He was educated at St. Malo, in Brittany; then at Ebersdorf, near Coburg, in middle Germany; and later at King’s College School, London. He gained a mathematics scholarship at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, gained a good degree in 1885, and has the distinction of having rowed for Cambridge in its victorious boat race in 1887. He then left Cambridge to become a barrister by studying at Inner Temple.
McKennas political career began in 1895, when he ran in a parliamentary by-election for North Monmouthshire. He won this seat, and held it in the Liberal cause until 1918. In his early days he was associated with Charles Dilke, the Radical M.P., and he later became a close friend of H. H. Asquith. When the Liberal government was formed in December 1905, under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, he was appointed financial secretary to the Treasury. He became president of the Board of Trade in 1908.
Between 1908 and 1911, as First Lord of the Admiralty, McKenna fought hard in the cabinet for the decision to construct six battleships (the famous Dreadnoughts), an effort in which he had the support of Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary. In 1911 McKenna was given the less challenging post, as it proved, of home secretary. It was not a post that excited him; in his three and a half years with the Home Office, the only significant piece of legislation passed was the Welsh Church Disestablishment Bill, which he pushed through Parliament between 1912 and 1914 (as a result of the Great War, it was not implemented until 1920). As home secretary, McKenna was also closely involved in dealing with suffragettes. In particular, he introduced the Prisoners’ (Temporary Discharge for 111 Health) Bill—better known as the “Cat-and-Mouse Act”—whereby imprisoned suffragettes who were determined to starve themselves to death would be released and then, once they had eaten, rearrested.
On the eve of World War I, McKenna was resolutely Asquithian in his attitude, favoring a steady response to the wartime situation. He was unhappy about the formation of a coalition government in May 1915, but benefited from the event, receiving the post of chancellor of the exchequer. It appears that Asquith gave him this post because the Liberal majority in government would not have tolerated a Conservative politician committed to tariff reform, and because Asquith wanted to keep the post available for David Lloyd George in case the latter left the Ministry of Munitions.
McKenna’s brief tenure as chancellor was also marred by several other problems. First, he suffered from poor personal relations with Lord Cunliffe, governor of the Bank of England. Second, the debate over military conscription had divided the Liberals in government and soured McKenna’s attitude toward David Lloyd George. Some Liberals resigned as a gesture of protest against the reimposition of a policy of conscription and the abandonment of voluntary armed forces, which Lloyd George had champoned.
McKenna took neither a moral nor a religious line on conscription but opposed it on economic grounds: He believed that Britain could not afford to send a large number of men to the western front. He did not resign over the issue but began to develop a dislike of Lloyd George because of it. Third, when Lloyd George took over from Asquith as prime minister in December 1916, McKenna was quickly replaced by Andrew Bonar Law in a ministerial reshuffle. That put an end to his political career, and he left the House of Commons in 1918 to become chairman of Midland Bank in 1919. He remained in that post until his death in 1943.
McKenna was never a political heavyweight. Despite his financial and commercial abilities, his political career was very much associated with the Asquithian period in British politics. He was always, as Roy Jenkins has suggested, something of a will-o-’the-wisp.
He married Pamela Jekyll, who had had a mildly flirtatious relationship with Asquith before her marriage to McKenna—a connection that enhanced McKenna’s social and political standing.