The Home Secretaries (19): Gwilym Lloyd-George

NPG x163174; Gwilym Lloyd George Tenby, 1st Viscount Tenby by Walter StonemanGwilym Lloyd-George, 1954-57

Conservative, under Churchill and Eden

To be the son of a great father is often a burden. It is therefore noteworthy that Gwylim Lloyd-George carved out a substantial political career in his own right. Lloyd George’s fourth and youngest son, was educated at Eastbourne College and Jesus College, Cambridge. During the war, he served at the Somme and Passchendaele, rising to the rank of major and being mentioned in dispatches. He accompanied his father to the Paris peace talks in 1919, and entered the Commons in 1922. He lost Pembrokeshire in the 1924 general election that saw the great Liberal collapse, but was one of the few successes in the 1929 election: he would hold the seat until losing it to Labour in 1950.

In 1931, with his father ill, Lloyd George accepted a junior post in the Board of Trade, before resigning with the calling of the general election, loyally following his father’s line. He also joined his father when he visited Hitler in 1936. Though loyal to the great man, he was far closer to the Conservatives than him, or indeed his younger sister (and fellow Welsh Independent Liberal MP), Megan. Thus, when war was declared, he joined Chamberlain’s refashioned government, again as parliamentary secretary to the Board of Trade. He continued under Churchill, until taking the same position in the Ministry of Food. In 1942, he was made minister of fuel and power. As such, he organised a new system of fuel rationing and worked closely with Ernest Bevin, helping create the Bevin Boys and instituting a national minimum wage for miners, at a significantly higher rate than comparative industries. In 1943, he pushed through the creation of a National Coal Board, with sweeping powers. Coal production went up significantly: in wartime, a substantial achievement.

After his father’s death in March 1945, his drift to Conservatism became more pronounced and public: when he held on to Pembrokeshire in the 1945 election, he did so as a National Liberal and Conservative. It was also when he hyphenated his name, as if to emphasise his lineage. He now stated, publicly, that nothing separated the Liberals from the Conservatives. Ironically, his sister agreed, and Megan Lloyd George went on to join Labour in 1955. After being defeated in 1950, he was given the then safe Conservative seat of Newcastle North. Churchill campaigned for him, and made him minister of food. He oversaw the end of rationing, and successfully controlled the cost of food imports. When David Maxwell-Fyfe became Lord Kilmuir, Churchill made Lloyd-George home secretary. Eden kept him in post.

He is often seen as a capable, if not overly distinguished, home secretary. His most significant task was to pilot the Homicide Act, 1957, through parliament (an act often associated with Rab Butler). Reacting to pressure for abolition, Labour’s James Chuter Ede had initiated a Royal Commission on capital punishment, which reported in 1953. It rejected the idea of degrees of murder as impracticable. The previous home secretary, Maxwell-Fyfe, had sat on the report, not least because any move towards reforming the death penalty would not go down well with a section of the backbenches, let alone much of the party in the country, who were rather attached to hanging and flogging. However, by 1955, disquiet over the death penalty was mounting. A number of controversial cases brought the death penalty into question, notably the hangings of Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis (Lloyd-George had been the home secretary responsible in Ellis’s case). When Lloyd-George announced the government’s reaction to the royal commission, rejecting some of its findings, a backbench Labour MP, Sydney Silverman, moved a private members bill to abolish the death penalty. It was passed by the Commons, but rejected by the Lords. Not being a government bill, it would not automatically get time in the Commons again. Thus, Lloyd-George introduced a bill as a compromise.

The 1957 act overruled the findings of the royal commission, abolishing the death penalty for most forms of murder and creating a new category of capital murder. It also clarified the grounds upon which homicide was not murder. 29 people were executed under this act until 1965, when hanging ended (180 were executed between 1945 and 1957). It was thus a significant humanitarian reform, and stepping-stone on the road to abolition.

When Macmillan succeeded Eden, Lloyd-George was the first major figure to feel the effect of Supermac’s sharp elbows. To mix metaphors, he was kicked upstairs, to make way for younger blood: his successor, Rab Butler, was in fact older than he was. He remained in public life until his death in 1967.

Gwilym Lloyd-George was hardly one of the great home secretaries, nor a political figure in the front rank. Nonetheless, the 1957 act mattered, and he had a significant role on the home front in the National Government. He and Churchill remain the only home secretaries since 1900 to be the sons of chancellors (or holders of any of the great offices). Most of all, the fact that he became a Conservative and his sister joined Labour says much about his father’s legacy and his old party’s fate. The strange metamorphosis of Liberal England, perhaps?

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