The Home Secretaries (3): Reginald McKenna

Reginald_McKenna_photoReginald McKenna, 1911-15

Liberal (under Asquith)

McKenna was the son of a civil servant (in the Inland Revenue, fittingly enough for a future chancellor) of Catholic Irish extraction, though the family converted to Protestantism: McKenna was a Congregationalist. He spent his early life in France and Germany (he spoke both languages fluently). He read Maths at Cambridge, becoming a barrister and then a Liberal MP. He was then financial secretary to the treasury, then at the Board of Education, the Admiralty and the Home Office.

McKenna did not want to leave the Admiralty in 1911. Asquith forced the job swap with Churchill after McKenna had fallen out with Lloyd George, Churchill and Haldane in the aftermath of the second Moroccan crisis of 1911. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to fall out with one senior minister might be thought an unfortunate by-product of cabinet government, to fall out with the chancellor, the home secretary and the minister of war looks like carelessness. He never really forgave Lloyd George, or Churchill.

He was unhappy in the Home Office. He had to oversee the Cat and Mouse Act against the Suffragettes, though he was restrained in his use of force against strikers in years when there were many strikes. He wanted tougher action against Ulster Unionist gunrunning. He also introduced reforms, but the bill to disestablish the Welsh church, which was fought tooth and nail by the Conservatives, absorbed much of his time. That bill saw some measure of rapprochement with Lloyd George, but when, in 1912, Lloyd George was accused of corruption in the Marconi Scandal, McKenna wanted him sacked.

Further disagreements emerged when war broke out. McKenna had remained interested in matters well beyond the Home Office, falling out with Churchill again over naval estimates and opposing the idea of sending the BEF to France, believing Britain’s intervention in the war should be confined to its navy. He also came under intense criticism from the right-wing press for being too soft on enemy aliens and, implicitly, being too pro-German. When the coalition was formed in May 1915, he was widely tipped for the sack; instead, he was made chancellor, where he would remain until Asquith himself fell the following year. He was, therefore, one of the ten men to have served as both home secretary and chancellor.

You can read about McKenna’s time as chancellor here.

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