Custom Search


Henry Campbell-Bannerman

Prime Minister 1905 - 1908

Some prime ministers have tried to be crusaders, or warriors leading Britain on to some great goal. Some have agreed with Plutarch when he said that politics is a way of life, and not an ocean voyage with an end in view. Campbell-Bannerman was the definitive way of life politician. In the words of John Wilson he was: "easy-going, indolent, devoid of great ambition and devoted to his comfort. He put the interests of his ailing wife before those of public affairs and allowed nothing to interfere with his annual autumn holiday to the spa of Marienbad in Bohemia. Yet his period at 10 Downing Street - a mere two years - was one of the most successful of any modern prime minister" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P187).


Henry Campbell was born in Glasgow in 1836. (The name Bannerman was added reluctantly in 1871 when he inherited property from an uncle). His father arranged a wide ranging education, at Glasgow High School, Glasgow University, Trinity College Cambridge, combined with an extended period abroad during which young Henry learnt French, German and Italian. After working for the family drapery and warehousing firm, entry to Parliament came in 1868 as MP for Stirling Burghs. Henry then lived in his good humoured way with his wife Charlotte in Scotland, and in comfortable London houses. They spent most of their time at 6 Grosvenor Place, which still stands today. Over exertion was carefully guarded against. Bed was a favourite place. Work, when it had to be done, was generally centred around a series of jobs at the War Office and Admiralty. This was a period when a number of reforms of the armed services were carried through. Campbell-Bannerman's main achievement was bringing about the resignation of army commander-in-chief, the Duke of York, who had been in place for thirty eight years, and did not like change. But Campbell-Bannerman was no William Pitt dedicating every last ounce of his nervous energy to the welfare of the armed services. He was bored by detail. His staff, according to John Wilson, would often find him in his office reading a French novel. All this easy-going lack of fluster was required to cope with the job of secretary of state for Ireland, 1884 - 85. Irish MPs made furious attacks on Campbell-Bannerman, who didn't seem to notice. This performance greatly enhanced the secretary of state's reputation. Then when no other candidate could be found to lead the Liberal Party, no one could think of a good reason not to give the job to Campbell-Bannerman. The feeling was he could look after things until someone more suitable came along. The irony was there were in truth few people more suitable for the job in the whole of prime ministerial history.

As soon as Campbell-Bannerman became Liberal Party leader, the Boer War began. The war saw a dangerous difference of opinion in the Liberal Party, with powerful figures both supporting and opposing it. Campbell-Bannerman did his job by keeping his party together. His personal position was essentially neutral, though he denounced the herding of Boer women and children into concentration camps as "barbarous". For this he took many attacks, including one from a clergyman who called him a "cad, a coward and a murderer" (quoted The Prime Ministers P190). But overall respect was gained for what turned out to be sound opinions. So when the 1906 election came around, Campbell-Bannerman was in a position strong enough to gain an historic landslide victory. The Liberal Party had a massive majority of 222 over the Conservatives, and 88 over all other parties combined. Even though he was Liberal leader, the historic first entry of a large group of Labour Party candidates into Parliament was welcomed by Campbell-Bannerman, who did his best to help the new men find their feet.

Sadly Charlotte, who had long suffered from diabetes, died in 1906. But shattering blow though this was, the prime minister carried on. His ability was essentially one of keeping people together. In policy terms this unity coincided with enlightened decisions. The defeated Boer states were given self government. Important social legislation was also passed - domestic servants, a huge part of the work force, were now included in the Working Men's Compensation Bill. But in a sense this was all secondary to a talent for promoting unity. Campbell-Bannerman more than perhaps any other prime minister realised that his job was to keep people together. He realised that he could worry and fret, and spend every waking hour working, and it would make no difference. No doubt those who see politics and life as a crusade will not be inclined to admire a man who often professed his liking for his bed. Of course he tried to achieve things, and worked towards goals, but essentially he realised the journey was endless, and there was no point sacrificing present ease for some illusory future gain. To do that was to deny the true nature of life and politics. Politics would go on no matter what defeats were suffered or what victories were enjoyed. This philosophy made Campbell-Bannerman a moderate, friendly, good man, who did his job in keeping his government together. He built up a staggering coalition of people in the varied Liberal Party ranks, all quite happy to serve under one leader. And this was not done by creating some foreign enemy to define his own group against. Bannerman had many friends in other parties, particularly in the new Labour Party. It might seem difficult to portray a sentimental, happy picture of a prime minister, but if such a thing is possible, then it is with Campbell-Bannerman.



This image is copyright free

Henry Campbell-Bannerman was not prime minister for long. He was sixty nine when he took office and already in poor health. Health problems finally forced resignation on 3rd April 1908. He died at 10 Downing Street a few weeks later on 22nd April.

"He was a modest man, who disliked fuss and over exertion, but he had the wisdom and sagacity of a good family solicitor or of an old shepherd, and he was afraid of no one and nothing" (John Wilson).