Bonar Law, the unappreciated prime minister
Third from the left, on the front row, looking slightly sulky, slouching in his chair, a very untypical posture for a cabinet member to take in 1918, is Andrew Bonar Law. You don’t hear much about Bonar Law these days. He was Prime Minister for 209 days and although it was a successful administration, it wasn’t an astonishing one. How could it be? This is why Asquith remarked, snidely, as he left Bonar Law’s funeral at Westminster Abbey, ‘we have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier.’ That has summed up his reputation ever since.
Asquith had good reason to dislike Law. In 1916 Asquith had been Prime Minister for nine years, had the nickname Squiffy because he drank, and was presiding rather ramblingly over a war effort that was going wrong. After the Somme, it was clear the government needed new management. Asquith didn’t even come to cabinet with an agenda, and spent the time until 1915 writing love letters full of government secrets to Venetia Stanley. Lloyd George proposed a war committee that would run the war separately from cabinet and without Asquith. This was not a power grab. It was a means of trying to change the disastrous way the war was being run. Bonar Law, Conservative leader and therefore a key member of the Asquith coalition, agreed with Lloyd George.
Asquith was clearly in a difficult position. No-one was calling for him to resign, but it would be a significant loss of power. E.H.H.Green summed up the situation:
When, on 4 December, Asquith demanded that Lloyd George issue a statement publicly affirming the prime minister's continued overall authority, the war minister resigned. Bonar Law then informed Asquith that if Lloyd George felt obliged to resign, he and the other Conservative members of the cabinet would do likewise. Asquith had no real option but to tender his own resignation on 5 December, for without Conservative support his government was unsustainable.
Bonar Law had been disillusioned with the seemingly gentle approach Asquith took to government. He once had to drive to Asquith’s country house to discuss the appointment of a new war minister, and was kept waiting for hours, allegedly because Asquith was playing bridge and didn’t want to be disturbed. Moving command away from Asquith needed to happen in order to run the war properly.
Law was then in prime position to become the new Prime Minister. George V asked him to form a government. He said he would do it only if Asquith served under him. This looks gallant, but effectively he declined the opportunity because he thought Lloyd George would be a better choice. For the rest of the war he was Chancellor, Leader of the House of Commons, and de facto deputy prime minister. Every morning, Lloyd George walked through to No. 11, into Law’s office full of pipe smoke with papers all over the floor, and they spent two hours discussing the latest military and political situation in depth.
Lloyd George did nothing without rigorously testing it on Bonar Law. It was one of the most effective partnerships in British politics. At no point did Law push himself forward or disrupt the war effort with political pre-occupations. He was a model of what we would now call bi-partisan co-operation. As Chancellor he financed the war effectively, once declining expert advice on the interest rate for a loan, which worked as he predicted. He worked well with Keynes at the Treasury, and they later took a similar view on the Versailles treaty. In his role as Leader of the House of Commons he was in touch with backbench opinion, essential to the smooth running of any government. He was the lynch pin of the war time coalition.
Law is, therefore, an exceptional politician who doesn’t deserve his reputation as a nobody. First elected in 1900 (at the same time as Churchill) he was middle-aged when he began, having spent his life working in an iron trading firm in Glasgow. He was tee-total, Presbyterian, urban, and Canadian. Not the traditional choice for Conservative leader. (The two previous leaders had been the third marquis of Salisbury and his nephew Arthur Balfour.) Law was so remote from the milieu of squires and aristocrats he didn’t even know what a pheasant looked like. The party grandees complained about his drab house, in the wrong part of London, with its plain food.
Ability had been his meal ticket. He had an exceptional memory, much like James Boswell’s. He delivered his war time budget speeches using only two small sheets of notes, talking for hours. As head of the iron trading firm in Glasgow, he had been able to sit on the trading floor all day and calculate everything in his head. This acuity with finance, numbers, and economics made him stand out in the House of Commons (as it would today). At a time when free trade was under debate, this was a great advantage.
He took over as party leader in 1911. The Conservatives had lost in 1906 to a landslide Liberal victory, and would not win again as a single party until 1922, when Law delivered a 77 seat majority. He had increased the seat count by 107 in 1918. To put that into context: in 1906 the Liberals increased their seat count by 214, and in January 1910 they lost 123 seats. In 1945 Attlee increased his seat count by 239. No winning party then increased by over a hundred seats until Tony Blair in 1997. Cameron added 98 in 2010. Theresa May lost 13.
He was a moderate force on a party that wanted Irish Home Rule not to happen and had decided that tariffs were a sensible policy, despite the fact that tariffs played a role in all their election defeats (and would do so again when Baldwin took over from Law). Law was constantly trying to hold a position the party could agree with. Without him, they would most likely have split like dry wood under the Liberal axe. They knew that, which is why they kept him for so long.
He was a fierce believer in Ulster Unionism and made astonishing remarks that amount to inciting civil unrest, perhaps the most dangerous things any party leader has ever said. The situation was desperately complicated, poorly handled by Asquith, and there was wrong on all sides in British politics. Illegal arms were flooding into Ireland, and Law supported a proposal to amend the Army Act so that troops would not be able to subdue resistance to the government’s policy.
To many in Ulster, it seemed like they were being thrown out of their country. This was true both for Protestants and Catholics whichever solution was chosen. We have seen the century of suffering that resulted. Bonar Law was struggling with the basic political reality that troubled everyone over Ireland: you simply cannot tell a large minority of people they are not allowed to live in what they consider to be their own country any more. Balfour’s opposition had been prepared to have a referendum about Home Rule, which the Liberals were not. (Unionists in the Lords actually put forward a failed bill to introduce referendums when the two houses couldn’t agree.)
This all meant his leadership was rocky. He threatened to resign frequently. Without the war, he might be more remembered but for screwing things up. Green says, ‘In short, Bonar Law looked like what he was: an inexperienced, often isolated, second-choice leader struggling to overcome a series of severe crises which, in truth, were probably beyond the capacity of any individual to solve.’
This makes him, to me, all the more impressive. Rather than remembering him as the unknown prime minister, or the man who toppled Asquith (and then Lloyd George in 1922), we ought to see him as a complicated, but effective, politician. He came late to the game, was dangerously close to inciting violence in Ireland, and was to some extent a mediocre leader of the opposition. But he got the party through a period when it seemed frantic to destroy itself. He then put aside ambition, twice, to participate in successful coalitions, one of which won the war, and Ulster was kept within the UK. His party won its first election since 1906 after a period of what started to look like self-immolation.
He was, throughout his career, a resolute and tragic figure. In 1917 both his sons were killed while serving in the war. The second son was shot down in an aircraft. Max Aitken took Bonar Law to France, to meet his son’s colleagues. Aitken could see that Bonar Law was shattered, simply staring out of the window, and knew he needed to meet these people. Law asked to see one of the planes his son had flown in and was taken to one full of bullet holes. He climbed into the cockpit and sat there in silence, alone, for two or three hours. His wife had died some years before, and now both sons were gone. When he got down he seemed slightly different. Broken, still, but able to go on. He worked like a dog for the rest of the war.
Excellent appreciation of Bonar Law by Roy Hattersley
My essay, Who was Asquith?
Thanks for reading. If you’re enjoying The Common Reader, let your interesting friends know what you think. Or leave a comment at the bottom.
If you don’t subscribe to The Common Reader, but you enjoy reading whatever’s interesting, whenever it was written, sign up now.