LG as viewed through prism of high Westminster politics

J. Graham Jones reviews Roy Hattersley’s biography of David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George, the Great Outsider
Roy Hattersley
Little Brown, £25

This is Roy Hattersley’s seventeenth published monograph. His previous publications include highly regarded biographies of Methodist leader John Wesley and of Catherine and William Booth, the founders of the Salvation Army. A new biography of Lloyd George is certainly to be welcomed. No full-length biography in a single volume has seen the light of day since Peter Rowland’s massive tome, published in 1975.

Lord Hattersley is a sympathetic, although not idolatrous, biographer, portraying Lloyd George throughout his text as a worthy radical. At the same time he regards him as a man who put ambition, and a determination to succeed, above all things. Hattersley declares in his opening words that Roy Jenkins suggested the idea of this biography of Lloyd George, “a politician he disliked so heartily that he could not contemplate writing the book himself.”

Roy Hattersley has certainly immersed himself eagerly in his subject. His enthusiasm for his task is very much apparent as one turns the pages of this highly readable book. He has read voraciously all the many biographies and other works devoted to Lloyd George. He has even made use of the most recent relevant works published as recently as 2009 and 2010 when the writing of this biography must have been well advanced.

His wide knowledge of the general and the political history of the period under consideration are very much apparent as the author flits between various historical periods with an effortless ease. Moreover, the volume is notably well paced. All the important themes of Lloyd George’s quite unique life and career are well covered and always placed in the context of their times. Especially helpful are the asterisked footnotes which provide extra snippets of information, often comparing different historical periods, which parallel the main text.

Howwver, the use of manuscript sources is always rather marginal throughout the book. Although Hattersley has clearly made some use of the extensive Lloyd George archives both at the Parliamentary Archive at the House of Lords and the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, their use is always subordinated to that of printed sources. Indeed, it is possible to detect the influence of the biographies of W. R. P. George, Bentley B. Gilbert, John Grigg, Kenneth O. Morgan and Peter Rowland as one turns the pages of this book.

Hattersley’s heavy dependence on the work of previous scholars can make his own volume appear somewhat episodic at times. To give just one example, the account of the Abdication crisis of December 1936, and Lloyd George’s highly disapproving attitude towards it, is left rather suspended in mid-air as the author moves on to discuss Lloyd George’s unofficial visit to Paris, in the company of Frances and Jennifer Stevenson, in January 1938.

The focus throughout the book is firmly on Lloyd George’s political career and public life. His family relationships and his bizarre personal life are certainly considered at certain points, but they are firmly subordinated to the political themes and often outlined just briefly at the beginning or the end of the chapters. An example is the beginning of chapter 16, which discusses the death of Lloyd George’s only sister Mary Ellen Davies in August 1909, and the building of the new expansive family home at Criccieth, fittingly to be called Brynawelon, at around the same time after LG had become the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Asquith.

It is certainly unfortunate for us that the Welsh and family dimensions are rather lacking and marked by a certain lack of attention to detail. Dame Margaret is described as Lloyd George’s “junior by almost four years”, whereas in fact just 22 short months separated husband and wife. Samuel T. Evans, the Liberal MP for Mid-Glamorgan, twice becomes ‘Sam Ellis’, while there is sometimes confusion between ‘Northwich’ and ‘Norwich’. One would have liked more detail of the course and nature of the political ethos and life of the Caernarfon Boroughs, Lloyd George’s constituency base for nigh-on fifty-five years. In this book the focus is kept mainly on the course of high politics centred on Westminster.

Hattersley’s lack of understanding of the Cymru Fydd movement is especially striking. In his account of the famous meeting at Newport on 16 January 1896, we are told, “The obstructive South Wales Liberal Federation would be superseded and engulfed by the Rhondda Liberal Association which would then amalgamate with the North. At first, the plan seemed to be working”. Not all historians would endorse Hattersley’s outspokenly harsh view of Lloyd George’s attitude towards the Cymru Fydd movement: “When there was serious work to do, he abandoned the trivial role that had helped to establish his reputation as a national politician.”

To describe Mabon, the generally patriotic Lib-Lab MP for the Rhondda, as “an implacable opponent of Welsh Nationalism” is also well wide of the mark. Lloyd George’s Welsh secretary during the period of his old age was Ann Parry, not Ann Perry. Given that the third draft of the book was allegedly read and carefully scrutinised by Lord Kenneth O. Morgan, one of our foremost authorities on Lloyd George, it is amazing that such serious errors of fact and interpretation have been allowed to remain in the final published volume. They detract so much from the potential value of the book

The volume sports a detailed index, a useful bibliography of the printed volumes quarried by the author, and most fascinating appendices listing the many successive homes which Lloyd George occupied at various times and a list of the trips overseas which he undertook. These will save the eager Lloyd George enthusiast a great deal of frustrating searching in the many biographies. The illustrations are well chosen and admirably complement the text of the book. But it is most unfortunate that the footnote references abound with glaring errors. Sources in the custody of the National Library are attributed to the Parliamentary Archive and vice versa. Some of the call numbers are misprinted or are incomplete. This could well lead to problems for scholars and archivists alike in the future. There are also far too many typographical errors.

In short, this is a real ‘curate’s egg’ of a book, good in parts. It is an unfailingly enjoyable read, with a racy writing style which makes the reader anxious to read ahead. But there are telltale signs of haste and a lack of attention to detail. More care, thought and less rush to publish would undoubtedly have produced a more rewarding and more accurate biography.

J. Graham Jones is Senior Archivist and Head of the Welsh Political Archive at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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