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. 

Balfour early in his career.
Balfour early in his career.

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.

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