Campbell-Bannerman, Sir Henry

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Campbell-Bannerman, Sir Henry (1836–1908). Prime minister. A genial and popular politician, Campbell-Bannerman none the less acquired a reputation, which still clings to him, as uninspired and unlikely to reach the top in politics. In fact he proved to be much more shrewd and determined than his apparently more talented rivals in both parties. He managed to hold the Liberal Party together during a difficult, post-Gladstonian period, and led it to its greatest electoral victory in 1906.

A typical Lowland Scot, ‘C-B’ was educated in Glasgow and at Cambridge, became a partner in the family firm, and married Charlotte Bruce in 1860; the marriage proved to be a long and happy one. As MP for the Stirling Burghs from 1868 C-B showed himself a radical Gladstonian, supporting Scottish disestablishment and Irish Home Rule. Indeed, throughout his career he derived strength from his capacity to foster the confidence of radical Liberals for his loyal advocacy of progressive causes including women's suffrage, Labour representation, and Scottish devolution; on hearing of the dissolution of the Russian Duma by the tsar he uttered one of his two memorable remarks: ‘La duma est morte; vive la duma.’

However, as a young member C-B spoke infrequently and made little impact as a junior minister in Gladstone's 1868 and 1880 governments. In 1884–5 he served briefly as chief secretary for Ireland and reached the cabinet as secretary of state for war prior to the Home Rule crisis in 1886. He retained this post in Gladstone's last administration in 1892 and under Rosebery in 1894–5, though by that time he harboured ambitions to become Speaker. Instead he was destined to fill the vacuum left by Gladstone's retirement. Rosebery quit in 1896, and Sir William Harcourt resigned as leader in 1898. When both John Morley and H. H. Asquith declined the poisoned chalice, C-B became leader almost by default.

He was promptly faced with the task of guiding the divided Liberal Party through a period dominated by the Boer war when his leadership was challenged by Rosebery and undermined by the liberal Imperialists who supported the government's South African policy. The use of concentration camps by Kitchener to quell the Boers provoked C-B's other memorable words: ‘When is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.’ His prospects were rapidly transformed during 1902–4 as the Balfour government wrestled with the consequences of the war and split over tariff reform. As prime minister 1905–8 he successfully bridged the gap between New Liberal policies and Gladstonian traditions. Adopting the role of a firm chairman, he gave free rein to his exceptionally able ministers; Ernest Bevin once described Clement Attlee as Labour's Campbell-Bannerman. Though some legislation was lost in the House of Lords, important reforms were enacted in connection with trade unions and school meals; old-age pensions were devised by Asquith and the British army reorganized by Haldane. By the time of his retirement through ill-health in 1908, C-B had pointed the Liberals towards their next great goal—the reduction of the powers of the Lords.

Martin Pugh

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Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman

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