Wrong in an interesting way

Lloyd George: war leader

John Grigg <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 670pp, £25 </em>

ISBN 07

My first reaction on receiving John Grigg's last book (he died without finishing it) was: "Oh, not another book on Lloyd George." I have six already on my bookshelves. Yet this is, in fact, Volume IV of his much acclaimed work on the Liberal leader, covering simply the two years of his wartime premiership. That 600 pages can be devoted to 24 months indicates a wealth of detail. He himself writes at one point: "It would be tedious to describe in detail all the manoeverings .", but he does not let that deter him. Indeed, we are treated, somewhat irrelevantly, to de-scriptions of the wedding dresses of his daughters, Megan and Olwen. Yet many of these details will be of fascination to those interested in military history, and two or three of the 33 chapters are easily skipped by those, like me, who are not.

Of more widespread interest was Lloyd George's relationship with the military, and especially with General (later Earl) Haig. This is a recurring theme, well illustrated by private letters and memos from Lloyd George, who detested and blamed Haig for the heavy losses on the Somme and at Paschendaele. Their loathing was mutual, but Grigg concludes: "The balance of argument may reasonably be said to lie with Lloyd George." He records in grisly fashion 3,800 casualties per square mile, reminding us of the futility of trench warfare.

There are, inevitably, several comparisons with Churchill's leadership during the Second World War. One important difference struck me, however: Churchill did not have to endure the same variety of distractions from the business of war as Lloyd George. Ireland, industrial unrest, electoral reform, Palestine: it is these, and other non-war issues, which bring Grigg's book alive for mere civilians. He quotes a remarkable article by Lord Northcliffe about the belated entry of America into the war that has strange contemporary echoes: "The American people are not fighting to make the world safe for democracy, but to make the world safe for themselves." Grigg reminds us that at the outbreak of the war, Britain was 60 per cent dependent on food imports and gives Lloyd George credit for the women's land army, the deployment of 30,000 German prisoners and the import of American tractors to turn this round.

The author is good on Lloyd George's use of the honours system. (I declare an interest here as possibly the last surviving chairman of the Lloyd George Fund, an ex-officio role for the Liberal chief whip. There was very little in it, and it paid a modest pension to two ancient retainers before being wound up.) The popular view is that Lloyd George uniquely and brazenly sold honours for party funds, whereas Grigg asserts: "The method of distributing honours in Britain has always been inherently corrupt . . . though some have been more adept than others at disguising it."

Grigg points out that most honours went to Conservatives under Lloyd George's coalition administration. In 1917, he introduced the Order of the British Empire, described at the time as "British democracy's own Order of Chivalry" with the fifth class - the BEM (mistakenly abolished recently) - certainly justifying that description.

On his intriguing personal life, Grigg sheds little light, but the reader will note with astonishment how his relatively open relationship with Frances Stevenson was not exposed in the press in an age before the Major/Currie hysteria. How he coped with that, as well as rising at 6am, is astonishing. Political breakfasts (cursed by Austen Chamberlain as "the devil, destructive of the digestion and the temper . . . nothing disturbed me more than the matutinal habits of the PM") were routine and not, as I thought, something imported from America.

On Ireland, as part of his "home rule all round" philosophy, he supported "an Ulster committee within the Irish parliament with power to modify and if necessary exclude the application to Ulster of certain measures". He also prepared alternate meetings in Dublin and Belfast and appealed for a settlement "which would give to Irishmen the control over their own affairs while preserving the fundamental unity of the UK". All far too sensible and reasonable for the middle of a war.

He coped with votes on altering the franchise; votes for women he supported, and PR he scorned as "a device for defeating democracy", to which Grigg wryly observes, "The supposed virtues of the traditional voting system were not much in evidence during the period immediately preceding the Great War."

There was, too, the issue of Palestine. Grigg rightly argues that the Balfour Declaration created "one of the most intractable problems in the world", but reminds us of its sadly forgotten "clear understanding that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine". Perhaps someone could remind Sharon and Bush.

Churchill himself holds the clue to Lloyd George's capacity to keep so many balls in the air: "One of the great qualities of Mr Lloyd George was his power of obliterating the past and concentrating his whole being on meeting a new situation. . . . The resolution of the PM was unshaken under his truly awful responsibilities." Balfour adds: "When he is wrong, he is usually wrong in a more interesting way than other people." Grigg himself writes warmly and without sycophancy of Lloyd George's "flair for improvisation and disregard for convention".

Lloyd George's great-granddaughter, Margaret MacMillan, adds a final chapter to Grigg's incomplete work dealing with the armistice that ends with his optimistic words: "This morning came to an end the cruelest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that this fateful morning came an end to all wars."

Lord Steel is a former leader of the Liberal Party