By Duncan Bowie
Margaret Thatcher was not the only prime Minister to have Dulwich connections. Andrew Bonar Law, Prime Minister between October 1922 and May 1923, was MP for Dulwich for four years - between 1906 and 1910.
Bonar Law, who is sometimes referred to as the ‘Unknown Prime Minister’ (the title of Robert Blake’s biography) was a Canadian-Scottish businessman. Born in New Brunswick in Canada in 1858 to Scottish/Ulster Scottish parents, his father was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. After his mother’s death when he was 14, he moved to Scotland with his late mother’s sister, his father having remarried. His father thought that this would give him better career opportunities. He left school to work in the iron industry as a clerk for Kidston and Sons in Helensborough, near Glasgow - his aunt’s family were partners in the firm, so it was assumed that Bonar (he never used his first name) would join the firm’s management when he was older. In 1870, the Kidston brothers funded Bonar to form a partnership with another iron merchant, William Jacks, and by the age of 30, Bonar Law was wealthy. Jacks was active in Liberal politics, and was elected as MP for Leith in 1885, and having been ousted by his leader Gladstone the following year, joined the Liberal Unionist Party and was returned for Stirlingshire in 1892. Bonar Law joined the Glasgow Parliamentary Debating Society and the Conservative Party, becoming a parliamentary candidate in 1897, first for the Glasgow Bridgeton seat and then for the Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown seat. A working-class area it was represented by a Liberal, so was not regarded as a good prospect. However, in the general election in 1900, known as the ’Khaki ‘election, there was a national swing to the Conservatives as the Liberals were seen as pro-Boers, and Bonar Law overturned the Liberal majority. Bonar Law then moved to London, though keeping his directorship in the company he had helped to found. Two years later, Bonar Law was appointed by Prime Minister Balfour as parliamentary secretary to the Board of Trade.
However, in 1905, the Conservative Party split on the issue of tariff reform and Balfour called a General election in February 1906. Bonar Law a supporter of tariff reform was however defeated, not by a Liberal but by the Labour candidate, George Barnes, who was later (between 1910 and 1911) to be leader of the Labour Party and a Minister in Lloyd George’s coalition governments between 1917 and 1920. The former Liberal MP was in third place. The fact that as a poor area, most constituents would have been disadvantaged by tariff reform which would have imposed taxes on corn imports, hardly helped Bonar Law’s case.
The Conservative Party wanted to find another seat for their experienced businessman and an opportunity was found when the sitting MP for Dulwich, Dr Rutherfoord Harris, decided to retire. Harris had been a friend of Cecil Rhodes who had appointed him secretary of the British South Africa Company. Harris had also been a member of the Cape Colony House of Assembly, before moving to England, and the reason given for his retirement in 1906 was a wish to return to South Africa. The Dulwich seat, which at that time included Anerley and Penge, was regarded by the Conservatives as a safe seat. It had always been held by a Conservative, though Harris’s majority in 1906 over the Liberal candidate, David Williamson, was only 357. In the by-election, Bonar Law increased the majority to 1,279, defeating the Liberal candidate, Williamson, by 6709 votes to 5430. The turnout was high for a by-election at 79% of the electorate. It was suggested that the swing to the Conservatives was mainly due to the Liberal Government’s unpopular Education Bill, with possibly 700 Roman Catholics supporting Bonar Law, somewhat ironic given Law was a Scottish Presbyterian.
Bonar Law was to hold onto his seat in the January 1910 general election, increasing his majority over the Liberal candidate, now Evan Cotton, to 2418. However, as a result of the crisis over the House of Lords’ objecting to the radical ‘Peoples’ budget proposed by the Liberal chancellor, Lloyd George, a further general election was called in December 1910. The Conservative Party however decided they wanted a strong tariff reformer to stand for the marginal seat of Manchester Northwest. The Liberal candidate, George Kemp, who had won the seat by a narrow majority in January, was a former Conservative who had changed parties because of his opposition to tariff reform - Manchester was after all the home of free trade. Bonar Law was defeated by 543 votes - the Conservatives were to win back the seat in a by-election two years later. In Dulwich, Bonar Law’s successor as candidate, Frederick Hall, who had represented Dulwich on the London County Council, increased the Conservative majority to 2,301, and was to win six more elections, serving as Dulwich MP to 1932, increasing his majority to over 17,000. Clearly if Bonar Law had not been persuaded to go to Manchester, he could have represented Dulwich for his entire parliamentary career, including his 12 years as Conservative Party leader (1911-21 and 1922-23) and his year as Prime Minister. Instead, Bonar Law had to wait until March 1911 to return to parliament, winning a by-election in Bootle, a seat he held until 1918, when he returned to Glasgow, where he represented Glasgow Central until his resignation as Prime Minister in May 1923. Diagnosed with terminal throat cancer, he was unable to speak and died later that year.
Clearly as a peripatetic MP, Bonar Law had little connection with Dulwich, other than serving for 4 years as its representative. He lived in Holland Park and does not appear to have raised specifically local issues in parliament. He nevertheless laid the foundation stone for the St Barnabas Church Hall, otherwise I may not have made the connection. His wife died in 1909 while he was the Dulwich MP, and his biographer, R J Q Adams, suggested that he focused on politics to get over his grief. Of their six children, the two eldest sons were both killed in the First World War.
On being returned in Dulwich, Bonar Law joined Balfour’s shadow cabinet. He became one of the leading advocates of tariff reform as well as opposing Irish home rule and supporting the Ulster unionists. His speeches in Dulwich were largely Conservative Party set pieces, normally at election times, focusing on attacking the Liberal governments led by his fellow Scott, Henry Campbell Bannerman, and subsequently by Herbert Asquith. For example, in his re-adoption speech in December 1909, he attacked the Liberals for wanting to destroy the House of Lords, grant Home Rule to the Irish, disestablish the Church of England, pass unjust licensing and education legislation and ‘plunge the country into a sea of revolution.’ In a speech the previous month, he argued for strengthening the navy to resist what he saw as German expansion, saying that ‘he did not believe the flapdoodle about the love of nations’. He was a strong supporter of maintaining the empire and attacked the Liberals as ‘Little Englanders’. Bonar Law returned to Dulwich in June 1915 to present a sword to his successor, Frederick Hall, who was by then a Lieutenant Colonel, as an acknowledgment for his raising of an artillery division in Camberwell.
Bonar Law was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1911 as a compromise candidate in a party that was divided between Walter Long and Austen Chamberlain. He was to lead the Conservative ministers within Lloyd George’s coalition and serve as colonial secretary, chancellor of the exchequer and Lord Privy Seal. Resigning the leadership on the grounds of ill health in 1921, he was replaced by Austen Chamberlain. However, he returned to the leadership the following year after the Conservatives decided to withdraw from the Lloyd George coalition - the origin of the 1922 Conservative back bench committee. No doubt if it had not been for his cancer, he would have continued as leader and Prime Minister - his successor Stanley Baldwin remained leader until 1937, serving as Prime Minister in 1923-4,1924-29 and 1935-37.