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David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider, By Roy Hattersley

This PM achieved much but outstayed his welcome

Of all the ironies of democratic politics, it is among the most irrepressible: politicians do most damage to their legacies the minute they become obsessed with them.

If David Lloyd George had obeyed the maxim that one should retire at the top of one's game, he would compete with Churchill, Gladstone and Attlee for top spot in a list of our greatest prime ministers. In 1918, he was the man who had won the war. As the leader of a wartime coalition, he showed courage and competence. But his determination to cling to power, and the subsequent formation of a peacetime coalition in November 1918, tarnished his legacy irrevocably. Within six years, the number of Liberal MPs fell from 258 to 40, causing Labour to become the main voice of the left and the unionised poor. The Liberals, and a particular tradition of English liberalism, were eviscerated (and have yet fully to recover) under the tutelage of a man reduced to a dyspeptic, corrupt, and vainglorious adulterer.

It hadn't been ever thus (except for the adultery, which was second nature to him). Born in Manchester but educated unspectacularly in Wales, Lloyd George fought for his adopted country's freedom much as Charles Parnell fought for the Irish, first developing a solid base of political support, then applying an air of inevitability to the acceptance of his demands. He was a proper radical, reasserting the connection created by Charles Grey and Gladstone between liberalism and concern for the poor. Indeed, he sold himself as their ambassador, overstating his own proletarian credentials. At Labour's Annual Conference last month, David Miliband quoted John Robert Clynes, Labour's fourth leader: "We come into Parliament not to practice the class war but to end it." What Roy Hattersley seems most to enjoy about Lloyd George is that he went into Parliament to begin it.

His conviction was manifested in a wholly sensible notion, one to which the modern creed of Osbornomics is somewhat oblivious. Tax bad things (carbon, asset bubbles) and cut tax on good things (profits for small companies, the income of the poor). Following this, land, and the unearned growth in its value, was Lloyd George's obsession, first as a solicitor in small disputes, and then at the far more symbolic level of Welsh self-determination. By the time he left the Treasury, he had virtually invented the welfare state by insuring working men against sickness and unemployment, broken the unjust power of hereditary peers, and introduced the bill that gave women the vote. For a womaniser who regularly sold cash for honours, that is not bad going.

He had a quality boasted by all great leaders: the ability to make those nearest to him sacrifice everything for the benefit of his advancement. Not only his wife, Margaret, and his mistress, Frances, but a brother and uncle, too, had devoted themselves to his achievements. Hattersley seems inspired by this. The author is open, too, about his good fortune in the deliverance of a coalition government last May, which lends his work an extra resonance. I'm not a great believer in pretending the future is written into the distant past, but the curious and narrow parallels between Lloyd George and Nick Clegg might subtract from the tedium of a dinner party in the wrong part of town.

The central philosophical quandary presented by Lloyd George's life, Hattersley says, is whether we should prefer good men with bad policies to bad men with good policies. It is a bad question, because easily answered: we prefer the latter, though good men with good policies (Obama, Manmohan Singh) are possible too. This is an engaging and comprehensive work of history, not a philosophical tract.

Hattersley sometimes burdens the reader with detail of interest primarily for those who keep a copy of Hansard by their bedside table. Yet he is constantly seeking, and often finding, that ideally illuminating metaphor, and if we should quibble with the title of the book (bizarre, given that Lloyd George was an MP for 55 years, and succumbed to the venal temptations of power), we should nevertheless applaud the author for passionately reminding us of something precious, which has nearly been forgotten. There really is a Liberal tradition in British politics, and when it dared to be radical, it achieved such things as heroes are made of.