Arthur Balfour

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among the two or three greatest constructive measures of the twentieth century....[He did not write it] but no statesman less dominated than Balfour was by the concept of national efficiency would have taken it up and carried it through, since its cost on the side of votes was obvious and deterrent....Public money was thus made available for the first time to ensure properly paid teachers and a standardised level of efficiency for all children alike [including the Anglican and Catholic schools]. [31] :355–56

For most of the 19th century, the very powerful political and economic position of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) landowners opposed the political aspirations of Irish nationalists. Balfour's solution was to buy them out, not by compulsion, but by offering the owners a full immediate payment and a 12% bonus on the sales price. The British government purchased 13 million acres (53,000 km2) by 1920, and sold farms to the tenants at low payments spread over seven decades. It would cost money, but all sides proved amenable. [31] :358–60 Starting in 1923 the Irish government bought out most of the remaining landowners, and in 1933 diverted payments being made to the British treasury and used them for local improvements. [37]

Balfour's introduction of Chinese coolie labour in South Africa enabled the Liberals to counterattack, charging that his measures amounted to "Chinese slavery". [31] :355,376–78 [38] Likerwise Liberals energised the Nonconformists when they attacked Balfour's Licensing Act 1904 which paid pub owners to close down. In the long run it did reduce the great oversupply of pubs, while in the short run Balfour's party was hurt. [31] :360–61

Balfour failed to solve his greatest political challenge the debate over tariffs that ripped his party apart. Chamberlain proposed to turn the Empire into a closed trade bloc protected by high tariffs against imports from Germany and the United States. He argued that tariff reform would revive a flagging British economy, strengthen imperial ties with the dominions and the colonies, and produce a positive programme that would facilitate reelection. He was vehemently opposed by Conservative free traders who denounced the proposal as economically fallacious, and open to the charge of raising food prices in Britain. Balfour tried to forestall disruption by removing key ministers on each side, and offering a much narrower tariff programme. It was ingenious, but both sides rejected any compromise, and his party's chances for reelection were ruined. [39] [40] :4–6

Historians generally praised Balfour's achievements in military and foreign policy. Cannon & Crowcroft 2015 stress the importance of the Anglo‐French Entente of 1904, and the establishment of the Committee of Imperial Defence. [41] Rasor points to twelve historians who have examined his key role in naval and military reforms. [36] :39–40 [31] :361–71 However, there was little political payback at the time. The local Conservative campaigns in 1906 focused mostly on a few domestic issues. [42] Balfour gave strong support for Jackie Fisher's naval reforms. [43]

Balfour created and chaired the Committee of Imperial Defence, which provided better long-term coordinated planning between the Army and Navy. [44] Austen Chamberlain said Britain would have been unprepared for the First World War without his Committee of Imperial Defence. He wrote, "It is impossible to overrate the services thus rendered by Balfour to the Country and Empire....[Without the CID] victory would have been impossible." [45] Historians also praised the Anglo-French Convention (1904), which formed the basis of the Entente Cordiale with France that proved decisive in 1914. [46]

Balfour may have been personally sympathetic to extending suffrage, with his brother Gerald, Conservative MP for Leeds Central married to women's suffrage activist Constance Lytton's sister Betty, [47] but he accepted the strength of the political opposition to women's suffrage, as shown in correspondence with Christabel Pankhurst, a leader of the WSPU. Balfour argued that he was "not convinced the majority of women actually wanted the vote", in 1907. A rebuttal which meant extending the activist campaign for women's rights. [47] He was reminded by Lytton of a speech he made in 1892, namely that this question "will arise again, menacing and ripe for resolution", she asked him to meet WSPU leader, Christabel Pankhurst, after a series of hunger strikes and suffering by imprisoned suffragettes in 1907. Balfour refused on the grounds of her militancy. [47] Christabel pleaded direct to meet Balfour as Conservative party leader, on their policy manifesto for the General Election of 1909,[ dubious ] but he refused again as women's suffrage was "not a party question and his colleagues were divided on the matter". [47] She tried and failed again to get his open support in parliament for women's cause in the 1910 private member's Conciliation Bill. [47] He voted for the bill in the end but not for its progress to the Grand Committee, preventing it becoming law, and extending the activist campaigns as a result again. [47] The following year Lytton and Annie Kenney in person after another reading of the Bill, but again it was not prioritised as government business. [47] His sister-in-law Lady Betty Balfour spoke to Churchill that her brother was to speak for this policy, and also met the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith in a 1911 delegation of the women's movements representing the Conservative and Unionist Women's Franchise Association [47] but it was not until 1918 that (some) women were given the right to vote in elections in the United Kingdom, despite a forty-year campaign. [47]

Later career

Arthur Balfour, 1908.jpg
Painting by John Singer Sargent, 1908
Arthur Balfour Vanity Fair 27 January 1910.jpg
Balfour caricatured by Vanity Fair , 1910
Balfour and Winston Churchill in 1911 British-Prime-Minister-Arthur-Balfour-with-Winston-Churchill.jpg
Balfour and Winston Churchill in 1911

After the general election of 1906 Balfour remained party leader, his position strengthened by Joseph Chamberlain's absence from the House of Commons after his stroke in July 1906, but he was unable to make much headway against the huge Liberal majority in the Commons. An early attempt to score a debating triumph over the government, made in Balfour's usual abstruse, theoretical style, saw Campbell-Bannerman respond with: "Enough of this foolery," to the delight of his supporters. Balfour made the controversial decision, with Lord Lansdowne, to use the heavily Unionist House of Lords as a check on the political programme and legislation of the Liberal party in the Commons. Legislation was vetoed or altered by amendments between 1906 and 1909, leading David Lloyd George to remark that the Lords was "the right hon. Gentleman's poodle. It fetches and carries for him. It barks for him. It bites anybody that he sets it on to. And we are told that this is a great revising Chamber, the safeguard of liberty in the country." [48] The issue was forced by the Liberals with Lloyd George's People's Budget, provoking the constitutional crisis that led to the Parliament Act 1911, which limited the Lords to delaying bills for up to two years. After the Unionists lost the general elections of 1910 (despite softening the tariff reform policy with Balfour's promise of a referendum on food taxes), the Unionist peers split to allow the Parliament Act to pass the House of Lords, to prevent mass creation of Liberal peers by the new King, George V. The exhausted Balfour resigned as party leader after the crisis, and was succeeded in late 1911 by Bonar Law. [15]

Balfour remained important in the party, however, and when the Unionists joined Asquith's coalition government in May 1915, Balfour succeeded Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty. When Asquith's government collapsed in December 1916, Balfour, who seemed a potential successor to the premiership, became foreign secretary in Lloyd George's new administration, but not in the small War Cabinet, and was frequently left out of inner workings of government. Balfour's service as foreign secretary was notable for the Balfour Mission, a crucial alliance-building visit to the US in April 1917, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a letter to Lord Rothschild affirming the government's support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. [49]

Balfour resigned as foreign secretary following the Versailles Conference in 1919, but continued in the government (and the Cabinet after normal peacetime political arrangements resumed) as Lord President of the Council. In 1921–22 he represented the British Empire at the Washington Naval Conference and during summer 1922 stood in for the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, who was ill. He put forward a proposal for the international settlement of war debts and reparations (the Balfour Note), but it was not accepted. [15]

On 5 May 1922, Balfour was created Earl of Balfour and Viscount Traprain, of Whittingehame, in the county of Haddington. [50] In October 1922 he, with most of the Conservative leadership, resigned with Lloyd George's government following the Carlton Club meeting, a Conservative back-bench revolt against continuance of the coalition. Bonar Law became Prime Minister. Like many Coalition leaders, he did not hold office in the Conservative governments of 1922–1924, but as an elder statesman, he was consulted by the King in the choice of Stanley Baldwin as Bonar Law's successor as Conservative leader in May 1923. His advice was strongly in favour of Baldwin, ostensibly due to Baldwin's being an MP but in reality motivated by his personal dislike of Curzon. Later that evening, he met a mutual friend who asked 'Will dear George be chosen?' to which he replied with "feline Balfourian satisfaction," "No, dear George will not." His hostess replied, "Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. He will be terribly disappointed." Balfour retorted, "Oh, I don't know. After all, even if he has lost the hope of glory he still possesses the means of Grace." [51]

Balfour was not initially included in Baldwin's second government in 1924, but in 1925, he returned to the Cabinet, in place of the late Lord Curzon as Lord President of the Council, until the government ended in 1929. With 28 years of government service, Balfour had one of the longest ministerial careers in modern British politics, second only to Winston Churchill. [52]

Last years

Balfour in Mandatory Palestine with Vera and Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow and others in 1925 Lord Balfour in Biyamina with Vera and Chaim Weizmann, Nachum Sokolov and otehrs, 1925.jpg
Balfour in Mandatory Palestine with Vera and Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow and others in 1925

Lord Balfour had generally good health until 1928 and remained until then a regular tennis player. Four years previously he had been the first president of the International Lawn Tennis Club of Great Britain. At the end of 1928, most of his teeth were removed and he suffered the unremitting circulatory trouble which ended his life. Before that, he had suffered occasional phlebitis and, by late 1929, he was immobilised by it. Following a visit from Chaim Weizmann, Balfour died at his brother Gerald's home, Fishers Hill House in Hook Heath, Woking, where he had lived since January 1929, on 19 March 1930. At his request a public funeral was declined, and he was buried on 22 March beside members of his family at Whittingehame in a Church of Scotland service although he also belonged to the Church of England. By special remainder, his title passed to his brother Gerald. [53]

His obituaries in The Times , The Guardian and the Daily Herald did not mention the declaration for which he is most famous outside Britain. [54]


Portrait by Philip de Laszlo, 1908 Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour by Philip Alexius de Laszlo.jpg
Portrait by Philip de László, 1908

Early in Balfour's career he was thought to be merely amusing himself with politics, and it was regarded as doubtful whether his health could withstand the severity of English winters. He was considered a dilettante by his colleagues; regardless, Lord Salisbury gave increasingly powerful posts in his government to his nephew. [18]

Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary:

A man of extraordinary grace of mind and body, delighting in all that is beautiful and distinguished––music, literature, philosophy, religious feeling and moral disinterestedness, aloof from all the greed and crying of common human nature. But a strange paradox as Prime Minister of a great empire! I doubt whether even foreign affairs interest him. For all economic and social questions I gather he has an utter loathing, while the machinery of government and administration would seem to him a disagreeable irrelevance. [55]

Balfour developed a manner known to friends as the Balfourian manner. Harold Begbie, a journalist, attacked him for what Begbie considered Balfour's self-obsession:

This Balfourian attitude of mind—an attitude of convinced superiority which insists in the first place on complete detachment from the enthusiasms of the human race, and in the second place on keeping the vulgar world at arm's length....To Mr. Arthur Balfour this studied attitude of aloofness has been fatal, both to his character and to his career. He has said nothing, written nothing, done nothing, which lives in the heart of his countrymen....the charming, gracious, and cultured Mr. Balfour is the most egotistical of men, and a man who would make almost any sacrifice to remain in office. [56]

However, Graham Goodlad argued to the contrary:

Balfour's air of detachment was a pose. He was sincere in his conservatism, mistrusting radical political and social change and believing deeply in the Union with Ireland, the Empire and the superiority of the British race....Those who dismissed him as a languid dilettante were wide of the mark. As Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1887 to 1891 he manifested an unflinching commitment to the maintenance of British authority in the face of popular protest. He combined a strong emphasis on law and order with measures aimed at reforming the landowning system and developing Ireland's backward rural economy. [39]

Churchill compared Balfour to H. H. Asquith: "The difference between Balfour and Asquith is that Arthur is wicked and moral, while Asquith is good and immoral." Balfour said of himself, "I am more or less happy when being praised, not very comfortable when being abused, but I have moments of uneasiness when being explained." [57]

Balfour was interested in the study of dialects and donated money to Joseph Wright's work on The English Dialect Dictionary . Wright wrote in the preface to the first volume that the project would have been "in vain" had he not received the donation from Balfour. [58]

Balfour was into the 1920s a keen player both of lawn tennis and of golf. In the latter sport, he had a handicap of eight at the time he was Prime Minister, he won the Parliamentary Handicap between members of parliament in 1894, 1897 and 1910, and served as captain both of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews in 1894 and the newly founded Lye club in 1895. [59] Balfour was a patron of Manchester City F.C. [60] He was also a keen motorist and received, as an 80th birthday present, a Rolls-Royce from both Houses of Parliament. [53]

Writings and academic achievements

As a philosopher, Balfour formulated the basis for the evolutionary argument against naturalism. Balfour argued the Darwinian premise of selection for reproductive fitness cast doubt on scientific naturalism, because human cognitive facilities that would accurately perceive truth could be less advantageous than adaptation for evolutionarily useful illusions. [61]

As he says:

[There is] no distinction to be drawn between the development of reason and that of any other faculty, physiological or psychical, by which the interests of the individual or the race are promoted. From the humblest form of nervous irritation at the one end of the scale, to the reasoning capacity of the most advanced races at the other, everything without exception (sensation, instinct, desire, volition) has been produced directly or indirectly, by natural causes acting for the most part on strictly utilitarian principles. Convenience, not knowledge, therefore, has been the main end to which this process has tended.

Arthur Balfour [62]

He was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, a society studying psychic and paranormal phenomena, and was its president from 1892 to 1894. [63] In 1914, he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, [64] which formed the basis for his book Theism and Humanism (1915). [65]

Views on race

In 1906, during a House of Commons debate, Balfour argued that the disenfranchisement of the blacks in South Africa was not immoral. He said: [66]

We have to face the facts. Men are not born equal, the white and black races are not born with equal capacities: they are born with different capacities which education cannot and will not change.

Political scholar Yousef Munayyer has claimed that Arthur Balfour's antisemitism played a role in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, citing Balfour's presiding over, as prime minister, the passage of the Aliens Act 1905 that mainly aimed to restrict Jewish immigration to Britain from Eastern Europe. [66] Balfour had written in 1919, in his introduction to Nahum Sokolow's History of Zionism, that the Zionist movement would: [67]

mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body [the Jews] which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.


Portrait by Walter Stoneman, 1921 Arthur James Balfour.jpg
Portrait by Walter Stoneman, 1921

After the First World War, when there was controversy over the style of headstone proposed for use on British war graves being taken on by the Imperial War Graves Commission, Balfour submitted a design for a cruciform headstone. [68] At an exhibition in August 1919, it drew many criticisms; the commission's principal architect, Sir John Burnet said that Balfour's cross, if used in large numbers in cemeteries, would create a criss-cross visual effect, destroying any sense of "restful diginity"; Edwin Lutyens called it "extraordinarily ugly", and its shape was variously described as resembling a shooting target or bottle. [68] His design was not accepted but the Commission offered him a second chance to submit another design which he did not take up, having been refused once. [68] :49 After a further exhibition in the House of Commons, the "Balfour cross" was ultimately rejected in favour of the standard headstone the Commission permanently adopted because the latter offered more space for inscriptions and service emblems. [68] :50

Balfour occasionally appears in popular culture. [36]


Balfour's premiership from July 1902 to December 1905 is unusual among modern prime ministers because it did not mark the culmination of his political career. Instead, it was merely an episode in a long life of public service, and he quickly recovered from the setbacks of his chequered premiership. He continued to serve in government for nearly a quarter of a century after leaving 10 Downing Street, despite being forced from the leadership of his party. [71]

Balfour's reputation among historians is mixed. There is agreement about his achievements, as represented by G. M. Trevelyan:

As the prime author of the Education Act, the Licensing Act, Irish Land Purchase and the Committee of Imperial Defence, Balfour has a strong claim to be numbered among the successful Prime Ministers. [72]

But Trevelyan admits that, "owing to the portentous character of the electoral catastrophe of 1906 that claim is not always been allowed; yet Balfour had done great things on his own initiative and by his own strength of character." [73] John L. Gordon pays more attention to the defeats he suffered, stating:

Although Balfour's achievements during his brief prime ministry are noteworthy... he is usually seen as an ineffective leader. He was unable to prevent a split in his party over trade policy, and the Unionist-Conservatives suffered a massive defeat in the election of January 1906. Failing to lead his party to victory in the two general elections of 1910, he resigned as leader in 1911. [74]


1967 Israel stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration Balfour stamp.jpg
1967 Israel stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration

Balfouria, a moshav in northern Israel, along with many streets in Israel, are named after him. The town of Balfour in Mpumalanga, South Africa, was named after him. [75]

A portrait of Balfour by Philip de Laszlo is in the collection of Trinity College, Cambridge. [76] The 1914 portrait was vandalised (sprayed with red paint and slashed) by an activist of the Palestine Action network during the 2023-24 Israel-Hamas war. [77] [78]

The Lord Balfour Hotel, an Art Deco hotel on Ocean Drive in the South Beach neighbourhood of Miami Beach, Florida, is named after him.

Honours and decorations

He was given the Freedom of the City/Freedom of the Borough of the following:

Honorary degrees

The Earl of Balfour
1902 portrait
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
12 July 1902 4 December 1905
Prime MinisterHenry Campbell-Bannerman
H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Joseph Chamberlain (Commons Leader)
Succeeded by Bonar Law
Honorary degrees conferred on Arthur Balfour, by country
Flag of England.svg England1909 University of Liverpool Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) [87]
Flag of England.svg England1912 University of Sheffield Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) [88]
Flag of Canada (Pantone).svg Canada1917 University of Toronto Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) [89]
Flag of Wales (1959-present).svg Wales1921 University of Wales Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.)[ citation needed ]
Flag of England.svg England1924 University of Leeds Doctor of Laws (LL.D.) [90]

See also

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Further reading


Specialty studies


Primary sources

Political offices
Preceded by President of the Local Government Board
Succeeded by
Preceded by Secretary for Scotland
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chief Secretary for Ireland
Succeeded by
Preceded by First Lord of the Treasury
Succeeded by
Leader of the House of Commons
Preceded by First Lord of the Treasury
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the House of Commons
Preceded by Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
12 July 1902 4 December 1905
Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Preceded by First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by
Preceded by Foreign Secretary
10 December 1916 23 October 1919
Succeeded by
Preceded by Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by
Preceded by Lord President of the Council
Succeeded by
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Hertford
Succeeded by
New constituency Member of Parliament for Manchester East
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for the City of London
February 19061922
With: Sir Edward Clarke to June 1906
Sir Frederick Banbury from June 1906
Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Conservative Leader in the Commons Succeeded by
Preceded by Leader of the Conservative Party
Academic offices
Preceded by Rector of the University of St Andrews
Succeeded by
Preceded by Rector of the University of Glasgow
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chancellor of the University of Cambridge
Succeeded by
New institution Visitor of Girton College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Earl of Balfour
Succeeded by
Awards and achievements
Preceded by Cover of Time magazine
13 April 1925
Succeeded by
Scottish feudal lordship
Preceded by Lord and Baron of Hailes
Succeeded by