Asquith, the Liberal Party leader, is said to have described Bonar Law (1858-1923), in much quoted words, as “ the unknown Prime Minister”. Alistair Lexden, historian of the Conservative Party, took a close look at his career in preparation for a short film on the BBC’s Parliament Channel.
The overview of Bonar Law’s career and achievements which follows was produced to assist the programme-makers in writing the script for it, which the Conservative historian narrates in the film.
Summary of Political Career
MP for various seats (beginning and ending in Glasgow),1900-23; Junior office at the Board of Trade, 1902-06 (when the Tories suffered a crushing election defeat); leader of the Conservative Party (known at this time as the Unionist Party), November 1911- March 1921, and again October 1922- May 1923; Colonial Secretary in war-time coalition under Asquith, 1915-16; Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1916-19, and Lord Privy Seal, 1919-21(Leader of the House of Commons throughout) in coalition with Lloyd George( and de facto Deputy Prime Minister) ; resigned because of ill-health, 1921, but returned to oust Lloyd George at the famous Carlton Club meeting, October 1922; Prime Minister, October 1922 to May 1923.
Key Aspects of His Life
- The only prime minister born outside the UK (apart from Boris Johnson); the only one closely connected by birth with a country of the Empire(Canada); and the only one of Ulster Unionist extraction( Empire and Ulster were his two biggest political preoccupations).
- First businessman( Glasgow iron merchant until 1900, making and inheriting a substantial amount, but not a millionaire) to become Tory leader—and followed by two more businessmen , Baldwin and Chamberlain, with reversion to landed elite thereafter.
- Totally uninterested in the countryside( unable, embarrassingly for a Tory leader with many rural MPs, to identify a pheasant), and absorbed in urban life(first Glasgow, then London).
- Without intellectual interests; recreations chess(a leading amateur player), bridge, golf, tennis and popular novels( though he claimed to have read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire three times before the age of 21).
- Blessed with an extraordinarily powerful memory, enabling him to make all his Commons speeches without notes from the moment of his arrival at Westminster( having practised assiduously in the Glasgow Parliamentary Debating Association over many years as he trained himself for a political career) ; he could also quote from memory passages of his opponents’ speeches made years earlier, to their discomfort.
- Always a passionately committed Tory, unlike his predecessor, Balfour, who did not care for his Party much; revived the spirit and morale of the Party after the rather lacklustre Balfour years, which had brought parliamentary disarray over Lloyd George’s ‘ People’s Budget’ and the 1911 Parliament Act, which curbed the power of the Lords, a Tory bastion; and put Conservative Central Office and the wider Party organisation on a modernised basis, fit for the 20th century.
- Ended Tory divisions over tariff reform, which involved a return to economic protection and imperial preference, by insisting on total loyalty to the policy and making it impossible for supporters of free trade to remain in the Party; this paved the way for the reintroduction of tariffs in the inter-war period.
- Brought the Party political battle to fever-pitch, and delighted his own Party, through his fierce campaign against Asquith’s Irish Home Rule Bill, 1912-14, while privately preparing the ground for compromise by working for the exclusion of part of Ulster from a devolved Irish parliament in Dublin; Northern Ireland, created a century ago this year is his achievement.
- Strong advocate of war in 1914, entering coalition with Asquith in 1915 (they did not get on).
- Declined King George V’s offer of the premiership in December 1916 after failing to persuade Asquith to join him and Lloyd George in a new coalition , and agreed to serve under Lloyd George instead; with Liberals split, the Tories became the predominant party in the coalition.
- As Chancellor introduced war loans and war bonds, described as “among the greatest achievements in the history of British finance”; his budgets were widely praised.
- Fought two elections as leader, 1918 and 1922; won both; could have governed alone after the first, but remained in coalition with Lloyd George, whose dynamism he admired ; victory in the second, with an overall majority of 75, set the scene for Tory political ascendancy in the inter-war period under Baldwin, his protégé, and later Chamberlain who first entered government under him in 1922.
- His premiership of 209 days was the shortest of the 20th century, and the third shortest in modern history, after Canning and Goderich in 1827 and 1827-8 respectively; it was dominated by wrangling over repayments of war debts.
- “He lived simply, smoked excessively, and shunned society. He rarely left London and made no use of Chequers”, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
- Ashes interred in Westminster Abbey November 1923 under a paving stone inscribed simply: “Andrew Bonar Law 1858-1923 Sometime Prime Minister”.
Further Reading. There are two excellent, thoroughly researched biographies: Robert Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister: The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858-1923 ( Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955) and R.J.Q. Adams, Bonar Law (John Murray,1999).