Lloyd George, according to Winston Churchill after his death, ‘was the greatest Welshman which that unconquerable race has produced since the age of the Tudors’. Yet he was born in England at 5 New York Place, Robert Street, Chorlton-upon-Medlock, Manchester on 17 January 1863.
His parents, William George, a school teacher, and Elizabeth Lloyd, a domestic servant then lady’s companion, moved back to Wales when he was four months old. On his father dying of pneumonia on 7 June 1864, his mother returned to Llanystumdwy, her birthplace, and they lived with her mother and brother, Richard, depending on £50 per annum from William George’s estate and on the family shoemaking business (which was maintained until 1880).
Richard Lloyd, like his father, was the unpaid lay pastor for the Baptist sect, the Disciples of Christ, and was the major early influence on David. He was educated at Llanystumdwy school.
From July 1878 Lloyd George worked for a solicitor, qualifying as a solicitor himself six years later. In 1885 he set up his own practice, joined by his brother William from mid-1887. His brother’s diligence enabled Lloyd George to enter local politics, and he made his name as a solicitor, lay preacher and temperance lecturer. He was active on behalf of many of the pressure groups which formed a part of Welsh Liberalism: the Liberation Society, the Farmers’ Union and the Anti-Tithe League (being secretary of its South Carnarvonshire branch). He was selected as candidate for Carnarvon Boroughs in January 1889, winning it by eighteen votes in a byelection in April 1890. He held the constituency at every general election from then until he was elevated to the House of Lords in the New Year Honours List, 1945. From 1889 until his death he was an alderman on Carnarvonshire county council.
Lloyd George was a backbencher until he entered Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s government on 10 December 1905. During this time he successfully came to prominence as a nonconformist politician, playing a major role in opposing the Conservative Education Bill of 1902, and as a Radical, not least in his opposition to the Boer War. As President of the Board of Trade (1905-08) he brought in legislation which assisted British business, and displayed considerable skills in offering conciliation in industrial disputes, most notably in averting a national rail dispute in 1907.
When Asquith became Prime Minister, Lloyd George succeeded him on 12 April 1908 as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1908-15). In this post Lloyd George established himself as a dynamic, radical force in the government. With Asquith, Churchill and Masterman, he introduced the major Liberal social reforms: old age pensions (1908) and National Insurance (1911). He also brought in the means to pay for these measures as well as for naval rearmament in his 1909 People’s Budget. This offered non-socialist, free trade finance. Its rejection by the House of Lords led to a constitutional crisis and two general elections in 1910.
These were followed by the substantial curtailment of the Lords veto, leaving the way open for progress to be made on Home Rule for Ireland. During 1909-14, while some other colleagues became defeatist, Lloyd George remained innovative in policy, pressing ahead not only with National Insurance but launching in 1913 his land campaign, which proved to have some electoral appeal to rural workers.
Before the outbreak of war in 1914 Lloyd George had been a notable opponent of the Boer War and of high levels of military or naval spending, clashing notably with Winston Churchill over the Admiralty’s estimates in December 1913. However, in 1911 over the crisis arising from a German gunboat going to Agadir, Morocco, Lloyd George gave Germany a firm warning that a united Britain would not support peace at any price if her interests were vitally affected. In August 1914, after hesitation, Lloyd George supported the war and as Chancellor of the Exchequer he had to find the financial means to wage it.
He became increasingly concerned at the slowness of expansion of munitions supplies. This led him on 25 May 1915 to become Minister of Munitions (1915-16), a post in which he displayed his dynamism and his negotiating skills in industrial relations. He also became associated with demands for conscription and a more thorough organisation of the country for the war, thereby outraging some of his former supporters but winning admiration, at first reluctant, from many Conservatives. After the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 Lloyd George came near to achieving an Irish settlement. On 6 July 1916 he succeeded the deceased Kitchener as Secretary of State for War. In the autumn, Lloyd George’s pressure for more effective control of the war by a small committee resulted in a political crisis and Asquith’s resignation as Prime Minister. Lloyd George had long struggled to establish himself as crown prince, though while he wished to succeed Asquith eventually, it is unlikely that at this specific time (early December 1916) he intended to oust him.
Lloyd George was Prime Minister from 6 December 1916 until 19 October 1922. Both during the war and after, he was dependent on multi-party support. In 1916-18 his government, like Asquith’s 1915-16 coalition, included Liberals, Labour and Conservatives. His post-war government, however, depended on most Conservatives and some Liberals, with Labour the largest party in opposition (even if not formally given the title of H. M. Opposition until 1922).
The division of the Liberal Party in 1916 might not have had serious consequences had it reunited before the 1918 general election.
Lloyd George’s wartime government built on the changes in organisation under way during Asquith’s premiership. He instituted a small War Cabinet of five to seven members, setting up an efficient Cabinet secretariat, creating new ministries and bringing into office businessmen (his men of push and go). Lloyd George was shocked by the continuing scale of the deaths for little advantage on the Western Front, notably at Passchendaele in 1917, and tried to oust Generals Robertson and Haig. He succeeded in replacing Robertson but had not the political support to remove Haig, whose approach eventually succeeded from August 1918. Lloyd George showed courage and resourcefulness during 1916-18, and emerged in the popular press as ‘The man who won the war’. In December 1918 he also won a massive victory in the coupon election, in which all the leading Liberals associated with Asquith were not endorsed by the coalition leadership and lost their seats.
Lloyd George’s post-war coalition government was supported by 335 coalition Conservatives (a further 23 Conservatives giving that party a majority in the House of Commons on its own), 133 coalition Liberals and 10 coalition Labour. As a result he was dependent on Conservative support, and it is all the more surprising that the Conservatives did not dispense with him sooner than October 1922.
The pinnacle of Lloyd George’s career was the peace-making at Paris in the first half of 1919, leading to the Treaty of Versailles, signed on 28 June 1919. While rightly criticised in many aspects (such as the war guilt clause, the scale of reparations and many boundaries), Lloyd George tilted the settlement in a more Liberal direction than Clemenceau or much of the Conservative Party wished.
The remainder of his premiership was notable for a series of international conferences, but in these he was unsuccessful in overcoming French obduracy over Germany, bringing Soviet Russia back into European trade or on disarmament. His confrontation with Turkey in support of the Greeks in Asia Minor (the Chanak crisis) in the autumn of 1922 damaged his standing in Parliament and contributed to his downfall.
Lloyd George’s post-war government was faced with massive demobilisation problems and a desire to decontrol the wartime economy and carry out substantial social reconstruction. During the post-war boom (1919-20) some progress was made with his election promise of 23 November 1918 to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. In addition to the important Education Act 1918, passed before the war had ended, substantial numbers of houses were built (albeit at a high cost) under the Housing and Town Planning Act 1919, the Unemployment Insurance Act 1920 extended coverage to a further eight million people, and there were further extensions of pre-war Liberal measures under the Old Age Pensions Act 1919 and the National Health Insurance Act 1920. Two of Lloyd George’s long-term causes were tackled with the disestablishment of the Welsh Church in August 1919 and the passage that month of the Land Settlement Facilities Act.
However, in December 1919 the government’s adoption of the recommendations of the Cunliffe Committee on Currency and Foreign Exchanges after the War to deflate the economy in order to return sterling to the gold standard at its pre-war parity, combined with middle-class electoral revolts (in favour of anti-waste candidates) in byelections and a severe economic recession from the end of 1920, doomed further reconstruction. The end was marked by the Geddes axe in 1922, severe cuts in public expenditure following the recommendations of a Committee on National Expenditure made up of businessmen which partially undid many of the 1918-20 reforms.
Many policies carried out by the post-war coalition government appalled many of Lloyd George’s old radical supporters. They had been affronted during the war by his enthusiasm for conscription, his intolerance of conscientious objectors and his breaking with Asquith in favour of working with Conservatives, not least with figures such as the Ulster Unionist leader Sir Edward Carson, and imperial proconsuls such as Lord Milner. After 1918, they were further outraged by the intervention against the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Black and Tan and other atrocities in Ireland, the support of some coalition supporters for General Dyer after the Amritsar massacre of April 1919 and by much of the tough action against trade unions and the scaremongering of red revolution in Britain. More generally, Lloyd George’s undoubted skills at negotiating settlements in industrial relations, or appearing to resolve conflict in Ireland for over forty years, had a down-side, in that his wizardry was increasingly deemed to be close to duplicity. Moreover, the sale of honours – not unknown to the main parties – became a matter of ill-repute under his premiership, partly because the money went to the Premier’s own Liberal coalition group, and partly because of the scale of the trade and the fact that wealthy people deemed highly unsuitable were being proposed.
Long before the collapse of the coalition in October 1922, the Conservative Party’s rank and file had become increasingly hostile to its continuation. Although most of the leading Conservatives in the coalition remained loyal to Lloyd George, the majority of Conservative MPs did not.
Lloyd George left office for good. In the 1922 general election he was left high and dry, unable to attack vigorously his former colleagues. He declared he would support any party and any government that pursues a policy of peace, of economy, of steady progress, neither revolution nor reaction, and does it efficiently. Nevertheless, sixty-two National Liberals were returned to fifty-four independent Liberals (and 142 Labour).
The bid for tariffs by the Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in the December 1923 general election reunited the Liberals in defence of free trade. Lloyd George was deputy leader to Asquith until 1926, when there were further divisions over the General Strike. On Asquith’s resignation in October, Lloyd George became Liberal leader until 1931.
During the 1920s, he was more alert to new ideas than most other Liberal leaders; as Charles Masterman admitted, ‘I’ve fought him as hard as anyone but I have to confess, when Lloyd George came back to the party, ideas came back to the party’. He used his political funds (derived from the sale of honours) to finance major policy studies, beginning with The Land and the Nation and Towns and the Land (both 1925) as the basis for his new land campaign. The Liberal Industrial Inquiry (1926-28) involved many of the liveliest Liberal minds, including J. M. Keynes, Ramsay Muir, Walter Layton, E. D. Simon and Lloyd George himself, and was published as Britain’s Industrial Future (1928). A major theme was highlighted in the 1929 pamphlet, We Can Conquer Unemployment. In the 1929 general election the Liberal vote increased from the 2.9 million of 1924 to 5.3 million, with the number of MPs rising from forty to fifty-nine. Lloyd George generally supported the second Labour government (1929-31) but chafed at its timidity over unemployment.
However, Liberal MPs sympathetic to the Conservatives increasingly went their own way. In July 1931 Lloyd George was taken seriously ill, needing a prostate operation, and was out of circulation during the 1931 political crisis and the formation of the National Government.
Between 1931 and 1935, Lloyd George was an independent Liberal MP, supported only by a small family group of MPs. From 1933 he tried to mobilise the remaining forces of nonconformity and Liberal opinion, pressing for his own New Deal in the 1935 general election. Much of his energy in the 1930s went into foreign affairs. While briefly impressed by Hitler after a 1936 visit to Germany, he became increasingly alarmed by the fascist dictators over Spain, Abyssinia and Munich. In declining health (and possibly morale), the ageing Lloyd George declined Churchill’s 1940 offers of being Food Controller or ambassador in Washington.
Terminally ill with cancer but still hoping to speak on the peace-making, he accepted an earldom in 1945. He died, as Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor and Viscount Gwynedd, on 26 March 1945, and was buried by the river Dwyfor on the edge of Llanystumdwy.
He was married twice, first to Margaret Owen (1866-1941), later Dame Margaret Lloyd George, on 24 January 1888. She became a major figure in her North Wales community, being much involved in various charities, a founder of Criccieth Women’s Institute, a member and for three years chair of Criccieth Urban District Council, and president of the Women’s Liberal Federation of North and South Wales; but she declined invitations from elsewhere to be a Liberal Parliamentary candidate. They had four children, of whom two, Gwilym and Megan, became MPs. He married his second wife, Frances Stevenson (1888-1972) on 23 October 1943, though they had had a long and steady relationship since early 1913.
Lloyd George published War Memoirs (6 vols, 1933-36) and The Truth About the Peace Treaties (2 vols, 1938) as well as several volumes of speeches, the most substantial being Better Times (1910) and Through Terror to Triumph (1915). At present there are three volumes of John Griggs’ excellent biography: The Young Lloyd George (1973), Lloyd George: The People’s Champion, 1902-11 (1978) and Lloyd George: From Peace to War, 1912-1916 (1985). There are so far two volumes of Bentley B. Gilbert’s substantial biography, David Lloyd George: A Political Life (1987 and 1992). The best single-volume biography is Peter Rowland, Lloyd George (1975). For short biographies see Kenneth O. Morgan, Lloyd George (1974), Martin Pugh, Lloyd George (1988) and Chris Wrigley, Lloyd George 1992).
Chris Wrigley is a Professor of Modern British History at Nottingham University. He was President of the Historical Association (1996-99) As well as a biography of Lloyd George, his many books include David Lloyd George and the British Labour Movement (1976) and The Challenge of Labour (1990).