As the Conservatives march on towards victory, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of the lesser lights, as some might see them, among past Tory leaders. And I thought I’d start with one many haven’t even heard of.
Andrew Bonar Law was, like his true successor Stanley Baldwin, a latecomer to political life, taking the Tory leadership just 11 years after first entering the commons. If Baldwin had little ministerial experience before becoming the leader of what was then the Unionists, Bonar Law had none. However, he had other virtues which commended him to his party.
After the landslide win in the khaki election of 1900 that saw Bonar Law enter parliament, the death of Queen Victoria allowed an ailing Lord Salisbury to retire and be succeeded by his nephew, AJ Balfour. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Balfour proved to be a disastrous leader. This considerable cloud had a even more considerable silver lining for Bonar Law, at least.
In the first place, he wasn’t Balfour. Balfour (above) was a Cecil, a brilliant, languid aristocrat, of Eton and Oxford, the quintessential Tory insider. Bonar Law, in contrast, was an outsider. He was born in and spent his earlier childhood years in Canada (the only British prime minister to have been born outside the British Isles), and his accent retained a Canadian twang. He was from an Ulster-Scots Presbyterian background (his seemingly dour exterior is often supposed to have been matched by a no less dour interior, (probably informed by his Calvinist upbringing, and deepened by the profound grief he felt after his wife’s untimely death in 1909).; in fact, he was a far more sympathetic and likeable man. He made his career (from a family who were not rich) in banking and the iron business. Thus, as is often the case in politics, especially Conservative politics, the fact that he was in considerable contrast to the fallen predecessor did him quite a few favours.
He was also lucky. When Balfour finally went in 1911, he left no obvious successor, and he also faced a party keen to heal past divisions, and eager to settle the leadership issue. The years of Balfour’s leadership were not happy ones for the Conservatives. In the first place, they lost three general elections on the trot ( a rate they would not suffer again until the advent of Tony Blair).
Worse than that, under Balfour the party had torn itself apart over the issue of tariffs. In 1903, the great Liberal Unionist, Joseph Chamberlain (above) called upon his party to abandon free trade and adopt Tariff Reform. It would prove both electorally disastrous (being the main reason for the Liberal landslide of 1906) and politically disastrous for the Tories. In short, it split the party down the middle. As the divided deepened, and Balfour tried to bridge the divide, the fiercest protagonists of the tariff cause turned their attacks on they man: it got bitter and vituperative: tariffs did for Balfour wha Europe did for Major and his successors.
Bonar Law favoured tariffs, and made his name in the party as one of Chamberlain’s most eloquent and forceful advocates. This had a political advantage. When Joseph Chamberlain was felled by a stroke, Bonar Law, along with Joseph’s son Austen, became the leading spokesman of the pro-tariff wing of the party, but without the continuing enmity against Balfour that Chamberlain and others carried with them. He further cemented his reputation thanks to some robust attacks upon the free trade turncoat, Churchill.
It got worse. The House of Lords crisis provoked by Lloyd George’s People’s Budget saw the Tory party divide again, between those who (in the end) were willing to settle, the Hedgers, and those wanted to fight top the last ditch. One of Bonar Law’s virtues was a common sense pragmatism, often disguised by fierce rhetoric. Bonar Law saw the Ditchers as unrealistic, and sided with the majority in accepting the 1911 Parliament Act.
The whole business finished Balfour. Bonar Law was the best choice of leader, as Austen Chamberlain was unacceptable to Balfour loyalists, and Walter Long was unacceptable to Chamberlain’s supporters. Bonar Law, a man for tariffs, but who had remained loyal to Balfour, seemed the obvious choice to try and reunite a bitterly divided and demoralised party.
It was an unhappy inheritance. He was also faced with a constitutional time bomb, in the form of Irish Home Rule. It is hard for us to grasp just how convulsive an issue this was: not just in Ireland, but in British politics. Back in 1886, Home Rule had led Joseph Chamberlain to cross the floor and become a Liberal Unionist; it had led the Conservatives to rechristen themselves the Unionist Party. Unionism remained a vital issue in British politics, and opposition to Home Rule was widespread and very bitter in Britain itself. For Bonar Law, with his Presbyterian Ulster Scot and Glaswegian background, the pull of Protestant politics was strong. It also offered a political opportunity, enabling Bonar Law to revivify and energise his party.
We might expect it to be an issue that would have united Unionism, and to some extent it did. However, it divided too. The first problem was opposition on which terms. For some, Home Rule had to be stopped in the whole of Ireland: the true cause was Unionism. For others, the South was lost and the real issue was Ulster. Bonar Law saw the second case as the stronger (thus attracting the enmity of his rival, Walter Long, for example). Politically, the Ulster option made sense. Catholics made up the clear majority if Ireland as a whole, but in Ulster Protestants did. Not only that, but they Ulster Protestants were organised, militant, armed and well led by Sir Edward Carson (below) and James Craig.
It was their militant resistance that propelled Ireland towards armed rebellion and Westminster towards the most dangerous constitutional crisis in our modern history. Politically, this had potentially great political dividends for Bonar Law and his party. As the crisis grew in intensity, over the two years it took to get the legislation through parliament, Bonar Law was able to rely upon his Ulster allies, and his own increasingly rabble rousing conduct in the Commons, to destabilise the government. By the summer of 1914, it looked possible that Home Rule mighty bring the government down.
In private, towards Asquith and in the constitutional convention called by the king in 1914, Bonar Law was more conciliatory. The problem was that he was riding a tiger, in the form of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Protestant leadership. And even the leadership could not necessarily contain their own followers, let alone Bonar Law control them. In riding that tiger, he traversed dangerous ground. His famous 1912 words, uttered at Blenheim, have not aged well: ‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities’.
In the end, the Kaiser put a stop to the crisis, but not before Bonar Law had led his party to the brink of becoming unconstitutional. Had the king followed them, as he had been tempted to do, and refused to give the royal assent to the Home Rule Bill, Bonar Law could have been remembered as the man who led the country away from parliamentary and constitutional politics. Had he backed down too far, he would have been a weak and failed leader in a party convulsed by crisis and division.
There is a decent argument for saying that there are three figures who saved the Conservative party from that fate. One might be the Kaiser, another was Baldwin; the most important was Bonar Law.
Politically speaking, war gave the Conservatives a way back into government. By May 1915 Bonar Law was able, in effect, to force Asquith to offer a coalition, though his ability to do that owed no small amount to the desire of Liberals such as Lloyd George for a coalition too. The weakness of his position is perhaps evident in the post he took, colonial secretary. But he was in government. His position was still not strong, and Ireland still threatened. Following the 1916 Easter Rising, Lloyd George had proposed the introduction of a temporary form of Home Rule, excluding Ulster. Bonar Law, showing the capacity to compromise he had in 1914, backed this idea (which never got off the ground): there was bitter opposition from many on his own side.
His growing frustration with Asquith’s leadership was a genuine phenomenon. But Bonar Law was always able to ally principle and pragmatism, even opportunism. Just as important was his growing relationship with Lloyd George, partly fostered by the relationship both men had with Max Aitken (the future Lord Beaverbrook, left). It is often asserted that Asquith was sacrificed on the altar of Lloyd George’s ambition, but little regard is given to Bonar Law’s. Throughout 1916, Bonar Law’s influence had grown, but Asquith remained distant and reluctant, and the Tory position in the government remained somewhat peripheral.
The creation of the National Government offered a chance to transform the Conservative position, and withy that Bonar Law’s. When Asquith resigned, the king (as he was constitutionally bound to do) offered the job to Bonar Law. Whether Bonar Law did or didn’t want it is unclear, but he needed Lloyd George’s support to deliver enough Liberals to make the government viable, and the best way of securing that was to make Lloyd George prime minister (he had also made a prior commitment to him). There was an element of political self-sacrifice to it, but there was also an element of political self-interest too. The new cabinet had a Liberal PM, and other Liberal ministers, but it was dominated by Tories. Apart from, Lloyd George himself, Bonar Law was its key member. The two met every morning and developed a close working relationship. Bonar Law, and his party, were back at the centre of government.
Sir James Guthrie’s Seven Statesmen of the Great War shows Bonar Law and Lloyd George.
It is possible to see Bonar Law’s decision to fight the 1918 election under the coalition banner as an act of political selflessness: if it was, it was very well rewarded. Under the Coupon, the Tories won an outright majority in the Commons. Lloyd George was PM, but the Conservatives were dominant. Realistically, Bonar Law made a political calculation. Lloyd George was the man who won the war. The Coupon whereby Bonar Law and Lloyd George sanctioned Conservative or Lloyd George supporting Liberals (and a few Labour) candidates, virtually guaranteed the Conservatives a majority in the Commons, and in the government.
In the two years that followed, Bonar Law was the glue that held the Lloyd George coalition together. Nor did he actively oppose suggestions that the Lloyd George Liberals and the Conservatives might merge under the label of a Centre Party: what became known as Fusion. That idea failed to get off the ground, but the coalition continued effectively enough.
They formed an unlikely, but highly successful partnership. Lloyd George once relayed a conversation he had whilst driving along a scenic European coast. Lloyd George lauded Mozart, Bonar Law replied, ‘I don’t care for music’. Next, Lloyd George hymned the beauty of the sea on one side of them and the mountains on the other and Bonar Law retorted that he didn’t ‘care for scenery’. When Lloyd George pointed to a group of beautiful women (certainly always a matter of interest to the Goat), Law responded that he did not care for women. Finally, Lloyd George asked, ‘Then what the hell do you care for?’ Bonar Law replied: ‘I like bridge’. What Lloyd George did come to value was Bonar Law’s capacity for hard work, his political nous and his absolute integrity, and his plain speaking: the dry wit surely helped. Their mutual friend Beaverbrook said of Bonar Law, ‘I have met one honest politician’; Austen Chamberlain, twice defeated by him, described him as ‘that most loveable man’. Some of that Bonar Law can be seen in Sir James Guthrie’s study, courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland.
In the end, Lloyd George and Bonar Law made the ‘perfect political partnership’. But it was Bonar Law that did for Lloyd George.
By January 1921, Bonar Law was ill, suffering from high blood pressure, and on medical advice he retired from government. It wasn’t until late 1921 that he returned to active politics, in defence of Ulster’s right to be excluded from the new Irish Free State created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Satisfied that it was, he remained loyal to Lloyd George.
However, the sands of the Conservative Party were shifting. In the first place, increasing numbers of backbench MPs were increasingly hostile to the coalition. Secondly, Bonar Law’s successor as leader, Austen Chamberlain, was seen as both ineffective and too close to Lloyd George. As Bonar Law returned, he was seen by many as the better alternative, and he was told so.
For the time being, he stayed publicly supportive of both Lloyd George and Chamberlain. That changed in the autumn. When Lloyd George appeared to be leading Britain towards military conflict with Turkey over the Chanak Crisis, Bonar Law had letters published in The Times and his old friend Beaverbrook’s Daily Express criticising Lloyd George: Britain could not act as ‘the policeman of the world’.
There was something else afoot. By the autumn, there would be an election within a year, and the question of the terms upon which that election would be fought polarised the Tory Party. Many backbenchers wanted to fight it as an independent Conservative party; Austen Chamberlain (left) favoured another Coupon, or even Fusion. To press the point, Chamberlain called a meeting at the Carlton Club. The day before, a Conservative had won a by-election in Newport. At that meeting, Baldwin spoke against the coalition; Curzon made it known that he was opposed too.
The intervention that sealed its fate was Bonar Law’s. By all accounts, he made his mind up on the day itself, stating that the best way to unite the party was to ditch the coalition. He surely realised it would not only finish Lloyd George, but Austen Chamberlain too. In that case, he was the obvious alternative. Alan Clark nicknamed it ‘the peasant’s revolt’, but unlike the real thing these peasants had an alternative king to look to. Upon kissing hands, he called a general election and, with the opposition divided, 38% of the popular vote gave the Conservatives a majority of 77: the modern Conservative party was born (its backbenchers still meet as the 1922 Committee).
Bonar Law was at last able to enter Number Ten as prme minister.
Sadly, he had just ten short months, before throat cancer forced his retirement. Famously, when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, Asquith was allegedly heard to refer to him as the ‘unknown prime minister’. In truth, Asquith was broadly right. But it was what Bonar Law achieved for his party that gives him his place in British history.
And that mattered. The Conservative party reborn in 1922 would spend much of the 20th century in power: the natural party of government. Almost more importantly than that, any earlier dalliance with extra-parliamentary or unconstitutional politics were to be confined top its wilder shores, and then beyond. The viability of a constitutional parliamentary Conservative party was central to the stability of Baldwinite Britain, and its unity in the Second World War. Bonar Law’s legacy was more considerable than sometimes averred.