The Welsh Wizard: The art of the political nickname

David Lloyd George Former Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George, 1931

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From Teflon Tony to Flash Gordon, prime ministers are often gifted nicknames by the media or colleagues in opposition, but they are far from a modern convention.

One hundred and fifty years ago saw the birth of arguably one of the most radical and reforming of Britain's prime ministers, David Lloyd George.

The last Liberal to occupy the top job, Lloyd George was not exempt from this particular brand of name calling, he had three nicknames: the Welsh Wizard, the Man Who Won the War and the Welsh Goat.

This is reflected in the title of a one man play about the life and career of the former leader.

The Welsh Wizard

David Lloyd George trivia

David Lloyd George
  • Welsh-speaking nationalist Lloyd George was actually born in Manchester, on 17 January 1863
  • During his career he held numerous posts including president of the Board of Trade, chancellor of the exchequer, minister of munitions and secretary of state for war
  • Lloyd George's budget speech of 1909, referred to as the People's Budget, lasted a lengthy four and a half hours
  • He died on 26 March 1945 at Ty Newydd in Llanystumdwy, Wales, aged 82
  • Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect who built Portmeirion, made the monument that surrounds his grave in the wooded valley of the Afon Dwyfor

Richard Toye, Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter, has published books on Lloyd George and suggests that the image of the Welsh Wizard was something that Lloyd George cultivated to an extent, "especially in his later years when he strode around the land that he owned wearing a big, black cloak."

Professor Toye said: "I think it's a rather double-edged nickname. On the one hand it implies that he had amazing powers but also suggests that sometimes he was almost doing a conjuring trick.

"He was known for being very persuasive, especially in private, so there's an element of personal chemistry or alchemy there.

"He also gained, over time, a reputation for being quite devious. For example, digging himself out of political scrapes. His opponents, and even his supporters, might have seen this as a form of political magic."

The Man Who Won the War

Lloyd George was chancellor of the exchequer at the outbreak of World War I but was appointed to the new role of minister of munitions in 1915.

In July 1916 he became the secretary of state for war and in December 1916 he replaced Herbert Henry Asquith as prime minister in the Liberal-Conservative coalition government. His success in wartime office gained him the triumphant epithet The Man Who Won the War.

The Welsh Goat

Lloyd George gained this nickname because of his notorious infidelity. As Roy Hattersley notes in his extensive biography on the former prime minister, Lloyd George had an "abnormal sexual appetite".

Although he was married to his wife Margaret for over 50 years his womanising was well-known, leading to the nickname The Welsh Goat.

Among the many alleged affairs, Lloyd George had a 30 year relationship with his secretary and mistress, Frances Stevenson. He married her in 1943, two years after his first wife's death.

Perceived popularity

Test your nickname knowledge

Neville Chamberlain - but what was his nickname?

Check your knowledge of prime ministerial nicknames by matching these PMs to their alternative titles. Answers at the foot of the article.

  • Mac the Knife
  • Milk Snatcher
  • The Sledgehammer
  • Finality Jack
  • Grand Old Man
  • The Coroner

William Gladstone, Henry Herbert Asquith, Margaret Thatcher, Lord John Russell - 1st Earl Russell, Neville Chamberlain, Harold Macmillan.

Can you recall the prime minister who went by the alter ego The Coroner? How about Gentleman Jim or Finality Jack?

Although the current PM David Cameron doesn't have to contend with anything much stronger than Dave the Chameleon or Call Me Dave, many former prime ministers haven't been treated as lightly, with monikers assigned to them that highlight less favourable aspects of their careers or personal lives.

Prime ministerial nicknames hark back as far as the 1700s and were given to the very first British prime ministers.

Sir Robert Walpole is considered to be the first holder of the office of prime minister, though it wasn't an official term at the time. He gained the nickname Screen-Master General, as he was "adept at pulling all the political strings".

It was his personal influence and persuasive powers that helped to restore confidence in the government, and ensure the Whigs maintained office, after the South Sea Bubble controversy.

Memorable prime ministerial nicknames are largely either affectionate or have negative connotations. Professor Toye says negative names have sometimes been manipulated into a more positive light.

"The classic example would be Margaret Thatcher with the 'Iron Lady', which was intended as being negative as it was coined by the Soviets as a way of suggesting that she was absurdly overly aggressive.

And yet she was able to turn that to her own advantage in saying 'what Britain needs is an Iron Lady'. It was something which played to her perceived political strength.

Another example was of Harold Macmillan and Supermac. It was coined by the cartoonist Vicky, who was trying to ridicule this rather elderly man who was supposedly achieving all these amazing political feats, but that again turned into a positive name."

Although nicknames are unlikely to have much bearing on a PM's re-election prospects, they can contribute to or diminish a politician's perceived popularity.

"Clearly people aren't consciously thinking about the politics of nicknames when they go to vote, but it does contribute to a broader story - it can be symbolic of the wider political or media narrative that is being used about the politician," Professor Toye adds.

"I would say if you succeed in achieving a nickname that sticks - that is, if the public themselves are using it - then you're probably doing quite well as a politician.

For example, the Conservatives tried to label Ed Miliband as Red Ed, but I hardly imagine that people are really talking about him in that way down the pub. Similarly, David Cameron has not really succeeded in picking up a nickname, and I don't think anyone since Thatcher has had one that's really stuck."

Nickname knowledge answers: Mac the Knife - Harold Macmillan; Milk Snatcher - Margaret Thatcher; The Sledgehammer - Henry Herbert Asquith; Finality Jack - Lord John Russell; Grand Old Man - William Gladstone; The Coroner - Neville Chamberlain

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