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David Lloyd George
David Lloyd George
Prime Minister 1916 - 22
David Lloyd George is known as a Welshman, but he was actually born in Manchester on 17th January 1863. His father had been a schoolmaster, a career he abandoned in favour of farming in Pembrokeshire. He died when David was only seventeen months old, and the family moved to Llanystumdwy in north Wales to live with David's uncle, a cobbler. After an education at a local church school David Lloyd George qualified as a solicitor, but always felt his ambitions lay elsewhere. At the age of eighteen he made his first visit to the House of Commons, and wrote of the experience in his diary for 12th November 1881:
"I will not say but that I eyed the assembly in a spirit similar to that in which William the Conqueror eyed England on his visit to Edward the Confessor, as the region of his future domain." (Quoted in The Victorians A.N. Wilson P 595)
He then wrote to his future wife Margaret Owen of his huge ambition to get on.
"My supreme idea is to get on. To this idea I shall sacrifice everything - except I trust honesty. I am prepared to thrust even love itself under the wheels of my juggernaut if it obstructs the way."
David Lloyd George was true to his word. At least Margaret had been warned.
Childhood home of Lloyd George, at the David Lloyd George Museum, Llanystumdwy
In the world of politics Lloyd George was shaped early in his career by the seemingly small scale local issue of church tithes. All farmers and land owners in Wales were obliged to pay a tenth of their income tax to the Anglican Church. This was compulsory even though most people attended Welsh baptist chapels. Reacting against this attempt at social control, Lloyd George never became a socialist. Instead he became a Liberal Party MP in 1890 after narrowly winning a by-election for Caernarfon Boroughs. In 1905 he became president of the Board of Trade, under Campbell-Bannerman, and then chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908. Here he is usually credited with doing much to create a new welfare state. Jo Grimmond in The Prime Ministers sensibly suggests that the foundations of a modern welfare state cannot be credited to any one man or event. The fact that Lloyd George traditionally takes so much credit was in some ways due to his tendency to inflate his personal leadership. It was this aggressive personal style which was to become so important in his career as a war time leader.
In 1916, during the First World War, Lloyd George became prime minister, replacing Herbert Asquith as head of a coalition government. Grimmond points out that it is difficult to make a case for Lloyd George doing a better practical job as a war leader than Asquith. Lloyd George had surprisingly little control over the military, and found it politically impossible to sack General Haig as army commander-in-chief. There is evidence that an image of control was actually invented in the absence of the real thing. In his memoirs Lloyd George descibes descending on the Admiralty in person and demanding instigation of the convoy idea, where merchant ships would cross the Atlantic in groups protected by warships. A.J. Marder in From the Dreadnought to Scarpa Flow suggests that the idea of Lloyd George personally ordering the use of convoys is simply not true, the Navy having already decided that convoys should be tried. As for military disasters, they took place during both the Lloyd George and Asquith administrations. But the new prime minister had great natural authority, even if this did not translate into a practical ability to direct the war. It was the image that counted. In peace time it is unlikely that Lloyd George would have ever become prime minister. He never had the backing of a specific party, and ran his coalition government in a personal, virtually dictatorial way that was alien to the conventions of Parliament in most circumstances. It was only in war time that his style of leadership became acceptable.
Once the war was over, things didn't go so well. Severe problems were caused by the decision to extend conscription to Ireland. A majority of Irish MPs declared independence, and Lloyd George was forced to fight a war of attrition against the Irish. There were also embarrassing revelations that knighthoods and peerages were being sold for money. The final event that forced Lloyd George's resignation was the Chanak Crisis. In October 1922 British troops stationed in Chanak on the Dardanelles were threatened by Turkish troops. Many MPs were concerned with Lloyd George's announcement that Britain and the Empire would go to war against Turkey if the troops in the Dardanelles were attacked. Lloyd George made an announcement of support from the countries of the Empire before consulting with the prime ministers of those countries. Perhaps Lloyd George instinctively knew that his authority depended on the special circumstances of war, and if he wanted to remain in power there had better be another one.
At a famous meeting at the Carlton Club in London the Conservative Party, which made up a majority of the post war coalition, decided to break away. This move forced Lloyd George to step down. He was replaced by more traditional politicans as prime minister, first Andrew Bonar Law, and then Stanley Baldwin. These people proceeded in the normal way, building up a party following, and acting as neutral figureheads to keep their parties together. The time of Britain's Napoleon, as A.J.P. Taylor called Lloyd George, was over (see English History P73). He acted as though he had great power, but like the real Napoleon there is a sense in which he did what history required of him. Tolstoy described Napoleon in War and Peace as sitting powerless at the centre of countless circumstances. Tolstoy, if he had known Lloyd George, would have seen him as placed in his position by a public who, in a time of chaos, instinctively wanted to have the impression of a strong man in charge. Once the war was over, that illusion was no longer required. He remained an MP until his death in 1945, but never returned to a prominent role.