Andrew Bonar Law

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Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923), was a British politician and leader of the Conservative Party (1911-21), and prime minister in 1922-1923.

Early career

He was born in Kingston, a Scottish settlement in New Brunswick (now part of Canada), the son of James Law (1822-1882), a Free Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister. His mother died when Bonar was two, and his father, a graduate of the University of Glasgow, was a dour and melancholy loner (as was Bonar by age 50). The boy was sent to Scotland at the age of 12 to be brought up by the Kidstons, wealthy cousins who owned a local bank in Glasgow. He was educated at Glasgow High School but dropped out at age 16 to enter the family banking business. In 1885, with a financial assist from his cousins, he became a partner in a firm that bought and sold pig iron and iron ore. The Krupp steel firm of Germany was a customer, which became an issue during the war with Germany. In addition to becoming wealthy, he read widely and attended lectures at the university. Most of the Scottish middle class was solidly Liberal, but the Kidstons were Conservatives and Bonar Law, an admirer of Disraeli, joined that party. He was active in a local mock parliament, and followed national issues closely. Bonar Law lived for the present, never looking back and rarely looking forward. He worked very hard but rarely socialized outside his private family life. [1]

Thanks to his own money and an inheritance, he could afford to leave business and enter politics.[2] Entering Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative member for a Glasgow constituency, he became parliamentary secretary to the Board of Trade in 1902. He was prominent but by no means foremost during the Conservative opposition after 1906.

Party leader

After Liberal victories in two general elections in 1910, the Conservative Party needed new leadership. The Earl of Balfour resigned the Conservative leadership; Bonar Law, skilfully guided by Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), who had become his close friend, profited from the deadlock between Austen Chamberlain and Walter Long to become leader of the party - the first Conservative leader who can fairly be described as of middle-class origin.

Bonar Law was a formidable fighter in the bitter political struggle which ensued over Ulster and Irish home rule, at times alarming his followers by his extremism in his support of Ulster's threat of violent resistance. The Irish crisis was put on hold during the war.

World War I

The outbreak of war in 1914 brought political unity across party lines; in 1915 Bonar Law joined Herbert Asquith's coalition government as colonial secretary. At the end of 1916 - again closely in touch with Aitken - he played, almost despite himself, a critical part in the negotiations which led to the replacement of Asquith by David Lloyd George. In the new government he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons. At the end of the war he relinquished the former post but remained leader until, in March 1921, illness forced him to resign from Lloyd George's coalition government. In October 1922, Bonar Law, with much reluctance, became the leader of a successful Conservative revolt. Lloyd George resigned and Bonar Law became prime minister. Although many senior Tories refused to join the right-wing Conservative government which Bonar Law formed, he still won a majority of seventy-seven seats over all other parties. After only seven months in office inoperable throat cancer caused him to resign.

He helped modernize the Conservative Party, setting the stage for its dominance of British politics from 1924 to 1945. Bonar Law's virtues in the eyes of many - transparent honesty, a complete lack of pomposity, obvious practical competence, and, above all, instinctive British patriotism - made him into one of the most successful politicians of his era.

References

  1. Blake p.26-33.
  2. His annual income from investments and directorships was £6,000 to £10,000. Blake, p. 37.