Old Heroes for a New Leader: Chris Huhne

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.

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18 Comments

  • I actually support Chris. I’m surprised therefore that he chose this corrupt, old goat who split the Liberal Party and nearly destroyed it. Part of his problem was that he saw himself as bigger than his party.

  • Chris is so highly predictable!

    This has been my problem with him all along – he seems to want to press the buttons of the activists – almost to reassure them of things whereas Nick speaks of the challenges and taking us out of our comfort zones.

    Nah, Nick’s more savvy with Willcock and Havel.

  • The last Radical 26th Nov '07 - 1:29pm

    Did not Asquith play some part in the split in the Liberal Party then?
    Lloyd Geoge was a political giant, as Chris’s article and the debate the Lib Dem History Group ran in its journal and at Conference showed. His last notable parliamentary contribution was in the Norway debate which led to the fall of Chamberlain in 1940. LG was a true Radical all his life who is an inspiration for many Liberal Democrats, that so few say the same about Asquith is significant.

  • Martin Land 26th Nov '07 - 1:37pm

    It should be a little less contrived; Lloyd George – haven’t we had enough sex scandals already! But then none of them would be my choice!

  • “LG was a true Radical all his life who is an inspiration for many Liberal Democrats,”

    LG was sufficiently “radical” to introduce conscription and rationing and send hundreds of thousands to their deaths.

    A truly wicked man.

  • Alix, as he’s an economist I was hoping Chris would chose Keynes.

    For what it’s worth I still don’t think you can better Gladstone, who would have been my choice.

  • Richard Huzzey 26th Nov '07 - 2:41pm

    7 – Amen. Asquith is the forgotten hero of New Liberalism.

  • 8 Ordunetsi – for your information, conscription was introduced in a limited way in January 1916, and in general in May 196, both under Asquith’s prime ministership. Only a handful of MPs opposed it.

  • Steve Comer 26th Nov '07 - 3:54pm

    LG briefly wanted a new Centre Party to emerge out of the coalition, not to merge with ALL the Tories. A key difference I think, but in any case the fall of the coalition in 1922 put paid to such talk.
    The 1923 election saw the Liberals re-united and succesful, but unable to deal with balance of power (no ALDC or IDeA peers to advise then!),
    In the 1920s it was LG who promoted a genuine radical alternative in terms of the Yellow Book. The ideas of Keynes and others were taken up, but not in the UK but by FDR in the New Deal, which brought recovery from the depression in the USA.
    A deeply flawed personality – yes, a great Radical politician – definitely

  • I wouldn’t have picked him either, but somewhere amongst my piles of secondhand books (unless I’ve sold it) is a volume of his speeches from around the time of the confrontation with the Lords. There are not many politicians whose speeches can be read with any interest at all, let alone nearly 100 years after they were made, but Lloyd George’s certainly can be. Fortunately he was alive at a time when his voice could be broadcast (I have no idea what Gladstone sounded like), and one can imagine the way he delivered these speeches as one reads them – wonderful radical sentiments, putting the boot into the Tories.

  • You can hear Mr Gladstone at the excellent LibDem History Group website:-

    http://www.liberalhistory.org.uk/item_list.php?item=audio_source

    It is a pity no-one puts forward Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, a true overlooked hero of New Liberalism.

  • Henry DuPre Labouchere

    though his views on women were a little illiberal !!!!

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