GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Lloyd George Looks Back

March 15 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Lloyd George Looks Back

March 15 1943

Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER

Lloyd George Looks Back

HISTORY is made before our eyes these days, and men admit they are great before the verdict of time is pronounced. Yet even at this period of vast disillusionment I felt a tingling of the pulse on my way to lunch in the country with Mr. Lloyd George on the eve of his eightieth birthday.

For the last fifteen years men have said that Lloyd George would have to die before he would live again. They compared his ill luck with that of Abraham Lincoln who was assassinated in the supreme hour of triumph. They said . . . many things.

But the greatness of Lloyd George is set in granite. It is indestructible. All the chisellers in existence could not lessen its majesty nor its size, not even when he himself seemed to join in the game of reducing his own immortality.

What a story it is, this son of a Unitarian schoolmaster. His father died two years after his birth. Then his uncle, that wise shoemaker, takes him under his care in a village in Carnarvonshire. It was not without reason that Wagner made his all wise, all kindly Hans Sachs a shoemaker in the “Die Meistersinger.” Through the ages the cobbler has always been a figure of dignity and philosophy.

Lloyd George never ceased to honor and consult his uncle even when he had become a dazzling political figure. Nor did the uncle ever fail to give good advice though his life’s experiences had been confined to the simple folk about him.

The wits made good sport in later years when Mr. Lloyd George would speak lyrically of the Welsh hills. But now that we can study his life in retrospect, who is there to doubt that his eyes saw the glory of his own and Britain’s future as he walked by the waters and the hills of Wales?

As I neared his home I asked myself the question : “Is this not the greatest man in Britain’s history?” At once there leaped to my mind his miscalculations, his impatience, his lack of dignity when dignity was all, and everything, that was needed.

When Bonar Law by his speech at the Carlton Club meeting forced Mr. Lloyd George to resign his premiership, how foolish he was not to bow to the fates and make a triumphal tour of the world. In the years that followed why did he fail to defend the Treaty of Versailles? And why did he permit himself to weaken on the war guilt clause which he had so rightly fastened upon Germany?

These are blemishes upon the portrait but can they for a moment be put against the monumental achievements of the man?

He brought a new social conception to the life of this country. He assumed the leadership of the nation at the end of 1916 when defeat was in many hearts and compromise in many minds. But there was neither defeat nor compromise in him. He saved his country and civilization. He gave the world twenty years in which to build a new life for mankind. He gave a generation of freedom to countries in Europe which had been slave states.

That we mishandled his victory cannot be charged against him. The granite of his greatness is not less splendid because we allowed the mists of indecision to come upon the land. Clemenceau declared that all great men are frauds. The career of Lloyd George destroys it for what it is—a mere play of words.

And thinking on these lines we came to the gateway of Lloyd George’s place in the country.

Pioneer Country

QURPRISINGLY, at least to me, Mr. Lloyd George’s estate at Churt lies in a labyrinth of valleys. One would have thought that with his temperament he would have chosen broad uplands, swept by the wind from the sea and haloed by the drifting clouds.

Instead he went from the Welsh mountains to the English valleys. The country where he lives, just off the Portsmouth Road, is reminiscent of Canada in the stubborn days of her development. There is a pioneer touch about the district as if necessity had outstripped planning.

But Mr. Lloyd George may have supplied the answer to it all in a remark he made that day. “The soil about here is poor,” he said. “But I found out that certain apples do better in poor soil.” With the pride of the master he reached for an apple from a silver bowl. “I grew these apples. They are Cox’s Orange Pippins, the best in the world.”

Incongruous? Amusing? Perhaps. But it was the honest satisfaction of a man who throughout his life strove to make two blades of grass grow where one grew before.

“This,” he said with a broad sweep of his hand, “is my finest achievement. When I bought these farms they employed some seven or eight workers. Now there are seventy-five in regular employment and, at certain times, there are over a hundred.”

He squared his shoulders as one who had shifted a mountain. “And what is my reward?” he asked. “Everything goes in excess profits. It is most unfair.”

I wanted to smile but the man of inexhaustible humor was deadly serious. His mind had gone beyond his own case and was looking at it as a national problem.

“I sink my money into that soil so that it will bring forth abundance. And then the Treasury takes the money. It is monstrous.”

It seemed a reasonable moment to remind Mr. Lloyd George that it was he who introduced the Excess Profits Tax in the last war.

“That is quite true,” he said. “But I did not make it punitive. Human nature is human nature and will never change. To get the most of men you must offer them the inducement of reward.”

We were finished with apples, poor soil, excess profits and the inducement to effort.

“I have brought you a birthday present,” I said.

His eyes twinkled and he chuckled like a schoolboy.

“What is it?” he asked.

With proper dignity I handed him no less than six Havana cigars, almost the last of their kind.

“Havanas,” he murmured. “Havanas.” There was a musical caress to his voice that would have charmed a sparrow off a twig.

“I had a box of cigars sent to me yesterday,” he said. “They were Jamaican.”

When you approach Mr. Lloyd George’s attractive but modest country house you are met by a friendly dog whose eyes, I swear, twinkle. When you ring the bell the door is opened by an elderly

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housekeeper who smiles with pleasure. When you go into the drawingroom there is a vast window instead of a wall, and you are on terms of intimacy with a pleasant smiling lawn.

“I put that window in,” said Mr. Lloyd George, “against all advice. Isn’t it strange how little we make of our windows? It all goes back to those extraordinary times when window space was taxed and we haven’t really got out of it yet. It just shows what a conservative people we are.”

As if to show his approval the dog came in, put his chin on his master’s knee, chuckled, yawned and fell asleep.

We discussed war cabinets, for Mr. Lloyd George’s photographs are all of famous men in the last war.

Was Against Passchendaele

I NEVER had any use for a ‘yes’ man,” he said. “They are a dangerous breed I tell you. In my cabinet I didn’t have one. Balfour, Milner, Henderson, Bonar Law, Carson—they spoke their minds, and my opinion was constantly opposed in the cabinet. That is the way decisions should be hammered out— on the anvil. On one issue though they were wrong and I should not have given in. I hated the whole project of Passchendaele. But they were adamant. Bonar Law and Milner were the only ones who supported me.”

For a few minutes he talked with a whimsical affection of Bonar Law who, as leader of the Conservative Party, gave such undeviating loyalty to his former political enemy. “A more able man than people thought and an accomplished parliamentarian.”

We talked of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. “We had to fight that battle,” he said, “to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun. It was a terrible battle and I think we ought to have left off when the Germans gave up the attack on Verdun. But in its way the Battle of the Somme was an astonishing achievement.

“We put against the Germans an immense and skilled Army which had been welded from civilian life. They were grand soldiers and they had better and more armaments than the Germans. Yet we had only been at war two years.”

I asked him if the industrialists had been obstinate when, as Minister of Munitions, he asked them to make a supreme effort.

“Not at all,” he said. “I simply went and talked to them. I explained our needs and the staggering volume of production we would require. Regional committees were formed j everywhere as well as combined j committees of managers and workers, j That was almost the first time on any : scale that workers took part in factory management.”

Once more he was the pioneer, the man who blazed new trails wherever

the undergrowth was thick. Never once did he speak of the pomp and circumstance of his career. Never once did he talk of his moments of triumph when countless millions cheered at the very mention of his name.

Always his mind was the soil which had brought forth abundance under his magic touch.

He is not a hero-worshipper. If there is one man he places above all others it is Marshal Poch. “I wanted the nation to buy an estate for him in France after the war,” he said. “But Clemenceau objected.”

From the top of the photographcovered piano, Foch and Clemenceau looked straight at us as if to confirm the statement.

His mind flashed back to the stormy years before the last war. Not once did he falter for a name or a date. This man who is about to enter his eighty-first year, this man who began the social revolution in this country and who guided us to victory with his iron will and the gay courage of his heart, was talking as if it had all happened yesterday.

‘‘A lot of people didn’t like my social security budget,” he said. “I was quite unpopular.”

“But you had plenty of support,” I said.

“No,” he answered. ‘T would say that the nation was divided into two sections—those who violently opposed the budget and those who were indifferent.”

We talked about his famous speech at the time of the Agadir incident in 1911 when at the Guildhall, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he warned Germany that Britain was not indifferent to her actions.

‘‘Did Asquith put you up to it?” I asked.

‘‘No,” he said, “I put it up to Asquith. As a matter of fact I was walking in the park with Winston and we discussed the idea. The bankers were giving me their usual budget banquet although they loathed me as a chancellor. So I went to see Asquith, and Winston saw Grey. They both agreed to my saying what I wanted although they warned me that Germany would be bound to protest and even try and get me dismissed. Actually I think both Grey and Asquith were glad to have me do it. At any rate I made the speech although I kept the bankers waiting for three quarters of an hour without any explanation.”

His eyes twinkled at the memory. There is an impenitent and irreverent youthfulness about Mr. Lloyd George that will never leave him.

Doesn’t Sit at the Head

LUNCHEON, A long narrow

table, chicken, vegetables, apples, nuts—all grown at Churt and all excellent.

‘T never sit at the head of my table,” said my host. ‘T feel too isolated. It is more fun in the middle here where things are going on.” Behind him on the wall hung a fine painting of trees on the edge of a tiny lake with hills in the distance. It was a striking piece of work and in genuine curiosity I asked who had done it.

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“An artist called Churchill,” said D.L.G. “Really he’s a remarkable fellow. More like Pitt than Chatham, don’t you think?”

I had a sudden feeling that he was trying out the verdict of history. Lloyd George and Chatham: Winston Churchill and Pitt. That is probably how he sees the grouping when the centuries make up their mind.

I asked him what really happened at Birmingham when he escaped the wrath of the mob by putting on a policeman’s uniform.

“Well you see,” he said, “I hated the whole idea of the Boer war and saw no reason why I shouldn’t go on protesting even after it began. We filled the hall with our friends. It was all done by ticket. But that didn’t stop a crowd of about fifty thousand surrounding the place. They would have killed me. In fact they intended to drown me in Chamberlain’s Fountain.”

He laughed in immoderate enjoyment of the memory. The dog came galloping in from the drawing-room to find out what joke he had missed.

“Did you make your speech?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. There was such a noise going on outside that I got the reporters on to the platform and made the speech to them.”

“Whose idea was the policeman’s uniform?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Some Welshman’s, I expect.”

It was time to go. I signed the visitors’ book and he pointed out the names of the two previous visitors— Mr. Maisky, the Russian ambassador and his wife.

“Which of these photographs of you do you like best?” I asked.

“This one,” he said. “My son Gwylim was telling me a story—-he’s a great storyteller, you know—and he was just nudging me in the ribs. We didn’t know we were being snapped.”

He looked at it and laughed delightedly. The dog thumped the floor with his tail as if he were heating a big drum. Without a hat or coat Mr. Lloyd George walked down the driveway to speed us on our way.

We had not talked of the present war because that was tacitly understood. But I asked him for one comment on it.

“I will give you two,” he said. “First the physique of our fighting men is better in this war than in the last.”

And the other comment.

All humor left his face. “We are in the fourth year of the war,” he said, “and we have not yet come to grips with the enemy.”

Whereupon I departed from the valleys and came back to the uplands of disenchantment. Three hours with unabridged history . . . three hours with a man so great that he could afford the foibles and misjudgments of a mere mortal . . . three hours with a man of the people who would not change his lineage for the proudest that the Norman Conquest could have bequeathed.