It’s hard not to admire individuals who fought against entrenched privilege, and who took huge risks in the process. Showing conviction throughout a career is an admirable end to successfully reach. David Lloyd George achieved this goal, and more. Clement Attlee rightly gains plaudits for his role in shaping the welfare state, but it was Lloyd George who laid down the foundations.
Born in Manchester to Welsh parents and raised in Caernarfonshire, Lloyd George was the first – and to date only – Welsh politician to become Prime Minister. Having developed a successful law career in his younger days, Lloyd George was politically active in the Liberals, and was elected to Parliament in 1890 for Caernarfon in a by-election, with a wafer-thin majority of 18. He built up a nationwide reputation by opposing the Second Boer War and through displaying strong leadership during attacks on the government’s Education Act. Lloyd George entered the Cabinet in 1906 as President of the Board of Trade after the Liberals’ landslide victory, and succeeded Henry Asquith as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908.
What followed next was truly remarkable. The 1906 Liberal manifesto had no commitment to the sort of social legislation that would become known as the ‘Liberal reforms’, yet fully in the knowledge that fierce opposition would occur, Lloyd George and Asquith enacted a series of progressive measures. Free school meals were provided for children in 1906 and in 1908 pensions were introduced for those over 70. National Insurance was introduced with the 1911 National Insurance Act, which gave the working classes a contributory system of security against unemployment and illness. These measures were met with considerable resistance from the Conservative Party, especially as they were financed by taxes on the rich by the provocatively named ‘People’s Budget’ in 1909. A fantastic orator, Lloyd George as Chancellor defended the budget designed “for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness”. The budget passed through the House of Commons, but was voted down by a Conservative majority in the House of Lords. Rather than back down, the Liberals called two elections in 1910 to assert their mandate.
Crucially, Lloyd George and the Liberals challenged the supremacy of the Lords over the Commons. Before the 1911 Parliament Act, the Lords had a right of veto over financial and public bills. The 1911 Parliament Act removed these vetoes, and established thereafter the dominance of the Commons over the Lords. The triumvirate of Lloyd George, Asquith and Winston Churchill was vital in these reforms over the years. That an unelected House of Lords (which was often opposite in political persuasion to the Commons) should veto legislation from the elected Commons was an affront to democracy. Lloyd George succeeded in his challenge against such disgraceful privilege; “who ordained that a few should have the land of Britain as a perquisite; who made ten thousand people owners of the soil and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?”
Lloyd-George emerged from World War I – during which he had served as Secretary of State for War and then Prime Minister – with his reputation at its highest point. However, it is his social and political reforming that make him my political hero. Asquith and Churchill were also key players during the Liberal achievements, but it was Lloyd George’s enduring charisma and oratory which was crucial. His policies entailed a crucial step away from the laissez-faire liberalism of the past, seeing the state as a positive force for good. It’s no coincidence that Lloyd George’s Keynesian economic plan for recovery during the Great Depression was entitled ‘Lloyd George’s New Deal’, echoing the work of another political hero of mine, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lloyd George’s wisdom and influence was such that he was offered a place in Churchill’s 1940 cabinet, but refused. Fittingly, Lloyd George’s last Parliamentary vote was to condemn the government for not adopting the Beveridge proposals, which were to significantly expand the very welfare state that Lloyd George helped to create. I urge anyone, if possible, to visit the David Lloyd George museum in Criccieth, which has a fitting tribute to the great man. Perhaps a quote from the man himself will help: “The finest eloquence is that which gets things done; the worst is that which delays them”.