David Lloyd George - Liberal Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Created | Updated Sep 30, 2010
David Lloyd George was the last leader of the Liberal Party to be Prime Minster of the United Kingdom. His administration ran from 1916- 1922, before the Labour Party established itself to a point of strength capable of taking on the Conservatives. He was constantly proud of his Welsh heritage and helped to re-establish Britain following the Great War of 1914-1918. He was an MP at the time that the Liberals moved away from Laissez faire1 to a more interventionist appraoch, to achieve a greater social agenda.
Lloyd George was born in Manchester, where his father was the headmaster of an elementary school, but was brought up proud of his Welsh ancestry. His father originated from Pembrokeshire; his mother was the daughter of a Welsh Baptist minister, David Lloyd, after whom he was named. His father died when Lloyd George was just 18 months old leaving his widow and family in poverty. She moved them to Llanystumdwy, Caernarvonshire, where her brother was the shoemaker and Baptist minister.
As with Ireland at the time (especially in terms of religious observance), Wales was rebelling against the Anglicised Tory domination that was seen to be suppressing all the Celtic nations. So it was quite natural to be a Liberal, Welsh, non-conformist and this was the atmosphere in which Lloyd George grew up in, eventually becoming a solicitor. Indeed he set a legal precedent that allowed non-conformists to have equal rights to be buried in the parish churchyard alongside the Anglicans. But he was a constant womaniser, which didn't slow down much by his marriage to Margaret Owen, who was to be the mother of his two sons and three daughters.
In 1890, Lloyd George won a by-election for the constituency of Caernarvon Boroughs, he was to serve as the constituency Member of Parliament for the next 55 years. He made quite a reputation for himself with his fine orations in the House, especially on his opposition to the South African war, and was soon established as a leading figure on the radical side of the Parliamentary Liberal Party. In 1905, the Liberals returned to power and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman appointed Lloyd George to the same first cabinet position that Gladstone2 had held 53 years previously, as President of the Board of Trade.
In charge of the Board of Trade he introduced legislation that improved the lives of merchant seamen, in the Merchant Shipping Act (1906), although this improved their living conditions it also put their lives in more danger by raising the Plimsoll line3 5 feet. British inventiveness was greatly protected by the Patents and Design Act (1907) and the central control over shipping in the port of London was finally achieved through the Port of London Act (1908). As well as these landmark pieces of legislation Lloyd George was also called upon to be diplomatic in sensitively handling a series of strikes.
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Ill health led to Campbell-Bannerman handing over the premiership to his Chancellor Henry Herbert Asquith only three years into the government. The new Prime Minister appointed Lloyd George as his own successor at the Treasury4. However, things had already started to look bleak for the Liberal Government, the Conservative dominated House of Lords had already thrown out some of their radical social reforms and the fledgling Labour Party was starting to gain support from traditional radical Liberal parts of the country. There was also a threat from overseas as the Germans were rapidly expanding the strength of their navy, so Lloyd George was preparing to tighten the purse strings for his first budget.
The People's Budget of 1909 called for taxes on the profits from land sales, an increase in death duty and a super-tax on incomes greater than £3000. Since the Finance Bill5 was introduced by Gladstone in 1860 (to prevent the House of Lords from blocking a budget), no attempt had been made to overthrow a government on its financial policies. So although opposition was known to exist it still came as a surprise that, even despite warnings from senior party members, the Tory majority in the Lords did reject Lloyd George's budget. It threw the country in chaos, an economic crisis, two quick general elections but also the eventual introduction of the Parliament Act (1911) that restricted the power of the non-elected upper house.
With the situation stabilised, the Liberals once more got on with their programme of social reform, and inspired by how things were done in Germany, Lloyd George established the first stage of creating a welfare state. A scheme of health and employment insurance was established in the National Insurance Act (1911). But at the time what is now a vital support to British workers was debunked by everyone, even the working classes.
The Outbreak of War
The question of Ireland, which had plagued all four of Gladstone's administrations, again reared its head, but Lloyd George did not become embroiled in this or other diplomatic affairs focusing instead on his economic measures. He was so opposed to the general consensus on the looming spectre of war that he campaigned for an isolationist approach. He even went as far as contemplating resigning from politics if Asquith got Britain tied up in any European War. However, with the outbreak of war he merely plunged himself headlong into the financial minefield of how to finance the war effort. He became a great supporter of increasing munitions production, in which he was in conflict with the War Minister Lord Kitchener. In 1915, Asquith realised that the way forward was to invite the Conservatives to share power in a national government, and made Lloyd George Minister of Munitions.
He proved a great success in his new role, even calling on the expertise of private business to help maximise production. The level of efficiency he achieved in producing munitions was best shown in the major push the following year at the Somme, when there was an unending supply of weapons. However, Lloyd-George differed from the official stance on how the war should be run. Instead of concentrating on the Western Front he thought the best approach would be to attack from the flanks.
Later that year, when Kitchener drowned en route to Russia after his ship hit a German mine, Asquith appointed Lloyd George his successor. He soon discovered that the post held very little real power; it was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, who really controlled the policies of the War Office. He was sceptical of how the government was running the war; a viewpoint increasingly being shared by the Conservatives. The result was the gradual manoeuvring of Asquith to a position where his only reasonable option was to resign, to be replaced by Lloyd George. The Liberals were split however, with many leading figures following Asquith and resigning from the cabinet.
Lloyd George's first step once he gained power was to streamline the War Cabinet from a cumbersome 23 to five, who were to be constantly available. This sped up the decision making process and lessened the potential for dissent. With Britain also facing a blockade by the German submarines, he also introduced the convoy system as the means to circumvent this. Although successful, the amount of food didn't rise to a sufficient level to avoid the introduction of rationing in 1918.
His distrust of the British high command did not diminish now he was in fact in charge of the country; most notably he still doubted their insistence of concentrating on the Western Front. He confronted Sir Douglas Haig and Robertson about this at the Calais Conference in February 1917; he told them he was placing the British troops under the direct command of the French General Robert-Georges Nivelles for a forthcoming offensive, an eventual failure (as were so many grand schemes during this war). However, by insisting the British take part in this failure, Lloyd George was now on shaky ground when he tried to control his generals, so when Haig proposed the Passchendaele Offensive in Flanders later that year, he eventually had to concede. The result was a massive loss of life without achieving any of the main objectives. Lloyd George took action to limit the incompetence of his generals in what Winston Churchill described as 'a series of extremely labourious and mystifying manoeuvres'. The result was that Robertson tendered his resignation and was accepted by Lloyd George; Haig, the thorn in his side remained. But Lloyd George kept him short of troops throughout the winter so he couldn't re-launch the attack. Eventually a joint allied command was led by Marshal Ferdinand Foch and in roads were made into the German defences.
The armistice of November 1918 created the dilemma of whether to return to party politics or continue in coalition. Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law agreed to continue the coalition and the National Government won the election that December. But the election had caused the Irish question to raise its head still further. Sinn Féin6 had won huge gains and refused to recognise the British Parliament. Civil war broke out and negotiations were entered into which led to the eventual creation of an Irish Free State in 1921.
Trouble did not go away as a 'money for peerages' scandal affected the coalition. But the straw that broke the camel's back for Lloyd George was his foreign policy which in 1922 almost brought Britain to the verge of a meaningless war with Turkey. The coalition felt it best to go to the country for support in an election, but a rift developed in the conservative ranks. Bonar Law returned from a sabbatical for 'ill health' and tore the coalition apart. The Conservatives won two thirds of the seats at the election and Lloyd George resigned.
The rift in the Liberal party between Lloyd George's supporters and Asquith's continued to deepen, splitting the party just as the Labour Party were gathering strength. From 1926-1932 he lead a party that seemed to be in terminal decline; it would take until the end of the century for the party to get anywhere near as strong as the weak state he left it in.
In 1940, war once again led to a National Government and Churchill invited Lloyd George to a post in his new war cabinet. This was turned down, he claimed, because of his age and ill health. In January 1945, after a career of 55 years in the Commons, he stood down as MP and was elevated to the Lords as Earl Lloyd George of Dwyfor. He died two months later on 26 March in Ty-newydd, Caernarvonshire close to Llanystumdwy where he grew up.