“Principles mean nothing to him — never have. His mind doesn’t work that way.
“It’s both his strength and his weakness”.
That was how the Tory politician Arthur Balfour described David Lloyd George, prime minister 1916-22, a leading government minister 1906-16, and a dominant figure in Liberal Party politics for most of the first half of the 20th century.
A minister who worked with Lloyd George saw him as having an “absolute contempt for detail” but a strange capacity to improvise and “pick up the essential details of a question by conversation”.
A biographer described him as “always in a hurry”. He would “turn his mind to a subject only when there were urgent decisions to be taken, imminent advantage to be gained or pressing danger to be averted”.
Lenin saw Lloyd George as a “first-class bourgeois manipulator, an astute politician, a popular orator who will deliver any speeches you like even r-r-revolutionary ones, to a labour audience”. “This hardened politician, this lackey of the money-bags... Liberal charlatan…”
If Boris Johnson has been trying to act as a poundshop Mussolini, he is also a poundshop Lloyd George. What Johnson looks like trying to do with the Tory party echoes what Lloyd George tried to do with the Liberal Party after 1916.
Johnson’s effort may well turn out to be only a caricature of Lloyd George. Lloyd George, the quick-witted stepson of a village cobbler who made himself a small-town lawyer, was more skilled at popular demagogy and opportunist improvisation than the relatively routine Eton-and-Oxford Johnson is ever likely to be.
World War 1 started with Britain under the Liberal prime minister H H Asquith. In May 1915, discredited by the Gallipoli fiasco and the government’s failure to organise sufficient munitions production, Asquith was forced to form a coalition with the Tories (and one Labour minister).
Asquith, with his languid, patrician manner (“Mr Asquith, do you take an interest in the war?” asked his sarcastic friend Helen Beerbohm Tree), and his heavy drinking, became further discredited. In the Battle of the Somme in July-November 1916 there was huge bloodshed, and almost no movement in front lines.
Lloyd George had been the Chancellor of the “People’s Budget” of 1909, old-age pensions, and the beginnings of “national insurance” for the unemployed or sick. He was an energetic and effective Minister of Munitions in 1915-16. He allied with Tories to force Asquith to resign, and became prime minister at the head of a new coalition.
Now, oddly, the prime minister (Lloyd George) and the Leader of the Opposition (Asquith) were both members of the same party.
Lloyd George used the crisis to remake the machinery of government, and to try to employ that government machinery, the press, and businessmen brought into central government posts, to remake politics.
That is what we can see echoed in Johnson’s moves to create a new political centre round his section of the Tory party, non-Tory “Vote Leave” people like Dominic Cummings, and the Brexiter press like the Sun, Mail, and Express. The parallel will become closer if Johnson can do a deal with Farage.
All Cabinets had previously been ramshackle affairs, with no secretariat and no minutes of meetings.
Lloyd George instituted a War Cabinet of only five members, meeting almost every day, and a Cabinet Secretariat.
In his War Cabinet he had Bonar Law, the Tory leader who had threatened civil war (over Irish Home Rule) in 1912-14 against the Liberal government in which Lloyd George was Chancellor. He had Lord Milner, a Tory arch-imperialist (Lloyd George, though always broadly pro-imperialist, had opposed the Boer War of 1899-1902). The Tory Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India. And a captive Labour nominee, Arthur Henderson.
Behind the scenes, Max Aitken, owner of the Daily Express, later Lord Beaverbook, had been central in the ousting of Asquith, and soon became a minister. Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail, also helped oust Asquith and took a government position, though his relations with Lloyd George were more erratic.
Maurice Hankey, the Cabinet Secretary, added system and attention to detail. Maundy Gregory, later, sold official honours, building up a “Lloyd George Fund” for politics.
Eric Geddes, a railway boss, one of the businessmen whom Lloyd George brought into government, became a close associate and from August 1921 author of the “Geddes Axe” of post-war social cuts.
Lloyd George, however, had not just become a Tory. The Tories had come to recognise that some bureaucratic social reform was necessary: “a slice of Bismarckism”, as Winston Churchill, then a Liberal and an erratic ally of Lloyd George, put it.
Lloyd George and the Liberals round him were happy to postpone the Liberal-legislated Home Rule for Ireland and to go some way towards the Tories on tariff preferences for the Empire in place of traditional Liberal Free Trade.
The huge National Liberal Club, only a few steps from Parliament, built in 1887 and much grander than any central building the Tory or Labour parties have ever had, is visible evidence of the weight of the Liberal Party in those days.
The Liberals were no longer the chief party of the landed aristocracy, as the old Whigs had been. Most industrial and commercial capitalists had, in the second half of the 19th century, gone over to the Tories. As Engels put it in 1892, “the Liberals derive their strength now from the non-conformist petty and middle-bourgeoisie”. But they were still a great force.
Local Liberal Associations continued to operate round the country, uneasily divided between Lloyd George and Asquith supporters.
At the end of the war, Lloyd George called a snap election, soon enough that rejoicing at Britain’s victory and his own (undeserved) prestige as “The Man Who Won The War” were still strong.
He got the Liberal Chief Whip and a leading Tory official to share out the constituencies, some to “Coalition Liberal” candidates, some to Conservatives, a few to Labour renegades (“Coalition Labour” or “National Democrat”).
His coalition swept the board in that “coupon” or “khaki” election, winning 523 seats out of 707. Labour had broken from the coalition and won 57 seats; Asquith’s wing of the Liberals, only 42.
The renewed coalition survived until October 1922. It promised “a land fit for heroes”, and at the start doled out some social reforms, before resorting to the “Geddes Axe” as economic crisis developed.
It battled against Ireland’s war of independence, and forced a botched settlement in Lloyd George’s typical manner, with an ambiguous formula which both Irish nationalists and Unionist die-hards could interpret as favourable.
Lloyd George spent much of 1919 in Paris, negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, “brutal and despicable” as Lenin called it.
As working-class anger mounted, the coalition dealt with great industrial disputes, sometimes by Lloyd George’s method of ambiguous promises, sometimes by directly facing them down.
Lloyd George became convinced that working-class revolution was an imminent danger. He pushed for the creation of a new party bringing together elements from Liberals and Tories, under his leadership, an idea he had already toyed with in wartime.
As Lenin commented: “Lloyd George argued that a coalition — and a close coalition at that — between the Liberals and the Conservatives was essential, otherwise there might be a victory for the Labour Party, which Lloyd George prefers to call ‘Socialist’… ‘Civilisation is in jeopardy’... and consequently Liberals and Conservatives must unite…”
The idea didn’t come off. The Tories withdrew support from Lloyd George in October 1922. Lloyd George reunited his faction with the Liberals under Asquith’s leadership for the December 1923 general election. From October 1924, when Asquith lost his seat in another general election, Lloyd George became parliamentary leader of the Liberal Party.
In October 1926 Asquith retired and Lloyd George became overall Liberal Party leader. The “Lloyd George Fund”, acquired through the sale of honours, had been an important factor.
He had still not lost his capacity for leftish gestures. In 1929 he wrote a pamphlet advocating “Keynesian” (public works programmes) measures against unemployment. He had the help of Keynes himself, though Keynes had loudly denounced Lloyd George’s role in the Treaty of Versailles. Lloyd George was quicker than the cautious Labour Party leaders to reject “economic orthodoxy”.
Lloyd George was offered a place in the World War 2 coalition government by Churchill. He remained an MP until 1945. The Liberal Party never recovered much strength, mostly because the Labour Party had scooped up the more left-wing and working-class element of its vote.
Johnson’s efforts now also have parallels with what Trump has done with, or is trying to do with, the Republican party in the USA.
Theresa May, of all people, in 2002, coined a phrase to describe the axis around which Boris Johnson is trying to reconstruct Tory politics: “the nasty party”. “Some Tories have tried to make political capital by demonising minorities instead of showing confidence in all the citizens of our country”.
David Cameron in 2006 took up May’s idea. “While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life — we were banging on about Europe… We obsessed about a handful more grammar schools... We put our faith in opt-outs for a few”.
Cameron failed to reshape the Tories into smoother, more Blairite shape. There is a good chance that Johnson will fail. But for sure labour movement people who give credence or semi-support to Johnson’s hard Brexit “commandism” will play as harmful a role as those Labour people, back in the day, who gave credence to Lloyd George’s “social” imperialism.