My history hero: David Lloyd George (1863-1945)
BBC news presenter Huw Edwards tells York Membery why he admires the 20th-century prime minister
David Lloyd George was prime minister from 1916 to 1922, and was hailed as “the man who won the war”. Born in humble circumstances, he grew up in north Wales. After qualifying as a solicitor, in 1890 he was elected Liberal MP for Carnarvon (now Caernarfon), a seat he would hold in every election until his elevation to the Lords in 1945. He served as president of the board of trade (1905–08) and then chancellor of the exchequer (1908–15) in Liberal administrations, helping to introduce reforms such as old age pensions and National Insurance (1911), but his 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ was rejected by the House of Lords, sparking a constitutional crisis. In 1915, a year after the outbreak of the First World War, he became a highly effective minister of munitions. He succeeded Asquith as prime minister in 1916 and, after the German surrender, won a landslide victory in the ‘Coupon Election’ of 1918. He played a pivotal role in the Treaty of Versailles but was forced from office in 1922.
When did you first hear about Lloyd George?
We followed a Welsh history course on the radio at my primary school in Llangennech. My teacher told us that David Lloyd George was the greatest social reformer – the man who introduced old age pensions. Though I now realise that that was mostly Asquith’s work, Lloyd George was responsible for other major social and constitutional reforms. I’ve been fascinated by him ever since.
What kind of person was he?
Complex. Mercurial. Charismatic. Devious. Brilliant. Energetic. Ambitious. Scheming. An outsider. A genius. An enigma. All of these descriptions are true. I am not blind to his faults (and there were quite a few) but they are wholly, entirely overshadowed by his outstanding achievements.
What made him a hero?
I am full of admiration for the way this ‘cottage-bred man’ from rural Gwynedd – with none of the advantages of a formal education – outwitted and outclassed the elite of the English establishment. He showed them how to get things done, how to make things happen, how to win a war and how to change society for the better. Lloyd George’s achievements – as Gordon Brown once told me – will never be equalled.
What was his finest hour?
He was rightly praised around the world as “the man who won the war” – and in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War it is right to put his remarkable record as a war leader at the top of the list. But I reckon his ‘other’ finest hour was facing down the unelected peers who shamelessly opposed his ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. He called their bluff and won. It was one of the biggest political battles of the past two centuries, and its effects are still with us today.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
I regret the fact that he gave his critics (then and now) plenty of ammunition to fire at him. His colourful private life, his dodgy financial dealings, his crazy expression of respect for Hitler in 1936 – all these things are unappealing, but the quality of his leadership when Britain was deep in crisis cannot be denied.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
There are no meaningful parallels, given the scale of his achievements, but I suppose the ‘outsider’ tag is one I share. A Welsh person in London is always, to some extent, an outsider, even if he or she succeeds in life. Lloyd George had none of the advantages of private English schooling or an Oxbridge education and I greatly admire the way he overcame that huge disadvantage.
If you could meet Lloyd George, what would you ask him?
I would ask if the devolution of power to Wales since 1997 had fulfilled his dream for Welsh home rule – Cymru Fydd – as set out more than a century ago. I suspect he would be bitterly disappointed. He wanted a strong, confident, self-governing Wales playing its full part within the United Kingdom.
Huw Edwards is a Bafta award-winning broadcaster who has worked at the BBC for 30 years. He has presented BBC News at Ten since 2003. His latest book is City Mission: The Story of London’s Welsh Chapels (Y Lolfa, 2014)