Peter Clarke

  • Selwyn Lloyd by D.K. Thorpe
    Cape, 516 pp, £18.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 224 02828 6

Grandfather was John Wesley Lloyd, son of the Rev. John Lloyd from Llanidloes; after an education at Kingswood School, entry to which was restricted to the sons of Methodist ministers, he became a dentist and moved to Liverpool. His own son, also John Wesley Lloyd, was ineligible for Kingswood and sent therefore to the Methodist-inspired Leys School in Cambridge as the next best thing; he qualified in medicine but, like his eponymous father, became a Liverpool dentist – chapel-going, teetotal, Liberal. This textbook story of steady, unspectacular upward social mobility and incremental secularisation was illustrated by the family’s suburbanisation, with the transfer of the dental practice from the city to the Wirral, first as a summer adjunct, but latterly as the main family home. It was here that Dr Lloyd’s third child and only son was born in 1904. Naturally he wished the boy to be christened John Wesley: but his Anglican wife had other ideas, and they settled on an appropriately Low Church compromise – Selwyn.

Selwyn Lloyd’s origins were to be the butt of many snobbish jests in later years. His education at Fettes and Magdalene College, Cambridge, maintained the family’s trajectory of escape from the confines of Wesleyanism. But although he became known as Peter from undergraduate days onward – ‘Selwyn’ must have spelt social death at Magdalene – he never seriously purported to be other than he was. He exhumed his Christian name in post-war politics and made it into a distinctive trademark, whereas to remain Peter would have left him swimming in a pool of Anthonys and Olivers and Harolds and Hughs. It was thought very funny at the time when Bernard Levin in the Spectator hung the Foreign Secretary’s service on the Hoylake Urban District Council round his neck. But Lloyd was no Pooterish aspirant, with absurd social pretensions, to the inner circle of Tory grandees. Knowing well enough that Macmillan referred to him as ‘a middle-class lawyer from Liverpool’, Lloyd planned ultimately to take this as the title for his memoirs. He was unrepentantly proud of what he was: a successful, provincial, professional man. In dismissing him (literally) in 1962 as ‘a little country notary’, did Macmillan forget that Lloyd George had not disdained to describe himself as ‘a Welsh country solicitor’?

One of the aspects of Lloyd’s career which D.R. Thorpe’s very useful biography brings out is the way that it was rooted not in Conservatism but in Lloyd George Liberalism. It was when Lloyd George’s serious bid for power had failed after 1931, and he found himself reduced to a Parliamentary group of only four MPs (including two of his children), that the young Selwyn Lloyd drifted towards the Conservatives. Indeed he might even have been tempted to join the ‘family party’ itself since his name had often been linked with that of Megan Lloyd George. At Cambridge in the Twenties, it was Lloyd’s Liberal activities which were the making of his prominence in the Union and which led to his adoption as a Parliamentary candidate in the 1929 General Election. He was on the radical wing of the party, repelled by the Conservatives’ hard line after the General Strike of 1926. ‘There seem to be fewer and fewer reasons each day why one should not join the Labour Party!!’ he wrote home at this time – a thought which must have shaken his parents on the Wirral. He campaigned fervently but unavailingly for the expansionist policies in Lloyd George’s manifesto, ‘We can conquer unemployment’, and counted its rejection by the electorate as a lifelong disappointment, along with the failure to establish a centre party in the Thirties.

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