Tuesday, March 26, 2019

David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider by Roy Hattersley

Abacus, 2010, 709pp

You'd think it couldn't happen here. A populist with a shady private life ascending the highest political office in the land. I mean, this was Great Britain, not brash and gaudy America. Certainly not in the staid Victorian/Edwardian era. Never. But it did happen here. David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916 and remained at the top until after the fall of his coalition government in 1922. 

A statue situated just outside the walls of Caernarfon castle captures David Lloyd George in full oratorical flight. This was his old stamping ground, where the future Prime Minister made his name as a fledgling politician. He championed the great causes of Welsh Nonconformity; temperance, disestablishment, education and land reform. In an era when politics was dominated by the aristocrat scions of Britain's top public schools, Lloyd George was a cottage bred boy, the product of a National School. Even when he became Prime Minister, Lloyd George was driven by an outsider's sense of grievance.

I started reading Hattersley's biography when we holidayed in Caernarfon in the May/June 2018 half term break and finished it on the flight home from our main summer holiday in Switzerland in August. Just taken me until now to write up a review. It was somehow fitting to read about the great man as I sat on the beach at Criccieth, the town Lloyd George made his home, or at least, where his wife and children made their home. He spent most of his time in London, even over the Christmas hols. 

Lloyd George's father died when he was young. His maternal uncle, Richard Lloyd took him under his wing and made every effort to make sure he had a good start in life. Lloyd belonged to the Campbelite sect of Sandemanian Baptists. So much as he aligned himself with any denomination  later in life, Lloyd George continued to identify himself with the Baptists. Hattersley records that he went to hear 'Dr. C. H Spurgeon' at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London. 

Lloyd George made his reputation as a fiery orator, speaking to packed public meetings on subjects close to the heart of Liberal Nonconformity. He was involved in the 'Tithe Wars', a protest against a loathed tax that made Nonconformist farmers pay their dues to the Church of England. In a public meeting to discuss the tax a clergyman pointed out that people would have to pay Lloyd George his solicitor's fee if they consulted him on legal matters. The politician snapped back that only if they consulted him people had to pay. The 'tithe' forced Chapel-going farmers to pay for the clergyman's sermons even if they did not attend his services.

There was more to Lloyd George than campaigns and speeches. He was also a capable administrator. He proved an adroit President of the Board of Trade in Asquith's Liberal government. He was one of the great Chancellors of the Exchequer. Lloyd George introduced many of the social security benefits that we now take for granted including the old age pension, sickness and unemployment benefits. He fought for reform of the House of Lords, which led to the introduction of Life Peers. He brought swathes of reforming energy to his ministerial tasks. When the Great War broke out Lloyd George was appointed as Minister of Munitions. It was his belief that the war was being lost for want of artillery shells. He brought in men with experience of private business to help run the department. By the time his ministry ended the department was producing as many shells in a month as had previously been manufactured in a year. The ready supply of ordinance enabled the creeping artillery barrages that helped win the war.

The hesitant Asquith didn't cut it as wartime Prime Minister. Lloyd George took the helm and became the Man Who Won the War. He often clashed with Field Marshall Haigh's over his attentional tactics, but felt he lacked the political clout to remove the popular supreme commander. The war ending in victory, Lloyd George set his sights on making Britain a Land Fit for Heroes. He won the post-war General Election, which placed him in the incongruous position of being a Liberal Prime Minister in charge of a Conservative government. Roy Hattersley contrasts Lloyd George with a previous Liberal Leader, “Campbell-Bannerman 'always thought more of his policy than he did of himself'. When Lloyd George became PM, he ensured the death of the Liberal Party by reversing the order of priorities.” 

That, in essence was the problem with Lloyd George. His elevated sense of self made him think that everything was about him. The inward curve of self-love twisted his life out of shape. His long suffering wife had to put up with his long term absences from the family home and a string of adulterous affairs, all discretely covered up by a deferential media. He could be manipulative and devious in relation to his political allies. In relation to his opponents he was often merciless in misrepresenting them in order to score points and win his argument. Yet Lloyd George was also driven of a sense of crusading righteousness. He was an outspoken opponent of the Boer War, which he saw as a bullying campaign on the part of the British against a small nation. In a speech he claimed that when he stood before God on the day of judgement, the Almighty would let him in to heaven because he was 'for the Boer'. Evidently he had listened none too carefully to C. H. Spurgeon, who would have told the statesman to repent from his sin and trust in Jesus for salvation.

Hattersley tells the story well and is not afraid to criticise Lloyd George's conduct when censure is called for. As is often the case, great men have great faults. One wonders how Lloyd George would cope with being PM today. His private life would be all over the Tabloids for a start. He'd give Boris Johnson a run for his money on that front. But unlike the Tory wannabe, the Welsh Wizard was a master politician and mighty orator. If a pro-Breix PM, he'd no doubt run rings around the EUrocrats and just about everybody else to get us out of Europe on good terms.

Lloyd George's instincts were those of a socially conservative Chapel Boy (not always carried through into his private life), wedded to the Liberal values of free trade and social justice. Maybe he would be the man to lead the Social Democratic Party out of the wilderness and into power, who knows? The Great Outsider reminds us of what great political leadership can accomplish. But Lloyd George's statues in Caernarfon on and Parliament Square should  have feet of clay to remind us that the man immortalised in bronze was possessed of the kind of destructive drives that ruin lives and bring  the most high flying of political careers crashing to the dust. He was a great man and a great sinner. Would that he had heeded Spurgeon as the preacher pointed him to a great Saviour. 

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