Robert Munro

Lawyer and Member of British Cabinet | Number 15

Robert Munro (1868-1955) was born in Alness. He studied law in Edinburgh and rose to Kings Counsel in 1910. In the same year he was elected Liberal MP for Wick Burghs. He sat as an MP for the next twelve years, changing his constituency midway to Roxburgh and Selkirk.

In October 1913 he became Lord Advocate in Lloyd George's Government, then Secretary for Scotland between 1916 and 1922.These were the top two political posts in Scotland. Lloyd George visited him at least once in his Heriot Row house.

He steered through Parliament the Education Bill which raised the school leaving age to 15, set up education authorities in Scotland and brought Roman Catholic schools into the state system. Another historic bill he championed sought to settle the traumatic rift of 1843 when the established Church of Scotland was deserted by many of its ministers who formed the United Free Church. Seventy years later, the bill helped the churches to reunite. Munro - whose father was a minister, whose mother was a minister's daughter and whose first wife was a minister's daughter - had passionate views on this subject. He said in Parliament "The Church will in vain urge the world to set its house in order until the Church has set its own house in order, and the world today .... is bemused and shocked by the ecclesiastical rivalry and strife which prevail".

His most controversial action as Scottish Secretary was to sign in 1919 the authority for the army - 12,000 soldiers with tanks - to dispel workers' demonstrations in Glasgow. The movement behind these strikes and protests became popularly known as Red Clydeside. Local troops were kept in their barracks for fear that they might side with the demonstrators. Munro's fears - shared by the full British Cabinet - were that Scotland would fall prey to the Bolshevik takeover which had succeeded in Russia and seemed at that time to be threatening Germany and Italy. Glasgow's dockyards and engineering, steel and munitions works were key to the defence of Britain and its empire.

With hindsight it makes more sense to place the demonstrations as part of militant trade union action to challenge poor housing and working conditions, rather than a revolution in the making. And many of the leaders of Red Clydeside - like John Wheatley, James Maxton, Manny Shinwell - went on to become outstanding parliamentarians.

Robert Munro left Parliament in 1922 and returned to the law as Lord Justice General between 1922 and 1933. As Lord Alness, he then became a Liberal peer. From 1940 to 1945 he served as a Government Whip under Winston Churchill.

His memoirs include boyhood recollections. "There was no greyhound or dirt-track racing then. But here were thrilling bicyle races, on high machines, which often lasted for a week....On the links there was firing at bottles suspended by a string from their necks on a board, at so many shots a penny...There was also a naughty billiard salooon, frequented by the more daring spirits of the household". He was disapproving, in old age, of many modern trends. "I see many newspapers appealing rather to the cupidity than the intelligence of their readers... Frugality is frequently superseded by the films - porridge is less popular than the piano".

His most controversial action as Scottish Secretary was to sign in 1919 the authority for the army - 12,000 soldiers with tanks - to dispel workers' demonstrations in Glasgow