The English statesman David Lloyd George 1st Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor (1863-1945), was prime minister from 1916 to 1922. Although he was one of Britain's most successful wartime leaders, he contributed greatly to the decline of the Liberal party.
It has been said of David Lloyd George that he "was the first son of the people to reach supreme power." His life is representative of the transition in leadership from the landed aristocracy of the 19th century to the mass democracy of the 20th. But his career is almost unique in the manner in which he attained power and held it—by his indifference to tradition and precedent, by his reliance on instinct rather than on reason, and by the force of his will and of his capacity despite personal unpopularity.
Lloyd George, as in later days he would have his surname, was born on Jan. 17, 1863, in Manchester, the son of William George, a schoolmaster of Welsh background, and of Elizabeth Lloyd. William George died in 1864, and Richard Lloyd, brother of the widow, took his sister and the three children into the family home at Llanystumdwy, Wales. From his uncle, a shoemaker by trade, a Baptist preacher, and an active Liberal in politics, young David absorbed much of the evangelical ethic and the radical ideal. He went to the village school. Barred from the Nonconformist ministry because it was unpaid, and excluded from teaching because that would have required joining the Church of England, he was articled, at age 16, to a firm of solicitors in Portmadoc. He soon began writing articles and making speeches on land reform, temperance, and religion. He often preached in the chapel. In 1884 he passed the Law Society examinations. He opened his office at Criccieth, helped organize the farmers' union, and was active in antitithe agitation. In 1888 he married Margaret Owen, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer; they had five children.
Early Political Career
Lloyd George's activity in the politics of the new county council (created 1888) led to his election in 1890 as the member of Parliament for Caernarvon Borough, which he was to represent for the next 55 years. His maiden speech was on temperance, but his primary interest was in home rule for Wales. He led a revolt within the Liberal party against Lord Rosebery in 1894-1895 and successfully carried through its second reading a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales. The Conservatives returned in 1895, and the bill could go no further. But his reputation was made by his bitter and uncompromising opposition to the Boer War as morally and politically unjustified. The Liberals were badly split, but in the reconstruction of the party after the war, the "center point of power, " declared a Liberal journalist, was in Lloyd George and other young radicals.
In the strong Liberal Cabinet formed in 1905, Lloyd George became president of the Board of Trade. He pushed through legislation on the merchant marine, patents, and copyrights. A chaos of private dock companies in London was replaced by a unified Port of London Authority. The Welsh agitator had become the responsible minister and brilliant administrator.
Chancellor of the Exchequer
When Herbert Asquith became prime minister in 1908, Lloyd George was promoted to chancellor of the Exchequer. To pay for old-age pensions as well as for dreadnoughts, he presented in April 1909 a revolutionary "People's Budget" with an innovative tax on unearned increment in land values and a sharp rise in income tax and death duties. He lashed out, in his celebrated Limehouse speech, against landlords waxing rich on rising land values. When the Lords obstructed, spurred on by Arthur Balfour, the Conservative leader, he said that the House of Lords was not the watchdog of the Constitution; it was only "Mr. Balfour's poodle." The Lords' delay in accepting the budget precipitated the controversy with the Commons over the Lords' veto. At a secret conference of party leaders Lloyd George suggested a nonpartisan Cabinet—interesting in view of his later reliance on coalition.
Eventually the Lords' veto was limited, and Lloyd George proceeded with the National Insurance Act, providing protection against sickness, disability, and unemployment in certain trades. But in so doing he encountered charges of "demagoguery." His future was unclear. His popularity was undoubtedly increased by his Mansion House speech in 1911. Germany had sent a gunboat to Agadir in French-controlled Morocco, and Britain was committed to supporting the French interest. Lloyd George, the man of peace, startled the world by warning Germany that Britain would not harbor interference with its legitimate interests. In the next year came the Marconi scandal, involving Lloyd George and other ministers who had invested in the American Marconi Company just when its British associate was contracting with the government for development of radiotelegraph. Though a motion of censure was defeated, Lloyd George and the others remained suspect.
In August 1914 the Cabinet was divided on the war issues. Lloyd George at first wavered but with violation of Belgian neutrality aligned himself against Germany. His reputation soared in the newly created Ministry of Munitions, to which he was appointed in the coalition government organized by Asquith in May 1915. Lloyd George settled labor disputes, constructed factories, and soon replaced serious shortages with an output exceeding demand. When Lord Kitchener was lost at sea in June 1916, Lloyd George became minister of war. "The fight must be to the finish—to a knockout blow, " he declared. In such direction, however, Asquith's rather aimless leadership did not seem to be moving.
In December 1916 Asquith, faced by a revolt from Conservatives along with Lloyd George, resigned. Lloyd George succeeded. In the new War Cabinet of five, the "Welsh Wizard" was the only Liberal, but he "towered like a giant." His role is controversial, but he galvanized the war effort, and it is generally accepted that without him England could hardly have emerged from the conflict so successfully.
At the end of the war, despite the defection of Asquith and his Liberal following, Lloyd George, with strong Conservative support, decided to continue the coalition. He received overwhelming endorsement in the election of 1918. At the peace conference he mediated successfully between the idealism of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and the punitive terms sought by French premier Georges Clemenceau. And he led in the formation of the Irish Free State in 1921, though losing Conservative support in the process.
But at home Lloyd George's oratory about constructing "a new society" came to naught; he did not have Conservative backing for reform, and his own efforts were equivocal. Conservative disenchantment reached the breaking point in the Turkish crisis of 1922—he was pro-Greek, the Conservatives pro-Turk. The Conservatives in the Commons voted, more than 2 to 1, to sever ties. Lloyd George was only 59, but his ministerial career was over. He never reestablished himself in the Liberal party, which, now divided between his supporters and those of Asquith, and suffering defection to Labor of its leadership and its rank and file, disintegrated beyond recovery. Lloyd George attempted a personal comeback in 1929, espousing massive programs of state action in the economy. His popular vote (25 percent) was respectable, but in the Commons the Liberals remained a poor third. He relinquished party leadership, and his power in the Commons was reduced to his family party of four.
Lloyd George's influence in the 1930s was peripheral. Distrusted in many quarters, he was listened to but little heeded. He attacked the Hoare-Laval bargain over Abyssinia. But his misgivings over Versailles led to his respect for Hitler's Germany; in 1936 he visited the Führer at Berchtesgaden. As the crisis deepened, Lloyd George urged an unequivocal statement of Britain's intentions. In his last important intervention in the Commons, in May 1939, he called for the resignation of Neville Chamberlain, who did give way to Winston Churchill. Lloyd George had urged serious consideration of the peace feelers Hitler had broadcast in October 1939, after his conquest of Poland. In July 1940, while preparing for an invasion of England, Hitler made further overtures of peace and toyed with the idea of restoring the Duke of Windsor to the throne and Lloyd George to 10 Downing Street.
Lloyd George's last years were largely spent in his home at Churt in Surrey. His wife died in 1941, and 2 years later he married Frances Louise Stevenson, his personal secretary for 30 years. In 1944 they left Churt to reside in Wales near his boyhood home. On Dec. 31, 1944, he was elevated to the peerage. He died on March 26, 1945.
Further Reading on David Lloyd George
The best biographies, by no means adequate, are Thomas Jones, Lloyd George (1951), and Frank Owen, Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George, His Life and Times (1954). Important for the World War I period are Lloyd George's own War Memoirs (6 vols., 1933-1937) and Cameron Hazlehurst's Politicians at War, July 1914 to May 1915; A Prologue to the Triumph of Lloyd George (1971). For the postwar years see Lord Beaverbrook, The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George (1963). Thomas Jones, Whitehall Diary, 1916-1930 (2 vols., 1969), and his Diary with Letters, 1931-1950 (1954) follow closely Lloyd George's career. Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George: A Diary (1972), provides an interesting account of his life from 1912 on.
Additional Biography Sources
Rowland, Peter, David Lloyd George: a biography, New York: Macmillan, 1976, 1975.
Gilbert, Bentley B., David Lloyd George: a political life, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1987.
George, W. R. P. (William Richard Philip), The making of Lloyd George, London: Faber, 1976.
Pugh, Martin, Lloyd George, London; New York: Longman, 1988.
Wrigley, Chris, Lloyd George, Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1992.