Andrew Bonar Law
Robert Pearce argues that we should get better acquainted with the 'unknown prime minister'.
At the funeral of Andrew Bonar Law, in Westminster Abbey on 5 November 1923, Herbert Asquith stated, with a certain satisfaction, that 'the unknown Prime Minister' was being buried by the side of the Unknown Soldier. The phrase has served as epitaph to the man who was prime minister for only 211 days, the shortest tenure in the twentieth century. Yet this dismissive remark should not lead us to underestimate the political importance of Bonar Law or to misunderstand the man.
There were some who believed him to be entirely colourless. Lloyd George once relayed a conversation he had with Law, while the two men motored along the Mediterranean coast. When the Welshman praised Mozart, he replied, 'I don't care for music'. When he extolled the beauty of the sea on one side of them and the snow-capped Alpine mountains on the other, the reply came: 'I don't care for scenery'. When he pointed to a group of beautiful women, Law responded that he did not care for women. Finally, when the exasperated Lloyd George asked, 'Then what the hell do you care for?', Bonar Law replied, 'I like bridge'.
Yet this conversation is an example not of Law's dullness but of his dry sense of humour. Certainly he cared for many other things besides bridge. There was chess, and he was also inordinately fond of smoking. In addition, he was a devoted family man. If he often seemed pessimistic, this was an entirely appropriate response to the vicissitudes of life. Born in New Brunswick, in Canada, in September 1858, his mother died when he was only two. At the age of 12, his father remarried and he was taken to live with an aunt in Glasgow. He had escaped the influence of a depressive father, an Ulsterman who was employed as a Presbyterian minister in Canada, and he became happily married in 1891, to Annie Robley. But his wife died in 1909 and during the Great War two of his sons died, within six months of each other. The losses hit him hard. He soon admitted to being at the end of his tether, and it was probably only a hard regime of work and more work that enabled him to survive. 'Melancholy' became the adjective universally applied to him, but even so he was capable of winning friends, influencing people and even giving witty after-dinner speeches.
No one found Bonar Law charismatic - he was too reserved for that - but he was anything but dull. A junior minister, Lord Winterton, soon decided that he was 'a most lovable man in whom one could place complete trust'. A civil servant, J.C.C. Davidson, who was amazed by his powers of industry, judged that he 'misled many people into the belief that he was weak because his manner and voice were so gentle, and his heart so kind'. Conservative colleague Stanley Baldwin described him, publicly, as 'a most lovable, elusive and wistful personality', while privately declaring 'I loved the man'.
Clearly Bonar Law had more impressive personal qualities than his political enemies were prepared to admit. But what of his achievements?
Bonar Law succeeded Arthur Balfour as leader of the Conservative party in November 1911. He was not just a new leader but a new type of leader, and his election at the Carlton Club marks a new chapter in the history of the Conservatives. Balfour, the aristocratic representative of 'Hotel Cecil', who had succeeded his uncle, Lord Salisbury, back in 1903, was replaced by a member of the middle classes (a man, noted a disgruntled Tory grandee, who would not even recognise a pheasant, let alone know how to shoot one). It was remarkable, as Robert Blake has written, that such a man - a 'Presbyterian of Canadian origin, who had spent most of his life in business in Glasgow' - was to lead 'the Party of Old England, the Party of the Anglican Church and the country squire, the party of broad acres and hereditary titles'.
Bonar Law had attended neither public school nor ancient university. He left Glasgow high school at the age of 16 to take a job in a local bank. A decade later wealthy relatives bought him a partnership in a firm of iron merchants, and under his hard-working and able stewardship the business prospered. The turning point in his life came in 1900 when, aged 42, he won a hitherto safe Liberal seat in Glasgow in the 'khaki' election. Within 18 months he was made parliamentary secretary at the Board of Trade, and soon he was one of the key figures on the Conservative front bench. Though never openly critical of Balfour's leadership, Law became committed to Joseph Chamberlain's ideas on tariff reform. In 1910 he even agreed to contest a seat in Manchester, the stronghold of free trade in Britain. He lost but gained valuable publicity and the following year, after being returned at a by-election in Bootle, he was elected unanimously to succeed Balfour. His rise had been truly remarkable.
Yet there was a large element of luck in this success. The two main candidates for the leadership, Austen Chamberlain (the choice of Central Office) and Walter Long (a Tory squire) were evenly matched, and it was rumoured that the supporters of the loser would not find it easy to work with the victor. Both of these gentlemen therefore gave way in favour of Bonar Law's candidature. Nor was Law's leadership particularly successful in the years leading up to war.
The divisive issue of trading policy still bedevilled the Conservatives. Balfour had done his best to shelve the issue by pledging a referendum to let the people decide, but Bonar Law soon repudiated this. Predictably, the spectre of food taxes worried free-traders within the party, and when Bonar Law began to wobble, implying that such taxes might apply only to particular items, the tariff reformers became alarmed. The party seemed as disunited as ever, until that is Law took a leaf out of Balfour's book and promised in 1913 that no change in tariff policy would be made without another general election. He recognised that there was a far bigger cause to fight for, that of the union between Britain and Ireland.
To Bonar Law, the policy of Home Rule for Ireland positively stank. The Liberals were pursuing it only because they were dependent in the House of Commons on Irish Nationalist support; and the results for the Protestants of Ulster would be catastrophic. Furthermore, there was no constitutional way for the Conservatives to block the measure, now that the Parliament Act had removed the absolute veto of the House of Lords. It was an issue on which Law felt remarkably strongly. He urged that, with the Lords' veto gone, royal assent to a Bill should no longer be a formality. But, in the last resort, he was prepared to endorse the use of force. At Blenheim, in July 1912, he said he could 'imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them', and the following year he implied that his party would urge that the army refuse to obey orders to implement home rule.
Law acquired the image of an intransigent Ulsterman. Indeed his enemies depicted him as an anti-Catholic bigot. Certainly he was not the latter. He was without religious prejudice, and had his own children brought up by a Catholic nanny. It must also be admitted that his hard-line stance was, at least in part, designed to elicit compromise from the Liberal government. Asquith did agree to talks with Law, conceding the possibility that Ulster might be excluded from a self-governing Ireland. But in 1914 there was deadlock, and Law had contributed to the very real possibility of civil war in Ireland.
Furthermore, Law's concentration on first tariffs and then Ireland meant that the Liberals were able to make all the running on the far more electorally popular issue of social reform. Bonar Law's leadership had not been successful. In 1911-14 he had threatened to resign on average once every six months. That he might have perhaps become prime minister after the election due by 1915 owed more to the weaknesses of his Tory rivals and of the Liberal government than to any outstanding success of his own.
The First World War
The main significance of Law and the Conservatives during the crisis of July-August 1914 was to stiffen the willingness to fight of Asquith's government. Thereafter it was 'Business as Usual' for the Liberal government - until, that is, shell shortages and Britain's poor performance in the Dardanelles campaign led to a chorus of Tory criticisms. Bonar Law insisted that he would press for a critical debate on the conduct of the war unless a coalition were formed. Asquith duly complied, on 18 May 1915.
It was certainly not a coalition of equals. The Conservatives did poorly out of Asquith's distribution of offices, and Law himself became only Colonial Secretary. Nevertheless, the Tory leader was not without influence. He insisted that Churchill, the architect of the Dardanelles fiasco, be demoted from the Admiralty; and he was the foremost voice in favour of an early evacuation. Nor did Law's influence stop there. His disillusionment with Asquith's leadership led him in 1916 to work with Lloyd George and insist on new executive control. The result was Asquith's resignation. The king called on Bonar Law, the leader of the largest party in the Commons, to form a government; but he, wisely, advised him to make Lloyd George prime minister. Law became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the second most important figure in the government.
His was not an easy role. He had to convince the Conservative backbenchers that they should accept the leadership of the man who, before the war, had been their foremost political enemy. He himself had to work with this man. Normally they would meet together for two hours every morning, often Lloyd George allowing Bonar Law to subject his ideas to detailed scrutiny. If they survived, he knew they would be able to pass through the cabinet and the Commons. Most important of all, Bonar Law, as Chancellor, had to find the funds to pay for the war. In 1917 he raised the enormous sum of £600 million via a War Loan campaign, and he overruled his officials, and the governor of the Bank of England, by setting interest rates at 5 rather than 6 per cent, thus securing a significant saving to the nation. He borrowed huge sums, but in total he found 26 per cent of wartime expenditure from taxation, more than in any other belligerent country.
In November 1918 Lloyd George was vaunted as 'the man who won the war'. But he would not have been appointed as prime minister in the first places without Law's help. He would not have remained premier if Law had not supported him at crucial junctures, as when he sacked 'Wully' Robertson as chief of the general staff in February 1918, to a chorus of disapproval. Finally, his government would not have been nearly so successful without the hard work and ability of second-in-command Andrew Bonar Law. Seldom has a political supporting role been so crucial.
The Postwar Coalition
'Lloyd George can be prime minister for life if he likes.' Bonar Law's statement reflected widespread sentiment in the aftermath of war. The Conservatives, quite realistically, believed that their excellent performance in the 'coupon' election of December 1918 reflected Lloyd George's popularity with the electorate.
Of course this mood of gratitude to the renegade Liberal was not to last. The Conservatives voted to leave the coalition in October 1922. But that it lasted so long owed much to the ability of Bonar Law - who became Lord Privy Seal but continued to occupy 11 Downing street - to mediate between the two wings of the coalition. As long as he was their leader, Conservatives were confident that their views were being respected in cabinet.
Bonar Law's resignation from the government, but not from the Commons, on 17 March 1921, due to dangerously high blood pressure, was an acute blow to Lloyd George. As the Financial News noted, it was 'more than a nine days' wonder ... it is probably the beginning of the end of the coalition government'. This was so in part because his successor, the aloof Austen Chamberlain, was deficient where Law excelled - at interpreting the feelings of the Tory backbenchers to the prime minister, and vice versa. But it was also true because Bonar Law, whose health improved after six months in the south of France, became critical of the policies of the government. He had voted for the Irish treaty, which gave dominion status to Ireland but allowed six counties in Ulster to remain part of the United Kingdom; but the apparent breakdown of the settlement amidst civil war in Ireland gave him severe misgivings. He also disapproved of Lloyd George's stance at Chanak, writing to both The Times and the Daily Express on 7 October 1922 that 'We cannot act alone as policeman of the world'.
At the Carlton Club on 19 October the Tories voted by a hundred majority to fight the next election on their own. The finest speech of the day was delivered by Stanley Baldwin, but it was Bonar Law's rather hesitant words which had more effect. Here was the alternative prime minister without whom the Tory rebellion might have fizzled out. Bonar Law had given the premiership to Lloyd George; now he took it away.
Several key figures in the Conservative party - including Austen Chamberlain, Sir Robert Horne, and Lords Balfour and Birkenhead - remained loyal to Lloyd George and so refused to serve under Bonar Law. Hence he patched together what his critics referred to as a 'government of the second eleven'. He then called an election campaign, in which he judged that 'The Nation's first need, in every walk of life, is to get on with its own work, with the minimum of interference at home and disturbance abroad.' It was not the most inspiring of messages - and Lloyd George called it 'more a yawn than a policy' - but it appealed to enough electors for the Conservatives to be returned with an overall majority of 77 seats.
No one can argue that Bonar Law was a great success as prime minister. His tenure was too short and his successes too few. He ratified the Irish treaty, now that violence in the north had subsided; the treaty of Sèvres was replaced by the more moderate and acceptable treaty of Lausanne; and Neville Chamberlain's Housing Act was a beneficial piece of domestic legislation. But in international affairs the government was an impotent spectator to the French occupation of the Ruhr, and the issue of British war debts to the United States posed severe problems. Law was appalled by the deal which Chancellor Stanley Baldwin struck in Washington, expostulating that 'I would be the most accursed Prime Minister that ever held office in England if I accepted these terms'. But though he huffed and puffed, and threatened to resign, and though he even wrote an anonymous letter to The Times deploring the terms, accept them he did.
His other failure, after being diagnosed with incurable cancer of the throat and being given only six months to live, was in refusing to recommend a successor to the king. It was George V who had to make the difficult choice between Lord Curzon and Stanley Baldwin.
Curzon went home from Bonar Law's funeral, in October 1923, musing that 'in days to come people would ask who he was and how he ever got there'. But such a judgement was surely sour grapes from the man whom Law had beaten to the top of the greasy pole and then refused to name as his replacement. Law had also ended the prime-ministerial career of Asquith, a fact that does much to explain his ill-mannered quip at the funeral.
Bonar Law was certainly no nonentity. His premiership may have been short and anti-climactic, but he was leader of the Conservative party for 12 momentous years, and he helped to make them an electable party after three successive defeats under his predecessor. It was under his leadership that the Tories shifted decisively, to become the party of big business rather than of the landed elite. He had pivotal and highly successful political roles during the First World War. He helped to make and unmake the premiership of Lloyd George. In addition, this man whom Lloyd George once described as 'at heart … an Orangeman' probably did more than any other mainland politician to create Northern Ireland. This was a substantial record of achievement.
Bonar Law had virtues aplenty. He was modest, honest, hard-working, practical and competent, and he had an instinctive patriotism. Such qualities may not make him one of the most creative figures in our history, but they make him highly significant. Lloyd George remarked that Law was 'the most constructive objector I have ever known'. Baldwin said the same thing: he 'did greater service in preventing the doing of things which it was wiser not to do, rather than in indicating things which ought to have been done'. This quality was a weakness which prevented Bonar Law from being a dynamic, creative prime minister; but it was a strength that made him a great team player. Perhaps he was the perfect deputy prime minister.
Of Law's biographers, Robert Blake has written that for 'twelve crucial years he was a key figure in the complicated and tortuous politics of the times and no account of them would be adequate without some understanding of his personality, outlook and ideals'. His greatest success was a mastery over the House of Commons 'never surpassed and rarely equalled in modern times'. R.J.Q. Adams has written that Bonar Law 'has few peers in modern times as a party political leader'. These are sound judgements, though it should be remembered that the division apparent in the party at the Carlton Club in October 1922 was only healed after Law's death, by Stanley Baldwin.
Yet some historians go further. William Rubinstein (History Today, September 1999) judges that Law was 'arguably the most successful politician of his day', with an unequalled record of electoral successes. He was likely to have won the contest due in 1915; he scored a great victory in 1918; and he won a substantial majority in 1922. The facts are, however, that we cannot be sure about the notional election of 1915; that in 1918 the victory was secured by a coalition dominated by Lloyd George; and that in 1922, despite securing a comfortable overall majority, Bonar Law's party won only 38.2 per cent of the total vote. In other circumstances, such a level of popularity might well have spelt defeat.
We must beware of extravagant judgements. Did Beaverbrook go over the top when he said that Bonar Law was 'the greatest Conservative Prime Minister since Disraeli'? Many would put him ahead of Balfour, but few would judge him greater than Salisbury. Yet there can be no gainsaying Beaverbrook's personal judgement: 'I have known one honest politician: Bonar Law. He was without guile'.
Robert Pearce is Reader in History at St Martin's College, Lancaster.