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review 2018-03-10 16:40
Highlighting an overlooked aspect of Lloyd George's career
Lloyd George and Foreign Policy, Volume I: The Education of a Stateman, 1890-1916 - Michael G. Fry

Up until the First World War David Lloyd George was regarded as a politician focused predominantly upon domestic issues. Having championed issues such as old age pensions, Welsh Disestablishment, and women's suffrage, he was more commonly associated with national issues than the foreign policies that would define his tenure as prime minister and shape much of his legacy. As Michael Graham Fry demonstrates, though, this impression is a misleading one. His book, the first half of a two-volume study, traces Lloyd George's engagement with foreign policy prior to becoming prime minister in an effort to chronicle the development of the views he would apply once he won the highest of offices.

Fry beings by situating Lloyd George in the world of his youth, showing him to be a product of the Nonconformist and Welsh nationalist currents rushing through Wales in the late 19th century. From this he developed a view of international affairs that framed issues in moral terms, a perspective that was subsequently reflected in the public rhetoric he used in framing issues for his audiences. He first came to national attention with his criticism of the war in South Africa, the nuance of which was obscured with his labeling as a "pro-Boer." When the Liberals formed a government in 1905 Lloyd George took office first as President of the Board of Trade, then in 1908 as Chancellor of the Exchequer. While these offices were focused more on economic and fiscal matters, Fry draws out his subject's role in shaping foreign policy during these years, finding within them an ongoing evolution of his views on international issues. He highlights Lloyd George's goring concern about Germany during this period, which was reflected both in advocacy for a naval agreement and in his speeches and Cabinet efforts in 1911 during the Agadir crisis. This puts his support for joining the war in 1914 look less like a betrayal of his earlier views and more a product of the development of his views over time, with his subsequent embrace of a vigorous war effort paving the way for his assumption of the premiership in 1916.

By detailing the development of Lloyd George's engagement with foreign policy, Fry provides readers with an invaluable study of his subject. Yet the value of Fry's analysis is hampered by his writing, as it oscillates between extremes of sweeping generalizations and a morass of detail. A better balance between the two would have allowed Fry to make his arguments more effectively, but those willing to take their time with Fry's text will be rewarded with an astute examination of the intellectual and political development of a key 20th century statesman.

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review 2018-03-09 16:30
A comprehensive study of Lloyd George's life and career
David Lloyd George: A Biography - Peter Rowland

Though often overshadowed by his Second World War counterpart Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George had a political career that was nearly as long and just as impressive in its accomplishments. Born in Manchester in 1863, the young David moved with the rest of his family to Llanystumdwy after the death of his father, where they were taken in by David's uncle Richard Lloyd. Excelling in school, he embarked on a career as a solicitor, though this soon proved to be a stepping stone into politics. Rowland depicts the young politician as actively focused on Welsh issues, particularly disestablishment and land reform. Yet his ambitions soon propeled the young MP beyond the boundaries of regional concerns, and beginning with his active - and controversial - stand against the Boer War he emerged as an increasingly prominent member of the `Radical' wing of the Liberal Party.

With the formation of the Liberal Government in the aftermath of Balfour's resignation, Lloyd George took office, first as President of the Board of Trade, then as Chancellor of the Exchequer after Asquith's promotion to the premiership in 1908. As Chancellor he supervised the passage of a bill granting old age pensions and championed the cause of a comprehensive land valuation as a prelude to taxing the great landlords of Britain. The increased financial burden caused by the pensions, coupled with the growing expenditures on the navy, led to the introduction of the famous `People's Budget' in 1909 and the political showdown which resulted in two general elections and the emasculation of the House of Lords.

Soon after his success in this battle, Lloyd George began his long-term romantic relationship with Frances Stevenson, who went from being tutor to his daughter Megan to his private secretary. She proved to be the most enduring of the many affairs Lloyd George embarked upon during his lifetime. Rowland does not downplay Lloyd George's habitual philandering, and the relationship between Lloyd George and his first wife Margaret is depicted as having reached a mutual understanding on the matter. Despite these affairs, Lloyd George retained a deep affection for Margaret, and Rowland notes that the maintenance of their marriage ensured his political survival.

Like million of other Britons, Lloyd George's life was changed by his country's entry into the First World War. Initially hesitant about involvement, he soon chafed at the government's conduct of the war. As a result of the `shells scandal' he became the head of a new Ministry of Munitions, where he circumvented War Office inertia in equipping Britain's growing army. Rowland states that these efforts to transform Britain into a nation at war were Lloyd George's greatest contribution to Britain's victory, and they increasingly marked him out as the most dynamic member of the government. In spite of his continued dissatisfaction with Asquith's conduct of the war, however, Rowland argues that Lloyd George would have preferred to work as a `power behind the throne' rather than as Asquith's replacement. Yet when Asquith resigned in December 1916, Lloyd George took office as the only person capable of maintaining the governing coalition.

As prime minister, Lloyd George presided over a government composed of the Unionist Party and the Liberals who chose not to follow Asquith's example in resigning. His greatest battles at this time were with the military, particularly with General Haig and his command of British forces on the Western Front. Rowland is good at recounting the political infighting that comprised this struggle, noting the limitations to the Prime Minister's authority even at this stage of the war. Perhaps the greatest limitation on his power, though, was the Unionist domination of his government. While Lloyd George worked well with the Unionists with whom he governed, his dependence on their parliamentary support - which only increased after the postwar `coupon' election of 1918 - left him dangerously vulnerable to their goodwill for his continued survival.

The end of the war thus left Lloyd George in a dominant yet tenuous position. As a key participant in the Paris peace negotiations he relished his role as a world statesman, though his belief in conciliation was hampered by French intransigence. Back home Lloyd George faced a number of crises, particularly with skyrocketing unemployment and the increasingly violent opposition to British rule in Ireland. Though Lloyd George ultimately cobbled together a solution, the resulting partition alienated many of the rank-and-file in the Unionist parliamentary party, and this, coupled with his blatant sale of honours and his efforts to manipulate public opinion, ultimately cost him his premiership. Lloyd George rejoined the weakened Liberals in opposition, but his continued tension with Asquith's supporters diminished his influence in the party, while his dynamic solutions to the ongoing unemployment problems of the interwar period were ignored by both the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

Faced with a career as long and accomplished as this, Rowland was faced with a challenge to compress everything into one volume. Often this forces him to pass over events by noting that the details were recounted elsewhere - a regrettable but understandable device considering the scope of his project, though it would have been helped if he noted which volumes the reader could turn to for additional detail. More problematic is his heavy reliance on the diaries of Lord Riddell for much of his information, a source that most historians treat with skepticism. Nevertheless, the overall result is the best one-volume biography of Lloyd George available, a valuable summary of the life and times of a dominant political figure in modern British history.

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review 2018-03-09 16:24
The radical centrism of the "Welsh Wizard"
Lloyd George - Martin Pugh

David Lloyd George has never wanted for biographers, yet there is a surprising dearth of first-rate works about him. Both John Grigg and Bentley Birnkerhoff Gilbert attempted multi-volume studies of his life and career, yet both died before they could complete their labors. There are comprehensive single-volume accounts, most notably Peter Rowland's David Lloyd George: A Biography, but Rowland's book suffers from a lack of analysis that would make sense of the details he provides.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that authors who attempt such an effort face is coming to terms with such a long and complicated life. Lloyd George's career can seem to be a mass of contradictions: the pro-Boer who supported Britain's entry into the First World War and who subsequently led the nation to victory, the radical who was prime minister of a Conservative-dominated government, the dynamic Liberal whose tenure as his party's leader saw its decline into political irrelevance. This is the great merit of Martin Pugh's short biography of Lloyd George. In less than 200 pages, he offers an analysis of his subject that reconciles these contradictions into a coherent political career. Pugh's Lloyd George is not so much contradictory as he is complex, with a political philosophy of "radical centrism" that was not at home in either party. Patriotic and reformist, his beliefs were reflected in policies as diverse as his advocacy of old age pensions and his support for imperial expansion, all of which combine to make his legacy a rich one that defined the country more profoundly than most other prime ministers.

Pugh advances his interpretation in clear and forceful prose. Though he confines his citations to published primary sources, it is a book that reflects both his prior archival research and his mastery of the considerable secondary source literature on his subject. Much has been added to this corpus since Pugh's book was first published, yet while it may no longer be up-to-date his analysis has weathered the years well. For anyone seeking to understand this complex and important figure, Pugh's biography is a worthy addition to their reading list.

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review 2018-03-03 15:22
How the naval campaigns shaped the First World War
The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War - Lawrence Sondhaus

Over the years I've developed criteria for judging new surveys of well-covered historical subjects. First, does it offer any new information? Second, does it offer a different perspective than other books on the same subject? Third, does it do a better job of covering its subject than its (sometimes innumerable) predecessors? In the case of a book like Sondhaus's history of the naval dimension of the First World War, it faces the added burden of being measured up against Paul Halpern's superb account of the subject, which was published not even two decades previously.


In terms of the first criteria, the answer is mixed. Sondhaus does take full advantage of the works published in the intervening period (such as Nicholas Black's book on the British naval staff during the war) to flesh out some new aspects to the story. None of it really revises our overall understanding to the conflict, but it does help him to offer a different perspective from Halpern. In this respect, Sondhaus does offer something different from Halpern's book, for while he covers many of the same battles and campaigns he spends his first chapters on the prewar naval arms race and focuses more on the broader political and strategic aspects of naval operations during the war itself. Because of this, Sondhaus's book is arguably a better overview of the subject than Halpern's book, especially for someone who wants to understand the impact of the naval war upon the overall conflict.


Does this mean that Sondhaus's book is better than Halpern's? The answer depends more upon what the reader is seeking than anything else. For a history of naval operations during the war Halpern's book remains unsurpassed for its coverage and thoroughness, as Sondhaus's own reliance upon it as a source can attest. Yet as an introduction for the uninitiated Sondhaus's book enjoys a slight edge. Fortunately we don't live in a world where we have to choose between the two books, and can benefit from reading both, yet Sondhaus's is definitely recommended first for a reader new to the subject before having them turn to Halpern's more richly detailed account.

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review 2018-02-08 14:55
Podcast #90 is up!
Lord Lyons: A Diplomat in an Age of Nationalism and War - Brian A. Jenkins

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Brian Jenkins about his biography of the 19th century British diplomat Lord Lyons (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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