LLOYD GEORGE: STATESMAN OR SCOUNDREL
by Richard Wilkinson (I. B. Tauris £25)
Hosting a dinner where the guests included several women of dubious repute, David Lloyd George was warned: ‘This will lift the roof if it gets out.’
Unabashed, he told a friend: ‘If everything I have done in this hotel during the last 40 years had got out, you have no idea how many times I would have had to retire from politics.’
Not for nothing was the Welsh political wizard known as ‘the goat’.
Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, a pioneer of the welfare state, a wartime leader to rival Churchill and a brilliant speaker whose emotional eloquence could hold any audience, Lloyd George had all the qualities of a great leader — except self-restraint.
Voice of a nation: David Lloyd George (pictured) reigned as Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922. In a new book Richard Wilkinson uncovers the flaws that could've damaged his career
In this short, invigorating study of a flawed political giant, Richard Wilkinson lets rip on the excesses of a voracious sexual appetite which, in today’s climate of sexual harrassment and #MeToo, would surely have seen him hounded out of politics.
Brought up by a doting uncle who encouraged him as a public speaker and gave him his start in Liberal politics, Lloyd George found another support when he married Margaret Owen, the daughter of a prosperous Welsh farmer who warned her that the ambitious young man of her choice was not to be trusted.
How right he was. When Maggie, as Lloyd George called her, was pregnant with their first child, the proud father-to-be was chasing after a Caernarfon widow who had to be bought off when she too became pregnant.
For the best part of their marriage, while bearing him five children, long-suffering Maggie had to share Lloyd George with his secretary and mistress.
Twenty-five years his junior, Frances Stevenson was intelligent and attractive and met Lloyd George when he interviewed her to tutor his young daughter, Megan.
They began an affair and ‘Pussie’, as he called her, was besotted with her employer, who made her go through two abortions to protect his public image. He did not return her loyalty.
While professing his undying love for Frances (he eventually married her after Maggie had died in 1941), he embarked on a string of affairs and casual encounters with colleagues’ wives, secretaries, housemaids and land girls who worked at Churt, his Surrey estate. Among his conquests were his daughter-in-law, married to his eldest son.
David Lloyd (pictured) ruined his reputation after he was caught selling honours for cash contributions
Jean Barker, later Baroness Trumpington, who was a Land Girl at Churt at the start of World War II, recalls how ‘the old goat would stand me up against a wall, take out a tape measure and try to take all my measurements’.
He was said to mentally undress every woman in the room. In his last years, he ran Churt almost as a private brothel.
How did he get away with it? Wilkinson blames a supine press with proprietors who themselves had no claim to moral rectitude.
But Lloyd George was also protected by a devoted following in awe of a magnetic personality, a master of the political machine and, at a time of sharp class distinctions, an unstinting champion of the underdog.
How much was the first ever weekly pension?
£28 The first ever weekly old age pension, in today’s money
Much could be forgiven a campaigner who took on the establishment within and beyond his own party to bring in health and unemployment insurance for the least privileged, along with old age pensions paid for by taxes on the rich.
Lloyd George had succeeded the tired and uninspiring Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister at the height of the Great War.
With the outcome still to be decided, but with Britain up against what many believed to be adverse odds, Lloyd George galvanised the country into supporting a massive push for a breakthrough on the Western Front.
Taking a large part of the blame for the thousands of lives sacrificed in the mud of Passchendaele, he stands accused of failing to put more pressure on the military to come up with fresh ideas.
But, though radical by nature, Lloyd George was a prisoner of convention. Opinion in high places favoured the generals, however narrow their vision.
Wilkinson argues that Lloyd George was culpable without telling us what, if any, alternatives were open to him.
LLOYD GEORGE: STATESMAN OR SCOUNDREL by Richard Wilkinson (I. B. Tauris £25)
Returning triumphantly to 10 Downing Street in 1918 as head of a Tory-dominated coalition, the arch-manipulator soon had to contend with younger and sharper talents who were not prepared to submit to his charm or to his bullying.
When he was caught out selling honours for cash contributions to his personal political fund, his reputation took a knock from which he never recovered. It was the same in his love life.
Angered and depressed by his infidelities, Frances found consolation with someone closer to her own age. Colonel Thomas Tweed was a gallant soldier who also happened to be the Liberal Party’s chief organiser. Made pregnant, Frances had no idea which of her two lovers was the father of her daughter, Jennifer.
When Lloyd George married Frances, he did not have long to live. A cancer was killing him.
After his death, Frances became a devout Anglican while serving as chair of the Guildford Diocesan Moral Welfare Committee.
She told a television interviewer that she disapproved of the permissive society. Her late husband would have enjoyed the joke.
The question posed by the book has still to be answered: statesman or scoundrel? A bit of both, concludes Wilkinson, with the balance tipped in favour of the consummate politician.