Did Lloyd George mean war?

Michael Brock

  • David Lloyd George: A Political Life. The Architect of Change, 1863-1912 by Bentley Brinkerhoff Gilbert
    Batsford, 546 pp, £25.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 7134 5558 6

Bentley Gilbert is a historian well-equipped to strip off myths and expose facts. All his skills were needed here: during some seventeen years of ministerial life Lloyd George took a hand in five books about himself, and much distortion resulted. After the war, for instance, Ll.G. hoped that his long struggle against Naval expenditure had been forgotten. He recorded that in July 1908 he had told the German Ambassador of his willingness to borrow £100 million to maintain British naval supremacy. He did not record that in the same month he had blamed Britain for the naval arms race, telling a Queen’s Hall audience that the Dreadnoughts should not have been built. Other myths originated in Lloyd George’s tendency, especially when talking to an attractive young woman, to dramatise or improve on incidents in his past. He seems to have thought a spiritual crisis appropriate for a serious Welsh boy, especially for one who was later to exploit Nonconformist enthusiasm when himself an agnostic. He therefore gave arresting accounts of his spiritual torments on finding that ‘there was no one at the other end of the telephone.’ According to the careful estimate given here, there was some embroidery in these accounts.

By the end of his premiership Lloyd George hardly needed to embroider. The job was being done for him. To Baldwin he was a ‘dynamic force’. Keynes called him ‘this half human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity’. Professor Gilbert’s enormously thorough research has resulted in a more sober account, and every student of the subject will be in his debt. Yet the Lloyd George who emerges from the copious (though sometimes inaccurate) documentation now provided remains as remarkable, and often as baffling, as ever.

Perceptively, Professor Gilbert stresses that the background was not Wales tout court, but rural North Wales. Political leaders who are connected with a particular group are apt to dramatise their identification with it: they are too like actors to resist making the most of any fat part in which the celestial director has cast them. Flamboyantly as Disraeli championed Jewish rights, he was not in religion – the all-important touchstone for that age – a Jew at all, but a baptised member of the Church of England. Similarly Lloyd George’s equipment for championing his ‘small country’ was one-sided and defective: he knew next to nothing about the problems of industrial South Wales. This book highlights the limitations which his background imposed: the opportunities which it gave are less clearly outlined. We are left asking: how could someone whose gifts, though remarkable, were so patchy have reached the top?

‘Is he lucky?’ Napoleon would ask of a general. On that basis our hero would have been given a command at once. The 1902 Education Act, and Bryce’s inadequacies in opposing it, came at exactly the right time to make Lloyd George a leading opposition figure. His wife stood by him when his not-so-private life landed him in court. The Tory peers played into his hands over the 1909 budget. If the opposition had accepted the budget proposals, Asquith told Margot, ‘we should have been left high and dry ... they would have romped in.’ By the time Lloyd George made his blunders over Marconi and the 1914 budget he was too prominent to be thrown overboard safely. Asquith had no reason by then to abandon his usual generosity and forbearance. He may not have been the only prime minister to view the heir presumptive’s diminished eligibility without undue alarm.

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