Custom Search


Arthur James Balfour

Prime Minister 1902 - 1906

The long dominance of certain families in British political history is one of its most remarkable aspects. The family of Arthur Balfour, prime minister 1902 - 1906, were an ancient Scottish dynasty who had long been prominent in politics. Balfours had fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Arthur Balfour's grand father James was a direct descendent of King Robert II (1371 -90) , who was son in law of Robert the Bruce. His son James Balfour continued the tradition of family power by marrying Lady Blanche Gascoyne Cecil, a member of the Cecil family who had been prominent in politics since the reign of Elizabeth I. Following James Balfour's early death in 1856, it was the formidable Blanche who brought up her son Arthur, along with his four brothers and three sisters.

Arthur Balfour was born 25th July 1848. He was educated initially at home by his energetic and clever mother, then at Grange School in Hertfordshire, then at Eton, before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge. At Cambridge Balfour wanted to be a philosopher. But in truth he was average academically. During a responsibility free period following university, he did write a philosophical work, A Defence of Philosophical Doubt, but it had to be published at his own expense. The reviews were polite, as was thought fitting when the author was so socially distinguished. This lack of real writing talent, was combined with the advice of his mother, that his privileged position in life carried responsibilities. The result was that Balfour, charming, luxury loving and debonair, entered the hard world of politics, elected MP for Hertford in 1874. He went to work for his his mother's famous father Lord Salisbury, who was to become prime minister in 1885. Kenneth Young in The Prime Ministers writes that Balfour learnt from his uncle "never to be self deceiving whoever else had to be deceived" (Vol2 P169). Biographers might ascribe achievements to politicians - keeping Ireland on an even keel during Balfour's time as secretary of state for Ireland for example. But it is often difficult to get an exact link between what happens and the politician who is supposed to have brought events about. Politicians are often very skilled at getting themselves associated with things that work, and distancing themselves from things that don't. Perhaps Balfour kept Ireland pacified with his policies of land drainage, and his personal bravery. Maybe Ireland just happened to be relatively peaceful during Balfour's time there. Maybe when he succeeded Salisbury as prime minister in 1902 Balfour reformed the army and navy; and single handedly transformed the education system, creating free primary and secondary education, and numerous new universities. On the other hand Balfour may only have managed what was ready to happen. Long after his years as prime minister, Balfour continued to serve as a foreign minister in governments during the First World War. His time as foreign minister is often recalled in the "Balfour Convention" of 1917 which created the state of Israel. The name of the convention suggests that Balfour willed Israel into being. This isn't so. He as foreign secretary merely signed the declaration. But the appearance is one of a man who can create nations out of the desert.


Waddesdon - home of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, There are copies of letters on display confirming the establishment of Israel, from Balfour to Rothschild, December 1917.

These kinds of questions always crop up in history. Tolstoy in War and Peace produced a vision of history where people are swept along by forces larger than themselves. In his view the people we think lead events, actually ride along like a surfer on an historical wave. Balfour himself probably would not have agreed with this. It is true that he had his moments of humility. He said in a speech given at Glasgow that a wise man should be in "full consciousness of his feeble powers of foresight. He will be content to deal as they arise with the problems of his own generation" (quoted The Prime Ministers Vol2 P182). Balfour was also remarkably honest in his autobiographical description of himself at school: "I was neither very good nor very bad... I was not a hero among my fellows, nor the subject of hopeful speculation among my teachers. I had, indeed, no difficulty in maintaining an average position among my contemporaries" (quoted in Balfour The Last Grandee by R.J.Q Adams P13). But this humility only went so far. In his attitude to the monarch of the day, Edward VII, we see Balfour's real inclinations. At a time when the influence of monarchs was supposed to be declining, Edward annoyingly made some real contributions to the government of his country. In his polite urbane way Balfour tried to take the monarch's achievements for himself. Simon Heffer in his book Power and Place describes how in 1903, the king, on his own initiative, visited France, at that time hostile towards Britain in the wake of the Boer War. Through his charm and good humour the king brought about an improvement in relations between Britain and France, known as the entente cordiale. Balfour could not accept that he and his government were not responsible for the entente cordiale. We see the usual political trick of wanting to be associated with things that go well. In a none too subtle way, Edward was pushed away from his achievement in France. This was done mainly through an unflattering entry in the Dictionary of National Biography the writing of which seems to have been heavily influenced by Balfour. The entry claimed that Edward was merely a charming playboy, who did little for his country. Complaints were lodged about the accuracy of this entry, and Balfour made some vague excuses about not remembering his contributory interview. The entry in the Dictionary of the National Biography was never changed.

Balfour resigned as prime minister in 1905, and his Conservative Party suffered a massive defeat in the general election of January 1906. Balfour's dry wordy approach did not do well in the face of down to earth Liberal leader Henry Campbell Bannerman. Nevertheless he remained an important political figure, serving as first lord of the Admiralty, and foreign secretary, during World War One. It was as foreign secretary that he signed the Balfour Declaration, the name of which gives that comforting illusion of a politician's control of wide ranging political events. Balfour continued to serve in government until 1929, when his health began to fail. He died 19th March 1930 and was buried at Whittinghame in Scotland.


©2009InfoBritain (updated 01/10)