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.
He was quick to see that his only real rival as a populist Liberal leader was Joe Chamberlain, the colonial secretary and hammer of the Boers. Accordingly he waged open war on him, publicly sympathising with the Boers so strongly that he sometimes seemed to be cheering on the defeat of the British army in South Africa. He held an anti-war meeting in Birmingham Town Hall, the heartland of Chamberlain’s political fief, and insisted that it go ahead when everyone from the chief constable down pleaded with him to cancel it. The result was the virtual sack of the town hall by a Union Jack-waving mob of 30,000 jingoes armed with bricks, hammers, knives and bottles. For a while ‘the most unpopular man in England’, as passions receded he came to be seen as a man of principle – perhaps the oddest result of all. More to the point, his pro-Boer campaign had helped split the Liberal Party down the middle, but he never considered putting party interests before his own. His alliance with the Tories during the First World War split the party permanently and fatally, but he never expressed any regrets. For him, the party was merely the vehicle he needed to power his own ascent.
In 1906, when Campbell-Bannerman swept to power at the head of a large Liberal majority, Lloyd George was an inevitable cabinet appointee – he was simply too prominent to leave out – and he was made president of the Board of Trade. He had been an MP for 15 years and was already 43. It might have been thought that he had left it too late to get to the top. But he remained a cabinet minister for the next 16 years, the last five as prime minister. As a minister, he displayed a remarkable gift for negotiation; he could make the terms of any agreement seem to be whatever any of the parties wanted them to be, leaving the real subject matter obscure and then deftly double-crossing anyone foolish enough to have trusted him. Beatrice Webb understood him well: ‘He is a blatant intriguer – and every word he says is of the nature of an offer “to do a deal”. He neither likes nor dislikes you; you are a mere instrument, one among many – sometimes of value, sometimes not worth picking up.’
Ineluctably, he made his way to the top and once he was chancellor he dominated the government more even than Brown did Blair’s. With the advent of war in 1914 he exploited his friendship with the Tory leader, Bonar Law, to suggest the need for a national government. Only when Law had agreed did he put it to the premier – Asquith had succeeded Campbell-Bannerman in 1908 – who had little choice but to accede. Already convinced that only he could win the war, he doubtless understood that he couldn’t hope to push Asquith aside without help – which Bonar Law was to provide. He put himself at the centre of the war effort, first as minister for munitions and then as secretary of state for war, and as the war drifted into stalemate it began to seem obvious that only someone with his drive and determination could secure victory. And so he became the ‘man who won the war’. Hattersley accepts this estimate too easily. In The Pity of War Niall Ferguson shows that by the apparent stalemate of 1916 Germany was far nearer the end of its resources than Britain. Britain and France were always likely to be the last men standing. Inevitably, Lloyd George disliked and despised the generals and was always looking for ways to sack them, though, to be fair, he also had far more of a politician’s horror at the size of the casualty lists than they did. The public seemed to sense this, for while there was bitter postwar resentment of the generals, little of it came Lloyd George’s way, which, given how hard he had worked to keep his own sons safe, it might have.
By this time, he was living with his secretary Frances Stevenson in London while maintaining his marriage in Wales. Stevenson was devoted to him in the selfless way he required of all his women. She was many years younger than him but happily recorded in her diary how he had begged her to ‘join him’ when he died, presumably by means of a suicide pact of the kind that brought so much posthumous criticism on Arthur Koestler, who got his much younger and perfectly healthy wife to ‘join’ him. Frances, however, was concerned only that she might die first. Happily, she survived him by 27 years.
At the end of the war, Hattersley says delicately, Lloyd George’s ‘conduct during the negotiation of the peace treaty is difficult to defend’. As a leading government adviser, Keynes was revolted by the insouciant way in which Lloyd George decided that electoral advantage lay in backing Clemenceau’s demands for the dismemberment of Germany and for unpayable reparations: ‘How can I convey any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this siren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity?’ Indeed, Keynes found in Lloyd George’s company ‘that flavour of final purposelessness, inner irresponsibility, existence outside or away from our Saxon good and evil, mixed with cunning, remorselessness, love of power.’ Having inflicted a ‘Carthaginian peace’ on the Germans despite the pleadings of Keynes and Smuts, Lloyd George repented of it in later years – far too late. And while Keynes was addressing his remarks to the liberal intelligentsia, Lloyd George had to win votes and in the 1918 ‘khaki election’ he certainly did that. Lloyd George never found it difficult to change his mind even on such supremely important subjects: his attitude had been opportunistic from the start. Similarly, he was able to launch a major crusade on a given issue, only to lose interest in it later on. Faced by the postwar economic crises and having irretrievably split the Liberal Party, he campaigned for a national government, which was predominantly Tory, and then had no difficulty adopting the entire Tory economic policy of savage cuts in the face of mounting recession. He even changed his mind about the House of Lords and decided that it was, after all, ‘not a bad second chamber’.
For the next four years Lloyd George clung on as prime minister, hated by the Asquithian Liberals and increasingly resented by the Tories, who made up his majority. His government soon faced huge difficulties over the economy, the miners and Ireland. Lloyd George dominated everywhere, conducting his own foreign policy and making a mockery of cabinet government, while his ministers, though they paid homage to his genius, increasingly resented his dictatorial ways. Clearly feeling he must arm himself against his inevitable ejection, he sold honours to all comers, accumulating a war chest of millions of pounds and placing it under his own control. In the end he went a step too far, nominating for a peerage Sir Joseph Robinson, a South African randlord who had been convicted of fraud and fined a staggering £500,000. Meanwhile, Lloyd George dreamed of setting up a party of the centre which would form a permanent part of every future government, guaranteeing him office more or less for ever, but the Tories had had enough and voted to do without him. Pushed out in 1922, he never returned to power – at first he could hardly believe it – but his ruthless use of his election fund helped to give him lasting political influence over the Liberal rump and well beyond, so that even in 1929 he was making coalition deals with both major parties.
The outbreak of war in 1939 placed him in an awkward position. On the one hand, he had paid an ill-advised visit to Hitler in 1936 and repeatedly hailed him as ‘a great man … a born leader … and a statesman’. ‘I only wish,’ he wrote, that ‘we had a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs in our country.’ Even after the war had started he argued for a negotiated peace. On the other hand, he longed to be invited back into the war cabinet, and even tended to assume that he would have the major responsibility for winning a second war. When Churchill did invite him into the war cabinet in May 1940, however, he refused, perhaps partly out of pique that the nation had turned to Churchill rather than him, and thereafter gave the strong impression that he was expecting Churchill to fail, at which point there would have to be a negotiated peace. Churchill indignantly compared him to Pétain and the idea took hold that Lloyd George, like Pétain a hero of the Great War, would be the obvious head of a British Vichy regime. Though Hattersley thinks this a little unfair – there is no evidence that Lloyd George actually desired a British defeat – he admits that if the offer had come to serve as a Quisling in an occupied Britain, he would probably have found it irresistible.
Then in December 1940, on the unexpected death of Lord Lothian, the British ambassador in Washington, Churchill asked Lloyd George to take his place. He thought about it, declined and allowed his last few years to peter out; he accepted a hereditary earldom and, his wife having died, at last married Frances Stevenson. He died in March 1945. Hattersley leaves the story there, with Churchill’s offer of the Washington embassy, the two men now apparently reconciled. This, to me, is Hattersley’s one false step. Lloyd George had continued to inveigh against Chamberlain for having declared ‘a war he had no chance of winning’, and to intrigue against Churchill, promising to serve in government if the Tories would only discard Churchill for Eden.
Churchill would have been in receipt of secret service reports concerning those who held pro-Hitler views or who sought to weaken the war effort by recommending a negotiated peace. Lloyd George was notably indiscreet in his private conversations about such matters and Churchill would have been kept fully informed by MI5. We now know as well that Lord Halifax, Churchill’s rival for the premiership in May 1940, continued after the outbreak of war to attempt to negotiate with Hitler via his contacts in Italy – and this too became known to MI5. By December 1940, MI5 had arrested an associate of Halifax’s emissary, Lonsdale-Bryans, but it was decided to leave Lonsdale-Bryans at large, under close scrutiny, even though he was guilty under defence regulations of attempting to communicate with the enemy. The trouble was that they could hardly find Lonsdale-Bryans guilty without also finding Halifax guilty. But Halifax was foreign secretary and politically untouchable: Churchill needed to keep the many senior Tories who had never wanted to see him as prime minister on side. On 22 December 1940, Halifax was suddenly replaced by Eden and demoted to Tory leader in the Lords, almost certainly because Churchill had just heard the truth about Lonsdale-Bryans.
Put this together with the fact that Halifax was offered (and took) the Washington embassy as soon as Lloyd George turned it down, and Churchill’s thinking becomes clear. He had only just survived the Battle of Britain, and with neither the US nor the USSR in the war, defeat still seemed all too possible. In the circumstances it was a matter of elementary prudence for him to get leading appeasers – possible future Quislings – out of the country. This was why Sir Samuel Hoare was shunted off to the embassy in Madrid for the duration. It was doubtless also why Halifax was given the Washington embassy: as a sign not of Churchill’s trust but of his extreme distrust. Churchill had in any case long before established a private channel of correspondence with Roosevelt and had every intention of handling relations with the US himself. This distrust did not prevent him from offering Lloyd George an earldom in December 1944: by then the war was all but won and Lloyd George was dying. We can only speculate how things might have gone had the war turned out differently. But one is left with the feeling that Lloyd George was immensely lucky that his career was allowed to finish on this high note when it might so easily have ended in a more irremediable disgrace than any that had gone before.