This piece is the first in our Most Liberal Prime Minister series, celebrating those PM’s with a particularly liberal streak.
There have been a number of Prime Ministers who were perhaps just as much if not more intrinsically liberal than David Lloyd George. Henry Campbell–Bannerman, the Prime Minister who gave Lloyd George his first Cabinet job, for example, arguably was so.
However, despite Campbell–Bannerman winning a landslide against the Tory government in 1906, he found himself cut off at the knees by an overly powerful House of Lords, which blocked any radical proposals his government put forward. It was then David Lloyd George, in partnership with Campbell–Bannerman’s successor Herbert Asquith, who tackled the upper chamber head on and won. Stripping away many of their undemocratic powers.
Long before he became Prime Minister, or even Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George was a staunch advocate for liberal causes. His battle against Joseph Chamberlain in the early 20th century is legendary and covered several worthy causes.
From 1899, Lloyd George fought in the Commons from the dispatch box. Both in favour of the Boer’s and against the Boer War of which Chamberlain was an architect, and it was arguably the German invasion of Belgium that utterly convinced Lloyd George of the need for the UK to take up arms in World War One. You would be hard pressed to find a Prime Minister who has been a better friend to small nations.
Lloyd George also faced Chamberlain in one of the toughest battles in defence of free trade that the UK has ever seen. Joseph Chamberlain’s “imperial preference” scheme, which would have seen British colonies given preferential tariffs when trade with the UK, would have seen standards fall through the floor and business costs jump through the roof in the name of “colonial unity.”
Famously, Lloyd George once said that: “no human system is perfect, but [we have built up] the greatest system of international trade the world has ever seen.” He and the Liberal Party rocked to a landslide over Chamberlain’s anti-trade Conservatives under the banner of ‘Free Trade, Free Schools and Free Churches.”
Establishing the foundations of the welfare state, though, I find to be his greatest achievement. His 1909 “People’s Budget” rocked the Tory establishment, committing to tackling and eradicating poverty. Lloyd George said of the measures that:
“This is a war budget […] for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.”
And though we could never claim he was a driving force behind women’s suffrage, Lloyd George was Prime Minister when the 1918 Representation of the People Act was passed – the first step towards franchise equality. He had his own personal flaws too, sacrificing many of his liberal principles to get himself ahead at times.
But as a politician and a Prime Minister, he fought for the rights of small nations and for the most vulnerable and unequal in society, championing free trade and fighting against the vested interests of the Tory establishment. He oversaw political reforms that made the United Kingdom more equal and more democratic, never being afraid to fight for wholesale reform rather than merely tweaking with the machinery. A true liberal.