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July 10, 2007 6:23 PM

(Baron Morgan of Aberdyfi in the County of Gwynedd ; Professor Kenneth O Morgan, distinguished Welsh historian and political biographer)

This article is based on a talk given at a meeting of the Lloyd George Society held at Llanwyrtd Wells, Powys in February 2003. It is copyright and no part of it may be reproduced without the permission of the author or the Society.

Annwyl gyfeillion.

I congratulate the Lloyd George Society on their courage. I am in the Lords (500 men etc). Though, in mitigation, six of my books have Lloyd George in the title. But also courage because Lloyd George remains uniquely controversial unlike Churchill - the Greatest Briton according to Mo Mowlam, the BBC poll, and G.W. Bush - and the treatment of Churchill has been uncritical, especially in the United States. Churchill was an irreplaceable war leader in 1940, of course. But most of his life was spent in propping up the past, maintaining the class system, and preserving the empire. His vision of the world, compared with that of Gandhi or Franco, was essentially out-of-date. The veneration of Churchill is based largely on nostalgia for World War Two, which obsesses British people, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, 'fighting alone'; an obsession that damages our relations with Europe.

By contrast, Lloyd George is associated with World War One -controversial and deeply unpopular conflict - 'Oh, what a lovely war'! Beyond that, Lloyd George has long been seen as a universal scapegoat, a man who destroyed his party, and morally unclean, very much an individualist and an outsider. Compare the shoemaker's cottage with Blenheim Palace, Llanystumdwy national school with Harrow. Described as a 'Dynamic force' by Baldwin, Lloyd George seems out of place in the world of conventional party politics which is a bond with Churchill.

Lloyd George's personality was also unusual. An unfathomable quality, Keynes calls him "half human", "rooted in nothing". A J P Taylor says of him (wrongly) that he 'had no friends and did not deserve any'. Was he a provincial outsider like Mrs Thatcher? But Lloyd George would never have asked 'is he one of us'?

He was a more contemporary figure than Churchill, a maker of the modern world, a symbol and Latimer of the democratic age, one of the great mass leaders who carried Britain kicking and screaming into the 20th Century.

His career had five main phases:

1. Welsh Radical.

I used to think that this was the phase least relevant to the modern world. Lloyd George enmeshed in late nineteenth century Welsh politics - from the age of 5! Absorbed with issues of the Old Liberalism; Church schools, land reform, temperance reform, disestablishment, the 'Unholy Trinity' of bishop, brewer and squire. This was a Liberalism dying even before 1914. He had little professional interest in for example education as a self-made man.

Yet there is much to be said here. An outsider in Welsh politics too - Lloyd George was anxious to move Wales beyond timeworn issues like disestablishment to promote social reform. He was a critic of the chapels and obsessive moralistic Puritanism. Above all, he played a central part in getting Wales recognised as a political reality - Welsh Departments, at Education, Health and Agriculture. He supported the National Library of Wales and the Museum; in 1916 he created the first Welsh 'Taffia'. Lloyd George was the first significant figure to promote Welsh devolution - the Cymru Fydd movement of 1894 - 6 which collapsed with divisions between Welsh-speaking and Anglicised Wales. But this was prophetic - 100 years later a devolved, more democratic Wales and more democratic Britain came about. He showed great courage in this as he did in protesting against the war in South Africa, a fateful divide in his life.

2. Social Reform.

Lloyd George made an immense contribution to our World. He was a pioneer of the welfare state - Britain's main contribution to World Civilization in the twentieth century. In this he worked closely with Churchill - both maverick Liberals - for Old Age Pensions, the People's Budget of 1909, Labour Exchanges, Health and Unemployment Insurance and the Minimum Wage. Lloyd George was very much the main inspiration for these policies (including at the Board of Trade - following the death of his eldest daughter Mair).

There were political motives including the outflanking of both the Labour Party and the tariff reformers; but he was also deeply aware of social injustices working with men like Rowntree, Masterman and Beveridge. He was an instrument of the New Liberalism (and also the Old).

(a) As Chancellor, he was not technically competent. He 'saw statistics from a buoyant and romantic angle'. But he used finance for a purpose, he was the first Chancellor to base his policies on taxation as the basis for long-term social reform. His People's Budget began the policy which lasted until the 1980s of financing social expenditure from direct taxes not personal consumption ('the rich will pay', not 'the 'foreigner').

(b) National Insurance. His greatest peacetime achievement, it provided the basis for the welfare state with insurance benefits paid as of right. He had a new concept of citizenship - social citizenship. And a new role of central government, though linked with private and voluntary agencies and the trade unions - a framework that still endures.

(c) Impetus continued - The abortive 1914 budget was concerned not just with battleships. Lloyd George had discussion with Addison about health (in which the National Health Service was visualized), about urban housing and about revival of local government. The NHS was Bevan's tribute. He initiated and inspired much reform as Prime Minister. His last vote in the Commons was for the Beveridge report in 1943 of which Lloyd George was the precursor.

3. War Leader.

Lloyd George was a Colossus as war leader - quite as significant as that of Churchill in 1940 - 5 and with far greater domestic difficulties, after the events in which he supplanted Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916. His reputation was later sullied -he was linked with the catastrophe of Passchendaele, the carnage of the trenches, 'goodbye to all that' and the 'coupon election of 1918. Lloyd George was the advocate of 'a fight to a finish' and 'unconditional surrender'.

Lloyd George's impact on the modern world was extraordinary -he saw the mighty empires of Hapsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov overthrown; and a new more democratic Europe emerge based on national self-determination; the new importance of the USA in world affairs. John Grigg [in his book Lloyd George, War Leader, 1916-1918] shows how remarkably astute Lloyd George was on most of the key issues - on naval strategy (the convoy system to defeat the U boats); on unity of command on the western front; the need to retain the US in Europe and to build up a new international order (the League of Nations); and the importance of building on changes in central and eastern Europe.

Lloyd George's own post war aims, urging a constructive, non-punitive peace, delivered to the TUC, anticipated Wilson's 14 Points, and he was much more far-sighted than Churchill over the need for social reconstruction in Europe.

One great exception was the Balfour Declaration, a mixture of Lloyd George's philosemitism and the need to protect British interests in the Middle East. But it was a disaster, now relevant to the Iraq crisis - Palestine and Mesopotamia.

Lloyd George also had great impact in harnessing the power of the state at home. This was first shown at the Ministry of Munitions in 1915 - 16, not only in the production of shells, machine-guns and tanks but also a wider social transformation - links between government and industry, an enhanced status for the unions, even in matters relating to temperance ('King's Pledge').

In other areas, Education was promoted to meet the need for a trained labour force, state-subsidised housing began and there was a Gender revolution with women in the wartime workforce leading to votes in 1918. Of all leading politicians, Lloyd George was most supportive of women's demands. All these were areas the pre-war New Liberalism had forgotten.

4. Peacetime government.

Lloyd George has bequeathed a bad reputation. He was the champion of the 'hard-faced men who looked as if they had done well out of the war', according to Baldwin and was scathingly criticised by Keynes in the Economic Consequences of the Peace. Yet he had an immense impact on the modern world.

In Foreign Affairs, Versailles did recognise principle of nationality ('little five-foot five nations' - more obvious now than then given the shape of eastern Europe. Lloyd George tried to modify the peace settlement ('Fontainebleau Memorandum'), to scale down reparations, and he was the main force for reconstruction thereafter. The United States played little part after 1919. Lloyd George tried to start a new relationship with Germany, Hitler notwithstanding. He saw the need to build it up as an industrial and trading power, and to try to meet its grievances over its frontiers (e.g. Czechoslovakia and the Polish corridor).

He was very far-sighted over Russia, which he did not treat as a pariah. Lloyd George was open-minded about ideology and was admired by Lenin. He wound up aid for the White Russians which amounted to de facto recognition of the new Russia and entered a trade treaty. His policy was of disarmament and reconciliation. Keynes was totally wrong in his interpretation here.

In his policy towards Ireland we see Lloyd George at his worst and best. Inconsistent in his coercion of the Black and Tans, yet he also saw the legitimacy of Irish nationalist demands plus the need for a separate treaty for Ulster at that time. Lloyd George negotiated the Free State Treaty with Sinn Fein thinking the partition probably would not last very long. He did manage to bring peace to Ireland for fifty years - where Pitt, Peel, Gladstone and Salisbury had all failed. In 1921 no other solution was feasible.

At home he was much less successful. Lloyd George had to grapple not only with the problems of a coalition but also with the first evidence of a national decline. There was some social reform in 1919-20 and a new dialogue with Labour. His coalition was at least more constructive than other regimes in Europe and the US after 1919 which had a strong push to the capitalist right; but his premiership ends with growing unemployment, labour antagonised, cuts in social reform, and the social division that inspired much of the literature of the thirties, such as the work of George Orwell.

His government failed, not only because of its policies but also because of its unstable character. Lloyd George was a Prime Minister without a party, the first presidential Prime Minister, an isolated figure - moving in and amongst private circles of newspaper magnates and hangers-on. He lived a separate life with his mistress - no tabloid intrusions then!

He showed his unorthodoxy in September. 1921 when his Cabinet met in Inverness Town Hall but he was brought down by his lack of party when his Tory partners voted to end the coalition in October 1922. Lloyd George said of Theodore Roosevelt 'he should never have broken with the machine' but he didn't heed his own message.

5. Last phase

In some ways these were very frustrating years and he was distant from them. There were squabbles in the Liberal Party, typified by the rivalry between Lady Violet Bonham Carter and Megan Lloyd George. Lloyd George was also distant from Wales on the whole. One valuable legacy were his War Memoirs, which have stood the test of time. It is a mercy he was ill in 1931 at the time of the formation of the National Government.

(a) To some extent he was an effective critic of appeasement, and especially of Baldwin and Chamberlain. He was very prescient about Russia, and helped to bring Churchill to power in 1940. But his visit to Hitler brought out all his worst side - he was defeatist during the war. Misled by his own diagnosis of failures after 1919, he would not join the government in 1940.

(b) He was the first politician to see the importance of Keynesianism. He used the Liberal Summer Schools to foment ideas. As Masterman said, 'when Lloyd George returned to the Liberal Party, ideas returned to the Liberal Party'. He broke with the sterile policies of deflation and contraction. The Yellow and Orange Books are still read as forward-looking documents. The partnership of the state and private industry in promoting employment and public investment remained the conventional wisdom down to the 1980s.

7. Conclusion.

Lloyd George was described as 'The big beast', 'the goat', rogue elephant in the political jungle. He admired 'big men' - Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Theodore Roosevelt and, alas, Hitler. He was more like a US politician; in his handling of the media he had a unique appreciation of the role of the press.

In personal terms, he was a symbol of open government and the 'permissive society'. His legacy is written large all over our world -

Welsh Devolution, the Welfare State, and Lords reform; the New World order (Ireland, Egypt, India; Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East).

He was our greatest democratic leader - a radical who was an artist in the uses of power; more radical than any leader of the Labour Party from MacDonald to Blair. He was an iconoclast. He took a detached view of parliament, the City ('flapping penguins'), the civil service, the armed forces, the Church and the Monarchy. He was an integral part of the wider Celtic entry into the British establishment, slowly making our country more democratic and egalitarian.

He had disastrous failures on the party political front - his methods aroused distrust and hostility but Lloyd George was one of the most controversial but also most contemporary of our Prime Ministers - A Great Briton. To quote Taylor - 'the greatest ruler this country has known since Oliver Cromwell'.