No previous Prime Minister ran 10 Downing Street like David Lloyd George. His predecessors had governed conventionally; he launched a revolution as profound as that under Henry VIII. This was partly because he headed a wartime coalition government, which called for an unusual degree of direction from the Prime Minister. But it was also personal. Lloyd George, the Welsh Baptist outsider, detached from the conventions of the unwritten British constitution, believed in leadership. His heroes were strong leaders: Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln. His years at Number 10 saw Britain’s first venture in prime ministerial government, run in the presidential mode.
Privately, Number 10 was not a happy place. Lloyd George’s wife, Margaret, found it cold and inconvenient, although the introduction of bathrooms by Margot Asquith, wife of the previous Prime Minister, had made it more bearable. But the deeper cause of unhappiness behind the black door lay in Lloyd George’s unorthodox private life: his secretary, Frances Stevenson, was also his mistress. They were abetted by the formidable housekeeper, Sarah Jones, a veritable Welsh dragon, who acted as a confidential go-between, conveying messages between them.
From the outset, Lloyd George assumed total control in a way unknown to Herbert Henry Asquith or his predecessors. He appointed a five-man War Cabinet to take major strategic decisions. He created a new Cabinet Secretariat based in nearby Whitehall Gardens, headed by Sir Maurice Hankey and his Welsh deputy Thomas Jones, to act as a central organising machine and keep the minutes: the beginnings of today’s Cabinet Office. And, impinging directly on Number 10, Lloyd George chose his own secretariat, a novel group of special advisers, initially housed in temporary huts in the gardens of Number 10. This ‘Garden Suburb’ consisted of five characteristic advisers: Philip Kerr (later Lord Lothian) who focussed on foreign policy, Professor Adams, a Professor of All Souls, Oxford, a Welsh shipping statistician, Sir Joseph Davies, and two millionaires: Waldorf Astor, the American owner of The Observer, and David Davies, a Welsh industrial baron. Cecil Harmsworth, younger brother of the press baron Lord Northcliffe, later replaced David Davies. The precise role of the Garden Suburb was never defined, but it was a powerful symbol of the new centralisation of government. It had an impact at first in foreign affairs, through Kerr, Irish policy through Adams, and food production, through Astor. It continued until the end of the war in December 1918 but its influence on the role of Number 10 was lasting.
As head of a Coalition mainly dominated by the Unionists (Conservatives), and as a man who did not lead a political party himself, Lloyd George was intensely active within the wartime coalition. A key episode was bringing Winston Churchill, at this stage an important Liberal, back into the Cabinet in July 1917. There were important meetings to discuss the Coalition’s manifesto and the sharing-out of seats between the Unionists and Liberals in the Coalition at the next general election (in which candidates were notoriously given a ‘coupon’ to show they had Coalition support). An emotional moment came on 11 November 1918 with the calling of the armistice bringing the First World War to an end. Lloyd George shouted to the crowds congregating outside in Downing Street: ‘this war will soon be over.’ Dr. Weizmann, the Zionist leader, champion of a national home for Jews, called in to have lunch and found Lloyd George lost in thought, reading the psalms, almost in tears. Soon after, there was a parliamentary service of thanksgiving at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. By that evening, however, Lloyd George’s natural political instincts returned when he had supper with two key supporters, Churchill and Frederick Edwin Smith (later Lord Birkenhead), to discuss the forthcoming election campaign, and the plans to try the former German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, for war crimes. The Coalition won a landslide victory in the 1918 election – the first in which most British men and some women could vote.
Lloyd George’s post-war Coalition lasted, precariously towards the end, for almost four years. The nature of coalition politics and Lloyd George’s own preference for highly personal summit diplomacy or ‘sofa government’, by-passing Cabinet and Commons, meant that key episodes of high politics took place within Number 10. This is best illustrated through two areas of policy that were particularly important and controversial: industrial relations and Ireland.
In this period, there were constant strikes and threats of strikes from major national unions in energy supply and transport. On 20 February 1919, there was a fateful meeting with the Trades Union Congress at Number 10, when a national mineworkers’ strike was being threatened. Bob Smillie, the miners’ president, later recalled Lloyd George having insisted that the unions were threatening a confrontation with the whole of the country. ‘I feel bound to tell you that in our opinion we are at your mercy…. But have you weighed the consequences?’ The unions, he declared, would then have to take on the entire functions of government. Smillie ruefully recalled, ‘From that moment we were beaten…. and we knew we were’. Discussions with other key union leaders continued throughout 1920 and 1921. And some remarkable episodes took place, notably during the concluding discussions to end a national railwaymen’s strike in October 1919 when James O’Grady, a key union leader, led lusty singing of the ‘Red Flag’ just outside the Cabinet Room. These meetings were Lloyd George’s more frugal version of Harold Wilson’s ‘beer and sandwiches at Number 10’. Indeed in later years, many union leaders looked back with some nostalgia to the easy access to the centre of government they had experienced under Lloyd George.
In relation to Ireland, by the summer of 1921, Lloyd George had belatedly moved away from the bloody violence of ‘retaliation’ against Republicans, made notorious by the Black and Tans, to his preferred mode of high diplomacy. He held a series of talks with the Sinn Fein leader, Eamon De Valera, at Downing Street in July 1921, at which key issues in Ireland’s proposed new relationship with the UK, were discussed. Lloyd George, who made a point of speaking in Welsh to his Secretary, Thomas Jones, in the presence of De Valera, successfully argued that neither in Welsh nor in Irish did a word exist for ‘republic’. Then decisive meetings of ministers with Sinn Fein delegates (excluding de Valera) took place between 29 November and 5 December 1921. These were tough negotiations about Ireland’s relationship to the British Empire. Lloyd George had talks with two key Irish negotiators, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, promising to set up a Boundary Commission. Late on 5 December, Lloyd George melodramatically brandished two alternative telegrams to send to the British authorities in Dublin. Would it be peace or war? This tactic, perhaps masterly bluff, succeeded. After some further tense, private talks, the five Sinn Fein negotiators accepted the British government’s terms for the creation of the Irish Free State. For the first time, the two sides walked around the table; British Ministers shook hands with those Lloyd George had called murderers. The outcome was sombre: civil war in Ireland, but the Irish Free State (later a Republic) was here to stay. Lloyd George could claim that where Pitt, Peel and Gladstone had failed, he had found an answer to the ‘Irish Question’.
The later stages of the history of the Coalition at No. 10 were less dignified. There was much tactical manoeuvring with journalists (Lloyd George specialised in ‘spin’), and cynical discussions with businessmen keen on knighthoods or peerages who might finance both parties in the government. ‘Cash for peerages’ already had a long ancestry, going back to Walpole’s era, but Lloyd George spent more of it. On 19 October 1922, after his belligerent handling of the threat of war with Turkey, the Unionist backbenchers (the origins of today’s Conservative 1922 committee) voted down the Coalition government. Lloyd George was out of office after 17 years in government. He reacted cheerfully, entertaining the Downing Street staff with a charade of his returning at the head of a deputation of Welsh MPs. But his power had gone forever. His regime was followed by a return to orthodox party government after the bewildering experiments of coalition. But he left a powerful legacy, of Number 10 as a unique arena for a pioneering experiment in supra-party government.
Copyright Kenneth O Morgan. This article was produced as part of the No10 Guest Historian series, coordinated by History & Policy.
Keep tabs on the past: sign up for our email alerts