Andrew Bonar Law

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Law, Andrew Bonar (1858–1923). Prime minister. Described on his death as the ‘Unknown Prime Minister’, Bonar Law was a modest and melancholy figure, who appeared content to remain as second in command to Lloyd George from 1916 to 1921. The first Tory leader to be bourgeois and provincial, he made no attempt to play the usual role of a party leader; he had no country house, avoided entertaining, and took no pleasure in food and drink. Even Asquith professed disdain for the ‘gilded tradesman’ who ‘has the mind of a Glasgow Baillie’. Law in fact represented a half-way stage in the evolution of the modern Conservative Party. Politically, his identification with the cause of Ulster and the Union with Ireland made him a Victorian survival, but in social terms he proved to be the harbinger of the middle-class men who dominated the 20th-cent. leadership.

Law's Ulster-Scottish parentage and stern presbyterian upbringing reinforced his rather dour personality. He joined the family ironmasters' business in Glasgow and worked for the Clydesdale Bank. This meant that as an MP from 1900 onwards he possessed—unusually—a personal understanding of business. His excellent memory and aggressive style made him a useful orator at a time when tariff reform was becoming central to the party's policy.

But Law did not appear to be heading for the top until, after Balfour's enforced resignation in 1911, the Tory Party split evenly between Walter Long and Austen Chamberlain. Energetically promoted by Max Aitken (Beaverbrook), Law emerged as a compromise candidate. ‘The fools have stumbled on the right man by accident,’ commented Lloyd George. Certainly Law's sharp House of Commons style seemed an improvement on Balfour's ambiguities, and the party's morale rose. However, he was a weak leader because he had almost no experience of government, enjoyed few powers of patronage, and led a party subject to bitter divisions over tariffs. As a result he encouraged his own extremists to pursue their attack on Irish Home Rule in the belief that this was best calculated to restore party unity. In this he lent respectability to violent resistance to the government's Home Rule Bill.

While the outbreak of war in August 1914 resolved one dilemma, it created another. Law found himself under pressure both to maintain the party truce and to follow his backbenchers and the press in attacking the Liberals' conduct of the war. In May 1915 he partly resolved the problem by a private agreement with Asquith to join a coalition. Remarkably Law failed to insist on a major position for himself and accepted the Colonial Office. Before long the ubiquitous Aitken (Beaverbrook) had involved him in collaboration with Lloyd George, and in December 1916 they presented Asquith with proposals for the reorganization of the machinery of war. When this led to Asquith's resignation, Law had an opportunity to seize the premiership. But he felt that he would have neither a parliamentary majority nor sufficient support in the country. Instead he served under Lloyd George as chancellor and member of the war cabinet. A remarkable period of co-operation ensued. The two men shared a modest social background, but very different temperaments; the dour, industrious Law was the perfect foil for the prime minister's brilliant, mercurial personality. As leader of the House he played a vital role in keeping the coalition majority intact.

In 1918 Law judged that the Conservatives' best interests lay in keeping the coalition in being and fighting the election under Lloyd George's leadership. Eventually ill-health forced him to retire in March 1921. However, by this time many Conservatives were restless, and at a meeting in October 1922 they voted to sever relations with Lloyd George. Law played a crucial role in this simply by indicating his willingness to return as party leader. As a result he succeeded at last to the premiership and won an immediate general election. Though obliged by poor health to withdraw after a few months, he had the satisfaction of having guided his party through a dangerous period and detached it from Lloyd George before it suffered serious damage.

Martin Pugh

Bibliography

Adams, R. J. Q. , Bonar Law (1999).

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Law, (Andrew) Bonar (1858–1923) British statesman, prime minister (1922–23), b. Canada. He entered Parliament in 1900, and in 1911 became the first leader of the Conservative Party to come from a manufacturing background. He was chancellor (1916–19) before becoming prime minister.

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Bonar Law, Andrew See Law