Why Lloyd George continues to fascinate us

John Osmond on a lecture at the National Library which throws new light on the Welsh statesman’s later years

A lecture being delivered at the National Library tomorrow, provides a remarkable insight into the final years of David Lloyd George and his marriage to his long-time mistress Frances Stevenson.

Authored by Dr John Graham Jones, Head of the Welsh Political Archive at the National Library, the lecture David and Frances reveals that it was Lloyd George’s tempestuous relationship with his daughter Megan – who become Liberal MP for Anglesey, and later Labour MP for Carmarthen – that caused so much inter-family feuding and intrigue towards the end of his life. Megan Lloyd George hated Francis Stevenson and thought that the marriage would be a slight on her mother, who had died in 1941, and also sully her father’s reputation. The marriage, which Megan refused to attend, finally took place at Guildford Registry Office on 23 October 1943 when Lloyd George was 81 years old and Frances Stevenson 55.

When Megan visited her father at his Surrey home in Churt during this period the convention was that Frances Stevenson would make herself scarce, though this increasingly provoked tension between her and Lloyd George. Megan’s attitude was complicated by the fact that at the time her own illicit relationship with the  her married lover the MP Philip Noel-Baker was breaking up.

Dr Jones’s lecture draws heavily from the diaries of Lloyd George’s long-time secretary, A. J. Sylvester. These make it clear that it was the death of Lloyd George’s first wife that precipated the events that were to so dominate the last years of Lloyd George’s life. As Dr Jones says:

“The death of Dame Margaret Lloyd George potentially meant a wholly cataclysmic change for her husband. He had always assumed that he was likely to predecease his wife who had been almost two years his junior and in robust health. Now the unthinkable had actually happened, and LG’s major link with his Welsh roots and with his constituency base had been suddenly removed. Also he was well aware that, decades earlier, he had given his word to his private secretary, mistress and confidante Frances Stevenson that, if he ever found himself a free man, he would, after a decent interval had elapsed, make an honest woman of her. Frances might well now be willing to bide her time, but she was certainly not prepared to give up the prize which was at long last within her grasp. For thirty years she had grudgingly played the role of the perpetual mistress, obliged to make herself scarce each time her love rival Dame Margaret came out of Wales. She had long craved respectability, a status – and a wedding ring. And she was certainly not now prepared to back down, regardless of the feelings of the Lloyd George family.”

Dr Jones’s lecture coincides with the launch of his new book David Lloyd George and Welsh Liberalism, which brings together articles he has produced over the 30-year period he has worked as an archivist at the National Library. Making widespread use of the seven major Lloyd George archives and other source materials deposited at the National Library, he re-evaluates many of the key episodes in the life and political career of a Welsh politician who continues to fascinate us. These include his dramatic entry into Welsh political life at Blaenau Ffestiniog in February 1886, his role in the Cymru Fydd movement, so abruptly terminated in 1896, his entry into the cabinet in December 1905, the preparation of his all-important ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909 which provoked a major constitutional crisis, and his relationship with the Suffragettes.

Later themes re-assessed here include Lloyd-George’s dramatic, herculean bid to return to power in 1927-29, his role at the constitutional crisis of 1931, his ‘New Deal’ proposals in 1935, and his contribution to the removal from office of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in May 1940. Other essays consider his often rocky relationship with many of his political contemporaries like Lord Davies of Llandinam, Sir Alfred Mond, C. F. G. Masterman and W. Llewelyn Williams, and his two politician children, Lady Megan Lloyd George and Major Gwilym Lloyd-George, later Viscount Tenby, who also became political figures of some consequence in their own right.

From a Welsh perspective Lloyd George’s lasting significance was his association with the early period of the century-long campaign for devolution that culminated in the successful referendum in favour of the National Assembly for Wales in 1997. In the strange way that history has, of being lived forwards but only understood backwards, today’s Assembly puts into sharper relief the early Cymru Fydd (Young Wales) movement of the 1880s and 1890s in which Lloyd George took a leading role. As Graham Jones explores in his new book, Lloyd George abandoned the movement after 1896 and henceforth pursued his career in a mainly British rather than Welsh context.

Was he a traitor to Wales as a consequence? In the context of his time and circumstances certainly not. As Emyr Price, another lifelong student of Lloyd George who died in March, showed in his 2006 study David Lloyd George, published by the University of Wales Press, LG’s decision to become a careerist politician after the failure of Cymru Fydd was the only way that other Welsh aspirations – for instance, disestablishment of the Church – could be realised.

Lloyd George’s involvement in the early struggles for Welsh nationalism and devolution explain why we continue to be fascinated by his life and career. These include the more intimate and personal details of his later years, as shedding illumination on a charismatic politician who still influences the way we imagine ourselves as a nation.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. David Lloyd George and Welsh Liberalism is published tomorrow by the National Library at £24.99.

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