Book Review: The Unknown Lloyd George
David Lloyd George was in office as Britain’s Prime Minister for only six years, yet in that time he fundamentally re-shaped his own country – through a widespread and complicated array of social legislation that laid the groundwork for much of the country’s modern structure – but also fundamentally re-shaped the rest of the Western world, through his leadership during the First World War and – more lastingly – through his prominent role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He was a dynamic and tireless public speaker, a complex and subtly evolving political thinker, and, a factor not to be discounted, he looked every inch the statesman.
He’s been well-served by his biographers since his death in 1945, most monumentally by John Grigg, whose extremely detailed and boisterously readable multi-volume life of Lloyd George was unfinished at the time of Grigg’s death in 2001 and which is practically the dictionary definition of a tough act to follow.
Travis Crosby, Emeritus Professor of History at Massachusetts’ Wheaton College, dares to follow that act in his big new book (an attractive and appealingly somber production by I. B. Tauris) The Unknown Lloyd George, and he acquits himself marvelously. He marshals an enormous array of original sources (his critical apparatus makes it clear he’s read everything in the world by or about Lloyd George), keeps it all under tight but caring control, and shapes it all into a biographical narrative of thrillingly clear near-omniscience. Here are all the tempests of Lloyd George’s life – the public disputes, the notorious mistresses, the soaring oratory, and of course the high drama of the First World War – and here through it all is the man himself, the so-called “Welsh Wizard” with his first-class brain and his almost morbid hunger for fame, his luminously vigorous personality enlivening every anecdote. Crosby has worked the feat of matching prodigious research with a sharp insight into this most vibrant of politicians – and in so doing, he’s created what will surely stand as the best one-volume biography of Lloyd George ever written.
Particularly refreshing is the smart attention Crosby pays to the long years that followed Lloyd George’s premiership. In these chapters we see clearly the enormous influence the man had even long after he’d left office – often to dismaying effect, as is typified in a 1923 moment when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin should have been responding to the problems of unemployment and the problems of protectionism in his country but rather seems to have been mainly concerned with what his illustrious predecessor might do or say in public:
Baldwin’s decision to adopt protectionism was also influenced by his determination to undercut any potential move on Lloyd George’s part to steal a protectionist march on the Conservative government. Rumours had reached Baldwin that the former Prime Minister had begun to think along protectionist lines. As Baldwin told Tom Jones many years later, he had information that Lloyd George ‘was going protectionist, and I had better get in quick.’ To Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King, Baldwin also revealed his apprehension about Lloyd George’s intentions. If he, Baldwin, came out for protection, Lloyd George would probably declare for free trade; but if Baldwin declared for free trade, Lloyd George would advocate protection. Baldwin thought that Lloyd George lacked convictions; ‘he was a pure opportunist’. Whether or not that was true, Baldwin was clearly acting under the shadow of Lloyd George.
Hitler rises balefully in the book’s final sections, of course, and the narrative moves from Lloyd George’s initial meetings with the Nazi dictator (like so many statesmen of the day, he was initially impressed) to his subsequent condemnations of the man – condemnations that made him impatient with Neville Chamberlain, an impatience he of course took to the British people:
On 26 October , Lloyd George made public his concerns, condemning Britain’s betrayal of the Czechs. Speaking at a luncheon meeting of the London Free Church Federation Ministers’ Club at the City Temple, he deplored Hitler’s ‘wiping out … that small democratic state.’ He blamed the Chamberlain government for its role in abandoning Czechoslovakia as only the latest victim of fascist aggression. Britain had begun to descend ‘a ladder of dishonour rung by rung.’
Lloyd George has been the subject of a slow, steady revision upwards of his historical reputation, from pessimistic fortune-hound to titan, and The Unknown Lloyd George continues that arc in some of the most measured and authoritative pages yet devoted to the subject. It offers as masterfully accessible modern complement to John Grigg’s incomplete series, but the Lloyd George it presents is entirely Crosby’s own dramatic creation: less needy, less pugnacious, more even-keeled, and very much more human. If any sense could prevail upon a Churchill-crazed book-buying public, I. B. Tauris would have a bestseller on its hands.