The Chancellors (4): Andrew Bonar Law

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Andrew Bonar Law, 1916-19

Conservative (in Lloyd George’s National Government)

Bonar Law was born in New Brunswick and retained a Canadian twang to his accent: his background was Ulster Scots, and Presbyterian. He went from Glasgow High School into a business career. As a tariff reformer, he steered a middle course between the Chamberlainites and free traders: as such, he was the compromise choice to replace Balfour in 1911. As Tory leader, he led the party to the brink of outright rebellion against the crown over Irish home rule (in private he was more conciliatory). In 1915, he agreed to form a coalition, though Asquith’s leadership soon disillusioned him.

As Conservative leader, was instrumental in the creation of Lloyd George’s National Government in 1916. He was more than just chancellor, he was also leader of the House and effectively second in command; he and Lloyd George met for two hours every morning, and Lloyd George used those meetings to gauge the political temperature and road test ideas. As chancellor, he was mostly concerned with financing the war, successfully: his 1917 war loan, his war bonds and his management of tax revenue ensured that Britain remained the most solvent of the European participants, no mean achievement.  He assuaged Tory ire over the return of Churchill and the idea of introducing home rule to Ireland. He stood by Lloyd George in the Maurice debate (Maurice had also attacked Bonar Law). Most of all, he took the key decision to fight the 1918 election with the Coupon, giving Lloyd George a landslide, but also a delivering a Conservative majority. In 1919, he relinquished the Treasury to become, in effect, deputy prime minister (for once, not a demotion); though he kept his home in Number 11 to ensure access to Lloyd George, much to Austen Chamberlain’s chagrin.

He lost two sons in the Great War in 1917 (one in the Middle East, one in France). His retirement in 1921 did much to undermine Lloyd George; his return in 1922 finished off both Lloyd George and Austen Chamberlain. Bonar Law is one of ten chancellors since 1900 to have gone on to be prime minister (one of twelve to go on to be party leader); he was one of only two men to serve as chancellor whilst being party leader.

Also, see the blog article on Bonar Law’s place in Conservative history, here.

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