David Lloyd George
( Originally Published 1907 )
I WAS seated at dinner one night at 10 Downing Street beside a distinguished Liberal. " What a wonderful bust of Chamberlain that is in the hall," I said. " Ah," he replied; " you mean the bust of Pitt. Yes, it is marvellously like Chamberlain. I wonder," he went on, musingly, as though the question fitted in with his train of thoughtó" I wonder what will happen to Chamberlain's successor." I looked up. " Chamberlain's successor ? You mean " " Lloyd George, of course."
There was a faint hint of reproof in the " of course," as though I had asked solemnly for an explanation of the obvious. I looked down the table to where Mr. Lloyd George himself sat, his face lit with that smile, so quick and sunny, yet so obscure, his light voice penetrating the hum of conversation, with its note of mingled seriousness and banter, his whole air, at once so alert and self-poised, full of a baffling fascination and disquiet. Yes, here was the unknown factor of the future, here the potentiality of politics.
And here, too, was its romance. My mind turned to that little village between the mountains and the sea, where the fatherless boy learned the rudiments of knowledge in the village school, and where, in leading his school-fellows in a revolt against the Catechism he gave the first hint of the mettle that was in him. I saw the kindly old uncle, bootmaker and local preacher, worrying out the declensions and the irregular verbs of strange tongues in order to pave the path of the boy to the law. I saw that boy at twenty-one a qualified solicitor, with his foot on the ladder, fighting the battle of the village folk against the tyranny of the parson, who refused the dying wish of a Dissenter to be buried in his child's grave. " Bury him where he wished to be," said young Lloyd George, strong in the law. " But if the gate is locked? " " Break down the gate." And the old man was buried in his child's grave, and solemn judges in London pronounced a solemn verdict in support of the young Hampden. I saw him, still little more than a lad, leaping into the ring, and challenging the squire of his village for the possession of the Carnarvon Boroughs challenging him and beating him. I saw him, with nothing but his native wit and his high-soaring courage to help him, flashing into the great world of politics, risking his fortune and even his life in support of an unpopular cause, escaping from Birmingham Town Hall in the clothes of a policeman, his name the symbol of fierce enthusiasms and fiercer hates. And then I saw him, transformed from the brilliant free-lance into the serious states-man, the head of a great department, handling large problems of government with easy mastery, moving great merchant princes like pawns on his chess-board, winning golden opinions from all sides, his name always on the lips of the world, but no longer in hate órather in a wondering admiration, mingled with doubt. And now there he sat, the man who has " arrived," the most piquant and the most baffling figure in politics the man, perchance, with the key of the future.
What is the secret of it all? In the first place, audacity. Danton's great maxim is with him, as with Mr. Chamberlain, the guiding principle of conduct. He swoops down on opportunity like a hawk on its prey. He does not pause to think: he acts. He has no fear. The bigger the task, the better he likes it. The higher the stakes, the more heroic his play. He never fears to put his fate to the touch, and will cheerfully risk his all on a throw. When the great moment came he seized it with both hands. He had two motives: his love of the small nationality and his instinct for the great game. The one gave him passion, the other calculation. Here was the occasion: he was the man. His business was being ruined: no matter. His life and his home were threatened: good. The greater the perils, the greater the victory. And
We roared " Hurrah! " and so
ran on and lashed itself to the great San Philip of Birmingham, and came out of the battle-smoke victorious the one reputation made by the war, the one fortune born on the battlefield where so many were buried.
And he has not only the eye for the big occasion and the courage that rises to it : he has the instinct for the big foe. He is the hunter of great game. " Don't waste your powder and shot on the small animals," said Disraeli, and he hung on to the flank of Peel. " Go for the lion " was Randolph Churchill's maxim, and he gave Gladstone no pause. Even to snap at the heels of the great is fame. It is to catch the lime-light that streams upon the stage. There are names that live in history simply because Gladstone noticed them. Lord Cross and Lord Cranbrook came to great estate merely because they beat him at the poll. To have crossed swords with him was a career. Mr. Lloyd George's eye, ranging over the Government benches, saw one figure worth fighting, and he leapt at that figure with concentrated and governed passion. It became a duel between him and Mr. Chamberlain.
It was a duel between the broad-sword and the rapier -between the Saxon mind, direct and crashing as the thunderbolt; and the Celtic mind, nimble and elusive as the lightning.
He has, indeed, the swiftest mind in politics. It is a mind that carries no impedimenta. Hazlitt once wrote an essay on " The Ignorance of the Learned," and declared that " anyone who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape." Certainly the man of learning, unless he wears it lightly, as Macaulay said of Milton, and has assimilated it easily, starts with a heavy handicap when he comes down into the realm of affairs. He is under the dominion of authority and the awe of the past. Mr. Lloyd George has no such restraints. He is like a runner ever stripped for the race. The pistol may go off when it likes: he is always away from the mark like an arrow. And it is not speed alone. When the hare is started he can twist and turn in full career, for the hotter the chase the cooler he becomes.
He is the improviser of politics. He spins his web as he goes along. He thinks best on his feet. You can see the bolts being forged in the furnace of his mind. They come hurtling out molten and aflame. He electrifies his audience: but he suffers in print next morning, for the speech that thrills the ear by its impromptu brilliancy seldom bears the cold analysis of the eye. He is in this respect the anti-thesis of Mr. Churchill, though Mr. Churchill is like him in daring. I once had a pleasant after-dinner talk with them on the subject of their oratorical methods. " I do not trust myself to the moment on a big occasion," said Mr. Churchill. " I don't mind it in debate or in an ordinary platform speech; but a set speech I learn to the letter. Mark Twain said to me, ` You ought to know a speech as you know your prayers,' and that's how I know mine. I've written a speech out six times with my own hand."
I couldn't do that," said Mr. Lloyd George. " I must wait for the crisis. Here are my notes for the Queen's Hall speech." And he took out of his pocket a slip of paper with half-a-dozen phrases scrawled in his curiously slanting hand. The result is a certain thinness which contrasts with the breadth and literary form of Mr. Churchill's handling of a subject, or with the massive march of Mr. Asquith's utterance. But it has qualities of sudden eloquence, imaginative flight and quick wit that make it unique in the records of political oratory. Above all it has a quite unexampled air of intimacy. His swiftly responsive nature brings him into extraordinarily close relations with his audience, so that he almost leaves the impression of a brilliant conversation in which all have been engaged. This responsiveness, while it gives his speech its rare quality of freshness and exhilaration, is the source of his occasional indiscretions. Lord_ Salisbury's " blazing indiscretions " were due to his detachment from men and his remoteness from his audience. They were the indiscretions of an Olympian. The indiscretions of Mr. Lloyd George come from his nearness to his hearers. He cannot resist the stimulus of the occasion. It works in him like wine. It floods him with the riot of high spirits and swift fancy, until he seems to be almost the voice of the collective emotion.
And yet with all this sensitiveness to the external impulse, he is at the bottom the most subtle, the most resolute, and the most wilful force in politics. He has passion, but it is controlled. It does not burn with the deep spiritual fire of Gladstone. It flashes and sparkles. It is an instrument that is used, not an obsession of the soul. You feel that it can be put aside as adroitly as it is taken up. And so with his humour. It coruscates; it does not warm all the fibres of his utterance. It leaps out in light laughter. It is the humour of the quick mind rather than of the rich mind. " We will have Home Rule for Ireland and for England and for Scotland and for Wales," he said, addressing some Welsh farmers. " And for hell," interposed a deep, half-drunken voice. " Quite right. I like to hear a man stand up for his own country."
The soil of his mind is astonishingly fertile, but light. He is always improvising. You feel that the theme is of secondary importance to the treatment. You have an uneasy fear that this wonderful fluency of execution may presently reveal another motif. You listen. Your quickened ear seems to catch a hint of coming change. He keeps your mind on the stretch. He fascinates you, plays with you, holds you with the mesmerism of the unsolved riddle. You would give anything to know the thought behind that gay, debonair raillery.
He is, indeed; the least doctrinaire of men as little doctrinaire as Mr. Chamberlain. No anchor of theory holds him, and he approaches life as if it were a new problem. It is a virgin country for him to fashion and shape. He is unconscious of the roads and fences of his forefathers. His maxims are his own, coined out of the metal quarried from his direct contact with life. He is not modern : he is momentary. There is no past : only the living present ; no teachers : only the living facts. This absolute reliance on self gives a certain sense of lack of atmosphere. There is no literature to soften the sharp lines. There are no cool grottoes of the mind, no green thought in a green shade.
This detachment from tradition and theory is the source of his power, as it was the source of Mr. Chamberlain's power. He brings a fresh, untrammelled mind to the contemplation of every problem. It was said of Leighton that he looked at life through the eyes of a dead Greek. Mr. Lloyd George looks at life with the frank self-assertion of a child, free from all formulas and prescriptions, seeing the thing, as it were, in a flash of truth, facing it without reverence because it is old and without fear because it is vast. " The thing is rotten," he says, and in a moment his mind has reconstructed it on lines that acknowledge no theory, except the theory of practical usefulness. Thus he has swept away the old, effete Port of London, and put in its place a system as original as it is ingenious. And all the world asks, Why was this not done years ago?
Like Falstaff, he is " quick, apprehensive, forgetive," but he does not, like Falstaff, owe these qualities to canary, but to the Celtic spirit that races like a fever in his blood. His apprehensiveness, indeed, is amazing. He picks up a subject as he runs, through the living voice, never through books. He does not learn: he absorbs, and by a sort of instantaneous chemistry his mind condenses the gases to the concrete.
His intellectual activity is bewildering. It is as difficult to keep his name out of the paper as it was to keep King Charles's head out of Mr. Dick's memorial. He is always " doing things " and always big things. His eye lights on an anachronism like the Patent Laws and straightway he sets it on fire. He does not pore over books to discover the facts about docks: he goes to Antwerp, to Hamburg, and sees. When he brought in his Merchant Shipping Bill he took a voyage to Spain and learned about ships. And his passion for action grows with what it feeds on He has yet his trumps to play.
With all this energy and daring, the astonishing thing is that he has won the confidence of the most sensitive class, the commercial class, without losing the confidence of the working class. Like Mr. Chamberlain, he is essentially a middle-class states-man. He is no Socialist, for, as I have said, he has no theories, and Socialism is all theory. " England," he said to me once, " is based on commerce. No party can live by an appeal to labour alone: it must carry the commercial class as well as labour with it."
What can I do for commerce? " was his first question at the Board of Trade. And he took up the Merchant Shipping Bill. " What can I do for labour ? " was his second question. And he incorporated in it those valuable provisions for improving the life of the seamen.
Wales looks on, admiringly and a little sorrow-fully, at his giddy flight. He has passed out of its narrow sphere. The Parnell of Wales has become the Chamberlain of England. The vision of the young gladiator fighting the battle of the homeland has faded.
Oh for a falconer's voice
hack to the resounding hills and the old battle-cries that have grown far-off and faint, back to the pure idealism that stirred its pulse and its patriotism. It is proud of its brilliant son proud of the first Welsh-speaking Minister to enter a British Cabinet but it waits with a certain gathering gloom for its reward. Is it not thirteen years since he led a revolt against the Liberal party on Disestablishment, and is he not now a chief in the house of Pharaoh? Once it has been on the point of revolt; but he had only to appear, and it was soothed. Wales will get its reward quicker than if he had remained its Parnell ; but it must await the propitious season. He is " forgetive," but he will not forget Wales. For Wales is not Birmingham.
And so I turn to the figure at the end of the table, with the smile so quick and sunny, yet so obscure. If the key of the future is anywhere it is there. If the social fabric is to be reorganised, there is the man that can do it. He stands in the furrow that Mr. Chamber-lain deserted. Mr. Chamberlain put his hand to the plough-and turned back. He failed because he lost the vision of his youth, and treated politics as a game, and not as a gospel. Mr. Lloyd George will succeed in proportion to his fidelity to the inspiration, not of Westminster with its intrigues, but of Wales with its simple faith.
I turned to my neighbour, and I said, " Yes, I wonder."