for the highest place could be associated with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman; but the divisions among the Liberals, and the rivalry between Lord Rosebery and Sir William Harcourt, made the political situation an anomalous one. The very fact that he was apparently unambitious of personal supremacy combined with his honourable record and experience to make him a safe man; and in December 1898, on Sir W. Harcourt’s formal resignation of the leadership of the Opposition, he was elected to fill the position in the House of Commons with the general assent of the party. In view of its parliamentary impotence, and its legacy of an unpopular Home Rule programme, Sir Henry had a difficult task to perform, but he prudently interpreted his duty as chiefly consisting in the effort to keep the Radical party together in the midst of its pronounced differences. In this he was successful, although the advent of the Boer War of 1899–1902 created new difficulties with the Liberal Imperialists. The leader of the Opposition from the first denounced the diplomatic steps taken by Lord Milner and Mr Chamberlain, and objected to all armed intervention or even preparation for hostilities. Sir Henry’s own tendency to favour the anti-war section, his refusal to support the government in any way, and his allusion to “methods of barbarism” in connexion with the conduct of the British army (June 14, 1901), accentuated the crisis within the party; and in 1901 the Liberal Imperialists, who looked to Lord Rosebery (q.v.) and Mr Asquith (q.v.) for their political inspiration, showed pronounced signs of restiveness. But a party meeting was called on the 9th of July, and Sir Henry was unanimously confirmed in the leadership.
The end of the war in 1902 showed the value of his persistency throughout the years of Liberal unpopularity and disunion. The political conflict once more resumed its normal condition, for the first time since 1892. The blunders of the government were open to a united attack, and Mr Chamberlain’s tariff-reform movement in 1903 provided a new rallying point in defence of the existing fiscal system. In the Liberal campaign on behalf of free trade the real leader, however, was Mr Asquith. Sir Henry’s own principal contribution to the discussion was rather unfortunate, for while insisting on the blessings derived by England from its free-trade policy, he coupled this with the rhetorical admission (at Bolton in 1903) that “12,000,000 British citizens were underfed and on the verge of hunger.” But Lord Salisbury’s retirement, Unionist divisions, the staleness of the ministry, and the accumulating opposition in the country to the Education Act of 1902 and to the continued weight of taxation, together with the growth of the Labour movement, and the antagonism to the introduction of Chinese coolies (1904) into South Africa under conditions represented by Radical spokesmen as those of “slavery,” made the political pendulum swing back. A Liberal majority at the dissolution was promised by all the signs at by-elections. The government held on, but collapse was only a question of time (see the articles on Balfour, A. J., and Chamberlain, J.). On the 4th of December 1905 the Unionist government resigned, and the king sent for Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who in a few days formed his cabinet. Lord Rosebery, who until a short time before had seemed likely to co-operate, alone held aloof. In a speech at Stirling on the 23rd of November, Sir Henry appeared to him to have deliberately flouted his well-known susceptibilities by once more writing Home Rule in large letters on the party programme, and he declared at Bodmin that he would “never serve under that banner.” Sir Henry’s actual words, which undoubtedly influenced the Irish vote, were that he “desired to see the effective management of Irish affairs in the hands of a representative Irish assembly. If an instalment of representative control was offered to Ireland, or any administrative improvement, he would advise the Nationalists to accept it, provided it was consistent and led up to their larger policy.” But if Lord Rosebery once more separated himself from the official Liberals, his principal henchmen in the Liberal League were included in the cabinet, Mr Asquith becoming chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Edward Grey foreign secretary, and Mr Haldane war minister. Other sections of the party were strongly represented by Mr John Morley as secretary for India, Mr Bryce (afterwards ambassador at Washington) as chief secretary for Ireland, Sir R. T. Reid (Lord Loreburn) as lord chancellor, Mr Augustine Birrell as education minister (afterwards Irish secretary), Mr Lloyd-George as president of the Board of Trade, Mr Herbert Gladstone as home secretary, and Mr John Burns—a notable rise for a Labour leader—as president of the Local Government Board. Lord Ripon became leader in the House of Lords; and Lord Elgin (colonial secretary), Lord Carrington (agriculture), Lord Aberdeen (lord lieutenant of Ireland), Sir Henry Fowler (chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster), Mr Sidney Buxton (postmaster-general), Mr L. V. Harcourt (first commissioner of works), and Captain John Sinclair (secretary for Scotland) completed the ministry, a place of prominence outside the cabinet being found for Mr Winston Churchill as under-secretary for the colonies. In 1907 Mr R. McKenna was brought into the cabinet as education minister. There had been some question as to whether Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman should go to the House of Lords, but there was a decided unwillingness in the party, and he determined to keep his seat in the Commons.
At the general election in January 1906 an overwhelming Liberal majority was returned, irrespective of the Labour and Nationalist vote, and Sir Henry himself was again elected for Stirling. The Liberals numbered 379, the Labour members 51, the Nationalists 83, and the Unionists only 157. His premiership was the reward of undoubted services rendered to his party; it may be said, however, that, in contradistinction to the prime ministers for some time previous, he represented the party, rather than that the party represented him. It was not his ideas or his commanding personality, nor any positive programme, that brought the Liberals back to power, but the country’s weariness of their predecessors and the successful employment at the elections of a number of miscellaneous issues. But as the man who had doggedly, yet unpretentiously, filled the gap in the days of difficulty, and been somewhat contemptuously criticized by the Unionist press for his pains, Sir Henry was clearly marked out for the post of prime minister when his party got its chance; and, as the head of a strongly composed cabinet, he satisfied the demands of the situation and was accepted as leader by all sections. Once prime minister, his personal popularity proved to be a powerful unifying influence in a somewhat heterogeneous party; and though the illness and death (August 30, 1906) of his wife (daughter of General Sir Charles Bruce), whom he had married in 1860, made his constant attendance in the House of Commons impossible, his domestic sorrow excited widespread sympathy and appealed afresh to the affection of his political followers. This became all the more apparent as his own health failed during 1907; for, though he was obliged to leave much of the leadership in the Commons to Mr Asquith, his possible resignation of the premiership was strongly deprecated; and even after November, when it became clear that his health was not equal to active work, four or five months elapsed before the necessary change became a fait accompli. Personal affection and political devotion had in these two years made him appear indispensable to the party, although nobody ever regarded him as in the front line of English statesmen so far as originality of ideas or brilliance of debating power were concerned. It is not the fortune of many more brilliant statesmen to earn this testimonial to character. From the beginning of the session of 1908 it was evident, however, that Mr Asquith, who was acting as deputy prime minister, would before long succeed to the Liberal leadership; and on the 5th of April Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s resignation was formally announced. He died on the 22nd of the same month. He had spoken in the House of Commons on the 13th of February, but since then had been prostrated and unable to transact business, his illness dating really from a serious heart attack in the night of the 13th of November at Bristol, after a speech at the Colston banquet.
From a party-political point of view the period of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s premiership was chiefly marked by the continued controversies remaining from the general election of 1906,—tariff reform and free trade, the South African question