The Unknown David Lloyd George
A Statesman in Conflict
Travis L. Crosby
London: I.B. Tauris, 2014
Hardcover. xvii + 555 p. ISBN 978-1780764856. £30
Reviewed by Kenneth O. Morgan
King’s College, London & The House of Lords
Bonar Law has been famously called ‘the unknown Prime Minister’, and the description is not unmerited. Far more surprising is to find this adjective applied to one of the most extensively discussed, most charismatic and contentious of premiers, David Lloyd George. He has been the subject of hundreds of biographical studies from J. Hugh Edwards in 1908 to Roy Hattersley in 2013. Scarcely any shred of either his public career or his private life has escaped detailed examination. Professor Crosby, therefore, an emeritus professor from Massachusetts, gives a major hostage to fortune in his title. Further, his book is in itself rich testimony to the labours of earlier students of the life of Lloyd George, with many of his conclusions essentially lists of the findings of other authors over the years – authors, it must be said, of distinctly varying authority. His index provides evidence of his attention to other historians: the present reviewer has 51 entries, John Grigg has 48, Bentley Gilbert has 41, while Martin Pugh and others also show respectable scores. The book consists of a text of 383 pages, followed by no less than 160 pages of sources and bibliography (the latter, curiously, consisting entirely of printed, not MS sources). This survey of an ‘unknown’ theme, therefore, covers a pretty familiar world.
However, it would be unfair to dwell on these matters. Once past the title page, Professor Crosby offers a clear, lucidly written narrative of the political life of Britain’s only Welsh prime minister. It is, given its highly controversial subject, balanced in content and objective in tone, more so than Roy Hattersley’s recent, surprisingly hostile account. There are remarkably few factual errors – the most startling, for a French readership, is that Clemenceau  is promoted to the presidency of the Third Republic (even in the index). The quality of book production, as is invariably the case with I.B. Tauris, is admirable. The book starts and ends a little feebly. The author has really nothing at all to add on Lloyd George’s activity in Welsh politics, or on his earlier career in general. By page 67, aged nearly 43, he is safely installed in in the Cabinet in December 1905. The account of matters Welsh, no doubt unfamiliar to a transatlantic author, is shaky at times with some mis-spelling and factual slips: Humphreys-Owen was never chairman of ‘the Welsh party’ [sic : 36] nor was the 1915 Merthyr by-election won by ‘John Stanton’ . The fascinating later stages of Lloyd George’s career, from his downfall as premier in October 1922 to his death in March 1945, are also briskly dealt with in just fifty pages. This means that such important themes as his attitude towards appeasement (following his disastrous visit to Hitler in 1936, when Churchill compared his role to that of ‘Papa' Pétain in Reynaud’s Cabinet) are given disappointingly short shrift.
But the core of this book, over 220 pages long, covers Lloyd George in high office from the Board of Trade, through the Treasury, Munitions ministry and Secretaryship for War to the tumultuous, almost six, years in war and peace in 10 Downing Street. Here the author provides a clear, informative account which many readers will find immensely helpful. There are excellent passages on key episodes. Thus Lloyd George’s legislative achievement, and success in other areas such as settling labour disputes, at the Board of Trade 1905-1908, a crucial phase of his career, is well set out. The author rightly notes his skill in handling deputations, whether of capital or labour, as one important key to his success. He gives proper attention both to Lloyd George’s proposals for a cross-party coalition government at the height of the conflict over the Parliament Bill in the summer and autumn of 1910, and to his proposed ‘fusion’ with the Conservatives in 1920 and gives clear explanations of both the origins and causes of failure in each case. There is due focus on the suffragettes, the land campaign of 1913-1914 and his success in munitions manufacture during the war. The periods of war leadership in 1916-1918, and of peacemaking afterwards, are fairly assessed. So are key aspects of the peacetime coalition of 1918-1922, notably industrial relations (an excellent assessment) and the Irish peace settlement in 1921, though the book lacks a verdict on the overall success or failure of the post-war government, an important precursor of later coalitions including that of 2010.
On the other hand, other issues are rather passed by – the content of his undelivered speech at a riotous Birmingham town hall in December 1901 (intended as an approach towards the imperialist Lord Rosebery to promote party unity); the philosophical debates on ‘dividing out’ contributions when framing of the 1911 National Insurance Act; some of the crises in post-war leadership such as Lloyd George’s being frustrated in his attempt to call a general election in January 1922. Anglo-French relations do not feature strongly. Close French colleagues like Albert Thomas and the Breton Aristide Briand are virtually ignored. The meaning of some judgements, e.g. ‘the style of [his] wartime leadership did not emerge immediately’  is not obvious. But this is an honest, workmanlike book, a worthwhile addition to the long list of Lloyd Georgiana. It will help ensure that its subject will now be even less ‘unknown’ than he was before.
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