Friday, August 13, 2010

David Lloyd George

I'm reading a kind of mini-biography of David Lloyd George, British PM during and a bit after WW I. (A.J. Sylvester, Life With Lloyd George: The Diary of A.J. Sylvester, edited by Colin Cross).

To some extent I'm named after the guy. (I'm definitely not named after the broadcaster).

Highlights: L.G., as he was called, was convinced that the generals lied to him during the war, and he got more evidence that this was true after he left office.

"Here is a thing that most people would laugh at, when I say politicians do not lie, as a rule. I dare say one reason is that once they are caught they are done. Therefore a politician is much more careful. I have never known a prominent politician who tells an absolute lie. That is a curious thing to say, and I know every soldier would laugh when I say it, but it is true. … These fellows (he meant the soldiers) absolutely lied to me." I fear something similar may be true about the police these days.

What surprises me the most is how little there was to L.G. in his last ten years or so. In the 1915-1920 sort of period, it seems that he was not only a few years older than Churchill (L.G. born 1863, Churchill 1874), he was a person to whom Churchill looked up in virtually all ways when it came to politics. For a brief period they were in the same (Liberal) party, but they were known for their disagreements as much as their agreements. Yet they remained fast friends. As World War II approached, Churchill kept hoping L.G. would see things his way, and join him in Cabinet or in some senior advisory capacity. For a while L.G. was not welcome to anyone but Churchill because he was convinced Britain would lose unless there were an alliance with Russia, and there was no serious move to make such an alliance. Later L.G. might have "come in," but he was convinced that Hitler would win, and there would be a need for a new government to confirm that Churchill had failed, and make some kind of (separate) piece with Germany. He wanted to be the Prime Minister that was called on. In a way his defeatism is understandable, but he was so at odds with Churchill, and with many ordinary people who suddenly agreed that it made sense to fight, and even to prepare to go on offence rather than defence.

Churchill and L.G. accused each other of being megalomaniacs. L.G. reads Churchill's volumes on World War I as they come out, and when he reads the claim that L.G. went to then-P.M. Asquith and threatened to resign from Cabinet unless Bonar Law and the Tories were included, he says to long-serving Sylvester that he "did no such thing." On the other hand, L.G. says he will not include in his own book the story that when the "Dardenelles" operation was being planned (better known as Gallipoli), with Churchill very much in the driver's seat, Churchill said "I shall be the biggest man in Europe if this comes off." Of course it ended as a fiasco. L.G. refers to Churchill as stubborn, and in 1936 he says: "[Churchill] had no judgment: he had a brilliant mind and his obsession today was Germany. He was a brilliant writer." L.G. claimed that Churchill had one remarked: "Success in politics depends upon whether you can control your conscience."

Like a lot of people, L.G. became almost unbelievably fawning toward Hitler in the 30s, and this continued into the war. Yet L.G. was supposed to be distinctly on the left: he fought for social programs, and against military spending, in the years leading up to World War I, he mentions that he became a feminist or something of the kind after seeing A Doll's House, and he is proud to express progressive views--in favour of divorce, for example. Of course, in his treatment of people close to him he was vain and often abusive. Altogether he seems to have shrunk into something insignificant by 1939. Of course the elderly become fearful, but Churchill obviously thrived in his mind and soul, if not his body, during World War II.

There is also the money issue: L.G. collected a huge fund, supposedly to fight political campaigns in which he was somewhat on his own, opposed to the older or established Liberal party. Yet he ended up using the fund for strictly personal purposes. He seems to have thought he was always working-class Welsh, so it was always him vs. the banks and the establishment, yet he had not problem accepting favours from capitalists, and even doing their bidding, when it suited him.

This book goes into great detail on L.G.'s two households: wife and legitimate children in Wales, but with the understanding that they can show up in the country house in England at any time; mistress and illegitimate child at the latter house, with the understanding that they may have to cheese it at any time. Eventually L.G. marries mistress after wife dies, and mistress even becomes Countess Lloyd-George. L.G. was known back in Wales as a staunch "non-conformist"--a Protestant but not an Anglican--and he even went to church occasionally. But it is extremely unlikely that he was a believer. Sylvester calls him a pagan. (He was supposed to be a tea-totaller, and was not, which I think is a bit like Diefenbaker in Canada, and possibly Lincoln in the U.S.). One story not in the book, since it belongs in younger days, is that after sleeping with her for a while, L.G. proposed to Frances that she get a better-paying job in the office, and move in with him as officially as possible given the ongoing marriage. Frances agrees, but only if L.G. is prepared to speak to her strict parents. L.G. does so, and gets exactly what he wants.

As I recall, when Churchill was made Chancellor of the Exchequer by Tory P.M. Baldwin in 1924, he cried and said this was more than Lloyd George had ever done for him. Yet their friendship seems to have been genuine. Churchill toasted L.G. on the latter's 73rd birthday in 1936: "There have been many vicissitudes in public life during that period [since they became friends], and all the time I have thanked God that he has been born to work for our country, for the masses of those poor people in times of peace, and for our strength and security in the great days of the war." L.G. responded that it was a pleasure to have at the gathering "my oldest political friend. It is a friendship which has not depended in the least upon agreement, even on fundamentals." This reminds me of another story: when F.E. Smith, a somewhat insubstantial but eloquent character who became Lord Birkenhead, died in 1930, Churchill had dinner with a few friends, cried and said "he was my dearest friend."

My father's name was George. My older brother has always been called David or Dave. I am Lloyd, so for a while the family other than my mother was "David Lloyd George," as one uncle called us. My younger brother breaks the patter with his names. My father like his father before him was a life-long Liberal, but also a huge admirer of Churchill.

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