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

In this section Taylor considers the impact on British politic of David Lloyd George, the man who brought Asquith down in 1916 and became Prime Minister himself. As a man of radical views with an eye for mischief, Lloyd George was exactly the sort of politician Taylor might have been thought to like.

Lloyd George’s accession to power in December 1916 was more than a change of government. It was a revolution, British-style. The party magnates and the whips had been defied. The backbenchers and the newspapers combined in a sort of unconscious plebiscite and made Lloyd George dictator for the duration of the war. Balfour said: ‘If he wants to be a dictator, let him be. If he thinks he can win the war, I’m all for his having a try.’1 Lloyd George was the nearest thing England has known to a Napoleon, a supreme ruler maintaining himself by individual achievement. A detached observer wrote at the end of the war: ‘The effects of the change in direction two years ago may be compared to the substitution of a dynamite for a damp squib.’2 The dynamite exploded. There were new departments of state; new men; new methods of control and regulation; and a new form of cabinet government. The explosions were sporadic. Lloyd George was not a man of plan and system. When faced with a difficulty, he listened to the ideas of others and saw in a flash, the solution. He liked to air his problems in company over the breakfast-table,3 feeling his way with both men and ideas. There was in him a strange mixture of resolution and timidity. His shirt, as he came to make a speech, was always wet through from nervous anxiety. Though Lloyd George often provided leadership of great moral courage, he trembled before he acted.
At any sign of opposition, he saw a ‘great crisis’ and anticipated that his government might fall. He feared that the forces which had carried him to power might as easily turn against him. Public opinion might revolt against heavy casualties. The Unionist backbenchers, he knew, wanted more power for the generals, whereas he planned to cut them down. His enemies ranged, or so he supposed, from Northcliffe to the king.4 Lloyd George stood alone against the best-entrenched governing class in Europe. He did not lead a party. Though Coalition Liberal whips were appointed, they were never clear who their whip should go to.5 He had no friends and did not deserve any. He repaid loyalty with disloyalty, as Churchill and Addison experienced.6 He was surrounded by dependants and sycophants, whom he rewarded lavishly and threw aside when they had served their turn. His rule was dynamic and sordid at the same time. Its spirit was expressed in the popular catch:
Lloyd George knew my father.
My father knew Lloyd George.
He himself gave hostages to fortune (never in fact impounded) by the irregularity of his private life. He was the first prime minister since Walpole to leave office flagrantly richer than he entered it, the first since the Duke of Grafton to live openly with his mistress. Essentially his devious methods sprang from his nature. He could do things in no other way. He defined these methods in a classic sentence: ‘I never believed in costly frontal attacks either in war or politics, if there were a way round.’7 Though Lloyd George became ‘the Big beast of the Forest’, he remained also ‘the Goat’.

AJP Taylor, English History 1914-1945 (Oxford University Press 1965) p.73


1Dugdale Balfour ii p.170.

2Sir Almeric Fitzroy, clerk to the privy council, Memoirs ii p.191.

3These breakfasts increased Robertson’s dislike of Lloyd George. Lloyd George sat long. The habits of a lifetime made Robertson wish to withdraw at once. Hankey The Supreme Command ii, p.775.

4On New Year’s Day 1917 the king made Haig a field marshal, as a gesture against Lloyd George.

5Ninety-eight Liberals revealed themselves as against Lloyd George in the vote after the Maurice debate. It by no means followed that the remaining 170 were for him. In Nov. 1918 the Coalition Liberal whips claimed to have 150 followers. See below p.126.

6Churchill stood unflinchingly by Lloyd George in 1913 at the time of the Marconi scandal. Lloyd George allowed Churchill to be saddled with all the blame for Gallipoli and said (quite untruly): ‘Churchill is the man who brought Turkey into the war against us.’

Addison helped to make Lloyd George prime minister. After the war Lloyd George offered him as a scapegoat when there was an outcry against ‘homes for heroes’.

7Lloyd George War Memoirs iv p.2274.


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