Skip to main content
Read page text



Welsh wizardry and venom

Paul Johnson reviews Roy Hattersley’s life of David Lloyd George

No politician’s life is so difficult to write as Lloyd George’s. All who have tried have failed, and wise heavyweight historians have steered clear. I applaud Roy Hattersley’s courage in tackling this rebarbative subject and congratulate him on his success in making sense of Lloyd George’s early life up to his emergence as a major figure in parliament.Thereafter, however, he tends to lose his way in the trackless jungle of endless political crises during Lloyd George’s 16 years in office, festooned as they are with the undergrowth of his financial fecundity and the florid canopy of his love affairs. Hattersley emerges from this rainforest exhausted, to be faced with the remaining 23 years of Lloyd George’s life, for he was only 59 when he fell irrevocably from power in 1922, and thereafter nothing important happened.

One problem is Welsh. Hard to get inside the man without a knowledge of the language, and of Welsh culture, based on land-hunger. He barely believed in God, and the Irish leaders who negotiated with him claimed he lacked a soul, certainly a conscience. But he was a fine judge of sermons and loved to sing hymns. Tom Jones, a Welsh speaker, scored here, and his slim volume, written in 1951, is still probably the best biography, when supplemented by the three tomes of Cabinet diaries, based on verbatim notes. He and Lloyd George often conversed in Welsh to baffled colleagues and eavesdroppers. Lloyd George was a Celt. He had no fundamental beliefs or principles, but could be captured by ideas, especially if they verged on the poetic.

Keynes, who observed him closely during the Versailles negotiations of 1919, wrote:

He is rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings; he is an instrument and a player at the same time, which plays on the company and is played on them too; he is a prism . . . which collects light and distorts it and is most brilliant if the light comes from many quarters at once; a vampire and a medium in one.

Tom Jones used a different metaphor:

His mind resembled a signalman’s in a busy railway station, Clapham Junction, for example, with steam and electric trains travelling


at varying speeds to the coast, to the country, to London. He pulled the levers, and the traffic moved in Westminster, in Whitehall, in Fleet Street, in party offices, in town and village halls, in polling booths. His friends were few, his instruments many, his acquaintances legion, his interventions innumerable, and his political curiosity inexhaustible. Basically he was a hard realist, with no illusions about men or movements.

In one sense his achievements are formidable. He laid the foundations of theWelfare State with old- age pensions and national insurance. He provoked the row with the Lords which ended in their emasculation. In the Great War he first solved the munitions shortage, then oustedAsquith and drummed the nation to victory. He solved the problem of Ireland by dividing it. He enlarged the British empire and presided over it at its greatest extent. He smashed up the old Liberal party of Gladstone and would have done the same with the Tories had not Baldwin bundled him out of office for ever.

But there was a Celtic mist over all these doings. I recall in 1948 reading an essay on the battle with the Lords when my tutor A.J.P.Taylor rudely interrupted:‘What precisely was the content of Lloyd George’s 1909 budget?’ I was unable to give a satisfactory answer.

But what was it all about? Hattersley reminds us that taxation on land values, the incendiary element, was reckoned to bring in only half a million. The rest were increases, none outrageous, in existing taxes. Again, though few at the time or since have doubted that Lloyd George won the war, it is hard to see exactly how. His mistake was not to take advantage in 1922 to sit down at once to write his war memoirs, thus getting his version set down before others finished theirs. By contrast, when Churchill was ousted in 1945, he settled immediately to writing his account of the second world war, so that it became, and remains, the orthodoxy — thus proving his wife right in predicting that his electoral defeat would be a blessing in disguise. But some — Bob Boothby, for example, who worked with both — even maintained that Lloyd George was the greater war leader and man.

Hattersley,however,sees Lloyd George as essentially a destructive character. Certainly his rhetoric was excoriating and usually crackled with personal abuse. He would not have been able to cope with our new hate laws, for arousing hatred was his most marked political gift. Even his casual spoken asides were flecked with venom. Instructing his deputy, Bonar Law, to sack a middleranking minister he snapped: ‘I don’t mind if he is drowned in Malmsey wine, but he must be dead chicken by midnight.’ Yet this killer instinct was matched by an extraordinary ability to feed men lies, half truths and high-minded waffle, a capacity which brought short-term triumphs and long-term distrust.

Though habitually deceitful, Lloyd George could emit flashes of self-knowledge. Early in his relationship with his long-suffering wife Margaret, he wrote: ‘My supreme idea is to get on. To this idea I will sacrifice everything — except, I trust, honesty.’ The mendacious qualification was of course the cloven hoof.

It is interesting that the nickname ‘the goat’ was first bestowed on him by an obscure civil servant to describe his pro-

the spectator | 18 September 2010 |

My Bookmarks

    Skip to main content