Tethering the broomstick

Jose Harris

  • Lloyd George: From Peace to War 1912-1916 by John Grigg
    Methuen, 527 pp, £19.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 413 46660 4

‘Who shall paint the chameleon, who can tether a broomstick?’ wrote J.M. Keynes of David Lloyd George in 1919. ‘How can I convey to the reader ... any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this syren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity?’ This passage was left out of the original text of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, because Keynes felt that he had tried and failed to do justice to the British prime minister’s baffling complexity of character. Lloyd George has continued to dazzle and elude his numerous biographers ever since. Few statesmen have had their public and private lives so frankly exposed and picked over by friend and foe alike: yet few have so tantalisingly evaded the grasp of the historian. Was Lloyd George, as Keynes suggested, a chimera from the Celtic twilight: or was he on the contrary a pioneer of modernity, managerialism and administrative rationalisation? Was he a ruthless practitioner of power politics or a diplomatic femme fatale – endowed with an almost feminine lubricity and guile? Was he an adherent of high principle, or merely a virtuoso of grand rhetoric? Was he a genuine democrat and parliamentarian, or was he mainly concerned with concentrating the power and streamlining the efficiency of the modern centralised state?

The fact that the answer to many, if not all, of these apparently contradictory questions seems to have been yes makes the mystery of Lloyd George all the more intractable. In the two earlier volumes of John Grigg’s biography the full ambiguity of Lloyd George’s character and role in history had yet to be revealed. Volume Three carries us into the heartland of the problem. The book opens in 1912 with Lloyd George at the height of his powers as a reforming Chancellor of the Exchequer, as the hammer of aristocratic privilege and as the great popular champion of reformist liberalism. It concludes in December 1916 with Lloyd George as prime minister in a mainly Tory administration, bent on turning the ramshackle edifice of traditional liberal government into a command structure for waging and winning a total war.

How did this transformation come about? Was the shift from populist liberal to head of a coalition wielding dictatorial powers purely a response to the desperate circumstances of the time, or did the seeds of change lie deep in Lloyd George’s own career and character? The answer, as John Grigg shows, lay in the conjunction of the two. For all his role as a popular Liberal hero, there were always aspects of Lloyd George’s political outlook that potentially marked him off from both the upper and the lower reaches of Liberal political thought. His belief in state and empire and his admiration for ‘business efficiency’ distinguished him from many grass-roots Liberals, while his impatience with abstract moral and constitutional notions placed him at a distance from many of the Liberal intelligentsia. The constitutional crisis of 1910 had revealed his surprising willingness to entertain thoughts of coalition: and many scattered episodes in his early career suggested at best an indifference and at worst a lack of scruple over what many Liberals regarded as issues of high principle. In the immediately pre-war period John Grigg points to the curious constitutional anomaly of the Lloyd George land inquiry, which involved the kind of mingling of public powers and private funds that Liberal activists were always denouncing in Tories. More notoriously, the Marconi scandal of 1913 (in which Lloyd George was accused but formally cleared of holding shares in a company with a government contract) suggested a certain cavalier indifference to the spirit as opposed to the letter of constitutional law.

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