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Andrew Bonar Law

Prime Minister 1922

Andrew Bonar Law was born in Canada on 16th September 1858, and later moved to Glasgow. A few years as a businessman in Glasgow were followed by entry to Parliament as MP for Glasgow Blackfriars in 1900. Bonar Law was a steady figure, rising to colonial secretary in Asquith's government 1915 - 1916, and then chancellor under Lloyd George. Lloyd George was a highly unusual British politician, providing a revealing contrast to his chancellor. Lloyd George owed his power to the special circumstances of the First World War, which required a leader with a strong, even dictatorial image. While prime ministers are usually compromise figures whose main job is to give unity, Lloyd George didn't have to worry about unity. The war gave that. He didn't even need a party he could call his own, and ruled very much as an individual. Bonar Law on the other hand was a normal politician, a party man naturally inclined to keeping a broad spectrum of people happy. After the war, Lloyd George continued to head a coalition government until 1922, before being forced out amid worries that he wanted to start another war with Turkey. It was Bonar Law who began the process of returning Britain to normality.


After retiring due to bad health in 1921, Bonar Law was dragged reluctantly back into politics to take over as prime minister when Lloyd George stepped down. He was seen as an ideal compromise candidate by the Conservative Party who formed the largest party in Lloyd George's coalition government. Being Conservative Party leader meant that Bonar Law automatically became prime minister after Lloyd George resigned. An immediate general election was then held to give firmer foundation to the new government. Bonar Law's campaign was based around providing a contrast with Lloyd George. Plutarch said that politics should be a way of life rather than a military campaign with an end in view. Since 1914 politics had been a military campaign with an end in view, but now in peace time people thankfully could get back to politics as simply a way of life. Bonar Law was duly returned as prime minister. and he said at the beginning of his term: "There are many measures of legislative and administrative importance which in themselves would be desirable... but I do not feel that they can, at the moment, claim precedence over the nation's first need which is, in every walk of life, to get on with its own work with the minimum of interference at home and of disturbance abroad." (Quoted The Prime Ministers P241)


Westminster Abbey

Bonar Law did not want any drama, crisis or crusade. Unfortunately he got one crisis over the repayment of war debt to the United States. Negotiations did not go well. When early release of details of negotiations damaged Britain's bargaining position the prime minister offered to resign. He was persuaded to change his mind, which demonstrated that his role as a figurehead of government unity was more important than details of policy. Unfortunately Andrew Bonar Law was not to remain in office for long. At the end of April 1923 his health problems were worsening, and doctors advised a sea voyage. Collapse and resignation followed in May. Cancer of the throat was diagnosed, and Bonar Law died on 30th October 1923. He asked for a quiet funeral, a request his colleagues ignored. For the first time since the death of William Gladstone, a prime minister was buried at Westminster Abbey. Herbert Asquith is supposed to have commented on leaving the Abbey: "It is fitting that we should have buried the unknown prime minister by the side of the Unknown Soldier." But this reserve was indicative of a man who wanted to return politics to everyday normality. Life had to go on, as it did at the end of every dramatic crusade.