We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), by John Singer Sargent, 1908 Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), by John Singer Sargent, 1908
Balfour, Arthur James, first earl of Balfour (1848–1930), prime minister and philosopher, was born on 25 July 1848 at Whittingehame House, East Lothian, the third of eight children and eldest son of James Maitland Balfour (1820–1856), landowner (and MP, 1841–7), and his wife, Lady Blanche Mary Harriet (d. 1872, aged forty-seven), second daughter of the second marquess of Salisbury and sister of and prime minister. Arthur had four brothers and three sisters. The intellectual vigour of Lady Blanche was markedly imparted not only to Arthur but also to her eldest child, Eleanor Mildred (Nora; 1845–1936) [see ], who became a leader in women's education; also to her sixth child, , who was already, at thirty, professor of animal morphology at Cambridge and a fellow of the Royal Society when he died in a mountaineering accident; and to her seventh child, , fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1878, and a cabinet minister from 1895 to 1905. Arthur Balfour was deeply but not simplistically influenced by his mother's religious certainties; she was the chief influence in his upbringing after his father's death from tuberculosis when he was eight.

Education

In 1859, aged ten, Balfour went to the Revd C. G. Chittenden's Hoddesdon Grange preparatory school in Hertfordshire, where his short-sightedness and apparently delicate health proved a handicap. However, like his brothers, he would grow to stand 6 feet tall, and as an adult he acquired an enduring love of tennis and golf, and gave proof of considerable physical stamina. Yet his first headmaster noted enduring characteristics when he found the boy lacking in ‘vital energy’ and ‘always pondering’ (Dugdale, 1.21).

From 1861 until 1866 Balfour coasted imperturbably through Eton College, where he was in Mr Birch's house (succeeded in 1864 by Mr Thackeray). There he was, in the name of manliness, denied the spectacles that could have corrected his myopia. He made no great impact at Eton, but impressed William Johnson Cory. At Trinity College, Cambridge (1866–9), he soon adopted spectacles and became addicted to court tennis. Otherwise his intense interest in the philosophical basis of scientific knowledge led him to as his tutor. In view of his later reputation as a philosopher it occasions surprise to find that Balfour achieved only a second class in his final moral sciences tripos. However, a Cambridge friend later explained to his youngest sister, Alice (1850–1936), that her brother ‘was considered in those days very indolent, as indolent in fact as clever’. He was not thought ‘to be a great reader, but to have a wonderful capacity for picking the brains of other people’ (Mackay, Balfour, 6). According to Sidgwick, at the time, his examination answers were somewhat lacking in weight. For this the likely explanation is Balfour's lifelong antipathy to the physical process of handwriting. He may also have spent too much time cogitating about his projected philosophical book. He had, his friend and contemporary recalled, ‘a mind which could ill submit to the bondage of following a prescribed course of study’ (Rayleigh, 11).

Balfour's aversion to driving a pen led him to develop a remarkable ability to dictate lucid memoranda on complicated subjects. These required little subsequent amendment. Once the typewriter came into use, he would read over the double-spaced product and use a pen to insert or substitute an occasional word.

Balfour left Cambridge in the year in which he came of age and inherited a comfortable fortune, together with Whittingehame and the Strathconan estate in Ross-shire; in 1870 he acquired a house in London at 4 Carlton Gardens—conveniently close, as it transpired, to the houses of parliament and close to the Gladstones at no. 11, of which family he became almost a member in the 1870s. He entertained Gladstone (then prime minister) at Strathconan, who found him ‘a person of great charm’ (Gladstone, Diaries, 7 Oct 1872); Gladstone's chaotic departure provided a story on which Balfour dined out for the rest of his life (see A. J. Balfour, Chapters of Autobiography, ed. B. E. C. Dugdale, 1930, chap. 6).

Philosophy, society, and the Souls

Balfour's intellectualism owed less to his formal education than to the habit of rationalistic discussion and debate that prevailed within his family circle. His mother, until her death in 1872, and his eldest sister, Nora, accustomed him to female participation in these activities. Music and games such as croquet and, by the late 1870s, lawn tennis also prevailed at Whittingehame; and by the mid-1880s Balfour was devoting every September to golf, a game he continued to play competently well into the 1920s. He built a small private course at Whittingehame and was one of those who made golf a society sport. Balfour, who had a handicap of eight when he was prime minister, won the Parliamentary Handicap in 1894, 1897, and 1910 (aged sixty-two). He was captain of the Royal and Ancient Club at St Andrews in 1894 and of the new Rye Club in 1895. He especially enjoyed playing in the many courses in East Lothian near Whittingehame, and when he was prime minister the London–Edinburgh express made a special stop to allow him and his guests to alight near his house.

In 1876 Nora married Henry Sidgwick, who remained an important influence on Balfour (all three, over many years, played a leading role in the Society for Psychical Research, Balfour giving the society's presidential address in 1894). Whether at Whittingehame or in Cambridge, the family discussions would be invigorated by the atheism of Sidgwick and the scepticism of Frank and Gerald, while Arthur would argue from a theistic standpoint. Meanwhile in 1871 the family had been extended to the benefit of Balfour's scientific interests by the marriage of his second sister, Evelyn, to his Cambridge friend John Strutt, who, as Lord Rayleigh, won a Nobel prize for physics in 1904. While presiding over Balfourian familial debates as undisputed chief, Balfour would encourage every participant to have his or her say. It was the family group, self-sufficient but ramifying by degrees into other like-minded coteries, that was the proving ground both of Balfour's philosophical ideas and of his capacity for political debate. But until 1873 Balfour's interest in politics remained academic.

Indeed, until as late as 1879 when his first book was published, Balfour's chief preoccupation was with philosophy. While sharing the interest of his uncle, the third marquess of Salisbury, and of his brother Frank in science—and becoming a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888—he was mainly concerned to show that theism could remain intellectually respectable despite the Darwinian challenge. Towards the end of his life Balfour told his niece and future biographer (the eldest daughter of his youngest brother, Eustace):
I took Defence of Philosophical Doubt very seriously. I thought I was making a contribution to religious thought of an original kind, and whatever may be its merits it was the solid background of twenty years of my life. In my youth it was my great safeguard against the feeling of frivolity. This is much more important now—biographically—than the book itself. (Dugdale, 1.49)
Neither in A Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879; republished, 1920), instalments of which had appeared in 1878 in Mind and in John Morley's Fortnightly Review, nor in his Foundations of Belief did Balfour carry the theory of knowledge beyond that offered by David Hume. Originally, he preferred ‘scepticism’ to ‘doubt’ in the title, but Salisbury persuaded him otherwise. However The Foundations, published in 1895, developed in a more positive and popular form the findings of the first book and received much more attention and praise, reaching an eighth edition in 1901. Essentially his argument was always that only in a theistic system can life be held to possess meaning. The intellectual foundations of science were, he argued, as much open to doubt as were those of theology; yet there were reasonable grounds for believing in both kinds of system. In Theism and Humanism (1915) he concluded that God was ‘the condition of scientific knowledge’. Balfour's Essays and Addresses was published in 1893.

While the Balfours took much pleasure in their own company, they also developed strong social links and attachments. In the summer of 1870 Spencer Lyttelton, a Cambridge contemporary, took Balfour to his home at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire. Balfour thus penetrated the cousinhood of twelve Lytteltons, the children of the fourth Baron Lyttelton, and seven Gladstones, the progeny of William Ewart Gladstone, who was linked with Lord Lyttelton by marriage. Balfour visited the Gladstones at Hawarden several times in the 1870s and the former prime minister stayed at Whittingehame for a week in November 1874. Something of a Gladstone–Balfour attachment developed, though politically it came to nothing. ‘Del miglior luto’ (‘more than common clay’) was Gladstone's comment on him (Gladstone, Diaries, 20 Nov 1874), and he moved briefly into Balfour's London house when selling his own. Balfour became attracted to May Lyttelton and hoped to marry her. In 1875, however, she died from typhoid fever at the age of twenty-four. Balfour was passionately distressed. His serious intention to marry was not renewed. While there are no indications that Balfour was homosexual, his heterosexual drive was evidently not potent. His household was maintained by his sister Alice, who also remained unmarried.

Balfour had a talent for friendship with women as much as with men, but always on a highly civilized plane. He was capable of deep emotion, but his manner was cool and detached. Quick of wit, he was endlessly curious. In his younger days, especially, he was impatient of slower intellects, but his ceaseless cogitations could hamper his own ability to reach a decision.

Based on the country-house coteries was the aesthetically oriented group known as the . Younger members with a political future were George Nathaniel Curzon and George Wyndham, with whose sister Mary (from 1883 the wife of Hugh Elcho) Balfour began about 1880 a platonic friendship maintained from 1886 by regular correspondence (see The Letters of Arthur Balfour and Lady Elcho, ed. J. Ridley and C. Percy, 1992). By the mid-1880s, when the group reached its zenith, Balfour, with his graceful charm, was its chief adornment. But the steel underlying his languid demeanour would soon become manifest in the House of Commons. In 1887 the Irish nationalists derided his appointment as Irish secretary; but it was not long before Balfour revealed that it was not with ‘Pretty Fanny’ (a Cambridge sobriquet) that they had to deal, nor was it with ‘Clara’, ‘Niminy-Pimminy’, ‘Tiger Lily’, ‘Daddy Long Legs’, or ‘Lisping Hawthorn Bird’. Instead they found it more appropriate to settle for ‘Bloody Balfour’.

Back-bench politician, 1874–1885

Balfour found personal contact with his uncle Lord Robert Cecil more than congenial. He long remembered as magical a visit which his uncle paid to him at Eton. At the time Balfour was aged seventeen and Salisbury thirty-five. They were instantly at one on the miseries of life at the college. Salisbury's five sons—born between 1861 and 1869—were, like their Balfour cousins, brought up in a highly intellectual, self-sufficient family group. Balfour's political career would stem from Salisbury's, and Salisbury's eldest son, Lord James Cecil, later the fourth marquess, would serve usefully in Balfour's cabinet from 1903 to 1905. The third son, Lord Robert Cecil, would be Balfour's deputy at the Foreign Office in 1918–19. From an early stage, Balfour was a manager of his coterie of ministerial relatives that became known as the .

Since his time at Cambridge, Balfour had considered going into politics, but Scottish seats seemed usually to go to radicals. In 1873 Salisbury happened to suggest that the borough of Hertford, being subject to his influence, might provide Balfour with useful occupation. The prospect of debating in the House of Commons appealed to Balfour.

Balfour was elected unopposed in February 1874 as Conservative member for Hertford and held the seat in 1880, attending the congress of Berlin as his uncle's secretary. However, he took some years to make an impression in the house. His association with the Gladstones and the Salisburys made quick preferment from Disraeli unlikely. In 1877 he tentatively proposed the award of university degrees to women—an objective dear to the Sidgwicks—but it was not until 1879 that he made a fleeting impact by arguing for a liberal solution to the problem of burials in Anglican churchyards. Balfour was, from his schooldays onwards, a communicant member of both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, and religious subjects were always likely to rouse him. But until the early 1880s he presented the Commons with little but a spectacle of picturesque repose.

In 1882 Balfour came briefly to the fore by attributing ‘infamy’ to Gladstone's ‘Kilmainham treaty’ with Charles Stuart Parnell. In retrospect his stinging attack on an old family friend, who was astonished by ‘the almost raving licence of an unbridled tongue’ (Gladstone, Diaries, 17 May 1882), emphasizes his identity of view with his uncle on the Irish question and its potential advantages to the Conservative Party—and thus his potential for becoming a Conservative and Unionist leader. The episode marked the end of close contacts with the Gladstones.

Meanwhile it was characteristic of Balfour, as a back-bencher, to associate himself with the self-styled . Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, Lord Randolph Churchill, and John Eldon Gorst staged in 1880 a series of protests against the freethinking Charles Bradlaugh's being allowed to take the parliamentary oath. This was just the kind of issue likely to catch Balfour's interest. Moreover, apart from the religious aspect, it allowed him to develop his debating skills at a time when the Conservative opposition to Gladstone in the Commons was lacking in bite and inspiration. As Henry Lucy remarked in his parliamentary diary for 20 August 1880:
He is not without desire to say hard things of the adversary opposite, and sometimes yields to the temptation. But it is ever done with such sweet and gentle grace, and is smoothed over by such earnest protestations of innocent intention, that the adversary rather likes it than otherwise. (Lucy, Diary of Two Parliaments, 2.85)
However, in so far as Churchill could be seen as a rival to Lord Salisbury for the leadership of the Conservative Party, there was no doubt where Balfour's ultimate loyalty lay; and by 1884 his adherence to the Fourth Party had much diminished. Salisbury appreciated the help which he received from Balfour in establishing control of the Conservative Party machine, and when in June 1885 he was asked by the queen to form a caretaker government, he consulted his nephew on its composition. Balfour does not seem to have proposed himself for a post, but his closeness to his uncle is strikingly evident in the following note of 26 June: ‘My dear Arthur, I entirely forgot to ask you tonight, who I was to make Scotch Law Officers. Is Macdonald to be Lord Advocate—& who is to be Solicitor General? Yours ever affly, Salisbury’ (Salisbury–Balfour Correspondence, 122).

Two early portfolios, 1885–1887

From June 1885 to January 1886 Balfour was president of the Local Government Board (being sworn of the privy council on 24 June 1885). Although he displayed little overt enthusiasm for this post, which was outside the cabinet, he contributed to the preparation of what became the County Councils Act of 1888. In November 1885 Balfour moved to the new seat of Manchester East, where he was comfortably elected; he held the seat until 1906. In December 1886 Gladstone approached Balfour while the latter was staying at Eaton Hall asking him to contact Lord Salisbury about a bipartisan solution to Irish home rule, with the Conservatives staying in government to propose a bill; Balfour treated the initiative as a mere tactical gambit and the moment passed. He later commented: ‘I did not at the time realise the full significance of the episode’ (A. J. Balfour, Chapters of Autobiography, ed. B. E. C. Dugdale, 1930, 212). On returning to power in July 1886 Salisbury, thoroughly assured of Balfour's hostility to the Land League in Ireland, appointed him, from 4 August, as secretary of state for Scotland to deal energetically with the Land League in Scotland. This he duly did, and in November Salisbury was able to promote him to cabinet rank without discernible murmurings of nepotism. While Balfour would never show much positive enthusiasm for the actual work of administration, he was, at the age of thirty-eight, reaching a stage where a major issue, such as the Irish question, could enlist his serious involvement.

Chief secretary for Ireland, 1887–1891

In October 1887 the war of attrition between Irish tenants and their landlords took the new form of the Plan of Campaign, a demand for the abatement of rent within the constitutional campaign for home rule. When a landlord demurred, he was paid the rent minus the abatement. The abatement was paid into a tenants' trust fund, thus giving the campaign some appearance of legality.

At Westminster in January 1887 the Irish home-rulers returned in jubilant mood. Churchill had resigned from the exchequer and the Irish scented government weakness. They mounted seventeen nights of obstruction against the proposals of Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the Irish secretary, for strengthening the law against the Plan of Campaign. When the usually formidable Hicks Beach, afflicted with eye troubles, resigned from the Irish Office, there was a sense of crisis. Salisbury reiterated his belief that the future of the British empire was at stake in the Irish struggle. To ride the political whirlwind, he chose a man for long seen by parliamentarians as (according to Lucy) ‘a sort of fragile ornamentation’, namely his nephew Arthur Balfour. On 5 March 1887 Balfour was examined by the physician Sir William Jenner and pronounced ‘a sound man’ and ‘a first-class life’; he became secretary of state on 8 March. His secretaryship was to prove one of the most controversial of all the periods of controversial office in that island.

Despite ‘occasional lapses due to physical lassitude and exhausted patience’, Balfour proceeded to quell the Irish members at Westminster and restore respect for the law in Ireland. He introduced a new sense that unionism could consist of more than opposition to home rule. He offered a policy of energetic coercion, in the form of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1887, combined with a variety of forms of constructive social relief—ironically, in effect a return to Gladstone's policy in his pre-home-rule years, though Balfour made much more of the moral and political importance of coercion. He took on, and faced down, Irish opposition in the Commons: the Parnellites ‘cannot make much of Balfour who foils them by his skill and coolness and indeed leaves no just opening for their rancour’, Cranbrook told Salisbury (1 Sept 1887, Curtis, 215). Balfour was deliberately antagonistic to the constitutional Parnellites, for he regarded them as worse than Fenians. He turned their tactics against them and had considerable success in breaking up the National League. He treated with cool contempt the outcry which followed the violence which occurred at Mitchelstown on 9 September 1887—it was from this incident that he became known as Bloody Balfour. His approach gave heart to the Unionists, though it had little long-term effect in diminishing support for home rule in Ireland, Balfour's ultimate objective.

In 1888 Balfour was a party to the decision to prosecute Parnell and other Irish nationalists before a special commission of English judges: ‘few governments have ever committed an error of such magnitude’ (Curtis, 277). What was, at its root, an attempt to discredit home rule boomeranged when it became clear that the case was based on forgeries and when killed himself in melodramatic circumstances; Balfour became cautious about the commission, but too late. The Times was certainly discredited and the government seemed a party to the newspaper's folly. Balfour needed all his now considerable debating skills in the censure debate in February 1890, the twelfth vote of censure during his secretaryship. In October 1890 he toured co. Mayo and co. Galway with his sister Alice.

While Balfour's coercive measures blended well with his uncle's ideas, he made skilful use in his constructive programme of ideas offered by the great anti-home-rule radical Joseph Chamberlain. He thus contributed to the gradual emergence of a composite Conservative and Unionist Party. When W. H. Smith died in 1891, there was little doubt that Balfour would replace him as leader of the House of Commons. Looking back on his career, Balfour would see Edward Carson, who served him in Ireland as chief prosecutor, as of special significance for his own rise towards the Conservative leadership—something to which he never enthusiastically aspired. In the late 1920s he told Mrs Dugdale: ‘I made Carson, and Carson made me.’ But this was to understate his own Irish record. It was Balfour with his tenacious, wide-ranging, and receptive mind who implemented a variety of intelligent palliatives to leaven coercion with hope. He passed two Land Purchase Acts (1887, 1891) and a Light Railway Act (1889), and established a congested districts board (1891), which incorporated ideas offered in 1888 by Chamberlain. Salisbury agreed that even a Conservative government should, in such critical circumstances, gamble on these radical constructive policies despite their cost to the taxpayer.

Balfour was at one with Salisbury in believing that home rule could not solve the Irish problem. It would, they thought, merely stoke the fires of a distinctive Catholic nationalism in Ireland. In persisting for years to come with his policies of reconciliation within the Union, Balfour was, however, sustained by a touch of optimism. This stood in contrast to his uncle's deep underlying pessimism.

Leading in the Commons, 1891–1902

In October 1891 Balfour became first lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons. Apart from the intervening Liberal governments of Gladstone and Lord Rosebery, in 1892–5, Balfour continued in this role until 1902, when he became prime minister. Having made an extraordinary effort as Irish secretary, he did not easily come to terms with the routine of patient attendance required of the leader of the Commons. After the Liberal victory at the elections of July 1892, he was noticed at Westminster ‘beaming like a boy about to have a long-deferred holiday’ (G. P. Gooch, The Life of Lord Courtney, 1920, 296).

However, once installed in the Commons as opposition leader in 1892, Balfour blossomed. He presented an attractive contrast to his likely future parliamentary rival on the Liberal front bench, H. H. Asquith, the home secretary. Although Asquith was some four years younger, he seemed prosaic compared with Balfour, whose ‘sunny nature’ and ‘light-hearted humour’ were, in Lucy's opinion, of ‘inestimable value’ to a party leader in the Commons.

In 1893 Balfour duly fought Gladstone's second Home Rule Bill clause by clause, as did Chamberlain. The rejection of the bill by the House of Lords in September 1893 would provide Balfour with a contentious precedent when, as Unionist leader, he again found himself in opposition after his electoral defeat of 1906.

When, in June 1895, Salisbury returned to office, Balfour again became first lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons. Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists, seventy-one in number, now sat on the government benches with the 340 Conservatives as members of a Unionist coalition. Chamberlain became colonial secretary and, by dint of his more forceful personality and more powerful platform oratory, could be mistaken as a serious rival to Balfour for the succession to Salisbury. Balfour also tended to muff set speeches through lack of preparation, but after Gladstone's retirement there was no one in the Commons to match him for finesse and resourcefulness in debate. Moreover, Conservatives continued to value the aristocratic and Anglican Balfour precisely because they saw him as an irremovable obstacle to the Unitarian manufacturer's hopes of becoming Unionist leader.

Constructive work, 1891–1892 and 1895–1902

The main areas of Balfour's constructive work before succeeding to the premiership in 1902 were to do with Ireland, education, and Britain's imperial position.

Balfour was fully aware of the importance of open markets for British industry and thus of national prosperity, but, despite his work in Ireland, shared his uncle's deep distrust of government enterprise. They both believed that this meant waste and higher taxation, thus handing an electoral advantage to the Liberals, who also stood for government economy. But they agreed on persistence with constructive work in Ireland to save the Union. In November 1895 Balfour wrote to Chamberlain:
Though I was the Minister principally responsible for the great expenditure in Ireland, I yet confess to have looked in alarm at any great extension of the system. It has led abroad to some of the worst kinds of parliamentary corruption, and has cast upon foreign exchequers some of the heaviest burdens by which they are overweighted. (Mackay, Balfour, 58–9)
From 1895 to 1900 Gerald Balfour (an MP since 1885) was chief secretary for Ireland. In 1896, with parliamentary help from his elder brother, he was able to pass a Land Law Bill which further eased the purchase of land by Irish tenants; and in 1898 he followed this with an important Irish Local Government Act.

Meanwhile, Balfour's interest in foreign affairs and, increasingly, in defence policy is readily traceable back to 1878. In that year, as Salisbury's private secretary, he went to the congress of Berlin, and he also contributed to debates on relations with Turkey and Afghanistan. He showed that he was already concerned about the Russian advance towards India. British naval supremacy also, which Balfour consistently saw as fundamental, was increasingly challenged by the emergence of various industrializing states as naval powers. By the early 1890s it was the military combination of France and Russia which seemed the principal threat to the British empire. Moreover, Britain's small volunteer army seemed almost insignificant compared with the large conscript armies maintained by the leading continental states.

Soon after the Unionist coalition took office in June 1895, Balfour made a serious effort to innovate a much needed scheme for the co-ordination of defence policy. But Salisbury's marked incapacity in this sphere was inextricably linked with his inborn horror of warfare. Consequently Balfour tolerated the appointment of an ineffective cabinet committee which, contrary to his own recommendation, did not provide for the attendance of the professional service chiefs.

Taking a long view, the question of state education was doubtless of even greater importance for British economic and defensive strength than was the long overdue reform of the War Office or the co-ordination of defence policy. Yet, even if Balfour is deservedly remembered for the Education Act of 1902 above any of his other constructive achievements, it cannot be said that it arose from a wholehearted enthusiasm for such a reform. He was not an eager reformer, especially where an increased burden of central taxation might be entailed. As far as the elementary schools were concerned, Conservatives and Liberals alike preferred to place the burden on the rates. However, since 1870 only the patchwork of locally elected school boards, fiercely undenominational for the most part, had been entitled to do this. The Liberal Party backed the school boards which sought to raise standards—and therefore the rates. The denominational schools, with their Conservative links, had no rate support. To compete with the board schools they had to raise subscriptions or plead for government grants.

When the Unionist coalition came to power in 1895 some of its formerly Liberal component, led by Chamberlain, continued to back the school boards. However, the Anglican majority of Unionists wished to save the denominational (otherwise called voluntary) schools. Balfour certainly agreed, not least because of the strong support given by Anglican voters to the Conservatives in the recent elections.

Sir John Gorst, of Fourth Party antecedents, was the minister (without cabinet rank) in charge of the bill of 1896. This resembled the Education Bill eventually passed by Balfour, but it was largely restricted to primary education. It proposed a national system of education committees for all of England and Wales, appointed by the county and borough councils, to replace the existing patchwork. Balfour intimated: ‘I shall be content if we succeed in saving the Voluntary Schools: I shall not be content if we fail in this object’ (Mackay, Balfour, 73). He wanted no complications, yet such were the resentments aroused by the bill that Balfour's parliamentary skills were overborne. The bill was swamped at the committee stage with hundreds of amendments regarding the arrangements for religious instruction.

Balfour consequently harboured no desire to be further involved in the question of state schools. However, in 1901 the attempts of the school boards to provide some education beyond the elementary level were shown to be illegal. A major bill to provide for a national system of primary and secondary education could no longer be easily avoided, whatever the political pitfalls entailed. The duke of Devonshire, as lord president of the council, had the chief ministerial responsibility, but it was clear that only the reluctant Balfour was capable of piloting it through the House of Commons. (In 1899 he had demonstrated his outstanding parliamentary and drafting skills in getting the London Government Act passed.) While preparing the Education Bill finally presented in March 1902, both Devonshire and Balfour derived invaluable assistance from , a civil servant who had been Gorst's private secretary.

By February 1902 Balfour was reminding cabinet ministers of their fundamental predicament, namely their ‘great reluctance to compel the local authority to support the denominational schools’ despite their ‘great anxiety to prevent these schools from being squeezed out of existence’ through lack of rate aid (Mackay, Balfour, 100). Devonshire supplied a tactically successful, but administratively deplorable, solution in the form of an adoptive clause. This allowed the local authorities to opt out of the system if they so wished. However, on 7 July, at the committee stage of the bill, Chamberlain happened to have a disabling cab accident; and on the 9th Henry Hobhouse, a Liberal Unionist squire, duly moved deletion of the adoptive clause. Balfour promptly allowed a free vote. The chaos threatened by the option had become sufficiently manifest. Crucially for the effectiveness of the bill, the amendment was passed by a large majority.

However, Balfour knew that there would be an electoral price to pay. According to the diary of his sister Evelyn, he said on 10 July at a family dinner at 10 Downing Street ‘that owing to the debate on the education bill he was beginning to hate both education and religion’. His mood was not lightened by Chamberlain's subsequent congratulations on his ‘surprising patience and resource’ in handling the bill, even if the Hobhouse amendment had ‘brought all the fighting Nonconformists into the field’ (Mackay, Balfour, 102).

During the autumn Balfour (prime minister since 12 July) fended off Chamberlain's pleas for concessions to the nonconformists, and in October at Manchester he appealed to the country at large. Why, people had asked, had the government chosen to disturb ‘the social peace’ with this measure? ‘The answer is this, that the existing educational system of this country is chaotic, is ineffectual, is utterly behind the age, makes us the laughing stock of every advanced nation in Europe and America’; and it was ‘not consistent with the duty of an English government—of a British government—to allow that state of things longer to continue’ (The Times, 15 Oct 1902, 5).

In December 1902 the bill became law and provided the basis of a badly needed improvement. However, apart from overcoming some of the more immediate difficulties, such as those orchestrated among Welsh nonconformists by David Lloyd George, it has to be said that Balfour showed little subsequent interest in the development of state schools. On the other hand, it was remarkable that a minister of his supra-departmental status took personal charge of an educational reform of such difficulty and magnitude.

Continuous interest in university education combined with political prominence to make Balfour chancellor of Edinburgh University in 1891, an office he held until his death (on his eightieth birthday the university sent a special letter of thanks for his active chancellorship, during which the size and scope of university activities greatly expanded). As with defence problems, he rose above party in dealing with the fragmentation of London University. As early as 1887 he discussed the matter with the Liberal lawyer and educationist Richard Burdon Haldane. By an act of 1898, London University became a unified teaching entity; and in May 1902, despite his heavy involvement with the Education Bill, Balfour accepted Haldane's invitation to serve on a committee to set up the Imperial College of Science and Technology. Having become prime minister in July, he set up and served on a privy council committee which granted charters to the universities at Manchester and Liverpool in 1903 and subsequently to those at Leeds (1904), Sheffield (1905), and Bristol (1909). However, government provision in the scientific and technological fields continued to lag behind that given in Germany.

In the later 1890s foreign affairs and defence received increasing attention from Balfour. Germany's advance in industrial power was by then causing some alarm in Britain, and the German navy law of 1898 was received with misgiving. However Balfour did not for some years regard the German navy as a primary threat. Until 1908 he continued to see Russia—the military ally of France—as the main threat to the British empire. Deputizing for his ailing uncle at the Foreign Office in the spring of 1898, Balfour was inclined to support Chamberlain's optimistic bid for a German alliance, despite the latter's failure to secure prior cabinet assent. Later in the same year, when again acting as foreign secretary, Balfour signed an agreement with Germany about a German loan to Portugal on the security of the Portuguese colonies in Africa. He thereby went further to conciliate Germany than Chamberlain, or indeed Salisbury, would probably have done. Balfour continued to hope for an acceptable alliance with Germany until the Anglo-Japanese alliance was signed in January 1902.

In March 1901 George Curzon, now viceroy of India, informed Balfour: ‘As long as we rule India we are the greatest power in the world.’ In December, Balfour wrote to Lord Lansdowne, the foreign secretary, in less sanguine terms:
The weakest spot in the Empire is probably the Indian frontier … A quarrel with Russia anywhere, about anything, means the invasion of India and, if England were with allies, I doubt whether it would be possible for the French to resist joining in the fray. (Mackay, Balfour, 124)
Balfour preferred, if possible, to join the triple alliance rather than to seek an ally in Japan—a less civilized alternative, he thought.

Meanwhile in October 1899 the government had drifted into the South African War, where Balfour's scepticism did not extend to significant criticism of the enthusiastic ambitions of Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Milner. Staggered by reports of a series of early defeats, the public tended to complain of a lack of patriotic ginger in some of Balfour's speeches. But J. S. Sandars, his long-serving private secretary, noted his ‘nerve and promptitude’ in getting Lord Roberts appointed in place of the discredited General Buller; and Almeric FitzRoy, secretary to the privy council, wrote in December 1899: ‘Certainly anything that brings me into contact with [Balfour] is a matter of congratulation. There is a freshness, a serenity, almost a buoyancy about him which is as attractive as it is inspiring’ (Mackay, Balfour, 81–2). Cabinets of varied complexion would, especially in stressful times, find Balfour's presence a reassuring source of unconfused enlightenment for many years yet to come. At the general election in the autumn of 1900 Balfour was returned for Manchester East with a comfortable majority. Balfour was by now often tired—‘fagged out’ in Lord Balcarres's view (J. Vincent, ed., The Crawford Papers, 1984, 64), and his uncle's lassitude left him carrying much of the work of co-ordinating the government as the victories of 1900 turned to the concentration camp scandals of 1901–2 and the war proved, in proportion to the size of the enemy, one of the most expensive ever fought. By 1902 it was clear that Salisbury's health would not long delay Balfour's succession to the premiership.

Prime minister

On 11 July 1902 Lord Salisbury, with what Julian Amery called ‘characteristic insouciance’, surrendered his seals of office to the king, without telling his colleagues (J. L. Garvin and J. Amery, 4.452). That afternoon the king sent for Balfour, who accepted his invitation to form a government, having first taken care to consult Joseph Chamberlain (in bed after his serious cab accident) and the duke of Devonshire. Though neither Joe nor the duke seriously expected the premiership for himself, Salisbury's handling of his resignation did not ease Balfour's start. He kissed hands on 12 July. As he was already first lord of the Treasury, there was no change of office and consequently no by-election. Balfour recognized the oddity of the situation by arranging that his successor as prime minister should be officially recognized as such.

Balfour's inheritance from his uncle was inauspicious. The large parliamentary majority achieved by the ‘khaki election’ of 1900 was felt to have been based on a cheat, as jingoism turned to frustration. The Unionists faced major difficulties of finance, imperial organization, and a host of domestic social questions. Salisbury and the ‘Hotel Cecil’ were increasingly felt to exemplify the problem of archaic aristocratic power which prevented Britain from adequately confronting the new century; and Arthur Balfour was a chief inmate of that hotel. As far as the new prime minister was concerned, this view was in part misleading. Balfour was interested in modernization—‘national efficiency’ as the contemporary term had it—and he had a wide range of contacts which included many Liberal Imperialists and the Webbs; in some respects, it is not fanciful to see him as a likely leader of coalition government. But his pessimism and his debts to his aristocratic Conservative associates prevented him from moving much beyond their camp.

Balfour formed his government with no programme of constructive reform, but in view of his continuing involvement with the Education Bill and his post-war quest for retrenchment, this is unsurprising. His large majority was to be used defensively. His search for economies is implied by his asking Hicks Beach to remain at the exchequer. Hicks Beach stipulated that his stay should be brief and that Chamberlain's proposals for a scheme of colonial preference should be left in abeyance. Balfour then appointed C. T. Ritchie, a resolute free-trader, as chancellor, an appointment which did not square with Balfour's subsequent actions.

Balfour had for long studied the question of tariffs. In a world which, with the single exception of Britain, had been protectionist since the 1880s, he thought it obvious that Britain should be able to retaliate in kind against countries imposing tariffs on goods imported from her. Therefore he felt some sympathy with Chamberlain's contentious nostrum of an array of tariffs on British imports which could be lowered on goods coming from the colonies. But until May 1903, when Chamberlain publicly broached the idea of tariff reform, Balfour was left with something of a breathing space.

Defence policy in the Balfour government

In August 1902 Balfour was surprised by a question in the Commons as to when action on the co-ordination of defence policy might be expected. However, because he had given much previous thought to the subject, he was able at once to reply at some length. In view of the exceptionally complex problems involved in defending so great a colonial empire, he agreed that they could not ‘leave this matter to one Department, or to two Departments acting separately’ (Mackay, Balfour, 116). But despite long consideration, he had not yet settled on a remedy. In October H. O. Arnold-Forster, financial secretary of the Admiralty, made detailed suggestions. A month later, two of the several personal friends included in Balfour's cabinet, namely Lord Selborne, the first lord of the Admiralty, and St John Brodrick, the war secretary, urgently pressed Balfour for a decision. In the wake of the South African War, Brodrick envisaged a striking force of 120,000 men for use abroad and a like number of auxiliary troops for home defence; but he felt threatened by the prevalent ‘blue water’ philosophy. Balfour wanted a body which would assess the various strategic needs of Britain and her empire. He sought to contain defence expenditure while providing for the defence of India and taking account of Selborne's naval concerns.

In December 1902 Balfour inaugurated the committee of imperial defence. At the first meeting on the 18th, the two service ministers and, crucially, their chief professional advisers were confirmed as permanent members. Initially, Balfour was content to let the duke of Devonshire (of the Hartington commission of 1890) take the chair, but, as this was a recipe for inaction, he was himself from the outset assiduous in his attendance. Whenever in office—and sometimes when out of it—he would, from 1903 until as late as 1928, contribute a series of unfailingly lucid, balanced, and knowledgeable memoranda on strategic and policy matters, and he would much enhance the value of the meetings by his active participation. As prime minister, Balfour lent crucial support to the radical naval reforms initiated by Admiral Sir John Fisher. These reforms increased fighting efficiency at a lower cost to the taxpayer. Fisher also had aggressive views on reform of the War Office.

In August 1902 Balfour had added his old acquaintance Lord Esher to the royal commission on the earlier conduct of the South African War (a commission which Balfour had required his reluctant uncle, Lord Salisbury, to appoint). When it reported in July 1903, an illuminating note was appended by Esher. Clearly the reform of the War Office could no longer be delayed. Esher, however, declined to be the secretary of state for war, so Balfour turned to Arnold-Forster. But to tackle the problem of the War Office itself Balfour set up a special committee consisting of Esher, Fisher, and Sir George Clarke. When the Esher committee issued its reports in February and March 1904, Balfour gave it his indispensable backing. The dual system of secretary of state and commander-in-chief was at last abolished; an army council was established; a general staff was initiated; and the committee of imperial defence was provided with a secretariat. From December 1916 this body served Lloyd George's war cabinet, and from 1919 it provided a secretariat for the peacetime cabinet.

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5) Balfour, by now formally presiding at the committee, was mainly concerned to avoid being drawn into war with Russia and her military ally, France. He saw the Anglo-French entente of April 1904 as a welcome diplomatic development, but nothing more. The defence of India and the maintenance of naval supremacy remained the chief objectives of his defence policy.

Chamberlain, tariff reform, and the Unionist débâcle

Meanwhile, in March 1903, George Wyndham, who had been Balfour's private secretary in 1887–9, was presenting to the cabinet a major land purchase measure. Although the Irish Land Act of 1903 crowned Balfour's efforts to establish a class of peasant proprietors in Ireland and helped to produce a more stable society, it could not eradicate Irish nationalism: home rule was no more ‘killed by kindness’ than it had ever been. Moreover, Chamberlain disliked the compensation given to landlords; and, now that he was convinced of German enmity to Britain, he was ready to embark on a crusade for a system of imperial preference. On 15 May 1903 his campaign was launched at Birmingham.

For Balfour, Chamberlain's move proved disastrous. Because tariff reform entailed the imposition of food taxes, it antagonized the working classes. It made headway only among Unionists, while failing to convert many of the Unionist free-traders. At Westminster, Balfour faced defeat by either the more extreme tariff reformers or the most uncompromising free-traders finding common ground with the opposition. His party was as comprehensively split as any party has been, short of actual defeat. This Balfour avoided by skilfully preventing a vote being taken in the Commons on the tariff question. Balfour worked consistently to unite the party on his own policy of retaliation. This, he argued, would tend to promote worldwide free trade to Britain's advantage while avoiding deliberate protection of British industries. On this precarious footing, he contrived to hold on to power for another two and a half years. As Henry Lucy commented in August 1905:
The most striking thing about the session is that it should have closed today. There are few members among the crowd who met in February who would have put their money on the duration of the session to such a date … That what is deemed impossible should have happened is due directly and solely to the stubborn will of one man. None but Mr Arthur Balfour would have carried the Government through. … He has answered at question time, made speeches in successive debates, and never committed himself by an embarrassing admission. That may not be the highest form of statesmanship. As an intellectual feat it is unparalleled. (Lucy, Balfourian Parliament, 408–11)
Even so, the government had thoroughly alienated the nonconformist middle class and encouraged it into vigorous political action.Balfour's cabinet was never harmonious, its political differences being accentuated by cliques which Balfour's handling of his colleagues encouraged. Lord George Hamilton later told Beatrice Webb that, whereas Lord Salisbury in cabinet addressed colleagues by their offices, ‘when Balfour took his place, cabinets degenerated into cliquey conversations between “Arthur” and “Bob” and “George”—sometimes almost unintelligible in their intimate allusions, to the outer circle of the Cabinet’ (Egremont, 167). In a cabinet memorandum of 1 August 1903 Balfour had carefully spelt out his views on the fiscal issue, published on 16 September 1903 as a booklet entitled Economic Notes on Insular Free Trade. He asserted Britain's right to impose retaliatory tariffs against countries erecting protective barriers against British exports. Chamberlain on 9 September sent what was in effect an offer of resignation, and Balfour—unbeknown to his colleagues—had it in his pocket at the critical cabinet on 14 September 1903. At the start of this cabinet, however, Ritchie, the chancellor, who had written a counter-memorandum supporting free trade, and Lord Balfour of Burleigh were dismissed by Balfour. Chamberlain then also indicated his intention to resign so as to be free to crusade in the country for imperial preference. Following the cabinet the free-traders in it—Ritchie, Lord George Hamilton, the duke of Devonshire, and Lord Balfour of Burleigh—met and, without realizing that Chamberlain's resignation was being accepted (for they thought Balfour was favourable to Chamberlain), all decided on resignation save Devonshire. By the end of next day the resignations of all save Devonshire, and including Chamberlain, were accepted. Devonshire resigned a few weeks later. This was by any standards a spectacular débâcle, and it remains hard to identify Balfour's game. Gollin has seen it as a crafty negotiation to purge the government and establish a Balfour–Devonshire axis. Balfour certainly baffled his colleagues, most of whom thought they had been in some way cheated by the premier, as did the king, who complained bitterly that resignations had been accepted and made public without his having been consulted. The resignations weakened the reputation of an already semi-discredited government; the ministry lost all the twenty-two by-elections held during Balfour's premiership except one (three months after he became prime minister). When even Oswestry was lost in July 1904 it was clear that a general election defeat of some magnitude was in the offing.

The end of Balfour's premiership

Balfour hoped to play the patriotic and the Irish cards. As late as August 1905 he believed that his government's record could impress the electorate, but he needed to rally the dissident semi-faithful at the Conservative Party conference to be held in November. He put it to Sandars that success could be claimed in ‘Ireland, Foreign Affairs, Colonial Policy, Education, National Defence’, and even ‘Social Reform’. Moreover, he could attach importance to the recent renewal of the Japanese alliance. Fisher had followed redistribution of the fleets with construction of the revolutionary Dreadnought—thus pre-empting the Germans. By way of social reform, Balfour had personally addressed the shortcomings of the licensing laws. Here again he had demonstrated his outstanding ability to overcome drafting difficulties, and the Licensing Act of 1904 worked well over many years. He looked seriously at the problem of unemployment, but the increasingly fashionable view that philanthropy and self-help were no longer sufficient safeguards held little appeal for him. However, by June 1905 the cabinet was selecting prospective members of the royal commission on the poor laws (1905–9), including Beatrice Webb. But, lacking in common touch and in flair for party organization, Balfour had lost the centrist position which the ‘national efficiency’ campaign of the early 1900s had given him, and the ground of social reform had been increasingly captured, though not systematically occupied, by the Liberals, who in turn looked over their shoulders at the Labour Representation Committee.

Balfour was, in fact, heading for a crushing electoral defeat. The tories offered less to their working-class voters than at almost any election in their history, and working-class voters probably felt less attracted to the tories than at almost any time in their history. Balfour was unable or unwilling to offer the trade unionists any recompense for the confusion caused by the Taff Vale judgment of 1901. Chamberlain, the former ‘tribune of the people’, was deemed to have promised pensions and given war. His proffered food taxes combined with a general reaction against imperialism to mark him out as a leader of the plutocrats rather than the common people. Balfour, though aristocratic, had avoided commitment to food taxes, but his Licensing Act could make him seem to be the brewers' friend. The importation of Chinese labour into South Africa confirmed working-class resentment of the Unionists. In November 1903 Balfour had accepted the arguments deployed in favour of the policy by Lord Milner; but by September 1905 he thought that Milner's ‘inexplicable illegality’ in permitting corporal punishment of the Chinese had made the issue the ‘worst rock ahead from a purely electioneering point of view’ (Mackay, Balfour, 216–17).

Even so, Balfour, like many others, had little appreciation of the full strength of the factors which, in remarkable combination, were about to overwhelm him and his party. He and Chamberlain tried to focus attention on the home-rule issue at a time when Ulstermen were bickering and the Union was not under immediate threat. The party organizations of the Liberals and the incipient Labour groups were lively and cohesive compared with those led respectively by Balfour and Chamberlain. Further immediate difficulties occurred in 1905; on 2 March George Wyndham resigned the Irish secretaryship after a prolonged public row about the terms of appointment of Sir Antony MacDonnell, a keen devolutionist, to Dublin Castle. Wyndham's nerves finally gave way and Balfour paid the penalty of having close family friends and relatives in his cabinet, for his explanations were inevitably circumscribed, and it was felt that Balfour had allowed, as his first biographer put it, ‘the principle of Unionism to be tampered with’ (Dugdale, 1.420). After an equally prolonged dispute over the partition of Bengal and the role of the commander-in-chief of the Indian army, Lord Curzon resigned on 28 August 1905 as viceroy of India, the only viceroy to resign on a question of policy. The Souls proved difficult to retain in office. In November 1905, at the Conservative conference, Balfour's own amendment to a Chamberlainite resolution was overwhelmingly rejected. Even the bulk of Conservatives had run out of patience with Balfour and his endless mastery of the parliamentary game. Balfour hoped that political disputes would resolve themselves by delay; in his case, delay compounded rather than solved his difficulties.

On 1 December 1905 Edward VII accepted Balfour's resignation as prime minister. He was the last premier to cede power to the leader of the opposition without having first been defeated in a general election, and, indeed, his government had never suffered a serious defeat in the House of Commons (the usual reason for such a resignation). Balfour later explained that his party had come to lack the ‘unanimous vigour’ (Dugdale, 1.424) needed to pass a redistribution bill. In fact, Balfour hoped that Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's attempt to form a Liberal cabinet would founder on the reef of Ireland. Instead, Balfour handed over to his opponents the initiative of deciding on the dates and dictating the circumstances of the general election. As in September 1903, he baffled his party and the electorate by his over-scheming.

Unionist leader in opposition, 1906–1911

As a result of the electoral landslide of January 1906 the Liberals, with 377 seats, found themselves in command of the House of Commons without depending on either the Irish nationalists (83) or Labour (53); the Unionists had 157 seats, as opposed to 334 in 1900. Balfour, having at the outset of the polling heavily lost the seat at Manchester East which he had held since 1885, was quick to draw a long-term consolation from the early results. On 17 January he suggested to Austen Chamberlain that ‘the new Labour issue’ marked the beginning of a new era in British politics which would, he thought, end ‘in the break-up of the Liberal party’ (Mackay, Balfour, 227).

By 27 February 1906 a safe seat had been found for Balfour in the City of London, where A. G. H. Gibbs rather reluctantly made way, but his fortunes seemed at a low ebb. After a bout of influenza he reappeared in the Commons on 12 March. When he resumed his subtle evasions on the tariff question, he was derided in a house of dramatically new complexion. In the diminished Unionist Party the tariff reformers were now in the majority. Joseph Chamberlain's position seemed strong. By the ‘Valentine letters’ of February 1906 Balfour accepted Chamberlain's case for imperial preference; fiscal reform, Balfour agreed against his better judgement, ‘is, and must remain, the first constructive work of the Unionist Party’ (Ramsden, 25). However, in July Chamberlain was abruptly removed by a paralytic stroke from all prospect of the Unionist leadership.

Meanwhile Balfour, with characteristic resilience, was already preparing a strategy to defend the established order against what he portrayed as incipient social revolution and a radical government untrustworthy on imperial and constitutional questions. In a notorious statement shortly after his party had been routed in the election, he declared: ‘The great Unionist Party should still control, whether in power or in opposition, the destinies of this great Empire’ (speech of 15 Jan 1906, Zebel, 151). In April 1906 he had taken up and refined a suggestion emanating from Lord Lansdowne. Selected Liberal measures would be stiffly opposed in the Commons and subsequently amended or rejected by the solid Unionist majority in the House of Lords.

In the Commons it did not take long for Balfour to restore much of his former eminence as a debater; and by May 1908 his recognized expertise in defence matters was such that, notwithstanding his obduracy as leader of the opposition, he was invited to attend a meeting of the committee of imperial defence on the question of a possible invasion of the British Isles. Esher, whom Balfour had made a permanent member of the committee in December 1905, reported to the king that the Liberal ministers (now headed by Asquith) had been astonished by Balfour's ‘statement, lasting about an hour, quite perfect in form and language, and most closely reasoned’ (Mackay, Balfour, 172). Yet, as his anachronistic use of the House of Lords had already shown, Balfour remained above all a party leader and a party man.

In 1907 five out of nine government measures had been blocked, and in the previous year an Education Bill of nonconformist stamp had been abandoned, while a Plural Voting Bill had been rejected outright by the Lords. It was on 28 June 1907 that Lloyd George quipped during a debate on the Lords' veto powers that the upper house was not so much a ‘trusty mastiff’ defending the public interest but ‘Mr Balfour's poodle’. But Balfour and Lansdowne knew that electoral prospects would be harmed if the Lords blocked government bills enjoying widespread popular support. Therefore the Trades Disputes Bill of 1906, which sheltered the funds of the unions from law suits, had been allowed to pass; and in 1908 the Old Age Pensions Bill promoted by Lloyd George, who was now chancellor, was likewise enacted. In that year six other government measures passed while five failed. In 1907 Balfour opposed a move by Unionist peers to reform the composition of their house: he did so on the grounds—described as ‘disingenuous’ in the official history of the Conservative Party (Ramsden, 32)—that this would weaken the Commons. This was a difficult position to sustain, when Balfour's policy was to use the unelected chamber to decide which items of government legislation should reach the statute book. He met the objection—though not very energetically—by supporting in 1907 the idea of life peers. Balfour, as David Nicholls has shown, emphasized functionality rather than legalism in analysing institutions: ‘from the point of view of politics, Function is more important than Structure’ (BL, Add. MS 49962, fol. 40, Nicholls, 34), and the Lords, he believed, represented a functionally useful aspect of the constitution: ‘it is only bad theory that asks for anything more’ (Dugdale, 2.34).

Meanwhile, with Joseph Chamberlain out of the active running Balfour remained fairly secure, if not popular, in the Unionist leadership. He was felt to be remote, supercilious, and vacillating. Balfour, for his part, disdained his critics: ‘I am certainly not going to condescend to go about the country explaining that I am “honest and industrious” like a second coachman out of place!’ he told Lord Dalkeith in July 1907 (Egremont, 213). He had little to contribute to the restructuring of party organization in the wake of defeat. At the level of policy, in the interests of party unity he moved closer to the tariff reformers and they moved closer to him, though Balfour felt personally embarrassed by the distance this placed between him and his Cecil relatives, several of whom were prominent ‘free fooders’. Appreciating that social reforms must be offered to the electorate, he sought to finance them by indirect rather than by direct taxation. In the face of some growth of support in the country for confiscatory socialism, Balfour was at last able to reunite the Unionists on a strategy not so much of imperial preference as of defending private property at home.

By June 1908, however, the mounting strength of the German naval challenge was causing Balfour ‘profound anxiety’ and he encouraged the government, despite its programme of social reform, to build more ships. But the outcome was disconcerting. By the spring of 1909, the government found that it needed to find extra revenue not only to build more battleships but also to cover the true cost of old-age pensions. Thus was set in motion a sequence of events that proved dire for Balfour.

In 1908 Balfour's tactics, aided by economic depression, seemed to be achieving something of a Unionist electoral recovery, the government losing all its by-elections, but Lloyd George's revolutionary budget of 1909 transformed the situation. Balfour and Lansdowne were initially, if reluctantly, inclined to let it pass; but on 30 July Lloyd George assailed the upper classes in the Limehouse speech. He ridiculed the rich, and especially the dukes, for demanding more warships and then expecting ordinary working people to pay for them. However, Balfour was now ready to offer a fiscal alternative to Lloyd George's redistributory proposals. If the Lords rejected the budget and a general election followed, the united Unionists could offer tariff reform, including some protection for British manufacturers and thus jobs. Balfour made it clear that he would resign the party leadership if the Lords did not reject the budget; Lloyd George's rather Balfourian tactic of attaching to the budget several items which, Balfour argued, were not strictly financial genuinely angered the Unionist leader. Balfour had launched the Lords on a course ultimately fatal to his own leadership of the party.

The budget was duly rejected by the House of Lords on 30 November 1909 and parliament was dissolved on 3 December. At the general election in January 1910 the Unionists drew nearly level with the Liberals. However, with support from the Irish nationalists and the Labour Party, Asquith could continue to govern. The Lords now permitted the budget to pass but the Irish, with home rule now clearly in view, demanded removal of the Lords' powers of veto. From June to November Balfour was engaged in fruitless inter-party negotiations on the House of Lords and also on Lloyd George's imaginative proposal of a coalition. The election campaign of November and December 1910 saw Balfour trying to divert attention away from class cleavage to the enhanced danger of home rule. Only a few days before polling began on 3 December, he accepted advice from the Unionist press and Lansdowne to offer a referendum on tariff reform if the Unionists returned to power, hoping thus to allay working-class fears of food taxes. However the results of December 1910 gave the Unionists only 271 seats to the Liberals' 272, and the latter could also draw on the Irish home-rulers and the Labour Party. The prospects of the Parliament Bill, and therefore of home rule, were greatly improved. At the same time the resentment of many tariff reformers at Balfour's referendum offer weakened his hold on the party.

From February to May 1911 the Parliament Bill progressed through the Commons, thanks to rigorous use of the closure, and by early July it lay radically amended in the House of Lords. Balfour took the erroneous view that the king could be won over to the Unionist position and he had ‘intrigues with the palace to give him [Edward VII] unconstitutional advice’ (Ramsden, 38). There was, however, never much doubt that the Lords would not be allowed total intransigence, and that the direction in which Balfour had encouraged them could not, in fact, be sustained. On 7 July Balfour was informed that Asquith had, in the previous November, obtained from George V a pledge to create peers in sufficient number to secure the passage of the bill. On 21 July 1911 the shadow cabinet voted narrowly for compromise, and on 25 July Balfour announced that the Lords would be advised to pass the Parliament Bill. He regarded the ‘policy which its advocates call “fighting to the last” as essentially theatrical, though not on that account necessarily wrong’ (Dugdale, 2.70), a view whose fuller and earlier transmission might have saved some time in British politics. Lord Halsbury's last-ditch stand, supported by many peers and by several in the shadow cabinet including Austen Chamberlain, was thus a significant snub to Balfour, who left for Germany before the vital vote in the Lords on 10 August. Balfour's position as party leader was clearly becoming untenable. While in Germany he decided to resign, telling the chief whip and the party chairman in September, and his leading colleagues and the king in early November, and making his resignation public on 8 November 1911. From his party's point of view, Balfour had been as disastrous an opposition leader as he had been a prime minister. He left, moreover, no obvious successor.

Philosophical intermission

Balfour was sixty-three years old when he resigned as Unionist leader. Though he remained a member of the shadow cabinet it might have been expected that his political career was over. His first inclination was to turn back to philosophy. During his years as opposition leader he had served on the council of the Royal Society, in 1907–8, and was again on it in 1912–14. An invitation to give the Gifford lectures at Glasgow University allowed him to develop further his intellectual justification of a theistic philosophy. Despite some major distractions he was able to deliver, by the winter of 1914, ten closely reasoned lectures from his customary brief list of headings. The content was published in 1915 in Theism and Humanism; from its fees attractive iron gates at Whittingehame were erected.

Balfour's extended family, in which he took great pleasure, now included three nephews and eight nieces—the children of his brothers Gerald and Eustace—most of whom had grown up. Much as in the past, Balfour aired his lines of philosophical thought and discussed them with these young people who often stayed at Whittingehame. In her biography (published in 1936) Blanche Dugdale describes this as a particularly happy time in Balfour's life. The usual activities, especially lawn tennis, continued, as did the family's devotion to him.

But meanwhile intimations of war were soon attracting Balfour's attention. From 1912 he was involved at the committee of imperial defence, where Maurice Hankey had begun his long career as secretary. Balfour tried without success to get Winston Churchill, the first lord of the Admiralty, to appreciate that submarines were essentially the weapon of the weaker naval power; and in correspondence with Admiral Lord Fisher it was Balfour who pointed out that, if war should come, U-boats would probably sink British and other merchant shipping without restraint—‘for a submarine could not capture’ (20 May 1913).

Balfour did not attempt to guide the proceedings of Andrew Bonar Law, his successor as Unionist leader, but he became involved as the home-rule issue moved into its final and most dangerous pre-war phase. For Roman Catholic Ireland Balfour continued, as a last resort, to prefer a grant of independence rather than home rule. At the same time, he strongly supported the Ulster protestants in their demand for independence of Dublin. In 1913, when Asquith invited Bonar Law to secret talks at Cherkley on the question of Ulster exclusion, Balfour was alarmed that Asquith might find a solution and thereby spoil the chances of a Unionist victory at a general election; his speech at Aberdeen on 3 November 1913 was a strong waving of the Orange flag. Balfour's policy at this time recalled the policy of himself and Salisbury in 1885–6, when they had seen the especial advantages to the Conservatives of Liberal difficulties over Ireland. As Horace Plunkett noted, ‘sometimes he plays the game when he ought not’ (C. B. Shannon, 286). Balfour perhaps underestimated the political will of the Ulster Unionists and their willingness to take up arms, and he perhaps overplayed the party card. Even so, some, such as Hankey, saw him as a possible means of achieving an agreed settlement. This was an unrealistic reading of his mood. Asquith, for his part (and more accurately), in mid-July 1914 told the king that he would not have Balfour at the all-party conference because, on the home-rule question, he was ‘a real wrecker’ (R. Jenkins, Asquith, 1964, 320).

First lord of the Admiralty, 1915–1916

After the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914, the Government of Ireland Act was set aside for the duration. Balfour did not question the rightness of the British decision to defend Belgium. Asquith appointed him a full member of the committee of imperial defence and in November he became a member of Asquith's war council. He was the only member of the shadow cabinet thus appointed, and he soon showed qualities of imagination and foresight. Balfour proved as shrewd a policy maker under others as he had been a disappointing party leader. He advised on home defence and wrote an important paper on the effect of high army recruitment on the economy (‘Limits of enlistment’, 1 January 1915, proposing non-enlistment for certain categories of key workers); and soon he became the leading spokesman, at the top political level, for the view that wastage of lives in France endangered Britain's long-term strength. In the new year he argued persuasively in favour of Churchill's proposal to attack the Dardanelles with ships alone. At the decisive meeting of the war council on 28 January 1915, it seemed that troops would not be available. However, it also appeared that the ships could be easily withdrawn if the bombardment failed, and in Balfour's view the alluring strategic possibilities made the venture well worth the likely cost.

In May Churchill, at the time of his break with Fisher at the Admiralty, suggested that Balfour should replace Lord Kitchener at the War Office. Bonar Law, for his part, went to Lloyd George, who was still chancellor, to demand a new prime minister: Balfour, Grey, or Lloyd George himself. In the ensuing coalition Balfour, on 25 May 1915, became first lord of the Admiralty, the most important of the six cabinet posts offered to the Unionists. His status in the new cabinet was second only to that of Asquith himself.

Fisher declined to serve under Balfour, blaming him even more than Churchill for the Dardanelles disaster. But with the scientifically inclined but undynamic Admiral Sir Henry Jackson—a fellow of the Royal Society, like Balfour himself—as first sea lord, Balfour restored professional opinion to pre-Churchillian shares of responsibility. In the North Sea the sound, unadventurous policy followed by Admiral Jellicoe in the early days of the war was maintained. Balfour remained, perhaps, unduly optimistic about the Dardanelles campaign, despite the military set-backs. Meanwhile, having for long admired Lloyd George as a political opponent, he was much impressed by his work, from May 1915, at the Ministry of Munitions. Balfour, however, differed from Lloyd George by opposing conscription; and in December and January he argued against further great offensives being mounted on the western front before the British forces had reached their peak. But he could not prevail against the military policies which culminated in July at the battle of the Somme.

A little earlier, on 2 June 1916, Balfour took it on himself to draft a public communiqué based on Jellicoe's report of ships known to have been lost on either side at Jutland. After discussion, Balfour characteristically decided to publish the disappointing tally without reassuring comment, for example on Britain's unshaken command of the North Sea. This was, his niece wrote, ‘a supreme example of Balfour's faulty understanding of the psychology of the common man’ (Dugdale, 2.113–14).

Towards the end of 1916, the U-boat problem was assuming very serious proportions. Already convoys were used for the protection of troop ships and cross-channel traffic, but Jackson and his advisers believed that a general system of convoys was obviated by a number of considerations. Of these one carried special weight, the lack of a sufficient number of escorts. On this, as on all naval matters, Balfour remained open to suggestion and plied his professional advisers with searching questions.

In the summer of 1916 Balfour supported the solution proposed by Lloyd George, on Asquith's prompting, of immediate home rule for the south of Ireland, with Ulster deferred for the duration. He was, however, unable to persuade his Unionist colleagues and the proposed settlement collapsed, leaving the way clear for Sinn Féin. Balfour was ready enough to accept the Free State, for he always favoured independence for Ireland rather than home rule as long as Ulster was exempt. ‘What was the Ireland the Free State took over? It was the Ireland that we made’, he told his prospective biographer in 1928 (C. B. Shannon, 281).

Balfour always opposed proposals for a negotiated peace in Europe, notably when Lord Lansdowne, his erstwhile colleague, presented his ‘peace memorandum’ to Asquith in November 1916, an initiative partly responsible for triggering the political crisis of the coalition. By December 1916 Balfour agreed with those who thought that a more quickly decisive prime minister was required, despite the fact that Asquith was determined to keep him as first lord. Realizing that Lloyd George, as part of his move to take over the running of the war, wanted a change at the Admiralty, and rather than see Lloyd George resign, Balfour pressed, from his sickbed, his own resignation on Asquith on 5 December. Asquith asked him to reconsider. When Asquith declined to serve in a cabinet led by Bonar Law, Balfour, in turn, asked Asquith to reconsider. On 6 December Balfour attended a meeting at Buckingham Palace and was unsuccessful in requesting Asquith to serve under Bonar Law. The upshot was the Lloyd George coalition. Many high-ranking sailors were sorry to see Balfour leave the Admiralty, admirals Jellicoe and Beatty included. Carson, Balfour's replacement, proved himself in major respects less capable, though he supplied a Balfourian deficiency by making regular visits to the naval bases and the Grand Fleet.

Foreign secretary, 1916–1919

Outstanding among Balfour's wartime services was his part—rated by Bonar Law ‘the biggest’—in the resolution of the cabinet crisis ending with the formation of Lloyd George's coalition in December 1916. Although politics was Balfour's enduring passion and, at the time of the crisis, he remained in the ministerial first rank, he not only accepted Lloyd George's wish that he should leave the Admiralty but also supported the installation of his pre-war political adversary as prime minister. This selfless conduct—not emulated by Asquith—was entirely in the interest of a more energetic and decisive running of the war. Lloyd George, for his part, wanted a greater show of energy at the head of the Admiralty, but he deemed Balfour ideally suited to the Foreign Office, and had suggested him as a temporary substitute for Grey as early as March 1915 (Zebel, 202). This not unfamiliar employment Balfour accepted. In his memoirs Lloyd George later paid fitting tribute to the quality of Balfour's whole wartime contribution: ‘his unfailing courage’ which ‘steadied faltering spirits in hours of doubt and dread’ (Lloyd George, 2.1014). Indeed, Balfour never swerved from insistence on the military defeat of Germany.

However, the fact remains that Balfour's role had been somewhat diminished. While, uniquely, he had unrestricted access to Lloyd George's small war cabinet, he was not a member of it. Even so, given the erosion of his political base within his own party, his continuance in one of the great offices of state testifies to Lloyd George's confidence in him, and perhaps to the latter's desire to keep the Foreign Office from the Liberals and from the Bonar Law Unionists.

The first memorable episode of Balfour's term at the Foreign Office occurred in April 1917 when, at the age of sixty-eight and hating sea voyages, he went at the head of a mission to Washington. Balfour had for long attached much importance to Anglo-American friendship and, now that the American declaration of war on Germany was imminent, the war cabinet decided that ‘someone of the highest status’ in Britain ‘who would have the entrée to all circles, should proceed to Washington’ (Mackay, Balfour, 313). Balfour ‘very sportingly’ (thought Hankey) agreed to go: he sought to establish a good rapport with President Wilson and smooth the way for American co-operation, especially in resisting the unrestricted onslaught of the U-boats against shipping, now at its height. Balfour did all that was asked of him. He was well received in the house of representatives when he addressed it, even by its Irish Catholic members (ironically, the previous MP to address it was Parnell in 1880). From the USA Balfour went to Canada, where he was also enthusiastically received when he visited Ottawa, Toronto, and Quebec.

The Balfour declaration, 1917

The question of Britain's role in the Middle East as the Ottoman empire disintegrated exercised the government from the start of the war. Balfour was much less enthusiastic about an extension of British responsibilities in the Middle East than some of his colleagues. By the time that he became foreign secretary the de Bunsen committee had reported, recommending a British sphere of influence in Palestine to the exclusion of France, and had made his notorious agreement with Picot (May 1916) partitioning the area post-war, with Britain getting Palestine. Initially British policy was shaped by traditional strategic concerns, but as the war progressed the support of Jews in the USA and Russia became important. Balfour, like Lloyd George, was sympathetic to Zionism. When prime minister, he had supported Joseph Chamberlain's plans for Jewish resettlement in east Africa, and in the aftermath of those plans he had met on 9 January 1906, in Manchester during the election campaign, who strongly impressed him. In his house in Carlton Gardens, he again met Weizmann in December 1914; Weizmann reported:
Our talk lasted an hour and a half. Balfour remembered everything we had discussed eight years ago. … He said that, in his opinion, the [Jewish] question would not be solved until either the Jews became completely assimilated here or a normal Jewish society came into existence in Palestine. (Zebel, 241)
Further conversations followed in 1916 and 1917, and while in the USA Balfour also met influential Zionists, impressing Justice L. D. Brandeis with his ‘quietly emphatic remark: “I am a Zionist”’ (ibid., 244). In the summer of 1917 strategic and Zionist concerns coincided to encourage the Foreign Office, Balfour, Lloyd George, and, from 3 September 1917, the war cabinet to contemplate a public statement. A delay occurred through the strong opposition from Edwin Montagu, representing an important section of British Jewry, who argued that a Jewish national home would be disadvantageous to the position of Jews in their present countries, and from Curzon, who drew attention to the problems that a ‘national home’ would cause with and for the existing Islamic population in and around Palestine. On 5 October Balfour consulted the American government on a draft more cautious than the original. He gained the Americans' agreement (on condition that they were not publicly associated with the declaration), and on 2 November 1917 what was at once known as the Balfour declaration was published in the form of a letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild; it stated that the British government favoured ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ on the clear understanding that there should be no disadvantage to ‘the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’ (facsimile in Stein, frontispiece). Of the many initiatives of the British government in the First World War, it perhaps cast the longest shadow. Balfour told the cabinet that it implied a ‘British, American, or other protectorate’ and not the early establishment of an independent Jewish state (cabinet minutes, Zebel, 247). Balfour pressed for the acceptance and publication of the declaration with unwonted energy and uncharacteristic personal commitment, hard to explain in terms of his background and other beliefs.

The end of the First World War

Just after the publication of the Balfour declaration and following the revolution in Russia, Lord Lansdowne published in the Daily Telegraph (29 November 1917) his plan for a negotiated peace; a muddle arising from a discussion in the street led Lansdowne initially to think that the letter had the foreign secretary's approval, a curious misjudgement on the writer's part. Arguing against Churchill and others, Balfour declined to see a priority interest in defeating Bolshevism and he hoped the Bolsheviks could be kept in tow, but the maintenance of an active eastern front was his determining priority; he therefore opposed aid to the White Russians, but also supported British intervention to prop up the war effort in north Russia and Siberia, a position which led to muddle and acrimony (Young, 402). Even after the end of hostilities, and with the need to keep the Russians active against the Germans and Austrians gone, Balfour remained hostile to intervention against Bolshevism: ‘If Russia chose to be Bolshevik, we should not gainsay it’, he wrote in a memorandum on 29 November 1918 (Tomes, 229). Balfour's efforts were focused on attempting to maintain freedom for the Baltic states from both Russia and Germany. In 1920 Balfour stated that he hoped Britain would never formally recognize the Bolshevik regime, but it was not until the 1924 general election that Balfour, for reasons of domestic political advantage, played the anti-Bolshevik card (ibid., 233–4).

As the war ended, Balfour and the Foreign Office prepared a British approach to the peace. Balfour had always hoped the German and Austrian empires could survive defeat, and initially stated: ‘I don't want to trample her [Germany] in the mud’ (Zebel, 255), though he later modified this view. He supported the maintenance of the coalition led by Lloyd George to oversee the peace and the aftermath of war, announcing his views in an exchange with Bonar Law in November 1918. In the ‘coupon’ election in December 1918, Balfour was again returned for the City of London. At the Paris peace conference of 1919 Balfour inevitably played second fiddle to Lloyd George (they both had apartments at 23 rue Nitot). However, early on, during the temporary absence of the national leaders, Balfour did valuable work in expediting preparations for their return. Hankey, who was now the secretary of the peacetime cabinet, commented on ‘Balfour's extraordinary aptitude’, despite some recent ill health and his seventy years, ‘for rising to the occasion’; and Robert Vansittart, a member of Balfour's diplomatic team in Paris, aptly conveys in his memoirs the respect and affection which Balfour—as in days gone by—inspired in his subordinates: ‘It was hopeless to avoid devotion to AJB, and I never tried.’ Even so, Balfour's reputation during the negotiations was that of a man withdrawn, even somnolent, allowing others to set the pace (Tomes, 163). Balfour may have simply been tired during the exhausting sessions in Paris, but his absence of intervention may also have been conditioned by a recognition that the conference must make rapid progress with its vast agenda if it was to retain legitimacy, and above all that the Europeans must not estrange by prevarication the attachment of the USA to the settlement.

Balfour remained less hostile to the Germans than some of the British delegation. He accepted the need for reparations but recommended the easing of the blockade. When asked if the German foreign minister had not behaved insultingly when remaining seated on receiving the allies' peace terms, Balfour remarked: ‘I did not notice. I do not stare at a gentleman in distress’ (Zebel, 260). The German treaty having been signed in June, Balfour remained as leader of the British delegation until the Austrian treaty was concluded in September. Minority treaties were negotiated with the many successor states. Ironically, Balfour negotiated for eastern Europe a settlement based on just the recognition of nationalities which his political career at home had been dedicated—in the case of the Irish—to preventing. As Lloyd George's foreign secretary, he had performed his tasks with admirable patience, good humour, and undiminished ability.

Lord president of the council, 1919–1922, and Unionist politics

On 23 October 1919 Balfour, exhausted by continuous major office since 1915 and now in his seventy-second year, exchanged offices with George, Earl Curzon, but this did not mean the end of his prominent role in foreign affairs (nor did he, as many expected, take a peerage). While lord president he represented Britain on the council of the League of Nations. He was under no illusions about the likely potential of that body without the United States, but he recognized that it had its uses. Therefore, despite some ill health and disinclination to travel to Geneva, he led the British delegation there each autumn during 1920–22. According to Gilbert Murray, who was a delegate to the league from 1921 to 1923:
AJB dominates the Assembly, easily and without effort. … It is partly mere charm and unassuming dignity, partly his great prestige, partly a real diplomatic power of making almost anyone do what he wants. … He makes no effort and is irresistible. (Mackay, Balfour, 328)
Balfour's flexibility with respect to the league was marked. Its idealism would seem far from Balfourian scepticism of temperament, but he had been honorary president of the League of Nations Union from 1918, and, though equivocal about the league's likely efficacy and though, as foreign secretary, leaving the details of the negotiations about its formation to his cousin, Lord Robert Cecil, Balfour's presence and support were of importance in establishing the status of the league as a body with wider support than that of its enthusiasts. He was sceptical about each of the tenets of the league, but he none the less thought it worth a try.

In 1920 the committee of imperial defence was revived with Hankey again as its secretary, while remaining also secretary of the cabinet; and soon Balfour, too, was back in a prominent role. By 1921, when an important international conference was in prospect at Washington to deal with naval limitation and related Asiatic questions, Lloyd George, who was preoccupied with Irish matters, had no doubt that Balfour was the man to send. Although the relevant treaty marked the formal end of British naval superiority, American willingness to accept parity with Britain was, in the light of superior American shipbuilding capability, a great boon. On his return to Britain in March 1922, Balfour was acclaimed as a statesman of international renown. The king made him a knight of the Garter and pressed an earldom upon him. On 5 May, with some reluctance, he was created earl of Balfour and Viscount Traprain and ended his long association with the Commons. Curzon was ill for much of the summer of 1922 and Balfour was acting foreign secretary. As such he issued the ‘Balfour note’ of 1 August 1922 advocating the cancellation of all war debts but, failing that, stating Britain's need to exercise her own claims to the extent needed to pay her own debts to the USA—a generally poorly received, if forward-looking, initiative.

Balfour had consistently supported the Lloyd George coalition from its inception, believing that it offered the best available counterweight to socialism in Britain. But when, in March 1921, the Coalition Liberals rejected fusion with the Conservatives, the outlook for national reconstruction under Lloyd George was bleak. Balfour was furious at the hostility of Bonar Law and Curzon to the coalition. At the famous meeting at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922 he spoke for the continuance of the coalition, an appeal rejected by 188 to 88 votes. Lloyd George and his ministers at once left office.

Balfour did not go over to the new prime minister, Bonar Law, and indeed was in effect again a party leader, though without a party. He was pessimistic about Conservative chances. However, though unwilling to join the government, he again became British representative at the league in Geneva, resigning in February 1923. In March 1923 he played a part in an extensive inquiry into defence policy, in spite of suffering from a protracted, though not very serious, breakdown of health.

In May 1923 the king sounded Balfour's opinion as to whether Lord Curzon should succeed Bonar Law as prime minister; Balfour advised against. Balfour felt himself qualified to answer the subsequent enquiry whether ‘dear George’ would be chosen. His reply was: ‘No, dear George will not’ (Churchill, 287).

Non-political life in the 1920s

However, Balfour's high public standing was no longer reflected in his private financial status. He and his brother Gerald had invested heavily, before the war, with what his second biographer describes as manic intensity (Young, 321), in an enterprise aiming to produce a supply of industrial fuel from processed peat. Unfortunately they both persisted with this loss-making venture after the war by financing a company called Peco, which went bankrupt. By 1922 Balfour, who had never had to worry about money, was having overdraft problems; and in 1928 he was working on his Chapters of Autobiography (not completed; published posthumously in 1930, edited by Mrs Dugdale) with an eye to the royalties. But he never freed himself from debt and his family could not, as he had hoped, live at Whittingehame House after him.

In the 1920s Balfour maintained an energetic level of non-political activities. He had been made a member of the Order of Merit in 1916. In 1919 he became chancellor of the University of Cambridge, an office he held until his death. He was an active chancellor, playing a part in the raising of money from Rockefeller for the new university library in 1928 (on the death of H. M. Butler in 1918, there was some suggestion that he might become master of Trinity College, but nothing came of this). One of the founding fellows of the British Academy, he was its president from 1921 until 1928, the longest tenure of the office in its history—‘a strangely inactive’ period, according to Mortimer Wheeler, during which Balfour ‘lent the majesty of his name for no less than seven years without imperilling it by the utterance of an annual address’ (M. Wheeler, The British Academy, 1970). While president, however, Balfour gave his second series of Gifford lectures, and in 1923 the published version of these appeared as Theism and Thought. It was to the academy that he delivered his final reflections on philosophy, ‘Familiar beliefs and transcendent reason’, in 1925. He declined the presidency of the Royal Society in 1920, thus turning down what would have been a unique double. He wrote an introduction to Science, Religion and Reality, edited by the young Joseph Needham in 1925.

Again lord president, 1925–1929

In May 1923 Bonar Law was succeeded as prime minister by Stanley Baldwin. Although Balfour gave him public support, Baldwin did not at once offer him a cabinet post. However, when Curzon died in April 1925 it was Balfour who filled his place. By then Baldwin was more securely in the saddle and Balfour, as a peer and increasingly deaf at the age of seventy-six, could at last no longer be seen as a possible prime minister.

But Balfour continued to illuminate the proceedings of the committee of imperial defence as he had done when out of office in 1923. In that year, as a member of the Salisbury committee on co-ordination of defence and chairman of its special subcommittee on relations between the navy and the air force, he decided to back the RAF in its wish to continue to train and administer the Fleet Air Arm. This arrangement was not reversed until 1937, unfortunately. But in 1923 the RAF's existence as an independent service was under threat and Balfour saw its survival as the main priority.

It was at a meeting of the main Salisbury committee on 10 May 1923 that Balfour, when discussing the outlook for peace, said that he had been gradually driven to conclude ‘that nothing, not the League of Nations or anything else’ would ensure peace except ‘the certainty of every civilized man, woman and child that everybody will be destroyed if there is war’ (Mackay, Balfour, 346). Research, he believed, might produce this ultimate solution.

In the opening months of 1925 Balfour toured the Middle East, attending in his robes as chancellor of the University of Cambridge the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and being entertained by Chaim Weizmann. Arab protests required him to cut short his tour. While in Palestine, Balfour was invited by Baldwin to replace the deceased Curzon as lord president; he took office on 29 April. His chief achievement during this last period of office was the chairing (as a result of Baldwin's lumbago) of the inter-imperial relations committee at the Imperial Conference in 1926, from whose unanimous report derived the Statute of Westminster (1931), defining the relations of dominions (of European settlement) within the empire.

At the committee of imperial defence in 1926 Churchill's proposed Ministry of Defence met with Balfour's usual scepticism on this subject. But despite a severe set-back to his health in March 1928 Balfour, on his final appearance in July, showed good judgement in condemning as ‘dangerous’ and ‘wholly impracticable’ Churchill's move, as an economizing chancellor, to place his ten-year rule on a daily forward-moving basis. He also wanted additional spending on naval anti-aircraft weapons ahead of cruisers.

As lord president Balfour continued to take a close interest in scientific and technological developments, especially within the bodies for which he was responsible, namely the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Medical Research Council; during both his periods as lord president he was an assiduous attender at their meetings. It was said that the ‘Lord Presidency used to be considered a general utility office. He [Balfour] converted it into a Ministry of Research’ (Sir Frank Heath, quoted in Rayleigh, 46). Always concerned about the future of the British economy, he instituted a committee of civil research which, with the prime minister sometimes in the chair, reported on fourteen important subjects (such as overseas loans, the safeguarding of the iron and steel industry, and unemployment) before ill health in the autumn of 1928 finally removed him from active work. Out of courtesy and respect, Baldwin insisted on his retaining his office until the end of the government in May 1929.

Meanwhile, on 25 July 1928, his eightieth birthday, Balfour was presented at Westminster with a well-chosen tribute from both houses of parliament—a Rolls-Royce. He had for long been a motoring enthusiast. Mrs Dugdale noticed how Balfour, in responding, addressed his earlier remarks ‘almost personally to Lloyd George’ (Dugdale, 2.397).

Death

Apart from a number of colds and occasional influenza, Balfour had enjoyed good health until the year 1928. He remained until then a regular tennis player. At the end of that year most of his teeth had to be removed and he began to suffer from the unremitting circulatory trouble which ended his life. Late in January 1929 Balfour was conveyed from Whittingehame to Fisher's Hill, his brother Gerald's home near Woking, Surrey. In the past he had suffered from occasional bouts of phlebitis and by the autumn of 1929 he was immobilized by it. Finally, soon after receiving a visit from Weizmann, Balfour died at Fisher's Hill on 19 March 1930. At his own request a public funeral was declined and he was buried on 22 March beside members of his family at Whittingehame. Despite the snowy weather, attenders came from far and wide. By special remainder, the title passed to his brother Gerald.

Balfour's image

Balfour's lack of popular rapport was reflected in rather rapid public discounting of his memory, but he was in his day a fertile source for artists and cartoonists. His features, which seemed both hard and languid, were perhaps best caught in the oil sketch by Sir James Guthrie (c.1925, NPG), and his character was brilliantly satirized by Max Beerbohm, for whom Balfour became something of an obsession, and by Francis Carruthers Gould, whose daily cartoons in the Westminster Gazette in the 1900s amicably depicted the disintegration of Balfour's government.

Assessment

As an intellectual statesman, Balfour achieved rare distinction, especially during the later years of his long career. Before he became prime minister, his wholehearted identification with the main strands of his uncle's Conservatism provided the political basis of his increasing mastery of the parliamentary game. Less eminent in the Commons after the watershed elections of 1906, his inexhaustible skill as a debater nevertheless remained a feature of life in the house until he retired from the Unionist leadership in 1911. Among his increasingly rare subsequent appearances in the Commons was his memorable rebuttal, on 8 March 1916, of Churchill's attack on his regime at the Admiralty. This brought Churchill to admit that Balfour was ‘a master of parliamentary sword-play and of every dialectical art’ (Mackay, Balfour, 291).

In addition to his parliamentary roles Balfour undertook a remarkable amount of supra-departmental constructive work. While never an eager reformer, he established over the years a reputation for sagacity which was recognized across the party-political spectrum, initially in the foreign and defence areas of policy and latterly on a broad international plane as well.

Historical interpretations of Balfour's life have not changed radically. While there has been a journalistic tendency to sense undiscovered mysteries in a man of such intelligence and achievement wrapped in so languid an exterior, this bafflement has not been experienced by his biographers; and the emphasis already placed by Sir Robert Ensor, in England (1936), on Balfour's constructive achievements as prime minister remains valid, despite the many refinements and amplifications flowing from subsequent research. His life was recorded in two volumes (1936) by his niece, Blanche Elizabeth Campbell Dugdale, which while interesting on the personal side was no more than a competent memoir. Balfour's political papers were given to the British Library, though a significant deposit remained at Whittingehame together with several family memoirs. Material from both deposits was used to good effect in Kenneth Young's biography (1963); it, with Sydney H. Zebel's political biography (1973), Max Egremont's life (1980), and Ruddock Mackay's study (1985), are the chief works of research, though many aspects of Balfour's long career have their own studies, notably Perry Curtis's Coercion and Conciliation in Ireland, 1880–1892 (1963).

Balfour was never a nostalgic Conservative, acid though his comments on change often were. The intellectual tone of the twentieth century was more welcome to him than the religiosity of Victorian society in his youth. He adapted well to political change once it had happened. Though he had what his second biographer calls ‘a certain touch of almost feminine wilfulness’ (Young, 322), he was able to abandon intellectual positions without regret once they had become impracticable. His niece recalled that ‘he was never shaken in his belief that the younger generation was better than the one before’ (Balfour, 655), and this was reflected in his general approach to life and public affairs. Essentially melancholy at heart and in important respects pessimistic, Balfour was, even so, ‘capable at times of a soaring imagination’ which allowed him to change a generation as the passing of time required (ibid., 656). Indeed, it was once he had shed the Cecil entanglements of his youth that his most constructive years in public life began.

Balfour believed that his main constructive achievements were in Ireland and Palestine. In a longer perspective, however, his Education Act can be seen as more substantially beneficial. Although arising from political exigencies rather than reforming zeal, it stands out in tribute to Balfour's tenacity and intellect, and to his ability to produce out of strong parliamentary cross-currents a workable major bill. In the sphere of defence, he amply repaired the lamentable effects of Salisbury's antipathy to the subject. During the First World War he put aside party advantage to an extent which his earlier partisanship would not have suggested, and he played a significant role as an elder statesman—the only former prime minister involved in the crisis—in the appointment of Lloyd George to the premiership in December 1916. If he lacked the rapport with the general public possessed by the greatest prime ministers, his counsel proved its special value at the highest political level throughout the exceptional number of twenty-seven years that he served as a member of the cabinet.

Ruddock Mackay and H. C. G. Matthew

Sources  

DNB · The letters of Arthur Balfour and Lady Elcho, 1885–1917, ed. J. Ridley and C. Percy (1992) · Salisbury–Balfour correspondence: letters exchanged between the third marquess of Salisbury and his nephew Arthur James Balfour, 1869–1892, ed. R. H. Williams (1988) · B. E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, first earl of Balfour, 2 vols. (1936) · K. Young, Arthur James Balfour (1963) · S. H. Zebel, Balfour (1973) · M. Egremont, Balfour (1980) · R. F. Mackay, Balfour: intellectual statesman (1985) · J. Tomes, Balfour and foreign policy: the international thought of a conservative statesman (1997) · E. Balfour, ‘My uncle—A. J. Balfour’, The Listener (25 Oct 1956), 655–6 · W. M. Short, The mind of Arthur James Balfour (1918) · Lord Rayleigh [J. Strutt], Lord Balfour in his relation to science (1930) · D. Nicholls, ‘Few are chosen: some reflections on the politics of A. J. Balfour’, Review of Politics, 30 (1968), 33–42 · P. Harris, Life in a Scottish country house: the story of A. J. Balfour and Whittingehame House (1989) · R. Quinault, ‘Golf and Edwardian politics’, in N. Harte and R. Quinault, Land and society in Britain, 1700–1914 (1996), 191–210 · A. M. Gollin, Balfour's burden: Arthur Balfour and imperial preference (1965) · R. A. Rempel, Unionists divided: Arthur Balfour, Joseph Chamberlain and the unionist free traders (1972) · J. L. Garvin and J. Amery, The life of Joseph Chamberlain, 6 vols. (1932–69) · A. Sykes, Tariff reform in British politics, 1903–1913 (1979) · P. Fraser, ‘The unionist debacle of 1911 and Mr Balfour's retirement’, Journal of Modern History, 35 (1963), 354–65 · R. Jenkins, Mr Balfour's poodle (1954) · R. F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (1974) · L. Stein, The Balfour declaration (1961) · M. Vereté, ‘The Balfour declaration and its makers’, Middle Eastern Studies, 6 (Jan 1970), 48–75 · J. Ramsden, The age of Balfour and Baldwin, 1902–1940 (1978) · R. T. Shannon, The age of Salisbury, 1881–1902: unionism and empire (1996) · L. P. Curtis, Coercion and conciliation in Ireland (1963) · C. B. Shannon, Arthur J. Balfour and Ireland, 1874–1922 (1988) · P. T. Marsh, The discipline of popular government: Lord Salisbury's statecraft, 1881–1902 (1978) · Gladstone, Diaries · Lord Beaverbrook, Politicians and the war, 2 vols. (1928–30) · D. Lloyd George, War memoirs, new edn, 2 vols. (1938) · W. S. Churchill, Great contemporaries (1937) · C. Hazlehurst, Politicians at war, July 1914 to May 1915 (1971) · Lord Hankey [M. Hankey], The supreme command, 1914–1918, 2 vols. (1961) · J. Turner, British politics and the Great War: coalition and conflict, 1915–1918 (1992) · R. H. Ullman, Anglo-Soviet relations, 1917–1921, 3 vols. (1961–72) · B. K. Murray, The people's budget, 1909/10 (1980) · University of Edinburgh Journal, 2 (1927–8), 148–9 · R. Williams, Defending the empire: the Conservative Party and British defence policy, 1899–1915 (1991) · H. Lucy, A diary of two parliaments, 1885–6, 2 vols. (1886) · H. W. Lucy, A diary of the Salisbury parliament, 1886–1892 (1892) · H. W. Lucy, The Balfourian parliament, 1900–1905 (1906)

Archives  

BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MS 49683–49962 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. · Bodl. Oxf., letters and papers, MSS Eng. hist. c. 713–773 · JRL, corresp. · NA Scot., corresp. and papers · TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, FO 800/199–217 · TNA: PRO, Irish Papers, PRO 30/60/1–13 · Whittingehame House, East Lothian |  Beds. & Luton ARS, Halsbury MSS · BL, corresp. with H. O. Arnold-Forster, Add. MSS 50276–50352 · BL, corresp. with Lord Bertie, Add. MSS 63043–63049 · BL, corresp. with William Brodrick, Add. MS 50072 · BL, letters to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Add. MSS 41217–41238, passim · BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51071 · BL, corresp. with Sir Charles Dilke, Add. MS 43877 · BL, Gladstone MSS, Add. MSS 45986, 46238, 44444–44785, passim · BL, letters to Lord Halsbury, Add. MS 56372, fols. 196–219v · BL, corresp. with Lord Long, Add. MS 62403 · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MS 62153 · BL, corresp. with Sir R. S. Paget, Add. MS 51252 · BL, corresp. with Lord Ritchie, Add. MS 53780 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Curzon, MSS Eur. F 111–112 · BL OIOC, letters to Lord Reading, MSS Eur. E 238, F 118 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Ampthill; corresp. with H. H. Asquith; letters to M. Asquith [copies]; corresp. with Sir Henry Burdett; letters to H. A. L. Fischer; corresp. with H. A. Gwynne; letters to Philip Kerr; corresp. with Gilbert Murray; corresp. with Lord Selborne · Bodl. Oxf., letters to W. H. Dickinson; letters to Edward VII; letters to Lord Goschen; corresp. with Viscount Hanworth; corresp. with Lewis Harcourt; corresp. with Lord Milner; letters to Hastings Rashdall; corresp. with Lord Selborne · Bodl. Oxf., Goschen MSS · CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Randolph Churchill; corresp. with Sir Henry Page Croft; corresp. with Lord Fisher; corresp. with Alfred Lyttelton; letters to Edith Lyttelton · CAC Cam., letters to W. T. Stead · Cardiff Central Library, letters to Sir Hugh Owen · Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, letters to duke of Devonshire · CKS, letters to Aretas Akers-Douglas · CKS, letters to Edward Stanhope · CUL, letters to Stanley Baldwin; letters to Samuel Hoare · CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge · Edinburgh City Archives, letters to Edinburgh Philosophical Institution · Glos. RO, corresp. with Sir Michael Hicks Beach · Helmingham Hall, Stowmarket, letters to Sir Joseph Ridgeway · Herts. ALS, corresp. with Lady Desborough · IWM, corresp. with Sir Henry Wilson · Keele University Library, LePlay Collection, corresp. with Victor Veracis Branford · King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · L. Cong., corresp. with Moreton Frewen · LPL, corresp. with E. W. Benson; corresp. with Randall Thomas Davidson · Lpool RO, corresp. with Lord Derby · Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, letters to T. C. Horsfall · Mitchell L., Glas., Glasgow City Archives, letters to James Parker Smith · Morgan L., W. E. Henley MSS · NAM, letters to Lord Roberts · NL Scot., letters to Sir Henry Craik; letters to Sir Charles Dalrymple; letters to A. C. Fraser; letters to Sir George Henschel; corresp. with Lord Lothian; letters to Alexander Murray · NL Scot., corresp. with Arthur Elliott; corresp. with Lord Haldane · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Rosebery and some papers relating to Donald Macleod · NL Wales, corresp. with Thomas Jones · NRA Scotland, priv. coll., corresp. with Lord Balfour of Burleigh · NRA Scotland, priv. coll., corresp. with Sir John Ewart · Parl. Arch., letters to Lord Ashbourne; corresp. with Andrew Bonar Law; corresp. with David Lloyd George; corresp. with Herbert Samuel; corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · Plunkett Foundation, Long Hanborough, Oxfordshire, corresp. with Sir Horace Plunkett · PRONI, letters to duke of Abercorn; corresp. with Edward Carson · Surrey HC, corresp. with Lord Onslow · TNA: PRO, corresp. with A. Anderson, PRO 30/68/10–15 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Kitchener, PRO 30/57; WO 159 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Midleton, PRO 30/67 · Trinity Cam., corresp. with Sir Joseph John Thomson · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Austen Chamberlain and Joseph Chamberlain · U. Birm. L., letters to Oliver Lodge · U. Edin. L., letters to Sir Charles Pearson; letters to Charles Sarolea · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Sir Edmund Gosse · U. Newcastle, corresp. with Walter Runciman · U. Reading L., letters to Lady Astor · U. St Andr. L., letters to Sir James Donaldson · U. St Andr. L., corresp. with Wilfred Ward · UCL, corresp. with Sir Edwin Chadwick · University of Bristol Library, letters to Alfred Austin · University of Sheffield Library, corresp. with W. A. S. Hewins · W. Sussex RO, letters to L. J. Maxse · Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. with Lord Long; corresp. with Lord Pembroke · Yale U., Sterling Memorial Library, corresp. with Edward House  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage · BFINA, news footage · BFINA, propaganda footage (Hepworth Manufacturing Company) · IWM FVA, actuality footage


Likenesses  

G. Richmond, chalk drawing, 1877, NPG · Russell & Sons, photograph, 1887, NPG; repro. in Our conservative and unionist statesmen, 2 vols. (1896–7), pt 3 · Violet, duchess of Rutland, lithograph, 1888, NPG · E. O. Ford, plaster bust, c.1892, Scot. NPG · S. Hodges, oils, c.1894, Constitutional Club, London · C. M. Hardie, group portrait, 1899 (Curling at Carsebreck), Scot. NPG · B. Stone, photograph, 1899, NPG · M. Beerbohm, caricatures, drawings, 1900, U. Cal., Los Angeles, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library · G. Reid, oils, c.1900, U. Edin. · G. C. Beresford, negative, 1902, NPG · London Stereoscopic Co., cabinet photograph, 1902, NPG · S. P. Hall, double portrait, oils, c.1902–1903 (with Joseph Chamberlain), NPG · J. S. Sargent, oils, 1908, NPG [see illus.] · M. Beerbohm, caricatures, drawings, 1909, AM Oxf. · M. Beerbohm, caricatures, drawings, 1912, Merton Oxf. · O. Edis, autochrome photograph, 1914, NPG · M. Beerbohm, caricature, drawing, 1920, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1921, NPG · J. Guthrie, group portrait, oils, 1921–30 (Statesmen of World War I, 1914–18), NPG · C. Simms, group portrait, oils, 1923 (The introduction of Lady Astor to the House of Commons, 1st December 1919), Palace of Westminster, London · J. Guthrie, oils sketch, c.1925, NPG · L. Alma-Tadema, oils, NPG · M. Beerbohm, caricatures, drawings, Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library · W. & D. Downey, various photographs, NPG · O. Edis, various photographs, NPG · H. Furniss, caricatures, ink drawings, NPG · F. C. Gould, caricatures, ink drawings, NPG · S. P. Hall, pencil drawing, NPG · P. A. de Laszlo, oils, NPG · P. A. de Laszlo, oils, Trinity Cam. · London Stereoscopic Co., photograph, NPG; repro. in Our conservative and unionist statesmen, 2 vols. (1896–7), pt 3 · London Stereoscopic Co., various photographs, NPG · W. Orpen, group portrait, oils (A peace conference at the Quai d'Orsay), IWM · W. Orpen, group portrait, oils (The signing of peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919), IWM · B. Partridge, two caricatures, drawings, NPG; repro. in Punch (6 May–16 Sept 1903) · C. Sims, oils, Scot. NPG · B. Stone, photograph, NPG · J. Tenniel, pencil caricature (April showers, or a spoilt Easter holiday), FM Cam.; repro. in Punch (23 April 1892) · G. F. Watt, oils, Eton · Xit, caricature, Hentschel-colourtype, NPG; repro. in VF (27 Jan 1910) · bronze medal, Scot. NPG

Wealth at death  

£76,433 5s. 2d.: confirmation, 27 Aug 1930, CCI