David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider

Martin Farr enjoys a compelling biography of a political heavyweight

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Reviewed by: Martin Farr
Author: Roy Hattersley
Publisher: Little, Brown
Price (RRP): £25

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Roy Hattersley could not have known when he began his life of David Lloyd George that the political circumstances at the time of its publication would evoke those of its subject so strikingly: corruption, trust, war, coalition, the shifting tectonics of parties.

His book contains none of the subtexts sometimes discernible when statesmen study statesmen. Indeed, Hattersley is coolly detached from “the authentic radical of British history” who disparaged the labour movement, and who exhibited “few examples of genuine class consciousness matching [his] class antagonism”.

Lloyd Georgeography has had innumerable cartographers over the last century, but this is the first full biography for over 30 years. It is in form a conventional one, viewing a life in the round: from birth to death; the private and the public.

There are a succession of well-rehearsed historical set pieces each impressive enough on their own but quite breathtaking taken together in a single political career, appropriately that of “the most flexible politician of his age”. 

Arguably there is need for an introduction to establish the subject and the literature that has created our impressions of him, and a conclusion to clarify what the present offering adds to that understanding. Instead the life is left to speak for itself, denying the author the chance to square his craft with his conviction, expressed elsewhere, that “the revelation of private conversations” in political memoirs and diaries “is morally indefensible”.

Whether such revelations are morally indefensible or not, this book would be much shorter without them.

Lloyd George was the first politician of the modern era. Yet as prone as he was to the presidential, he was made to be conscious of the primacy of party, “los[ing] the Liberal[s] without gaining the Tories”, and could not today have concealed as he did then his serial improbity, sexual and financial as much as political.

Compared with Roy Jenkins on Asquith (or Churchill), the author’s disaffection is conspicuous (“he had succeeded as a politician and failed as a human being”). Hattersley does speak of Lloyd George’s “greatness”, but it is a qualified appreciation, and in practice a limited quality as nobody would trust someone with “no loyalty to either institutions or individuals”. 

Like Churchill, Lloyd George remains box office, but his “ruthless ambition, his supreme self-confidence and his crass insensitivity” ensures that Hattersley is far from star-struck.

This compelling life rattles along as fast as any 640-page biography could hope to, and while it cannot be said to provide anything new, either in fact or interpretation, as a highly readable and complete life of the greatest political genius of the last century, it is novel enough. 

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Martin Farr is a senior lecturer in history at Newcastle University