To 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.
In 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.
His 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.
Balfour 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: