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31 March 2021

From the NS archive: Mr Lloyd George

18 September 1915: Can we be sure that the man who was primarily responsible for these blunders has not a worse blunder in store for us?

By New Statesman

In March 1915, nine months after Britain entered the First World War, the government entered a negotiation with the trade unions: production of munitions needed to ramp up. Then-chancellor David Lloyd George, a working-class Welshman, attempted to broker the Treasury Agreement, which would mean that any firm capable of manufacturing munitions had to do so by law, and private profits would be limited, instead paid to the state in this time of national crisis. Though the unions agreed – with conditions – tension continued to build. By September that year, Lloyd George, who would later become prime minister, was minister of munitions. Despite his proud working-class roots, he was still not fully trusted by the unions as the mandate continued for all firms to direct their munitions profits to the state. In this leading article, the New Statesman considers his political spin, contesting that Lloyd George’s schemes were “about as far removed from what trade unionists or socialists mean by ‘nationalisation’ as anything could be”.


Mr Lloyd George, in spite of the working-class origin which he so proudly claims, has never exhibited any sympathy with trade unionism. On many occasions in the course of his political career he has been brought into contact with the great trade unions, and his relations with them have never been other than entirely civil and friendly; but it has always been obvious that trade unionism represents a form of working-class aspiration which he does not understand and does not like – to which, indeed, he is definitely antipathetic. Under ordinary circumstances this peculiarity of his – though it very nearly led to the wrecking of his Insurance Act – is of no great consequence, since the trade unions are, politically speaking, quite capable of looking after themselves. But just now it is a disadvantage, which may be found to amount to a national misfortune, that the man who is chiefly responsible on behalf of the government for dealing with the extremely difficult situation which has arisen between capital and organised labour should be a man who is suspect as Mr Lloyd George is suspect in the ranks of trade unionism. It is possible that Mr Lloyd George’s colleagues are not alive – it is certain that the press as a whole is not – to the grave danger that is inherent in this situation; and if that be so the time has clearly come when plain language ought to be used.

What must be understood is that Mr Lloyd George has not convinced, and never will convince, trade unionists that he is offering them a square deal. He may be as honest as the day, but he is too “clever” to be trusted. The working man is not as a rule a dialectician, and does not know the meaning of the term suppressio veri, but he does know instinctively that the truth is never quite so plausible as Mr Lloyd George’s speeches are; and so he takes them with relish, but with more than a grain of salt. And unfortunately he is justified in so doing. Mr Lloyd George, like so many other political lawyers, is so accustomed to think that he can get what he wants by making out a good verbal case for it that he forgets the danger of sacrificing accuracy to effect in cases when the object is not merely to carry the audience with him, but to leave them permanently convinced. He overlooks the scrutiny to which his words will subsequently be subjected. He cleverly eludes a point or glosses over it, or turns the laugh against his interrupter, and thinks he has disposed of a difficulty – as indeed he would have done if the matter in hand were a mere political issue; but in fact he has only deepened suspicion. His frankness is part of his dialectical method; it is captivating and amusing, but it is not frankness; and his audience, when they think about it afterwards, do not mistake it for frankness. They accept him as they accept a conjurer who turns up his coat-sleeves to prove that “there is no deception, ladies and gentlemen”; and they clap him and laugh with him against whomsoever he pleases; but they reserve their judgement, feeling sure that there must be some deception somewhere.

And generally there is. It may be an innocent deception, slight over-emphasis or under-emphasis such as any platform speaker may be forgiven, or it may be more serious; but there is always something to confirm the instinctive doubt which lies beneath the appreciative attention of the audience. Take, for example, Mr Lloyd George’s references in his speech to the Trade Union Congress last week, to the crucial question of employers’ profits. The employers, he said, “are only going to get the standard which is based upon the profit made before the war with any allowance which is made by us in respect of increased capital which they have put in… I have seen resolutions passed from time to time at Trade Union Congresses — (laughter) — about nationalising the industries of this country. We have done it. (Cheers and laughter.) The whole of the engineering industry of this country which is engaged in doing anything for material of war is now State-controlled, and the profits which they make out of the war are annexed for State purposes.”

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To ignore, as Mr Lloyd George did in this passage, the difference between a “controlled establishment” and a national factory was to ignore a difference which his audience perfectly understood and which is the main source of all the present discontents. A state of things in which the employer is secured by law in the enjoyment of all his normal profits and something over, is about as far removed from what trade unionists or socialists mean by “nationalisation” as anything could be. Still less ingenuous were the words which we have italicised. As there was no reference either here nor elsewhere in the speech to the extra 20 per cent war profit which is being allowed to the owners of controlled establishments these words were actually untrue in letter and spirit alike. Knowledge of the 20 per cent allowance is, of course, quite public, but Mr Lloyd George’s failure to refer to it naturally gave the impression that there was something to be hidden, or at least something that could not be defended. For ourselves we doubt whether in any case very large war profits are likely to be reaped by armament firms; but that is not the point.

[see also: From the NS archive: Mr MacDonald in America]

The point is that there is an almost universal impression amongst working people that huge profits are being reaped, and will somehow or other be retained by the employers; and Mr Lloyd George’s way of dealing with the subject could serve only to confirm that impression. A few moments later – by way, presumably, of justifying his claim to have “nationalised” the engineering trade – Mr Lloyd George boldly declared that the government through the munitions department decided what wages were to be paid in “controlled establishments” – and this although, as he might have known, there were several delegates present who at a special deputation only a day or two before had been informed by Dr Addison (correctly) that the munitions department not only was not fixing wages in “controlled establishments” but had no power to do so. It is true that at these and other points of the speech there were “cheers and laughter” instead of protests, but that was because his audience knew very well that Mr Lloyd George can score effectively off an interrupter nine times out of ten. At all events it is quite safe to say that silence did not mean consent. Mr Lloyd George’s speech was in fact the “star turn” of the Congress and nothing more; and on balance there can hardly be a doubt that it did more harm than good.

In laying this emphasis on Mr Lloyd George’s incorrigible habit of inaccurate statement we do not wish to suggest that he is in any way specially untrustworthy. We do not believe he deserves half the suspicions of which he is the subject. His rhetorical methods are cheap, but they cannot fairly be called dishonest any more than his Marconi speculations could fairly be called corrupt. He is slim without being underhand, he lacks sincerity without being a hypocrite, he lacks principles without being “unscrupulous”. It is as impossible to remain angry with him as it is really to respect him. His charm of manner and quick understanding disarm opposition in the conference room as effectively as does his friendly patter on the platform. “I have got here a 4.5 shell,” he told the Trade Union Congress; “I brought it here for Mr Ramsay Macdonald. I thought I would not come altogether unarmed.”

But it is just this jaunty friendliness that is the danger; for to organised labour Mr Lloyd George is a Greek bringing gifts. It is not impossible for a Greek to inspire confidence in a Trojan-provided he does not pretend to be anything but a Greek. In this connection, as it happened, the Congress provided a remarkable illustration of working-class psychology which many people would do well to ponder. An overwhelming majority of the delegates were entirely at one with Mr Lloyd George in their view of the war and in their desire to prosecute it to a victorious conclusion at the earliest possible moment. The same majority were profoundly opposed to the view of the war which is represented by Mr Ramsay Macdonald and the ILP. But – owing largely, we imagine, to a recent and peculiarly dastardly newspaper attack – Mr Macdonald’s reception by the Congress compared with that given to Mr Lloyd George on the preceding day was like a tidal wave compared with a ripple. Mr Lloyd George may understand the psychology of the Welsh peasantry, but of the solidarity and the independent spirit of the English working class he has apparently no glimmering. He underrates both their patriotism and their intelligence. He irritates them with pin pricks and threats. He can win their momentary applause aImost as easily as Harry Lauder and almost as often as he pleases; but he can never win their confidence.

When Mr Lloyd George first took up his duties as minister of munitions the labour situation was bad; it is now unmistakably worse. In the opinion of many of the most competent judges the bitterness of anti-capitalistic feeling which at present prevails throughout large sections of the labour world has never before been equalled. All over the country, in mines and workshops, masters and men are expecting the conclusion of peace to be the signal for the greatest industrial struggle this country has ever known; and to a great extent both sides are already manoeuvring for position.

How the situation will develop in the immediate future no man can tell; but it is certain that its perils are greatly enhanced by the personality of the man who is at present responsible for dealing with it. The drink fiasco was followed by the more serious fiasco of the Munitions Act – the maladministration of which is increasing the tension day by day. Can we be sure that the man who was primarily responsible for these blunders has not a worse blunder in store for us? That possibility we discuss in an article which follows.

All we need say here is that the position is not irretrievable as it stands. The danger is that it may become so unless the limitations as well as the virtues of Mr Lloyd George’s sort of political capacity are clearly recognised in time. We do not care for discussing personalities in public affairs, but in this case so much turns on a question of personality that the discussion is unavoidable. The problem is to secure national unity and single-minded concentration on the nation’s purpose. It is no less than the problem of the management of a democracy at war, and there is little past experience to help in its solution. But all the necessary elements for success are present. No man who knows anything of the working class can question their profound patriotism and capacity for self-sacrifice. The patriotism of the employing class is equally beyond doubt. It is only a question, therefore, of removing the causes of mutual suspicion and distrust between the two classes and so securing the cooperation that is so greatly needed. The task, though it is admittedly difficult – far more difficult than it would have been six months ago – is not impossible; but it needs statesmanship, not political quackery, to accomplish it. Above all, it needs a man who plays straight, a man who when he speaks speaks accurately, who is open rather than plausible, and who knows how to give assurances which can be accepted without question. That means, of course, that he must have a deep sincerity and dignity of character, which Mr Lloyd George, with all his gifts, unfortunately does not possess.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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