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Clement Davies: Liberal Leader
Alun Wyburn-Powell
Foreword by Lord Hooson
London: Politico’s, 2003.
£25.00, xviii-300 pages, ISBN 1-902301-97-8 (hardback).

Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen

This biography fills a useful gap, insofar as it is the first one devoted to “Clem” Davies (1884-1962), Leader of the Liberal Party 1945-1956. It is arguable that this is the biography of a minor Leader of the Liberal Party, which had itself become a minor party when Clement Davies led it—but then his political life coincided with major national and international events, from the 1931 crisis to the Suez disaster.

Like so many prominent Liberals—chief among them Lloyd George, of course—he came from Wales, and the first Chapter, “From Llanfyllin to Trinity Hall: 1884-1914,” gives us the classic account of his formative years in the Principality, in the local village school, and in Cambridge (1904-1907)—he was among the one per cent of school leavers who took a degree at the time. Then follow London, a successful legal career, marriage to Jano (1913), “later an accomplished orator” [p. 11], and involvement in Liberal politics, notably at the two General Elections of 1910.

His qualifications spared him being sent to the trenches in 1914: he became Advisor on Enemy Activities in Neutral Countries and on the High Seas, a form of secret economic warfare. The restoration of peace enabled him to resume his legal practice, whose success brought him a high income. All would have been well if he had not been caught in a vicious circle of stress followed by heavy drinking, in turn generating more stress. His drink problem persisted through his life, although we are told that he had long periods of abstinence (for instance between 1937 and 1941 [p. 207]). He became a K.C. in 1926, which “afforded him a temporary boost to his morale” [p. 22], but he had to go to his house in Wales after a renewed period of depression, only returning to London and his practice in 1927.

Later in that year, he was offered the succession to the “safe” Liberal constituency of Montgomeryshire—which he accepted despite Jano’s misgivings—and won the seat at the General Election of 1929. After the formation of the National Government and the ensuing General Election in 1931, he joined the Liberal Nationals, led by Sir John Simon, and was re-elected unopposed by the Conservatives, as was the case again in 1935.

The book gives a very well documented account of Davies’s gradual estrangement from the Tory-dominated National Government, culminating in the covert plotting against Chamberlain with the “Vigilantes,” the group of sixty or so MPs which Davies led, from September 1939. The turning point in his own political career came on 14 December, when he left the Liberal Nationals to join the Opposition, while it is well known that for Chamberlain the moment of truth came during the Parliamentary debate on the Norway campaign, on 7-9 May 1940—a debate in which Davies played such a role that Wyburn-Powell does not hesitate to see in him a “Kingmaker” (this is the title of Chapter 7), taking his authority for this in a letter by William Jowitt (later Minister of Reconstruction) which started with “Dear Warwick the Kingmaker.” Robert Boothby—one of Churchill’s staunchest supporters—believed that he had “played the principal part in making Churchill Prime Minister” and wrote to him that he had been “one of the architects—some may judge the principal architect—of the Government which saved us from destruction, and then led us to victory” [p. 109]. Wyburn-Powell also does not fail to repeat the old anecdote, first told by Alan Wood in 1965:

On the afternoon of 10 May, Beaverbrook was talking on the telephone to Alan Wood (then one of his employees, and later his biographer), when the conversation was interrupted by another call, from Winston Churchill at the Admiralty. When Beaverbrook was reconnected, he told Wood: “We’ve got a new Prime Minister.” Alan Wood replied “Thank God!,” to which Beaverbrook retorted: “Don’t thank God, thank Clem Davies.” [p. 110]

Wyburn-Powell believes that Clement Davies’s key intervention never received the attention that it deserved: “Had his role in bringing Churchill to power been better known, he might have enjoyed greater recognition and prestige, and possibly an easier life, when he took over the Liberal leadership” [p. xii]. Indeed Churchill was not very grateful, since in May 1940 he only offered him a junior ministerial post, which he refused, and “he accordingly continued to develop a niche as a freelance critic of the government, aiming to eradicate complacency and to spur ministers on to greater efforts” [p. 118]. He kept that attitude throughout the war, which stood him in good stead in 1945, when the great names were either dead (Lloyd George) or defeated (Sir Archibald Sinclair). Only twelve Liberal MPs survived the Labour tidal wave of 1945: Wyburn-Powell gives us very vivid portraits of them, but the description makes it unclear why Davies emerged as Leader, as none had a decisive advantage. So, we are told, “The deciding factor in his favour was probably that he was Welsh” [p. 143].

The task before him was of course formidable—no less than reconstructing the Liberal Party after the rift of 1916 and the rout of 1945. The book shows that Davies never lost hope, and the chapters dealing with the post-war period give a full account of his efforts—as well as the difficulties, well conveyed by the titles of Chapters 10: “Discontent, Disease and Defection, 1947-1950” and 11: “A Party on the critical List, 1950-1951.” The General Election of 1951 was a terrible one for the party, which “polled only 730,556 votes, its lowest figures ever” [p. 203]. This had paradoxical consequences for the party and its Leader, which Wyburn-Powell explains very clearly, thus solving the apparent mystery of the survival of what had become a marginal party, with only six MPs:

The 1951 election was to prove the nadir of the Liberal Party’s fortunes. It was not wiped out electorally and it did not disintegrate; instead, it started on the long road to recovery. Indeed, there were some immediate benefits from the election’s outcome. It removed from the Commons, in one fell swoop, the three left-wing MPs who had been most vocal in their opposition to the party’s leadership and direction. The newer MPs were more amenable to being managed as a party. And the dubious prospect of having the daughters of Asquith [Lady Violet Bonham-Carter] and Lloyd George [Megan Lloyd George] in the Parliamentary Liberal Party at the same time had vanished: Clem had effectively sailed safely between the Liberal Scylla and Charybdis. While the reasonably good election performance of 1950 had led to a severe weakening of Clem’s position, the bad result in 1951, perversely, led to a significant strengthening of his leadership and his authority. [p. 206]

Just as a drowning man catches at a straw, the Liberals found comfort in the equally disastrous results of the 1955 General Election, with a curious argument derived from their long story of decline: “The Liberals entered the 1955 election with six MPs, and came out with the same six; the election was thus the first since 1929 in which the Liberals did not suffer a net loss” [p. 215]. Wyburn-Powell draws on the writings and biographies of other prominent Liberals of the time, like Lord Samuel or Jo Grimond to ascribe this survival—failing a revival—to Davies’s action as Leader. Emlyn (now Lord) Hooson, who succeeded Clement Davies in the seat of Montgomeryshire, also writes in his Foreword: “Without Clement Davies, I am convinced that the Liberal Party would not have survived the latter part of the twentieth century” [p. ix]. So, Wyburn-Powell’s own assessment of him as he entered a new Parliament is extremely positive:

While there had still been the prospect of Sinclair’s return, Clem had been seen by many as simply a caretaker, but by 1955 he had held the leadership for ten years, not only longer than Sinclair but longer than Lloyd George, Samuel and Campbell-Bannerman. Also by 1955 he had held his own seat for an unbroken twenty-six years, he was a Privy Councillor, and he had been offered, and rejected, peerages and ministerial jobs, including a seat in the cabinet [by Churchill in 1951]. [p. 217]

But 1955 saw the retirement both of Attlee (“the other Clem”) and Churchill: it was clear that Davies, a politician of the same generation, now 71, would be the next party Leader to go. Not surprisingly, “Unfavourable press comments were beginning to make Clem’s job harder” [p. 220]. Finally, reluctantly yielding to what he saw as intolerable pressure, he announced his resignation at the last minute at the Liberal Assembly (the name of the party’s annual conference) of September 1956. As usual, “Once his resignation became public, praise for Clem started to pour in from all quarters” [p. 222].

The occasion of his resignation presents Wyburn-Powell with an opportunity to assess what he calls “Clem’s legacy” in a sub-chapter:

While it was fair criticism to say that Clem had not been strong on producing detailed policies of his own while he led the party, his legal training had made him effective at picking holes in other parties’ proposals. He was a natural opposition politician. He had not devoted much of his energy to devising short-term domestic policies, but he had put forward a strong vision for Britain and the international community—and one which was to stand the test of time. He was prescient in a number of areas, including devolution, European integration, House of Lords reform, and the introduction of non-sexist and non-racist attitudes into policy-making. [p. 225]

Inevitably, from then on his life—and of necessity his biography—becomes a slow story of decline, ironically paralleled by a slow recovery in his beloved party’s fortunes, until his death in 1962. Jano died in 1969, and the last (interesting) two pages of the text proper are devoted to the friends and colleagues who survived him: Beveridge (d.1963), Samuel (d.1963), Boothby (d.1986), Grimond (d.1993), Bowen (d.2001).

The last part of the book has very useful Appendices, like “Biographies of major figures,” “Liberal election performance since 1929,” “Liberal MPs 1935-64,” followed by an excellent Bibliography, with many articles and three unpublished theses, and therefore essential reading for anybody undertaking research on the Liberal Party since the First World War. Before the first chapter, we also have a very convenient chronology of Clement Davies’s life. And even though we do not have footnotes in the academic fashion, the end notes have continuous numbering, from 1 to 775, which makes it infinitely easier to find them than when numbered by chapter. The Index is too succinct for names like Lloyd George, since we do not have a list of classified themes (Lloyd George and x.; Lloyd George and y.), but a simple (long) succession of page numbers. But we do have the classified themes for the Clement Davies entry. Very few typos were found, the most curious one being “his next ine for defence” (for “line”) [p. 239].

This being the only biography of Clement Davies, the author need not fear competition, but it is obvious that he did not take advantage of the monopoly situation which he enjoys. The book is based on a wide range of reliable primary sources, chief among them—as might be expected—the Clement Davies Papers at the National Library of Wales, in the best tradition of scholarly work. In his Introduction, Wyburn-Powell clearly states his intentions: “I have tried to make this book enjoyable as a biography and at the same time a useful reference book for students of political history” [p. xii]—and there is no doubt that the “students of political history” whom he had in mind will find his book “a useful reference book.” Unreservedly recommended for all University Libraries.



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