British Prime Ministers: Arthur Balfour

A.P. Ryan introduces the life and career of The Earl of Balfour: Conservative Prime Minister, 1902-5; Foreign Secretary, 1916-19; President of the Council 1919-22, 1925-9.

The first Earl of Balfour would much have enjoyed British politics since 1950. He had prophesied, in the Nineties, that changes in the political world would make it inevitable that, at some time in the future, a government would have to take office in a democratic parliament with a small majority, and he confessed to looking forward to that experiment with the greatest interest and curiosity. He would have relished the last few years at Westminster, because he was a tireless student of political affairs which he followed throughout his exceptionally long career—never going stale and never allowing enthusiasm to colour his innate and detached cynicism.

“When I look back at myself,” he remarked in extreme old age, “I am appalled by how little I have changed in eighty years.” He was bom, he once reflected with quiet satisfaction, about the middle of the nineteenth century and, he added, “I mean to make the best of the period in which my lot is cast.” He defined himself as a very lazy man who has always had a job on hand. The job was always there, and generally, from the eighteen eighties until the nineteen twenties, in positions of high responsibility, but the laziness was a pose. Balfour stayed in bed in the morning because he wanted time to himself for the hard thinking that was his habit. He reduced the Tariff Reform controversy to a half-sheet of notepaper because he believed—and rightly—that that was what, intellectually, it boiled down to.

It is a mistake to regard him as a dilettante—a gifted and privileged amateur in politics as in philosophy. He was, under his bland air of nonchalant self-confidence, a very tough politician indeed. To understand him it is necessary to appreciate the transitional state of Conservatism in his day.

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