Learning from liberalism’s past

The challenges of today are different than those of yesteryear, but the answers might be the same.

In 1914, David Lloyd George was a senior member of the Liberal Party in the British House of Commons and faced a difficult decision. He had told the public that if Britain went to war, he would resign his position in the British Parliament. Yet when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith led the nation into conflict, Lloyd George did not resign. Asquith convinced Lloyd George that the war was a righteous one – one that needed support.

How difficult it must be, to be a liberal going to war. Lloyd George was no moderate; he was considered a radical even among fellow Liberal Party members. He supported a graduated income tax, land ownership reforms; and he fought for religious equality. Up until his death, he wrote papers and advocated for education reform, public transportation and health issues. Lloyd George was even in favor of a death tax, remarking, “Death is the most convenient time to tax the rich.”

Yet go to war he did. Lloyd George would become the minister of munitions in 1915 after early military failings. A year later, Lloyd George, with a coalition of conservative Tories, would become prime minister of Britain. Many of his Liberal Party friends no longer recognized him. He was accused of double talk. It was understandable; Lloyd George had gone from peacenik to war hawk. He advocated escalating the war. He wanted to strike at Germany fast and hard to secure a brisk victory. It was in this manner that a Welsh radical became a war hero.

Alas, like all politicians, he fell from power. The Great War being over, he found himself without a coalition and with few friends. Much like former President Jimmy Carter of today,

Lloyd George entered the field of diplomacy. This is where he met Adolf Hitler in late 1936. In many ways, Lloyd George was empathetic to the German condition.

At the Versailles Peace Conference, Lloyd George was trying to make sure improper vengeance wasn’t sought against Germany. He described the conference as “wild men screaming through the keyholes.” He later felt that Germany had been given too harsh a treatment at the conference. He even had respect for Hitler. But it did not matter; Germany could not be allowed to spread Nazism, and he delivered that ultimatum to Hitler.

Lloyd George’s last major action in the British Parliament was opposing appeasement. Despite his admiration of Hitler, Lloyd George pushed for Neville Chamberlain’s resignation as prime minister, and for good reason. Chamberlain was wrong when he spoke of the German action in the Sudetenland as “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Again, Lloyd George – the radical, the progressive – found himself advocating military action.

Lloyd George went through a personal struggle between his personal love of peace and his understanding of the necessity of war. He did this twice in a lifetime. I see his struggle as representative of the struggle of many liberals today.

We learned on Sept. 11, 2001, that we could not ignore the Arab world and avoid terrorism. We also learned that we could not appease a man like Saddam Hussein. Hussein amassed an impressive collection of U.N. resolutions and ignored them. He also paid the families of suicide bombers, encouraging that form of terrorism.

Liberals are faced with the fact that President George W. Bush did not wait to invade. Some even considered it a rushed war, but that’s what Lloyd George would have preferred in 1937. The challenges of today are different than those of yesteryear, but the answers might be the same. You cannot allow an enemy to fester and strengthen, and sometimes you must go to war.

Making the rounds on campus this year, the Iraq war and the war on terror have been points of intense focus. The liberal attitude, for the most part, has been contrary to Bush’s actions. But I ask of my liberal friends, learn the lessons of Lloyd George.

Marty Andrade welcomes comments at [email protected]