Category Archives: History in the News

Tory Leaders We Have Known: AJ Balfour

Gws_balfour_02To say Balfour was born to rule might be an overstatement, but not too much of one. Being from the upper class Scottish landed background was hardly unusual; nor was Eton, though he was at Cambridge (Trinity) rather than Oxford. Balfour was one of the more intelligent occupants of high office in modern British history. His very undistinguished academic record owed something to an almost studied indolence, but also to his dislike of the physical act of writing. Instead, his formidable intellect manifested itself in an ability to dictate elegant and carefully wrought words more effectively than most could write them. He was very much a public intellectual: he was a serious published philosopher, as well as being keenly interested in scientific and physic research (something of a feature of intellectual life either side of the Great War). He was chancellor of both Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, and a founding member and president of the British Academy.


He was not just an intellectual, however. He was also a keen golfer: every September was devoted to the game, he built his own course and played off a handicap of eight when prime minister. He did look to marry, but his intended bride had died suddenly in 1875 (something that deeply affected him). From thereon in, he was confirmed bachelor: some have supposed he was homosexual, but most likely he was simply not very interested in sex. He liked the company of both men and women, and had a gift for useful friendships. Among his early political friends was Curzon. He was willing to damage friendships too: when he publicly attacked the great Liberal leader and prime minister William Gladstone over home rule, it pretty much ended a longstanding personal and political relationship.

NPG x20132; Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury by Elliott & FryIn truth, his political career owed much to one relationship, that between Balfour and his uncle, Robert Cecil (right, better known to history as Lord Salisbury). It is ironic that the onward march of mass politics after the reform acts of the 1860s and 1880s would see the Tory party taken over once more by one of the great old English families. Salisbury, a direct descendant of the Cecils who had served the Tudors, became prime minister in 1885. Balfour became the leading figure the Hotel Cecil, as the coterie of Salisbury’s relatives that populated his government were dubbed. Ministerial office (notably as Chief Secretary for Ireland) followed.

With Salisbury in the Lords, the party needed leadership in the Commons. It had been provided by the popular WH Smith (yes, the newsagent), who had been given the title of first lord of the treasury that is usually given to the prime minister; he was also leader of the house (a post then far more important than it is now). Smith died suddenly in 1891, and Balfour took on the role until the Conservatives lost the 1892 election. When Salisbury returned to power in 1895, Balfour would take on the same role once more. He was, de facto, deputy prime minister, and played a leading role across a range of policies. When Salisbury retired in 1902 (without having told his cabinet), Balfour’s succession was a fait accompli.

800px-Arthur_Balfour,_photo_portrait_facing_leftHis time as prime minister and Tory leader was both unhappy and unsuccessful, despite achievements such as Irish land reform and the Entente Cordiale. His (eminently sensible) education reforms aroused bitter opposition and helped reunite and reinvigorate the Liberals. In 1903, Joseph Chamberlain split the Tory party down the middle. For the next two years, Balfour fought desperately to keep his party and government together. In 1905, exhausted and in hope that the Liberals would tear themselves apart over Ireland, his government resigned.

It was the first of two gambles that would backfire spectacularly. When Campbell-Bannerman went to the country in 1906, the result was a Liberal landslide, owed in no small measure to working class opposition to tariffs. Balfour even lost his seat, one of only two former prime ministers to do so (the other was MacDonald in 1935). Finding a safe alternative, Balfour then asserted that the Tory stranglehold over the House of Lords would stop any partisan Liberal reforms in their tracks. For a few years, he was right. However, when Lloyd George put forward his People’s Budget in 1909, the Lords rejected it. This broke the constitutional convention that the upper house would not veto a money bill; in turn, it broke the power of the House of Lords. In the teeth of a constitutional crisis, 1910 saw two general elections. The Tory vote recovered (they had the same number of seats as the Liberals), but Labour and the Irish nationalists gave the Liberals a comfortable majority. The Parliament Act of 1911 saw the Lords’ effective powers curtailed. Worse than that, Irish home rule was now heading for the statute book. A Balfour Must Go campaign was cooked up, and Balfour duly went.

In Balfour’s defence, it might be argued that no one could have led the Tory party successfully in the years before the Great War. Rather as the party of the 1990s tore itself apart over the legacy of Thatcher and Europe, Balfour’s was torn asunder by Joe Chamberlain and tariffs, before dallying with abandoning constitutional politics (and going pretty mad in  the process) over the People’s Budget, the House of Lords and Ireland.  Nonetheless, it is hardly unfair to describe him as the party’s least successful leader in modern times. Like Edward Heath, he lost three general elections, but even Heath won one. In addition, Balfour was directly responsible for undermining the two great pillars of late Victorian Conservatism: the Lords were now emasculated, and Unionism was teetering on the brink.

Balfour was not above the cynical party game, it was just that he usually lost it. In 1910, he had told Knollys (Edward VII’s private secretary) that he was willing to form a minority government to save the king from having to create Liberal peers to defeat the Tories in the Lords. This, he hoped, the king would stand up to Asquith and force the Liberals from office. Knollys wisely said nothing to his master, and this avoiding deepen a constitutional crisis. When he got wind that Bonar Law and Asquith were holding talks to try to broker a solution to the home rule crisis in 1913, he made a violently anti-home rule speech in an effort to forestall any potential agreement, believing home rule would bring down the Liberal government. Consequently, Asquith wanted him kept out of the 1914 Buckingham Palace conference on the issue, believing him to be a ‘wrecker’.

It was never that simple. In 1910, Balfour was sympathetic to Lloyd George’s musings about the possibility of a cross-party national government. From 1912 on, at Asquith’s invitation, he sat on the newly formed committee of imperial defence (where he emphasised the nature of a future U-boat threat, only to be overruled by Churchill). When Asquith formed his wartime coalition, Balfour went to the Admiralty, replacing Churchill. As such, he held a more senior post than Bonar Law (the Tory leader). When Lloyd George formed his national government, Balfour had played a role in that process and was rewarded with the Foreign Office.

1743866_originalBalfour was not a member of the war cabinet, though he regularly attended and had unrestricted access to Lloyd George, to whom he gave unswerving support. Most importantly, he sailed to Washington to help ensure US entry into the war in April 1917. Most famously, he also pushed through the Balfour Declaration (left): perhaps his one significant act independent of his new master. At Versailles, he played second fiddle to Lloyd George (though not unwillingly: he was in ill health, and tired).

In 1919, he became lord president of the council, but maintained a prominent role in international affairs (notably the Washington Naval Agreement). By then, he was loyal; to Lloyd George, and when Lloyd George fell Balfour was one of the many ‘first XI’ senior coalitionist members who did not serve in the new Conservative government (though his advice was still sought by the committee of imperial defence). He, like Austen Chamberlain, returned to office when Baldwin won in 1924, once more as lord president, before retiring in 1929.

It is easy to underestimate Balfour. Contemporaries did so. Some saw him as a mere offshoot of his mightier uncle. Chamberlain did not hold back form challenging him in 1903. Lloyd George, unkindly, compared him to the ‘scent on a pocket handkerchief’; Asquith spoke of his ‘superficial charm’. Neither were being fair (and Lloyd George had a considerable respect for him in reality). It is true, though, that Balfour’s intellectual approach to politics could make him seem condescending, and it was also true that he the popular touch.

Nonetheless, Balfour held office from the 1880s through to the end of the 1920s. In many ways, he was one of those men who acted as a bridge from the Victorian age to the world of the 20th century. He had his share of Tory prejudices (notably over the Lords and home rule), but was not the pessimistic reactionary that we sometime imagine Salisbury to have been. Balfour’s Conservatism was one that admitted both progress and improvement: he supported (limited) women’s suffrage and as lord president in the ‘twenties introduced state funding for scientific research.  He was a failure as prime minister and party leader, but his party was all but unleadable. He served as a de facto deputy prime minister, prime minister and foreign secretary. That he was a failure in the top job should not blind us to the central place Balfour played in British national life over more than three decades. There is life after number ten, after all.

Here’s a few seconds of film from 1922:


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Tory Leaders We Have Known: Alec Douglas Home


In what has suddenly become a series, (I wonder why?), number two of the shortest serving prime ministers is Alec Douglas Home, 1963-64. If Bonar Law was the ‘Unknown Prime Minister’, Home, Prime Minister for just 363 days, might be (in Peter Hennessy’s words) the ‘unremembered one’.


At least until David Cameron, Home was the last genuine toff to occupy number 10. He was, from the age of 15 at Eton and Christ Church, naturally, known as Lord Dunglass; from 1951 he was the 14th earl of Home. He had the ease of manners that some genuine blue bloods do. In a thoughtful and sympathetic DNB entry, Douglas Hurd described him as one of the most courteous politicians he had ever known.

IMG_3379To add to the air of the gentleman amateur, Home spent his university days concentrating on pastimes, notably cricket. Thus he may only have got a third in History, but he has the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to have played first class cricket: for Middlesex, Oxford and the MCC (he toured South America under Pelham Warner).

That air was misleading. One mighty imagine that his entry into politics came as part of a family tradition. In fact, they had no political tradition to speak of, though his mother was Liberal and he was an admirer of Lloyd George. However, like a number of others of his generation, the charismatic Noel Skelton drew him to Conservatism. Skelton’s Constructive Conservatism (1924) looked to a progressive Conservatism: he coined the phrase ‘property owning democracy’. By that, he looked to winning the working classes from socialism and ‘bridge the economic gulf… between Labour and capital’. Skelton’s followers, nicknamed the YMCA, included the likes of Bob Boothby, Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden.

Another was Dunglass, who entered parliament on the back of the 1931 tidal wave. By 1936 he was PPS to the chancellor, Neville Chamberlain. He was thus PPS to the new Prime Minister in 1937 and accompanied Chamberlain to Munich. Also, in 1936, he married: one of the most stable and happy political marriages of the era. After his master’s death, Home was seriously ill, rendered immobile for two years following an operation on his spine. In that time he developed a deepened Christian faith, as well as a passionate and robust distrust of Stalin and Soviet communism.

Having been a junior Foreign Office minister in Churchill’s caretaker government, he lost his seat in Labour’s 1945 landslide; having briefly returned in 1950, it was as Lord Home that he became a junior minister in the Scottish Office, and then Commonwealth Secretary. When Macmillan moved Selwyn Lloyd to the Treasury in 1960, Home was (controversially, because he was in the Lords) given the Foreign Office.

That might normally have put him in pole position to have a shot at the succession to Macmillan, but he had two disadvantages. The first was that he was in the House of Lords, and the idea of a PM in the Lords was now unacceptable. However, this problem was now surmountable, after Viscount Stansgate (Tony Benn, as he would become) had passed a law enabling him to renounce his peerage. As luck had it, a vacant seat was available just when Macmillan was on the way out.


His other problem turned out to be an advantage: to wit, his low profile. Rather like John Major in 1990, Home benefitted from not being like his rivals. In the classic style of Yes Minister, Home told his colleagues he was not a candidate (though in Home’s case he probably meant it). Meanwhile, his rivals reminded their colleagues of the baggage they carried.


The star turn was Lord Hailsham, whom Macmillan had identified as his chosen heir. However, in the weeks either side of Macmillan’s decision to resign, Hailsham was interviewed on television, paraded his wife and baby daughter and showed his brilliance in a speech to conference (when he announced his intention to renounce his peerage, it was received with wild excitement). Envy is not attractive, but it was a powerful political force in 1963, and some of his colleagues clearly resented him. To add to that, the Americans then made their distaste for Hailsham clear. Macmillan, secretly, withdrew his support.

One cannot help but feel that the reason Macmillan adopted Hailsham, and felt able to go in 1963, was that Hailsham would stop Butler. Rab Butler was one of the great statesmen of the age. However, Macmillan and Butler had been rivals since the days of Eden. Home’s entry into the race was clearly a move by many of his colleagues to stop Butler.

Home was helped by a successful conference speech, but his cause was decided by the backing of Macmillan and most of his cabinet: when somewhat dodgy informal soundings were taken, only three cabinet members favoured Butler. The issue then was could Butler be persuaded to serve? Butler’s own sense of duty, Home’s charm and an offer of the foreign office did the trick. In winning the top prize, Home gave credence to Macmillan’s famous description of him to the queen: ‘steel painted as wood’.

Home thus became the last Conservative leader to emerge via the magic circle. It was Home that set in place the election of his successor by a secret ballot of MPs that voted for Heath. It also allowed for the possibility of annual elections and a leadership challenge: thus, inadvertently Home had a role in the fall of Margaret Thatcher 27 years later. He was also one of only three 20th century politicians to go direct from the Foreign Office to Number 10 (two other prime ministers who didn’t last too long, Eden and Callaghan, were the others)

Home had an uphill task, however. There would have to be an election the following year, and Labour held a double-digit lead in the polls. At their lowest, the Conservatives were polling in the low thirties. The Conservatives had been in power since 1951, and the later Macmillan years had seen the government’s problems pile up. It was beset by scandal, most famously the Profumo Affair. The economic problems that Macmillan’s governments and only intermittently (and mostly unsuccessfully) grappled with had seen rising unemployment and balance of payments problems. Macmillan’s flagship policy collapsed when de Gaulle said ‘non’ to British entry into the EEC.


Home also faced a new opposition leader. Peter Hennessy sees Harold Wilson as the most effective opposition leader of modern times: sparkling, witty and incisive in the Commons; good on TV, with a modernising, upbeat message and a carefully projected man of the people image. In contrast, Home the laird could hardly claim to be a break from the patrician Conservatism of Macmillan, salmon fishing and the grouse moor. Furthermore, whilst Wilson dominated the airwaves, Home was anything but a natural on television. Famously, he once asked a make lady if she could make him look Berger on television. She replied with a curt no, adding by way of explanation that he had a head like a skull. Home thought that surely everyone’s head looked like a skull. The reply was a blunt no. His wife reckoned that his trademark horn-rimmed glasses cost him the electron. As the satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was had it, it was Dull Alec vs Smart Alec.


He also looks like Chalky, the teacher from the Bash Street Kids, as much beloved in the Beano. Perhaps he sometimes felt like him too.


Home may have been a toff, but he proved surprisingly effective when it came to restoring the Tories’ electoral position. The quite patently decent and honourable Home defused the sleaze issue. Furthermore, Reginald Maudling’s reckless ‘dash for growth’ looked as if it might to do for Home what Butler and Heathcoat-Amory had done for Eden and Macmillan (that is, stoked a pre-election boom, even if it damaged the economy afterwards: in Maudling’s case bequeathing Jim Callaghan a balance of payments deficit of £880m). But, it paid electoral dividends and when combined with his calm, patrician manner, it helped engender a process common in political history, the erosion of an opposition lead (and a Labour lead) as polling day approached. By polling day, a Labour score that had been as high as 50% in the polls was reduced to a vote of 44%, hardly more than in 1959.

The Conservative score had been as low as 34% in the dog days of Macmillan, and Hume managed to poll 43%. What he failed to do was to kill off a Liberal revival. After their sensational win at Orpington in 1962, the Liberal poll rating, which had been as high as 22%, had slipped back to single figures in 1964. In the end, though, an 11% vote was enough to give Labour victory (as is explained in an article on the 1964 election, here).

For Home, it was too little, too late. He had, however, turned a potential disaster into a narrow defeat. He would go on to be Foreign Secretary under Edward Heath, making one of two former 20th century Prime Ministers to subsequently occupy the Foreign Office (the other was Balfour); he was, thus, Foreign Secretary when Macmillan failed to get Britain into the EEC, and when Heath succeeded.  It also made him one of only three men to hold the office twice (one of those, Eden, held it three times).

Two anecdotes will do to finish. Years later, Home told Hailsham a hitherto unreported story from 1964. Home was staying in Aberdeen when he was followed to a friend’s house where he was staying. Lack of space meant that his security man was stationed next door. A group of students had followed him and knocked at the door. Home himself answered, and was told that the students were going to kidnap him. Home’s reply was to suppose that if they did, it would probably guarantee him a majority of two to three hundred. He then asked for a few minutes to pack, offered them beer and that was the end of the business. And Home told no one, because had the story got out his bodyguard would have been sacked.

The other story goes that once, on a train to Berwick, an elderly lady approached him to say that both she and her husband were great admirers, and that they thought he would have made a very good prime minister. He, with typical wit and good grace, replied that he had been once, but only for a very short time.

Here’s Home interviewed after the 1964 election.



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1859 and All That: the Conservatives, that Poll, and Wales

I thought a few reflections on that opinion poll giving the Conservatives a healthy 10-point lead in Wales might be worthy of a little historical context. And the essence of that context is that a Conservative win in Wales would be unprecedented.
Were there to be a Conservative victory on June 8th, even if the Conservatives were to win narrowly, it would be fair to say it would be the greatest political upheaval since Labour became the largest single party in Wales in 1922.

One might go even further. The 1922 election saw Labour supplant the Liberals in a raft of seats across the country, as that election amounts to one of the key staging posts in the death of the old Liberal party. Between the coming of the household suffrage that gave the votes to around 60% of adult males and the Great War, the Liberals won every election in Wales, with the lion’s share of the popular vote and a majority of seats. At their high point, just as Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide left the Tories without a seat in Wales, so did the Liberal landslide of 1906. The Tories had last won in Wales in 1859 (and that was hardly the era of mass politics: only 2,767 votes were cast for the Conservatives across the whole of Wales to 1,585 Liberal).

Thus, since the advent of modern party politics, the Tories have never won in Wales. 19th century Conservatives were strongly identified in Wales with the upper and middle classes, as well as being seen as the English party (they were strongest in predominantly English-speaking areas), and identified with the Anglican Church. The Liberals became, for many, the authentic voice of Welsh nonconformity and the Welsh language, even of a Welsh identity in itself. In that context, popular Toryism never gained the traction it did in England and Scotland (nor did opposition to Irish Home Rule). Thus, compared to the rest of Britain, politics in Wales was heavily and consistently slanted against the Conservatives. Indeed, after the Tories won 10 seats in 1868 and 14 in 1874, they never broke the 10 barrier again when facing a dominant Liberal party. In short, a Conservative win in Wales would be something very new.

The demise of a great party in Wales would not be. If the recent collapse of Labour in Scotland should offer Labour one warning, so should the history of Labour and the Liberals in Wales.


The death of Liberalism in Wales was hardly instant. Nor should this surprise us, the Liberals had deep roots in Welsh life. The non-conformism that remained strong gave Welsh Liberalism the fire in its political belly, and a language of politics: think of Lloyd George (a lay preacher himself, preaching in Welsh). As in the rest of Great Britain, Labour became a national party just as Liberalism was in crisis. In 1922, Labour gained the most seats in part thanks to a bitterly divided Liberalism, and thanks to the vagaries of the British electoral system: if we combined the votes for the ‘Squiffite and Lloyd George Liberals, something around 35% of Welsh voters were Liberal (the figure a hastily reunited party secured in 1923). In the Liberal calamity of 1924, when they were reduced to 18% of the UK popular votes and 40 seats, 10 of those seats were Welsh and they still polled 31% of the Welsh popular vote. Welsh Liberalism was die a lingering death: in 1945, 6 of the 12 Liberal MPs in the commons sat in Welsh seats.
And, its new leader in 1945 was the Member for Montgomeryshire, Clement Davies. From 1949, his deputy was none other than Megan Lloyd George.

Megan Lloyd George’s story is instructive. Throughout the ‘thirties she had moved to the left; her party did not. She was well known to be on good terms with Attlee, a rumours of her defection to Labour were commonplace in the ‘forties. In 1951, she lost her Anglesey seat to Labour, and defected the following year, going on to become the Labour MP for Carmarthen. Labour was the only place to go for a figure on the centre-left.

The explanation for that takes us back to the fact that position Labour won in 1922 proved impregnable. In that election, Labour won 40% of the Welsh vote, and 18 seats (the support of the Miners’ Federation was hardly insignificant). Even at their lowest points, in 1924 and 1931, they held onto 16 and 20 seats (with Independent Labour included). In 1945, Labour won 25 of Wales’ 35 seats; in 1966, they won 32 of 36. That dominance looked threatened by nationalism in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies: Plaid Cymru eroded some of Labour’s vote, but never get beyond the odd by election victory, the odd seat or two, and roughly 10% . Even though Thatcher saw the Conservatives secure the most seats since their Victorian heyday, winning 11 and 14 seats in 1979 and 1983 respectively, Labour recovered and, famously, as noted above, in Blair’s 1997 landslide the Tories won no seats at all.

Nor has Labour’s decline from that heady peak been either sudden or apparently terminal. When Brown lost in 2010, Labour’s position had slipped, but they still polled 36% and won 26 seats. In 2015, their popular vote held up. Both 2010 and 2015 saw Conservative gains: in 2015 they polled 27% and had 11 seats, but were still well adrift of Labour. There was talk of the UKIP threat to Labour, but they polled 13.6% in 2015.

It may, of course, be just one poll. But the fact that observers are seriously considering the possibility of a Tory win in Wales must send a shudder down the spine of Welsh Labour. It might seem there are three outliers that might be changing things this time round: a collapse in the UKIP vote, Brexit in a Wales that voted Leave, and Jeremy Corbyn. Might they do to Labour what war, the Lloyd George-Asquith split and the Miners’ Federation did to their Liberal forbears in 1922? And might a seismic change be coming to Welsh politics just as it has to Scotland’s? Forward, perhaps, to 1859!

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