Why did Lloyd George fall from office in 1922?

Lloyd George seemed unshakeable as the Prime Minister in 1918. In the 1918 election his Coalition government seemed to be solidly endorsed by the electorate, with a huge majority. To the Conservatives he seemed indispensable. Lloyd George's personal popularity and support at the time was summed up by Bonar Law, who said "Lloyd George can be Prime Minister for life if he wants". However, he was to spend less than four years in that position before the Conservatives pushed him from power.

Lloyd George had become the Prime Minister in 1916 because of the national wartime emergency, and following the 1918 election he continued, leading the coalition of the majority of Liberals and the Conservatives. The coalition and his personal position at its head both seemed secure with a massive majority of 526 out of 707 MPs. The leaders of the Conservative party were in favour of Lloyd George's leadership, he was still greatly respected for his role in the war, but more importantly, he was thought vital for blocking the continuing rise of socialism, with his appeal to the left and the newly enlarged electorate. Socialist extremism was increasing quickly, with Trade Union membership increasing from 4.1million to 6.5million during the wars. The Conservative leaders may have also been happy to see the Liberal party remain split between the followers of Lloyd George and Asquith.

However, the situation even then was not wholly good for Lloyd George. The split in the Liberal party meant that Asquith was still the official leader, in charge on the assets and machinery of the Liberal party. In the coalition, the Liberals were massively outnumbered, with 133 MPs compared to 383 Conservative MPs. The Conservatives were the only party capable of operating independently, and therefore Lloyd George needed to maintain his popularity with them if he was to survive. He was truly the "Prisoner of the Tories", as Harold Macmillan put it.

This situation convinced Lloyd George that he had to escape the old party structures. Therefore, in March 1920, he launched his plans to create a new Centre party, fusing together those Liberals who supported him and the bulk of the Conservatives. This would also free him from Liberal dogma, such as on free trade, and the right wing Conservative Diehards, who put up much opposition to him. However, this idea could not have worked in peacetime conditions. A party needs a common basis of sentiment and ideology. The power seeking tactics of top level politicians would not be enough to hold together a national party. In the end this plan was blocked by the Liberal ministers in his government, who were more loyal to their historic party.

After the war, Lloyd George was determined to recapture his old image as a great social reformer, and the Coalition made several pledges to the country promising social reforms. He said that he wanted to "make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in". In the first 2 years of the coalition, these were delivered. Education reforms, in the form of raising the school leaving age, school building programmes, increases in teachers wages and the start of evening classes were brought in. There were extensions to the unemployment and old age pension benefits. Addison, a Liberal minister, brought in his Housing Act in 1919, forcing councils to build housing. This policy produced some 170,000 homes, although this was less than was promised. There was land settlement and aid for agriculture. Some of the reason behind these programmes was doubtless to diffuse the Radical Socialist feeling building up in the country, but it also reinforced Lloyd George's reputation as a reformer, which was a major reason why the Conservatives continued to support his government.

However, the Coalition's programme was greatly damaged when a depression set arose in 1921. This came to dominate domestic policies. Unemployment rose by 400,000 to 2 million from April to December 1921. The Conservatives pressured the government to cut back on benefits and housing. Lloyd George made some effort to ease the problems, with aid for exporters and unemployment relief, but demands for cuts in public spending meant that his social programmes suffered. Council Housing almost stopped and education expansion was halted. That the Conservatives were able to impose their policies on Lloyd George showed something of the weakness of him in the coalition.

Ireland was another major issue which greatly affected Lloyd George's popularity and support. Following the war there was a massive electoral victory for Sein Fein in Ireland and large scale civil disobedience erupted. There was a virtual war, with the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary against the IRA. Groups of ex-servicemen, nicknamed the "black and tans" were employed in suppressing the situation. Lloyd George hoped this would lead to a military victory in Ireland, and the conflict continued until a truce was called in Summer 1921, leading to the treaty setting up the Irish Free State that kept peace for about half a century. However, what Lloyd George viewed as a triumph had managed to alienate groups from both left and right wings. Liberals were appalled by his use of violent repression, and Unionists were bitter that he had negotiated with a "murder gang" and betrayed their vision of the country.

In foreign policy, Lloyd George also managed to alienate many from both sides of the political spectrum. On Russia, he had an essentially realistic approach, defending Eastern Europe against further Bolshevik advance but not actually attacking Russia. However, in 1920 he angered much of British labour by attempting to arm the Poles against the Russians, and in 1921 he angered many Conservatives by agreeing a trade treaty with the Russians. He also lost much prestige over the issue of Turkey. He had supported the Greeks in their attempts to capture territory from Turkey following the war, but the Greeks were losing by 1922 and Lloyd George wanted to help them, and therefore nearly dragged Britain into a war which none of her allies were willing to back her on, apparently as a result of his autocratic style of government.

For a while, the much of the opposition in the Conservative ranks to the Coalition came from a right wing group called the Diehards, about 42 MPs, who saw the Coalition as being not only unnecessary but even a liability. By 1922 it had become obvious to many Conservatives that there was no longer a need to retain Lloyd George as the Prime Minister. The most important reason behind him holding that position was that he could help harness Liberal votes to create a block on the advance of the Labour Party. However, this had gradually broken down between 1919 and 1922. Labour had taken 7 seats from Lloyd George's Liberals in by-elections. Within months of the election, Labour and the independent Liberals were taking seats and Labour made great gains in the local elections, eroding the Liberal claim to be a party of urban working class support and Lloyd George's image as a radical working class leader. The Conservative policy of retrenchment seemed popular, with independent "Anti-Waste" candidates taking seats regarded as safe Conservative. It seemed that the Conservatives could use this policy to block Labour, but the Coalition prevented them from uniting around this issue. However, the final blow for arguments in favour of the continuation of the Coalition came in the Newport by-election, where an Independent Conservative took a Coalition Liberal seat, indicating it was a disadvantage to be associated with the Coalition.

There were other reasons behind the increasing unpopularity of the Coalition among Conservatives. Once the pressure of national crisis such as had existed in 1918 was lifted, the personal dislike many Conservatives had for Lloyd George came to the surface. Baldwin had spoken of the "morally disintegrating effect of Lloyd George on all whom he had to deal with", and this was the view of many. The sale of honours had particularly repulsed many people. Lloyd George had used his powers as Prime Minister to accumulate a personal fund, by "selling" honours, the prices ranging from £10,000 for a knighthood to £40,000 or more for a peerage. The privatisation of the coal industry was another instance where Lloyd George managed to draw criticism from the left and his Conservative partners. When the depression hit, the owners of the newly privatised mines protected profits by cutting wages, which led to a bitter strike. The miners never forgave Lloyd George for what he did, and Conservatives accused him of increasing class and industrial conflict.

There were also many Conservative MPs who felt that the Coalition had held their careers back. Despite their massive majority on the coalition, Conservatives occupied about half of the cabinet from 1919 to 1922. Many Junior officers found their careers blocked because Liberals filled so many of the top positions and it is estimated that about 40 MPs were held back from ministerial office because of this. This group came to form much of the core of opposition to the Coalition.

Lloyd George also managed to alienate many of his own Liberal supporters. Many were horrified by the repression by the "Black and Tans" in Ireland. Public spending cuts, forced by the Conservatives, halted reforms in education and housing. The 1921 Safeguarding of Industries Act, which imposed a 33.5% tariff on some goods, angered many liberals, with their principles of free trade, and half of them rebelled or abstained on this issue. By 1922 the Coalition Liberals had begun to shift towards Asquith, the Conservatives or the Independent Liberal Party, which they founded in January 1922.

The end of the Coalition was finally decided at the famous Carlton Club Meeting on 19 October 1922. This was a meeting of the Parliamentary Conservative MPs. After speeches from the party leaders they voted 187 to 86 to fight the general election as an independent party. The moderates of the party probably took confidence from the presence of Bonar Law, who was a suitable replacement for Lloyd George. Within hours of the meeting, Lloyd George had resigned as Prime Minister, the next day Law, as head of the Conservative party, called a general election which returned a majority Conservative government. The Coalition and Lloyd George had fallen.

That the Coalition survived for three years is mainly due to Lloyd George's record from the war, his success in international relations and his handling of the industrial militancy of 1919-20. His tough denunciations of strikes and the failure of the "Triple Alliance" action in 1921 was widely appreciated by Conservatives. Even the Morning Post, often a critic of Lloyd George, said he had "taken a line which Conservatives can unreservedly applaud." The Conservative leadership also doubtless helped the Coalition to survive for longer. Both Bonar Law and Austin Chamberlain could be seen as natural second-in-commands, seeing the day-to-day holding of power, rather than a more long-term view. Also, while Bonar Law remained very ill in 1921, Austin Chamberlain had seemed a poor alternative to the Prime Minister.

Therefore, the fall from power of Lloyd George in 1922 was caused by several factors which eroded his support. Issues such as repression in Ireland and tariffs alienated many of his old Liberal allies and won him few new ones. Conservatives were angered by his policies over Russia, Turkey, the sale of honours, Liberal domination of cabinet and the loss of Ireland. But most importantly, Lloyd George lost his appearance as a radical leader who could appeal to the working class, the coalition was no longer a block on the rise of Labour, and was even a liability. The single most important reason behind the existence of the Coalition under Lloyd George had gone, and like all Prime Ministers who stay too long in office, Lloyd George was unceremoniously driven from power.

However, as in 1918, the Conservative party used Lloyd George to help halt the advance of Labour. In 1918 they had used him by letting him head of the government and draw Liberal support for the Coalition. In 1922 they used him to take the blame for the failures of the Coalition government, portraying him as a virtual dictator, bypassing Cabinet in his own personal rule, abusing his powers of distributing honours for personal gain. They intended to destroy him and those Liberals who followed Asquith, and divide up their supporters, concentrating the attack on Labour and drawing enough right wing and moderate support to form a government. Lloyd George's fall before, rather than following, a general election, showed the great importance of the party in British Politics, something he had tried to deny.

3 comments:

  1. It was Neville Chamberlain who replaced Bonar Law.

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    Replies
    1. It was Austen Chamberlain briefly in 1922 then Bonar Law was replaced by Baldwin in 1923.

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  2. It is very powerful and interesting article
    Richard Brown ideals

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