The Magazine

Grand Alliance

How Winston and the Welsh Wizard made history.

Nov 17, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 09 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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David and Winston

How the Friendship Between Lloyd George and Winston Churchill Changed the Course of History

by Robert Lloyd George

Overlook Press, 303 pp., $29.95

For all of the big and small studies of various stages of Churchill's career--the early adventures in Cuba, the Northwest Frontier, and in Sudan, the heroics of the Boer prison camp escape--little has been written about the epic friendship of his political life, the one with the Liberal party giant David Lloyd George. The account of that friendship by Robert Lloyd George, great-grandson of the great man, goes far to fill the lacuna. The subtitle may overreach a little--a friendship that "changed the course of history"--but not by much.

For an unbroken period of 44 years, the two were close friends, sometimes rivals for power and sometimes, together, decisive partners in events of global significance: The 1914 declaration of war against Germany, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Norway debate in the House of Commons that brought Neville Chamberlain down and Churchill to power. When Lloyd George died in March 1945, Churchill, still prime minister, worked through the night preparing the eulogy he would deliver at the Welshman's funeral the next morning.

An unlikelier pairing for a half-century of political friendship would be hard to envisage. Lloyd George, 11 years older than Churchill, was born into humble farming circles in Wales and left school at 15. A lay preacher in his teen years in nonconformist chapels, he began his law career by defending poachers out of an office in a back room of his house. He entered parliament at 27 as a Liberal member determined to fight for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged.

Churchill, by contrast, was a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and the son of a Tory cabinet minister. His American-born mother had a string of well placed Establishment lovers who ensured that young Winston always secured a ringside appointment as a war correspondent in the late Victorian colonial wars. But it was four years after he first entered Parliament as a Tory in 1900 that the friendship with Lloyd George began.

The Welshman--he was both the last Liberal prime minister and the only Welshman to occupy the post--joined forces with Churchill on the issue of free trade, something both men instinctively thought good for Britain and for the working man. Soon that conviction, and a growing appreciation for the Liberal social agenda, led Churchill to "cross the floor" of the House and join the Liberals. But it was Lloyd George who decisively influenced Churchill to "discover the poor," as one contemporary put it, and push through Parliament the most progressive social legislation that had ever been enacted in Great Britain: old age pensions, unemployment compensation, and other social reforms that culminated in the "People's Budget" of 1909.

During the years leading up to World War I, Churchill, as first lord of the admiralty, pushed through an expensive modernization and build-up of the Royal Navy. This briefly raised tensions with Lloyd George, who was chancellor of the exchequer and responsible for the budget. But Churchill demonstrated great loyalty to Lloyd George by defending him against charges of financial impropriety when the Marconi Company won a government contract for empire-wide wireless communications. That gesture proved invaluable after Gallipoli: Churchill was forced to resign from the cabinet, and would have remained out of office for the rest of the war but for the stubborn backing he received from Lloyd George, who became prime minister in 1916.

It was in that capacity that Lloyd George backed the decision to support Zionism with the Balfour Declaration. Churchill, instinctively supportive of the Jews, agreed, and remained committed thereafter to a Jewish state in Palestine.

Lloyd George remained prime minister until 1922, but by then he and Churchill were growing apart politically, with Lloyd George returning to his social welfare sympathies while Churchill, alarmed by the success of the Bolsheviks in Russia, hardened against anything that smacked of socialism. During the 1930s the two maintained their friendship, which all along had been reinforced by a shared sense of humor. But fittingly, the last major act of Lloyd George's political life in Parliament was a searing attack on Chamberlain in 1940 that helped to bring about Chamberlain's resignation and led to the emergence of Churchill as successor to the office Lloyd George had first held 24 years earlier. After Churchill made his first speech as prime minister--famously invoking "blood, tears, toil, and sweat"--his onetime mentor rose to reply and wish him well. Churchill heard it, weeping, his head in his hands.

Of course, the two great wartime prime ministers had much more in common than their backgrounds suggest: Both were outsiders, mavericks, rebels against tradition and conformity. They were both intellectually brilliant--though Lloyd George was the more consistent to his own political principles--and each recognized and always responded to the virtues he saw in the other. Churchill always looked upon Lloyd George as mentor, an elder brother, the leader for whom he was "the lieutenant," never referring to any other politician in this deferential way.

David and Winston makes use of both material in the public domain and materials derived from family archives, and Robert Lloyd George's account of the politics of the Britain of Edward VII and George V is fluent--though it might have benefited from more background analysis of the key issues affecting both the Lloyd George/Churchill friendship and the points where they seriously differed on policy.
What remains astonishing, of course, is that two such ambitious, opinionated men should have assiduously nurtured a political friendship over so many years. Such an alliance of political personalities is hardly conceivable today, when it is virtually impossible to "cross the floor" and principled political independence is almost never rewarded at the ballot box. That, of course, is our loss. Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George demonstrated how effective a carefully nurtured friendship could be over four decades in influencing the affairs of the world.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Delusion of Disbelief.