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.

Lloyd George’s lack of scruple earned him much mistrust even among colleagues who were charmed by his personality and who greatly admired his oratorical and executive powers. By Edwardian Tories he was seen not merely as the author of obnoxious policies but as one who kept changing the rules of the game to ensure that his own side always won. Even among fellow Liberals he was widely seen as ‘shifty’, ‘a jumper’, ‘an opportunist’, whose unreliability was demonstrated by his habit of fighting Cabinet battles through the medium of the press (as in his Daily Chronicle attack on Churchill’s Naval Estimates in January 1914). War redefines vice and virtue, however, and many of Lloyd George’s weaknesses became towering strengths in the new political context of August 1914. After a shaky start, in which he initially underrated the seriousness of the crisis, Lloyd George threw himself heart and soul into the war effort. Alone among ministers in the Liberal Cabinet he was able to adapt himself to the new pace and scale and character of public business brought about by the impact of total war. His career in the period covered by this book may be divided into four phases: the three years down to May 1915 in which he continued to hold office under Asquith as Chancellor of the Exchequer; the subsequent year in which he presided over the Ministry of Munitions in the first wartime coalition; an unhappy period of seven months in which he succeeded Lord Kitchener as Secretary of State for War; and finally the period of confused behind-the-scenes negotiations which culminated in Lloyd George’s emergence as prime minister in December 1916.

Lloyd George at the outbreak of war had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for six years, but (a significant commentary on the economic role of the Edwardian state) had never bothered during that time to learn about the workings of the financial system. However, the war threw into jeopardy the whole structure of high finance, and Lloyd George’s first task was to work closely with city bankers to restore the network of international credit of which London was the centre. The crisis vividly demonstrated his dazzling capacity for technical detail, and within a few days it was noted that he had ‘mastered these problems, and captivated the bankers, and the measures taken have been wise, prudent and far-seeing.’ In Cabinet he was soon pressing for a more streamlined approach to Cabinet business and to the management of the war economy: and he was an early advocate of a Balkan strategy as an alternative to the entrenched futility of the Western Front. Early in 1915 he was drawn into the settlement of labour disputes in munitions factories, and negotiated the famous (or notorious) Treasury agreement of 1915 (whereby unions in key war-production industries agreed to suspend their rules and restrictive practices for the duration of the war). Notwithstanding this agreement, however, production of munitions lagged far behind Army recruitment – resulting in the ‘shell scandal’ of May 1915, the bringing of Conservative ministers into a coalition government, and Lloyd George’s appointment as head of a new Ministry of Munitions.

Even at this relatively early stage there were occasional voices raised in the press to canvas the view that Lloyd George should replace Mr Asquith as prime minister. Grigg argues convincingly that there is no evidence to suggest that Lloyd George himself, either at this early stage or later, shared this ambition. Relations between the two men were and always had been amicable, and Asquith continued to rely on Lloyd George, not merely as a minister, but in the performance of many key Parliamentary and Cabinet functions. Nevertheless, contemporary opinion continually commented upon the growing contrast between the two men: and such comment must have formed a part of the invisible backcloth of high politics over the next eighteen months. Grigg argues that Asquith had been a brilliant manager of a peacetime Cabinet but was temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to be premier in time of war. He was cautious, unhurried, set in his ways, fond of long weekends and high society, philosophically disinclined to contemplate any changes in the conduct of government that went outside the boundaries of the conventional post-Gladstonian Liberal tradition. His attempt to meet criticism of his conduct of the war by setting up a ‘War Committee’ of the Cabinet in November 1915 singularly failed to provide the necessary intellectual and institutional focus for civilian control of high strategy. While Lloyd George toured shipyards and addressed rowdy meetings of aggrieved working-men, Asquith relaxed from the war by writing letters to his women friends and reading French novels. While Asquith was largely content to leave the war to the generals, Lloyd George increasingly fumed against the ineptitude of the military mind and began to transform the Ministry of Munitions into the new model army of the wartime industrial state. Direct government control was extended over the whole of armaments production, and statutory controls were imposed on all areas of industry producing secondary equipment for the war machine. Supply, design, manpower, were all subject to detailed budgeting and planning, and the national munitions organisation was taken over by a team of handpicked businessmen imported from private industry: men whom Lloyd George designated as his ‘men of push and go’. Within a year of the ‘shell scandal’ Lloyd George had transformed munitions production in Britain. Heavy-gun production had been increased nearly a hundredfold. The same volume of shells which in 1914-15 had taken a year to produce was being turned out by July 1916 within 11 days.

Lloyd George’s production miracle did little, however, to transform the course of the war. At Loos and on the Somme half a million men struggled to gain and lose a few acres of territory. Desperate manpower shortages, both military and civilian, led to the introduction of conscription in the spring of 1916: a measure which Lloyd George trenchantly supported against the views of most Liberals. He argued forcefully that conscription was not a breach but a consummation of fundamental Liberal principle. ‘Compulsion and voluntaryism are not inconsistent. In a democratic nation compulsion simply means the will of the majority, the voluntary decision of the majority ... compulsion is simply organised voluntary effort.’ The secretiveness of Kitchener and his refusal to co-operate with the rest of the Cabinet made it virtually impossible to exert any political control over the exercise of strategy – which led to further grumblings in the press about mismanagement and misdirection of the war. Then in June 1916 Kitchener was drowned on his trip to Russia and after some delay Asquith invited Lloyd George to become Secretary for War.

Then followed for Lloyd George what was in many ways the most negative and frustrating period in his whole ministerial career. Technically the political head of the British Army, Lloyd George found it virtually impossible to persuade generals to communicate with him on issues of grand strategy. When he tried to discover from French sources what the British generals were up to, he was viewed by army officers as certainly a cad and virtually a traitor: ‘I would not have believed that a British Minister could have been so ungentlemanly as to go to a foreigner and put such questions regarding his own subordinates,’ wrote General Haig. Lloyd George’s period as war minister coincided with the nadir of the battle of the Somme, when British casualties reached the level of forty thousand a day. It coincided also with the increasing personal and collective collapse of the government of Asquith. From June 1916 onward the Government was under the constant critical scrutiny of commissions of inquiry appointed to review the campaigns in Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles. During the autumn months the War Committee of the Cabinet increasingly failed to keep abreast of the pressure of work. Asquith himself, normally imperturb able, was shattered by the death of his eldest son in September 1916 – and by the increasing conviction that hostile forces in political life were conspiring to get rid of him. By the autumn of 1916 criticism of Asquith’s administration was emanating from nearly all quarters of the political spectrum: but those hostile forces were to become identified in the Prime Minister’s mind with the person of Lloyd George. Late in September 1916 Lloyd George had given an interview to an American magazine in which he voiced the iron determination of the British people – whatever the cost – to fight the war to the finish. With Hankey, Bonar Law and others he discussed the desperate need for the setting-up of a small War Cabinet – or else for an independent War Committee that could supervise the prosecution of the war unfettered by day-to-day Cabinet routine. Several attempts were made to persuade Asquith to countenance such an arrangement while remaining prime minister, but to no avail. Lloyd George tendered his resignation on 1 December and was followed by Bonar Law and other Conservative ministers (including the ex-prime minister, Balfour). Asquith himself resigned on 5 December. Attempts were made to reconstitute a ministry under Asquith, to set up a new ministry under Bonar Law, and to persuade Asquith to remain in the Cabinet in some senior capacity: but all without success. Lloyd George himself accepted the King’s invitation to form a government on 6 December, and rapidly established a new five-man War Cabinet with both Conservative and Labour (though, significantly, little Liberal) support. His accession to power heralded a new era in the structure and organisation of British central government. It was also a watershed in the history of party politics. To this day, historians (and Liberals) remain divided about whether Lloyd George was the saviour of the nation or the Judas Iscariot of political life.

Has John Grigg been more successful than his predecessors in penetrating the enigma of Lloyd George and making sense of his subject’s endemic contradictions? One cannot take very seriously Grigg’s opening claim that he is merely letting Lloyd George ‘speak for himself’ by quoting extensively from his letters and speeches. No politician as guileful as Lloyd George could sensibly be treated in such a simplistic way, and Grigg quite rightly ignores his own precept and subjects his hero’s utterances to constant critical scrutiny. Professional historians will regret the absence of precise archival references, particularly to archives cited as being in the Public Record Office. Overall, however, there can be no doubt that this is a highly readable account, written in a lucid, sprightly and unpretentious style that exactly fits the character of its subject. Some parts of the narrative (the chapter on the fall of Asquith, in particular) seem to me unsurpassed for the clarity and balance with which they evaluate cloudy and emotive issues. I found Grigg’s account of the actions and motives of both Asquith and Lloyd George in the ministerial crisis wholly convincing (though more might have been said about the wider problem that it is almost impossible to unseat a prime minister, however incompetent, without resort to conspiracy).

The book includes much fascinating material on Lloyd George as a case-study in political psychology: his stage-fright before public ordeals, his squeamish reluctance to visit battle-fronts, and the state of almost narcotic euphoria to which he aroused himself by his own political rhetoric. There is much background detail about Lloyd George’s relationship with Frances Stevenson and her willing self-immolation on the altar of his political career (clearly Frances would never have been permitted to keep Lloyd George awake at nights with nagging, as Asquith was kept awake in November 1916 by the midnight frenzies of Margot). There are some comprehensible but slightly distasteful examples of Lloyd George’s hypocrisy – such as his harangues to mass recruitment meetings while continuing to shield his own sons from exposure to active service (‘I am not going to sacrifice my nice boy for that purpose’). All this adds up to an absorbing narrative that deserves to be widely read. Whether it solves the mystery of Lloyd George is another matter. To this reader at least, Lloyd George remains as elusive, bizarre and alien to the canons of normal British politics as he appeared to Maynard Keynes in 1919. To me it seems probable that Lloyd George’s spiritual homeland lay, not in British politics at all, not even in the politics of Wales, but in the charismatic politics of Europe between the wars. If British politics had been susceptible to the charms of a transcendent national leader, offering all things to all men, then Lloyd George would surely have been that man. But such speculation lies beyond the scope of orthodox political biography.