowne on 6 November 1908: ‘he was evidently extremely perturbed about the European situation ... He said that incredible as it might seem, the Government could form no theory of the German policy which fitted all the known facts except that they wanted war.’

Lloyd George’s perception of German policy may well have changed in 1911: what certainly changed that summer was his perception of British politics. It is the absence of this dimension which makes Professor Gilbert’s account incomplete. The elections of 1910 had transformed the Liberal majority in the Commons. It had shrunk; and in defence matters its Members were considerably chastened. The band of Liberal MPs who had argued that Britain needed no great armaments, since British intervention in Continental quarrels was out of the question, had not done well at the polls. In 1909 there had been some one hundred and thirty Liberal Members of that kind: by 1911 there were only about forty. The Reduction of Armaments Committee was not formally re-established after the first 1910 Election. In March 1911 only 56 Members voted to reduce British armaments. Lloyd George was not one to neglect signs of this sort.

The weeks which followed the gunboat’s arrival at Agadir gave Lloyd George the opening he needed. In 1908 the victim of German bullying had been Russia, the Liberals’ bête noire. Now it was France. Grey’s statement of 21 July to the Cabinet came at exactly the right moment. Asquith’s letter, revealing that he had the King’s promise to create peers if that should be needed to safeguard the Parliament Bill, had gone to Balfour and Lansdowne on the previous day: it was being discussed by the opposition peers almost as Grey spoke to the Cabinet. There could be no better day than 22 July for telling every Conservative newspaper reader that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his colleagues were not unscrupulous, revolutionary partisans, but determined patriots. Professor Gilbert’s narrative method prevents him from explaining how fortunate Lloyd George was to be giving a major speech on the evening of 21 July.

The chorus of praise for the Mansion House speech was by no means confined to the Conservatives: the Daily Chronicle and Daily News both responded with enthusiastic leaders. Lloyd George had pulled off a political coup. Had he also started to acquire an enduring understanding that Britain would have to go to war? Here, too, Professor Gilbert’s view presents problems.

The picture of Lloyd George in 1914 foreseeing Britain at war, but keeping silent, is not easy to square with the facts. ‘There was no Mansion House address,’ writes Professor Gilbert, ‘in late July 1914.’ Yet on 17 July 1914 Lloyd George told the bankers at the Mansion House that, while there was never ‘a perfectly blue sky in foreign affairs’, he was confident of seeing the difficulties overcome. On the day on which the Austrian ultimatum was presented to Serbia, 23 July, he told the Commons that relations with Germany were ‘very much better’ than they had been ‘a few years ago’. These were hardly the remarks of a statesman who thought that ‘Germany meant war,’ and that Britain had to intervene to save France. Nor should Lloyd George’s change of front be regarded simply as an example of his volatility. By July 1914 many British public men, distracted by Ulster, or lulled by prospects of agreement on the Baghdad railway and the Portuguese colonies, had begun to assume that German policy was peaceful. By then, it seemed doubtful whether, in a Continental war, the arrival of Britain’s small army would either be needed to save the French or allowed by the Belgians.

Lloyd George learned about the British plans for a warlike intervention on the Continent during the Committee of Imperial Defence meeting on 23 August 1911. Two days later he wrote to Churchill from Criccieth. Professor Gilbert cites this letter (incorrectly) and quotes from it. He might do well to look at it again. It shows that, characteristically, Lloyd George had seized on two crucial uncertainties: the position of Russia and that of Belgium. The transformation of those two factors between 1911 and 1914, as perceived in Downing Street, goes far to explain how the bellicose Lloyd George of Agadir became the non-interventionist of 1 August 1914.

In the years immediately before 1914 the rebuilding of Russia’s military strength impressed every observer, and was indeed the subject of much exaggeration. The dominant Liberal view by July 1914 was that France’s task had been eased. She had only to withstand the German onslaught for a few weeks: no more would be needed since after that the ‘Russian steam-roller’ would be in action. The leaders in the Daily Chronicle, the Liberal daily with the largest circulation, are revealing about this. On 1 August the Government were warned not to help in giving Russia ‘an unbalanced hegemony’. On 3 August Germany and Austria-Hungary were weighed in war strength against France and Russia, the two alliances being found to be ‘pretty equally matched’. There is no reason to suppose that Lloyd George differed from these views.

In 1911 Lloyd George had pointed to the need to ‘sound out Belgium’. A German infraction of Belgian neutrality in case of war was virtually certain. The problem lay in the Belgian response. For a Liberal leader busy mending his party fences after the Marconi disaster this was all important. To many Liberals intervening in support of France and Russia was not merely unnecessary but objectionable. To them, as to John Bright, the balance of power seemed a ‘foul idol’. The 1839 Treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality was different. An appeal from Belgium for intervention under its terms would call into play the strong conviction among Liberals that international agreements must be upheld and small nations protected.

The enquiries made during 1912 about the perceptions and intentions of the Belgian ministers produced discouraging answers. It became reasonably clear that, while they meant to discharge their duty under the treaty by protesting against a German march through Belgium, and even perhaps by making some show of resisting it, they would be chary of asking for military help from any guarantor power. Their country had been a cockpit too often for them to relish that kind of ‘help’. The Belgian Army was stationed to repel, not merely a German invasion across the eastern border, but incursions from any side. If the French or British responded to the German onslaught by entering Belgium without an invitation they might be met by fire. To assess the impact of all this, we need to remember that both the French and the British staffs expected the German advance to stay south and east of the Sambre-Meuse line. The Belgian authorities did not claim that they would offer serious resistance to a march of this kind through the Ardennes: their strategy would be to fall back quickly and defend the Meuse fortresses, Liège and Namur, or, as a German diplomat put it, to ‘line up along the road taken by the German Army’. No one knew better than Lloyd George how difficult it would be for a Liberal government to send the BEF to France in the face of Belgian discouragement.

Hindsight menaces all historians. It runs counter to the facts to depict Lloyd George as secretly no less interventionist in 1914 than he had been in 1911. Almost certainly he meant it when he told his friends in the last days of July 1914 that the German Army would march through no more than ‘a little bit’ of Belgium. When Asquith wrote to Venetia Stanley on 24 July about the imminent prospect of war between the two European alliances, he added: ‘Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.’ His Chancellor of the Exchequer would have said the same. Neither of them knew that Moltke was drafting an ultimatum to Brussels and planning to swing the German right wing all through central Belgium. The French and British staffs had underestimated the dominance and the resourcefulness of their opposite numbers. By using reserve divisions in the line Moltke could afford to extend the front north of the Meuse. By using the new 420 mm howitzers he could have the Liège forts battered into submission within hours. The Schlieffen Plan had been known in outline for years: but the part of it which mattered most in 1914 – starting the advance with a ‘big bang’ against Liège – does not seem to have been known even to the Kaiser and Bethmann Hollweg until 31 July. Professor Gilbert is right to stress how well-informed Lloyd George was after 1911 about the views current in the CID. He might have added that on a crucial point these views proved mistaken. The CID were worried, quite reasonably, about what seemed the intractable problem of persuading the Belgian Government to call for British military aid. Neither Lloyd George nor any of his colleagues knew when the war crisis began that by 3 August this problem would have disappeared – removed by the German ultimatum to Brussels.

To Lord Wilson, a week was a long time in politics. For Lloyd George three years was an eternity.

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