Finest Hour 135, Summer 2007
The Protracted Conflict (2) – Churchill and Lloyd George
Political myopia, 1936-1945: Hoping your country will lose.
By James Lancaster
There is one conspicuous absentee in the famous David Low cartoon of 14 May 1940, “All behind you Winston,” where Churchill and his cabinet colleagues stride forward purposefully, their sleeves rolled up, four days after WSC became Prime Minister.
The absentee is David Lloyd George, Churchill’s former mentor and Prime Minister for much of World War I. He is not in the cartoon because he was not in the Government—of his own choice. Lloyd George refused to join the War Cabinet three times, on 13 May, 28 May and 6 June. He also refused Churchill’s offer, on 10 December 1940, to go to Washington as Ambassador, following the death of Lord Lothian.
During the first six months of Churchill’s premiership, friends and colleagues of all parties tried to persuade Lloyd George to support Churchill and join the government. His secretary and mistress, Frances Stevenson, tried as hard as anyone, admitting, “I knew that LG’s iron will was set against working with Churchill.”1 Stevenson recorded this on 20 June 1940. By October she had come round to Lloyd George’s plan, writing to him: “Your time will surely come, and the great thing is to keep fit until that time arrives.”2
Why did Churchill want Lloyd George, someone he had, early in his career, referred to as “a chattering little cad,”3 in his coalition government? The principal reason was his belief that in a wartime coalition “The sense of duty dominates all else, and personal claims recede.”4 Although Churchill had become increasingly disillusioned with his old chief in the interwar years, he wanted his government to represent all parties, including that much diminished Liberal faction led by Lloyd George. He also wanted to muzzle the “Welsh Wizard,” and with good reason. Lloyd George had proclaimed on many occasions his admiration for Hitler, following their two meetings in 1936. He had consistently attacked the government for incompetence, and had spoken in favour of discussing peace terms with Hitler. With his prestige still intact, his emergence as a British Pétain needed to be guarded against one way or another. Churchill certainly thought LG could do more good on the team than opposing it from the outside.
Why for his part did Lloyd George, who resented being successively spurned by Premiers Macdonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain, refuse to “fall in” behind Churchill? Where was his “sense of duty”? Why did he not bury his “personal claims”? To decline four invitations from your Prime Minister to serve your country in the hour of her peril reveals, at the very least, extraordinary disloyalty. It was also unpatriotic. Worse, it sent the wrong message to the enemy. Many of Lloyd George’s articles were so defeatist that many people thought he should be locked up. Duff Cooper replied to one of his harangues in the House in September 1939 saying that it “would be received with delight in Germany, where it would be said that the man who claimed to have won the last war was already admitting defeat in this one.”5
One reason for Lloyd George’s refusals was his profound pessimism, his feeling that the situation was militarily hopeless. Only a few weeks after the outbreak of war, Harold Nicolson and Robert Boothby met him at Thames House. In his diary entry for 20 September 1939 Nicolson wrote: “He [Lloyd George] says that he is frankly terrified and does not see how we can possibly win the war.”6 The Welshman even constructed at a cost of £6000 an air-raid shelter sixty feet underground at Churt, his country estate. His secretary, Arthur Sylvester, said it was like Piccadilly underground station.
Lloyd George’s only formal explanation for not joining the Government was his 29 May letter to Churchill, saying he could not join a War Cabinet containing Chamberlain. When he refused Churchill’s final offer, to become Ambassador in Washington in December 1940, he said that his doctor (Lord Dawson whom Brendan Bracken called “the undertaker’s friend”) advised against it. Dawson had actually given him a clean bill of health. In reality, as he confided to Frances Stevenson, he had no intention of accepting the offer.
Lloyd George had every reason to want to stay in Britain at this time. Despite his defeatist leanings he had frequently been canvassed as the only man who could save the country, not only before Churchill became Prime Minister but in the months following. It is significant that when he turned down the post as Ambassador in Washington, the Sunday Pictorial was in the middle of a campaign supporting him as the alternative prime minister.7 He was convinced that, one way or another, he would be called to save the country. He had thus been called in 1916; why not a second time? “I shall wait until Winston is bust,” he told Arthur Sylvester.8
Not content with waiting for Churchill to make one blunder too many, Lloyd George led the attack on the Prime Minister in the Vote of Confidence on 7 May 1941. He accused Churchill of surrounding himself with “yes-men.” He said it was fatuous to suppose that Britain could ever invade mainland Europe, that it was more important to have manpower in agriculture than in the army, and that the War Cabinet should be sacked. In his reply, Churchill turned on Lloyd George with the remark: “It was the sort of speech with which, I imagine, the illustrious Marshal Pétain [WSC always pronounced Pétain as “peatayne”] might well have enlivened the closing days of M. Reynaud’s Cabinet.”9 The vote was carried 447-3, Lloyd George, as usual, abstaining.
Although most dissident Tories by then supported Churchill, Lloyd George continued to attack the government whenever the war news was bad. Behind this defeatist attitude lay the continuing hope that his hour was still to come. He listened every night to German propaganda from Berlin, hoping that a stalemate situation would force a peace accommodation. He felt sure he would be the man the country would choose to parley with Hitler. Yet, while continuing to attack the government, at no time did Lloyd George spell out, privately or in a public forum, what peace terms he would propose or accept. Nor did he ever question his own ability to do business with Hitler.
Fortunately Lloyd George’s opportunity to negotiate an undefined peace, with a man who never respected any agreed terms or conditions, never came. Churchill had not met Hitler, but he had the measure of him. “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last,” WSC had said of the neutral nations in January 1940. His old mentor thought he knew better. In his meetings with Hitler in 1936 Lloyd George had been very impressed (as was Halifax in 1937, and Chamberlain in 1938). He had been deeply touched by Hitler telling him that the Allied victory in the World War I was owed to one great statesman—LG himself. This “one great statesman,” had he been given the opportunity, would, in the best case, have failed to reach an agreement with Hitler. In the worst case, he would have been party to nothing less than German hegemony in Europe, and to Britain’s defeat.
Lloyd George died on 26 March 1945. In his tribute on 28 March, Churchill concentrated on the deceased’s achievements in the days of social reform before 1914, and on his premiership in the critical years 1916-18: “Although unacquainted with the military arts, although by public repute a pugnacious pacifist, when the life of our country was in peril he rallied to the war effort and cast aside all other thoughts and aims.”10 Churchill was referring to the First World War. In the Second, Lloyd George conspicuously chose not to “rally to the war effort” nor to “cast aside all other thoughts and aims.” In his tribute, Churchill, magnanimously, chose not to say anything about Lloyd George during the years 1936-45.
Were Churchill’s war policies compromised in any way by the contrary behaviour of his “old friend”? No— never at any time. Lloyd George had been sidelined when he failed to bring the government down in the Vote of Confidence. Prior to that debate Churchill did not move one iota to meet LG’s stated conditions under which he might serve: removing Chamberlain from the War Cabinet and reorganising the Cabinet along the lines of the War Directorate which LG set up in 1916.
Following that Vote of Confidence, in a letter to his son Randolph on 8 June 1941, Churchill considered Lloyd George as one of the “small fry” who “do their best to abuse us whenever the war news gives them an opportunity, but there is not the slightest sign that the House as a whole, or still less the country, will swerve from their purpose.”11
Churchill had concluded his closing speech in that critical debate by dismissing the naysayers’ defiance: “When I look back on the perils which have been overcome, upon the great mountain waves through which the gallant ship has driven, when I remember what has gone wrong, and remember also what has gone right, I feel sure we have no need to feel the tempest. Let it roar, and let it rage. We shall come through.”12
1. The Autobiography of Frances Lloyd George (London: Hutchinson, 1967), 264.
2. Taylor, A.J.P., ed., The Letters of Lloyd George and Frances Stevenson: 1913-1941 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 241.
3. Gilbert, Sir Martin, Churchill: A Life (London: BCA/Heinemann, 1992), 147.
4. Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War, vol. 2, Their Finest Hour (London: Cassell, 1949), 8.
5. Duff Cooper, Alfred, Old Men Forget (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1953), 267.
6. Nicolson, Nigel, editor, Harold Nicolson, The War Years 1939-1945, Diaries and Letters (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 35.
7. Lysaght, Charles, Brendan Bracken (London: Allen Lane, 1980), 179.
8. Cross, Colin, editor, Life with Lloyd George: The Diary of A.J. Sylvester (London: Macmillan, 1975), 281.
9. Churchill, Winston S., The Unrelenting Struggle (London: Cassell, 1943), 120.
10. Churchill, Winston S., Victory (London: Cassell, 1946), 89.
11. Gilbert, Sir Martin, Winston S. Churchill vol. 6, Finest Hour 1939-1941 (London: Heinemann, 1983), 1105.
12. Churchill, Winston S., The Unrelenting Struggle, op. cit., 133.