The Man Who Stood Behind the Man Who Won the War

E.H.H. Green

  • Bonar Law by R.J.Q. Adams
    Murray, 458 pp, £25.00, April 1999, ISBN 0 7195 5422 5

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.

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