David Lloyd George: Britain’s other iconic wartime leader

On 14th December 2018, the centenary of the ‘Coupon Election’, Adrian Smith, Emeritus Professor of Modern History, argues let’s not exclude Lloyd George from Britain’s ‘nation story’.

Cartoon by Leonard Raven-Hill for Punch, 1917 <https://punch.photoshelter.com/gallery/Leonard-Raven-Hill-Cartoons/G00002GdkHW9x2vk/>

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian recently used the centenary of the Armistice to label the last Liberal government as ‘even worse’ than Theresa May’s. Clearly a case can be made for Britain not going to war in August 1914, but even Asquith’s harshest critics would question Toynbee’s claim that his cabinet ‘accidentally plunged the country’ into taking up arms. Perhaps what she really had in mind was the Liberals’ lamentable failure to facilitate female emancipation. Nevertheless their domestic record was singularly impressive.

From 1906 to 1915 Liberal reforms included: old age pensions; national insurance; progressive taxation; free school meals; children’s care and education reform; employment legislation, including a minimum wage for vulnerable workers and injury compensation; an eight hour day for miners; improved building standards and planning requirements; modest land reform; and paid MPs. Far more would have been achieved had the Liberals not faced uncompromising opposition from the House of Lords, and the loss of their working majority in 1910. Deep political fissures in Edwardian Britain saw the reform agenda of ‘New Liberalism’ increasingly subverted by industrial action (often justified) and intransigent Unionism in Belfast and Westminster.

Demonstrably unqualified to lead a nation at war, Asquith had seemed somehow the master of crisis management, until the moment when armed resistance to Home Rule exposed his delaying tactics as tantamount to inertia and indecision. Not that the Liberal government lacked men of action. No Chancellor of the Exchequer before or since has enjoyed the power which David Lloyd George exercised across Westminster and Whitehall. He set the political agenda, providing a role model for cabinet colleague Winston Churchill.

Each man was well qualified to become prime minister at a critical moment in successive world wars. Yet only Lloyd George could claim significant success in peacetime, and a critical early role in energising the war effort. A one-time Radical and a vocal opponent of the Boer War, Lloyd George could have split the cabinet in August 1914. However, the second Moroccan crisis had seen him publicly support France in the face of German aggression. While colleagues spoke reassuringly of ‘business as usual’, the future Minister of Munitions recognised the need to fight an industrial war, in which labour and capital combined to maximise weapons production.

So many peacetime reforms and wartime initiatives were attributable to Lloyd George that his failure to drive through female suffrage constitutes a clear prioritising of political expediency over principle. Never far from scandal, the ‘Welsh Wizard’ was rarely averse to sacrificing principles — let alone colleagues and friends — in the interest of political survival.

In December 1916 ambition and a belief in the need for fresh leadership saw Lloyd George split his party when, with Conservative support, he orchestrated Asquith’s downfall. The Liberals’ deep divisions proved electorally fatal. Lloyd George and his supporters triumphed in the December 1918 general election, but became the junior partners in an unholy alliance with the Conservatives. In the wake of peace treaty wrangling, economic recession, harsh spending cuts, Irish rebellion, and an honours sales scandal, a discredited coalition collapsed in October 1922.

Asquith and his supporters constituted the remnants of a Liberal Party unlikely ever again to take office outside of coalition. Henceforth Labour would be the alternative party of government. A short lived revival occurred after Lloyd George returned to the fold, the Liberals fighting the 1929 election on an imaginative job creation programme. The party soon divided again, and by the 1930s Lloyd George was an aging, isolated, and deeply distrusted figure. He harmed his reputation by shaking hands with Hitler in 1936, fuelling suspicion four years later of the Germans making him a puppet leader in the event of defeat; Churchill, still a friend and admirer, did little to silence the rumours. In March 1945 a nation focused on imminent victory scarcely noticed the passing of Earl Lloyd-George.

A century ago David Lloyd George was ‘the man who won the war.’ Britain’s massive military effort was testimony to Lloyd George’s early grasp of what came to be known as ‘total war.’ Uniquely, this was a politician who had proved his worth in time of peace and of war. Yet today Lloyd George has faded from our collective memory, our national psyche. Until 1922 Winston Churchill stood deep in his shadow. The Second World War saw the roles reversed. Christmas brings a familiar flood of books about Churchill, but where are the fresh biographies of Lloyd George? Where are the centennial TV and radio documentaries about the architect of victory? Where are the articles recognising the relevance today of Lloyd George’s proposals for land reform, property taxation, and devolution? An obsession with Churchill and 1940 lies at the heart of an English crisis of identity. Among the collateral damage is a national amnesia regarding Britain’s other iconic wartime leader.

Adrian Smith

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