The wary respect of mutual admirers

Lloyd George and Churchill

May 18, 2007

David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill were men who felt the hand of Providence upon their shoulders. Convinced that they were destined to do great things, they saw political parties as mere vehicles to assist their careers. Lloyd George destroyed the Liberal Party as an effective political force; while Churchill "ratted" - not just once but twice, switching from Conservative to Liberal and back again.

Richard Toye analyses the personal and political relationships between these two adventurers in politics, these "two pirates", as Neville Chamberlain called them. An assessment of their careers early in 1939 might well have described long diminuendos after great beginnings, but Lloyd George would have appeared by far the more substantial figure, even if he had not held office after the fall of the coalition Government in 1922.

Subsequent events were to reverse that standing, but Toye reminds us just how adroit, astute and innovative a politician Lloyd George was. The most charismatic member of the Asquith Government and the main architect of its social reforms; and the Prime Minister who led the country to victory in 1918 and won the postwar election.

This study of a relationship questions the view frequently put forward by the men themselves that, although they often disagreed, their friendship and regard for each other was never in question; warm reflections obscured bitter quarrels and harsh words. Toye also reminds us that Churchill's later apotheosis has obscured the unequal nature of their relationship in its first 20 years and describes an association between "master and servant" during Lloyd George's premiership. Even before this, Churchill was the lieutenant rather than the equal. Lloyd George was perhaps the only man capable of putting Churchill down or making fun of him, treating him, as Charles Hobhouse wrote, "like a favourite and spoilt naughty boy".

Built upon too grand a scale for the restrictions of party, the two were instinctive coalitionists. Even during the Asquith Government, when they seemed to embody party strife, they secretly canvassed the possibility of a coalition during the 1910 constitutional conference. The First World War brought such a coalition in 1915, and Lloyd George deposed Asquith as Prime Minister in the following year and continued as the head of a coalition Government until 1922.

The fall of the coalition when the Conservatives withdrew their support saw an end to the reign of the "Caesars" and the resumption of party politics.

It also marked a significant change in both men's fortunes and a parting of the ways. Lloyd George, damned by Baldwin as "a dynamic force, a very dangerous thing", was left to try to put the Liberal Party back together again, and Churchill made his return to the Conservatives, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929. In a period of three-party politics, coalitions, nevertheless, remained a possibility and the two men remained close despite harsh words, back-biting and a literary clash as they wrote their respective accounts of the Great War. Espying the two in close conversation with Lord Birkenhead in 1928, Baldwin pointed to "the future coalition".

By the 1930s, however, Lloyd George was isolated and Churchill an erratic or, as Baldwin called him, a "disruptive" force, backing two wrong horses, imperial rule in India and Edward VIII, and one eventual winner, opposition to the appeasement of Germany. Both men paid the price for their cavalier treatment of political parties and for their misjudgments and disloyalty.

The great change in their fortunes came in 1939 when Churchill was included in the War Cabinet and succeeded Chamberlain as premier the following year.

As Churchill began his autumn of greatness, Lloyd George remained a restless and critical outsider. Churchill, the one-time "servant", made periodic attempts to bring his erstwhile master into the Government until 1941 when, finally exasperated by his defeatism, he likened him to Marshal Petain.

Toye has written a fine and nuanced study of a volatile relationship.

Whether the picture of a constant friendship he demolishes has been believed by most historians is questionable, for friendships between ambitious politicians are rarely constant. Mutual fascination and wary respect, rather than friendship, best describe a relationship that survived despite quarrels and jealousies.

A. W. Purdue is visiting senior lecturer in history at the Open University.

Lloyd George and Churchill: Rivals for Greatness

Author - Richard Toye
Publisher - Macmillan
Pages - 504
Price - £35.00
ISBN - 9781405048965

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