A Liberal Dose of Power

York Membery sings the praises of the great wartime leader on the ninetieth anniversary of his coming to power.

'Cometh the hour, cometh the man’, it’s said. And ninety years ago this month (on December 7th, 1916), at a time of great national peril, Britain got the prime minister it so desperately needed: Lloyd George (1863-1945). It was anything but a smooth transition to power. It took a ‘palace coup’ to propel him into Downing Street – a coup staged with the help of his Conservative allies in the wartime coalition.

 

Ever since, despite being hailed as a political hero by some – for instance, two of the candidates in the recent Liberal Democrat leadership election (Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes) – Lloyd George’s reputation has been somewhat compromised: by the manner in which he ‘seized’ power; and the fact that he, perhaps more than any other individual, was responsible for signing the Liberal Party’s ‘death warrant’ as one of the two natural parties of government; and more besides.

 

So while his reputation as a social reformer is assured thanks to the reforms he introduced as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1906-14 Liberal government – Old Age Pensions Act, national insurance and the ‘People’s Budget’ which levied a supertax on the rich – his name as a whole has been tarnished by everything from his fondness for the ladies (his secretary Frances Stevenson was his long-time mistress – before eventually becoming his wife) to his occasionally shady financial dealings (for instance, the Marconi Scandal and the cash-for-honours scandal).

 

The result? That all too often he has been portrayed as a slippery, sleazy, untrustworthy wheeler-dealer – to the detriment of his other qualities. However, with the ninetieth anniversary of his premiership, it may be time to recognize the fact that for all his faults, he was one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers, if not the greatest. Why? Because but for Lloyd George, Britain could have easily lost the First World War.

 

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