Selwyn Lloyd 
by D.K. Thorpe.
Cape, 516 pp., £18, February 1989, 0 224 02828 6
Show More
Show More

Grandfather was John Wesley Lloyd, son of the Rev. John Lloyd from Llanidloes; after an education at Kingswood School, entry to which was restricted to the sons of Methodist ministers, he became a dentist and moved to Liverpool. His own son, also John Wesley Lloyd, was ineligible for Kingswood and sent therefore to the Methodist-inspired Leys School in Cambridge as the next best thing; he qualified in medicine but, like his eponymous father, became a Liverpool dentist – chapel-going, teetotal, Liberal. This textbook story of steady, unspectacular upward social mobility and incremental secularisation was illustrated by the family’s suburbanisation, with the transfer of the dental practice from the city to the Wirral, first as a summer adjunct, but latterly as the main family home. It was here that Dr Lloyd’s third child and only son was born in 1904. Naturally he wished the boy to be christened John Wesley: but his Anglican wife had other ideas, and they settled on an appropriately Low Church compromise – Selwyn.

Selwyn Lloyd’s origins were to be the butt of many snobbish jests in later years. His education at Fettes and Magdalene College, Cambridge, maintained the family’s trajectory of escape from the confines of Wesleyanism. But although he became known as Peter from undergraduate days onward – ‘Selwyn’ must have spelt social death at Magdalene – he never seriously purported to be other than he was. He exhumed his Christian name in post-war politics and made it into a distinctive trademark, whereas to remain Peter would have left him swimming in a pool of Anthonys and Olivers and Harolds and Hughs. It was thought very funny at the time when Bernard Levin in the Spectator hung the Foreign Secretary’s service on the Hoylake Urban District Council round his neck. But Lloyd was no Pooterish aspirant, with absurd social pretensions, to the inner circle of Tory grandees. Knowing well enough that Macmillan referred to him as ‘a middle-class lawyer from Liverpool’, Lloyd planned ultimately to take this as the title for his memoirs. He was unrepentantly proud of what he was: a successful, provincial, professional man. In dismissing him (literally) in 1962 as ‘a little country notary’, did Macmillan forget that Lloyd George had not disdained to describe himself as ‘a Welsh country solicitor’?

One of the aspects of Lloyd’s career which D.R. Thorpe’s very useful biography brings out is the way that it was rooted not in Conservatism but in Lloyd George Liberalism. It was when Lloyd George’s serious bid for power had failed after 1931, and he found himself reduced to a Parliamentary group of only four MPs (including two of his children), that the young Selwyn Lloyd drifted towards the Conservatives. Indeed he might even have been tempted to join the ‘family party’ itself since his name had often been linked with that of Megan Lloyd George. At Cambridge in the Twenties, it was Lloyd’s Liberal activities which were the making of his prominence in the Union and which led to his adoption as a Parliamentary candidate in the 1929 General Election. He was on the radical wing of the party, repelled by the Conservatives’ hard line after the General Strike of 1926. ‘There seem to be fewer and fewer reasons each day why one should not join the Labour Party!!’ he wrote home at this time – a thought which must have shaken his parents on the Wirral. He campaigned fervently but unavailingly for the expansionist policies in Lloyd George’s manifesto, ‘We can conquer unemployment’, and counted its rejection by the electorate as a lifelong disappointment, along with the failure to establish a centre party in the Thirties.

Macmillan’s record as an early pioneer of Keynesian measures has long been appreciated, and the resonance of ‘Stockton’ for an understanding of his outlook as prime minister has become a cliché. Now that we have a well-documented account of the early career of the man he sent to the Treasury in 1960, it becomes more tantalising to identify the origins of the thrust of policy in that period. Should Lloyd’s record as a reforming Chancellor, proclaiming an annual growth target of 4 per cent and establishing the National Economic Development Council, be viewed as the belated triumph of Lloyd George, thirty years on? There are, to be sure, one or two snags in such a scenario, not least the possibilities of bathos in envisaging a hypothetical encounter between grimly deflationist Treasury knights and a Chancellor whose eyes would mist over at the mention of ‘Hoylake’.

None of this, it must be admitted, was much in Lloyd’s style. He knew not only that Macmillan had been looking for ‘someone with original ideas’ as his Chancellor but also that he himself did not fit the bill. ‘I told him he was wrong if he expected any originality,’ Lloyd recorded in 1960. ‘I had v. orthodox ideas about taxation and public expenditure, and knew nothing about the City.’ It was almost on a par with his response to Churchill’s initial offer of office nine years previously, as Minister of State at the Foreign Office: ‘But Sir, I think there must be some mistake, I’ve never been to a foreign country, I don’t speak any foreign languages, I don’t like foreigners.’ If this reply, like Churchill’s riposte – ‘Young man, these all seem to me to be positive advantages’ – may have been somewhat improved in the course of subsequent repetition, it nonetheless tells us much about Lloyd. Such anecdotes did not attach themselves to Eden or Macmillan, still less would either man have encouraged their propagation. Indeed Eden later warned Lloyd, if he insisted on publishing the Churchill story, not to ‘overdo it to the point of making me seem half-witted in having chosen you for the job, because I was not, you know.’ In making it clear that Eden actually wanted Lloyd as his junior minister – a crucial stage in his emergence – Thorpe supplies a useful check on one of the compendious alibis put forward in extenuation of Eden by his faithful biographer, Robert Rhodes James.

Why, then, by 1951, had Lloyd risen so high in the Conservative Party, to which he had only finally committed himself as late as 1944? One explanation is that he had a good war behind him. He was one of the ‘Tory Brigadiers’ elected in 1945, at a time when this was a trump card. His main opponent on the Wirral short-list was Sir John Smyth VC, who gave the wrong answer to the question whether he would live in the constituency. Lloyd was transparently able to give the right answer – he had never lived anywhere else – and walked into a safe seat which he was to hold for the next thirty years. His military career had brought out the best in him: his appreciation of a firmly-ordered institutional framework for his life; the meticulous grasp of detail which made him an outstanding staff officer; his cheerful readiness to go along with a grand strategy mapped out by his superiors, combined with an anxious concern to ensure that it was implemented according to plan. Lloyd was the perfect team-player, a competent utility man who wanted to fit in but displayed no obvious ambition or capacity to take over as captain.

It was not only a political home that a career in Conservative politics offered: it seems that Lloyd never actually bought a house of his own. On the Wirral he lived in his parents’ home and ultimately inherited it. He also, late in life, acquired a grander house there as a bequest from a leading supporter – a magnificent gesture of personal appreciation, of which she frequently forewarned him over the years, and only marred by living on to the age of 104. When Lloyd was a lawyer on the Northern Circuit he lived out of a suitcase. When he was in the Army the problem was looked after. When he became a Tory MP his Army friend William Aitken offered to put him up temporarily in his flat, where Lloyd stayed for the next five years. Marriage turned out to be a brief and unsatisfactory interlude. The many ministerial jobs which Lloyd successively held came with accommodation thrown in, even though No 11 Downing Street was being renovated during his tenure as Chancellor. Remarkably, for more than five years, Macmillan, with a country house of his own, made over Chequers to Lloyd, thus affirming a strong bond between them; and it was the sudden loss of Chequers in 1962 which brought home the brutality of its abrupt severance. Nothing abashed, Lloyd’s resilient resurrection as Speaker of the House of Commons in the Seventies was to leave him occupying what he called, as a connoisseur in these matters, ‘the best tied cottage in London’.

Thorpe does not disguise Lloyd’s rather limited range of personal qualities. His integrity, his loyalty, his lack of vindictiveness, are justly emphasised: but his gauche and insensitive lack of the right touch on many occasions is also revealed. One official’s remark, ‘that his teasing, leg-pulling, bullying manner was not sympathetic,’ is repeatedly echoed. The law, the Army, the golf club – none of these confined, conventional, male-orientated middle-class milieus had educated him much beyond back-slapping and rib-poking. His irrepressible jokes were a specialised taste. ‘Good for Nutting’, a favourite tag for a fellow minister at the Foreign Office, was relieved with similar sallies like ‘You’re a deb, Sir Gladwyn Jebb.’ It is not wholly surprising that the mandarins sometimes treated him with disdain, nor that Churchill declared he was ‘that most dangerous of men – the clever fool’.

This was the statesman on whose sophisticated diplomacy, worldly wisdom and delicate judgment it depended to finesse the British Empire out of its hapless plight over the Suez Canal in 1956. Our perceptions of Lloyd inevitably and justly continue to be dominated by this episode, which has been the focus of renewed attention in recent biographies of many of the principals. The fact is that none of them comes out particularly well and the best course is surely to acknowledge this, as in the life of Butler by Anthony Howard and that of Macmillan by Alistair Horne. The alternative strategy is that adopted by Rhodes James on Eden: to defend his hero on every conceivable count, from geopolitical insight (Eden alone discerned the scale of the Soviet menace) to personal foibles (Eden was not aloof and vain – he simply failed to recognise junior colleagues because he refused to wear his spectacles). Thorpe wisely opts for candour, and he brings to his account an admirable sense of proportion and verisimilitude.

Lloyd was characteristically straightforward in his commitment to a diplomatic resolution of the Canal crisis, breaking off negotiations in New York in mid-October 1956 with obvious reluctance. His fatal mistake, on being summoned back to London, was to allow Eden to browbeat him into assent for another course altogether – the plan which had now been hatched for Anglo-French military action in collusion with Israel. The jet-lagged Foreign Secretary was thus propelled into a wild adventure beyond his own horizon. He was bundled off within the week on a clandestine mission, dressed in an old mackintosh, to a villa at Sèvres for consultation with not only the French but also the Israelis. Stumbling into a back room of the villa to meet the Israeli delegation, he quipped, ‘I ought to have had a false moustache,’ only to be greeted by an embarrassed silence. He was to learn the hard way that the trouble caused by getting mixed up with foreigners, incapable even of apprecicating the English sense of humour, was only just beginning.

By going to Sèvres, Lloyd had, of course, become inextricably implicated in Eden’s plan. For by now, as one Conservative MP put it, ‘Eden had to prove he had a real moustache’ (presumably unlike the sort lacked by his ill-starred emissary) and there could be no backing down. If collusion was necessary to carry out the scheme, Lloyd had no qualms about defending his actions, not least from subsequent charges that it was dishonourable to have denied it to the House of Commons. But an intractable difficulty arose from Eden’s fallacious belief that the truth need never come out. His position was respected by Lloyd in later years by their co-ordinating the lines on which they would discuss the issue with historians – what might be called collusion about collusion. Left to himself, Lloyd’s instinct was to avoid the disingenuousness in which Eden’s memoirs were clothed.

After Suez Lloyd offered his resignation, which was refused. As it turned out, Eden was shortly to leave the Government in broken health, and since, as Macmillan put it, ‘one head on a charger should be enough,’ Lloyd’s position was made secure. He became Macmillan’s indispensable colleague, more truly unflappable than his master, but one who recognised that it was a presidential style of government. In Aneurin Bevan’s unforgettable image, his role was that of monkey to the prime minister’s organ-grinder. (Surely the prime minister here was Macmillan, not Eden, as Thorpe would have it?) Naturally Lloyd was privately irritated by ‘the usual drip of denigration’ in the press, especially after the Times had raised a rash of speculation in 1958 with a suggestion that the Prime Minister had confided to him that ‘enough is enough.’ Both as Foreign Secretary and later as Chancellor, Lloyd was prepared to fall in with Macmillan’s wishes, though ready on occasion to warn him that ‘it is not helpful to portray the image of “MacWinston” trying to do everything himself.’

Macmillan, who had declined to make Lloyd the scapegoat for the failure of Suez, eventually rewarded his loyalty by making him the scapegoat for the incipient failure of the Government’s economic policy. As late as March 1962, Lloyd’s diary (which is quoted to good effect here) records his intimate discussion with Macmillan about a reconstruction of the Government, to anticipate a change in the premiership. ‘I said, “What about myself?” He said, “You would have to stay on if PM.” I said I was not sure I wanted this.’ Macmillan offered a further assurance: that he would not write his memoirs. Never a man to renege in anything but spades, he was to reserve his longest knife for Lloyd four months later and eventually completed his memoirs in five fat volumes. There are signs that Macmillan felt some remorse over the whole business in the abattoir – pangs to which even organ-grinders are not wholly immune. It was an unexpected turn of the wheel which, within fifteen months of the Night of the Long Knives, was to lay Macmillan himself low and restore Cabinet office to Selwyn Lloyd – confiding now that he felt ‘rather like someone who has won a suit for wrongful dismissal!!!’ Few readers will begrudge him this moment of rejoicing over a modest rehabilitation which this estimable book suggests was no more than his deserts.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences