Lloyd George and Churchill

John Shepherd | Published in
Lloyd George and Churchill
Rivals for Greatness
Richard Toye
Macmillan  504 pp  £25   ISBN 7981 405048965

In any poll of modern historians Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George would emerge as the two most renowned prime ministers during the past cen­tury. Richard Toye’s impressive two-hander study is an engrossing account of a friendship and rivalry that domin­ated British politics during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite an abundance of books about both men, the author has brought a fresh perspective to their polit­ical relationship and its surrounding myths. The result is a well-crafted volume written with authority and insight.

Toye reminds us that Lloyd George and Churchill be­lieved firmly in their political destinies and endeavoured through their writings to leave a personal imprint on history. He demolishes the ‘David and Winston’ myth that their enduring friend­ship always survived the hurly-burly of political life. As Lloyd George’s second wife, Frances Stevenson, his former confidential secretary and mistress, put it: ‘The most real friendship from the time he entered Office was that between himself and Winston Churchill … When they fell out in politics they did not hesitate to express their feelings, but under­neath their friendship stood firm.’ In reality, Churchill and Lloyd George consist­ently cultivated this myth to serve their own ends. Each equally admired, yet could be abrasive about the other. Lloyd George said of Church­ill: ‘He would make a drum of out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’. After Lloyd George’s death, Church­ill courted Liberal voters by associating himself with the ‘Welsh Wizard’s’ legacy and placing his son, Gwilym, in his postwar government.

Stanley Baldwin once re­marked scornfully: ‘L. G. was born a cad and never forgot it; Winston was born a gentle­man and never remem­bered it’. The gran­dson of a duke, Churchill was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst. From a relatively poor background, as seem­ingly befitted a popular ‘man of the people’, Lloyd George was raised by his shoemaker uncle in rural Wales. Their remarkable relationship in politics lasted from 1901 until Lloyd George’s death in 1945. During these years, Britain witnessed immense change: Edwardian welfare reforms, votes for women, the Great War and fall of European empires, the Irish Free State, Labour replacing the Liberals, years of Depression, the Second World War and the defeat of fascism. Few stones are left unturned in this meticulous study of an extraordinary period of high politics and war.
Toye has drawn judici­ously on a wide range of sources, including un­earth­ing Lloyd George’s first ref­er­ence to Churchill in April 1900. How­ever, the author’s discovery in the Churchill papers of a so-called unknown anti-semitic article has already brought contro­versy with Sir Martin Gilbert, official biog­rapher of Church­ill. Gilbert has pointed out that ‘How the Jews Can Combat Persec­ution’, was in fact com­piled in 1937 by a ghost writer, Adam Marshall Diston. According to Toye, Churchill still tried without success to publish the article under his name. No doubt the row about his precise views will rumble on until Gilbert’s forthcoming book on Churchill and the Jews.

Both Churchill and Lloyd George had illustrious and controversial political careers in which they occupied the highest offices of state. As rivals for greatness, who has the better claim? Both men’s political reputations were shaped by the crucible of world war. Until 1939 Lloyd George’s reputation mainly exceeded that of Churchill. During the Great War, Lloyd George’s dynamic premier­ship was without previous parallel, whereas Churchill was tainted by the Gallipoli disaster. Even following Lloyd George’s downfall in 1922, after which he never again held office, his opponents ignored him at their peril.  

In the dark days of 1940-1, as Britain ‘stood alone’, Churchill’s greatness as a wartime leader and maker of history was assured. While the ailing Lloyd George’s refused to join his war cab­inet government, Churchill told the nation: ‘Let us … brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour”’.  Today, Churchill’s reputation on the world stage far exceeds that of his rival. Fewer places commem­orate Lloyd George, even in Wales, and there is no outdoor statue to his memory. However, at Westminster the figures of the two parlia­mentary titans stand opposite each other, though visitors probably remain unaware of the conflict over their positioning – a final attempt to perpetuate the myth of a legendary political friendship. As this illumin­ating book shows, at the top of the greasy pole there is scarce room for genuine amity.
  • John Shepherd is the author of George Lansbury: At the heart of old Labour
    (OUP, 2002).
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