The Mask of Merlin
by Donald McCormick
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 343 pp., $6.00
Taffy was a Welshman,
Taffy was a thief,
Taffy came to my house,
And stole a leg of beef.
The Welsh have never been popular in England. (Nor, for that matter, have the English exactly won their way to the hearts of the Welsh.) Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the greatest Welshman in history should not yet have received his due at the hands of English historians, or the English public generally. For Lloyd George possessed all the qualities which the English find most unsettling in their volatile neighbors on the other side of Offa’s Dyke. He was, to begin with, clever; and although English politicians are allowed to be as intelligent as they please in private, they are expected on public occasions to display a decent intellectual mediocrity. Second, he was unashamedly, almost blatantly devious; and it is one of the axioms of English politics that devious acts must be performed only in an ingenuous and freshfaced manner, accompanied by loud protestations of injured rectitude. Lastly, and most unforgiveably, he was totally irreverent.
The pretense that government is simply a form of service; the concomitant pretense that honors and preferment are bestowed as rewards for merit; the gentlemanly humbug according to which corruption and nepotism are un-English and therefore un-thinkable—in fact, all the decorous fig leaves with which the English upper class has traditionally cloaked its ruthlessness and selfishness from the gaze of the multitude—meant nothing to Lloyd George. He came from a subject people who had been, for centuries, at the receiving end of power; and he knew what power was about. Worse, he was determined to get it. Worst of all, he saw no reason to pretend that his pursuit of it was a gentlemanly game, played, like a village cricket match, with no hope of reward.
This was his real crime, and it was an unforgiveable one. Just how unforgiveable has now been demonstrated anew in Mr. McCormick’s critical biography. Mr. McCormick is presumably not an Englishman himself, but it is clear that he has worked on genteel English newspapers long enough to have absorbed most of the genteel responses of the English establishment. Lloyd George, he tells us (and it is about all he does tell us) did not play the game. He was ruthless, ambitious, and untrustworthy. He made demagogic speeches in which he stirred up class hatred. He consorted with parvenu newspaper proprietors, like Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook. He intrigued against poor Mr. Asquith and drove him from power. He had a low opinion of the Generals who led the British Army. He even enjoyed sex—and made little effort to conceal his enjoyment.
All true; and all, no doubt, shocking. But as one ploughs one’s way through Mr. McCormick’s pained and indignant pages, one cannot help wondering what country he has been living in all these years. It may well be the case that Lloyd George’s sexual appetites were exceptionally voracious, though …