A museum dedicated to a great solicitor is under threat from spending cuts. Perhaps the profession can find the cash to keep it going?
Where in the UK can you see the remnants of a churchyard gate broken on legal advice alongside a policeman’s helmet worn years later by the author of that advice to escape a hostile mob? The answer is in the hamlet of Llanystumdwy, North Wales, boyhood home of David Lloyd George, who 100 years ago this year became the first solicitor to rise to the office of UK prime minister. (He was also the first Welshman and the first to have English as a second language.)
The Lloyd George Museum is packed with mementos of the numerous scrapes the Welsh Wizard got into in his career. My favourite, apart from the broken lock which was to feature in the Llanfrothen Burial Case that made his name, is the collection of contemporary political cartoons – including many quite savage depictions of a man who attracted loathing and love in equal measure.
Alongside the museum is the cottage in which Lloyd George was brought up by his uncle, the village shoemaker, who, despite knowing no French himself, taught the young David enough of the language to reach the standard required for the Law Society’s Final Examination. A short walk away along the achingly beautiful River Dwyfor, David Lloyd George is buried under a moss-covered boulder.
The museum is now under threat. I have been alerted by Graham Colley, chair of the Liberal Democrat lawyers group Rights-Liberties-Justice.uk, that Gwynedd Council is having to slash discretionary spending and it reckons it can save £27,000 a year by cutting support to the museum. This week it deferred a decision for a year – but it warned it cannot commit to funding the museum in the long term.
There has been a flurry of protest aimed at the council, but I’m not sure it’s the right target. While the museum brings passing trade to the area (it is a pleasant hike from the delightful seaside resort of Criccieth) given the crisis in local government spending it seems a reasonable target for belt-tightening. But the real point is that memories of Lloyd George belong to the nation, by which I mean the UK as well as Wales, and civil society as well as the state.
And here is the rub. Perhaps it’s my own Welsh half showing through, but I can’t help feeling that David Lloyd George isn’t as celebrated today as he ought to be. Of course when so much of his career overlapped with that of his protégé, rival and friend Winston Churchill, a certain amount of over-shadowing on the pages of history is inevitable. I understand that, even in Wales, more streets are named after Churchill than after Lloyd George.
I detect also a certain embarrassment about his life. In Liberal politics the great achievement of the 1911 budget is tainted by Lloyd George’s defection to coalition, which saw the party out of government for nearly a century. Meanwhile Lloyd George’s prime ministerial triumph as ‘the man who won the war’ does not sit easily with modern narratives of 1914-1918 (though his unfair traducing of his generals does). Not to mention his personal life and business dealings, which would have finished off his political career a dozen times today. Or his toe-curling 1936 visit to Hitler.
But these flaws are half the point. Had Lloyd George been a saint, his grave and the copper bust outside his boyhood home might suffice as memorials. To commemorate a genius, social revolutionary, wartime national leader, demagogue and rogue demands a museum. If neither the Welsh nor the UK government will support it, perhaps the legal sector could chip in? Managing partners of City firms must be getting a bit fed up with begging requests, but surely £27,000 a year could be found somewhere?
For why this might matter to the profession, I’ll quote an anonymous predecessor at the Gazette. The wartime-thin edition of April 1945 paid tribute to the passing of the Earl of Dwyfor (as Lloyd George had just become), saying the legal profession had lost a member to whom the adjective ‘great’ can properly be applied. ‘The energy and fire of the true Celt, which sometimes brought him into conflict with his professional colleagues, were inseparable from the qualities of foresight, organisation and administration which every solicitor must have in some degree, but which were possessed by him in supreme measure.’
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor