Even if the present prime minister were not a ‘biographer’ of Winston Churchill, it was inevitable that comparisons between him and his Second World War counterpart would have adorned the laptop screen of every hack trying to write a decent opening sentence for a piece on British politics in 2020.
It was Churchill whom Boris Johnson invoked in his Daily Telegraph column when he plumped for Brexit in February 2016. And when reviving the ministerial broadcast at the beginning of this whole Covid business, there is little doubt whose radio orations he had in mind as a model. But maybe he should have looked to another wartime prime minister, one who, like Churchill, had previously been Chancellor of the Exchequer and also went on to be Father of the House.
David Lloyd George shared with Johnson what used to be, but in these enlightened times is probably no longer, described euphemistically as a wandering eye. More pertinently, it was Lloyd George who was in charge during the last pandemic of this scale in the UK, the Spanish flu of 1918–19. In fact, Lloyd George, like Johnson, contracted the virus himself, and he too owed his premiership to the belief that he was the man best placed to resolve a major issue on the Continent. (Not that Brexit compares altogether exactly with the First World War, however tempting it has been for many journalists to compare the process to trench warfare.)
Dissatisfaction with his predecessor’s war leadership had given Lloyd George the opportunity to depose Herbert Asquith, just as Brexit was the cause of Johnson succeeding Theresa May. But what happened next provides a lesson that the present prime minister is learning, even if he is unaware of the parallel.
It is not entirely fanciful to see in the Tory leadership race of 2019 a faint echo of the replacement of Asquith with the more charismatic Lloyd George. But more striking is how, just as grassroots Tory hero Johnson has had to ditch his stated commitment to personal liberty, the Liberal radical Lloyd George – even before replacing Asquith – had come to argue in favour of conscription, despite the distaste of his own party.
It seems less likely that a dislike for Covid restrictions or the shape of the Brexit trade deal will split Johnson from his party rank and file quite as starkly as Lloyd George lost touch with the Liberals as his coalition with the Conservatives went on. But if the present premier becomes reliant on opposition votes to pass crucial measures, he might at least cast an eye to how his predecessor a century ago ended up implicitly endorsing Conservative candidates against the wishes of his own party in a general election.
That vote in 1918 was held in mid-December, as was Johnson’s victory last year, and resulted in a genuine landslide: the Coalition parties won 520 of the 707 seats, and both the opposition Labour and Asquith-led Liberal ranks were reduced to double figures. In fact, the largest non-Coalition party was Sinn Féin, with 73 of the 105 Irish seats. Unlike the similarly large SNP contingent of the present day, they did not even bother with Westminster, forming their own Irish parliament, which soon achieved independent jurisdiction over most of Ireland at a speed their Scottish successors are hoping to emulate somewhat more peacefully.
Whether Lloyd George’s own actions in Ireland fuelled the nationalist cause, or if the civil war and breakaway were inevitable by the time he took office, will remain as much a matter of debate as what part Johnson can be said to have contributed to any putative independent Scottish in the next few years. But it’s indisputable that Lloyd George put nationalism of a more red, white and blue stripe on the ballot in 1918, even more so than Johnson did 101 years later.
Lloyd George was keen to hold a general election as soon as possible after the war ended, indeed it was called within three days of the Armistice; George V’s reported concerns that anti-German bitterness and demands for revenge would distort the vote had even less of a restraining effect on the then prime minister than did efforts to stop Johnson dodging the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2019.
The ‘Coalition Coupons’ issued by Lloyd George and Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law in support of 364 Conservative, 159 Liberal and 22 formerly Labour-aligned candidates represented a more formal alliance than the Brexit Party’s decision to back off from challenging the Tories in 2019. The Manifesto of Lloyd George and Bonar Law refers throughout to ‘patriotism’, making implicit the consequences of a Coalition defeat in the way the Conservatives’ Get Brexit Done: Unleash Britain’s Potential did slightly more explicitly by claiming: ‘Jeremy Corbyn is prepared to break up the UK, to disband the Armed Forces, and even when it comes to cold-blooded murder on British soil, he cannot stand up for our country and do what is right.’
Last year the Conservatives performed unusually well among working class voters, bolstering their Brex-appeal with vague spending pledges. The Coalition’s appeal to post-war patriotism featured even more language not usually associated with a manifesto seeking to elect 364 Tories – ‘the development and control in the best interest of the State of the economical production of power and light’, ‘a Second Chamber which will be based upon direct contract with the people’ – but then Lloyd George, despite having split his old party in half to continue his alliance with the Conservatives, did declare: ‘I am still a Liberal. Look at what I am doing: we are promoting housing, promoting health policies, we have got money extending unemployment insurance.’
And once returned to Downing Street he did indeed drive through some social reforms, even if they weren’t all as significant as those he pursued pre-war as chancellor, or those of the Attlee government after 1945. For example, what became known as the Addison Act proposed the building of 500,000 ‘homes fit for heroes’; over 200,000 were erected before Lloyd George’s Conservative partners turned off the spending tap, following the kind of pressure from their right flank that recently defenestrated Tory leaders will recognise with a shudder.
We still wait to see if the present government were sincere when they pledged: ‘Talent and genius are uniformly distributed throughout the country. Opportunity is not. Now is the time to close that gap.’ Even if Johnson is, will he have better luck talking round today’s fiscal hawks? Will his present chancellor turn out to be the Eric Geddes of the 2020s?
The December 1918 election was held in the middle of a flu pandemic that provides the clearest parallel between Lloyd George’s premiership and Johnson’s. Lloyd George was struck by the illness after a trip that September to Manchester, with his condition – not dissimilar to Johnson’s in April – rather played down for understandable war morale-related reasons.
Having caught the government off-guard, the Spanish flu forced the Liberal-led administration to consider illiberal measures in peacetime – including restrictions on public gatherings, the wearing of ‘germ-masks’ and school closures. And, like today, there was more resistance to such matters in the US than in the UK.
Unlike today, though, Lloyd George seems not to have spent quite as much time concerning himself with public health matters, other than personally recovering from the virus. He concentrated on the war and then on shaping the peace at home and abroad, though his government did set up the first Ministry of Health in 1919 (under the same Christopher Addison who produced the housing act that became associated with his name and later served in the 1945 Labour cabinet that founded the National Health Service). Of course there was not as much science to follow in those days, but the very different government response contributed to a death toll far in excess of the nonetheless shaming Covid total.
It has been argued that a public numbed to the losses of the war were more emotionally ‘prepared’ than today’s for the trauma of a pandemic, even after the Armistice. An upbeat Daily Mail declared: ‘Patients suffering from [flu] are being cured by the best of all remedial agents, cheerfulness.’ Meanwhile a correspondent to the British Medical Journal railed against the publication of inflection fatality rates: ‘When epidemics occur deaths always happen. Would it not be better if a little more prudence was shown in publishing such reports instead of banking up as many dark clouds as possible to upset our breakfasts.’
Justified fear of the illness was certainly real, especially in big cities, but there was not the pressure for Lloyd George to present himself as personally responsible for the fight against the pandemic, as Johnson has been required to do. Lloyd George’s heyday preceded the era of mass radio or television broadcasting, so in this respect, at least, Johnson’s default desire to emulate Churchill makes sense, regardless of his ability to achieve similar rhetorical heights.
In today’s intense media environment questions about the government’s handling of the crisis have inevitably led to speculation about Johnson’s possible departure from office; and just as a Coalition formed in wartime ceased to have a political use for its dominant faction once peace returned, so an individual not always trusted by his party colleagues but identified as the leader to get Brexit done could find himself considered a liability once his trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union has passed. Lloyd George did not mean to depart the premiership in 1922; he was undone as Conservative MPs abandoned support for a coalition. It is not impossible to see their contemporary counterparts, many of whose support for Johnson has seemed as transactional as that of their predecessors for the Liberal premier of the Coupon Coalition, sealing their current leader’s fate in similarly efficient manner.
But while there are parallels between the situations faced – and solicited – by today’s prime minister and the premier of a hundred years ago, Johnson isn’t Lloyd George reincarnate, despite some shared carnal hobbies and allegations about dodgy peerages. Lloyd George’s place in the political pantheon was assured even before he became premier, and it is hard to see Johnson remaining an MP for twenty-three years after he ceases to be prime minister, let alone popping up two decades after his political heyday to play a role in events as significant as the fall of Neville Chamberlain. On the other hand, Johnson is the leader of a party whose immediate future as a major force seems more secure than that of the remnants of the Liberal Party after 1918.
Maybe Boris Johnson will be ranked by future historians as a prime minister as distinguished as David Lloyd George, rather than as a previously undistinguished mayor of London and foreign secretary who lived down to the expectations of his critics. But for that to be the case, he will need to look to the playbooks of predecessors other than Churchill.
other dead politicians of the year: