Conflict may be a theme for most politicians, but it can be argued David Lloyd George encountered (and encouraged) conflict to an unusual degree – both politically and personally.
Conflict in the lives of politicians is a common occurrence. Political battles to achieve and sustain office often mark their careers. To an unusual degree, this was the case of David Lloyd George. Emerging from humble origins in provincial Wales, he was determined to make his mark at an early age. Under the spirited guidance of his uncle Lloyd, he was apprenticed to a solicitor’s office while still a teenager. Assiduous and active in his duties, he became established as a young solicitor with a specialty in land law. His early legal successes and his continued advocacy outside the courts of law attracted the attention of local liberal political leaders. Adopted as a parliamentary candidate at a bye-election for Caernarvon Boroughs in 1890 at the age of thirty-seven, he was returned after a hard-fought campaign with a scant majority of ten. It was a seat he held for fifty years.
Unabashed by the formalities and grandeur of Westminster, Lloyd George soon became a fearless parliamentary watchdog and spokesman for Wales. Within a few years, he was a staunch proponent of liberal values in the nation at large. In speech after speech throughout the countryside, he entered into what appeared to be a personal conflict with an entrenched aristocracy. He criticized their outsized wealth; he derided their landed heritage; he laughed at their outworn privileges and titles. Such comments no doubt riled aristocrats. But Lloyd George’s popular national campaign against the heirs of the past brought substantial political gains and widespread recognition of his political talents.
In the Liberal Ministry of 1905, he was named President of the Board of Trade. In that office, he won the respect of his cabinet colleagues as a resourceful and talented administrator. He was responsible for initiating legislation that promoted British global trade. He also proved to be a successful conciliator, especially in promoting harmonious labor-management relations. In reward for his services to the Liberal Party and his ministerial success, Prime Minister Asquith appointed him Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908. This office gave even greater scope for Lloyd George’s reformist program, especially in social reform. Battling against entrenched medical interests, he instituted national health insurance. He also legislated old-age pensions and sickness and unemployment benefits for working families. To pay for this extended program, he raised taxes on the wealthy.
With the outbreak of the Great War in July 1914, conflict in the career of Lloyd George reached new heights. In recognition of his administrative talents, he was given the position of Minister of Munitions in 1915 with the primary task of expanding the production of arms and ammunition. With continued military stalemate against Germany, however, sentiment emerged within government circles that Asquith lacked sufficient drive to end the War. In December 1916 Asquith was thrust aside, to be replaced by the energetic and forceful Lloyd George. From this position of power, Lloyd George rallied the country to lead Britain and the Allies to final victory in a brutal military conflict. At War’s end, he was dominant at the Paris Peace Conference, where rival claims to postwar compensations led to an acrimonious atmosphere. Lloyd George, a seasoned master of conflict, proved yet again his ability to resolve intransigence between opposing parties.
Lloyd George’s domestic policies in the immediate post-war years at first brought further successes. Reconstruction plans included educational reform, new housing, and an active diplomatic effort to satisfy Irish demands for self-government. But insurmountable problems–including labor unrest, charges of corruption, and unsettled post-war boundary disputes–brought down Lloyd George’s government in December 1922. Adding to Lloyd George’s gradual political isolation in the years that followed was the decay of the Liberal party, to be displaced by Labor. Thus, the former prime minister was left largely to his own devices in attempting to secure a return to power. These years in the wilderness have often been portrayed as a failure. But he remained active in advocating progressive policies. He put forward various schemes to reduce unemployment–including state sponsored public works. He also proposed substantial reforms in rural Britain, including nationalization, security of tenure for tenant farmers, and state assistance in land improvements, such as draining and reclamation. Foreign and diplomatic affairs, too, received his attention. To address rising tensions abroad, especially on the increasingly politically troubled European continent, he advocated restraint and accommodation. It would seem that a life once characterized by political conflict was now given to conciliation.
To the political, military, and international conflicts that characterized Lloyd George’s political career must also be added the conflicts in his personal life. Chief among these was relationship with his own family. There is little doubt that in their earliest years, Lloyd George and Margaret Owen were loving and supportive to one another as husband and wife. Five children were born to them. But Lloyd George was often far from their Welsh home: he was either at Westminster, or campaigning throughout the country, or traveling abroad. Distance eventually led to some estrangement.
To aid him in his busy life and his burgeoning political career, he employed as his private secretary Frances Stevenson, a young woman who had once been tutor to his daughter Megan. Miss Stevenson was a talented and attractive young woman. A graduate in classics from Royal Holloway College, University of London, she was fluent in French and keenly interested in politics and public life. Never impervious to the pleasures of the company of women, Lloyd George in time came to rely upon Miss Stevenson as a confidante on matters other than professional. By 1913, she had become Lloyd George’s mistress. Although the relationship was not widely known at that time, his immediate family eventually found out, to their outrage. Lloyd George and Frances lived essentially as husband and wife in the latter years of Lloyd George’s career. They eventually married in 1943, only eighteen months before his death. ■