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The left's favourite Tories: Andrew Bonar Law

Nominating a "favourite Tory" is a difficult task for an ideologically inclined social democrat. The claim that "at least he was sympathetic about the problems of the inner cities" or that "he was not as opposed to Commonwealth immigration as other cabinet ministers" is an encomium hardly worth bestowing. The best I can do is praise a Conservative whose policies were often deplorable, but whose character was as near as a politician can get to being admirable. Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923) was an upright, honest and public-spirited reactionary.

Both deplorable policies - he was a diehard supporter of Unionist obduracy about Northern Ireland and a passionate advocate of an "imperial preference" tariff that discriminated in favour of imports from the Commonwealth - were largely the product of his upbringing. So was his upright character, which made him incapable of dissembling. The son of an Ulster Presbyterian minister, he was brought up in Scotland by his banker uncles after his father died. Straight talking was his inheritance. When, as a member of the First World War coalition cabinet, he insisted on ending the Dardanelles adventure, Lord Curzon wrote: "Lloyd George was always threatening to resign and we didn't believe him. Bonar Law said he would resign and we knew he would."

In the early winter of 1916, the war was going so badly that it was clear that Herbert Asquith, prime minister of the coalition, had to go. Bonar Law, by then leader of the Conservative Party, ensured his downfall. A lack of diplomatic skills prevented him from organising a smooth transition to a more effective administration. But - though he might well have claimed the premiership - he stood aside in favour of David Lloyd George. His conduct was an example of self-effacing loyalty that every minority leader within a coalition should follow. He argued from a dissident position in private, but in public he never tried to make cheap capital by boasting of how influential he had been.

His relationship with Lloyd George - the partnership of two parvenus in cabinets led by aristocrats - became, according to Stanley Baldwin, "remarkable between politicians of different parties". Yet when he thought Lloyd George was leading Britain to disaster, he ensured his defeat by returning to politics, from what he knew was mortal illness, and making clear that he was willing to replace the ineffectual Austen Chamberlain as Tory leader in the Commons. In the process, he coined the only memorable phrase of his career, still worth remembering: "Britain cannot be the policeman of the world."

One aphorism aside, Bonar Law despised the "game" of politics. Lord Beaverbrook, who was his self-appointed but highly influential acolyte, told him to behave in public like the great man he was. Bonar Law replied that if he was a great man, the notion of political greatness must be a fraud. Which other Conservative leader would have said, and meant, that? But then, which other Conservative leader had the same unflinching integrity? l

Roy Hattersley's most recent book is "David Lloyd George: the Great Outsider" (Little, Brown, £25)

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?