FEW Scots have become prime minister, and even fewer – a pitiful few, it can be said – have made a success of becoming prime minister. The last in the line of failures, Gordon Brown, followed a long tradition going back to John Stewart, Earl of Bute in 1762-3, the favourite of King George III who was driven from office in a matter of months because the English just could not stand him.

Here, I am going to look at the career of arguably the best Scottish prime minister, though after more than a century since his term of office, he too has sunk into obscurity. He was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908), MP for Stirling District of Burghs and holder of a range of offices in Liberal governments till he rose to be the head of one in 1906.

But by then he was an old man and had barely enough time in his remaining couple of years to embark on the political programme he had advocated his whole life. It was, all the same, significant.

First a word about that double-barrelled monniker – surely no man of the people would ever put up with it. Indeed he would have preferred to carry on with his father’s plain name of Campbell but a relation left the son a large legacy, enough to finance a political career for life, on condition he adopted the double-barrel. He never liked his “horrid long name”, preferring “Campbell tout court” or “as an alternative, CB.”

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In Glasgow’s golden age these particular Campbells, wholesale dealers in textiles, were among the foremost commercial families. The father, James, became leader of the city’s Conservatives, was knighted in 1841 and served as lord provost 1840-3. Twice he failed to get into Parliament. His elder son, Sir James, was Tory MP for the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh (1880–1906). CB, the second son, chose the Liberal Party to represent in leafy Stirling. CB entered Parliament in 1868 as an earnest, impatient radical, but Scots MPs did not in those days expect quick promotion. Only in 1886 did he get into the Cabinet.

Once Gladstone retired the Liberals were in a hapless state, with the parliamentary party riven by jealousy and discontent, under Lord Rosebery as prime minister.

CB gave him quiet loyalty until he resigned. After a messy interlude, CB succeeded as Liberal leader.

His prospects looked dim. In 1895 the Conservatives came back in under Lord Salisbury who, in 1899, embarked on the UK’s second Boer War with the South African Republics. It looked as if he was going to win it. But then the Boers successfully adopted guerrilla tactics. The British army responded by burning Boer farms and interning Boer families. It gave rise to the first use in international politics of a new term: “concentration camp”.

That drove CB from critical support for the war to a stance not far short of opposition, at least to the military operations. In June 1901, he made a speech in London passionately condemning the tactics in use as “methods of barbarism”. Public opinion moved his way, propelled also by the Tories’ splitting over economic policy and dropping the commitment to free trade they had held (with the Liberals) since 1846. In the General Election of 1906, CB and the Liberals swept to a landslide victory. And the most obvious reasons for it were the policies closest to CB’s heart – an open trading system to keep food for the workers cheap, and the aim of peace in overseas relations to make sure the UK wasted neither money nor moral authority in fighting foreigners. This had been the programme of political radicals right through the 19th century but only came to fruition now.

But only a truly gifted leader could have forged out of powerless, disaffected fragments a viable anti-Unionist coalition that embraced a motley collection of Whigs, Gladstonian Liberals, progressives, LibLab trade unionists, and former Unionist free-traders. Ever the political realist, CB did not allow euphoria to betray his hard-won success. Unity, he acknowledged, was more apparent than real. The party he led remained, at best, a fragile coalition.

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At the polls in January 1906, the Liberals swept to a landslide victory. When CB met the Commons, his assured and effective performances from the dispatch box – notably his verbal lashing of AJ Balfour’s dialectical meanderings as “foolery” – roused Liberals to a frenzy of enthusiasm.

Deservedly, he basked in their respect and affection. It was a fitting culmination to a remarkable parliamentary journey – from respectable obscurity to leadership; from obloquy to popularity, praise and affectionate admiration.

Many had hoped, though some dreaded, that the Liberals would introduce a vigorous programme of economic and social reforms. As opposition leader CB had often been urged to sponsor a disparate range of progressive measures. His election address included the promise to modernise the poor law, alleviate unemployment and improve conditions in the sweated industries.

He was deeply and genuinely concerned about the plight of the poor and adopted the rhetoric of progressivism but he was not a progressive. CB was old and set in his ways, and he remained what he had for so long been – a Gladstonian Liberal.

In office, like Gladstone, he proved a better constitutional than social reformer. His attachment to orthodox Gladstonian economics prompted his desire to reduce public expenditure. This appeared to be at odds with the financial implications of any ambitious reform scheme. What mattered most to CB, however, was the knowledge that social reform divided Liberals, whereas party unity was his major concern.

Was the progressive anti-Unionist alliance that CB had helped to forge no more than a convenient electoral device? Labour and Liberal politicians traditionally adopted different views on how to improve working-class conditions.

Judgments differed whether it was possible, even desirable, to create a single, progressive party sheltering Labour and Liberal views and uniting the radical vote. A party that sounded and acted so differently when evangelising as socialist and debating as Labour prompted ambivalence in the most sympathetic Liberal mind.

CB never took Labour’s taunts and propaganda seriously. He did not believe socialism was about to replace Liberalism.

He had been closely associated with the 1903 electoral pact between the Liberal chief whip Herbert Gladstone and Ramsay MacDonald, on behalf of the Labour Representation Committee, which, while it ensured that Labour candidates would be unopposed by Liberals, had been designed to serve Liberal as much as Labour interests. For personal as much as political reasons he had appointed John Burns as a minister.

That CB’s sympathy for Labour aspirations was genuine is illustrated by his conduct over the Trade Disputes Bill (1906). Against his instincts, he had deferred to a majority Cabinet decision that legislation should restore limited rights only to trade unions.

To the amazement of colleagues, on the floor of the Commons he spoke, then voted, for a Labour-sponsored bill. He succeeded in embodying the total immunity of the Labour bill into the government’s legislation. Although CB personally liked and got on well with most Labour leaders, his sympathy for their proposals never implied commitment.

CB’s administration secured a number of important social reforms. What it achieved was consistent with traditional Liberal values and because it did not challenge Unionist interests it was not destroyed in the Lords. There was legislation concerning factories, workshops, and mines and workmen’s compensation.

The Budget of 1907 trailed provision for the funding necessary for old-age pensions. Given CB’s views on economics, it was no accident that part of the financial strategy to secure funding for pensions was economy in spending on the armed forces.