Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.
These dramatic events were the subject of a lecture delivered by Alistair Lexden at the annual meeting of the Lloyd George Society in Llandrindod Wells on 16 February.
The famous meeting, which was to alter the course of interwar politics in Britain, took place in a spacious smoking room-cum-library within a very large rectangular building of little architectural distinction in London’s Pall Mall.
(Members of the Carlton Club tended to be much more interested in smoking than reading; after the Second World War, they found it possible to dispense with a library altogether.)
Erected in the mid-1850s to replace premises of the 1830s that had come to seem unduly cramped, the clubhouse was said to have been inspired by the library of St Mark in Venice. The original was poorly reflected in its copy. One critic denounced “ the monstrousness of its proportions, and [its] violation of all orthodoxy and rule.”
Such rudeness had no effect on the Club’s popularity among Tories. In 1922 membership hovered around its maximum number of 1,600, just as it had always done – and over 2,000 more loyal Tories belonged to the Junior Carlton, a much more impressive edifice in the style of an Italian palazzo almost opposite it on the other side of Pall Mall, which had opened in 1864 to provide a political home for those on the Carlton’s waiting list.
The Club stood next to that great bastion of Liberalism, the Reform Club with some 1,400 members, from which it was separated by a narrow road, Carlton Gardens – quite insufficient to prevent members of the two Clubs trying to spy on each other’s political activities. In November 1884, when Tory MPs met to settle their tactics over the redistribution of parliamentary seats, blinds were pulled down at every window in the room after a member noticed two figures across the road in the Reform Club spying with the aid of an opera glass.
Such secrecy was unnecessary in October 1922. The press was given a full account of proceedings as soon as they were over. There was naturally intense public interest in a meeting that determined the fate of a great Prime Minister and his coalition government which had brought the country triumphantly from war to peace – a government once widely admired, but now under widespread attack.
Almost all Conservative MPs (known widely as Unionists in this period) were members of the Carlton in 1922, just as their predecessors had been since the Club’s establishment at the time of the Great Reform Act, ninety years earlier, as the old Tory Party began to evolve into Robert Peel’s dynamic Conservative Party, committed to judicious reform in both Church and State. Wives and families were neglected so that MPs could gossip and plot at the Carlton without interruption from guests, who were not allowed to enter it. Over the years, many meetings had been convened to settle pressing issues, but none so momentous as the one held on 19 October 1922.
The man who convened the meeting – and his colleagues
The meeting was called by the Unionist Party leader, Austen Chamberlain, the elder of the two sons of the great radical Joe, and the repository of all his father’s hopes for the future. So many of Joe’s ambitious plans for the reform of Britain and Ireland had been frustrated by the leaders of both main parties who blocked them in turn – first Gladstone, then Salisbury and Balfour.
Austen was expected to secure the political victories that had eluded his father. He was to be the Chamberlain who reached 10 Downing Street.
In October 1922, Austen Chamberlain had only held the Unionist leadership for some eighteen months, but a long parliamentary career stretching back thirty years, much of it in high office, meant that he was a politician of immense experience. Yet, experienced and battle-hardened as he was, he won no plaudits as Unionist Party leader.
He expected his MPs and the Party in the country to follow him with unquestioning obedience. As his biographer, David Dutton, puts it, he was “incapable of showing the subtlety and compromise which could have secured his position”. When he decided to call his MPs together at the Carlton, it was to deliver an ultimatum to them. He explained to a fellow Unionist Cabinet minister that he would “tell them bluntly they must either follow our advice or do without us”. If the latter, “they must find their own Chief and form a Government at once. They would be in a damned fix.”
This was the imperious folly of a man who had, since the start of the year, presided over growing internal Unionist tensions and divisions, which by the summer had infected the lower ranks of the coalition, and by October had reached the Cabinet itself, bringing two ministers to the point of resignation.
Chamberlain had no understanding of the tactics required to overcome rebellion. Guile needed to be mingled with toughness. But in Dutton’s words, “rather like Asquith in 1916, he seemed out of touch with mainstream thought in his own party and to be seriously over-rating his own strength.” He would be a strong candidate for the title of “ the worst ever Tory leader” but for the overwhelming claim of the current disastrous incumbent.
Chamberlain was encouraged in his utterly misguided dictatorial ways by his closest Unionist Cabinet colleagues, who prided themselves, not unfairly, on their cleverness: Arthur Balfour, charming but cold-hearted intellectual and former prime minister; the imperious, disdainful Foreign Secretary, George Curzon, who worked all the hours that God gave; and F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, who combined a well-publicised venomous wit with a quick, well-stocked mind, enabling him as Lord Chancellor to make long, brilliant speeches on complicated issues in the Lords without a note. In 1922 he delighted above all in insulting fellow Unionists who dared to question the course that Lloyd George was pursuing. In combination with Chamberlain, these people did grave damage to a government which they wanted to remain in existence for ever.
Despite a certain waywardness on Curzon’s part, Chamberlain and his aloof, arrogant colleagues were convinced that their Party must remain in coalition with Lloyd George and his group of Liberal MPs, perhaps with a view to fusion at some future point with Lloyd George becoming head of a new centre party. This, they insisted, was essential in the national interest. Country must be put before Party. They found themselves confronted by an ever more insistent conviction within their own ranks that the country could only be saved if the Unionist Party broke free from Lloyd George and sought a new electoral mandate of its own.
The Coalition in crisis
Arrogance in politics can only be tolerated if it brings success. In 1922 Chamberlain and his supercilious Unionist colleagues stumbled from one crisis to another. The coalition floundered in a sea of troubles which got worse as the months passed.
A highly controversial Treaty, designed to end a vicious two-year campaign of Irish republican violence, failed to accomplish its objectives in the short term, though it would soon come to be seen – rightly in my view – as one of Lloyd George’s greatest achievements. The summer brought the worst ever scandal involving the sale of honours, arising from the Welsh wizard’s brazenness in party fund-raising by means that his predecessors had taken pains to conceal (and as his successors were to do too). In September the country suddenly found itself, bereft of serious allies, on the brink of war in the Middle East in a cause that few believed justified hostilities.
Of these grave problems, the most serious for the Unionist Party was Ireland. Lloyd George’s willingness to compromise with those whom he had consistently denounced as a murder gang who needed to be extirpated cost the coalition the support of some 50 Unionist MPs. They never returned to the fold. The group, who came to known as the Diehards, harried the government with the kind of dedication that intransigent members of the European Research Group were to display nearly a century later.
Political failure had the usual, inevitable consequences. By-elections in 1922 invariably brought comfort, and often joy, to the Labour Party. This was seen as no ordinary setback, purely temporary in character, that a general election would reverse. It was regarded rather as the harbinger of a decisive Labour victory and the creation of a socialist state in Britain.
This terrifying prospect reinforced the determination of the Unionist leadership to remain in coalition with Lloyd George. Chamberlain and his fellow stuffed shirts thought it impossible that their Party could win a parliamentary majority on their own. In a speech on 16 October, Chamberlain said that the coalition must be maintained in the face of the “common foe”, Labour.
No question of principle, he asserted, divided Liberals and Unionists, and it would be “criminal” to allow personal and party prejudices to prevail “at a moment of national danger”. He added that if those who sought to preserve social order were divided, Labour would win, and it would “not be the moderates of the Labour Party who would prevail”. In other words, behind Ramsay MacDonald there lurked a British Lenin.
Could Chamberlain bring his divided and disaffected Party together to fight under Lloyd George’s coalition banner in order to save Britain from a red revolution? That was the question which the famous Carlton Club meeting was called to decide. Chamberlain chose to hold it on 19 October because he expected a by-election in Newport the previous day with Conservative, Labour, Liberal candidates to bring a Labour victory, and so prove that coalition alone could prevent the overthrow of the established order.
The meeting and its aftermath
Chamberlain arrived at the meeting seriously weakened by two overnight developments. First, his predecessor, Bonar Law, now a critic of the coalition, had decided after much agonising to come out of retirement and attend the gathering. Second, the Newport by-election had been won by a Conservative. MPs knew that with their old leader back in business they could safely reject their new one, and that the case for coalition made by Chamberlain was far from overwhelming. A report in The Times noted that “the fact that a Conservative, unaided by the party organisation, relying entirely on local effort, could win a Coalition Liberal seat against the opposition of a Liberal and a Labour candidate put Independent Conservatives in good heart.”
The most vivid account of the Carlton’s historic day was recorded by the Earl of Crawford, a Unionist member of the coalition cabinet, in his brilliant diary, edited and published by Professor John Vincent in 1984. “We assembled at eleven”, he wrote, “a thoroughly good-humoured crowd. We were just about to begin when a waitress advanced with two immense brandies and soda to lubricate Chamberlain and F.E. Much cheering… Austen, who spoke from 11.5 to 11.35… was grave, but very rigid and unbending: needlessly so… Stanley Baldwin followed – gulping and hiccoughing a lot of good sense – no hesitation in denouncing the coalition and Lloyd George in particular – a clear declaration of war”.
Bonar Law’s speech, seen by everyone as crucial, came late in the proceedings. Crawford recorded that he “condemned the coalition. He looked ill, I thought – his knees more groggy than ever, his face more worn with distress. His voice was so weak that people quite close to him had to strain their ears—but his matter was clear and distinctly put. After his speech the issue was unmistakable, and he was hailed as the Leader of the Party. A.J.B[alfour] made a delightful speech, so mellow and genial, full of picturesque touches, but too subtle to count. Then we voted. A few more words of dignified adieu from Austen, and the meeting broke up”.
The motion ,which was passed by 185 to 88 with one abstention, declared that the “Party, whilst willing to cooperate with the Liberals, should fight the election as an independent party, with its own leader and with its own programme.”
As Crawford noted, proceedings were conducted throughout in a good-humoured atmosphere – surprising perhaps in view of what was at stake and the vehemence of several speakers. Baldwin, the first to demand a complete break with Lloyd George, described him famously as “a dynamic force, and it is from that very fact that our troubles, in our opinion, arise… It is owing to that dynamic force, and that remarkable personality, that the Liberal Party, to which he formerly belonged, has been smashed to pieces; and it is my firm conviction that, in time, the same will happen to our party”. At just the right moment, Baldwin emerged from comparative obscurity to capture the predominant mood in the Party. Seven months later he was Prime Minister.
At Number 10, Lloyd George accepted his fate with good grace. He told his close Welsh confidant, the Deputy Cabinet Secretary, Thomas Jones, that “the moment he had learned the result of the Newport election and heard definitely that Bonar was going to the meeting, he had told Stamfordham [the King’s Private Secretary] that he would be resigning in the course of the day”. He did so at 4.15pm. When he got back to Number 10, he found a delegation of miners waiting to see him. He told them cheerily, “ I am very sorry, gentlemen, I cannot receive you. I am no longer Prime Minister.”
In fact he remained in office until 26 October when Bonar Law kissed hands, having been formally re-elected leader of his Party. Jones recorded in his diary “at 4.00 he motored away with his son Gwilym to Churt, smiling to the last.” Frances Stevenson did not remain so composed. Jones “found her burning papers in the fireplace, and looking sadder than I have ever seen her”. Did she perhaps realise that the man she loved would never hold office again?
Austen Chamberlain gave Lloyd George much pleasure by defying his critics in defeat. The Times published a letter from him and thirteen other Unionist coalition ministers in which they paid tribute to the man who retained their admiration. They wrote that after 1916:
“With high courage and resolve he devoted himself to the single object of achieving victory… The problems which have required a solution since the Armistice have hardly been less grave than those which preceded it… [The Prime Minister’s] resource, energy and patriotism have been as strongly exhibited in this period as during the war itself. None the less we have been invited by members of our own party to send to the Prime Minister a message of dismissal.”
The contempt for their Party is palpable. Lloyd George knew how to inspire the most fervent loyalty in able men from a different political tradition.
One question remains: could a coalition of Unionists and Liberals have continued if Lloyd George had been induced to step down? Crawford, former Unionist Chief Whip in the Commons, holder of high offices and an acute observer of the political scene, thought so. Two days before the Carlton Club meeting he noted in his diary “an undertaking given by Austen that our men shall stand as Conservatives, uncommitted, and that they shall not preclude the idea of a coalition after the polling”. That left just one outstanding demand from disaffected MPs, in Crawford’s view: “ a pledge that never again should Lloyd George be our leader. The controversy really pivots around his mercurial personality, and were he out of the way most of our troubles, and the central force both of our strength and weakness would disappear”.
But Chamberlain, loyal to a fault, would not contemplate enforcing Lloyd George’s removal to save the coalition. The Carlton Club meeting destroyed both Lloyd George and the very idea of coalition as a form of government that Unionists could contemplate. It took another world war, and the arrival in power in 1940 of another great coalitionist, Winston Churchill, to force serious power-sharing on the Tories again.
A few months later the Carlton Club was bombed out of its Pall Mall home, and moved to St James’s Street, where it remains.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. David Dutton, Austen Chamberlain: Gentleman in Politics (1985). Michael Kinnear, The Fall of Lloyd George: The Political Crisis of 1922(1973).Keith Middlemas and John Barnes, Baldwin: A Biography (1969). Keith Middlemas (ed.), Thomas Jones, A Whitehall Diary, Volume 1 1916-1925 (1969). Charles Petrie and Alistair Cooke, The Carlton Club 1832-2007 (2007). John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin 1902-1940 (1978).John Vincent(ed.), The Crawford Papers (1984).