David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider
ISBN 978 1408700976
Retired political leaders publish their memoirs and then become historians. Roy Hattersley, the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, has written a biography of Lloyd George at the suggestion of another politician and biographer, Roy Jenkins. Hattersley, like Jenkins, has skillfully combined the political with the personal and produced a biography that is informed but also easy to read and not lacking in human interest. Lloyd George was and remains a controversial character but Hattersley has produced a balanced account, which avoids hagiography on the one hand, or character assassination on the other. The biography is also topical as Lloyd George led a Liberal-Conservative coalition for nearly six years and thus set a precedent for the current British government.
As the author of works on the Edwardians and Campbell-Bannerman, Hattersley is familiar with an important part of Lloyd George’s career. He has also consulted a wide range of printed sources, which have been supplemented by material from the Lloyd George papers in the House of Lords and the National Library of Wales. In addition, three eminent professors – Kenneth O. Morgan, Prys Morgan and Anthony King – have scrutinised the accuracy of the text. There is, however, no commentary on the extensive historiography about Lloyd George, while the narrative flow of the text is sometimes impeded by references to later events. A more serious shortcoming is the absence of any reflective conclusion or indeed any sustained analysis of Lloyd George’s career and his continuing significance.
Hattersley does not substantiate his claim that Lloyd George was ‘the authentic radical of British history’ for he does not compare him with other radicals or assess the extent to which his radicalism was diluted by the compromises and contingencies of office and coalition government. Likewise he does not clearly specify Lloyd George’s personal contribution to the creation of the welfare state or victory in the First World War. He attributes much of Lloyd George’s success to his flouting of established conventions and his irresistible combination of charm, energy and ruthless determination. But Lloyd George’s behaviour and personality spawned as many detractors as admirers and helped to keep him out of office from 1922. Even before he became Prime Minister in 1916 there were Liberals who thought that his commitment to radical causes was not rooted in a firm ideology but was merely a vehicle for his own advancement.
Hattersley also fails to demonstrate his central assertion that Lloyd George was ‘the great outsider’ of British politics. That view was propagated by Lloyd George himself, who liked to contrast his ‘cottage-bred’ upbringing with that of more privileged members of the British political elite. But his social origins were not as humble as he claimed and they were certainly more respectable than those of his Labour contemporary, Ramsay MacDonald, who was the illegitimate son of a Scottish farm labourer. Young David was articled to a solicitor for £180, a sum many times the annual income of an ordinary labourer at that time. As a trainee solicitor, moreover, he gained direct experience of Liberal electioneering while he was still in his teens. His early political success reflected the dominance of the Welsh Liberal Party, which won every seat in Wales at the 1906 general election and which was the mouthpiece of Nonconformity, the faith in which Lloyd George was brought up. Likewise his support for free trade was repeatedly endorsed by a majority of the British people at successive general elections. As a strong, albeit belated supporter of war with Germany in 1914, Lloyd George went with the tide of public opinion, which he had defied during the South African war. He favoured a coalition government with the Conservatives – before as well as during and after the First World War – a stance that was hardly that of a political outsider.
Lloyd George was, however, outside the mainstream of British political culture in one respect that Hattersley underplays. Unlike his parliamentary rivals, Lloyd George admired dynamic dictators, notably Lenin and Hitler. He was seduced by Lenin’s economic reformism and by Hitler’s flattering remarks about his own wartime leadership. But his attitude also reflected an autocratic strain in his outlook, which was usually held in check by the partisan and parliamentary character of British politics. If that had not been the case, we might have remembered Lloyd George as the man who mastered British democracy rather than as the man who made Britain a more egalitarian society.
Roland Quinault is the author of the forthcoming British Prime Ministers and Democracy (Continnum, 2011).
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