David Lloyd George, 1908-15
Liberal (under Asquith)
The greatest 20th century chancellor? Lloyd George came from a solidly lower middle class background. Having lost his father in infancy, his uncle became the key influence in his life: Uncle Lloyd gave his nephew his radical Baptist tradition and Liberal politics. In 1886, he nearly went over to Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists, though in the end remained with Gladstone: the political mutability and unease with Home Rule would remain. As it was, he made his name as an old-fashioned radical Liberal, supporting the disestablishment of the Church of Wales and opposing Boer War imperialism. And he was a brilliant orator. As such, he had made himself into a rising star just as the Liberals returned to power and won a landslide in 1906. Lloyd George went to the Board of Trade: he would be in high office for the next 16 years.
When Asquith was on the verge of number ten, he had wanted to keep the job of chancellor himself; in fact, he and Lloyd George turned out to be one of the great political partnerships of the century. Lloyd George had become a new Liberal reformer at the Board of Trade, he visited Germany to learn from the welfare system created by Bismarck and he also got the credit for pensions (‘God bless Lloyd George’, pensioners were have reported to have said, claiming their money at the post office). As ever with Lloyd George, political manoeuvre was never far from the surface. Both elements (along with the need to respond to Germany’s naval expansionism) were present in the defining moment of his chancellorship: the People’s Budget of 1909. To pay for it all he proposed new taxes (including upon landed estates) and a supertax on incomes of over £5,000 per annum: Britain’s first progressive tax system. Constitutional convention dictated that the House of Lords did not veto a money bill. The Tory House of Lords did, and a constitutional crisis ensued. Lloyd George led an impassioned national campaign, and his magnificent oratory was never more incisive:
The House of Lords is not the watchdog of the constitution; it is Mr Balfour’s poodle.
A fully equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two Dreadnoughts, and dukes are just as great a terror, and they last longer.
[The Lords were] five hundred men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed.
Two general elections followed, and the Parliament Act of 1911 saw the powers of the Lords curtailed. In private, he and the Tory leader Balfour got on rather well, and Lloyd George was one of those mooting the idea of a coalition in 1910 (an idea he would return to). Once more, the political mutability that would see him accused of having ‘no fixed abode’ was in evidence. At this time, Lloyd George also came under the influence of reformers such as Christopher Addison, and in 1911 he piloted the National Insurance Acts through the Commons in the teeth of bitter opposition. Though he looked to introduce further land taxes and raise income tax and super tax in 1914, as one of the key figures in the government he was much taken up with the Irish Home Rule crisis and then with the war (his support for the war did much to hold the Liberals together in 1914).
He survived the Marconi scandal, in which he and others had made a ready sum thanks to some insider trading in Marconi shares. His private life remained unconventional: Kitchener famously quipped that he didn’t tell the cabinet military secrets in case they told their wives or, in the case of Lloyd George, somebody else’s wife. Come the war, his move to the new ministry of munitions might well be the only time when a move from number 11 to anywhere other than number ten was a promotion: he was the pivotal figure in the new coalition government. He is one of ten chancellors since 1900 to have gone on to be prime minister (one of 12 to go on to be party leader). As chancellor, he would transform the post, giving it a political and economic reach far beyond that of his predecessors; he would not have anything like an equal at least until Neville Chamberlain. As prime minister, he would lead Britain to victory, transform the way Britain was governed and break the Liberal Party in the process: but that, as they say, is another story.