Review: The Campaigns of Margaret Lloyd George – The Wife of the Prime Minister 1916-1922 by Richard Rhys O’Brien
In the winter of 1921 Margaret Lloyd George was in the middle of campaigning in Cardiganshire. It was a whirlwind tour with extra whirling as she managed to address seven meetings a day, racking up a tally of some sixty five stops over the course of just six days.
There was one day when she managed to address audiences in twenty-three places, a whistle-stop tour of the Welsh countryside that must have made of rural Ceredigion nothing more than a blur.
Pentrebont School, Blaen Plwyf, at 2.30 p.m; National Schools, Llanrhystyd, at 3.20 p.m; Council Schools, Llanon, at 3.30 p.m then on to Aberaeron, back to Llanon for another meeting before rounding off the day at New Quay.
Not for nothing did the Manchester Evening News refer to her as a ‘Mobilized Political Amazon.’ She was indefatigable and then some. Think of any Duracell advert and you’ll get the gist of her brand of energy. She opened a garden fete. She met with the former Prime Minister of Greece. She organised concerts. She unveiled a war memorial. Then went to the opera.
She was pouring all that energy into campaigning in Cardiganshire in 1921 because this was a key by-election with her husband David Lloyd George’s Coalition at stake, as a loss in Wales would have wreaked a lot of damage.
It was also a key time as women could now vote, so mobilising that component of the electorate was seen as crucial.
The fact that Margaret could address the crowds in Welsh was also a great help, not least because this was a county where 83% of the population used it as their first language, according to that year’s census.
The Campaigns of Margaret Lloyd George dispels the notion of Margaret as a ‘dumpy, dowdy Welsh woman, tied to the kitchen sink and bringing up her brood of five demanding children at her native Cricieth’ while her husband helped win a war, perfected his oratory skills and laid the foundations for the Welfare State.
Just reading Dame Margaret’s daily calendar of events is tiring, with places to open and money to raise. In the latter regard she seemed to be in a league of her own.
She was made a Dame in 1920 after raising the equivalent to £ 15 million for her First World War Troops Fund. And that wasn’t the only charity she supported. There was the Ivory Cross, a dental campaign.
The daughter of a farm called Mynydd Ednyfed Fawr in the old Caernarfonshire expanded her world and the range of her interests in a very busy life, but she always found room to support initiatives and events in Wales.
Her allegiance to Wales shines through in the pages of this book, a woman whose lineage goes all the way back to Hywel Dda and Owain Gwynedd, the 12th century prince.
And there were other causes and concerns, too. One of those very close to her heart was temperance, which could feel like a losing battle, especially when brewers became politicians and lobbied against her.
So she addressed the Women’s Total Abstinence Union and made speeches in which she looked at the state of the country from the point of view of ‘Temperance, Purity and Religion’ and found that ‘things are not satisfactory,’ not least because when every other business was wilting brewing was as prosperous as ever.
It’s little wonder that all this toing and froing took its toll, and each year saw her suffering colds or exhaustion.
Breaking glass ceilings is hard work and despite some of the advances made in ensuring women’s right to vote there was much to do.
A Governmental Commission of Inquiry into Unemployment didn’t include women in the tally. Men’s salaries were bigger. After dinner the men went into one room, the women another. Taking away one glass ceiling sometimes revealed one set above.
Margaret Lloyd George, the wife to the last Liberal Prime Minister, was not only a witness to huge events but was also involved with them, even if some people at the time only scarcely acknowledged it.
She recalled being at No 10 Downing Street one evening in November 1918, having dinner with General Smuts and Winston Churchill when the War Office summoned her husband by telephone:
“The three of us that were left never spoke a word. Mr Churchill paced up and down the room. General Smuts and I sat in silence. He was not gone many minutes, but to us sitting there it seemed an age. When he returned he was smiling and said only ‘They are going to sign.’ Then he shook hands with us all, even me, I felt proud at that moment that I had been able to help him even a little in bringing the war to a successful end and the country out of its darkest hour.”
Margaret Lloyd George’s recent biographer Ffion Hague has described her as ‘one of the most successful Prime Minister’s Wives of all time,’ a remarkable woman with, in Huw Edwards’ words ‘a bright, shrewd personality’ who seized the opportunities where she could and largely avoided the minefields.
Fittingly, this book surveys years of peace, as the war years would have perhaps shown her to be even busier, more frenetic. But when peace broke out she most certainly played her part in creating a ‘land fit for heroes.’
And did so by being her own brand of heroine, a woman long seen as a fringe figure who, by dint of this book’s diligent unearthing of new documents and information steps more fully into the story of British political life.
Here we encounter an energetic and influential ‘first lady’ to rival Mrs Gladstone and a Welshwoman to her very core.
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