We are now familiar with the spectacle of a Conservative leader appointed after his Party has suffered a severe electoral setback, troubled by warfare within his own ranks and confronted by a broad alliance of political opponents. Can William Hague draw any comfort from the experience of his similarly beleaguered predecessor Andrew Bonar Law, a scarcely visible figure in the pantheon of Tory leaders? What is best known about him is that he is ‘unknown’. Lord Blake’s celebrated biography, The Unknown Prime Minister (1955), took its cue from Asquith’s perhaps apocryphal remark at Bonar Law’s funeral at Westminster Abbey in 1923: it was fitting, Asquith said, to ‘have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier’. It was the kind of cruelly smart comment that Asquith was given to making, and in this instance the lack of generosity was only to be expected because Bonar Law had been instrumental in ending Asquith’s Premiership in 1916.
Bonar Law was, it is true, Prime Minister for only nine months: he was struck down by cancer before he could get into his stride. He was 65 at the time – not very old for a senior politician – and had a solid majority in the Commons. He had led his party for 11 years – with Thatcher, Baldwin and Churchill, one of the longest serving Tory leaders this century. Unlike Churchill he was not a great war leader, however, and unlike Thatcher and Baldwin he was not successful electorally. He won only one election victory as leader, in 1922, and only then, some would say, because he was more obviously not Lloyd George than anyone else. He can claim no great legislative programme – no equivalent of Baldwin’s ‘new Conservatism’, Churchill’s ‘new Elizabethans’ or ‘Thatcherism’. Meeting him socially, the young Harold Macmillan found him a crashing bore and his politics were similarly far from exciting. Yet he may have been more important than posterity has allowed. R.J.Q. Adams makes that case quietly but firmly.
He was, on the face of it, an unusual choice for Party leader. To begin with, he was middle-class, a businessman with interests in metal and banking, when the Party hierarchy and backbenches were still overwhelmingly aristocratic and landed. Of course Victorian Conservatives, after a long period of suspicion, had taken the parvenu Disraeli to their hearts, but Disraeli was plus royaliste que le roi when it came to aristocratic manners. Bonar Law, on the other hand, was unreconstructedly bourgeois; his aristocratic colleagues sneered at his house on the ‘wrong side of the Park’ and the fact that he used outside caterers for Shadow Cabinet dinners. He was rather dour and not particularly clubbable, though he was a fanatical bridge player, an excellent chess player, keen on tennis and golf, and the founding president of the Campaign for Real Smoking. Dubbed ‘Mr Smoke’ by Max Aitken’s daughter, he puffed on a pipe for most of the day and chain-smoked cigars in the evening. But he did not shoot or hunt, was teetotal, disliked music and dancing, and, according to Aitken, ‘never dined with anyone if he could help it’. Hardly promising material for the country house parties and London society gatherings that were an intrinsic part of Tory politicking. He was not even English: indeed, he was only just British, having been born in Canada of Scots-Ulster parents. And he was a Presbyterian not an Anglican, in a party whose members and supporters were for the most part English and Anglican.
But perhaps he was not so out of place. Whether the Tory hierarchy liked it or not (and frequently they did not), Britain had become the most urban society in the world. In 1881, 22 per cent of the population had lived in rural areas. By the time Bonar Law became leader this had fallen to 8 per cent: more than half the population were living in towns with a population of at least a hundred thousand, and the contribution of agriculture to Britain’s GDP had fallen from 15 to 7 per cent. The Conservative electorate had itself become urban: by the 1890s, the ‘Villa Tories’ of Britain’s burgeoning urban and suburban areas formed the core of the Party’s constituency and the urban working class was a key target for votes. Bonar Law embodied this transformation.
The political debate which brought him to the forefront of Conservative politics reflected the same process, though in a complex way. Having become an MP in 1900, he used his business background to present himself as an ‘expert’ on matters of trade and the economy, and was given a post at the Board of Trade after only two years. When Joseph Chamberlain launched his crusade for the introduction of imperial and protective tariffs in 1903, Bonar Law was ideally placed to make a name for himself as an opponent of free trade. Being a tariff reformer was essential if one wished to get on in the Edwardian Tory Party, but after the double general election defeat in 1910 even some of the staunchest supporters of tariffs were willing to concede that proposals to ‘tax the people’s food’ were not viable. Bonar Law was among them. When he was elected Party leader after Balfour’s resignation in 1911, he was still trusted by the tariff camp but had also established close links with those who wished to dilute the tariff programme. In 1912 and 1913 he effectively sidelined the dread ‘food taxes’, although he retained the industrially protective aspect of the tariff campaign. Deliberately or not, he transformed it from an imperial crusade into a policy directed at domestic industrial producers, and removed any hint of agricultural protection from the Conservative agenda.
Bonar Law’s ditching of the most unpopular elements of the tariff campaign was both decisive and courageous, qualities which Adams sees as essential aspects of his character. It didn’t guarantee peace within the Party, however. Many of his former allies in the reform camp saw what he had done as apostasy and grumbled a great deal. Nor did he seem capable of galvanising the Party into making a positive response to the Liberal Government’s social-reform initiatives. He sought refuge in the Irish Question, but this, too, was fraught with difficulty. He was passionately concerned with Irish issues, but because of his own family background, ran the risk, many Conservatives thought, of sacrificing the Union for the sake of Ulster’s preservation. His statement of unequivocal support for Ulster’s resistance to Home Rule was, at best, unconstitutional. At worst, it amounted to the fomenting of armed rebellion against an elected government.
Lloyd George’s remark that, in choosing Bonar Law, the Conservatives had ‘stumbled on the right man by accident’ did not seem as clever between 1911 and 1914 as it did in later years. Bonar Law had been a compromise candidate for the leadership and was inexperienced at the highest levels of politics. It showed. In the years before the war he faced constant criticism from within the Party and threatened to resign almost monthly. His ‘new style’ of Parliamentary debate, which seemed to consist mainly of abusing Asquith, may have eased the frustrations of his backbenchers, but it achieved little. In 1914 the Tories were still faction-ridden, still on the political defensive and facing a difficult future. Had he been run over by the proverbial Whitehall bus in July 1914 it is doubtful that his leadership would have been regarded as anything other than an occasionally colourful failure.
British Conservatives owe Kaiser Wilhelm II an immense debt. The politics of wartime benefited them greatly. They became part of the Asquith Coalition in May 1915, and with the formation of Lloyd George’s Government in December 1916 (and the division of the Liberal Party attendant on it) they grabbed the levers of power. How well Bonar Law took his opportunity. In May 1915 he had forced Asquith to opt for a coalition by threatening publicly to criticise the Government’s conduct of the war, a move which would have ended the party truce and made the management of Parliament impossible. And then, when it suited him, he broke the Coalition. In November 1916, he refused to accept Asquith as chairman of the newly created War Council, leaving him to choose between remaining head of a war government in which he had no strategic authority, or resigning. He chose the latter. When Lloyd George became Prime Minister, Bonar Law became Chancellor, Leader of the Commons and, in effect, Lloyd George’s deputy. In addition, the Conservative Party received the lion’s share of Cabinet and junior ministerial posts. Bonar Law said that he was seeking a more effective prosecution of the war. What else could he say?
Adams portrays Bonar Law as essentially honest and straight-dealing and implies that he was not intriguing for intrigue’s sake. That he turned down the King’s request to form a government after Asquith’s resignation does suggest that personal or simple party-political ambition were not uppermost in his mind – he was a patriot who lost two sons in the war. But that does not preclude the possibility that he ably exploited the wartime political situation. After all, he knew that without Lloyd George as Prime Minister no government would retain enough Liberal support to survive. Lloyd George may have been ‘the man who won the war’, but Bonar Law was the man who stood behind the man who won the war.
They were an odd couple. Lloyd George was, in Stanley Baldwin’s phrase, ‘a dynamic force’, at ease with high political manoeuvre, socially and sexually energetic, and not averse to the odd back-door deal. Bonar Law was dour, pious, and looked askance at any hint of personal or political immorality. He loathed Asquith because of his levity and sybaritic excess. And his hatred of Churchill, whom he considered untrustworthy and provocative, was even deeper. Bonar Law had made it a condition of joining Asquith’s Coalition that Churchill be kept out. Yet Lloyd George and Bonar Law forged an effective, and, it seems, quite friendly, partnership, which continued after the war. Lloyd George provided the inspiration and the dash; Bonar Law provided the steadiness and gravitas. Lloyd George hogged the limelight, while Bonar Law took care of home affairs and minded the shop when the boss was away on his jaunts. The Prime Minister eventually became the political prisoner of the quiet man at No. II. Lloyd George often raised the possibility of a fusion between Conservatives and Coalition Liberals in a new political party, but Bonar Law always deflected the question, mindful of the attitude of the Tory backbenches and grass roots, many of whom had never forgiven the Goat for his prewar radicalism.
After the war, Lloyd George did little that Bonar Law found disagreeable. The Prime Minister took as strong a line as the Conservatives on unrest in the coalfields and on the railways. In 1920, Lloyd George agreed that Home Rule (which had been on the Statute Book for half a decade) would include a separate legislature for Ulster, thereby safeguarding its Unionist future. As a consequence, Bonar Law found the Coalition far less objectionable than some of his more feisty backbenchers: it was, he could argue, following a largely Conservative agenda. Suffering from ill health in 1921, he had few qualms about handing the leadership of the Conservatives to the ardent Coalitionist, Austen Chamberlain.
Had Bonar Law gone into permanent retirement he could have been rather pleased with his record. When he took on the Conservative leadership, the Party had been divided and politically weak. By 1921 order had been restored and the Tories were the most powerful force in politics. So why did he choose to make a dramatic comeback? Adams does not deal extensively with Bonar Law’s depressive tendencies, but they were an important factor in the latter stages of his career. His family had always been a crucial support: the death of his wife in 1909 had nearly forced him out of public life, and that of his sons had hit him hard. With few close friends, he had come to rely on his daughter, Isabel, whose marriage in 1920 removed his closest confidante – ‘a terrible thing has happened,’ he told Max Aitken when he learned of her engagement. His enforced absence from the political fray made it worse.
He was also concerned about the political situation and, in particular, the state of his Party. The Irish Treaty, the situation in the Near East, and disaffection among local Tory activists – symbolised by the Anti-Waste movement – spelled the end of the Coalition Government. Bonar Law, as the ‘True-Blue’ king over the water, was a natural focus for those hostile to coalitionism. In 1920 Lloyd George had seemed ‘indispensable’ to the Conservative Party; two years later, he was eminently dispensable. By October 1922 Bonar Law had decided it was essential to re-establish the Conservatives as an independent force. Faced with the rise of the Labour Party, he had to choose between fusing the coalitionist forces as an anti-socialist bloc or re-establishing the Conservative Party as the pre-eminent anti-socialist force. The general election result of 1922 showed that he had taken the right decision: for the first time since 1900 the Conservatives won a majority as an independent party, and the various Liberal groups were left to occupy a shrinking middle ground. The Party’s interwar hegemony – until 1931 at any rate, they were the strongest of three parties in an effective three-party system – was the most important outcome of these events.
Adams’s elegant and thoughtful biography presents a powerful case for seeing Bonar Law as a leading player rather than a spear-carrier. It is unfortunate that his greatest political legacy – his insistence on the partition of Ireland – was such a damaging one. But he was a reasonable, honest and professional politician who, unlike his one-time colleague and permanent rival Austen Chamberlain, always played the game and always won. His political and personal ruthlessness – products of his lack of interest in the social aspects of political life – were of great value in wartime and in the political flux immediately after the war. As Lloyd George (and others since) have discovered, an excess of charisma can be as harmful as a lack of it. It is Adams’s achievement to have made clear how such an uninspiring figure could, in the right circumstances, have a powerful political appeal.