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Unit 8 David Lloyd George and the destiny of Wales

Preface (Chris Williams)

‘David Lloyd George and Wales’, by Kenneth O. Morgan, was first published in 1988 in Wales 1880–1914, a volume of the ‘Welsh History and its Sources’ series. Morgan was, at that time, a fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford, although he was to go on to become Principal of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and to enter the House of Lords as Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi. Morgan is a distinguished historian of modern Wales and a leading authority on the life and times of David Lloyd George. His first book, Wales in British Politics, 1868–1922 (1980 [1963]), examined the rise of a distinctively Welsh political agenda in the wake of the Second (1867) and Third Reform Acts (1884), and the ways in which that agenda influenced the Liberal Party and Liberal governments. Subsequently he wrote two biographical studies of Lloyd George, a major work on Lloyd George’s post-war premiership and edited a volume of Lloyd George’s correspondence. In addition he has contributed many essays on late Victorian and early twentieth-century Wales and wrote the entry on David Lloyd George for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2006).

‘David Lloyd George and Wales’ concerns itself with the relationship between the politician and his homeland. It was a relationship that was rarely uncomplicated and which has been interpreted in various ways by scholars over the years. Many have felt that, from the late 1890s, Lloyd George lost interest in specifically Welsh causes unless they were to his own political advantage. Yet, in what is the latest (although surely not the last) biography, Emyr Price has argued for a continuity between the Cymru Fydd movement led by Lloyd George and the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999. Price calls Lloyd George ‘the first architect of Welsh devolution and its most famous advocate’ and ‘the pioneering advocate of a powerful parliament for the Welsh people’ (2006, pp. xi, 208).

There is qualified sympathy for such a viewpoint in what Morgan has to say in this essay. Writing more than a decade before the National Assembly for Wales was established, however, at a time when the Conservative Party had won three general elections in succession, his perspective was understandably rather more sober. In fact, in paragraph 8.4, Morgan draws an explicit parallel between the fate of Cymru Fydd in 1896 and the outcome of the first (1979) devolution referendum in Wales. On both occasions, he suggests, the internal economic, social, cultural and linguistic divisions of Wales scuppered projects designed to bring the country a measure of ‘home rule’, so that ‘[i]n 1896 as in 1979, the Welsh people, when offered a prospect of some political self- determination, rejected it out of hand by a decisive margin.’

This is an interesting, if potentially misleading comparison. In 1896, unlike in 1979 (or 1997), it was not the Welsh electorate that was being consulted but rather the delegates to a conference in Newport of the South Wales Liberal Federation, the party organisation covering the southern half of Wales. The North Wales Liberal Federation had already agreed to merge its identity into that of the Cymru Fydd League and form a new ‘Welsh National Federation’, but the SWLF rejected this course of action and so the Cymru Fydd movement came to a shuddering halt. As Morgan relates, Lloyd George felt he had been ‘howled down’ at Newport, but it is important to understand that this was not the view of all. According to Newport’s daily newspaper, the South Wales Argus, the bad behaviour at the meeting came more from Lloyd George’s supporters:

The howl that went up when Mr. Robert Bird [an opponent of Cymru Fydd] said there was a large community in South Wales which would not submit to domination and dictation [by the Welsh-speaking population] was as bad as the pandemonium on a football ground when the referee decided against the home team. Some of the delegates were like raving lunatics for a time ...

(Quoted in Williams, 1997, p. 124)

Furthermore, to oppose Cymru Fydd did not necessarily mean to be in opposition to what was considered to be the Welsh national interest. According to the daughter of Lloyd George’s main opponent at Newport, the coal-owner D.A. Thomas, ‘[w]hen “Wales for the Welsh” was the great cry of the Cymru Fydd, he would laugh and say he preferred as the Welsh motto “The world is our oyster” ’ (Williams, 1997, p. 122).

Just as historians should not accept uncritically one side of the argument over the events of 1896, so it is equally important to be even-handed in considering the devolution referenda of 1979 and 1997. The heavy defeat suffered by the ‘Yes’ campaign in 1979 may be attributable in part to Wales’s internal divisions, but these were not the sole considerations, and neither should they be regarded as necessarily atavistic. By 1997 enough had changed to make devolution an acceptable prospect (just) to the majority of those who voted.

Would Lloyd George have approved of the National Assembly for Wales? In all honesty, we cannot say. One of the main arguments advanced in favour of ‘home rule’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was that it would lift some of the burden from an overworked Westminster Parliament grappling not only with domestic issues but also with the management of a vast overseas empire. By the late twentieth century that empire no longer existed. Lloyd George the statesman relied on the mechanisms of the centralising British state to deliver fiscal, welfare and constitutional reforms on a scale not previously seen. When he became prime minister he made no significant effort to revive the devolutionary agenda of the 1890s – understandably, given that he had to worry about rebuilding a world political order in the wake of the First World War. What seems certain is that Lloyd George’s relationship with Wales must remain a matter for debate.

David Lloyd George and Wales (Kenneth O. Morgan)

Para 8.1

Between 1880 and 1914, David Lloyd George came to be regarded as the symbol and tribune of the national reawakening of Wales. More than any other politician, indeed more than anyone else alive, he seemed to embody the aspirations, frustrations, legends and dreams of the Welsh people. The resurgence of Liberalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the new style of popular politics, the national demands being voiced in parliamentary and local affairs, the fresh impact that Wales was making upon the consciousness of its English neighbour and a wider world – all these were uniquely identified with Lloyd George’s dramatic progress from the backwoods of Llanystumdwy in southern Llŷn in the 1880s into parliament in 1890 and from 1905 onwards into the British cabinet. This association of Welsh political nationhood with his career did not come to an end with the outbreak of world war in 1914, or the subsequent collapse of the Liberal Party which was one of its major dramatic consequences. During the war years and afterwards, he continued to use Welshness and its political manifestations as major support in his campaigns to retain, or regain, power. Contemporaries long after the war continued to define Welshness largely in terms of Lloyd George’s style and outlook.

Para 8.2

The economist, J.M. Keynes, in a book published in 1933, attributed many of the defects of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 to the Welsh manoeuvrings of a chameleon-like prime minister who had emerged mysteriously ‘from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity’. This identification continued until Lloyd George’s death in 1945. Of course, as will be seen, Lloyd George’s relation to Welsh politics was far from straightforward. In some respects, he was out of sympathy with the nature of middle-class Nonconformist radicalism as it developed in late-Victorian Wales. Even so, to examine Lloyd George’s activities, and some of the manuscripts and printed historical sources that exist to help us to trace them, in the period 1880–1914 takes us close to many of the driving themes in Welsh history in these critical years. It leads us to explore central aspects of the very essence of Welsh nationhood, then and later.

Para 8.3

Lloyd George’s involvement in politics began young. His earliest memories of political life came at the age of five, during the great general election of 1868 (8A), which saw so many remarkable Liberal victories, followed after the polls by the politically-motivated eviction of several tenant farmers in Caernarfonshire by their landlords for having voted Liberal. Forty-two years on, during the campaign for the People’s Budget when Lloyd George was now Chancellor, he was to recall the memories and oral tradition of these remote but still stirring events. His childhood years were scarred by frequent political tensions – resentment at the Tory landlords who dominated the countryside, and at the Anglican Church which made young Nonconformist children like the Baptist Lloyd George attend Church schools. His political ambitions were fanned by his uncle, Richard Lloyd, the radical shoemaker who brought him up after his father died. It was natural that in the young boy’s first visit to London in 1880, at the age of 17, a major impression was that made by the spectacle (if not apparently, the architecture) of the House of Commons (8B).

Soon he was embroiled in local political affairs, including the local Portmadoc debating club, and some youthful involvement in local newspapers – always a key to his career and political methods. His chosen career as a country solicitor was an ideal base for a future political life. Nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of his destiny. When he began courting Maggie Owen of Mynydd Ednyfed farm around 1885 (8C), she was told at an early stage that even love itself must give way to the ‘Juggernaut’ of his fate and his ‘supreme idea to get on’. In the 1886 general election, which saw the Liberal Party fundamentally split over Irish home rule, Lloyd George was actively involved. He spoke successfully at a famous meeting before the slate quarrymen of Blaenau Ffestiniog with the Irish Nationalist leader, Michael Davitt, early that year. After some hesitation, he came down decisively in favour of Gladstone in his crusade for Irish self-government. Lloyd George also involved himself in the ‘tithe war’ by north Wales tenant farmers who refused to pay tithe to the Church in the 1886–8 period. His outlook was decidedly on the political left, and strongly influenced by the Welsh national sentiment surging through the land in the later 1880s. He told a Caernarfonshire friend, D.R. Daniel (8D), that he regarded himself as a ‘Welsh Nationalist’ of the same type as the young Merioneth MP, Tom Ellis. He was elected to the first Caernarfonshire county council in 1889 and became very vocal in the affairs of the newly formed North Wales and South Wales Liberal Federations. In a major speech to the SWLF in February 1890 (8E), he spelt out the usual Liberal priorities – disestablishment of the Church, land reform, temperance reform – together with a striking emphasis on social questions and the remedy of mass poverty. At the age of just 27 he was clearly a coming man. His career received a massive boost in April 1890 when he was elected Liberal MP for Caernarfon Boroughs. He was to retain it for 55 years; yet it was anything but a safe seat at first. It had been won by the Conservatives in 1886 and Lloyd George captured it back by just an 18-vote majority. His election campaign had been uncomplicated in its radicalism. He had endorsed all the main lines of Gladstonian Liberalism (8F), including Irish home rule, but with also a heavy emphasis on Welsh themes, headed by ‘Religious Liberty’, a code for Welsh disestablishment. This was a dangerous line to take, especially in Bangor with its cathedral and Church vote. In early June, he made his maiden speech (8G). It was a typically rumbustuous affair with a heavy Welsh stress on the temperance question; he boasted cheerfully to his wife about its success. He soon emerged as a backbench gadfly on Welsh issues in the Commons. He urged his older colleagues to put more pressure on Gladstone and the Liberal leadership on behalf of Church disestablishment (8Hi). He also took an active part in the debates on the Tithe Act of 1891, a measure designed to placate the angry Welsh farmers who had taken part in the tithe disturbances. ‘It was a glorious struggle for Wales’, in Lloyd George’s view (8Hii). Returned with a larger majority in 1892, he continued to take an aggressive role in pressing the various radical causes of Wales. With three backbench colleagues, he even led a brief revolt against the party whip in April 1894, when the government failed to give a sufficiently high priority to Welsh disestablishment in its legislative programme. This caused much rancour for a time, since the government’s majority was barely 20 and that dependent on Irish Nationalist votes. Yet the general impression he created at this time in parliament was a positive one. Even a political opponent like the Unionist writer, T. Marchant Williams (8I), could see Lloyd George already as an outstanding debater and parliamentary tactician. He was a potential leader of the Welsh MPs in the Commons and – who knew? – even of the Liberal Party as a whole. Further controversy surrounded his activities in the 1895 session. The government had introduced a Welsh Disestablishment Bill, which he of course supported. But he now tried to use this measure as a lever for forcing through a kind of Welsh home rule. In June 1895 he and two other Welsh members were involved in trying to get through a Welsh national council to administer tithe and other endowments when the Welsh Church Bill became law. On 20 June, the government’s majority fell to two; the next day, on a snap vote, the government resigned office. In the general election in July, the Liberals were heavily defeated, and Lloyd George did well to hang on to his shaky seat at Caernarfon Boroughs. After the election, therefore, his activities in May–June 1895 came under fire. Bryn Roberts, the Liberal MP for neighbouring North Caernarfonshire, who had no sympathy for either Lloyd George or Welsh home rule, had written to Asquith, the Home Secretary, on 18 May, warning him about Lloyd George’s freelance nationalist tactics (8Ji). In November, Asquith himself complained to Tom Ellis, now the Liberal chief whip, about Lloyd George’s ‘underhand and disloyal’ behaviour the previous June (8Jii). Ellis and other Liberals defended their young colleague, but the memory of these events was to haunt the Asquith–Lloyd George relationship long into the future.

Para 8.4

The pivotal episode in Lloyd George’s involvement in Welsh politics came with the Cymru Fydd (Young Wales) crisis in 1895–6. His Welsh nationalism was now at its most intense. He felt convinced that the only logical way for Wales to obtain disestablishment, land reform and her other prized objectives was to achieve her own government within a federal imperial system. The progress made by Irish home rule encouraged some to believe that Welsh and Scottish home rule might well follow on. Throughout 1895 Lloyd George tried to turn the North and South Wales Liberal Federations into organs for Welsh nationalism by merging them with his own Cymru Fydd League. The NWLF was won over easily enough. Lloyd George spent much time and ingenuity in the summer and autumn of 1895 in trying to win over the South Wales Liberals as well. In Tredegar, in anglicized Monmouthshire for instance, he claimed to find an excellent response, even though the local populace was sunk in a ‘morbid footballism’ (8Ki). But the anglicized, industrialized population of south-east Wales, especially the great cosmopolitan ports of Swansea, Barry, Cardiff and Newport, were deeply suspicious. As in the devolution campaign in 1979, they feared coming under the domination of the Welsh-speaking population of the rural hinterland. The climax came with the disastrous meeting of the South Wales Liberal Federation in Newport on 16 January 1896. Here Lloyd George was howled down, and Cymru Fydd denounced by the mercantile representatives of south-east Wales. He claimed to his wife and his Flintshire friend, Herbert Lewis, MP (8Kii, 8Kiii), that the Newport meeting was packed and unrepresentative, and that the fight for Welsh home rule would go on. Yet it was a decisive watershed in his career, the first rebuff he had yet encountered. It dawned upon him that while Welsh Liberals were firm for Church disestablishment, land reform, education and temperance, and for national equality within the British Isles, they did not want separatism. The Welsh were just not like the Irish. They did not want to be cut off from England or from the imperial system. Welsh home rule was, in effect, struck off the political agenda, perhaps for ever, and Lloyd George recognized the fact. He would fight for a losing cause but not for a lost one. In 1896 as in 1979, the Welsh people, when offered a prospect of some political self-determination, rejected it out of hand by a decisive margin.

Para 8.5

After the Cymru Fydd debacle, Lloyd George’s relationship with Welsh politics became somewhat more indirect. His countrymen now acknowledged his talents as a Liberal frontbench spokesman: thus Llewelyn Williams, another nationalist lawyer, praised Lloyd George’s parliamentary skills in August 1896 (8L). Lloyd George continued to hammer home the needs of Wales in debates on agricultural rating and education. But there were signs of wider interests and broader horizons. In Wales, the veteran editor, Thomas Gee of the Faner, Lloyd George’s ally over the years, died in 1898; the following year, Tom Ellis died of tuberculosis at the age of 39. The leaders and, indirectly, the issues of Welsh life were changing. So it was with David Lloyd George. The change was dramatically registered with the outbreak of war in South Africa in October 1899. Lloyd George was by no means hostile to the idea of empire then or later. But his attitude towards the war in South Africa was consistent and courageous from the start. He felt certain that waging war upon two small Boer republics, run by Calvinist farmers rather like the Welsh, was a political and moral wrong. The cause lay, he claimed, in the political ambitions and financial interests of Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary. As early as 27 October 1899, he delivered a stinging attack upon the great Chamberlain which stunned the House of Commons (8M). He kept up the attack for the rest of the war, which dragged on until May 1902. He needed all his courage in the face of violent mobs in Glasgow and in Birmingham Town Hall, and even in his own constituency in Bangor and Caernarfon. He only just hung on to his seat in the ‘khaki election’ of October 1900. But gradually public opinion began to turn and the Liberal Party became increasingly hostile to the methods and purpose of the imperial war in South Africa. One great result was the new national stature for Lloyd George himself. As an admiring Liberal journalist, Harold Spender, wrote in 1901 (8N), Lloyd George had advanced from being just a backbench spokesman for Welsh radicalism to becoming a figure admired and feared throughout the land. The highest office seemed within his grasp.

Para 8.6

But his involvement in Welsh politics remained central in his career even after the Boer War. When the prime minister, Arthur Balfour, introduced a great Education Act in 1902, Lloyd George led the resistance of Welsh Liberals. His initial reaction to the act was far from hostile; but like other Liberals he resented its imposing Church elementary schools, the only schools in many ‘single school areas’, as an unrequited burden upon Welsh Nonconformist ratepayers. In a meeting of the Welsh MPs in November 1902, he persuaded them to accept an amendment which would make the Welsh county councils the instruments for operating the Act in the principality (8O). That gave him a powerful platform from which to launch a counter- attack. By early 1904, all the Welsh county councils, every one of which now had a Liberal majority, were united in resisting the operation of the Education Act, a kind of mass strike by the Welsh local authorities. For three years, 1902–5, there was a complete impasse between Wales and Whitehall. But, as ever, Lloyd George used the opportunity to push on beyond narrow sectarian issues into wider national directions. As he told the ournalist, William Robertson Nicoll, editor of the British Weekly (8P), he was trying to use his position of strength to coerce the leaders of the Welsh Church into accepting a compromise over Church schools. Another outcome could be a Welsh Educational Board to promote a uniform elementary and secondary system of schooling throughout Wales, and to serve as a pioneer of future devolution. In the end, his efforts failed. The forces of sectarian conflict were too deep-rooted for him. There were those like his fellow Liberal Arthur Humphreys- Owen, MP for Montgomeryshire, who criticized Lloyd George, with his limited educational background, for using the nation’s schools for purely political ends (8Q). Yet the affair of the education ‘revolt’ further enhanced Lloyd George’s reputation for constructive statesmanship. There were other critics who noted gaps in his understanding. The Independent Labour Party newspaper, Labour Leader, observed that his enthusiasm for religious or political issues was not matched by any similar concern for industrial or social questions (8R). Lloyd George, who had largely ignored even the massive six-months coal lock- out in south Wales in 1898, ‘had practically nothing to say for Labour’. But these themes lay in the future. In January 1906, fortified by the Education ‘revolt’, Lloyd George and the Liberal Party swept the board. Not one Tory was returned for the 34 Welsh seats. All, save Keir Hardie’s position as junior member for Merthyr, were in Liberal hands.

Para 8.7

Lloyd George was now a political figure on the British stage. From December 1905 to April 1908 he served in the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, with great success. Thereafter, until the war, he went to the Treasury as the most powerful and creative Chancellor of the Exchequer in modern British history.

Para 8.8

His concern with Welsh affairs was inevitably more episodic. One of them was in trying to calm down Welsh Nonconformists who complained to the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in 1907, that nothing was being done to promote Welsh disestablishment (8S). This crisis passed, but in fact a Welsh disestablishment bill did not appear on the government’s legislative programme in settled form until April 1912. The main theme in Lloyd George’s career, as far as Wales and Britain generally was concerned henceforth, was social reform. As has been seen (8E ) this had figured in some early speeches, though in sketchy form. When speaking to the Welsh National Liberal Council in Cardiff in October 1906 (8T), he still emphasized the old questions of disestablishment, land reform and temperance for the working men of Wales. But when he went to the Treasury in April 1908, his outlook, like that of his friend, Winston Churchill, greatly changed. When he spoke to the Welsh Liberals again at Swansea in October 1908 (8U), his emphasis was now on social measures as desirable both in themselves and to beat off the challenge to Liberalism posed by the Labour Party. Down to 1914, it was social welfare that inspired much of his effort – Old Age Pensions in 1908; the People’s Budget in 1909; the historic passage of National Health insurance and some unemployment insurance in 1911; frequent negotiations with the trade unions to ward off strikes and promote social justice. By 1914 he was the dominant figure in the government, the most celebrated Welshman of the age. An old Liberal like Lord Rendel (8V) continued to admire his democratic, egalitarian attitude. His own hostility to privilege and the establishment in whatever form continued to show itself. When he visited King George V at Balmoral in 1911, he hated the atmosphere – ‘it reeks with Toryism’ (8W). In August 1914, his radical zeal was still undiminished as was the continued enthusiasm for him amongst most classes and groups in his native land.

Figure 8.1 General election result, 1910 (based on Madgwick and Balsom, National Atlas of Wales)

Para 8.9

This self-contained phase of Lloyd George’s career came to an abrupt end on 4th August 1914. Thereafter, his life took a very different turn. He became Minister of Munitions in 1915, Secretary of State for War in 1916, Prime Minister from December 1916 to October 1922. At home he was now the ally of the Tories, hated by many on the left, his own Liberal Party divided and in ruins. Abroad, for a time in 1919–22, he was the supreme peacemaker and architect of a new Europe and a new world order. His relations with Wales were never quite the same. He had tried to appeal to Welsh national sentiment on behalf of the ‘little five-foot-five nations’ during the war (8X) but it rebounded against him afterwards. From 1922 he was out of power for ever, rejected even by the voters of Wales where Labour was now dominant. Lloyd George himself remained in parliament and an influential voice in economic and foreign affairs; but by the time of his death in March 1945 even Wales’s great commoner had become an earl. It is in the years 1880–1914 that his main influence on Welsh history can be detected. It is clear that here, in Welsh as in British society, he was a maverick, an outsider. He was never much of a cultural nationalist. He had scant interest in the national passion for education. He favoured compromise and coalitions in a manner all his own. He felt deep contempt for the ‘glorified grocers’ of Liberalism and the ‘big seats’ of the chapels. In his private and public life, he was certainly no puritan (8Y). Yet in his younger period he did more to advance the causes of Wales in public life than any other man. Apart from Welsh church disestablishment in 1920, improvements in the land, educational advance and social reforms, there were cultural achievements such as the university, the National Library and National Museum of Wales, the Welsh Department of the Board of Education. All were part of the Liberal heritage of pre-1914; all had some connection, direct or indirect, with Lloyd George’s campaigns. To the end, he retained a fierce sense of national identity, of an un-English separateness. As late as 1936, when he was holidaying in Jamaica, he wrote angrily to his daughter, Megan, now Liberal MP for Anglesey, about the government’s bullying of Wales by the mishandling of the case of Saunders Lewis, a Welsh nationalist who had set fire to an RAF bombing school in Llŷn (8Z). To the end, Lloyd George could be the unremitting champion of ‘gallant little Wales’. If Welsh self-government did not crown his efforts, that was hardly his fault. The cause lay deep in the roots of the Welsh as a people. He did more than any of his contemporaries to make Wales a political and social reality, and a dignified member of a wider world.