Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 1836-1908

There have been four Liberals at the head of clearly Liberal governments – Gladstone, Rosebery, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. Three of them are well-known names. Yet of the four, ‘CB’ was far and away the best party leader. Only Grimond, in very different circumstances, can compare with him. Had Campbell-Bannerman not become leader in the post-Gladstonian shambles of the 1890s, it is likely the Liberal Party would not have lasted intact into the Edwardian era, let alone achieved its greatest electoral victory in 1906.

During his life Campbell-Bannerman was thought rather humdrum and unambitious, a solid Liberal and ultimately reliable but a bit lazy and not in the first rank. Now he is largely forgotten.

Henry Campbell was born in 1836 at Kelvinside, near Glasgow, although he spoke with a Perthshire accent. The Bannerman part came in 1871, a condition of a legacy from an uncle; from then on most people called him ‘CB’. The ‘Sir’ came from the GCB, awarded in 1895. Son of a self-made Presbyterian Tory businessman who served as Provost of Glasgow, Campbell-Bannerman had the benefit of comfortable means, but was never very rich. While still quite young he read, talked and thought enough to decide he was an advanced radical Liberal of the mid-nineteenth century kind, and from those views he never strayed.

Formal education at Glasgow High School, Glasgow University and Trinity College, Cambridge (a third in classics) was interrupted at fourteen by a remarkable ten-month trip round Europe with his older cousin, which shaped much of his tolerant and Liberal outlook. He spoke fluent French, stylish German and passable Italian. In modern terms, he was a Europhile, with a particular fondness for France. Every summer the Campbell-Bannermans spent at least six weeks in Europe, much of the time at Marienbad, and he seems to have flitted back and forth to France in a very end-of-the-twentieth-century sort of way.

At thirty-two, Campbell-Bannerman stood in a by-election in Stirling Burghs against a more Whiggish Liberal and lost by a whisker. At the general election later the same year, 1868, on the larger reformed register, he was elected. The Stirling Burghs – Stirling, Dunfermline and the area around the present-day Forth bridges – went on to return him at every election up to 1906.

He married Charlotte Bruce in 1860. She was a rather shy and homely lass, in later life in poor health and overweight, who shared Campbell-Bannerman’s tastes and views during a lifetime of mutual devotion. There were no children. They shared everything, including major political decisions; indeed, Charlotte had more ambition for Henry than he had, and her views often seem to have counted when it mattered.

An early parliamentary campaign was for universal elementary education, and for the rest of his career he came to epitomise the description radical common sense. Herbert Samuel said he was ‘common sense enthroned’. By the 1890s he was in the centre left of the party without having much changed his views. He never had much truck with the more ostentatious radicals such as Labouchere or Dilke.

Most of his career was spent in the middle management of the government and party in parliament. In 1871 he became Financial Secretary at the War Office under the great army reformer Cardwell, serving until 1874. He took the same office from 1880-82, and in 1884 became Chief Secretary for Ireland for seven months. He joined the Cabinet as Secretary of State for War in 1886, and again from 1892, under first Gladstone, and then Rosebery, until 1895 when the fractious Liberals lost office, ironically on the so-called cordite motion to cut the salary of Campbell-Bannerman himself. A quiet record of army reform is one of his enduring achievements.

His brief spell as Irish Secretary was a turning point in gaining Campbell-Bannerman respect and stature amongst MPs. His self-confident and unflappable ability to get on with almost everyone, with a ready Scots wit based much on self-irony and understatement, helped him survive that political graveyard – his own assessment was of the need for a light heart and a thick skin. He never took himself as seriously as he took the things he believed in. He was one of the Queen’s favourite Liberals, and got on well with everyone from generals and civil servants to the workers in Dunfermline; and he never lost contact with his real political allies in the parliamentary party. He was at home in the Commons but rarely shined there. He seemed able to get by on a combination of affability and shrewd common sense when others had to work much harder and deploy greater intellectual resources. As a result, he was often underestimated.

The Campbell-Bannermans divided their time between central London, the continent, and a house at Meigle in Perthshire. Gladstone went back to Hawarden and chopped down trees; CB pottered round his estate talking to his. He also talked to the grey African parrot he kept for some forty years, and to his thirty French bulldogs – not to mention his walking sticks! Spender reports that CB never disguised his opinion that London society was bad for Radical politics.

In 1895 Campbell-Bannerman thought of applying for the vacant post of Speaker, but the party would not let him. He was one of the few Liberal leaders who was not hopelessly committed to one faction or another, and his party needed him. Then in 1899, after an unsatisfactory cohabitation with Rosebery as leader in the Lords and Harcourt in the Commons, he took on the task of leader in the Commons, and thereafter effectively and increasingly, leader of the party and Prime Minister-elect. This was not a job he wanted. But again he was sorely needed to hold things together; and again his inherent loyalty to the party pushed him into it.

The party was deeply divided, particularly over the Boer War. Campbell-Bannerman maintained a stance of never being against the armed forces or their welfare and supplies (with his ministerial career, how could he?); but he criticised the government for starting the war, and later spoke out strongly against the methods of barbarism the British used in the ethnic cleansing of the Transvaal countryside, the burning of the farmsteads and the appalling conditions in the concentration camps. And so in time he was able to create an administration which included Liberal Imperialists such as Grey and Asquith, even Haldane, and pro-Boers such as Morley and Lloyd George – though in the mean time he had to contend with continuing plots from the Lib-Imp right, at first (ludicrously) involving Rosebery and subsequently aimed at shunting him into the Lords so that Asquith could take over in the Commons and effectively lead the party.

But in 1903 the break in the clouds arrived with Joseph Chamberlain’s conversion to protection, an issue which united Liberals and split Unionists as effectively as Chamberlain had split the Liberal Party in the 1880s over home rule. By the end of 1905 Prime Minister Balfour could no longer hold together even his large notional majority and Campbell-Bannerman formed a minority Liberal government. Even at this late stage the Liberal Leaguers (Lib Imps) were still plotting and it took Charlotte, by now terminally ill, to stiffen his resolve to stay in the Commons.

He was determined to achieve a balanced Cabinet, involving all except the most fringe elements of the party. His management of the Cabinet and the government was by all accounts relaxed but efficient, and brilliant. But personally it all came too late for him to go down as a great Prime Minister. Charlotte died within the year, and Campbell-Bannerman, heartbroken, had less than two years left before dying in Number 10 Downing Street on 22 April 1908, a few days after handing over to Asquith. He and Charlotte are buried together at Meigle.

The dissolution early in 1906 brought the Liberals greatest-ever poll triumph, but much of the Liberal campaign was a crusade against Balfour and the Tories. It took time for the Liberals to construct a programme, and they had the Lords (at their most partisan) to contend with. So the government started slowly and built up over the years into probably the greatest Liberal government of all time. What Campbell-Bannerman bequeathed to Asquith was a party which had held together against all the odds, a huge Commons majority, and truly a government of all the talents, on the brink of major Liberal reforms and radical battles, and based on an anti-Tory alliance spanning the Liberal Party, the emergent Labour Party and most of the Irish nationalists.

Campbell-Bannerman was the best and most successful party leader that Liberals have ever had: a man who held his party together and held it to Liberalism, and who briefly went on to reap the rewards. How many times since has the party needed the twinkling wisdom, calm toughness and firm Liberal faith of a CB! And how many leaders have, instead, been led astray by personal vanity and ambition?

Some of Campbell-Bannerman’s later speeches can be found in volumes of The Liberal Magazine (1892 to his death); there is at least one collected volume (1899-1908) selected and reprinted from The Times. Early Letters of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman to his sister Louisa, 1850-51 chosen and edited by Lord Pentland (T. Fisher Unwin, 1925), is a delightful record of his life-shaping trip to Europe as a fourteen year old. There are only two full-length biographies, from different eras: J. A. Spender’s Life of the Rt Hon Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, GCB (2 vols, Hodder & Stoughton, 1923), a rather old-fashioned work which benefits from the author having known CB. John Wilson’s CB – A Life of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Constable, & St Martin’s Press, 1973) is a more solid and definitive modern work which benefits from access to papers of many contemporary politicians, not least Campbell-Bannerman himself, whose papers are in the British Museum. More recently Roy Hattersley has penned a short biography as part of Haus’ series The 20 Prime Ministers of the Twentieth Century. Most recent is Alexander Waugh’s Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman: A Scottish Life and UK Politics 1836-1908 (Austin Macaulay, 2019).


Tony Greaves was one of the leading Young Liberals responsible for the party’s adoption of community politics and later sat as a member of the Liberal negotiating team in merger negotiations with the SDP. He is now a Liberal Democrat peer.