Tag Archives: David Lloyd George

Versailles – The Terrible Treaty

One hundred years ago, one of the most important conferences in the 20th century began (on 28 June 1919) culminating in the negotiation of a portentous document (finalised on 10 January 1920) that has had ramifications ever since. The Treaty of Versailles – signed to put a formal end to Word War I – turned out to be a disastrous script offering nothing but grief. It would lead in future decades to the death of millions and the chaos of the world in which we continue to live today.

For the first six months of 1919, the leaders of the great powers descended on Paris to reshape their world. Empires were broken up and horse-traded over tea and biscuits in the Quai d’Orsay as new countries were discussed and confirmed – or not. Royalty, journalists, economists, bankers, prostitutes, politicians and other con men poured in to make their unique contributions to building a ‘new world order.’

Although 27 nations attended the Peace Conference at Versailles, it was President Woodrow Wilson of the USA, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Britain, and Prime Minister Georges Clémenceau of France who dominated the proceedings. They came to the table determined upon a settlement that would keep Germany down, albeit tempered by liberal-democratic ideals: a settlement intended to get rid of the catalysts for future conflict, or at least control them.

The problem was that everyone attending the negotiations had a different agenda. Belgium and France wanted payback and security from the warlike Germans across the Rhine. Britain had already got most of its war aims. Wilson insisted that there should be ‘peace without victory’, believing that that if Germany was treated too harshly she might seek revenge, and start another war. He came to Europe determined to preach that the sacred legacy of the Founding Fathers and American political ideas were universally intended for the good of all mankind. Cynics – including Lloyd George and Clémenceau – were sceptical.

The cracks emerged early on in the proceedings. Unlike the high-minded President, the British PM was a slippery, unprincipled pragmatist: in the US advisor’s words, he was ‘a mischief-maker who changes his mind like a weather cock’; and Clémenceau’s judgement was even harsher: ‘Lloyd George is a trickster…  Lloyd George has deceived me. He made me the finest promises, and now he breaks them.’ Clémenceau was heard to growl: ‘Between the crooked Lloyd George and the saintly Wilson, it’s like sitting between Napoleon and Jesus Christ.’

Wilson’s demand for a League of Nations to control his new world order was dealt with rapidly. Lloyd George agreed with the idealistic American to keep him happy, as did Clémenceau, both believing that although the League was theoretically a good idea, it would never work. Wilson virtuously lectured them all on ‘American values and principles of liberty and independence as a perpetual charter for the whole world.’ The startled delegates moved on rapidly to safer topics.

Russia was not represented at Versailles, even though the country was theoretically one of the victorious belligerents. The new Bolshevik regime spurned international diplomacy, concentrating instead on exporting revolution to their erstwhile allies’ home countries. The problem was that Russia was still legally an ally. However the subversive aims of Bolshevism, Lenin’s flat refusal to pay Russia’s debts, and the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, sent a shiver down the spines of European politicians, aware that they were seeing something new and alarming on the international scene.

The other important reason was that war-weary Western public opinion was decidedly hostile to any new war; in many places (such as Red Clydeside and Liverpool) people actually supported the Bolsheviks. In 1919 Whitehall was terrified of a British revolution. So the powers opted to isolate Red Russia by blockade and provide dwindling support for the anti-Bolshevik Whites. It was a policy that would cost the unfortunate Russian masses dear over the next 70 years.

The other big absentee from the negotiating table was Germany. Most Europeans were understandably bitter about the legacy of the ‘Second Reich’. Their millions of dead stood as a mute reproach to any calls for leniency towards German militarism. Clémenceau of France, demanding ‘victory with vengeance’, insisted that the defeated must expect little mercy from the victors. His aims were clear: to punish Germany; to make the Germans pay for all the damage they had done to France and Belgium; to recover Alsace and Lorraine; and to restrict Germany military power to ensure that it was forever weaker than France. The Germans were not consulted. Berlin was, in historian Norman Stone’s dry comment, ‘just expected to sign on the dotted line.’

Meanwhile the peacemakers turned their attention to creating a new and supposedly more peaceful Europe. New countries sprang up in the Balkans, where the war had started in 1914. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Greece all got new borders. The Slavs got a national home in Yugoslavia and an independent Poland was created with a curious corridor to Danzig on the Baltic, isolating East Prussia, and creating a serious international hostage to fortune. The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia suddenly appeared. Italy’s frontiers took in former Austrian territories inhabited by Italians. Ottoman Turkey lost everything as their empire was parcelled out. Further east the French got Syria – much to TE Lawrence and the Arabs’ dismay – and the British got the oil in what was now Iraq and Persia. (Kurdistan was completely overlooked, because Lloyd George had never heard of it and didn’t know where it was.)

When the details of the treaty were published in June 1919 German reaction was surprised and outraged. The still-blockaded German government was given just three weeks to accept the terms of the treaty, take it or leave it. Its immediate response was a lengthy list of complaints, most of which were simply ignored. The terms of the treaty were seen as an unreasonable Diktat, clearly intended to ensure that Germany remained militarily and economically powerless. After all, argued the militarists of the ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ nationalists, Germany had never actually ‘lost’ the war.

The final terms of the Treaty were indeed harsh. The blame for the whole war was placed firmly on Germany. The ‘War Guilt Clause’ (Article 231) in particular was judged very unfair. How could Germany be the only country to blame for the war? The war had been caused because a Serbian hothead had assassinated an Austrian Prince. Germans believed that they were being made the scapegoats for everything.

Berlin was also ordered to pay reparations of around 226 billion gold marks. The German army was reduced to 100,000 men, the navy to six warships and no submarines; and all military aircraft were to be destroyed. Heavy artillery, gas, tanks and military aircraft were banned. In addition, there was to be no military presence within 30 miles of the east bank of the Rhine. Kaiser William II and some German army officers were found guilty of ‘war-crimes.’

The Allies also foisted a new form of government on Germany to prevent the country from being taken over by a dictatorship. Instead ‘proportional representation’ would lead to more than 30 political parties, and the Weimar Republic’s eventual weakness and collapse.

The final act of Versailles was overshadowed by German’s refusals to sign. Political chaos reigned in Germany. The government folded and no politician was prepared to put his signature to what was seen as a dishonourable capitulation. Without a government there could be no Treaty. The Germans said that if the offending articles were removed, then they would sign. Paris refused, threatening to start Foch’s armies marching again. Germany backed down, sending two subordinate ministers to sign.

On 28 June 1919, in a glittering ceremony in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, the Peace Treaty to end World War I was finally signed. Next day Paris rejoiced, en fête; but in Germany the flags were at half mast.

Later generations would be left to deal with the problems of a resurgent Germany and the USSR, let alone Hitler, Stalin, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli wars, Palestine, Iraq, Syria and control of global oil supplies.

All consequences of Versailles: the 20th century’s political Pandora’s Box…

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The Longest Revolution?

The only constant in life is change. If anything proves the truth of this saying, it is British politics. Although many regard the recent chaotic shambles, barefaced lies and back-stabbing intrigue of Brexit as a sure sign of the weakness of the British political system, it is not. It is a shambolic yet important example of the very real strengths of Britain’s unwritten constitution.

The reason is clear: any unwritten set of rules is more flexible and adapts to reflect the wishes of the people far better than any written constitution set in stone.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor (Research Professor: Centre for British Politics and Government at King’s College, London) once said he made ‘a living of something that doesn’t exist’. He also quipped that the British constitution can be summed up as: ‘Whatever the Queen in Parliament decides is law.’ This is basically true – and Brexit has suddenly brought the shadowy patchwork that represents the British constitution to public attention.

The late Tony King (former Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex), a well-known election-night commentator for the BBC, concluded: ‘The British constitution is a mess, but it’s a mess that works because it can evolve as society changes.’ He was adamant that we should leave well alone, because any attempt to draft a set of rules – creating a ‘written Constitution with a capital C’ – might only make matters worse.

For example, what exactly did the famous Founding Fathers of the United States of America come up with 232 years ago in their famous 1787 written Constitution on contentious subjects like abortion, slavery and the latest – the 27th Amendment – which prohibits laws on ‘delaying new Congressional salaries from taking effect until after the next election of Congress’? In the British context, would MPs’ salaries really require an amendment to a national constitution?

Nevertheless, only four other countries have unwritten constitutions: Israel, Canada, New Zealand and Saudi Arabia. Of those, the British constitution is regarded as unique. Two questions then arise:

  1. What are the main characteristics of Britain’s peculiar constitutional arrangements?
  2. How has the British constitution got to where it is today and altered in response to the changing nature of politics over the centuries?

British history has been a long and bloody tale, characterised by a simmering state of rebellion, insurrection and even revolution. The Norman barons first clipped the King’s wings in the Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede in 1215. Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ rebellion of 1381 – with its catchy slogan, ‘When Adam delved and Eve she span, who was then the gentleman?’ – demanded a reduction in taxation, an end to the slave labour of serfdom, and the removal of the King’s corrupt lawyers and officials: it changed how England was ruled. The battle for control culminated in cutting off King Charles’s head in 1649 for trying to rule like a dictator and causing a civil war. Historically the English have always – eventually – rebelled against unjust authority and the abuse of power.

The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when Parliament kicked out the last Stuart King and invited a foreigner to reign, can be seen as the root of today’s modern constitution. The 1689 Bill of Rights is still the bedrock, even today, of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. That Act settled the primacy of Parliament over the monarch, providing for the regular meeting of Parliament, free elections to the Commons, free speech in parliamentary debates, and some basic human rights, such as freedom from ‘cruel or unusual punishment’. It also sets out the need for ‘the Crown’ to seek the consent of the people, ‘as represented in Parliament’.

So, from the 17th century onward, the primacy of Parliament and the liberties of the subject have been set out, not by a set of constitutional rules, but by the law.

Since then there have been at least three massive changes that have changed British society: the long and interlinked industrial, political and social revolutions, all of which have been reflected by changing parliamentary laws. Those laws have modified the UK’s political arrangements over the years to reflect the real changes in society. In that legal flexibility and ability to react to change lies the real strength of Britain’s unwritten constitution.

The present Parliamentary shenanigans over Brexit are a perfect reflection of both the problem and the solution. By pitting Parliament against the people, the squabbling MPs are merely reflecting the deep divisions in society at large. Rarely has public disillusionment with Britain’s warring two main party-political tribes been so deep and angry. Tribal loyalties may sustain the political status quo temporarily, but ignoring the wishes of the majority of taxpayers and voters will not solve the problem.

The great tectonic plates of Britain’s constitutional arrangements are shifting before our eyes, never mind beneath our feet. It is quite clear that Britain is changing and the two main parties, and indeed the electorate, are splintering into at least four different parties (Labour Remain/Labour Out and Conservative Stay/Conservative Quit) plus God knows what other mix of single issue, special-interest groupings from the Greens to the SNP.

This political dogfight is potentially extremely dangerous. Pitting the people against the Parliament and ignoring the voters’ wishes can only end in tears. Historical precedent shows that unresolved politics of this kind tend to make a nation essentially ungovernable by consent. Once trust has been lost in normal politics, many turn to darker forces.

It is all too easy and convenient to forget the foment of the 1930s, when large sections of British society and political elites were drawn to – and openly supported – Sir Oswald Mosley’s Nazi solution to the nations’ economic problems. It took a revolution in British life, in the form of World War II, to restore national unity.

If we go back to 1911 there is an earlier revolutionary change in British politics, which was swiftly resolved by an unwritten constitution enshrined in laws. When the House of Lords’ rejected Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget‘ in 1909, the House of Commons demonstrated its dominance over the Lords by holding new elections and tabling a Parliament Act to limit the power of the Lords. The peers threw it out. Following a snap general election, the Act was passed in 1911 with the support of King George V, who threatened to create enough new peers to outvote the Conservative majority in the Lords. This was nothing less than a constitutional revolution, solved by using new laws to change the balance of power.

Something equally drastic may be needed to undo the damage of Brexit. We should not under-estimate the potential trouble that could lie ahead. Brexiteer peers warned Remain-backing MPs they risked the possibility of a violent uprising by voters if they refused to accept the result of the 2016 EU referendum. Lord Lawson, the former chancellor, said there was a danger of a ‘very ugly situation’ arising because ‘insurrectionary forces’ could be left feeling ‘they cannot trust Parliament’.

A worried Lord Forsyth, a former Conservative Scottish Secretary, in April 2019 said a ‘revolutionary action’ had taken place in the Commons. Today, we are actually living through Britain’s long-running constitutional revolution. Whatever your personal views on Brexit, we should all be deeply concerned at the rift between Parliament and the people, specifically Westminster’s refusal to accept the people’s judgment in the referendum, despite clear promises to abide by it by successive Prime Ministers.

It’s not just the rat-infested, antiquated House of Commons that is letting us down with its squabbling MPs, but a Prime Minister who has lied consistently to the voters. Who can trust any politician these days? That’s a serious challenge to the way UK is governed. The question can be easily summed up: do the political elite still believe in people’s democracy – or do they have the power to overturn the result of an election majority?

The long revolution continues; Brexit is already changing Britain’s constitution.