It is a discomforting thought that, had the present fashion for kiss-and-tell memoirs, or the intense media scrutiny of politicians’ private lives, been in place a century ago, David Lloyd George might never have become prime minister. Yet, as this masterly fourth volume in John Grigg’s biography proves, he was a towering figure in exceptional times.
Grigg picks up his story with Lloyd George’s arrival in office in December 1916. Things were at a very low ebb in the war – the troops mired in Flanders, the Somme a dreadful and present memory, and Britain’s very existence threatened by the submarine war being launched by Germany to cut our oceanic life-lines.
Politically, Lloyd George was leading a coalition, but his own Liberal party was split, with the Asquithians refusing to serve under him and his main support coming from the Conservatives. In the event that gave him surprisingly little trouble – the opposition remained patriotically quiet until May 1918, when the war was drawing to a close. But, as I sit in the House of Commons pondering the contribution of a predecessor – with the 2002 Conservative party conference flickering beside me on the TV – it’s a potent reminder that politics is a fickle business. Today it’s the Liberal Democrats who are united while the Tories tear themselves apart and I can’t quite banish the consoling thought that it’s they who may be now embarking on decades in the wilderness.
While, inevitably, much of this meticulous study details the historical minutiae of the conduct of the war, it is the character of the central figure which dominates. And John Grigg has no hesitation in naming Lloyd George’s many flaws. Yet as he caustically observes:
Many who have only a slight awareness of [his] true importance in history think of him above all as a man of unbridled sexual appetites, or as one who corrupted the honours system.
Grigg adopts a lofty historian’s perspective, observing that ‘the first view of him is much exaggerated and anyway of doubtful relevance to his value as a political leader’. But even by modern, prurient standards Lloyd George’s behaviour was, to say the least, unorthodox.
Aside from a number of liaisons which are only briefly touched upon, Lloyd George had a wife, Margaret, and a mistress, Frances Stevenson, who was young enough to be his daughter. They called each other by their nick-names ‘Pussy’ and ‘Tom Cat’, which speak volumes. They had a child together and possibly two others were aborted. But perhaps the most bizarre episode is when Lloyd George, troubled by the progress of the war and with mortality weighing upon him, seeks her agreement to what amounts to a suicide pact: that if he should die first, she would join him.
Happily, Miss Stevenson did not honour this and outlived him by 27 years. But even his biographer’s sympathy is stretched at this point. Intriguingly, Grigg attributes the pact to the selfish side of Lloyd George’s nature, for he had been ‘spoilt since childhood, and retained much of the character of a spoilt child’.
The accusation of selling honours is more easily rebutted. While Lloyd George did not reform the system, he probably did not abuse it much more than prime ministers before or since. Grigg argues that it has always been inherently corrupt, ‘for the obvious reason that it has been controlled by the rulers of the state, to whose power it has served as a useful adjunct’.
He ascribes the scandal particularly to a Times leader (probably written by the legendary editor Geoffrey Dawson) which was actually attacking the PM, not for making the system corrupt, but for missing a historic opportunity to purge it of corruption. Lloyd George’s response was that it was a
far cleaner method of filling the party chest than the methods used in the United States or the Socialist Party