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A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945: Commentaries

What Happens in this Passage?

When he became Prime Minister in 1916 Lloyd George became a sort of popular dictator. He had a dynamic style of leadership though he himself often suffered from nerves. He did not like being opposed and he had a wide range of enemies, real or imagined. He was disloyal to his friends and so became increasingly isolated. He was devious and unprincipled in his dealings both with money and with women.

Commentary

Taylor is here writing for a general readership, many of whom would have remembered Lloyd George and would certainly have known of the events and people he refers to here. This means that Taylor can mention people like Northcliffe and Addison on the assumption that his readers will know who they were; he does the same with the Duke of Grafton, an eighteenth century Prime Minister. He also uses his readers’ knowledge against them, by deliberately confounding expectations. The idea of ‘a revolution, British-style’ goes against most people’s understanding of twentieth century Britain; the proposition that Lloyd George operated as a dictator during the war years is less new – as Taylor points out, Balfour used the term of him at the time – but the idea of Lloyd George as timid and nervous, his shirt drenched in nervous sweat, will again confound most readers’ expectations of a man usually seen as the embodiment of bumptious self-confidence.

Taylor, on the other hand, shows no sign of timidity. His judgements are very clear-cut and both historical and moral. To call Lloyd George’s accession ‘a revolution’ is a historical judgement; to say that Lloyd George ‘had no friends and did not deserve any’ is more of a moral judgement. There is a debate to be had on where a historian’s proper duty lies and whether such moral judgements fall within it.

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