Andrew Bonar Law: In search of true story behind the ‘Unknown Prime Minister’

GRAEME COUSINS gets the lowdown on tonight’s BBC NI documentary about the shortest serving prime minister with Ulster-Scots roots

Leon McCarron investigates his family connection to the Conservative statesman Andrew Bonar Law, the shortest-serving PM of the 20th century
Leon McCarron investigates his family connection to the Conservative statesman Andrew Bonar Law, the shortest-serving PM of the 20th century

A new BBC documentary which airs this evening sees Castlerock writer and adventurer Leon McCarron go in search of a story that’s very close to home.

The 34-year-old is a distant relative of the shortest serving 20th century British prime minister, but like most of the rest of the world, he knew precious little about the politician famed for his inflammatory speeches against Home Rule.

Law’s family were Ulster-Scots who had lived in North Antrim for hundreds of years, but he was born in New Brunswick (now Canada) where his father was a church minister for a couple of decades before he returned to Portrush in later life.

Andrew Bonar Law was born in the now Canadian Province of New Brunswick to Ulster-Scots parents

Leon investigates how these strong family ties to Ulster contributed to Law’s uncharacteristically passionate defence of the Union during the tumultuous early decades of the 20th century.

He also discovers the personal heartache that marred Law’s life, from the early deaths of his mother and his wife to the tragic loss of two of his sons in the First World War.

Producer of the documentary Graham Little said: “There has been a couple of biographies, but his reputation kind of preceded him in terms of he was renown as this hard-line unionist. That was one of the main things that people remember about him, that he fought Home Rule and made these inflammatory speeches. That was our starting point, kind of all we knew about him.

“I was aware of family connections through previous work with Leon.

“I felt this was the right time to explore that with the 100th anniversary coming up.

“Family record was the same as public record – that he was quite bland, famous for making inflammatory speeches which helped to create division potentially in Northern Ireland.

“When we started talking and digging and exploring we realised he was a lot more interesting than the historical records convey.

“Leon and I talked about it a lot. He thought there wasn’t much more to say. I said, ‘if you don’t know that much about him and you’re related to him surely that’s a starting point – why is your family not talking more about him, why is he not more celebrated given that he became prime minister and held the Tory party together?’”

“We decided it was worth a go. The Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund were keen to support it and BBC NI were very keen to support it.”

Of Law’s rise to PM, Graham said: “His list of achievements were extraordinary given the starting point he had in life. Born in a remote farm in New Brunswick where it’s minus 30 in the winter and there’s no light for two months, how could you be born there and end up in Number 10 Downing Street?

“He was a very private man, he didn’t keep any diaries, he wasn’t overly concerned about legacy. He was a very straight person, he said it like it was. It was highly unusual at that time and is probably highly unusual now. He was the complete antithesis of a modern politician.

“The obvious connection to make was with Boris who is the only other prime minister of the last 200 years who was born outside the UK. They were both Conservative prime ministers but with completely different personalities.”

A state funeral was held for Law against his wishes and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

His ‘Unknown Prime Minister’ tag comes from a remark made by Lord Asquith at his funeral, when he commented that it was fitting that they were burying the Unknown Prime Minister next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Graham said he and Leon were fascinated by how someone who wasn’t born in Ulster or living there at the time could give such impassioned speeches defending Ulster and rejecting Home Rule.

He said: “His father and dozens of generations before were North Antrim people, but his father moved to (what is now) Canada to run a ministry out there. Bonar Law was born in New Brunswick and then moved to Scotland. He did visit Northern Ireland a lot because his father moved back after the ministry.

“We wanted to look at where that really strong impassioned defence of Ulster came from, how could it be in someone who wasn’t actually born here or living there at the time?

“How did he become this figurehead and why? That was quite interesting for us to unpick that.

“People sometimes forget that in politics there are conviction politicians, but he definitely was, he really passionately believed that Ulster needed to be part of the union and it deserved to be.”

Graham describes the man who gave firey speeches in defence of Ulster and opposing Home Rule as “quite boring”.

“We know that people didn’t want to go for dinner with him – he didn’t drink, he didn’t eat anything apart from boiled chicken and boiled vegetables,” said the documentary’s producer.

“He really wasn’t the most flamboyant character, so how could he command such great attention when he spoke to 100,000 people in Blenheim Palace, more than 100,000 at Balmoral. How did he become this figurehead given that he was so bland?”

Graham said: “Tragically he was only prime minister for six months, he had throat cancer and had to resign. He was dead shortly after that.

“It was 1922 when he was prime minister, the very beginnings of Northern Ireland.

“It’s one of the questions that we ask at the end of the film – what would Northern Ireland have looked like if he’d been there as a prime minister in London with a genuine interest in Northern Ireland? Would have it had a better start? It’s an interesting debate, but of course we’ll never know.”

Graham, best known as a sports presenter, said of his work as a producer: “I’d consider myself a producer and a journalist as well as a presenter. I’m happy to bow down to someone better like Leon for a story like this which he has a better link to.

“I really enjoy being involved in a single story for a long time. When you’re presenting sports it can be quite fleeting, you cram all the knowledge two days before, it’s over in two hours and you’re on to the next thing.”

He commented: “Leon came up with this beautiful line for the documentary, ‘If it’s true that a lot of his great achievements have been forgotten then that’s probably the way he would have liked it’.

“He probably would have a smile at the ‘Unknown Prime Minister’ line. He wasn’t in it for the legacy or for self advancement.

“He’s a controversial character in some respects, but there are things about the man to be admired that you won’t know unless you watch the film.”

Of tonight’s documentary Leon said: “This film gave me a chance to investigate my own family history in a way that I’d always wanted to, but it was also to look more deeply at the complex history of my own country from a new perspective.

“I hope that viewers will enjoy exploring the life of Bonar Law as much as I did and that, also like me, they’ll learn a lot about Northern Ireland along the way.”

‘The Unknown Prime Minister and Me’ is on BBC One NI tonight at 10.45pm.

Beginning with Andrew Bonar Law’s final resting place in Westminster Abbey after a state funeral held against his wishes, the film reveals the complexities of Law’s character and how he became an unlikely key ally of the Ulster Unionists at Westminster, as well as a visionary and hard-working statesman regarded by some as the ‘father of the modern Conservative Party’.

The documentary reveals how Bonar Law’s more inflammatory speeches during the Home Rule crisis caused unease within his family, and Leon goes in search of a piece of family memorabilia connected with this story.

Contributors to the documentary include historians in Northern Ireland, England and Dublin, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and members of the Law family. It was shot in London, Belfast and Co Antrim and features archive from his short-lived tenure as prime minister in the 1920s.

The documentary was produced by NPE Media, with assistance from the NI Screen Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund.

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Alistair Bushe