|The Right Honourable
Andrew Bonar Law
|Prime Minister of the United Kingdom|
23 October 1922 – 22 May 1923
|Preceded by||David Lloyd George|
|Succeeded by||Stanley Baldwin|
|Leader of the Opposition|
13 November 1911 – 25 May 1915
|Prime Minister||Herbert Henry Asquith|
|Preceded by||Arthur Balfour|
next held by Sir Edward Carson on 19 October 1915
|Chancellor of the Exchequer|
10 December 1916 – 10 January 1919
|Prime Minister||David Lloyd George|
|Preceded by||Reginald McKenna|
|Succeeded by||Austen Chamberlain|
|Secretary of State for the Colonies|
25 May 1915 – 10 December 1916
|Prime Minister||Herbert Henry Asquith
David Lloyd George
|Preceded by||The Viscount Harcourt|
|Succeeded by||The Viscount Long|
|Lord Privy Seal|
10 January 1919 – 1 April 1921
|Prime Minister||David Lloyd George|
|Preceded by||The Earl of Crawford|
|Succeeded by||Austen Chamberlain|
|Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Central
December 1918 – 30 October 1923
|Preceded by||John Mackintosh MacLeod|
|Succeeded by||William Alexander|
|Member of Parliament
March 1911 – December 1918
|Preceded by||Thomas Myles Sandys|
|Succeeded by||Thomas Royden|
|Member of Parliament
May 1906 – December 1910
|Preceded by||Frederick Rutherfoord Harris|
|Succeeded by||Sir Frederick Hall|
|Member of Parliament
for Glasgow Blackfriars
October 1900 – January 1906
|Preceded by||Andrew Dryburgh Provand|
|Succeeded by||George Nicoll Barnes|
16 September 1858|
Kingston, Colony of New Brunswick (now part of Canada)
|Died||30 October 1923
24 Onslow Gardens, Kensington, London, United Kingdom
|Resting place||Westminster Abbey|
|Spouse(s)||Annie Pitcairn Robley|
|Alma mater||University of Glasgow, United Kingdom (night classes)|
Andrew Bonar Law (16 September 1858 – 30 October 1923), commonly called Bonar (rhymes with honour) Law, was a British Conservative Party statesman and Prime Minister. Born in the colony of New Brunswick (now in Canada), he is the only British Prime Minister to have been born outside the British Isles. He was also the shortest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, spending 211 days in office. He had a much longer tenure as Conservative Party leader, November 1911 to March 1921 and October 1922 to May 1923, where he used his business background to good advantage in promoting better organisation and efficiency. His lack of aristocratic family connections helped him broaden the base of the party to include more businessmen.
Law was born to a rural preacher and his wife in New Brunswick, where he spent his early life. A few years after his mother's death in 1861, his father remarried, and in 1870 Law moved to Helensburgh, Scotland, to live with his mother's sister Janet and her family, who ran a successful merchant bank. After an education at Larchfield School (now Lomond School), a preparatory school in Hamilton and the High School of Glasgow, Law left school aged sixteen to gain a "commercial education" at the family firm. A few years later the firm was sold to the Clydesdale Bank, putting Law's career in jeopardy until his uncles loaned him the money to buy a partnership in an iron merchants firm. Through hard work and his business acumen the firm flourished under Law, and by the time he was thirty he was a comparatively rich man.
Law first entered politics in 1897, when he was asked to be the Conservative candidate for the seats of Glasgow Bridgeton and then Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown, accepting Blackfriars. Despite a large Liberal Party majority in his seat, Law campaigned successfully for the 1900 general election and was returned to Parliament. In the House of Commons he became noted for his excellent memory and oratory, and soon gained a position on the Conservative front bench. A strong supporter of tariff reform, Law was made Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in 1902. The issue of tariff reform split the Conservative Party, and Prime Minister Arthur Balfour resigned, prompting a general election in which the Conservative Party were forced into opposition. In opposition Law continued to argue for tariff reform, both in Parliament and within his party, largely avoiding the constitutional crisis surrounding the People's Budget in 1909. His appointment as a Privy Councillor that year marked him out as a conservative frontrunner, and when it became clear that Arthur Balfour would resign as Leader of the Conservative Party, Law put his name forward. Despite trailing third before Walter Long and Austen Chamberlain Law eventually won the election when the strong possibility of a draw between Long and Chamberlain that would split the party forced both to withdraw.
As Leader of the Conservative Party, Law focused his attentions on two main areas; tariff reform, which he supported, and Irish Home Rule, to which he was opposed. As leader of the opposition he was in no position to make active changes, but his strong campaigning, particularly on Home Rule, turned Liberal attempts to pass the Third Home Rule Bill into a three-year struggle eventually halted by the start of the First World War.
- 1 Early life and education
- 2 Business career
- 3 Entry into politics
- 4 Tariff reform
- 5 Leader of the Conservative Party
- 6 World War I
- 7 Post-war and Prime Minister
- 8 Resignation and death
- 9 Bonar Law's Government, October 1922 – May 1923
- 10 Popular culture
- 11 References
- 12 Bibliography
- 13 External links
Early life and education
Law was born on 16 September 1858 in Kingston (now Rexton), New Brunswick, to the Reverend James Law, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland with Scottish and Irish (mainly Ulster Scots) ancestry, and his wife Eliza Kidston Law. From the perspective of the time, Law was not born in Canada, as at the time New Brunswick was a separate colony, and Canadian confederation did not occur until 1867. His mother originally wanted to name him after Robert Murray M'Cheyne, a preacher she greatly admired, but as his older brother was already called Robert he was instead named after the Reverend Andrew Bonar, a biographer of M'Cheyne. Throughout his life he was always called Bonar (rhyming with honour) by his family and close friends, never Andrew. He originally signed his name as A.B. Law, changing to A. Bonar Law in his thirties, and he was referred to as Bonar Law by the public as well.
James Law was the minister for several isolated townships, and had to travel between them by horse, boat and on foot. To supplement the family income he bought a small farm on the Richibucto River, which Bonar helped tend along with his brothers Robert, William and John, and his sister Mary. Studying at the local village school, Law excelled at his studies, and it is here that he was first noted for his excellent memory. After Eliza Law died in 1861, her sister Janet travelled to New Brunswick from her home in Scotland to look after the Law children. When James Law remarried in 1870 his new wife took over Janet's duties, and Janet decided to return to Scotland. She suggested that Bonar Law should come with her, as the Kidston family were wealthier and better connected than the Laws, and Bonar would have a more privileged upbringing. Both James and Bonar accepted this, and Bonar left with Janet, never to return to Kingston.
Law went to live at Janet's house in Helensburgh, near Glasgow. Her brothers Charles, Richard and William were partners in the family merchant bank Kidston & Sons, and as only one of them had married (and produced no heir) it was generally accepted that Law would inherit the firm, or at least play a role in its management when he was older. Immediately upon arriving from Kingston, Law began attending Gilbertfield School, a preparatory school in Hamilton. In 1873 when he was fourteen he transferred to the High School of Glasgow, where with his excellent memory he showed a talent for languages, excelling in Greek, German and French. During this period he first began to play chess – he would carry a board on the train between Helensburgh and Glasgow, challenging other commuters to matches. He eventually became an excellent amateur player, and competed with internationally renowned chess masters. Despite his excellent academic record it became obvious at Glasgow that he was better suited to business than to university, and when he was sixteen Law left school to become a clerk at Kidston & Sons.
At Kidston & Sons, Law received a nominal salary,on the understanding that he would gain a "commercial education" from working there that would serve him well as a businessman. In 1885 the Kidston brothers decided to retire, and agreed to merge the firm with the Clydesdale Bank. The merger would have left Law without a job and with poor career-prospects, but the retiring brothers found him a job with William Jacks, an iron merchant who had started pursuing a parliamentary career. The Kidston brothers lent Law the money to buy a partnership in Jacks' firm, and with Jacks himself no longer playing an active part in the company, Law effectively became the managing partner. Working long hours (and insisting that his employees did likewise), Law turned the firm into one of the most profitable iron merchants in the Glaswegian and Scottish markets.
During this period Law became a "self-improver"; despite his lack of formal university education he sought to test his intellect, attending lectures given at Glasgow University and joining the Glasgow Parliamentary Debating Association, which adhered as closely as possible to the layout of the real Parliament of the United Kingdom and undoubtedly helped Law hone the skills that served him so well in the political arena.
By the time he was thirty Law had established himself as a successful businessman, and had time to devote to more leisurely pursuits. He remained an avid chess player, whom Andrew Harley called "a strong player, touching first-class amateur level, which he had attained by practice at the Glasgow Club in earlier days". Law also worked with the Parliamentary Debating Association and took up golf, tennis and walking. In 1888 he moved out of the Kidston household and set up his own home at Seabank, with his sister Mary (who had earlier come over from Canada) acting as the housekeeper. Two years later he met Annie Robley, a 24-year-old daughter of a Glaswegian merchant Harrington Robley. They quickly fell in love, and married on 24 March 1891. Little is known of Law's wife, as most of her letters have been lost. It is known that she was much liked in both Glasgow and London, and that her death in 1909 hit Law hard; despite his relatively young age and prosperous career, he never remarried. The couple had five sons and two daughters, although the first son was stillborn. The youngest son was Richard Law, later Baron Coleraine, the third Charlie Law, who as a soldier with the King's Own Scottish Borderers was killed at the Second Battle of Gaza in 1917. His eldest son, a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down and killed on 21 September of that year, and the deaths made Law even more melancholy and depressed than before. Isabel, the eldest daughter, married Sir Frederick Sykes and Catherine, the youngest, married, firstly, Kent Colwell and, much later, in 1961, The 1st Baron Archibald, the Labour grandee.
Entry into politics
In 1897 Law was asked to become the Conservative Party candidate for the parliamentary seat of Glasgow Bridgeton. Soon after he was offered another seat, this one in Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown, which he took instead of Glasgow Bridgeton. Blackfriars was not a seat with high prospects attached; a working-class area, it had returned Liberal Party MPs since it was created in 1884, and the incumbent, Andrew Provand, was highly popular. Although the election was not due until 1902, the events of the Second Boer War forced the Conservative government to call a general election in 1900, later known as the khaki election. The campaign was unpleasant for both sides, with anti- and pro-war campaigners fighting vociferously, but Law distinguished himself with his oratory and wit. When the results came in on 4 October, Law was returned to Parliament with a majority of 1,000, overturning Provand's majority of 381. He immediately ended his active work at Jacks and Company (although he retained his directorship) and moved to London.
Bonar initially became frustrated with the slow speed of Parliament compared to the rapid pace of the Glasgow iron market, and Austen Chamberlain recalled him saying to Chamberlain that "it was very well for men who, like myself had been able to enter the House of Commons young to adapt to a Parliamentary career, but if he had known what the House of Commons was he would never had entered at this stage". He soon learnt to be patient, however, and on 18 February 1901 made his debut speech. Replying to anti-Boer War MPs including David Lloyd George, Law used his excellent memory to quote sections of Hansard back to the opposition which contained their previous speeches supporting and commending the policies they now denounced. Although lasting only fifteen minutes and not a crowd- or press-pleaser like the debut speeches of F.E. Smith or Winston Churchill, it attracted the attention of the Conservative Party leaders.
Law's chance to make his mark came with the issue of tariff reform. To cover the costs of the Second Boer War, Lord Salisbury's Chancellor of the Exchequer (Michael Hicks Beach) suggested introducing import taxes or tariffs on foreign metal, flour and grain coming into Britain. Such tariffs had previously existed in Britain, but had been abolished in the 1870s because of the free trade movement. The issue became "explosive", dividing the British political world, and continued even after Salisbury retired and was replaced as Prime Minister by his nephew, Arthur Balfour. Law took advantage of this, making his first major speech on 22 April 1902, in which he argued that while he felt a general tariff was unnecessary, an imperial customs union (which would put tariffs on items from outside the British Empire, instead of on every nation but Britain) was a good idea, particularly since other nations such as Germany and the United States had increasingly high tariffs. Using his business experience, he made a "plausible case" that there was no proof that tariffs led to increases in the cost of living, as the Liberals had argued. Again his memory came into good use — when William Harcourt accused Law of misquoting him, Law was able to precisely give the place in Hansard where Harcourt's speech was to be found.
As a result of Law's proven experience in business matters and his skill as an economic spokesman for the government, Balfour offered him the position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade when he formed his government, which Law accepted, and he was appointed on 8 August 1902. As Parliamentary Secretary his job was to assist the President of the Board of Trade, Gerald Balfour. At the time the tariff reform controversy was brewing, with the Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, an ardent tariff reformer who "declared war" on free trade, leading. After returning from a speaking tour of South Africa in 1903, Chamberlain found that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer (C.T. Ritchie) had removed the tariff reforms suggested by Hicks Beach from the budget. Angered by this, Chamberlain spoke at the Birmingham Town Hall on 15 May without the government's permission, arguing for an Empire-wide system of tariffs which would protect Imperial economies, forge the British Empire into one political entity and allow them to compete with other world powers.
The speech and its ideas split the Conservative Party into two wings — the Free-Fooders, who supported free trade, and the Tariff Reformers, who supported Chamberlain's tariff reforms. Law was a dedicated Tariff Reformer, but for more mundane and worldly reasons than Chamberlain; while Chamberlain dreamed of a new golden age for Britain, Law focused on more practical results, such as a reduction in unemployment. L.S. Amery said that to Law, the tariff reform programme was "a question of trade figures and not national and Imperial policy of expansion and consolidation of which trade was merely the economic factor". Keith Laybourn attributes Law's interest in tariff reform not only to the sound business practice that it represented but also that because of his place of birth "he was attracted by the Imperial tariff preference arrangements advocated by Joseph Chamberlain". Law's constituents in Blackfriars were not overly enthusiastic about tariff reform — Glasgow was a poor area at the time that had benefited from free trade. In Parliament itself Law worked exceedingly hard at pushing for tariff reform, regularly speaking in the House of Commons and defeating legendary debaters such as Winston Churchill, Charles Dilke and Herbert Henry Asquith, former Home Secretary and later Prime Minister. His speeches at the time were known for their clarity and common sense; Sir Ian Malcolm said that he made "the involved seem intelligible", and L.S. Amery said his arguments were "like the hammering of a skilled riveter, every blow hitting the nail on the head". Despite Law's efforts to forge consensus within the Conservatives, Balfour was unable to hold the two sides of his party together, and resigned in December 1905.
The new Prime Minister, the Liberal Henry Campbell-Bannerman, immediately dissolved Parliament and forced a general election in which, despite strong campaigning and a visit by Arthur Balfour, Law lost his seat. This was part of a wider loss; the Conservative Party lost 245 seats, leaving them with only 157 Members of Parliament who were themselves divided into two factions. Despite his loss, Law was at this stage such an asset to the Conservatives that an immediate effort was made to get him back into Parliament. The retirement of Frederick Rutherfoord Harris, MP for the safe Conservative seat of Dulwich, offered him a chance. As the Conservative candidate he was returned to Parliament in the ensuing by-election, also increasing the Conservative majority to 1,279.
The party was struck a blow in July 1906, when two days after a celebration of his seventieth birthday, Joseph Chamberlain suffered a stroke and was forced to retire from politics. He was succeeded by Austen Chamberlain, Joseph's son, who despite previous experience as Chancellor of the Exchequer and enthusiasm for tariff reform was not as skilled a speaker as Law. As a result Law joined Balfour's Shadow Cabinet as the principal spokesman for tariff reform. The death of Law's wife on 31 October 1909 led him to work even harder as a coping strategy, and as a result he saw his political career not only as a job but as a cure for his loneliness.
The Peoples' Budget and the House of Lords
Campbell-Bannerman resigned as Prime Minister in April 1908 and was replaced by Herbert Henry Asquith. In 1909 he and his Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George introduced the People's Budget, a budget which through tax changes and tariffs sought to redistribute wealth and fund social reform programmes. By parliamentary convention financial and budget bills are not challenged by the House of Lords, but in this case the predominately Conservative Lords rejected the bill on 30 April, setting off a constitutional crisis. The Liberals called a general election in January 1910, and Law spent most of the preceding months campaigning up and down the country for other Conservative candidates and MPs, sure that his Dulwich seat was safe, and when the results came in he held an increased majority of 2,418. The overall result was more confused; while the Conservatives had gained 116 seats, bringing their total to 273, this was not enough to overturn the Liberal majority, and produced a hung parliament. The Liberals formed a temporary coalition government with the Irish Parliamentary Party, and the budget passed through the House of Commons a second time without significant problems.
This created a constitutional question — should the House of Lords be able to overturn bills passed by the House of Commons? The Liberal government introduced a bill in February 1910 which would prevent the House of Lords vetoing finance bills, and would force them to pass any bill which had been passed by the Commons in three sessions of Parliament. This was immediately opposed by the Unionists, and both parties spent the next several months in a running battle over the bill. The Conservatives were led by Arthur Balfour and Lord Lansdowne, who headed the Conservatives in the House of Lords, while Law spent the time concentrating on the continuing problem of tariff reform. The lack of progress had convinced some senior Conservatives that it would be a good idea to scrap tariff reform altogether, which Law disagreed with, successfully arguing that tariff reform "was the first constructive work of the [Conservative Party]" and that to scrap it would "split the Party from top to bottom".
With this success, Law returned to the constitutional crisis surrounding the House of Lords. The death of Edward VII on 6 May 1910 prompted the leaders of the major political parties to secretly meet in a "Truce of God" to discuss the Lords. The meetings were kept almost entirely secret — outside of the party representatives, the only people aware were F.E. Smith, J.L. Garvin, Edward Carson and Bonar Law. The group met approximately twenty times at Buckingham Palace between June and November 1910, with the Conservatives represented by Arthur Balfour, Lord Cawdor, Lord Lansdowne and Austen Chamberlain. The proposal presented at the conference by David Lloyd George was a coalition government with members of both major parties in the Cabinet and a programme involving Home Rule, poor law reforms, imperial reorganisation and possibly tariff reforms. The interesting element of the Home Rule proposal was that it involved devolution — the idea that the United Kingdom could become a federal system, with "Home Rule all around" for Scotland, Ireland and England and Wales. In the end the plans fell through — Balfour told Lloyd George on 2 November that the proposal would not work, and the conference was dissolved a few days later.
December 1910 general election
With the failure to establish a political consensus after the January 1910 general election, the Liberals called a second general election in December. The Conservative leadership decided that a good test of the popularity of the tariff reform programme would be to have a prominent tariff reformer stand for election in a disputed seat. They considered Law a prime candidate, and after debating it for a month he guardedly agreed, enthusiastic about the idea but worried about the effect of a defeat on the Party. Law was selected as the candidate for Manchester North West, and became drawn into party debates about how strong a tariff reform policy should be put in their manifesto. Law personally felt that duties on foodstuffs should be excluded, something agreed to by Alexander Acland-Hood, Edward Carson and others at a meeting of the Constitutional Club on 8 November 1910, but they failed to reach a consensus and the idea of including or excluding food duties continued to be something that divided the party.
During this period, the idea of using general elections as referendums for particular policies came into play. After a sarcastic suggestion by Lord Crewe, Arthur Balfour announced to a crowd of 10,000 at the Royal Albert Hall that the coming election would be used as a referendum on tariff reform, something he described as "Bonar Law's proposal" or the "Referendum Pledge". The suggestion was no more Law's than it was any of the other dozens of conservatives who had suggested this to Balfour, and his comment was simply an attempt to "pass the buck" and avoid the anger of Austen Chamberlain, who was furious that such an announcement had been made without consulting him or the party. While Law had written a letter to Balfour suggesting that a referendum would attract wealthy Conservatives, he said that "declaration would do no good with [the working class] and might damp enthusiasm of best workers".
Parliament was dissolved on 28 November, with the election to take place and polling to end by 19 December. The Conservative Party as a whole gained the largest number of seats of any one party, but with the support of the Irish Nationalists the Liberal Party formed a government. Law called his campaign in Manchester North West the hardest of his career; his opponent, George Kemp, was a war hero who had fought in the Second Boer War and a former Conservative who had joined the Liberal party because of his disagreement with tariff reform. In the end Law narrowly lost, with 5,114 votes to Kemp's 5,559, but the election turned him into a "genuine [Conservative] hero", and he later said that the defeat did "more for him in the party than a hundred victories". In 1911, with the Conservative Party unable to afford him being out of Parliament, Law was elected in a by-election for the safe Conservative seat of Bootle. In his brief absence the Liberal suggestions for the reform of the House of Lords were passed as the Parliament Act 1911, ending that particular dispute.
Leader of the Conservative Party
On the coronation of George V on 22 June 1911, Bonar Law was made a Privy Counsellor on the recommendation of the new Prime Minister and Arthur Balfour. Within the Conservative Party, Privy Counsellorship was evidence of party seniority and importance. Balfour had been becoming increasingly unpopular as Leader of the Conservative Party since the 1906 general election; tariff reformers saw his leadership as the reason for their electoral losses, and the "free fooders" had been alienated by Balfour's attempts to tame the zeal of the tariff reform faction. Balfour refused all suggestions of party reorganisation until a meeting of senior Conservatives led by Lord Salisbury after the December 1910 electoral defeat issued an ultimatum demanding a review of party structure.
The defeat on the House of Lords issue turned a wing of the Conservative Party led by Henry Page Croft and his Reveille Movement, against Balfour. Leo Maxse began a Balfour Must Go campaign in his paper the National Review, and by July 1911 Balfour was contemplating resignation. Law himself had no problem with Balfour's leadership, and along with Edward Carson attempted to regain support for him. By November 1911 it was accepted that Balfour was likely to resign, with the main competitors being Law, Carson, Walter Long and Austen Chamberlain. When the elections began Long and Chamberlain were the frontrunners, Chamberlain commanding the support of many tariff reformers and Long the leader of the Ulster Unionists. Carson immediately announced that he would not stand, and Law eventually announced that he would run for Leader, the day before Balfour resigned on 7 November.
At the beginning of the election Law held the support of no more than 40 of the 270 Members of parliament; the remaining 130 were divided between Long and Chamberlain. Although Long believed he had the most MPs, his support was largely backbenchers and most of the whips and frontbenchers preferred Chamberlain. With Long and Chamberlain almost equal they called a meeting on 9 November to discuss the possibility of a deadlock. Chamberlain suggested that he would withdraw if this became a strong possibility, assuming Long did the same. Long, now scared that his weak health would not allow him to survive the stress of party leadership, agreed. Both did so on 10 November, and on 13 November 232 MPs assembled at the Carlton Club, where Law was nominated to be leader by Long and Chamberlain. With the unanimous support of the MPs, Law became Leader of the Conservative Party despite never having sat in Cabinet.
As Leader, Law first "rejuvenated the party machine", selecting newer, younger and more popular whips and secretaries, elevating F.E. Smith and Robert Cecil to the Shadow Cabinet and using his business acumen to reorganise the party, resulting in better relations with the press and local branches, along with the raising of a £671,000 "war chest" for the next general election that was almost double that available at the previous one. On 12 February 1912 he finally unified the two branches of the party (Conservatives and Unionists) into the awkwardly named National Unionist Association of Conservative and Liberal-Unionist Organisations. From then on all were referred to as "Unionists" until the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922, after which they became Conservatives again.
In Parliament, Law introduced the so-called "new style" of speaking, with harsh, accusatory rhetoric, that dominates British politics to this day. This was as a counter to Arthur Balfour, known for his "masterly witticisms", because the party felt they needed a warrior-like figure. Law did not particularly enjoy his tougher manner, and at the State Opening of Parliament in February 1912 apologised directly to Asquith for his coming speech, saying "I am afraid I shall have to show myself very vicious, Mr Asquith, this session. I hope you will understand". Law's "warrior king" figure helped unify the divided Conservatives into a single body, with him as the leader.
During his early time as Conservative leader, social policy was the most complicated and difficult to set up. In his opening speech as leader he said that the party would be one of principle, and would not be reactionary, instead sticking to their guns and holding firm policies. Despite this he left things such as women's suffrage alone, leaving the party unwhipped and saying that "the less part we take in this question the better". In terms of social reform (legislation to improve the conditions of the poor and working classes) Law was similarly unenthusiastic, believing that the area was a Liberal one that they could not successfully compete in. His response to a request by Lord Balcarres for a social programme was simply "as the [Liberal Party] refuse to formulate their policy in advance we should be equally absolved". His refusal to get drawn in may have actually strengthened his hold over Conservative MPs, many of whom were similarly uninterested in social reform.
In his first public speech as leader at the Royal Albert Hall on 26 January 1912 he listed his three biggest concerns: an attack on the Liberal government, for failing to submit their ideas for Home Rule to a referendum; tariff reform; and the Conservative refusal to let the Ulster Unionists be "trampled upon" by an unfair Home Rule bill. Both tariff reform and Ulster dominated his political work, with Austen Chamberlain saying that Law "once said to me that he cared intensely for only two things: Tariff Reform and Ulster; all the rest was only part of the game".
More tariff reform
After further review with members of his party, Law changed his initial beliefs on tariff reform and accepted the full package, including duties on foodstuffs. On 29 February 1912 the entire Conservative parliamentary body met at Lansdowne House, with Lord Lansdowne chairing. Lansdowne argued that although the electorate might prefer the Conservative party if the dropped food duties from their tariff reform plan, it would open them to accusations of bad faith and "poltroonery". Law endorsed Lansdowne's argument, pointing out that any attempt to avoid food duties would cause an internal party struggle and could only aid the Liberals, and that Canada, the most economically important colony, would never agree to tariffs without British support of food duties.
Lord Salisbury, who opposed food duties, wrote to Law several weeks later suggesting they separate foodstuffs from tariff reform for the referendum. If the electorate liked food duties, they would vote for the entire package; if not, they did not have to. Law replied arguing that it would be impossible to effectively do so, and that with the increasing costs of defence and social programmes it would be impossible to raise the necessary capital except by comprehensive tariff reform. He also argued that a failure to offer the entire tariff reform package would split the Conservative Party down the middle, offending the tariff reform faction, and that if such a split took place "I could not possibly continue as leader". Law held off on withdrawing the "Referendum Pledge" of a tariff reform referendum into 1912 because of the visit of Robert Borden, the newly elected Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, to London planned for July. Meeting with Borden on his arrival, Law got him to agree to make a statement about the necessity of Imperial tariff reform, promising reciprocal agreements and saying that failure by London to agree tariff reform would result in an "irresistible pressure" for Canada to make a treaty with another nation, most obviously the United States.
Law decided that the November party conference was the perfect time to announce the withdrawal of the Referendum Pledge, and that Lord Lansdowne should be the one to do it, firstly because he had been leader in the House of Lords when the pledge was made and secondly because of his relatively low profile during the original tariff reform dispute. When the conference opened the British political world was a jittery one; on 12 November the opposition had narrowly defeated the government on an amendment to the Home Rule Bill, and the next evening Asquith attempted to introduce a motion reversing the previous vote, something met with hysterical shouting from the opposition. As the MPs filed out at the end of the day Winston Churchill began taunting the opposition, and in his anger Ronald McNeil hurled a copy of Standing Orders of the House at Churchill, hitting him on the head. Law refused to condemn the events, and it seems apparent that while he had played no part in organising them they had been pre organised by the party Whips. As party leader, he was most likely aware of the plans even if he did not actively participate.
The conference was opened on 14 November 1912 by Lord Farquhar, who immediately introduced Lord Lansdowne. Lansdowne revoked the Referendum Pledge, saying that the government had completely failed the agreement to submit Home Rule to a referendum, and that the agreement that tariff reform would also be submitted was null and void. Lansdowne promised that when the Unionists took office they would "do so with a free hand to deal with tariffs as they saw fit". Law then rose to spoke, and in line with his agreement to let Lansdowne speak for tariff reform mentioned it only briefly when he said "I concur in every word which has fallen from Lord Lansdowne". He instead promised a reversal of several Liberal policies when the Unionists came to power, including the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, land taxes and Irish Home Rule. The crowd "cheered themselves hoarse" at Law's speech.
The reaction from the party as a whole was not a positive one, however, despite the speeches warm reception at the conference. Law had failed to consult the constituencies and the local parties about his plan, and several important constituency leaders led by Archibald Salvidge and Lord Derby planned for a meeting of the Lancashire party, the centre of discontent, on 21 December. Law was preoccupied with the problem of Irish Home Rule and was unable to give the discontent his full attention. Despite it he continued to believe that his approach to the problem of tariff reform was the correct one, and wrote to John Strachey on 16 November saying that "it was a case of a choice of two evils, and all that one could do was to take the lesser of the two, and that I am sure we have done". Speaking to Edward Carson, F.E. Smith, Austen Chamberlain and Lord Balcarres in December after two weeks of receiving negative letters from party members about the change, Law outlined that he would not be adverse to a return to the previous policy considering the negative feelings from the party, but felt that this would require the resignation of both Law and Lansdowne.
Despite this offer of a return, Law again wrote to Strachey saying that he continued to feel this policy was the correct one, and only regretted that the issue was splitting the party in a time when unity was needed to fight the Home Rule problem. At the meeting of the Lancashire party the group under Derby condemned Law's actions and called for a three-week party recess before deciding what to do about the repeal of the Referendum Pledge. This was an obvious ultimatum to Law, giving him a three-week period to change his mind. Law believed that Derby was "unprincipled and treacherous", particularly since he then circled a questionnaire among Lancashire party members with leading questions such as "do you think the abandonment of the referendum will do harm?" Law met the Lancashire party on 2 January and ordered that they must replace any food tariff based resolutions with a vote of confidence in him as a leader, and that any alternative would result in his resignation.
After a chance meeting at which Edward Carson learnt of Law and Lansdowne's acceptance of possible resignation, he was spurred to ask Edward Goulding to beg Law and Lansdowne to compromise over the policy and remain as leaders. The compromise, known as the January Memorial, was settled on by Carson, James Craig, Law and Lansdowne at Law's house between 6–8 January, affirmed the support the signers had of Law and his policies, noting that his resignation was not wanted. Within two days 231 of the 280 Conservative MPs had signed it; 27 frontbenchers had not been invited, neither had five who were not in London, seven who were ill, the Speaker and a few others who could not be found — only eight MPs actively refused to sign. Law's official response took the form of an open letter published on 13 January 1913, in which Law offered a compromise that food duties would not be placed before Parliament to vote on until after a second, approving election took place.
Irish Home Rule
The January and December elections in 1910 destroyed the large Liberal majority, meaning they relied on the Irish Nationalists to maintain a government. As a result they were forced to consider Home Rule, and with the passing of the Parliament Act 1911 which made the Commons superior to the Lords, the Conservative Party became aware that unless they could dissolve Parliament or sabotage the bill it would most likely become law by 1914.
As the child of an Ulster family who had spent much time in the area (his father had moved back there several years after Law moved to Scotland), Law understood the gap between Ulster Unionism and Irish Nationalism, and believed it could never be crossed. Despite this he said little about Home Rule until the passing of the Parliament Act in 1911, calling it the "Home Rule In Disguise Act" and saying it was an attempt to change parliamentary demographics so as to allow Home Rule "through the back door". After the passing of the Act he made a speech in the Commons saying that if the Liberals wished to pass a Home Rule Bill they should submit it to the electorate by calling a general election. His elevation to the leadership of the Conservative Party allowed him a platform to voice his opinion to the public, and his speeches (culminating with the January 1912 speech at the Royal Albert Hall) were centred on Home Rule as much as they were around tariff reform. Law was supported by Edward Carson, leader of the Ulster Unionists. Although Law sympathised with the Ulster Unionists politically he did not agree with the religious intolerance shown to Catholics.
Third Home Rule Bill
The 1912 session of Parliament opened on 14 February with a stated intent by the Liberal Party in the King's Speech to introduce a new Home Rule Bill. The bill was to be introduced on 11 April, and four days before that Law travelled to Ulster for a tour of the area. The pinnacle of this was a meeting on 9 April in the grounds of the Royal Agricultural Society near Balmoral, attended by seventy Unionist MPs, the Primate of All Ireland and topped by "perhaps the largest Union Jack ever made" – 48 feet by 25 feet on a flagpole 90 feet high. At the meeting both Law and Carson swore to the crowd that "never under any circumstances will we submit to Home Rule". Finding a way to succeed in this venture was difficult, however; the Parliament Act and the government majority made such a victory against the Bill unlikely unless the government could be dissolved. A second problem was that not all Unionists opposed Home Rule to the same degree; some were hardcore anti-Home Rulers who would oppose any attempt at home rule, others thought it inevitable that the Bill would pass and were simply trying to get the best deal possible for Ulster. The spectre of civil war was also raised — the Ulstermen began to form paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteers, and there was a strong possibility that if it came to fighting the British Army would have to be sent in to support the underfunded and understaffed Royal Irish Constabulary.
The argument of Law and the Unionists between 1912 and 1914 was based on three complaints. Firstly, Ulster would never accept forced Home Rule, and made up a quarter of Ireland; if the Liberals wanted to force this issue, military force would be the only way. Law thundered that "Do you plan to hurl the full majesty and power of the law, supported on the bayonets of the British Army, against a million Ulstermen marching under the Union Flag and singing 'God Save The King'? Would the Army hold? Would the British people — would the Crown — stand for such a slaughter?". A second complaint was that the government had so far refused to submit it to a general election, as Law had been suggesting since 1910. Law warned that "you will not carry this Bill without submitting it to the people of this country, and, if you make the attempt, you will succeed only in breaking our Parliamentary machine". The third complaint was that the Liberals had still not fulfilled their obligations under the Parliament Act 1911, the preamble of which said that the purpose was "to substitute for the House of Lords as it present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of a hereditary basis". The Unionist argument was that the Liberals were trying to make a massive constitutional change while the nature of Parliament itself was unresolved, suspending the constitution.
In July 1912 Asquith travelled to Dublin (the first Prime Minister to do so in over a century) to make a speech, ridiculing Unionist demands for a referendum on the issue via an election and calling their campaign "purely destructive in its objects, anarchic and chaotic in its methods". In response the Unionists had a meeting on 27 July at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, one of Asquith's ministers. More than 13,000 people attended, including over 40 peers. In Law's speech he said "I said so to [the Liberals] and I say so now, with the full sense of the responsibility which attaches to my position, that if the attempt be made under present conditions, I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, in which I shall not be ready to support them, and in which they will not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people". This speech was more known and criticised than any others; it implied both he and the British people would support the Ulstermen in anything, including armed rebellion against the Crown.
Despite the conflict and fierce resistance, the Bill continued its passage through Parliament. It moved to its second reading on 9 June, and the Committee stage on 11 June, where it became fraught in controversy after a young Liberal named Thomas Agar-Robartes proposed an amendment excluding four of the Ulster counties (Londonderry, Down, Antrim & Armagh) from the Irish Parliament. This put Law in a delicate situation, since he had previously said that he would support a system allowing each county to remain "outside the Irish Parliament", at the same time saying that he would not support any amendment that didn't have Ulster's full cooperation. If he accepted the amendment, he would be seen as abandoning the Irish Unionists, but on the other hand if the amendment was carried it might disrupt the government by causing a split between the Liberals and Irish Nationalists, dissolving Parliament. If the Unionists wished to win the ensuing election they would have to show that they were willing to compromise. In the end the amendment failed, but voting on it saw the Liberal majority reduced by 40, and when a compromise amendment was proposed by another Liberal MP the government Whips were forced to trawl for votes. Law saw this as a victory, as it highlighted the split in the government. Edward Carson tabled another amendment on 1 January 1913 which would exclude all nine Ulster counties, more to test government resolve than anything else. While it failed, it allowed the Unionists to portray themselves as the party of compromise and the Liberals as stubborn and recalcitrant.
The Unionists in Ulster itself proved to be committed to independence from any Irish Home Rule. They secretly authorised a Commission of Five to write a constitution for "a provisional Government of Ulster... to come into operation on the day of the passage of any Home Rule Bill, to remain in force until Ulster shall again resume unimpaired citizenship in the United Kingdom". On 28 September 1912, Carson led 237,638 of his followers in signing a Solemn League and Covenant saying that Ulster would refuse to recognise the authority of any Parliament of Ireland arising from Home Rule. When Parliament resumed in October after the summer recess, the Home Rule Bill was passed by the Commons. As expected, the House of Lords rejected it 326 to 69, and under the provisions of the Parliament Act it could only be passed if it was passed twice more by the Commons in successive Parliaments.
The end of 1912 saw the end of a year of political struggle for Law. As well as the problem of Home Rule, there were internal party struggles; supporters of the Church of England or military reform lambasted Law for not paying attention to their causes, and tariff reformers argued with him over his previous compromise on food duties. Despite this, most Conservatives realised that as a fighting leader, Law could not be bettered. The results of by-elections throughout 1913 continued to favour them, but progress on the Home Rule Bill was less encouraging; on 7 July it was again passed by the Commons, and again crushed by the Lords on 15 July. Parliament rose for the summer recess on 15 August, and Law and the Unionists spent the summer trying to convince the King to voice an opinion on the issue. Their first suggestion was that he should withhold the Royal Assent on it, something that horrified Law's constitutional law advisor A.V. Dicey. The second was more reasonable — they argued that the Liberals had put the King in an impossible position by asking him to ratify a bill that would infuriate half of the population. His only option was to write a memo to Asquith saying this and requesting that the problem of home rule be put to the electorate via a general election. After thinking on this, the King agreed, and handed a note to Asquith on 11 August requesting either an election or an all-party conference.
Asquith responded with two notes, the first countering the Unionist claim that it would be acceptable for the King to dismiss Parliament or withhold assent of the Bill to force an election, and the second arguing that a Home Rule election would not prove anything, since a Unionist victory would only be due to other problems and scandals and would not assure supporters of the current government that Home Rule was truly opposed. The King instead pressed for a compromise, summoning various political leaders to Balmoral Castle individually for talks. Law arrived on 13 September and again pointed out to the king his belief that if the Government continued to refuse an election fought over Home Rule and instead forced it on Ulster, the Ulstermen would not accept it and any attempts to enforce it would not be obeyed by the British Army.
By early October the King was pressuring the British political world for an all-party conference. Fending this off, Law instead met with senior party members to discuss developments. Law, Balfour, Smith and Long discussed the matter, and other than Long all were favourable of a compromise with the Liberals. Long represented the anti-Home Rule elements in Southern Ireland, and from this moment onwards Southern and Northern attitudes towards Home Rule began to diverge. Law then met with Edward Carson, and afterwards expressed the opinion that "the men of Ulster do desire a settlement on the basis of leaving Ulster out, and Carson thinks such an arrangement could be carried out without any serious attack from the Unionists in the South".
On 8 October Asquith wrote to Law suggesting an informal meeting of the two party leaders, which Law accepted. The two met at Asquith's house, Cherkley Court, on 14 October. The meeting lasted an hour, and Law told Asquith that he would continue to try to have Parliament dissolved, and that in any ensuing election the Unionists would accept the result even if it went against them. Law later expressed his fear to Lansdowne that Asquith would persuade the Irish Nationalists to accept Home Rule with the exclusion of four Ulster counties. Carson would not accept this, requiring all six counties to be excluded, and such a move might split the Unionists. Law knew that Asquith was unlikely to consent to a general election, since he would almost certainly lose it, and that any attempt to pass the Home Rule Bill "without reference to the electorate" would lead to civil disturbance. As such, Asquith was stuck "between a rock and a hard place" and was sure to negotiate.
Asquith and Law met for a second private meeting on 6 November, at which Asquith raised three possibilities. The first was one suggested by Sir Edward Grey, and consisted of "Home Rule within Home Rule" – Home Rule covering Ulster, but with partial autonomy for the Ulster region. The second was that Ulster would be excluded from Home Rule for a number of years before becoming part of it, and the third was that Ulster would be excluded from Home Rule for as long as they liked, with the opportunity of joining when they wished. Law made it clear to Asquith that the first two options were unacceptable, but the third may be accepted in some circles. The leaders then discussed the problem of the geographical definition of Ulster. It was technically nine counties, and was usually considered to be at least six, but the number varied. Carson always referred to the nine counties of Ulster, but Law told Asquith that if an appropriate settlement could be made with a smaller number Carson "would see his people and probably, though I could not give any promise to that effect, try to induce them to accept it".
The third meeting was on 10 December and Law, angry that Asquith had not yet presented a concrete way to exclude Ulster, made little progress. Law brushed aside Asquith's suggestions and insisted that only the exclusion of Ulster was worth considering. He later wrote that "My feeling, however, is that Asquith has no hope whatsoever of making such an arrangement and that his present idea is simply to let things drift in the meantime.. I do not understand why he took the trouble of seeing me at all. The only explanation I can give is that I think he is in a funk about the whole position and thought that meeting me might keep the thing open at least".
With the failure of these talks, Law accepted that a compromise was unlikely, and from January 1914 onwards returned to the position that the Unionists were "opposed utterly to Home Rule". The campaign was sufficient to bring the noted organiser Lord Milner back into politics to support the Unionists, and he immediately asked L. S. Amery to write a British Covenant saying that the signers would, if the Home Rule Bill passed, "feel justified in taking or supporting any action that may be effective to prevent it being put into operation, and more particularly to prevent the armed forces of the Crown being used to deprive the people of Ulster of their rights as citizens of the United Kingdom". The Covenant was announced at a massive rally in Hyde Park on 4 April 1914, with hundreds of thousands assembling to hear Milner, Long and Carson speak. By the middle of the summer Long claimed over 2 million people had signed.
Law's opponents, including Dangerfield, condemned his actions in assuring the Ulster unionists of Conservative Party support in their armed resistance to Home Rule, as unconstitutional, verging on promoting a civil war. Law's supporters argued that he was acting constitutionally by forcing the Liberal government into calling the election it had been avoiding, in order to obtain a mandate for their reforms.
Army Annual Act
Law was not directly involved in this campaign as he was focusing on a practical way to defeat the Home Rule Bill. His first attempt was via the Army Annual Act, something that "violated a basic and ancient principle of the constitution". Since the Glorious Revolution, Parliament had passed an Act every year which fixes the number of soldiers in the British Army. If the Act was rejected by Parliament it would cause a constitutional crisis and technically make the British Army an illegal institution. Lord Selborne had written to Law in 1912 to point out that vetoing or significantly amending the Act in the House of Lords would force the government to resign, and such a course of action was also suggested by others during 1913 and 1914. Law believed that forcing Ulstermen away from the union with Britain and under a Dublin-based government they did not recognise was itself constitutionally damaging, and that amending the Army Annual Act to prevent the use of force in Ulster (he never suggested vetoing it) would not violate the constitution any more than the actions the government had already undertaken.
By 12 March he had established that, should the Home Rule Bill be passed under the Parliament Act 1911, the Army Annual Act should be amended in the Lords to stipulate that the Army could not "be used in Ulster to prevent or interfere with any step which may thereafter be taken in Ulster to organise resistance to the enforcement of the Home Rule Act in Ulster nor to suppress any such resistance until and unless the present Parliament has been dissolved and a period of three months shall have lapsed after the meeting of a new Parliament". The Shadow Cabinet agreed that it would be necessary to consult a panel of legal experts, who after deliberation agreed wholeheartedly with Law's suggestion. Although several members expressed dissent, the Cabinet decided to "provisionally to agree to amendment of army act. but to leave details and decisions as to the moment of acting to Lansdowne and Law". In the end no amendment to the Army Act was offered, though; many backbenchers and party loyalists became agitated by the scheme and wrote to him that it was unacceptable – Ian Malcolm, a fanatical Ulster supporter, told Law that amending the Army Act would drive him out of the Party.
World War I
On 30 July 1914, following the outbreak of the First World War, Law met with Asquith and agreed to temporarily suspend the issue of Home Rule to avoid domestic discontent during wartime. By the following day both leaders had convinced their parties to agree to this move. On 3 August Law spoke openly in the House of Commons, saying that "the Government already know, but I give them now the assurance on behalf of the party of which I am leader in this House, that in whatever steps they think it necessary to take for the honour and security of this country they can rely upon the unhesitating support of the Opposition". The following night, Germany rejected British demands for a withdrawal from Belgium, and Britain declared war.
Over the coming months, the Liberal, Labour and Conservative whips worked out a truce suspending confrontational politics until either 1 January 1915 or until the end of the War. On 4 August both Asquith and Law made speeches together at the Middlesex Guildhall, and uncomfortably socialised with each other's parties. On 6 August, the Conservatives learnt that Asquith planned to put the Home Rule Bill on the statute books; Law wrote an angry letter to Asquith, the response of which was that Asquith could either pass the bill immediately, suspending it for the duration of the conflict, or make it law with a six-month delay and with a three-year exclusion for Ulster. Law responded with a speech in the Commons, saying that "the Government have treated us abominably... but we are in the middle of a great struggle. Until that struggle [is] over, so far as we are concerned, in everything connected with it there would be no parties, there would openly be a nation. In regard to this debate I have made protest as well as I could, but when I have finished we shall take no further part in the discussion". The entire Party then left the Commons silently, and although a strong protest (Asquith later admitted that "it was unique in my or I think anybody's experience") the bill was still passed, although with a suspension for the duration of the War.
The Conservatives soon began to get annoyed that they were unable to criticise the Government, and took this into Parliament; rather than criticising policy, they would attack individual ministers, including the Lord Chancellor (who they considered "far too enamoured of German culture") and the Home Secretary, who was "too tender to aliens". By Christmas 1914 they were anxious about the war; it was not, in their opinion, going well, and yet they were restricted to serving on committees and making recruitment speeches. At about the same time, Law and David Lloyd George met to discuss the possibility of a coalition government. Law was supportive of the idea in some ways, seeing it as a probability that "a coalition government would come in time".
Background and information
The crisis which led to a coalition government forming was twofold; first the Shell Crisis of 1915, and then the resignation of Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord. The Shell Crisis arose because of the failure to fully organise British industry into a state of total war, and the matter was raised in Parliament on 21 April 1915. Asquith tried to ward off the criticism the day before the debate, praising the government efforts and saying that "I do not believe that any army has ever either entered upon a campaign or been maintained during a campaign with better or more adequate equipment". The Conservatives, whose sources of information included officers such as Sir John French, were not put off, and instead became furious.
Over the next few days the Conservative backbenchers threatened to break the truce and mount an attack on the government over the munitions situation. Law forced them to back down on 12 May, but on the 14th an article appeared in The Times blaming the British failure at the Battle of Aubers Ridge on the lack of munitions. This again stirred up the backbenchers, who were only just kept in line. The Shadow Cabinet took a similar line; things could not go on as they were. The crisis was only halted with the resignation of Lord Fisher. Fisher had opposed Winston Churchill over the Gallipoli Campaign, and felt that he could not continue in government if the two would be in conflict. Law knew that this would push the Conservative back bench over the edge, and met with David Lloyd George on 17 May to discuss Fisher's resignation. Lloyd George eventually agreed that "the only way to preserve a united front was to arrange for more complete cooperation between parties in the direction of the War".
Lloyd George reported the meeting to Asquith, who agreed that a coalition was inescapable. He met with Law in the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, and after a quarter of an hour they came to an agreement to form a coalition government.
Law's next job, therefore, was to assist the Liberal Party in creating a new government. In their discussions on 17 May, both Law and Lloyd George had agreed that Lord Kitchener should not remain in the War Office, and removing him became top priority. Unfortunately the press began a campaign supporting Kitchener on 21 May, and the popular feeling that this raised convinced Law, Lloyd George and Asquith that Kitchener could not be removed. In order to keep him and at the same time remove the munitions supply from his grasp to prevent a repeat of the "shells crisis" the Ministry of Munitions was created, with Lloyd George becoming Minister of Munitions.
Law eventually accepted the post of Colonial Secretary, an unimportant post in wartime; Asquith had made it clear that he would not allow a Conservative minister to head the Exchequer, and that with Kitchener (whom he considered a Conservative) in the War Office, he would not allow another Conservative to hold a similarly important position. Fearing for the integrity of the coalition, Law accepted this position. Outside of Law's position, other Conservatives also gained positions in the new administration; Arthur Balfour became First Lord of the Admiralty, Austen Chamberlain became Secretary of State for India and Edward Carson became Attorney General.
During Law's time as Colonial Secretary, the three main issues were the question of manpower for the British Army, the crisis in Ireland and the Dardanelles Campaign. Dardanelles took priority, as seen by Asquith's restructuring of his War Council into a Dardanelles Committee. Members included Kitchener, Law, Churchill, Lloyd George and Lansdowne, with the make-up divided between political parties to defuse tension and provide criticism of policy. The main discussion was on the possibility of reinforcing the forces already landed, something Law disagreed with. With Asquith and the Army in support, however, he felt that he was ill-equipped to combat the proposal. Five more divisions were landed, but faced heavy casualties for little gain. As a result Law led a strong resistance to the idea at the next Committee meeting on 18 August. The idea only avoided being scrapped thanks to the French promise to send forces in early September, and the arguing became an immense strain on the government.
Law entered the coalition government as Colonial Secretary in May 1915, his first Cabinet post, and, following the resignation of Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Asquith in December 1916, was invited by King George V to form a government, but he deferred to Lloyd George, Secretary of State for War and former Minister of Munitions, who he believed was better placed to lead a coalition ministry. He served in Lloyd George's War Cabinet, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. His promotion reflected the great mutual trust between both leaders and made for a well co-ordinated political partnership; their coalition was re-elected by a landslide following the Armistice. Law's two eldest sons were both killed whilst fighting in the war. In the 1918 General Election, Law returned to Glasgow and was elected as member for Glasgow Central.
Post-war and Prime Minister
At war's end, he gave up the Exchequer for the less demanding sinecure office of Lord Privy Seal, but remained Leader of the Commons. In 1921, ill health forced his resignation as Conservative leader and Leader of the Commons in favour of Austen Chamberlain. His departure weakened the hardliners in the cabinet who were opposed to negotiating with the Irish Republican Army, and the Anglo-Irish War ended in the summer.
By 1921–2 the coalition had become embroiled in an air of moral and financial corruption (e.g. the sale of honours). Besides the recent Irish Treaty and Edwin Montagu's moves towards greater self-government for India, both of which dismayed rank-and-file Conservative opinion, the government's willingness to intervene against the Bolshevik regime in Russia also seemed out of step with the new and more pacifist mood. A sharp slump in 1921 and a wave of strikes in the coal and railway industries also added to the government's unpopularity, as did the apparent failure of the Genoa Conference, which ended in an apparent rapprochement between Germany and Soviet Russia. In other words, it was no longer the case that Lloyd George was an electoral asset to the Conservative Party.
Lloyd George, Birkenhead and Winston Churchill (still distrusted by many Conservatives) wished to use armed force against Turkey (the Chanak Crisis), but had to back down when offered support only by New Zealand, but not Canada, Australia or South Africa; an anonymous letter appeared in "The Times" supporting the government but stating that Britain could not "act as the policeman for the world", and it was an open secret that the author, "A Colonial", was in fact Bonar Law. At a famous meeting at the Carlton Club, Conservative backbenchers, led by the President of the Board of Trade Stanley Baldwin and influenced by the recent Newport by-election which was won by a Conservative from the Liberals, voted to end the Lloyd George Coalition and fight the next election as an independent party. Austen Chamberlain resigned as Party Leader, Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister and Bonar Law returned on 23 October 1922 in both jobs.
Many leading Conservatives (e.g. Birkenhead, Arthur Balfour, Austen Chamberlain, Robert Horne) were not members of the new Cabinet, which was contemptuously referred to as "the Second Eleven". Although the Coalition Conservatives numbered no more than thirty, they hoped to dominate any future Coalition government in the same way that the similarly sized Peelite group had dominated the Coalition Government of 1852–5 – an analogy much used at the time.
Parliament was immediately dissolved, and a General Election ensued. Besides the two Conservative factions, the Labour Party were fighting as a major national party for the first time and indeed became the main Opposition after the election; the Liberals were still split into Asquith and Lloyd George factions, with many Lloyd George Liberals still unopposed by Conservative candidates (including Churchill, who was defeated at Dundee nonetheless). Despite the confused political arena the Conservatives were re-elected with a comfortable majority.
Questions were raised about whether the elderly Conservative Party Treasurer, Lord Farquhar, had passed on to Lloyd George (who during his premiership had amassed a large fund, largely from the sale of honours) any money intended for the Conservative Party. The Coalition Conservatives also hoped to obtain Conservative Party money from Farquhar. Bonar Law found Farquhar too "gaga" to properly explain what had happened, and dismissed him.
One of the questions which taxed Bonar Law's brief government was that of inter-Allied war debts. Britain owed money to the USA, and in turn was owed four times as much money by France, Italy and the other Allied powers, although under the Lloyd George government Balfour had promised that Britain would collect no more money from other Allies than she was required to repay the USA; the debt was hard to repay as trade (exports were needed to earn foreign currency) had not returned to prewar levels. On a trip to the USA Stanley Baldwin, the inexperienced Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed to repay £40 million per annum to the USA rather than the £25 million which the British government had thought feasible, and on his return announced the deal to the press when his ship docked at Southampton, before the Cabinet had had a chance to consider it. Bonar Law contemplated resignation, and after being talked out of it by senior ministers, once again vented his feelings in an anonymous letter to The Times.
Resignation and death
Bonar Law was soon diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and, no longer physically able to speak in Parliament, resigned on 22 May 1923. George V sent for Baldwin, whom Bonar Law is rumoured to have favoured over Lord Curzon. However Law did not offer any advice to the King. Bonar Law died later that same year in London at the age of 65. His funeral was held at Westminster Abbey where later his ashes were interred.
Bonar Law's estate was probated at £35,736 (approximately £1,700,000 as of 2014).
Bonar Law was the shortest serving PM of the 20th century. He is often referred to as "the unknown Prime Minister", not least because of a biography of that title by Robert Blake; the name comes from a remark by Asquith at Bonar Law's funeral, that they were burying the Unknown Prime Minister next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sir Steven Runciman is reported to have said that he had known all British Prime Ministers in his lifetime, except Bonar Law whom no one knew.
A tiny hamlet (unincorporated village) in the municipality of Stirling-Rawdon, Ontario, Canada, is named Bonarlaw after the British Prime Minister. It had been known as "Big Springs" and then "Bellview". The high school in Bonar Law's birthplace, Rexton, New Brunswick, Canada, is also named in his honour.
Bonar Law's Government, October 1922 – May 1923
For a full list of Ministerial office holders, see Conservative Government 1922-1924
- Andrew Bonar Law – Prime Minister and Leader of the House of Commons
- Lord Cave – Lord Chancellor
- Lord Salisbury – Lord President of the Council and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
- Stanley Baldwin – Chancellor of the Exchequer
- William Clive Bridgeman – Secretary of State for the Home Department
- Lord Curzon of Kedleston – Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the House of Lords
- The Duke of Devonshire – Secretary of State for the Colonies
- Lord Derby – Secretary of State for War
- Lord Peel – Secretary of State for India
- Lord Novar – Secretary for Scotland
- Leo Amery – First Lord of the Admiralty
- Sir Philip Lloyd-Greame – President of the Board of Trade
- Sir Robert Sanders – Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries
- Edward Frederick Lindley Wood – President of the Board of Education
- Sir Montague Barlow – Minister of Labour
- Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen – Minister of Health
- April 1923 – Griffith-Boscawen resigns as Minister of Health after losing his seat and is succeeded by Neville Chamberlain.
Bonar Law is briefly mentioned several times in Ken Follett's historical novel Fall of Giants, Book One of the Century Trilogy.
Bonar Law plays a supporting, if off-screen, role in Upstairs, Downstairs. He is even said to have recommended family patriarch, Richard Bellamy, to be offered a peerage.
The comedian John Cleese inserted several fake titles into his filmography in Who's Who, including The Bonar Law Story, Abbott & Costello Meet Sir Michael Swann, Young Anthony Barber and Confessions of a Programme Planner.
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- Adams (1999) p.132
- Adams (1999) p.133
- Adams (1999) p.134
- Adams (1999) p.136
- Kendle (1992) p.80
- Adams (1999) p.137
- Kendle (1992) p.82
- Adams (1999) p.141
- Adams (1999) p.145
- Adams (1999) p.146
- George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (New York: Smith and Haas, 1935)
- Stephen Evans, "The Conservatives and the Redefinition of Unionism 1912-21," Twentieth-Century British History (1998) 9#1 pp 1-27.
- Adams (1999) p.147
- Adams (1999) p.150
- Adams (1999) p.171
- Adams (1999) p.172-4
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- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Andrew Bonar Law
- More about Andrew Bonar Law on the Downing Street website.
- The Bonar Law Papers at the UK Parliamentary Archives
- 1903 illustrated article with photo of Bonar Law
- Portraits of Andrew Bonar Law at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- Archival material relating to Bonar Law listed at the UK National Archives