The Career of A.J. Balfour
Graham Goodlad reviews the career of A.J. Balfour, an unsuccessful Prime Minister and party leader but an important and long-serving figure on the British political scene.
Arthur Balfour was Prime Minister for just over three years, from July 1902 to December 1905. By common consent his term of office was one of the least successful of the twentieth century. The ministry ended with his Unionist Party weakened and divided and heading for overwhelming defeat at the polls in January 1906. Balfour himself ignominiously lost his own parliamentary seat. Contemporaries frequently dismissed him as a lightweight, an aristocratic amateur out of his depth in an increasingly professional political world. Lloyd George, for example, cuttingly remarked that ‘he will be just like the scent on a pocket handkerchief ’. In a more democratic era, it counted against Balfour that to some extent he owed his rise to influential family connections. The phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ derives from the fact that he was the nephew of Robert Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, whom he succeeded as Prime Minister.
In spite of a series of biographies it remains hard to capture the essence of Balfour’s personality or properly to assess his significance. Although his time at the very top was short and troubled, it should also be noted that he was the longestserving Cabinet minister (with a total of 27 years) in British political history. He was unusual in serving, long after his own premiership was over, under three later Prime Ministers – in the wartime coalitions of Asquith and Lloyd George and the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s. As Foreign Secretary during the First World War he issued the controversial 1917 Balfour declaration, which opened up the prospect of a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people in Palestine, with all that entailed for the future of the Middle East. For someone often derided as ineffectual, he commanded the respect of no less a person than Winston Churchill, who named Balfour as one of a handful of people he wished could have shared the experience of the Second World War with him. On another occasion Churchill said of Balfour, ‘What a combination we might have been. All my fighting strength behind him, and his judgement behind me.’
An enigmatic individual
For reasons of space this article will focus primarily on the period of Balfour’s leadership of his party, when he had the greatest impact on British politics, rather than attempting to survey the whole of his career. Firstly, however, it is necessary to give some account of his character and background.
Balfour’s long career was facilitated by his privileged background as the product of a Scottish landowning family. He thus gained an enviable financial independence at an early age. Noted throughout his life for his sophistication and charm, he was happiest in his own family circle or with a select band of like-minded, well-born friends. Balfour remained an essentially private individual, whom many admired but few truly came to know. He was one of only three Prime Ministers – the others were Pitt the Younger and Edward Heath – who never married. Although there were rumours in his youth of an imminent engagement, the woman in question died suddenly and he never committed himself to anyone else.
It was typical of Balfour that he was an excellent debater in the élite environment of the late Victorian and Edwardian House of Commons, yet he was never comfortable addressing a large audience. All too often he gave the impression that he was bored by politics and that he preferred to immerse himself in books, music, golf and country house parties. As he prepared to defend the Lloyd George coalition government, on the brink of its downfall in October 1922, he confided to his sister: ‘Politics are a great nuisance, and are always interfering with the best laid plans’. Balfour had a wide range of interests outside politics. He was fascinated by technology – he was the first Prime Minister to own a motor car – and by philosophy, on which he published several books. He combined a deep religious faith with an interest in the paranormal, helping to found the Society for Psychical Research.
To some extent Balfour’s air of detachment was a pose. He was sincere in his conservatism, mistrusting radical political and social change and believing deeply in the Union with Ireland, the Empire and the superiority of the British race. The historian Jason Tomes has demonstrated the coherence of Balfour’s world-view. Those who dismissed him as a languid dilettante were wide of the mark. As Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1887 to 1891 he manifested an unflinching commitment to the maintenance of British authority in the face of popular protest. He combined a strong emphasis on law and order with measures aimed at reforming the landowning system and developing Ireland’s backward rural economy.
Although aristocratic networking assisted his rise, Balfour had undeniable ability. This was demonstrated by his passing of the 1902 Education Act, which initiated an overdue modernisation of the schools system in England and Wales. As Prime Minister he was concerned to safeguard Britain’s position in the world, creating the Committee of Imperial Defence to promote better co-operation in strategic planning between the armed services. With Lord Lansdowne (Foreign Secretary 1900-05) he also began the reorientation of British diplomacy to forge closer links with France and meet the growing challenge of Germany.
Struggling to Lead
With these achievements to his credit, why did Balfour’s government end in failure? He has often been criticised for his decision to make few changes to the ministerial team he inherited from Lord Salisbury, thus missing the opportunity to impose his own personality on the government. With the marked exception of the dynamic Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, the government contained few outstanding figures. Balfour’s poor managerial skills exacerbated problems caused by inadequate colleagues. George Wyndham was forced to resign as Irish Secretary following embarrassing revelations of a scheme for devolution – politically unacceptable to Unionists – which had originated in his department. Alfred Lyttleton, who succeeded Chamberlain as Colonial Secretary in 1903, sanctioned the importation of Chinese indentured labour to work in the South African gold mines, enabling the Liberals to fasten the electorally damaging label of ‘Chinese slavery’ on the government.
Balfour’s greatest problem, however, was posed by the controversy over Chamberlain’s proposals for tariff reform. These plans, whose aim was to turn the British Empire into a trading bloc protected by preferential import duties, divided the Unionist Party between two bitterly opposed factions. Chamberlain’s supporters embraced tariff reform as a means of reviving a flagging economy, consolidating imperial ties and giving the Unionist Party a positive programme based upon radical change. No less fervently, a diminishing band of Unionist free traders denounced the plan as economically unsound and likely to lose the party popular support through its association with the threat of higher food prices.
In these circumstances Balfour sought a middle way, seeking to contain internal party divisions through a series of devious manoeuvres. In September 1903 he engineered the resignation of the three most committed free trade ministers, headed by the Chancellor, C.T. Ritchie, whilst allowing Chamberlain to leave the government and initiate a public debate on his proposals. Meanwhile Balfour articulated a more limited plan for the pragmatic use of retaliatory tariffs as a lever in international trade – a compromise which failed to win the support of either extreme. As party opinion moved in Chamberlain’s direction, the Prime Minister offered the prospect of a colonial conference on the issue after the next election, and a promise that a final scheme would be put to the people at another general election.
In the words of Balfour’s cousin, Lord Robert Cecil, his approach was an ingenious but doomed attempt to ‘reconcile the irreconcilable’. It was understandable that he should seek to paper over the cracks in order to cling to office long enough to complete his projects in defence and foreign policy. He failed, however, to appreciate the depth of feeling aroused by tariff reform and his position was too ambiguous and ill-defined to appeal to the electorate. In later life Balfour absent-mindedly asked his niece whether he had been a protectionist or a free trader as Prime Minister. Her reply – that this was what the rest of the country had been trying to guess – went to the heart of the problem.
In opposition Balfour regained some lost ground. Chamberlain’s retirement, following a stroke in July 1906, removed his main rival from active political life. The party united around tariff reform as the only valid alternative to the so-called ‘socialism’ of the new Liberal government. Balfour’s use of the Unionist majority in the House of Lords to block Liberal legislation showed a harder edge to his leadership. However, by colluding in the upper house’s rejection of the tax-raising ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909 – an act unprecedented in modern times – Balfour allowed his party to enter new and more dangerous waters. The Liberal government’s response was to introduce the Parliament Bill, which divided the Unionists by proposing to strip the Lords of its historic veto power. Balfour’s recommendation that his party abstain on the bill was justifiable on pragmatic grounds, as continued resistance would have led to the creation of enough Liberal peers to pass the measure and to the permanent swamping of Unionist representation in the second chamber. He also deserves some credit for the reduction of the Liberals’ popular majority in the two general elections of 1910. This counted for little, however, with the Unionist right, whose exasperation at his failure to give a more decisive lead drove Balfour from the party leadership in November 1911.
A study in political failure?
In his study of the late Victorian and Edwardian Conservative Party, E.H.H. Green argues that Balfour’s failure as leader can be explained with reference to changing circumstances, over which he had little control. Unlike Lord Salisbury he had the misfortune to face a strong and united Liberal Party, which possessed the political will to confront the Lords’ veto. Moreover the Asquith government’s determination to use the 1909 budget to drive forward a radical programme of social reform aroused a spirit of resistance in the opposition peers which no Unionist leader could easily have restrained.
Most historians, however, have assessed Balfour’s leadership in a less charitable light. He showed little interest in developing a constructive programme in opposition. He lacked his uncle’s gift for party management and his willingness to devote time to keeping in touch with the party organisation. Balfour’s aloofness was summed up in his remark that he would rather take advice on policy from his valet than from the party conference. Although he was by no means the last leader of his party to come from a privileged background – Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and David Cameron spring to mind – most of his successors had a surer feel for mass politics. As one of his colleagues, Walter Long, warned Balfour shortly before he resigned the Unionist leadership, party members looked for ‘clear, distinct guidance: a plain policy and straightforward statements appeal to the people and will win, but qualifications and doubts, “ifs and ands”, mystify’. Balfour’s lack of inspirational qualities certainly limited his appeal as a party leader. With his subtle intellect and detached approach, however, he was well equipped for the role of elder statesman, into which he slipped with apparent ease during the First World War. Perhaps, too, the coalition politics of 1915-22 suited him better than the bitter party strife of the preceding decade. Unusually for one who had held the highest office in the land, Balfour showed his true worth long after he left Downing Street.
- R.J.Q. Adams, Balfour: the last grandee (John Murray, 2007)
- David Dutton, His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: the Unionist Party in Opposition 1905-1915 (Liverpool University Press, 1992)
- Max Egremont, Balfour (Collins, 1980)
- E.H.H. Green, The Crisis of Conservatism: the politics, economics and ideology of the British Conservative Party, 1880- 1914 (Routledge, 1995)
- David R.C. Hudson, The Ireland that we made: Arthur and Gerald Balfour’s contributions to the origins of modern Ireland (University of Akron Press, 2003)
- Ruddock F. Mackay, Balfour: intellectual statesman (Oxford University Press, 1985)
- John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin 1902-1940 (Longman, 1978)
- Jason Tomes, Balfour and Foreign Policy: the international thought of a Conservative statesman (Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Dr. Graham Goodlad is Director of Studies at St John's College, Southsea.
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