Finest Hour 181, Summer 2018
Review by Mark Klobas
Richard Wilkinson, Lloyd George: Statesman or Scoundrel, I. B. Tauris, 2018, 304 pages, £25/$45. ISBN 978–1780763897
Mark Klobas is Professor of History at Scottsdale Community College.
When he memorialized David Lloyd George before the House of Commons in March 1945, Winston Churchill paid tribute to the profound and enduring legacy of his friend’s extensive political career. “Most people are unconscious of how much their lives have been shaped by the laws for which Lloyd George was responsible,” he declared, adding that “[t]he stamps we lick, the roads we travel, the system of progressive taxation, the principal remedies that have so far been used against unemployment—all these to a very great extent were part not only of the mission but of the actual achievement of Lloyd George; and I am sure that as time passes his name will not only live but shine on account of the great, laborious, constructive work he did for the social and domestic life of our country.”
Richard Wilkinson echoes this praise in his biography, giving Lloyd George credit for numerous achievements during his years in office, including his roles in creating the welfare state as Chancellor of the Exchequer, leading Britain to victory during the First World War, and spearheading a series of postwar treaties that reshaped Europe and established a settlement of the Irish problem that had bedeviled his predecessors. Yet Wilkinson sets this against his subject’s many flaws, notably his womanizing, his sale of honors as prime minister, and his obtuseness to the danger posed by Adolf Hitler. As is revealed by his subtitle, this forms the theme of his book: the dual nature of Lloyd George as both a great national leader and a deplorable human being.
Of course, as anybody familiar with Lord Acton’s follow-on to his famous quote knows, great men are not necessarily good men. At times, though, Wilkinson’s criticisms exceed his evidence. Early in the book he brands Lloyd George as a “sexual predator,” yet never identifies examples of nonconsensual sexual encounters and even refers to his attractiveness to women at several points. His chapter on Lloyd George as wartime premier is entitled “The Passchendaele Butcher,” in which he condemns him for not having done more to stop what proved a disastrous offensive, though only after detailing both Lloyd George’s considerable efforts to do so and the opposition from the king, Douglas Haig, and the British high command that thwarted his efforts. And in all the paragraphs spent damning his subject’s “willful self-deception” about Nazi Germany, not once does Wilkinson acknowledge that by then Lloyd George was a marginal figure whose errors of judgment at that point had at most a miniscule impact on events.
Perhaps Wilkinson could have addressed these issues in a longer work, but then that would have undermined what he has achieved with this book. Much as with Churchill, Lloyd’s George’s life is one that often defies concision, with previous authors sometimes requiring multiple volumes to chronicle the span of his long life and many achievements. Wilkinson manages the task in less than three hundred pages, thanks to a brisk text that never loses its focus. Inevitably the trade-off is reflected in the absence of any extended coverage of the broader context in which Lloyd George’s life was set. Nowhere is this more evident than in Wilson’s coverage of Churchill, who is barely even a supporting character here. This deprives Wilkinson of the ability to relate Churchill’s relationship with Lloyd George (which was one of his most enduring politically speaking) in any sort of detail or with any nuance.
Less forgivable, however, is Wilkinson’s reliance on discredited stereotypes about the era, particularly with regard to the First World War. Once again Haig is reduced to little more than the lead donkey on the Western Front, while John Jellicoe is dismissed as a poor leader lacking in intelligence. This is a consequence of Wilkinson’s source material. He relied mainly on studies of Lloyd George, especially the Welsh Wizard’s notoriously self-justifying War Memoirs. Incorporating a broader range of the recent historical literature on his subject into his understanding, even if not into the text itself, would have resulted in a much stronger book. Wilkinson, however, could not resist the seductive nature of his subject. Even decades after his death, Lloyd George continues to charm his opponents into friends.