Robert Bontine Cunninghame, the eldest of the three sons of Major William Cunninghame Bontine (1825–1883) of the Scots Greys and Anne Elizabeth (1828–1925) was born on 24th May 1852. His mother was the daughter of Admiral Charles Elphinstone Fleming. Robert spent most of his childhood on the family estate of Finlaystone in Renfrewshire.
Robert was educated at Hill House (1863–1865) in Leamington Spa and Harrow School (1865–1867). After receiving private tuition in London and Brussels, he moved to Argentina where his family owned a cattle ranch. He also spent time in Paraguay, Mexico and Uruguay.
On 24th October 1878 he married Gabrielle de la Balmondière, who claimed to be the Chilean-born daughter of a French father and a Spanish mother. It was not until much later that it was discovered that she was really Caroline Horsfall, from Masham in Yorkshire. The couple had no children but she had a successful writing career. According to Cedric Watts "her writings include essays, poetic translations, and a substantial biography, Santa Teresa (1894)."
After the death of his father in 1883 he changed his name to Robert Cunninghame Graham. He returned to England and became interested in politics. He attended socialist meetings where he heard and met William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, H. M. Hyndman, Keir Hardie and John Burns. Graham was converted to socialism and he began to speak at public meetings. He was an impressive orator and was especially good at dealing with hecklers.
Although a socialist, in the 1886 General Election he stood as a Liberal at North-West Lanarkshire. His election programme was extremely radical and called for the abolition of the House of Lords, universal suffrage, the nationalisation of the land, mines and other industries, free school meals, disestablishment of the Church of England, Scottish Home Rule and the eight-hour-day. Supported by liberals and socialists, Graham defeated the Conservative Party candidate by 322 votes. He therefore became the first socialist elected to Parliament.
His biographer, Cedric Watts, points out: "During his time in the house (until 1892), he condemned imperialism, racial prejudice, corporal and capital punishment, profiteering landlords and industrialists, child labour, and the House of Lords; he advocated the eight-hour working day, free education, home rule for Ireland and Scotland, and the general nationalization of industry." On 6th March 1889, he was asked in the House of Commons whether he preached "pure unmitigated Socialism", he replied, "Undoubtedly."
Robert Cunninghame Graham refused to accept the conventions of the House of Commons. On 12th September 1887 was suspended from Parliament for making what was called a "disrespectful reference" to the House of Lords. He therefore became the first MP ever to be suspended from Parliament for swearing (he used the word damn).
Graham's main concerns in the House of Commons was the plight of the unemployed and the preservation of civil liberties. He complained about attempts in 1886 and 1887 by the police to prevent public meetings and free speech. The Social Democratic Federation (SDF) organised a meeting for 13th February, 1887 in Trafalgar Square to protest against the policies of the Conservative Government headed by the Marquess of Salisbury. Sir Charles Warren, the head of the Metropolitan Police wrote to Herbert Matthews, the Home Secretary: "We have in the last month been in greater danger from the disorganized attacks on property by the rough and criminal elements than we have been in London for many years past. The language used by speakers at the various meetings has been more frank and open in recommending the poorer classes to help themselves from the wealth of the affluent." As a result of this letter, the government decided to ban the meeting and the police were given the orders to stop the marchers entering Trafalgar Square.
The SDF decided to continue with their planned meeting with Robert Cunninghame Graham, Henry M. Hyndman and John Burns being the three main speakers. Edward Carpenter explained what happened next: "The three leading members of the SDF - Hyndman, Burns and Cunninghame Graham - agreed to march up arm-in-arm and force their way if possible into the charmed circle. Somehow Hyndman was lost in the crowd on the way to the battle, but Graham and Burns pushed their way through, challenged the forces of Law and Order, came to blows, and were duly mauled by the police, arrested, and locked up. I was in the Square at the time. The crowd was a most good-humoured, easy going, smiling crowd; but presently it was transformed. A regiment of mounted police came cantering up. The order had gone forth that we were to be kept moving. To keep a crowd moving is I believe a technical term for the process of riding roughshod in all directions, scattering, frightening and batoning the people."
Walter Crane was one of those who witnessed this attack: "I never saw anything more like real warfare in my life - only the attack was all on one side. The police, in spite of their numbers, apparently thought they could not cope with the crowd. They had certainly exasperated them, and could not disperse them, as after every charge - and some of these drove the people right against the shutters in the shops in the Strand - they returned again."
The Times took a different view of this event: "It was no enthusiasm for free speech, no reasoned belief in the innocence of Mr O'Brien, no serious conviction of any kind, and no honest purpose that animated these howling toughs. It was simple love of disorder, hope of plunder it may be hoped that the magistrates will not fail to pass exemplary sentences upon those now in custody who have laboured to the best of their ability to convert an English Sunday into a carnival of blood."
Both Cunninghame Graham and John Burns were put on trial for their involvement in the demonstration that became known as Bloody Sunday. One of the witnesses at the trial was Edward Carpenter: "I was asked to give evidence in favour of the defendants, and gladly consented - though I had not much to say, except to testify to the peaceable character of the crowd and the high-handed action of the police. In cross-examination I was asked whether I had not seen any rioting; and when I replied in a very pointed way 'Not on the part of the people!' a large smile went round the Court, and I was not plied with any more questions. Cunninghame Graham and Burns were both found guilty and sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment.
When Graham was released from Pentonville Prison he continued his campaign to improve the rights of working people and to curb their economic exploitation. He was suspended from the House of Commons in December, 1888 for protesting about the working conditions of chain makers. Graham was a supporter of the eight hour day and made several attempts to introduce a bill on the subject. He made some progress with this in the summer of 1892 but he was unable to persuade the Conservative Government, headed by the Marquess of Salisbury, to allocate time for the bill to be fully debated.
Along with his great friend, James Keir Hardie, Graham was a strong supporter of Scottish Independence. In 1886 the two men formed the Scottish Home Rule Association and while in the House of Commons made several attempts to persuade fellow MPs of the desirability of a Scottish Parliament. On one occasion Graham humorously argued that he wanted a "national parliament with the pleasure of knowing that the taxes were wasted in Edinburgh instead of London".
While in the House of Commons Graham became increasingly more radical. He supported workers in their industrial disputes and was actively involved with Annie Besant and the Matchgirls Strike and the 1889 Dockers' Strike. In July 1889 he attended the Marxist Congress of the Second International in Paris with James Keir Hardie, William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. The following year he made a speech in Calais that was considered by the authorities to be so revolutionary that he was arrested and expelled from France.
In the 1892 General Election Graham stood as the Scottish Labour Party candidate for Glasgow Camlachie. He was defeated and this brought his parliamentary career to an end. In 1894 he prospected unsuccessfully for gold in Spain, and in 1897 he travelled into the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. On his return he published his finest travel book, Mogreb-el-Acksa (1898).
During his life Graham had a large number of books and articles published. Subject matter included history, biography, politics, travel and seventeen collections of short stories. Cedric Watts has argued: "Cunninghame Graham's own literary output was full and diverse. During his lifetime he was often praised highly for writing which was sharply realistic, ironic, and quirkily personal... But most of his volumes are collections of tales and essays, many of which had previously appeared in magazines. Their ratio of reminiscence to invention is usually high; meditative recollection of his past travels and encounters often provides the basis. The more elegiac writing may now seem dated, but his sceptical wit and his eye for the incongruous provide ample pleasures."
Despite being out of the House of Commons Graham continued to be active in politics. He retained a strong belief in Scottish Home Rule. In 1928 he joined forces with Compton Mackenzie, Hugh MacDiarmidand John MacCormick to establish the National Party of Scotland. He was elected president and was several times the Scottish Nationalist candidate for the Lord Rectorship of Glasgow University.
Robert Cunninghame Graham died from pneumonia on 20th March, 1936, in the Plaza Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His body was brought back to Scotland where he was buried with his wife, who had died in 1906, in the grounds of the ruined Inchmahome Augustinian Priory in the Lake of Menteith.
A socialist meeting had been announced for 3 p.m. in Trafalgar Square, the authorities, probably thinking Socialism a much greater terror than it really was, had vetoed the meeting and drawn a ring of police, two deep, all round the interior part of the Square.
The three leading members of the SDF - Hyndman, Burns and Cunninghame Graham - agreed to march up arm-in-arm and force their way if possible into the charmed circle. Somehow Hyndman was lost in the crowd on the way to the battle, but Graham and Burns pushed their way through, challenged the forces of "Law and Order", came to blows, and were duly mauled by the police, arrested, and locked up.
I was in the Square at the time. The crowd was a most good-humoured, easy going, smiling crowd; but presently it was transformed. A regiment of mounted police came cantering up. The order had gone forth that we were to be kept moving. To keep a crowd moving is I believe a technical term for the process of riding roughshod in all directions, scattering, frightening and batoning the people.
I saw my friend Robert Muirhead seized by the collar by a mounted man and dragged along, apparently towards a police station, while a bobby on foot aided in the arrest. I jumped to the rescue and slanged the two constables, for which I got a whack on the cheek-bone from a baton, but Muirhead was released.
The case came into Court afterwards, and Burns and Graham were sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment, each for "unlawful assembly". I was asked to give evidence in favour of the defendants, and gladly consented - though I had not much to say, except to testify to the peaceable character of the crowd and the high-handed action of the police. In cross-examination I was asked whether I had not seen any rioting; and when I replied in a very pointed way "Not on the part of the people!" a large smile went round the Court, and I was not plied with any more questions.