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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Andrew Bonar Law

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"ANDREW BONAR LAW (1858-), British statesman, was born in New Brunswick, in Canada, on Sept. 16 1858, the son of a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. James Law, by his marriage with Eliza, daughter of William Kidston of Glasgow. Though his early life was passed, and his education begun, in Canada, he, a Scot on both sides, came to Scotland when still a boy, and finished his schooling at the Glasgow high school. He entered at once into commercial life in Glasgow, and became a member of a kinsman's firm, William Kidston & Sons, iron merchants, subsequently joining William Jacks & Co., iron merchants. His success as an iron merchant led to his becoming chairman of the Glasgow Iron Trade Association. But success in business did not satisfy him. He retired with a sufficient competence, and went into Parliament in 190o as Conservative and Unionist member for the Blackfriars division of Glasgow. His experience in business had led him to the conclusion that Free Trade, in the Cobdenite sense, was no longer beneficial for Great Britain. He made a distinct impression on the House by a speech on April 22 1902, in favour of Hicks-Beach's corn duty, which was imposed in order to find money to carry on the Boer War. In that speech he predicted that, if the cry for protection were again seriously raised in Great Britain, it would not be in the interests of agriculture, but in those of working men, who saw their employment disappearing. The speech so much impressed Mr. Balfour that he introduced Mr. Law into his Government as Parliamentary Secretary of the Board of Trade; and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain's Tariff Reform movement, which was started in the following year, showed how right Mr. Law was in his diagnosis of the future. As the movement proceeded, Mr. Law was regarded as, along with Mr. Austen Chamberlain, the most decided Tariff Reformer left in the Ministry after Mr. Chamberlain's resignation. When he was accused by the Liberals in 1904 of being a Protectionist, he explained on Feb. 9 that he wanted, like Cobden, to improve foreign trade, but adapted his means to present conditions. The Government did not object to imports as such, but wished to see more raw material and fewer manufactured goods. He dwelt on the injury to the working classes caused by " dumping " and unfair foreign competition. He made several speeches in the country in this year and the next, of which the gist was that British trade policy must be relative to circumstances, which had wholly changed from what they were in Cobden's time. He saw the true field for commercial expansion within the Empire, and therefore advocated preferential duties.

There is no doubt that he chafed, in these years, at the slow rate at which his chief, Mr. Balfour, moved in the direction of Tariff Reform; but, though he would have preferred a more whole-hearted acceptance of Mr. Chamberlain's programme, he remained loyal to the Prime Minister. He shared in the general rout of the Unionists in Jan. 1906, but returned to Parliament in May for Dulwich at a by-election. The withdrawal of Mr. Chamberlain from active work in Parliament, owing to ill-health, left the stalwart Tariff Reform Ministry without a leader; his son, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, was his natural representative; but Mr. Law, by a series of fighting speeches both in the House and in the country, made himself particularly congenial to the more prominent members of that section. In 1907, the year of the Imperial Conference, he pleaded strongly for Colonial Preference, a policy against which, in spite of the support which it obtained from Dominion Ministers, Sir Henry Campbell * Bannerman's Government set its face. He denounced Mr. Lloyd George's famous budget of 1909 as vindictive and socialistic. In the new Parliament returned in Jan. 1910 Mr. Austen Chamberlain and he had the satisfaction of mustering 254 votes (against only 285) in favour of a Tariff Reform amendment to the Address. He left his constituency to fight N.W. Manchester in the election of Dec. 1910, but failed to capture the seat. He returned to Parliament, however, in a by-election for Bootle in March 1911, in time to take his share in the fight over the Parliament bill. But he kept aloof from the " Diehard " movement, and warmly defended his leader, Mr. Balfour, from the reproaches cast upon him. This loyal attitude, no doubt, was one of the reasons, and his strong Tariff Reform programme was another, which recommended him to his party as Mr. Balfour's successor in the leadership when the claims of Mr. Austen Chamberlain and Mr. (afterwards Lord) Long appeared to divide the Unionists pretty evenly. Both the rivals stood aside, and on Nov. 13 1911 Mr. Law was unanimously elected Leader in the Commons, Lord Lansdowne continuing to lead the party in the Lords.

He remained leader for nine years and a few months, the first three years and a half in Opposition and the rest in office. He was very trenchant in his criticism of the Government; thus giving satisfaction to ardent spirits in the Unionist ranks, but causing ministerial speakers to contrast his bitterness and violence with Mr. Balfour's quieter methods. He led a strong fight against the ministerial bills introduced to take advantage of the Parliament Act, and protested vehemently against the relentless closure by which they were driven through the House of Commons. He accused ministers of violating two fundamental conditions of representative government: that the Ministry should not ride roughshod over the minority, and that they should make no vital change till it was clearly desired by the majority of the people. Of the Welsh Disestablishment measure he said that a meaner bill, or one brought forward by meaner methods, had never been placed before the House; in view of the growth of materialism, he protested against depriving a spiritual organization of its funds. But his principal concern was the Home Rule bill and the situation created by it in Ireland. Before it was introduced he went to Belfast in Easter week, and at a great demonstration, presided over by Sir Edward Carson, encouraged the Ulstermen to trust to themselves; Belfast was again, he said, a besieged city; the Government by the Parliament Act had erected a boom against them - they would burst that boom; and it would be said of them that they had saved themselves by their exertions, and would save the Empire by their example. After nearly four months of strenuous opposition to the bill in Parliament, he renewed and strengthened his encouragement to Ulster by declaring, at a large Unionist gathering at Blenheim on July 27, that the Ulster people would submit to no ascendancy, and that he could imagine no lengths of resistance to which they might go in which he would not be ready to support them, and in which they would not be supported by the overwhelming majority of the British people. The Ulster Covenant was adopted in the following Sept.; and, in the course of the prolonged fight in Parliament in the autumn and winter over the bill, Mr. Law took occasion to say that his words at Blenheim were deliberate, written down beforehand, and that he withdrew nothing. Government, he maintained, had no moral right to force through a revolution. When Sir E. Carson moved on New Year's Day 1913 to exempt Ulster from the operation of the bill, Mr. Law defined his position thus. If the bill were - as he claimed it should be - submitted to the electors and approved by them, he and his party would not encourage Ulster to resist. But if it was forced on Ulster he would assist in the resistance. In spite of his efforts the bill was carried through all its stages by an unbroken phalanx of Liberals, Labour men, and Nationalists, showing a majority in important divisions of rio; and was only rejected by the Lords in the early months of 1913.

Meanwhile Mr. Law had to encounter difficulties among his own followers. The two branches of the party, the Conserva tives and the Liberal Unionists, had indeed been fused, in May 1912, into one party with a combined national Unionist organization. But the present differences were not on the old lines, but on the extent to which the policy of Tariff Reform should be carried. Mr. Law and Lord Lansdowne announced in Nov. 1912 that they no longer held themselves bound, by the policy advocated by Mr. Balfour before the second election of 1910, to submit the first Tariff Reform budget to a referendum. At once a large section of Unionists, especially in Unionist Lancashire, became alarmed lest their electoral chances should be jeopardized by the prospect of food taxes imposed without reference to the people. Mr. Law endeavoured to reassure these doubters by a speech at Ashton-under-Lyne on Dec. 16. He refused altogether to haul down the flag of Tariff Reform; it was his policy to give British workmen a preference, both in the home and in the colonial market; but he said that a Unionist Government did not intend themselves to impose food duties. What they would do would be to call a colonial conference; and they wished to be authorized to meet colonial views if in the conference the colonies considered a duty on wheat to be necessary. This declaration did not satisfy the free fooders; but there was a general disposition to compromise the question without injuring the unity of the party. Finally, on Jan. 14 1913, in answer to a memorial from the bulk of the Unionist M.P.'sa memorial which wished for a reassurance as to food duties, but strongly deprecated a change of leadership - Mr. Law announced that he and Lord Lansdowne were willing to agree that food duties should not be imposed without the approval of the electorate at a subsequent general election; and to remain leaders in deference to their followers' appeal, in spite of the party's disregard of their advice. After this declaration the unrest in the party gradually died down.

Mr. Law maintained his stout opposition to the Home Rule and Welsh Church bills on their second and third appearances in the sessions of 1913 and 1914. But in the course of 1913 he found that, partly no doubt owing to his insistence, Ministers began to appreciate the serious difficulty to Home Rule presented by Ulster's determined attitude. Accordingly he stated in the House that Unionists would welcome an Irish settlement by general consent, but would not make new friends by betraying old; and in Oct., in answer to Mr. Asquith's overtures at Ladybank, he said that he and his colleagues would consider any proposals with a real desire to find a solution if possible. If there were not such a solution, he foresaw national disaster and ruin. He attended a great demonstration in Dublin on Nov. 28 and declared then that Ulster would not submit, and the Unionist party would not allow her to be coerced. He did not find in Mr. Asquith's proposals, in the session of 1914, for exclusion by county option for six years, any sufficient compromise; but he formally announced that, if they were endorsed by the country, Lord Lansdowne would use his authority in the Lords to have them passed without delay. The offer was not accepted, and Mr. Law, though he joined the Buckingham Palace Conference in a last hope of aiming at a reasonable settlement, was anticipating the immediate outbreak of civil war in Ireland when the World War supervened.

He had always been anxious for good relations with Germany, provided that they were not attained at the expense of France; for, like Sir Edward Grey, he based his whole foreign policy on the maintenance of the Entente, and therefore supported the Foreign Secretary steadily against Radicals and Labour men and Nationalists. The only quarrel he had with the increased armaments proposed by Mr. Churchill was that he doubted whether they were adequate. Accordingly, directly the crisis became acute, he wrote, on Sunday Aug. 2, on behalf of Lord Lansdowne and their colleagues, tendering to Mr. Asquith the unhesitating support of the Opposition in any measures necessary to support France and Russia; and he warmly welcomed Sir E. Grey's speech of Aug. 3, which converted the country to the justice and inevitableness of war. Not only did he render a steady support to Ministers in Parliament; but he aided the national cause and promoted recruiting by speeches at Guild hall, in Belfast and elsewhere; and even when criticism of the mismanagement of the war began legitimately to raise its head in the early months of 1915, he used his influence, in the national interest, to repress or moderate its expression in Parliament. The tenor of his speeches was always to encourage Ministers in vigorous action - on such questions, for instance, as the mobilization of industry, the treatment of aliens and the provision of munitions. In spite, therefore, of the vigour, or even violence, of his opposition before the war, it was comparatively easy for Mr. Asquith to approach him in May 1915 with a view to the formation of a National Coalition Government, and for him to respond with immediate acceptance. He believed, he subsequently told a Unionist audience, that the Opposition could have turned out the Government at this time owing to the indignation about the shortage of munitions; but that would have meant an election and renewal of party feeling, and so have prevented the concentration of effort on the war. He brought seven of his colleagues into the Cabinet with him - Lord Lansdowne, Mr. Balfour, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, D'Ir. Long, Lord Curzon, Lord Selborne and Sir Edward Carson - and he himself took the Secretaryship of State for the Colonies. This was an office which, however congenial to Mr. Law with his colonial birth and his belief in Colonial Preference, did not bring him much into the limelight; and, influential as he was in the councils of the Ministry, in public he was content to play a comparatively subordinate part. To his loyalty to his chief, during their 18 months' association, Mr. Asquith himself subsequently bore emphatic testimony. While the controversy on compulsory military service was raging in the late autumn of 1915, he stated his own view to be that it was a better system than the voluntary system, but could only be gained at too high a price - namely, the price of national unity. But when circumstances had overcome Mr. Asquith's antipathy to compulsion, Mr. Law took charge of the first military service bill in the House of Commons in Jan. 1916, and got it through all its stages with little difficulty. Another policy which he threw his energies into carrying out was the utilization of the economic forces of the Allies in the prosecution of the war. He promoted the Economic Conference in Paris in June 1916, and represented his country on the occasion, with Mr. Hughes, the Australian Premier, and Lord Crewe as his colleagues. He cordially concurred in the cooperative and protective resolutions then adopted (see English History) and joined Mr. Asquith in recommending them to the House of Commons. He was a member of the War Committee of the Cabinet, but, like Mr. Lloyd George, he was far from satisfied with its organization and powers. It was natural, therefore, that he should be one of the four persons (the others being Mr. Lloyd George himself, Sir Edward Carson, and a Labour member) to whom Mr. Lloyd George, forcing the issue on Dec. I, asked Mr. Asquith to confide the absolute conduct of the war. The crisis started by this demand produced, in the course of a few days, first Mr. Lloyd George's and then Mr. Asquith's resignation; and the King, adopting the ordinary constitutional course, sent on Dec. 5 for Mr. Bonar Law, who had become, through by-elections before the war, the leader of the largest single party in the House of Commons, and invited him to form an administration. He took the view that for the due prosecution of the war a Coalition Government was necessary. He could count on the assistance of Mr. Lloyd George, but Mr. Asquith and his principal Liberal colleagues refused their cooperation. Moreover, he felt that Mr. Lloyd George was the Minister whom the country demanded. So he resigned his commission, and on Mr. Lloyd George's acceptance of the premiership he promised full cooperation from his party.

In this second Coalition Mr. Law's position was much more considerable than in the first. His followers supplied the main body of its supporters; and he himself was rather the partner of his chief than his second-in-command. He became not merely Chancellor of the Exchequer, but also leader of the House of Commons, the Prime Minister concentrating his energies on the work of the War Cabinet (see English History), the supreme directing authority, of which Cabinet Mr. Law was also a member, though he was not expected to give regular attendance. At first the House of Commons was disposed to resent the apparent neglect with which it was treated by being asked to accept a deputy as its leader in place of a Prime Minister who washimself an M.P.; and cries for "Lloyd George " were raised when Mr. Law rose to play the leader's part in the debate on the Address in 1917. But the respect and, after a while, even the affection of the House were won by his business habits, his courtesy, his readiness to yield on non-essentials coupled with firmness in essentials, his exceptional clearness of head and of expression, and his extraordinary capacity for impromptu reply, without taking a note, at the close of a long debate on an intricate subject involving perhaps complicated figures.

It was his duty to obtain votes of credit from time to time from Parliament to carry on the war; and in the two years for which this Government was responsible the total voted amounted to more than f 5, 500,000,000, as compared with some L3,200,- 000,000 during the preceding period of two years and four months. But of course it must be remembered that not merely were munitions provided in 1917 and 1918 on an unprecedented scale, but that prices had risen enormously until, towards the close of the war, they were about double those of four years before. As Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr. Law had to find the money to meet this gigantic cost. This he did principally by means of two great loans, and by immense increases of taxation. The first loan was launched in Jan. 1917, and its basis was the issue of a 5% Government stock at 95; but there was also a 4% tax-compounded loan issued at par, and there were various provisions for conversion of certain previous issues. It brought in the enormous sum of £1,000,312,950 from no fewer than 5,289,000 subscribers; and Mr. Law justly hailed it both as an expression of the will of the people to win the war and also as evidence of the financial ability of the country to see it to a successful conclusion. The second loan, which was launched in Oct. of the same year, was of a new and ingenious character. The title of the issue was National War Bonds, and it combined the advantages of short-term securities, such as Exchequer bonds, and three sorts of longer-dated securities for seven and ten years. The interest was, as before, 5%, or 4% " tax-compounded," and elaborate and comprehensive rights of conversion were given. The amount was unlimited; all the securities were for continuous sale till further notice. Mr. Law explained that his hope was that the new War Bonds would lead to a steady and persistent flow of money loaned to the State without the financial dislocation inseparable from a great loan. His hope was justified. Interest was stimulated in the National War Bonds by various devices from time to time, such as the use of " tanks " as collecting boxes, the institution of a " Business Men's " week and a " Feed the Guns " week, and the transformation of Trafalgar Square in Oct. 1918 into a shellshattered French village. From the time they were first put on sale till Jan. II 1919, £144 6, 62 5, 61 3 of these bonds were sold, and nearly £50,000,00o small post-office bonds in addition.

Mr. Law's first budget, that of 1917, coming as it did after the great increases which Mr. McKenna had made in taxation, only raised the excess profits tax from 60 to 80%, and increased the taxes on entertainments, tobacco and dogs. He had proposed to double the tobacco duty, but on reconsideration came to the conclusion that with this burden it would be impossible to keep down the price of the cheaper kinds, and so reduced the additional duty to one of 50%. His great taxing budget was that of 1918, introduced during the early stages of the great German offensive. This imposed additional taxation calculated to bring in no less than £114,000,000. Income-tax was raised from 5s. to 6s.; farmers' tax was doubled; super-tax was increased; the stamp on cheques was to be 2d. instead of id.; beer and spirit duties were doubled, and tobacco and match and sugar duties raised; letters were to be 12d. and postcards id. He budgeted for a revenue of no less than £842,050,000. He explained that it was his duty to levy as much as the nation could bear; but at the same time he must not cripple industry. Besides the taxes already mentioned, all of which were carried through; there was considerable opposition to the increased tax on cheques. Mr. Law also proposed a tax on luxuries, following the general principles adopted in this matter by the French Government. He got the House to set up a select committee to prepare a schedule with the advice of the traders who would be affected; but the report of the committee was not received sufficiently early in the year to enable Parliament to pass upon it, and the project was abandoned. He also appointed another select committee to consider how to control expenditure, the chairman of which, Mr. Herbert Samuel, told him that his fault as a Chancellor of the Exchequer was that he was " too amiable." The fault that the City of London found with him was that he was too much occupied as Leader of the House and member of the War Cabinet to give sufficient attention to finance.

His influence in the Government was especially felt in economic questions. It must have been with peculiar gratification that he announced to the House of Commons in April 1917 that the Imperial War Cabinet had accepted the principle of Imperial Preference; and that it was hoped that each part of the Empire, having due regard to the interests of the Allies, would give specially favourable treatment and facilities to the produce and manufactures of other parts of the Empire - a hope which, as regards the mother country, was translated into action in the budgets introduced under Mr. Law's leadership after the war. After the sittings of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1918 he spoke of the resolutions then passed in favour of retaining the control of essential raw materials as an immense move forward in the whole conception of trade policy. In May 1918 he told the House of Commons that the French Government had denounced all commercial conventions containing " mostfavourable-nation " clauses; and that, in view of the probable scarcity of raw material after the war, the British Government would take a similar course. He had warned the German Government in the previous Dec. that the longer war lasted, the less raw material there would be to go round, and, as the Allies would help themselves first, the less there would be for Germany to receive. In regard to Ireland, he frankly admitted, Unionist though he was, the need for a change. What was wanted was a settlement, but the sacrifices would have to be on all sides if a settlement was to be obtained. He remonstrated, however, with the Nationalists for their threats in the session of 1918 and indignantly rejected as preposterous their claim to selfdetermination as a condition precedent to the entry of Britain into the Peace Conference. He opposed throughout the war a firm front both to pacifists and to pessimists. He asked the pacifists what other method there was, in the circumstances, of saving the liberties of the country except by fighting for them; and the constant readiness of his countrymen to bear the heaviest taxation and to subscribe to loan after loan was again and again treated by him as a certain pledge of eventual victory. Nor was he ever in doubt as to the necessity of fighting until the Germans surrendered. " We are fighting," he said, some six weeks before the Armistice, " for peace now and for security for peace in the time to come. You cannot get that by treaty. There can be no peace until the Germans are beaten and know that they are beaten." As the general election approached he responded heartily to Mr. Lloyd George's proposal that the Coalition should be continued, and that the country should be definitely invited to return candidates who should undertake to support the Coalition Government; and he joined with him in issuing the letters or certificates, nicknamed " coupons," accepting Coalition candidates. He also signed with Mr. Lloyd George a joint manifesto, in which a good measure of his own economic doctrines held a conspicuous place. He left Bootle and stood for Central Glasgow, the business quarter of his own city, being returned by a huge majority. The result of the general election greatly strengthened his position, as the Unionists had a considerable predominance in the new House of Commons.

When the Ministry was reconstituted in Jan. 1919 the arrangement by which Mr. Law led the House of Commons was continued, as the Prime Minister would be much away at the Peace Conferences; but he was relieved of the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, which was transferred to Mr. Austen Chamberlain, he himself taking the sinecure office of Lord Privy Seal. He was constituted one of the British plenipotentiaries at the Conference; but his duties at Westminster seldom allowed him to go to Paris, though he ultimately affixed his signature to the Treaty of Versailles. The business of the session mainly consisted of measures either to demobilize the forces which had been mobilized for the war and restore previous peace conditions, or to improve the social condition of the people in accordance with the pledges of the joint leaders' election manifesto. Mr. Law's handling of the business of the House was, as ever, efficient and conciliatory; but for the greater occasions Mr. Lloyd George returned; and Mr. Law's most outstanding appearance in this session was when he announced that the Government were prepared to adopt the Sankey report in the spirit as well as in the letter, and to take all necessary steps to carry out its recommendations without delay. This was said of the first report, which contained no decision on nationalization; but it was afterwards unfairly alleged by Labour speakers that the Government, by refusing to accept the principle of nationalization, approved in a subsequent report, had broken Mr. Law's pledge. The main business of the session of 1920 was the Irish Home Rule bill, which Mr. Law justified as giving to Ireland the largest measure of self-government compatible with national security and pledges given. He strongly upheld in the House of Commons the measures taken, first by Mr. Macpherson and then by Sir Hamar Greenwood, to restore law and order in that country; and definitely refused to interfere in the case of the Lord Mayor of Cork who, sentenced to imprisonment for conducting a rebel organization, went on hunger-strike and eventually succumbed in gaol. The affection in which Mr. Law was held by the House which he led was shown this session in a peculiarly happy manner. The members, with few exceptions, subscribed to give a wedding present to his daughter on her marriage to Maj.-Gen. Sir F. W. Sykes, Controller-General of Civil Aviation.

Mr. Bonar Law was whole-heartedly in favour of the Coalition, and frequently adjured his Conservative friends to remain true to it. In its cause he sacrificed his health. In March of the following session, that of 1921, while he was in the full swing of his multifarious activities, he suddenly broke down, and was recommended by his medical advisers to abandon his work at once. The shock to the public, to the House of Commons, to his party, and to Mr. Lloyd George was great; and genuine expressions of regret were heard on every side. Mr. Lloyd George seemed almost unmanned in telling the news to the House; and it was clear that he felt that a great prop of his Government had fallen. Mr. Law resigned office, but not his seat for Glasgow. He went away immediately to rest in the south of France; and his health rapidly improved, so that by the autumn he was well again. He married in 1891 Annie Pitcairn, daughter of Harrington Robley, of Glasgow, by whom he had a family; but he was left a widower in 1909. Two sons perished in the World War. (G. E. B.)


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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Andrew Bonar Law'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/bri/a/andrew-bonar-law.html. 1910.

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