“David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider” by Roy Hattersley – Flawed genius and a dose of “Plus ça change!”

This is my review of David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider by Roy Hattersley.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”. We see Lloyd George condemning the arms race and immoral wars, such as against the Boers – how would he have applied his razor-sharp scorn to the Iraq War? He campaigned for non-conformist teachers to be allowed to teach in Welsh schools , so presumably would have spoken against faith schools and for Welsh devolution, had he lived today. He foresaw how the embryonic labour party threatened the long-term survival of the liberal party and eventually advocated a “centrist” coalition with the Tories to effect constitutional change. The level of faction-fighting within the Liberal Party foreshadowed what may be about to happen again now. And then there were the issues of Irish independence and the power of the Lords to block legislation, eternal thorns in the flesh of Westminster.

Lloyd George got himself noticed by attacking people through breathtakingly rude yet witty insults, on a scale which would probably be quite unacceptable today. His “weathercock” attitude to many issues makes for confusing reading at times. He opposed votes for women on the practical grounds that this would give the Tories an unfair advantage until suffrage was extended to men without property. This illustrates the ultra-pragmatism which enabled him to negotiate with employers and unions to avert strikes, and bring peace to Ireland – yet always there was his tendency to give different parties different impressions – to the point of appearing to lie – so that “solutions” were too often short-lived.

We are told that LG “felt no loyalty to either institutions or individuals …yet he remained true … to a few ideas… for which he was prepared to sacrifice other political objectives”: he was unyielding on national insurance for sickness and invalidity, based on contributions from employers and workmen. For this and his leadership in WW1, he deserves praise – although he seems to have withheld vital troops from a military leader he wanted to remove, but lacked the power to do so.

On a personal level, he sailed close to the wind, risking scandal through indiscreet affairs, even fathering illegitimate children. He sold honours for cash with astonishing blatancy, even joking about the “dirty money” which the Liberals held their noses and asked him to contribute.

Ffion Hague’s recent biography of Lloyd George has already provided a detailed character study of the charismatic but selfish and manipulative “Welsh Wizard”, but it tends to focus on his relationships with women, notably his long-suffering (“blind” because it was the easiest option?) wife and emotionally abused mistress Frances Stephenson. I looked to Roy Hattersley for a clearer analysis of the political aspects of his life.

It is a challenge to produce a book which is accessible but suitably “scholarly”, without getting overly bogged down in detail. For the most part, the author manages this, with a good blend of analysis, telling quotations and fascinating anecdotes. Once Lloyd George achieves his ambition of cabinet office, first at the Board of Trade but then as Chancellor, the book gets into its stride and manages to be quite gripping, even over such a superficially dry but important topic as his battle to get the 1909 Finance Bill through the Lords – or did he want it to fail in order to force a crisis over the undemocratic power of the higher chamber?

I spotted a few errors – “wining” for “winning” etc, which gave me the confidence to think that has been a lack of editing. Also, some topics are introduced in a fragmented way, without sufficient initial explanation. So, I was often forced to break off reading and comb the index to piece together an understanding of, say, the aims and effects of various education acts (all tied up with the imposition of Anglican RE on nonconformist Wales) or the ins and outs of Irish dissidence, which then as now had the power to split and bring down Westminster parties. One of the worst omissions for me was the lack of explanation of the role of Joseph Chamberlain in breaking up the Liberal Party before LG attained office. I had to consult Wikipedia to find out about the formation of the Liberal Unionists (not mentioned in the index for this biography) who governed in coalition with the Tories. There are also some odd leaps in the text , such as the jump on p.367 from the need to produce shells in WW1 to the drive to reduce the consumption in alcohol.

Hattersley does not much like, but admires LG, a viewpoint which it is easy to share. I recommend this biography, although the 650 pages require a serious commitment of time and concentration – probably worth buying so you can reread to get the full benefit…..

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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