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Lloyd George, David, 1st Earl Lloyd-George

Lloyd George, David, 1st Earl Lloyd-George (1863–1945). Prime minister. Lloyd George made a greater impact on British public life than any other 20th-cent. statesman. He laid the foundations of what later became the welfare state, and put a progressive income tax system at the centre of government finance. He also left his mark on the system of government by enlarging the scope of the prime minister's role. In 1918 he was acclaimed, not without reason, as the ‘Man Who Won the War’. Yet until the appearance of a spate of sympathetic books in the 1970s his reputation remained remarkably low. This is partly attributable to the way in which his later career was clouded by financial scandal and by stories of his infidelities. But above all he was blamed by many Liberals for destroying their party in 1918, hated in the Labour movement for his handling of industrial issues after 1918, and disparaged by Conservatives for his radicalism. No one, it seemed, had an interest in defending him.

He grew up in a modest, but not poor, home in north Wales. Once he had qualified as a solicitor, he was able to use the firm's income to build his political career. In 1890 he rather luckily won a by-election as a Liberal in the marginal Conservative seat of Caernarfon Boroughs which he retained until 1945. However, a parliamentary career imposed a strain upon his marriage to Margaret Owen. While he found Westminster fascinating, she hated London and insisted on staying with the family in Criccieth. Left alone he found alternative company. His most prolonged extramarital relationship was with Frances Stevenson from 1911 until his death. Formally his secretary, Frances gave him vital support in his political work, and became, in many ways, a second wife; they had a daughter in the 1930s, and married in 1943.

After nearly a decade as a lively backbench rebel, Lloyd George became a national figure as a result of his courageous opposition to the South African War (1899–1902). In this he risked his seat and a certain amount of mob violence, notably in connection with a speech at Birmingham in 1901 when he was obliged to escape disguised as a policeman. In December 1905 his talents were recognized by Campbell-Bannerman, the new Liberal premier, who made him president of the Board of Trade.

Lloyd George's real breakthrough came in 1908 when Asquith promoted him as chancellor of the Exchequer. His unorthodox methods often caused irritation; he bypassed civil servants, read little, and preferred to make policy by discussion, especially on the golf course. Moreover, as he felt politically disadvantaged by his lack of a large private income, he was apt to grab an opportunity to make a quick profit; hence his involvement in the Marconi scandal. But Asquith had correctly seen that Lloyd George possessed the necessary political flair to be chancellor. His famous ‘People's Budget’ of 1909 solved the government's problems by levying extra taxes on a few large incomes and on items of conspicuous consumption like motor cars. This enabled them to pay for both old-age pensions and dreadnought battleships. When his budget was rejected by the peers Lloyd George quickly grasped the opportunity to attack the Conservatives for selfishly trying to preserve a privileged élite. He derided the peers as ‘five hundred men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed’. This restored the initiative to the Liberals and enabled them to retain their working-class vote in two general elections in 1910. Subsequently Lloyd George maintained his radical credentials with the 1911 National Insurance Act which introduced both health and unemployment insurance for millions of people. During 1913–14 he again seized the initiative with the Land campaign which promised minimum wages for agricultural labourers and a rural house-building programme.

After the outbreak of war he stood out as the only minister whose reputation rose significantly. This was largely attributable to his success as minister of munitions from May 1915. The need to improvise and the freedom from departmental conventions meant that he was in his element in this job. However, his brief spell as secretary of state for war proved less happy because he found himself trapped by the conservative thinking of the military men. His frustration led him to join with Bonar Law in putting pressure on Asquith to streamline the war machine. The result—largely unintended—was Asquith's resignation in December 1916. Following the king's invitation Lloyd George managed to put together a government based on Conservative support plus a majority of the Labour members and a minority of the Liberals.

He made an immediate impact on the war effort by instituting a five-man war cabinet serviced by a cabinet secretariat under Sir Maurice Hankey. He also developed a personal secretariat of advisers. New ministries were created—Food, Shipping, Air, National Service, Pensions, Labour—to deal with the problems thrown up by the war, and non-party experts and businessmen such as Sir Eric Geddes were often appointed to them.

None the less, Lloyd George's premiership remained a precarious affair because he depended heavily on the Conservatives for his majority. Most Tories neither liked nor trusted him, but thought that the alternatives were worse. The sudden military victory in November 1918 gave Lloyd George immense prestige and, thus, a degree of bargaining power. Instead of returning to the Liberal Party he decided to organize his own Lloyd George Liberals and to fight the election in co-operation with the Conservatives.

As a result of his government's overwhelming victory in 1918 he retained office until 1922. Although restricted by the numerical dominance of the Conservatives he had major achievements to his credit: the parliamentary reform of 1918 which enfranchised women, the 1918 Education Act, the 1919 Housing Act, the settlement of the Irish question in 1921, and, of course, the treaty of Versailles. But in time both Liberal and Tory followers grew dissatisfied. Controversy over the huge funds the prime minister accumulated by the sale of honours undermined him; knighthoods were freely offered for £12,000 and baronetcies for £30,000. Finally at a meeting in October 1922 the Conservatives voted to cut their links with Lloyd George. He resigned immediately and never took office again.

Though he spent much of the 1920s engaged in Liberal Party infighting, he still made a major constructive impact on politics by means of his collaboration with J. M. Keynes and others over a detailed strategy for tackling unemployment. The Liberal Yellow Book, entitled Britain's Industrial Future (1928), formed the basis of the Liberal revival before the 1929 election. However, the electoral system prevented the party from translating its extra votes into seats, and Lloyd George was reduced to attempts to collaborate with the new premier, MacDonald. He was too ill to join the National Government in 1931. Though widely expected to serve in Churchill's coalition after 1940, Lloyd George was not keen to do so, and the invitation never came.

Martin Pugh

Bibliography

Gilbert, B. B. , David Lloyd George: A Political Life (1987);
Morgan, K. O. , Lloyd George (1974);
Pugh, M. , Lloyd George (1988);
Rowland, P. , Lloyd George (1975).

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