As we have done in each of the last two Liberal Democrat leadership elections, in 1999 and 2006, the Liberal Democrat History Group has asked both candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership to write a short article on their favourite historical figure or figures – the ones they felt had influenced their own political beliefs most, and why they had proved important and relevant. Their replies are being posted up here, and are also posted on our website. Earlier today, Nick Clegg’s were posted up; now it is the turn of Chris Huhne.
Chris Huhne MP – David Lloyd George
My hero is David Lloyd George. An outsider, with none of the benefits of inherited wealth or education, he became one of the most dynamic and brilliant politicians ever to lead the Liberal Party.
He was a radical to his bones. His early prominence came partly through his campaign against the Boer War. He helped to build an anti-war coalition including not merely the advanced elements of the party, outraged by imperial aggression, but also some of the most conservative and rural elements, who identified with the independent qualities of the Boers.
In government, Lloyd George had a passionate belief in his own ability to cajole and persuade, amply demonstrated during labour disputes as President of the Board of Trade. He was a great speaker, but also a great listener. The two are connected: great speakers have to be ever-sensitive to the moods and motivations of their audiences. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was the kingpin of the government’s attempt to force through social welfare and overcome the opposition of the House of Lords.
The old age pension is his most durable domestic achievement, and a testament to his New Liberal thinking. The roots of this tradition are the wellspring of Liberal Democrat thinking today, whether coming through the New Liberal – or ‘social liberal’ – tradition or the social democratic tradition that rejoined us in 1981.
I also find Lloyd George’s style as a politician appealing. He was an optimist who believed in the power of ideas to persuade and change the world, and he was always prepared to throw himself into the political battle even when the odds looked stacked against him. He was an anti-metropolitan politician: a believer that the best and purest instincts were to be found in the misty valleys of his beloved Wales, from which he drew emotional strength. Combined with this optimism was a great sense of mischief, captured for me in the marvellous Low cartoon, a copy of which I have on my study wall. Lloyd George is sitting, elfin-like, on the green benches, hugging himself with mirth; never pompous, always able to see the folly and the ridiculousness of power and position.
In the 1930s, he was the only mainstream politician who understood John Maynard Keynes’s analysis of the causes of mass unemployment and the only statesman with the vision to banish it. It is the country’s loss that he was never given the chance to do so.
Lloyd George remains a figure of controversy, but he had a real and lasting impact, both on the country and on the party. He has the strongest claim to be the father of the British welfare state and he was a great war leader at a time of desperate national need. He brought Liberalism into the twentieth century, adjusting successfully to the new politics of a mass industrial democracy and ensuring that it stood for radical social and economic reform. He has been dead for sixty years – but his record should inspire us all.