Lessons from Lloyd George

Alex Harries charts the divisions that existed within Lloyd George’s Liberal party and which still remain today

From his wartime leadership and social reforms to accusations of corruption and womanising, David Lloyd George seemed to experience every shade of the statesman’s political experience. Unsurprisingly, Wales’ only Prime Minister has left his own mark on a shared national identity. A Welsh-speaking, Christian non-conformist with social democrat leanings, Lloyd George didn’t fit the mould provided by many of his political predecessors.

Nonetheless, he seemed oddly suited to the role of leading Britain at a time of crisis and change. A continual source of fascination, if nothing else for a private life which confounded expectations to an even greater extent than his public life, his sense of flawed humanity turned him into a figure akin to the greatest Shakespearian Kings: enjoying a life removed from normality but at the same time undergoing a human experience which was strikingly easy to associate with. Thus, Lloyd George has served to inspire, amaze and delight the Welsh for over a century, providing a life story which many could aspire to and understand, if not necessarily experience.

The Wizard the Goat and the Man Who Won the War is the latest play from Cardiff dramatist D.J Britton. The title itself uses three nicknames to highlight the varying dimensions of George’s character and public perceptions. Touring Wales later this year, it taps into a character seemingly made for drama and a Welsh audience prepared to enjoy one of their greatest sons, warts and all.


Peter Stead examines an account of how the British constitution has clambered out of the footnotes and up the agenda

Lloyd George may have long possessed the ability to fascinate. However, his rule and its specific political context seem to have particular relevance to current political life. Just as Lloyd George’s personal life underlined humanity’s ability to hold and seemingly reconcile conflicting identities, whether through some form of Orwellian Doublethink or simple pragmatism, so his political life highlighted a series of contradictions which arguably, have yet to be resolved.

With Lloyd George’s star rising in the Liberal’s post-Gladstonian zenith, he was faced with a party within which the seeds of decline had already been sown. Irish Home rule, Joseph Chamberlain and Imperial Policy had already fractured the party, and the rise of trade unionism and the Labour Party provided an alternative for progressives. However, it was the problems raised during Lloyd George’s Chancellorship which provide perhaps the greatest interest to the modern student of politics.

In practice Liberalism poses an instant, almost insurmountable contradiction. Personal freedom is the philosophy’s ultimate end. However, the exact means of achieving it are not clear-cut. A Classical Liberal would argue that a minimal state, small interference and free-markets are the only ways of assuring complete personal autonomy. From Early Modern theorists, via Gladstone, this was held as the conventional view of liberalism. However, in practice it poses a problem. What if the very presence of ‘liberal’ concepts limits personal freedom? In that case, should the government intervene to achieve long-term, fully distributed, effective liberty?

By the early 20th Century, it seemed that the Liberal Party had been converted to the merits of Progressive Liberalism, recognising the occasional shortcomings of the market. The concrete identity created by Gladstone was challenged by demands for welfare and intervention. Thus, by 1906 unemployment benefits, health insurance and free school meals had all been introduced by Lloyd George’s Liberal Welfare Reforms. Government intervention was seen as the only way of guaranteeing what the Americans might describe as ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happyness’.

The move towards Progressivism was underlined by the People’s Budget of 1909 and its clear re-distributive agenda. However, this shift in identity was not without its drawbacks. Vacating the more classically liberal position to the Tories, the Liberals were effectively outflanked on the Left by the trade union movements and the rising Labour Party. The Liberals became a party without an identity, too far to the left for the Tories, but unwilling to pander to the appeals of Socialism. Thus they were unable to challenge a Labour Party which had subsumed, but not fully satisfied, progressive causes. The Liberal Party may have been made redundant, but it nonetheless left a void in the landscape of British politics, where left-leaning liberalism had once stood.

This demise may be interesting in itself. However, it has particular relevance to the problems and contradictions facing the current coalition. Essentially, the political visions pursued by both ruling parties have strong liberal elements. Conservative desires to reduce the size of the British state, promote volunteerism and individual participation within society have strong echoes of Classical Liberalism. The Liberal Democrats are themselves an amalgamation of Classical Liberals and Social Democrats (Progressives). The term ‘liberal’ serves as all too wide a banner to describe individuals with diverse and often conflicting philosophies. Thus, it is little surprise the party has consistently struggled to solidify any sense of clear political identity in the 20 years or so of its existence. However, just as Lloyd George’s reforms heightened the split between the progressive and classical liberals so the government’s desire to reduce the size of the British state seems to have revealed pre-existing philosophical splits within the coalition.

It is premature to talk of the coalition’s ‘inevitable’ demise. However, as the cuts begin to bite and the socio-economic impact of their programme becomes clear, it is possible that Social Democrats such as Vince Cable will find themselves at loggerheads with the likes of Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith. Equally, splits within the Lib Dems themselves would not be surprising. Disputes over the means needed to reach a shared end, risk undermining unity in the coming months.

Such disputes would only work to the detriment of the Lib-Dems. No longer able to convince the electorate that they are a wholly progressive alternative to Labour but distrusting free-markets and non-intervention too much to win over Middle England, the party could face several more decades in the wilderness. Equally, the oft-peddled myth of Lib-Dem ideological cohesion risks being dramatically undermined by splits over spending cuts.

In short, the Liberal Democrats face the situation that confronted Lloyd George in 1918 all over again. A divided, incoherent party has entered a coalition with the Conservatives, whilst the left works on a strategic re-invention. Of course no moment of history repeats itself exactly. In 1918 the Liberals had to deal with the immediate after-shock of the Great War. And there is a further major difference. Today the Lib-Dems are approaching events from an even weaker starting point than in 1918 when, after all, they were still a great party of the State. Today they are still trying to recover from almost a century of dwelling in the political wilderness of marginalised opposition.

At the same time, there are similarities in the difficultie they face. Once again, internal philosophical contradictions have pushed them between two extremes, touching both, but satisfying neither. It is likely that historians of the Liberal Democrat Party will see the result of May 2010 as a Catch 22. Not entering into a coalition would have undermined any claims to credibility, while entering could well lead to a downfall. If history repeats itself then electoral annihilation and internal fractures will be the lasting results. Progressive Liberals have lacked a voice since Lloyd George. Last year’s Liberal resurgence may have given them hope. However, today, just as a century ago, contradictions, disputes and an identity crisis risk leaving the Liberal Party powerless, aimless and divided.

Self-made, non-conformist and uncompromising as he was, Lloyd George has always been of particular relevance to Wales. Thus, by all means revel in his colourful personal life, admire a wartime leader and savour Wales’ only PM. However, Lloyd George should remind anyone with an interest in politics of the desire for representation and identity which has eluded progressive liberals throughout the history of British Parliamentary Democracy. The political split dramatically witnessed during his era has (despite the occasional shift) yet to be fully solved and is perhaps more relevant today than ever before.

Alex Harries is a student about to study history at Oxford who is gaining work experience with the IWA

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