Comment: Campbell-Bannerman - school meals pioneer

Henry Campbell-Bannerman achieved much, but goes uncelebrated in his native city, writes Christine Jardine

A plaque is not enough for the city to recognise Campbell-Bannermans achievements. Picture: Contributed
A plaque is not enough for the city to recognise Campbell-Bannermans achievements. Picture: Contributed

Free school meals: the political issue at the centre of childcare reforms and their extension of this policy to all areas of the country was hailed as one of the achievements of the year.

Except that the year was 1914.

No, that is not a mistake. It should say 1914.

Exactly a century ago, the last Liberal government to win a majority at Westminster made their policy compulsory to ensure councils across the country offered free school meals to all children.

Scots prime minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman had included the measure in his party’s programme of reforms in 1906, but councils resisted its implementation. Sound familiar?

Fast-forward 100 years and here we are again. Liberals at Westminster implement a policy to ensure infant classes have a hot meal during the school day and an SNP administration at Holyrood refuses to follow suit, until forced to bow to public pressure and provide free meals for primaries 1 to 3.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Campbell-Bannerman would have thought of the SNP’s attempts at intransigence or their insistence – until a second climb-down yesterday over nursery places for two-year-olds – that only in an independent Scotland would child care reform be possible.

I doubt he would have approved, regardless of which party was involved. Because this was the politician who first put policies on children at the heart of national politics.

He was the Scot at the head of the UK government which produced the Children’s Charter as part of the great reforms of 1906-14.

And that charter has provided the basis of much of this country’s child legislation in the 100 years between his own policies and Nick Clegg’s.

That government, elected in 1906, was also responsible for the introduction of National Insurance and the welfare reforms that were extended by the coalition after 1910 and became the basis of both the NHS and the welfare state.

But does the man who led it get the recognition he deserves here in Scotland?

Whenever we talk about any of the seven Scottish prime ministers, we tend to focus on Ramsay MacDonald, Alec Douglas Hume, Gordon Brown or even Tony Blair.

Why not this most radical of Scotsmen?

Henry Campbell-Bannerman was born in Kelvinside House in Glasgow in 1836 and was a pupil of the High School of Glasgow, before going on to graduate from what was then the city’s only university.

He served as provost of Glasgow from 1840 to 1843, before being elected MP for Stirling Burghs in 1868.

And when he led his party to victory in 1906, “CB”, as he was known, was the first leader of a UK government to be officially titled prime minister rather than First Lord of the Treasury.

Astonishingly, his front bench included Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill.

It’s certainly true that he did not live to see much of what he had set in train become a reality.

In 1908, he stepped down due to ill health and handed the reins of government to Asquith only a few days before dying.

But his legacy in terms of a radical reform agenda surely stands comparison with those who followed in Downing Street, laying as it did the foundations for much of what was achieved by both Asquith and David Lloyd George.

Certainly on his death there were lavish tributes from both of those prime ministers, as well as Labour MP and trade unionist Robert Smillie.

And when Lord David Steel unveiled a plaque in Glasgow’s Bath Street to mark the family’s home in the city he described CB as an “overlooked radical”, whose victory in the 1906 general election had paved the way for this country’s longest, and arguably most successful, period of radical government.

Perhaps it is time we looked again at Campbell Bannerman’s significance. Perhaps a simple plaque is not enough for the city of his birth to recognise the man’s achievements, or his legacy.

I first became intrigued by the city’s apparent ambivalence about one of its most successful sons when my daughter started secondary school. There, in the building at Anniesland Cross, was the bust of a politician whose achievements had played such a big part in influencing my own political ideology. In a city which rightly trumpets its contribution to the birth and development of this country’s Labour movement, there seemed little else of significance to mark the contribution to the shape of modern Britain of a man some have dubbed the first truly radical politician of the 20th century.

I’ve no doubt there are other memorials, perhaps at the University of Glasgow, maybe somewhere in the City Chambers. But surely it is time, more than a century after his death, that the city of his birth did something on a larger scale to mark Campbell-Bannerman’s achievements.

Perhaps when the Liberal Democrats return to Glasgow for their federal conference this year, the city fathers should take the opportunity to suggest some sort of joint celebration of his life and political contribution. Glasgow could perhaps launch some wider project to establish a permanent new landmark or memorial to all its citizens who have made a major political contribution to shaping modern Britain.

That way, the city’s youngsters could be encouraged to see their own potential for making a difference, become engaged in a political process they felt their community’s historic links with and possibly, just possibly, spark a career that could reach the same high levels of achievement.

We have his, and other examples here on our doorstep. Its time we paid closer attention.