Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

I am beginning to recover from the effects of being knocked down in Old Compton Street by a motor-car. Now I can walk to the end of the road. The other day I made an excursion as far as Camden Town to have my hair cut. This left me a little tired but otherwise unharmed. I resolved on a more ambitious venture: nothing less than a journey to Oxford when I drove part of the way myself. The journey had an unexpected purpose. Some years earlier a professional portrait painter, June Mendoza, had asked me to sit for my portrait. After it was finished she offered it to Magdalen College, which, being taken up with the restoration of the college buildings, had no spare money to pay for a picture even if they had wanted to buy it. Now friends of mine, marshalled by Chris Cook, had raised enough to buy the picture of me and offer it to the college.

Magdalen College had acquired few portraits of fellows particularly of recent years. I can recollect only one of C.S. Lewis and I am not even sure of him. I seemed peculiarly unsuited to receive the honour. Every fellow of Magdalen College is required to be re-elected every five years until he reaches the retiring age of 70 and is normally re-elected without question. During my entire time at Magdalen I was the only fellow whose election had been challenged – and that twice. I had committed offences in the eyes of many fellows, especially of Godfrey Driver, long-term Senior Fellow. I contributed to the popular press, ranging from the Sunday Express to the Observer. I had been a close friend of Lord Beaverbrook’s. I repeatedly appeared on television. I was prominent in the first CND. I had proposed the closing of the Chapel. I had proposed the admission of women to the college, first as guests at dinner and then as members, the last motion being carried at the last college meeting I attended. Now all was forgiven and even forgotten. I had done as well as Henry Sacheverell, for long the most notorious fellow of the college.

The Vice-President proposed a party in college when the portrait should be unveiled. This was for me a happy and also a moving occasion. I had not realised how many friends I possessed in Oxford. I will not attempt to recite them all. There was only one drawback. The combination of Parkinson’s disease and being run over was still with me, however much I tried to forget about them. I cannot walk for any distance nor stand up for any length of time. The only consolation over this period is that I have more time for reading, especially longer books, and more capacity to read them. I have done well so far. I introduce them with an assurance that these are only a few of the books which I have read since the opening of the year. They are a stimulus for me to return to the distant time when I read a book a day.

They begin with Lloyd George and the Generals by David Woodward,[*] a professor at Marshall University, which is somewhere in the New World. The difficult relations between Lloyd George, when prime minister, and the British generals from Haig onwards during the First World War have been a topic of long standing, inexhaustible in its comedy. Nowadays the topic has been rather over-shadowed by similar topics during the Second World War. Professor Woodward has put it in the centre of the picture. The basic question in both wars was: Europe or elsewhere? The answer in the First War seemed imposed by the Germans whether the British liked it or not. Still, by 1916 and the battle of the Somme a good many British leaders thought it was time to seek elsewhere, none more so than Lloyd George. Two years previously Lloyd George had not been prominent among those who had advocated the Dardanelles as an alternative to Flanders. Determination to escape from obsession with Flanders was the prominent theme in Lloyd George’s mind from the moment he became prime minister in December 1916. His first expedient was to promote the French general Nivelle in France instead of Haig. The expedient did not work. Nivelle was defeated and then dismissed. The French were fully occupied in defending Verdun. The British seemed fully occupied at Passchendaele.

Throughout the autumn of 1917 Lloyd George was engaged in the hunt for another way of escape from Flanders. Emphasis on this is an outstanding feature of Professor Woodward’s book. One device was the establishment of a Supreme War Council, an institution which would liberate Lloyd George from the British generals. When it came to real life the Supreme War Council proved of no effect. Hunting further afield, Lloyd George proposed to make Italy the centre of the European war. This proposal came near to success but it was the Germans, not the Allies, who came near to victory. The total defeat or collapse of Russia seemed close at the end of 1917 and thereafter the final victory of Germany drew near. The account of this crisis provides the finest chapter in Professor Woodward’s book.

Ludendorf aimed high: first the decisive defeat of France, then the total defeat of England, and after that he would finish off Italy. In England there was controversy as to how this danger could be countered. The British generals wanted to put all the troops they could find into the field against the Germans. Lloyd George, though less openly, proposed husbanding British troops to meet the Germans once they had conquered Europe. The peak of this dispute came when General Maurice accused Lloyd George of exaggerating the number of the British troops sent to France. Lloyd George performed a conjuring trick with these figures and won the debates in the House of Commons. So Lloyd George won the First World War even though he had not intended to do so.

Lloyd George’s equivocation regarding the ending of the First World War had its echo in 1940 when he moved towards advocating a withdrawal from France and a compromise with the Germans. In 1940 Lloyd George had passed the height of his powers or perhaps lost them altogether. Even so, Churchill came near to sending him to Washington as British Ambassador. Woodward tells the story well, though it seems very remote.

The next book on my list is far from remote. Indeed it is regrettably relevant. It is Political Violence in Ireland by Charles Townshend. I have been singing Townshend’s praises for years past. I think he is the outstanding authority on a subject of vital importance. His new book presents the essential theme in Irish history ever since the European Revolutions of 1848. The revolutionary movements in Ireland were never successful or even near it until the 20th century. Nevertheless there was a continuing undercurrent of hope that they would be successful sooner or later. Land hunger provided a further element in the later part of the 19th century and many enlightened Liberals believed that the disorder would die away if the land hunger was remedied. This was a misunderstanding. At any rate, the remedy was unsuccessful or was shown to be irrelevant. The most striking feature of political violence in Ireland is that it did not depend essentially on success or failure. The rebels were not discouraged by failure. They merely waited for a new wave of success which they were sure would come sooner or later. Moreover it was never clear which side observed the rules of political order and which practised political violence. Did Parnell stand for peaceful agitation or did he step over the boundary? In the days of Salisbury and Balfour were they the champions of law and order or was the violence on their side? The confusion reached its height in the years before the First World War when the Unionists of Ulster proposed to conduct a civil war against the legitimate government of the United Kingdom. Violence will set its stamp on any legitimate government which claims to maintain its authority over any part of Ireland by force. And yet there seems no alternative.

I move on to a story of peaceful though remarkable government – to Labour in Power 1945-1951 by Kenneth O. Morgan. This is a remarkable achievement of political history. The first Attlee government changed the entire character of British politics and administration, or so it seemed at the time – here was a government which in its early days made revolution respectable. But, in my opinion, the prime minister who committed his country to the creation of nuclear weapons without informing Parliament or even the Cabinet brought disaster on his party – for all the stalwart lead which Attlee gave to Labour in its first years in power. To me now, that government was false to its promises, and Labour has never recovered. Morgan takes a different line and finds much to admire in Attlee’s government almost to its end. Undoubtedly he has done his best for it.

[*] Associated University Presses, 267 pp., £28, November 1983, 0 87413 211 8.