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Bonar Law

Andrew Bonar Law, generally known from his earliest youth simply as ‘Bonar Law’, was born on 16th September, 1858 at Kingston (now Rexton) in what was then the colony of New Brunswick, now a province of Canada, whither his father, the Reverend James Law had emigrated from Coleraine in his native Ulster. Bonar Law’s father, the Reverend James Law, was a good and kind man, of whom his children had many fond memories, but he was not a happy man. Money was always in short supply in a colonial clergyman’s household. Worse, rural Canadian society offered scant chance for a man of great intelligence and no small education to enjoy the society of his intellectual equals.

Worst, in 1860 Bonar Law’s mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth. Her death cast James Law, always a melancholy man, into a deep and prolonged depression. Yet the home was far from unhappy, as James Law made an effort to conceal his problems from his children, and young Bonar grew into a healthy and vigorous boy. For some years after his mother’s death Bonar Law was in the care of his maternal aunt, Miss Janet Kidston, who lived in her brother-in-law’s household until his remarriage, when she decided to return to her native Scotland, where she still had extensive family and connections.

Miss Kidston had evidently taken a great liking to her youngest nephew (young Bonar had three elder brothers). She suggested to her brother-in-law that it might be to Bonar’s advantage if she were to take him back to Scotland with her, where he would receive a better education than Canada could at the time offer, at any rate to the son of a rural clergyman in a poor and rather remote parish. The Kidstons were a much wealthier and better connected family than the Laws, and James Law at once saw that the offer was not only kindly intended but also potentially very attractive from Bonar’s point of view, for the Kidstons might give Bonar a start in life that James Law could never hope to offer his youngest son.

There were three Kidston brothers, Charles, Richard and William, cousins of Bonar Law’s mother. They were in business as merchant bankers, and were immensely wealthy. They did not treat Bonar Law as a poor relation dependent upon their charity, but rather as a substitute son and heir, for two of the brothers were unmarried and the third was childless. Formal education has always been more highly regarded in the Celtic countries of the United Kingdom than in England, so Bonar Law made a good impression upon his cousins by his outstanding performance as a pupil at Glasgow High School, whose academic reputation stood and still stands very high.

Rather surprisingly in view of young Bonar’s marked academic success, the Kidstons did not especially wish him to continue to university, so at the tender age of 16 he was employed in their office. Perhaps they felt that as his future lay in the prosaic if lucrative world of Glasgow business the sooner that he began the better. Deprived of the benefit of an university education, Bonar Law set to work to educate himself in his spare time. He read omnivorously, but had a particular fondness for Dickens, Carlyle, Disraeli and Gibbon. He also became a chess player of the first rank. His memory was quite extraordinary. A liking for the works of Disraeli was a curious taste among the Scottish commercial classes, which were overwhelmingly Liberal in politics.

The Kidstons were, however, for reasons that no-one can remember, Conservatives with good connections in the party. Indeed, it is said that Disraeli himself had stayed as a guest at the Kidstons’ house, where young Bonar had met him. Bonar Law’s business career went from strength to strength, and well before he was thirty, he had acquired the reputation of a shrewd man of business, who drove others hard but himself far harder, and whose word was good on any engagement that he contracted. An opportunity arose to purchase a partnership in William Jacks & Co., a firm concerned in the financing of the iron trade, and the Kidstons, who were minded to retire from their bank, selling its undertaking for a very large sum to the Clydesdale Bank, put up the money for Bonar Law to buy his way in. In 1890, at the age of thirty-two, Bonar Law, already a settled and successful man, became engaged to Annie Robley, whom he married on 24th March, 1891.

The marriage was to prove very happy and, though sadly their first child was stillborn, the Laws were to go on to celebrate six happy events, quite a large family even by the standards of the time. Bonar Law’s interest in politics had grown stronger as the 1890s went by, and after he inherited a very large sum on the death of one of the Kidstons, he was able to consider running for Parliament. In those days, it should perhaps be explained, Members of Parliament received no salary, a privilege reserved for ministers. Moreover, a candidate would not only be expected to pay for his own campaign, but also to make substantial donations to constituency funds. Only a rich man could therefore consider standing.

In 1900, the Prime Minister, the great Lord Salisbury, called a snap General Election to capitalise upon the apparent victory of British forces over the Boers. The Liberal Party was suspected of being pro-Boer, which is rather ironic given how the Liberal Party of later years was to feel about the Boers’ successor state, the Republic of South Africa. It was to turn out that the Boers were as yet very far from beaten, but patriotic sentiment took Bonar Law and many other Unionist candidates into Parliament with good majorities.

At the relatively late age of fourty-two, Bonar Law’s political career was at last under way. Lord Salisbury was by then a very old man, and in poor health. Like his Sovereign, Queen Victoria, he lingered on a little into a new century, but he was weary of office, and the time was obviously fast approaching when the party would have to look for a new leader. Bonar Law hoped that the new leader might be his political hero, Joseph Chamberlain. He passionately supported Chamberlain’s policy of tariff reform, i.e. protection. Bonar Law’s experience as a successful businessman meant that his opinions on this issue were regarded with respect. Within two years of election to the House, Bonar Law was appointed as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade, clearly an influential position for a tariff reformer.

In fact, Chamberlain never became Prime Minister, falling victim in 1906 to a stroke that was a tragedy for the country as well as for the man. Arthur Balfour, Lord Salisbury’s nephew, had succeeded his uncle as Prime Minister in 1902, and was to remain as leader of the Unionist Party until Bonar Law replaced him in 1911. The position of the Unionist Party in the country declined rapidly after Balfour’s succession. The party was bitterly divided over the tariff reform issue, a powerful minority favouring free trade. Balfour proved a lacklustre leader, an aristocratic John Major of his times with no clear policies. He strove to be all things to all men, a protectionist amongst protectionists, and a free trader amongst free traders. Such insipid leadership led to an all too predictable débâcle at the General Election of January, 1906. Bonar Law lost his Glasgow seat to a Labour candidate (a sign of the times), but he was in good company, for Balfour, too, lost his seat.

The new House of Commons contained 157 Unionists (there had been 334 in the previous House), of whom 109 were Chamberlainites, 11 were free traders, and 32 had no firm view on the most important economic issue of the day. The Liberals had won no less than 401 seats, while Labour had 29 and the Irish Nationalists held 83. It should be noted at this point that the election had been fought on economic issues, leavened with fine Liberal sanctimony over the alleged mistreatment of bonded Chinese labour on the Rand. Of Ireland the Liberals had not said a word. On the contrary, Asquith had asserted in an election address at Bury St. Edmunds that: “The sole issue of the moment is the supremacy of the people...(the Unionists were seeking) to confuse this issue by catechising Ministers on the details of the next Home Rule Bill”.

Bonar Law soon returned to the House of Commons after a by-election in Dulwich, and was to prove an effective senior member of the opposition. In 1909 he was sorely afflicted by the death of his wife, following an operation for the removal of a gall stone. Bonar Law never fully recovered from his grievous loss, which was not, alas, to be the last personal tragedy to afflict him. Fearing that he might plunge into the same depressive melancholia that had affected his father after his mother’s death, he flung himself into politics with redoubled vigour, seeking to forget personal grief, while doing some service to his country. The year 1909 was marked by bitter controversies between the Lords and the Commons, precipitated by the Lords’ opposition to Lloyd George’s so-called ‘people’s budget’.

The Liberals determined to reduce the powers of the upper chamber. King George V would only agree to the Liberal Prime Minister Asquith’s request to create sufficient new peers to get the necessary legislation through the upper house, if Asquith could demonstrate a popular mandate for so drastic a step. Asquith duly went to the country in January 1910. The result was a hung Parliament. The Liberals won 275 seats, the Unionists 273; 40 Labour members were elected, as were 82 Irish Nationalists. This Parliament proved short lived, but a second General Election in December 1910 was equally inconclusive, for the Liberals won 272 seats, the Unionists 271, with 42 Labour and 84 Irish Nationalist members also elected. Clearly a third election was out of the question, but Asquith would have to rely on Labour and the Irish for support if he was to form a durable government. After three election defeats in succession, two within the year, Balfour’s position as leader was rapidly becoming untenable.

He decided to jump before he was pushed, with the result that an election for the leadership of the Unionist party was called. There were expected to be only two candidates, Walter Long, who represented a rural Tory electorate, and Austen Chamberlain, Joseph Chamberlain’s son, standard-bearer of the former Liberal Unionists, representing a more urban constituency, and closely associated with his father’s ‘controversial’ views. Long was generally regarded both as not being especially clever, and, no less seriously, as being weak and indecisive. Nevertheless, he had a strong support base amongst the party’s ‘backwoodsmen’. Austen Chamberlain wholly lacked his great father’s charisma, but was well regarded by the party’s senior figures. The bitterness between the two men was very great. Bonar Law, to general surprise, declared himself as a third candidate. His motive appears initially to have been merely to test the water for a more serious assault on the leadership at a later date, but matters proceeded in a rather surprising way.

Many in the party feared that a contest between two such bitter rivals as Long and Austen Chamberlain would leave a legacy of unmanageable ill feeling, whichever of the two was successful. There were attractions in choosing a candidate acceptable to both camps, and widely respected in the party. Lord Balcarres, the chief whip, brokered an agreement under which both Long and Austen Chamberlain stood down in Bonar Law’s favour. So, by means of a quite bizarre transaction, Bonar Law became leader of the Unionist Party on 13th November, 1911. The next year was to see him plunged into the Irish Home Rule controversy.

Home Rule had not been before the electorate, whether in 1906, or at either of the 1910 elections. Yet, despite their lack of a mandate for radical change in the relationship between the different parts of the United Kingdom, the Liberals forged ahead with the second Home Rule Bill, driven by the need to appease the Home Rulers’ leader, John Redmond, if they were to remain in office. Redmond’s demand was for Ireland to be put under a Dublin Parliament. That meant the whole of Ireland, north and south. Such a policy Bonar Law was bound by blood and conviction to oppose. Just how far he was prepared to go in that opposition we shall see. At the invitation of the Ulster Unionists, Bonar Law visited Belfast on Easter Tuesday (9th April) 1912 in the company of Sir Edward Carson and seventy Members of Parliament.

The largest Union flag ever seen floated above the platform. 100,000 Irish unionists marched past in military formation. Bonar Law spoke from his heart to the men and women of Ulster in these words: “You are a besieged city. Does not the picture of the past, the glorious past with which you are so familiar, rise again before your eyes? The timid have left you, your Lundys have betrayed you, but you have closed your gates. The Government by their Parliament Act have erected a boom against you, a boom to cut you off from the help of the British people. You will burst that boom. The help will come, and when the crisis is over men will say of you in words not unlike those once used by Pitt, ‘You have saved yourselves by your exertions, and you will save the empire by your example.’ ” Two days later Asquith put the Home Rule Bill before the House of Commons. The Unionist response was to organise a huge rally at Blenheim Palace. Bonar Law, Carson and others addressed the assembled masses. 120 Unionist MPs and 40 Peers were on the platform.

Amongst them was England’s premier Roman Catholic layman, the Duke of Norfolk, a nice touch which left the Irish nationalists besides themselves with rage. Bonar Law condemned Asquith’s government “as a Revolutionary Committee which has seized upon despotic power by fraud”. He then went on to address the crowd in these terms: “In our opposition to them we shall not be guided by the considerations or bound by the restraints which would influence us in an ordinary constitutional struggle. We shall take the means, whatever means seem to us most effective, to deprive them of the despotic power which they have usurped and compel them to appeal to the people whom they have deceived. They may, perhaps they will, carry their Home Rule Bill through the House of Commons, but what then? I said the other day in the House of Commons and I repeat here that there are things stronger than Parliamentary majorities...

Before I occupied the position which I now fill in the Party, I said that in my belief if an attempt were made to deprive these men of their birthright as part of a corrupt Parliamentary bargain, they would be justified in resisting such an attempt by all means in their power, including force. I said it then, and I repeat now with a full sense of the responsibility which attaches to my position, that in my opinion, if such an attempt is made, I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them...” Lord Blake, Bonar Law’s biographer, points out that the Unionist leader had broken the conventions upon which Parliamentary democracy is based. Such a tone had not been heard in England since the Long Parliament. On the other hand Asquith had provoked this response by trampling on the rights of the Unionists of Ireland without any mandate to do so from the British people.

Asquith was now himself contemplating extreme measures. He asked the Attorney-General to consider whether the Unionist leaders might be prosecuted for sedition. As a matter of strict law, the case against Carson, Craig and FE Smith was strong, but how could the Government proceed against them and not against Bonar Law? Asquith came close to accusing Bonar Law of sedition, when the Prime Minister said of Bonar Law’s great speech “The reckless rodomontade at Blenheim...furnishes for the future a complete grammar of anarchy.” Yet, as Lord Blake observes, Bonar Law was in a strong position, since: “For a government in the twentieth century to initiate a criminal prosecution against the Leader of the Opposition was an action at which the boldest Prime Minister might pause.”

By 1914, a dramatic and almost certainly violent showdown between the supporters and opponents of Home Rule appeared increasingly likely. Winston Churchill, to whose controversial role in the crisis we must shortly turn, accused Bonar Law of “an organized campaign to seduce the Army”, on account of Bonar Law’s secret conversations with Sir Henry Wilson. Yet Churchill (then First Lord of the Admiralty) without informing Asquith, who preferred to bluff than to fight (by no means an unattractive characteristic if the alternative is waging war upon one’s own people) had given extraordinary orders to the fleet. The cabinet had considered directing that the Third Battle Fleet, then off the coast of Spain, should steam for Lamlash on the Isle of Arran, some sixty miles or so from Belfast. Asquith would not fix a date for the manoeuvre. Churchill secretly ordered the fleet to make for Lamlash forthwith. Churchill then told Sir John French that if Belfast showed fight, “his fleet would have the town in ruins in twenty-four hours”.

Might not Bonar Law in his turn justifiably have described such conduct as “an organised campaign to seduce the Navy”? Such willingness to make war on his own people was par for the course for a man who, as Home Secretary, distinguished himself by ordering troops to shoot down striking Welsh miners in Tonypandy for the crime of being Welsh miners who did not have enough to eat. It goes a long way to explain and to justify the Unionist view of Churchill at the time. Lord Blake does not mince his words in describing what that view was: “It is not easy for those who have lived through the era of Churchill’s ascendancy, through a period when criticism of him seemed barely short of treason to comprehend the intense and bitter animosity which he inspired (in 1914). “Yet the merest glance at the private papers or public utterances of that time shows that Churchill was an object of deep distaste to almost every Unionist except Balfour and for different reason, to very many Liberals too.

What is the explanation of this hostility? “It was not merely that he had crossed the floor of the House; not merely that he had become the most witty and merciless assailant of his old Party; not merely that he had played or was believed to have played so sinister a part in the Irish crisis. It was rather the feeling, however unjustified and unfair, that behind brilliant oratory, great talents, and prodigious energy, there lay a ruthless love of power, a passionate determination to reach the summit of English politics, no matter what changes in allegiance and loyalty this ambition might cost. Churchill inspired, for all his great virtues, a profound sense of mistrust; and there is perhaps no handicap more fatal to an English politician.

“This mistrust was felt by no-one more deeply than by Bonar Law. He recognised Churchill’s great ability, but he regarded him at the same time with ineradicable doubt and suspicion. To Bonar Law, Churchill seemed erratic, unbalanced, and overbearing...Had Bonar Law lived, it is unlikely that Churchill would either have wished, or been able, to return to the Conservative fold... “Bonar Law’s opinion of Churchill is tersely expressed in a letter to a correspondent (thus): ‘I agree with the estimate you have formed of Churchill. I think he has very unusual intellectual ability, but at the same time he seems to have an entirely unbalanced mind, which is a real danger...’ ”

We can never know how the dispute between Unionists and Home Rulers would have been resolved in the crisis year of 1914 had not war between Great Britain and Germany prevented an armed showdown in Ulster. If we dare to think the unthinkable and say the unsayable, we should question the received wisdom that the evasion of the issue was the silver lining to the black cloud of horrors that the Great War brought upon the British people. That war left a million of our best men dead to no purpose and sowed the seeds of a second conflict. It left the country exhausted and unwilling to make the great national effort needed in 1918 to preserve the Union, which is of infinitely greater importance to our strategic and political interests than the demarcation of spheres of influence in the Balkans or in Belgium.

If blood had to be shed at all in August 1914, would it not better have been shed in the cause of the unity of the Three Kingdoms, than in foreign quarrels? We must leave that debate for another time and place, and return to Bonar Law’s position in the late summer of 1914. Once the country was at war, the role of the leader of the opposition became peculiarly difficult. The Liberals depicted any criticism of their conduct of the war as offering aid and comfort to the enemy, yet were themselves not above scoring party political points when they saw a chance to do so. The Unionists at first chose patriotic opposition, which meant that while encouraging an atmosphere of national unity in the hour of crisis, they considered themselves free to criticise details of government policy.

By 1915, it had become apparent that there would be no quick end to the war and the need to marshal all the country’s forces for the war effort drove Asquith to offer a coalition government. Bonar Law accepted the relatively unimportant position of colonial secretary under Asquith, though he might reasonably have sought much higher office. His modesty and self-effacement won general admiration. The first coalition broke up in general dissatisfaction at Asquith’s conduct of the war. Bonar Law had an opportunity to see what manner of man led the country on 12th June, 1916. Even as the flower of our youth was preparing for the disastrous offensive on the Somme, Bonar Law paid a visit to the Prime Minister at his country seat for a briefing before visiting French army headquarters. There he found Asquith too drunk on champagne and too busy playing bridge with three ladies of decidedly dubious morals to discuss Bonar Law’s mission to the French. Such behaviour on Asquith’s part proved too much even for the Liberals, and his own party deposed him in December 1916.

Lloyd George became Prime Minister, Bonar Law declining the premiership as he thought Lloyd George better suited to the leadership, a gesture of humility of a kind that few modern politicians would be capable of understanding, let alone emulating. Lloyd George had a high regard for Bonar Law, appointing him Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position much more commensurate with Bonar Law’s standing and abilities than the colonial secretaryship. The war brought great personal sorrow for Bonar Law. Two of his sons had volunteered for active service; the third, Richard Law, later Lord Coleraine, was still a young boy in 1918, so he survived. In April 1917 Bonar Law’s second son, Lieutenant Charles Law was killed in action against the Turks at the battle of Gaza; his eldest and favourite son James was killed in action with the Royal Flying Corps in September 1917. James Law had previously been seriously wounded in action and was posted to a training squadron on his discharge from hospital.

He had, however, insisted on rejoining his unit at the front. His aeroplane was shot down over German lines, and his body was never found. Bonar Law never recovered from his grief. Bonar Law’s role in the conduct of the war is difficult to assess. Until the period of the second coalition, he had no power to influence policy and as a civilian trained to commerce, not arms, it is scarcely surprising that he was placed at the head of an economic department with no direct responsibility for strategy. To his credit, he made clear his opposition to Churchill’s disastrous Dardanelles campaign. On the other hand, he shared responsibility with Lloyd George for failing to halt Haig’s appalling Passchendaele offensive at an early stage. It seems fairly clear that both the Prime Minister and Bonar Law had lost confidence (with good reason) in Haig and would like to have halted the senseless slaughter on Passchendaele sooner.

By then, however, the politicians had lost authority over the military men to such an extent that both Bonar Law and Lloyd George subordinated their better judgment to Haig’s sanguinary folly long after they knew in their hearts that Haig’s offensive would bring about tens of thousands of deaths and win no more than a few hundred yards of mud. The most Pyrrhic of victories came at last in November 1918. The aftermath of war saw social tensions increase, as the returning soldiers found no land fit for heroes to live in. Strikes flared up. Bonar Law’s approach to the working classes was conciliatory. As Lord Blake recalls: “A story is told of Bonar Law at about this time.

He was dining after addressing a political meeting in the country. His hostess, referring to...strikers said, ‘Now do tell me, Mr Bonar Law, what do these people really want?’ “Bonar Law looked at the table with its glittering load of glass and silver, at the portraits on the walls, and the silently efficient servants. ‘Perhaps’, he said in his soft voice, ‘they want just a little of all this’.” Nor had the Irish problem gone away. In the General Election of 1918, Sinn Fein won 73 Irish seats. Lloyd George remained as Prime Minister, at the head of a coalition in which the Conservatives were the senior partners, for the Liberals had split into a faction that supported Lloyd George and his coalition government and a faction that supported Asquith and went into opposition. Soon Ireland was aflame and Lloyd George moved from a policy of savage repression, which merely increased support for Republican extremists, to a policy of defeatism and negotiation with the leaders of the murder gangs. There is nothing new under the sun. Unfortunately, Bonar Law could not intervene effectively at this time. From May to September 1921 his health underwent a marked and serious deterioration.

Though he did not know it, he was already a dying man, for he had cancer of the throat. He therefore retired from the leadership of the Conservative party in favour of Austen Chamberlain and went to France to convalesce. Evidently, a period of remission ensued, for he was soon restored to apparently good health, though the respite was to prove all too short. Bonar Law’s position on Ireland during this period of enforced inactivity was interesting, whether or not it was correct. He was pessimistic about the maintenance of the Union with the southern and western counties of Ireland, where the government’s authority had largely collapsed.

His great concern was to safeguard Ulster’s special position. Thus he wrote to a lady who asked him his opinion: “Before the war there were only two things which I really cared for as matters of conviction, the rest was mainly a game. One of these was tariff reform; the other was fair play for Ulster, and I feel as strongly about it as I did then.” It is no exaggeration to say that Bonar Law’s determination to defend Ulster’s position in the United Kingdom ensured the exclusion of the six north-eastern counties from the Free State and their place to-day as a part of the United Kingdom. Lloyd George’s position as a Liberal Prime Minister dependent on Unionist support was vulnerable to the corruption scandals that bedevilled his later years in office. On 19th October, 1922, the Unionist backbenchers met at the Carlton Club and decided to withdraw their support from Lloyd George.

Austen Chamberlain had become unpopular with his own backbenchers by reason of his total psychological dependence upon Lloyd George. He too had to go. Bonar Law was recalled to the leadership, becoming Prime Minister. Alas, his term of office was short. After 209 days as Prime Minister, he had relapsed badly and was very weak and in great and constant pain. He resigned in April 1923. Radiotherapy brought a further short respite from the pain, but death was not far away now. On 30th October, 1923, Bonar Law died having borne his last illness with great fortitude. Bonar Law is buried in Westminster Abbey. His old and bitter enemy Asquith redeemed his past wrongs to Bonar Law in some measure by his famous and generous epithet: “It is fitting that we should have buried the unknown Prime Minister by the side of the unknown soldier.”

Bibliography The classic text is Lord Blake’s The Unknown Prime Minister. However, a new biography by RJQ Adams (April, 1999) has been well received.

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