Andrew Bonar Law and the fall of the Asquith Coalition: the December 1916 cabinet crisis

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Author: R.J.Q. Adams
Date: Aug. 1997
From: Canadian Journal of History(Vol. 32, Issue 2)
Publisher: University of Toronto Press
Document Type: Biography
Length: 9,147 words

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About this Person
Born: September 16, 1858 in Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Died: October 30, 1923 in London, United Kingdom
Nationality: British
Other Names: Law, Andrew; Law, Bonar
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By the close of 1916, after more than two years of bloody conflict -- seventeen months into the lifespan of the curious coalition government led by Herbert Henry Asquith -- Great Britain was still eye-deep in the most terrible war in her history. In that December a political upheaval would cast up a quite different coalition, a once-popular leader would be toppled forever and a great political party shattered.

This brief essay will examine the role in the 1916 cabinet crisis of Unionist party leader Andrew Bonar Law, whose role among the principal players in this drama is the least understood and most underestimated. It has been many years since his career has enjoyed the full attention of a biographer;(1) and, if anything, it has been made increasingly ambiguous by the efforts of three generations of hard-working historians.(2) The Bonar Law of 1916 has been seen by contemporaries and later interpreters variously as "obsessed" with ambition,(3) yet "uncertain and indecisive";(4) he was "inert,"(5) overly self-effacing,(6) and even without courage in the final crisis.(7) One sometimes wonders if they could possibly have been talking about the same man.

Bonar Law had guided his party through turbulent times since becoming leader in December 1911.(8) Though often with little help from his most senior colleagues, he had held the allegiance of the party rank and file -- and held it still as the nation sank into the mire of the Great War. By May 1915, with victory further away than ever, Bonar Law and his frustrated colleagues threw in with the Liberals to form a coalition. His hope was to effect an improved and more energetic direction of the war but also to stabilize a restive House of Commons and stave off a return to divisive partisan politics. The Unionist leader sacrificed his own ambitions and took the Colonial Office -- a political backwater in wartime, and unworthy of his status as chief of the largest party in the House. The resulting government was a vehicle for certain improvements in war-making -- it provided a platform for the creation of the Ministry of Munitions, the advent of limited conscription and the abandonment of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign. It did not prove, however, to be the engine to win the war for which Bonar Law and his colleagues hoped.

1916 proved to be a great year for catastrophe: defeat in the Near East, a brutal political struggle over general military conscription and the death at sea of the War Secretary -- the popular war hero, Lord Kitchener -- though his succession by the Lloyd George could be considered nothing but an improvement. The Easter Rebellion in Ireland in April reopened the most painful political wound of the immediate prewar years. An ultimately fruitless search for settlement by energetic Lloyd George succeeded only in driving Irish Nationalists of virtually all stripes into one camp. Worse for Bonar Law was the fact that this failure renewed the division within the Unionist party between Home Rule compromisers (including himself) and anti-Home Rule die-hards.

The summer and early autumn witnessed Sir Douglas Haig's first great offensive of the war, with horrifying results on the Somme. These days reminded many Unionists that the Asquith coalition was no closer to winning the war than was its simon-pure Liberal predecessor.(9) Such tensions strained Tory unity, and only Tory unity kept the coalition in place and Bonar Law at the head of his party -- and staved off the horror of a divisive wartime election. There was never a question in his mind that national survival took precedence over party, but such sacrifice did not make his life any easier.

By the autumn, Bonar Law's political burden increased as Unionist frustration was reflected in the rapid rise in back-bench party esteem -- at the expense of their official leaders -- of the magnetic figure of the Irish Unionist, Sir Edward Carson. Once Bonar Law's closest ally in the prewar struggle against Home Rule, Carson was a brilliant lawyer, an electrifying orator, and a brutal opponent. An indifferent executive during his few years in high office, he always displayed the dangerous gift of all great litigators: he was an incomparable critic of other men's works. No team player, he had served in the coalition only five months and then returned to an unofficial opposition. Carson was the chairman and the darling of the Unionist War Committee, the informal but powerful back-bench "ginger group" formed in January.(10) Following his resignation from the cabinet in October, Carson remained on amiable personal terms with Bonar Law, but the Unionist leader knew that so long as success eluded the coalition, Unionist frustration would orbit the charismatic Carson.(11)

Despite the energetic efforts of Lords Beaverbrook and Blake, most historians have been satisfied to assign to Bonar Law at best a secondary role in the December Crisis.(12) What the evidence indicates is that by late autumn 1916, many Unionists and their fellow travellers were disgruntled with the progress of the war and with the person of Asquith, whom they despised.(13) In this volatile atmosphere Bonar Law became convinced to take a hand in recasting the governance of the country. The political drama began in earnest on the evening of 8 November, when a minor bill to offer for sale captured German assets in Nigeria to the highest non-German bidder unhinged the House of Commons.

Carson employed this seemingly insignificant business to attack the government in the name of patriotism and property -- that is, to limit the bids to British interests -- and he all but shattered it.(14) Bonar Law had pledged months before that he would not continue to hold coalition office if he lost the support of his followers in the House.(15) Carson and his friends could not hope to defeat the government, but he came close to cobbling a majority of the Unionist members and calling in Bonar Law's promise. As it was, the challenge failed on all counts: the bill passed easily with a slim majority of Unionists in support.(16) While admirers came to his room afterward and celebrated what they saw as a clear victory, Bonar Law later told the Daily Chronicle editor, Robert Donald: "I knew better." A good House of Commons man, he corralled individual rebels, took their minds and learned much: "The Nigeria debate," he told Donald, "was simply a symptom of discontent with the Coalition, rather than hostility to myself."(17) In the harsh school of politics, Bonar Law was a swift learner. He knew menace when he saw it and understood that, if the coalition remained unimproved: "... their hostility would make it impossible for me ... to continue in the Cabinet."(18)

The snowball had begun its slide downhill: Bonar Law had no personal liking for Asquith -- who barely disguised his low estimate of his colonial secretary.(19) Yet he recognized that, despite palpable Unionist antipathy, Asquith was a masterful parliamentarian who enjoyed the absolute loyalty of a wide majority of Liberals and broad popularity in the country. As a figurehead, therefore, Bonar Law judged him virtually irreplaceable. Second, we should note that the idea (soon to take centre stage) of the delegation of conduct of the war to a small, efficient executive council occurred to several statesmen (including Lloyd George) either independently or through the informal interchange of ideas.(20) Bonar Law was certainly one of these.(21)

Sensing danger, he saw Asquith and Carson separately in the week that followed the Nigeria debate. The first he warned that a "radical change in the Government must be made, and made at once." Asquith waved this aside, and Bonar Law unsmilingly promised that he would return when he had a definite plan.(22) Soon thereafter he met Carson in the House. The two, burdened no doubt by their recent clash, were uncomfortable with one another and started off badly. Yet they could agree that each leaned toward the idea of a small executive war council. Bonar Law, however, declared that like it or not, "under a Constitution such as ours the control of the political machine, even from the point of view of the conduct of the war, was as essential as the preparation of big armies; and I added that in the present House of Commons no one I thought could control that machine so well as Mr. Asquith."(23) Carson enigmatically noted that he did not "altogether disagree," and a rapproachment was begun.(24)

The Unionist elder statesman and Minister without Portfolio, Lord Lansdowne, took the next step toward overheating the political atmosphere by circulating his controversial cabinet memorandum of 13 November, questioning the substance of Lloyd George's stirring call for a "fight to the finish -- to a knock-out," published in the press on 29 September(25) and suggesting that a compromise peace might be the answer to a war in which there could be no true victory.(26) Fear of such initiatives fuelled the engine that drove Bonar Law, Carson, and Lloyd George together.

Hoping that Bonar Law was nearing the "end of his tether,"(27) and himself enamoured of the idea of a small war council, Lloyd George at this point enlisted the help of their common friend Sir Max Aitken.(28) To the financier and fledgling press lord (soon to become better known as Lord Beaverbrook) he revealed both his own frustration with the management of the war and the fact that he (Lloyd George), too, had been in contact with the like-minded Carson. He knew, of course, that such news would soon be carried to Bonar Law, which Beaverbrook did the following day, 14 November -- the day ministers received Lansdowne's depressing Memorandum.(29)

Though party differences had not prevented friendship between the two, Bonar Law's feelings about Lloyd George were ambivalent at this point. He distrusted the war minister's personal ambition and his quarrels with the generals, and resented his allowing Asquith to fob him off with the Colonial Office. Bonar Law was annoyed also at his lack of support for his colleague during the Nigeria debate.(10) Nonetheless, the Unionist leader took the first real step toward Lloyd George -- as he had done with Asquith and Carson -- by inviting the war Secretary to a small dinner scheduled for three days later. The dinner went on without Lloyd George, who fought shy of candid political talk in the presence of another guest -- the "political" general, Sir Henry Wilson. He told his private secretary, Frances Stevenson, that the invitation had been withdrawn, implying that Bonar Law was in a "wobbly state of mind":(31) in fact a letter from the colonial secretary to Lloyd George indicates that Bonar Law had even offered to come to him privately after

Abstract

With the coming of World War I, Unionist party leader Andrew Bonar Law concluded that the best way to maintain national unity was to suppress interparty strife, and therefore he led his party into a coalition under the Liberal premier, H.H. Asquith, in May 1915. This essay suggests that he continued to support the Asquith coalition only so long as he thought it the best path to unity and victory. In December 1916, however, he lost patience with Asquith's desultory war leadership and acted decisively to drive him from the premiership and bring about an alternative Government under David Lloyd George.

After the celebrated Nigeria debate of 8 November 1916, Bonar Law realised that the profound frustration of Unionists with Asquith's leadership held the potential for a party revolt which could upset the

government and provoke a divisive wartime election. He concluded that a small executive committee for war management would solve both of these problems and came to cooperate with two powerful colleagues who thought similarly: the War Secretary, Lloyd George, and the Irish Unionist. Sir Edward Carson.

Though his part in the crisis is typically depreciated by historians, once it became clear that Asquith rejected the idea of an independent war executive (which he assumed would be made up of his three antagonists) as well as the ceremonial role assigned him, Bonar Law acted decisively and in close cooperation with Lloyd George in destroying the government. Acting largely independently of his senior Unionist colleagues, Bonar Law brought his party into a reorganized Government in which he became the second leading force. Much previously unexploited evidence supports the thesis that Bonar Law was a key decision-maker in the demise of the Asquith coalition and that his part in this important episode has been undervalued and misunderstood.

Avec l'arrivee de la Premiere Guerre Mondiale, le chef du parti Unionist Andrew Bonar Law conclut que le meilleur moyen de maintenir l'unite nationale etait de supprimer les luttes a l'interieur du parti. C'est pourquoi il a entraine son patli dans une coalition sous la direction du premier ministre liberal H.H. Asquith en mai 1915.

Cet essai suggere qu'il a continue a soutenir la coalition Asquith uniquement aussi longtemps qu'il croyait qu'elle etait le meilleur chemin vers l'unite et la victoire. En decembre 1916, cependant, il perdit patience avec le leadership decousu d'Asquith dans la guerre, et entreprit d'une maniere decisive de le bouter hors de son poste de premier ministre et de former un autre gouvernement sous David Lloyd George.

Apres le celebre debat sur le Nigeria du 8 novembre 1916, Bonar Law realisa que la profonde frustration des Unionistes avec le leadership d'Asquith portait en elle le potentiel d'une revolte du parti qui pouvait renverser le gouvernement et provoquer une election qui diviserait la coalition en temps de guerre. Il conclut qu'un petit comite executif charge de la menee de la guerre resoudrait ces deux problemes, et vint a cooperer avec deux colligues puissants qui pensaient de la meme facon: le ministre de la guerre, Lloyd George, et l'unioniste irlandais, Sir Edward Carson.

Bien que son role dans la crise soit typiquement deprecie par les historiens, une fois qu'il devint clair qu 'Asquith a rejete l'idee d'un comite exicutif independant charge de la guerre (lequel il supposait serait formed de ses trois antagonistes), ainsi que du role ceremonieux qu'on lui a assigne, Bonar Law entreprit d'une maniere decisive, et en etroite collaboration avec Lloyd George, de detruire le gouvernement. Agissant largement independamment de ses collegues unionistes de rangs plus eleves, Bonar Law entraina son parti a l'interieur d'un gouvernement reorganise au sein duquel il devint la seconde force dirigeante.

De nombreuses preuves auparavant non exploitees soutiennent la these que Bonar Law etait un decideur cle dans la chute de la coalition Asquith et que son role dans cet episode important a ete sousevalue et incompris. the dinner had ended.(32) Though no such meeting transpired, a start had been made, and Beaverbrook shuttled back and forth between the two cabinet ministers over the next few days filling each in on the notions of the other for a revised war administration.

By 20 November the "Triumvirs"(33) came together for the first time as Bonar Law, Lloyd George, and Carson met at dinner at Beaverbrook's West End pied a terre in the Hyde Park Hotel. Bonar Law recalled: "By this time I had got a scheme sketched out. My idea was a War Council consisting of ministers without portfolios, with the Prime Minister as President and Mr. Lloyd George as Chairman."(34) However, committed to the idea of retaining the premier's services, Bonar Law called beforehand -- not after the meeting, as is sometimes reported -- on the prime minister. He wished Asquith to hear first-hand of his inquiries -- a typical Bonar Law practice -- but on 29 December recalled to Robert Donald: "I went to Mr. Asquith with my scheme and pointed out to him that unless he acted on his own initiative things would get serious." The prime minister, he advised, had to be seen to take action or "find himself in a humiliating position."(35) Once again, Asquith showed little interest -- to his cost.

The dinner meeting apparently skirted specific proposals. It was perhaps still too early, as the three men each had reasons for caution: Bonar Law admired Carson's initiative and courage but still smarted over the Nigeria debate. He thought Lloyd George the most effective member of the government but, as we have seen, was not without his doubts about him. The conversation was broad but guarded; they agreed immediately, however, that what was needed was a small war council to replace the existing Cabinet War Committee, with Bonar Law holding out hope that Asquith could be driven to take the initiative himself and negate the need for an alternative solution.(36) Bonar Law was adamant on one point, however, and Beaverbrook recalled his words in a private conversation later that same day: ". . . I am not going to be drawn into anything like an intrigue against Asquith. I have had experience of what flows from this sort of conversation with Lloyd George." He wanted the services of both Liberals in a revised administration, and he wanted them to compose their differences: "Lloyd George himself," he added, "would do far better to go quite openly to the Prime Minister and tell him what he has told us."(37)

The tide, however, was against Asquith. On 21 November, Bonar Law and Lloyd George met once again, and the war secretary suggested the alternative plan of a three-man council with the premier as an external supervisory authority -- a prospect which for the moment once again raised Bonar Law's suspicions of the Welshman's motives.(38) The next afternoon, however, the cabinet discussed Lansdowne's sobering memorandum, and Bonar Law left the room depressed by what he sensed was an undertone of sympathy for what was to him sheer defeatism. How could victory be predicted in such an atmosphere and for such men? The resolve of the Unionist leader for change certainly grew firmer after this painful afternoon.(39) Yet, discouraged as he seemed to be, his next steps indicate that he had decided on action.

On the Saturday, 25 November, he again met Carson and Lloyd George at his Kensington house, Pembroke Lodge. Doubts were put aside, and within an hour the three had agreed upon a draft memorandum for the premier's signature announcing a change in the highest administration of the war. The memo proposed to put into Asquith's mouth these words:

I have decided therefore to create what I regard as a Civilian

General Staff, That staff will consist of myself as President & of

three members of the Cabinet who will have no portfolios & who

will devote their whole time to the problems which arise in

connexion with the prosecution of the War. The three members

who have undertaken to fulfill [sic.] these duties

are -- & I have asked Mr Lloyd George & he has consented at act as

Chairman & to preside at any meeting which owing to the

pressure of other duties I find it impossible to attend. I propose

that this body should have executive authority subject to this[:]

that it shall rest with me to refer any questions to the decision of

the [full] Cabinet which I think should be brought before them.(40)

Beaverbrook's dramatic version of the episode for years established himself as author of the statement: yet it seems more likely that he suppressed the fact that Bonar Law himself dictated it to his friend before the others arrived. It brought together Lloyd George's notion of decreasing Asquith's role with Bonar Law's insistence that the premier's involvement was necessary to the smooth political working of the body.(41) The others understood that without Bonar Law there would be no change of government except through a dissolution and a divisive wartime election -- and if they pushed too hard and somehow drove him together with Asquith, the two party leaders would almost certainly destroy the malcontents at the polls.(42)

Though the fact is often discounted, it should also be remembered that it was Bonar Law -- not Lloyd George or Carson -- who confronted Asquith that afternoon with the document. The colonial secretary now told Asquith once again that a reorganization could be made without any loss of dignity to himself if he acted quickly -- otherwise a smooth transition would be "impossible to carry out." The prime minister requested time to consider the proposal.(43)

Asquith retired to the Berkshire countryside to ruminate, and on the Monday Bonar Law received his response: a thorough rejection.(44) Lord Jenkins has written that Bonar Law perhaps "failed to inform Asquith of the full significance of the demand he was presenting."(45) It seems more likely that the failure was Asquith's in misapprehending the magnitude of what was put before him.

A recent and powerful study of this period has suggested that Bonar Law at this point lost his nerve and started to work for a compromise between Lloyd George and Asquith.(46) In fact Bonar Law wanted a new administrative war council; he also wanted Carson and Lloyd George involved; and he wanted Asquith to remain premier -- as he had said from the outset. He had sought compromise from the first days of the crisis.

Upon receiving Asquith's reply he confronted him immediately, this time insisting that he must accept their advice. He told the premier that he had no idea how unpopular his government had become, that he must bend to avoid a total collapse and:

that he and Lloyd George should work together with close

co-operation ... and I suggested that the best way was for the

two of them to have a frank talk together and see to what extent

they could come to an agreement.(47)

Bonar Law promptly summoned Carson and Lloyd George to the Colonial Office and informed them about his meeting with the prime minister: all agreed that the two senior Liberals should meet. Miss Stevenson, our conduit to Lloyd George's musings, reported in her diary her judgement that Bonar Law was the "only weak spot ... who cannot make up his mind to strike."(48) For "weak spot" one should apparently read someone who might not allow Lloyd George to have just what he wanted.(49)

Bonar Law to this point had confided nothing of these goings on to his Unionist cabinet colleagues. Now it could no longer be avoided as, first, the London dailies had begun to publish rumours of a possible government reshuffle; and, second, Lord Robert Cecil had, off his own bat, circulated a cabinet memorandum on 27 November calling for the creation of two executive committees -- one for war and the other for domestic affairs.(50) Further diversification was precisely what the Bonar Law-Lloyd George-Carson triumvirate did not want. Lord Robert put his proposal before the cabinet on Wednesday, 29 November, where it apparently found favour. The two triumvirs present, Bonar Law and Lloyd George, withheld their fire on this occasion because they intended that their initiative should push aside this unacceptable proposal. It did and, as it was, insured that this was to be the final meeting of the Asquith cabinet.

Unable to avoid it any longer, Bonar Law met the full contingent of Unionist ministers on Thursday afternoon in his room in the House.(51) The leader presented the outline of his plan for a small council, though he mentioned no names other than that of Lloyd George as the proposed chairman.(52) Beaverbrook, who was not present at the meeting, indicates that the Unionists remained more impressed by Cecil's two-council proposal. Yet Austen Chamberlain, who did attend and wrote to Lord Chelmsford shortly thereafter about the meeting, made no mention about sympathy for Cecil's initiative but did indicate that there was no enthusiasm for it; he also noted that there was no enthusiasm for Bonar Law's plan.(53) Bonar Law was apparently little troubled by this disagreement, but he did reiterate his belief that, whatever changes were made, the retention of Asquith as figurehead was a necessity and threatened personal resignation -- or at least Walter Long came away with that impression -- if a suitable restructuring plan was not quickly adopted.(54)

Asquith and Lloyd George met the following day, 1 December, and concord seemed equally scarce among the two senior Liberals. The war minister presented a memorandum which stressed his vision of a war council free of regular cabinet duties, with the premier relegated to a supervisory role. Asquith, not surprisingly, received the plan coldly. When Lloyd George reported the results of the interview to Bonar Law immediately afterward, the Unionist leader had his own reservations about the speed and direction of events. He was sceptical about Lloyd George's readiness to denude the prime minister of even his ceremonial status as chief executive of war administration and at his desire to drive Balfour from the Admiralty.(55)

"I became alarmed," Bonar Law wrote afterward, "from the fear that Lloyd George was counting upon me to back him in whatever steps might be necessary, and I therefore asked to see him on the Friday night; and we met again at the Hyde Park Hotel." Events were moving rapidly and Bonar Law was in the mood to have the air cleared. He minced no words: "Now I want to know," he demanded of Lloyd George, "exactly to what extent you consider I am committed to you." The Welshman, his political sensors on overload and on his best behaviour, replied that he did not consider him committed in any way. "I did not agree with that ...." Bonar Law demurred, recalling later:

I was committed to support him to the fullest extent in securing

a small War Committee of which he would be Chairman, but that

I did not feel justified in dictating to the Prime Minister precisely

the way in which that Committee should be constituted, and,

therefore, I must be free to take whatever action I thought right

if the small Council were agreed to; and if the Prime Minister

suggested other names to constitute it. Lloyd George agreed to

this, and, indeed, added that he himself had not made the names

a condition in his conversation with the Prime Minister.(56)

This was apparently enough for Bonar Law. Despite the aversion of his Unionist colleagues and all other reservations, he meant to force the issue of the war council in co-operation with Lloyd George -- including the three-man format for the proposed council, but he clung to his belief that Asquith could and should be retained in a visible place in a revised government.(57)

The prime minister, predictably, initially rejected the proposal.(58) Lloyd George then prepared to cash in Bonar Law's promise, sending him a copy of Asquith's rejection and adding the stirring phrase: "The life of the country depends on resolute action by you now."(59) So, as the war secretary grew more agitated, the press -- fed on Beaverbrook's leaks -- erupted over the prospect of a change in government, the prime minister dug in his heels and Bonar Law turned once again to the senior Unionists.

He saw Carson alone on 3 December -- a meeting of which there is no record save a letter from the Irishman to the party leader indicating that he was prepared to jettison Asquith altogether and take his chances with a Lloyd George war government.(60) Even earlier on that Sunday morning, Bonar Law confronted the Unionist ministers he could muster -- many, of course, were in the country -- in a significant meeting at Pembroke Lodge.(61) The Tory grandees were exercised because it appeared the newspaper press knew more of what was afoot than did they: one Sunday paper declared that Lloyd George would resign, almost certainly to be followed by Bonar Law and Derby. "Mr. Lloyd George," it continued, "has arrived at the definite conclusion that the methods of dilatoriness, indecision, and delay which characterise the action of the present War Council are such, in his opinion, as to endanger the prospects of winning the war."(62)

Once the seven ministers were arrayed in his small sitting room, Bonar Law read to them Lloyd George's war council proposal and Asquith's negative reply. Lord Crawford noted in his diary that their leader, owing to Asquith's hesitation and the apparent stalemate, proposed that at the very least he, Bonar Law,(63) should resign office.(64) After an hour's conversation, however, they concluded that the best solution was for all eight of them to resign. What was their purpose? According to Crawford, they were uncomfortable with allowing Lloyd George to resign alone to foment a government reconstruction but were willing to provide an opportunity for him to form an improved and more efficient government of his own if he could: Lord Crawford recalled: "The point at issue is whether L1.G. can stand without Asquith."

Chamberlain recalled the meeting similarly and entered it believing Asquith had lingered too long and Lloyd George had "made the Government impossible [and] should be faced with his responsibilities."(65) Bonar Law, patience spent, had, of course, come with a slightly different agenda:

What I wished to do," he wrote, "was to say to the Prime Minister

that we considered it absolutely necessary that there should be

a change in the conduct of the war, and that as Lloyd George was

the only alternative then change should consist in practically

putting the direction of the war in his hands; and that if the Prime

Minister could not see his way to adopt this course then we [the

Unionist ministers] should resign."(66)

Why did he compromise with his colleagues? Because, he explained: " ... the action desired by them, though not in my opinion so good as the course I had suggested, would have the same effect of producing a crisis which would put an end to what seemed to me an impossible situation."(67) The ministers agreed that Bonar Law should communicate to the premier this resolution:

We share the view expressed to you by Mr. Bonar Law some

time ago that the Government cannot continue as it is.

It is evident that a change must be made, and in our opinion,

the publicity given to the intention of Mr. Lloyd George makes

reconstruction from within no longer possible.

We therefore urge the Prime Minister to tender the resignation

of the Government.

If he feels unable to take that step, we authorise Mr. Bonar

Law to tender our resignations.(68)

Lord Beaverbrook argued with great skill in his version of events that the resolution was meant to strengthen the hand of the prime minister against Lloyd George -- an interpretation which now seems to have been thoroughly overturned.(69) Certainly the principals never made such a claim and several in later years, most notably Chamberlain and Cecil, categorically denied it.(70) Lord Jenkins referred to the motives of the Unionist chieftains as "the greatest mystery of the whole crisis," but there seems to be little mystery afoot." What they wanted was to make something happen -- the war was going badly, Carson and his back-bench admirers were restive, their leader was ready to act -- and it appeared that Lloyd George might take the burdens from their shoulders: or he might not. They would not know until they acted, so act they did.

When Bonar Law emerged with the resolution and showed it to Beaverbrook, who remained hidden from the Unionist ministers elsewhere in the house, Beaverbrook recalled pleading with his leader to delete the reference to Lloyd George and publicity -- the upheaval in the press which he himself had played a part in instigating. Bonar Law brushed the protests aside,(72) and took the resolution after lunch to Downing Street where, by his own recollection, he "communicated its contents" orally to Asquith.(73) To Lord Jenkins, Bonar Law had clearly "neglected his duty -- which was to show Asquith the resolution and let him decide for himself what it meant."(74) Beaverbrook, arguing his case that the resolution was meant to uphold Asquith, ignored the failure to hand over the actual paper and claimed that the prime minister became frightened by the idea of resipation." Lord Blake leans, understandably, toward Beaverbrook, while Asquith's official biographers suggest that Bonar Law was at the very least guilty of misleading the prime minister and moving him toward a destructive series of events.(76)

What happened -- and why? Bonar Law noted three weeks later: "I did not actually hand him the document," and, before putting his memorandum away in his private files, amended the sentence in his own hand to read "I forgot to hand him the document."(78) His partial explanation was this: "The Prime Minister was not only greatly shocked but greatly surprised by our communication, and asked me to treat it as if it had not been made until he had a opportunity of discussing the matter with Lloyd George."(78) Lord Crawford noted in his contemporary diary that Bonar Law offered the Tory ministers precisely the same explanation.(79) Whatever passed between them, Asquith was well aware after the brief interview that the Tory ministers were set on resipation and a restructuring of the government.(80)

Had Bonar Law engaged in sharp practice? His amending of his memorandum to say that he had forgotten to hand the resolution to Asquith may have resulted from confusion, it may have been a clumsy justification of his actions, or it may simply have been a lie to shade his conduct. Perhaps Beaverbrook invented for his history the conversation in which Bonar Law brushed aside his friend's concerns about the mention of the damaging press campaign and, in reality, the Unionist leader suppressed the text of the resolution to save Beaverbrook or Lloyd George from the embarrassment of being accused of trafficking with the newspapers.

Lord Jenkins and certain other critics, and in his own way Beaverbrook, suggest that Bonar Law suppressed the true meaning of the resolution either through incompetence or artifice. A.G. Gardiner, the Liberal journalist, said as late as 1932 that Bonar Law had placed "one of the darkest blots on the page of history" and in effect toppled Asquith.(81) There is little evidence to uphold such grandiloquence: the Tory ministers wanted the situation stabilised, with either Asquith or Lloyd George in the top-most place. "Accordingly," Austen Chamberlain wrote only a few days after these events, "we drew up a statement expressing our concurrence with the views expressed by Bonar Law about a fortnight previously, that reconstruction was inevitable." Chamberlain and his friends, when they found out, thought their leader ought to have left the paper with Asquith, but none of them "then or afterwards charged Bonar Law with bad faith or suspected him of it. We thought he had blundered."(82)

Far from blundering, he very nearly achieved his initial goal: critics miss the point that Bonar Law had always wanted the two Liberals yoked together in a revamped war administration. Asquith, his survival instincts piqued, within two hours struck a deal with Lloyd George to remain as premier while the war secretary chaired a small war council -- a plan that suited Bonar Law thoroughly. Did the failure to hand over the paper distract some observers from the more important question of what Bonar Law said to Asquith? Certainly he stated the conditions for the Unionist resignations; equally certainly he explained, contra Beaverbrook, that the Unionists had not gone over to Lloyd George; doubtless he again plumped for the compromise solution that both he and probably Lloyd George at this point wanted.(83) Bonar Law wrote later -- after Asquith had called him back to No. 10 to witness his reborn (if temporary) cooperation with Lloyd George: "This was a great relief to me, for I had throughout worked with the one object of securing greater efficiency in the conduct of the war whilst retaining Mr. Asquith as prime minister."(84)

Sunday night was inevitably followed by Monday morning. The compromise collapsed as Asquith became angered by withering attacks upon him in the press he thought, quite wrongly, instigated by Lloyd George. By Tuesday, the premier -- his formerly unequalled survival skills damaged by his hatred of his Liberal rival -- insisted on resignation rather than compromise. Badly advised and seeking to avoid the humiliation of being "bounced," he would soon learn the lesson of all those who suffer from the disease of believing themselves irreplaceable. Thus, on Wednesday Lloyd George began his remarkable tenure as Prime Minister.

This is a much studied period, and these are much studied men. Of the crucial actors in the drama, Andrew Bonar Law remains the least known, the least examined. Quiet, loyal, decent, even dull -- a bird of paler plumage and a less great man than Asquith or Lloyd George or Churchill -- he was nonetheless a major player in the December crisis. What he wanted was a small executive body to get on with the war; he wanted it to include Lloyd George's energy and genius, balanced by the image and parliamentary skills of Asquith, the "last of the Romans." He thought Asquith, a man he neither liked nor feared, politically nearly irreplaceable, but Lloyd George he thought capable of winning the war. He almost carried it off, but withdrew when the prime minister proved recalcitrant. From that moment on it was obvious that the Asquith was, to use a phrase beloved of Lloyd George, "a dead chicken."

Perhaps any Canadian-born, Glasgow-bred, Presbyterian Tory -- who preferred ginger ale to brandy, boiled chicken to haute cuisine and the Smoking Room of the House of Commons to the salons of the West End -- remains easy to sell short. The point of this essay is not, of course, that Andrew Bonar Law alone brought about the 1916 Cabinet crisis and its momentous results. On the other hand, it should be understood that neither was he the timid or inert stage property which too many interpreters have insisted he was. He stood in a unique position -- different from Asquith or Lloyd George -- and from that position he took the initiative and made a change in war government not merely possible, but inevitable.

(1) Two biographies exist: the almost forgotten H.A. Taylor, The Strange Case of Andrew Bonar Law (London, n.d. [1932]) and Lord Blake's still highly regarded The Unknown Prime Minister: The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law, 1858-1923 (London, 1955). Bonar Law is certainly the character most admired by his friend Lord Beaverbrook in the press lord's two-volume history of politics in the Great War, Politicians and the War, 1914-1916 and Men and Power, 1917-1918 (1960 edns.).

(2) Of recent works a rare exception is George H. Casser, Asquith as War Leader (London, 1994). See particularly Ch. 12.

(3) Alan Clark, ed., A Good Innings: The Private Papers of Viscount Lee of Fareham (London, 1974), Arthur Lee to his wife, 31 March 1916, p. 147. Austen Chamberlain wrote a decade after Bonar Law's death that he was not "mildly" but "intensely ambitious -- I sometimes think he was the most ambitious man whom I have known in politics." Down the Years (London 1935), pp. 224-25.

(4) Robert Scally, The Origins of the Lloyd George Coalition (Princeton, 1975), p. 340.

(5) Anne Chisholm and Michael Davie, Lord Beaverbrook: A Life (London, 1993), p. 143.

(6) This theme recurs throughout Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War.

(7) John Turner, British Politics and the Great War: Coalition and Conflict, 1915-1918 (New Haven, 1992), p. 131.

(8) Bonar Law, until the eve of his brief ministry in 1922, was technically leader only in the House of Commons, while Lansdowne and later Curzon led in the Lords. In reality, there was no doubt that he was in effect leader of the Unionist party. It should be noted, as well, that for the purposes of this paper, the formal and informal terms Unionist and Tory are used interchangeably, as they were in the period under discussion.

(9) Asquith's son, Raymond, was killed on the Somme. Bonar Law lost two sons in 1917; Lansdowne, Walter Long and other ministers would suffer similar tragedies.

(10) The Committee, organized by Sir Frederick Banbury and Ronald McNeill, embraced almost the entire contingent of back bench Unionists not on active service -- some 150 in all. Turner, British Politics, p. 83-84.

(11) See H. Montgomery Hyde, Carson (London, 1953), p. 407.

(12) Beaverbrook's Politicians and the War, originally published in 1928-32, remains a powerful and convincing story and should not, despite its well-known weaknesses, be discounted.

(13) No one exceeded in hatred for the premier Lt.-Gen. Sir Henry Hughes Wilson, arch-intriguer among the generals. He wrote to L.S. Amery on 22 October 1916: "Oh, if someone would kill Squiff [Asquith]." John Barnes and David Nicolson, eds., The Leo Amery Diaries, Vol. I (London, 1980), p. 125.

(14) For the often overlooked economic significance of the Nigeria Debate, see John Stubbs, "The Impact of the Great War on the Conservative Party," in Gillian Peele and Chris Cook, eds., The Politics of Reappraisal (London, 1975), pp. 28-30; and Turner, British Politics, pp. 115-16.

(15) Bonar Law's "pledge," quoted somewhat inaccurately by Lord Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War, p. 288, occurred in the House in December 1915, not in a party meeting in the previous May. For this error see J.O. Stubbs, "Beaverbrook as Historian: `Politicians and the War, 1914-1916' Reconsidered," Albion, Vol. 14, 3-4, (1982), p. 248, and Peter Fraser, "Lord Beaverbrook's Fabrications in Politicians and the War, 1914-1916," The Historical Journal, 25, 1 (1982) p. 150. However, Bonar Law did make a statement to the party meeting following the formation of the Asquith coalition which certainly implied such a "pledge." The Times, 27 May 1915. Beaverbrook, who was present on both occasions, may have confused the two events.

(16) The vote was 231-117, with 73 Unionists among the majority and 65 against. Eleven Liberals voted against the government, including Churchill who temporarily threw over his free trade principles.

(17) See H.A. Taylor, Robert Donald (London, n.d.), pp. 128-33, for the remarkably candid interview the editor secured with Bonar Law on 29 Dec. 1916.

(18) See Bonar Law's confidential memorandum dictated on 30 Dec. 1916, and edited in his hand, House of Lords Record Office, London, Bonar Law Papers (hereafter BL) 85/A/1. A recollection of the events related to the fall of the Asquith coalition, this was written three weeks after the change in Government at the suggestion of Beaverbrook, who was already collecting documents for the histories he planned someday to write. Whether he saw it in December 1916 or it came into his hands, as Bonar Law's executor, only after his friend's death in 1923, it remained secret for many years after Bonar Law's passing. The press lord used it for his own ends in his Politicians and the War but did not acknowledge its existence. Lord Blake had access to the document but did not exploit it to address the argument made in the current essay.

(19) Asquith's contempt for Bonar Law wounded the Colonial Secretary, but he gave credit where it was due. He thought Asquith second only to Balfour as great Commons figure. "Asquith drunk," he once said, "can make a better speech than any of us sober." John Vincent, ed., The Crawford Papers (Manchester 1984) diary entry of 16 Dec. 1916, p. 259.

(20) The idea was not new. Lord Rosebery recommended a small war executive in a letter to The Times on 30 Oct. 1915. Lloyd George claimed that the idea was called to his attention by Sir Maurice Hankey in mid-November 1916, but Lloyd George had discussed it with others days earlier. John Grigg, Lloyd George: Peace to War, 1912-1916 (London, 1985), pp. 444-45.

(21) BL 85/A/1.

(22) Ibid., emphasis added.

(23) Ibid.

(24) In his interview with Robert Donald of 29 Dec. 1916, Bonar Law indicated somewhat more strongly that "Carson agreed." H.A. Taylor, Donald, p. 129.

(25) This in an interview with the American journalist Roy Howard, see Bentley Brinkerhoff Gilbert, David Lloyd George: Organizer of Victory (London, 1987), p. 369.

(26) Public Record Office, London, Cabinet Papers, CAB 37/159/32. This is printed in Asquith's Memories and Rejections, 1852-1927 (London, 1928), Vol. II, p. 165-75. The seventy-one year-old Lansdowne had for seven years been Bonar Law's colleague as leader of the Unionists in the House of Lords. Obviously, with the circulation of the cabinet paper, there would be no place for him in a Lloyd George Government -- nor did he seek one. His disenchantment with the continuation of the war led him in November 1917 to publish in the press an expanded argument for a negotiated peace. It was essentially the ruin of his reputation.

(27) A.J.P. Taylor, ed., Lloyd George: A Diary by Frances Stevenson (London, 1971), entry of 13 Nov. 1916, p. 122.

(28) Disappointed in his hope for a cabinet post, Aitken got a peerage instead. To avoid confusion here, especially with the discussion of his Politicians and the War in the text and the footnotes of this essay, he is referred to hereafter by his better known title.

(29) Grigg, Lloyd George, pp. 446-47.

(30) On the evening of the debate, Bonar Law learned afterward, Lloyd George had dined with Carson and then absented himself from the House during the melee.

(31) A.J.P. Taylor, ed., Stevenson Diary, entry of 18 November 1916, p. 124. The remarkable Miss Stevenson was Lloyd George's mistress and his secretary, and as an avid diarist, a virtual Boswell to him. Her diary is a necessity to those interested in this period, but, despite the useful insights to be found therein, there is no doubt that Lloyd George was the hero of the piece. Many of her analyses of the actions of others reflect this perspective.

(32) Bonar Law wrote to Lloyd George on 17 November: "If however you feel too tired after your journey I should be glad to come to you later -- probably about 10.30." House of Lords Record Office, London, Lloyd George Papers (hereafter LG) E/2/17/2. A.J.P. Taylor concluded that the failure of the dinner meeting forced Aitken's hand and caused him to tell Bonar Law on 18 November of Lloyd George's interest in a small war council. Beaverbrook (London, 1972), p. 111. Yet Aitken said at the time that he had relayed this information four days earlier -- in this case Beaverbrook told the truth. Grigg, Lloyd George, p. 446.

(33) The dramatic appellation for the three is always identified with the narrative of Lord Beaverbrook. The former Unionist Chief Whip and newly installed Agriculture Minister, Earl Crawford, employed it similarly in his diary at this time. Perhaps it became common currency among Westminster insiders -- certainly Crawford was not an intimate of Aitken. See Vincent, ed., Crawford Papers, memorandum, 2 Dec. 1916, p. 369.

(34) H.A. Taylor, Donald, p. 129, emphasis added. Beaverbrook wrote in 1932 that he had induced Sit Reginald Brade, Permanent Undersecretary at the War Office, to bring Bonar Law to the small war council idea. Politicians and the War, p. 326. Peter Fraser, "Lord Beaverbrook's Fabrications," p. 152, has demonstrated that this meeting probably never took place -- in any event Bonar Law did not need Brade's coaxing.

(35) "H.A. Taylor, Donald, pp. 129-30, emphasis added. Bonar Law wrote in his memorandum of 30 Dec. 1916, that he told Asquith that he intended to discuss the matter with Lloyd George and Carson. BL 85/A/1.

(36) BL 85/A/1.

(37) Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War, p. 340.

(38) See A.J.P. Taylor, Beaverbrook, p. 111, and Grigg, Lloyd George, p. 447.

(39) See Gilbert, Lloyd George, p. 389. Bonar Law saw Robert Donald after the Cabinet, and the editor recorded in his diary that his friend was despondent and felt "less confident" after what he sensed to be elements of sheer defeatism among certain of his colleagues. H.A. Taylor, Donald, p. 110.

(40) 25 November 1916, Bodleian Library, Oxford University, Asquith Papers (hereafter HHA) 31/1. An undated but accurate draft of this paper may be found in BL 63/A/3.

(41) Fraser, "Beaverbrook's Fabrications," p. 157, makes short work of the press lord's claims. Lord Blake understandably embraced Beaverbrook's version, almost certainly from personal testimony. Unknown Prime Minister, p. 305.

(42) See Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War, p. 309 and Gilbert, Lloyd George, p. 377.

(43) BL 85/A/1.

(44) Asquith to Bonar Law, 26 Nov. 1916, BL 53/4/24. In his 30 December memorandum, Bonar Law recalled "he sent me" the letter. Grigg, Lloyd George, p. 448, points out correctly that it was shown him by Asquith before it was officially delivered. Bonar Law may have "sanitised" his account to avoid mention of the critical comments included in the first draft referent to Carson and Lloyd George. Asquith was willing, at Bonar Law's prompting, to change only those about Carson.

(45) Roy Jenkins, Asquith (London, 1964), p. 425.

(46) Turner, British Politics, p. 131.

(47) BL 85/A/1.

(48) A.J.P. Taylor, Stevenson Diary, entry of 27 Nov. 1916, p. 129.

(49) Asquith and Lloyd George clashed the next day over Lloyd George's desire to expel Balfour from the Admiralty, a humiliation to which Bonar Law was more opposed than Balfour himself.

(50) This is printed in Oxford and Asquith, Memories and Reflections, Vol. II, pp. 175-78.

(51) "This is occasionally noted incorrectly as Monday -- probably because of the error in J.A. Spender and Cyril Asquith, The Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, Lord Oxford and Asquith (London, 1932), Vol. II, p. 251. Balfour is usually noted as absent, though apparently he fell ill only that evening after attending the afternoon meeting. Ruddock Mackay, Balfour: Intellectual Statesman (Oxford, 1985), p. 304. Lad Crawford, however, was absent and, in a rare slip in his revealing diary, mistakenly recorded the meeting as occurring on Wednesday, 29 November. Vincent, ed., Crawford Papers, memorandum, 2 Dec. 1916, p. 369.

(52) It was becoming known that Carson was a candidate for such a council, or so Lansdowne indicated to Crawford after the shadow cabinet. Vincent, ed., Crawford Papers, memorandum, 2 Dec. 1916,p.369.

(53) Chamberlain to Lord Chelmsford, University of Birmingham Library, Austen Chamberlain Papers (hereafter AC) 15/3/8. See Lansdowne to Bonar Law, 1 December 1916, printed in Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War, p. 371.

(54) See Long to Bonar Law, 2 Dec. 1916, printed in Beaverbrook, Politicians and the War, p. 368, though erroneously dated "2.10.16." Regarding the error in dating, see Austen Chamberlain, Down the Years (London, 1935), p. 120.

(55) BL 85/A/1.

(56) Ibid.

(57) Bonar Law told Robert Donald on 1 December that he wished to implement a compromise that left the prime minister's authority unaltered. This should not be misread: he was more concerned about the office and that respect should be shown it than he was about Asquith's war-executive skills, though he had not yet abandoned his notion that the incumbent premier was a useful figurehead. This is clear in Donald's confidential memorandum of the occasion. H.A. Taylor, Donald, pp. 114-15.

(58) Asquith to Lloyd George, 1 Dec. 1916 (copy) BL 53/4/27.

(59) Lloyd George to Bonar Law, 2 Dec. 1916, BL 117/1/30.

(60) Carson to Bonar Law, 4 Dec. 1916, quoted in Hyde, Carson, p. 410. The original sent to Bonar Law has not survived. For his indication that he wished to see Carson, see Bonar Law to Lloyd George, 2 Dec. 1916, LG E/2/17/20.

(61) Attending were Lords Crawford and Curzon, Lord Robert Cecil and Chamberlain, Long, F.E. Smith and H.E. Duke. Lord Lansdowne was in the country and Balfour remained on his sickbed.

(62) Reynolds's News, 3 Dec. 1916. This weekly was owned by Sir Henry Dalziel, Liberal M.P. for Kirkaldy Burghs and a staunch Lloyd George supporter.

(63) Bonar Law saw Hankey on Saturday and indicated that, after the meeting with the Unionist ministers, he would probably have to "send a letter" (i.e. of resignation) in part to demonstrate that he was not being dragged along behind Lloyd George. Roskill, Hankey, Vol. I, pp. 332-33. The "perfect secretary" was no admirer at this time of either Bonar Law or Carson, thinking them both "featherheads" -- an opinion he recorded in his diary on 3 December but omitted from his own memoir of the War. Ibid., p. 325. He ultimately modified his judgment of Bonar Law, though not of Carson.

(64) Vincent, ed., Crawford Papers, diary entry of 3 Dec. 1916, p. 370.

(65) Chamberlain to Chelmsford, 8 Dec. 1916, AC 15/3/8.

(66) BL 85/A/1.

(67) This is an addendum in Bonar Law's hand to the typescript of the 30 Dec. 1916 memorandum, BL 85/A/1. Lord Blake notes that this bears out Beaverbrook's version of the story "up to a point." Unknown Prime Minister, p. 316. Vincent, ed., Crawford Papers, p. 370. n. 15, indicates in an editorial comment that what Bonar Law "was not trying to achieve, and what he can hardly have expected was collective action by the general body of Unionist ministers." Neither of these contentions seem to be borne out by Bonar Law's recollection.

(68) Bonar Law retained a copy of the resolution. BL 64/H.

(69) See, for example, John D. Fair, British Interparty Conferences: A Study of the Procedure of Conciliation in British Politics, 1867-1921 (Oxford, 1980), p. 145; and both of Beaverbrook's most recent biographers A.J.P. Taylor, Beaverbrook, pp. 116-17, and Chisholm and Davies, Beaverbrook, p. 147.

(70) See Chamberlain, Down the Years, p. 118, and, more specifically, Cecil to Chamberlain, 30 May 1932, Chamberlain Papers, AC 39/5/39.

(71) "Asquith, p. 435.

(72) Beaverbrook wrote that Bonar Law summoned F.E. Smith, another high powered lawyer, back to Edwardes Square after the Unionist chieftains had left, in order to get his opinion on the paragraph in question. Apparently he also dismissed all protest, and the note went forward as drafted. Politicians and the War, pp. 318-19. No mention of this appears in either of the two major biographies of Smith by Lord Birkenhead (1959) or John Campbell (1983).

(73) BL 85/A/1.

(74) "Asquith, p. 440.

(75) "Politicians and the War, p. 426.

(76) Blake, Unknown Prime Minister, pp. 318-19; Spender and Asquith, Asquith, Vol. II, pp. 258-59.

(77) BL 85/A/1.

(78) "Ibid., emphasis added.

(79) Vincent, ed., Crawford Papers, diary entry of 3 Dec. 1916, p. 371. Bonar Law offered the same explanation to Robert Donald in his interview of 29 Dec. 1916. H.A. Taylor, Donald, p. 131.

(80) "Lord Robert Cecil gave Asquith a copy of the resolution on 5 December. The prime minister expressed no surprise, and it changed nothing.

(81) "See H.A. Taylor, Donald, pp. 143-45.

(82) Chamberlain to Chelmsford, 8 Dec. 1916, AC 15/3/8

(83) There seems to be no doubt that Asquith was told the main burden of the Unionist message contained in the resolution. See the memorandum "The Break-up of the First Coalition," by Lord Crewe, the Prime Minister's closest friend in the Cabinet, printed in Asquith's memoirs, Memories and Reflections, Vol. II, pp. 156-57. See also Casser, Asquith as War Leader, p. 218, who notes: "from what Asquith himself admitted to his intimates, it is clear that in due course Bonar Law explained the significance of the resolution ..."

(84) BL 85/A/1.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A19849697