In 1903 Winston Churchill said that if the Conservatives adopted protection, the old Conservative Party would disappear, and something like the American Republican Party would probably take its place. Churchill was wrong, in that the Conservative Party had already largely disappeared – not for the last time. By the end of the 19th century the disintegration of the Whigs had led to the Conservative Party’s becoming for the first time in its history the natural choice of the wealthy; the Party already resembled the Republican Party in the United States and was near to being dominated by a single interest, the rich. The difference was that under the Republicans American capitalism flourished, while the British economy was already in relative decline.
Under Salisbury and Balfour, the Disraelian impetus to social reform was lost, though the Conservatives had on occasion to make substantial if grudging payments for the support of Joseph Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists by enacting part of the Radical programme. The chief object of the Party, however, was the preservation of the union with Ireland. It was as Irish Secretary that Balfour made his reputation and first looked a possible future Conservative leader, and it was Ireland which thirty years later did most to damage Austen Chamberlain’s reputation in the Party and undermined his position as leader.
Ruddock Mackay has felt unnecessarily inhibited by the quantity of previous books on Balfour and has concentrated on parts of his life which have not been extensively covered in the past. Thus he devotes less than eight pages to Balfour’s four years as Chief Secretary to Ireland, five to the Balfour Declaration, and ignores altogether Lloyd George’s proposal for coalition and the Conservative-Liberal talks in 1910. In his scholarly, sensible and rather dry book Mr Mackay does have new things to say on such matters as the Committee of Imperial Defence, but the danger of his approach – quite apart from such severe faults of scale – is that the most interesting parts of Balfour’s career are the ones most likely to have been written about by previous writers. Mr Mackay may aim to restore unity to his study with his subtitle: ‘Intellectual Statesman’. Balfour was certainly intellectual and probably a statesman. But was he an ‘intellectual statesman’? If so, or indeed if not, what is an intellectual statesman? No clear answer, it seems to me, is forthcoming from Mr Mackay. At one moment he suggests that Balfour was an intellectual statesman in that he wrote, or rather dictated – Balfour was allergic to pens – well-argued minutes. But that is surely so to widen the category as to empty it of meaning. At another moment Mr Mackay seems to suggest that Balfour was intellectually arrogant, and that it was this trait which made him an intellectual statesman. That is surely to widen the category even further.
An intellectual statesman, if such a being is conceivable let alone desirable, might be expected to see further ahead than his non-intellectual contemporaries. But Balfour, clever though he was – both Birkenhead and Austen Chamberlain thought he had ‘the finest brain that has been applied to politics in our time’ – was almost entirely lacking in vision. Certainly he must be given credit for the creation of the Committee of Imperial Defence. But after Britain’s performance in the Boer War no prime minister could have left things as they were. Reform had been long overdue even before South Africa laid bare our military deficiencies. Balfour, characteristically, did nothing drastic. Ten years earlier a Ministry of Defence had been advocated by, among others, Sir Charles Dilke. Curiously, Mr Mackay admires Balfour’s ‘instant recognition’ that a Ministry of Defence would entail the downgrading of the two historic ministerial posts, First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for War. Even an obtuse politician could hardly have failed to recognise before very long that such an outcome was both the aim and the inevitable result of a Ministry of Defence.
In 1903 Balfour was still writing learned memoranda for the Committee of Imperial Defence based upon the hypothesis of a French invasion of England. He was much slower than his presumably non-intellectual colleague, Joseph Chamberlain, to see that Germany, not France, was the danger. As late as 1908 Balfour assumed that in a war Britain’s enemy would in the first instance be a power other than Germany. But he did not expect a major war with anybody. ‘There are, so far, no symptoms,’ he assured the young women of Newnham in that year, ‘either of pause or regression in the onward movement which for more than a thousand years has been a characteristic of Western civilisation.’ As prophecy this is no worse and perhaps rather better than Lloyd George’s discernment in July 1914 of ‘distinct signs of a reaction against armaments throughout the world’. But it does not suggest that Balfour possessed any very profound insight into the ways of the world that was not vouchsafed to men of lesser intellectual attainments.
Balfour’s optimism in general was matched by pessimism in particular, and his lack of vision abroad was not balanced by percipience at home. He did not believe legislation would do much good: the best that could be hoped for was that it would do no harm. The Education Act of 1902 held the field until 1944 and was Balfour’s major legislative achievement. Yet he did not much believe in education, at least for the poorer classes. His interest in the Education Bill was, as Mr Mackay points out, primarily partisan. He acted to help his party, though the Education Act was probably one of the causes of the Conservative electoral disaster in 1906.
Balfour may have recognised how far this country had fallen behind its competitors in technical education, and how dangerous this was for our industrial future. But he took no action. Once again it was Joe Chamberlain, not Balfour, who had the vision to appreciate that Britain’s industrial supremacy was not an act of God which would last for ever, and that if nothing was done Britain’s economy would soon be in dire trouble. Chamberlain’s remedy was Tariff Reform, and here Balfour did display something like intellectual statesmanship. He saw that Joe Chamberlain’s programme was not practical politics: taxes on food would be intensely unpopular at home, and the Colonies did not at all want Empire free trade. At the same time, he rejected the Cobdenite dogma, which from time to time afflicts the Conservative Party. Balfour thought the free traders of the 1840s had made ‘a double error’. They had ‘failed to foresee that the world would reject free trade, and they failed to take full account of the commercial possibilities of the British empire.’ The right position, therefore, was ‘liberty of fiscal negotiation’. In the past, Balfour pointed out, it had been impossible for Britain to negotiate effectively with other governments on commercial matters because our hands were tied by free trade. We could offer nothing to other governments, because we already gave them everything they wanted, and we could not make any realistic threat because they knew we regarded free trade as sacred. The way out of the difficulty was to use tariffs in retaliation against the tariffs of other countries. Balfour’s solution was in accordance with the imperial, commercial and electoral realities, and was much preferable to the quasi-religious positions of the free traders and the Chamberlainites. Unfortunately it was much too sensible for almost everybody else, and Balfour could get few to agree with him. Nevertheless he probably adopted it less for its intellectual beauties than for the possibilities it offered of containing the damage to party unity.
In other matters Balfour’s position had few intellectual beauties. He refused to bring in legislation to restore trade union law to what it had been before the judges got at it in the Taff Vale and other cases. In so doing he facilitated the Lib-Lab Pact and made it likely that legislation when it came would be far more extreme than it need have been. In the wake of electoral disaster in 1906 Balfour made his notorious declaration that ‘the great Unionist party should still control, whether in power or whether in opposition, the destinies of this great Empire,’ and the House of Lords was duly wheeled up to mangle the Liberal legislation programme. Balfour and the Conservatives, having not been interested in doing anything very much themselves, tried to impose a similar inactivity on their successors. But they did not dare meddle with the Trade Disputes Act, which was of all the Liberal legislation the Bill most in need of amendment.
The climax of Balfour’s arrogant and unconstitutional use of the Lords came with the Upper House’s rejection of the 1909 Budget. The initial Conservative reaction to Lloyd George’s Budget speech was favourable. Austen Chamberlain told the House of Commons that he heartily sympathised with a good deal of what Lloyd George had said and with a great number of his objectives. But that soon changed, and both Chamberlain and Balfour went on to recommend and support the madness of the Lords’ rejection of the Budget.
Like Mr Mackay, David Dutton has lumbered his book with a subtitle: ‘Gentleman in Politics’. Austen Chamberlain was certainly in politics and probably a gentleman. But it is not clear whether ‘a gentleman in politics’ is meant to describe some particular political behaviour or whether it means no more than a gentleman who happens to be in politics. However, Mr Dutton’s problem is very different from Mr Mackay’s. There has been only one previous biography of Chamberlain: the two-volume life by Sir Charles Petrie, which appeared more than forty years ago. Mr Dutton’s difficulty is that Austen was, as Balfour said, ‘a bore’ – the last thing Balfour himself was. And the last thing Mr Dutton is. He has a lively style, narrative skill, and an intimate knowledge of the period, and he makes Chamberlain an interesting if scarcely sympathetic figure. In addition, his book is very well produced, with some excellent and revealing photographs.
Balfour spurred on the Lords over the People’s Budget, but opposed their throwing out the Parliament Bill. Not so Austen Chamberlain. According to him, the curbing of the Lords embodied a ‘revolution, nurtured in lies, promoted by fraud and only to be achieved by violence’. The diehards who voted against the Parliament Bill had saved ‘our party from disgrace and our cause from disaster’. The flight of Conservative leaders from the Party’s habitual sanity and moderation was a notable feature of the Strange Death of Liberal England.
Balfour’s (and Chamberlain’s) strategy was not only wrong constitutionally: it was wrong even from its own point of view. Balfour’s primary objective throughout was to prevent Home Rule, but had it not been for the war Home Rule was what his strategy would have achieved.
Earlier, Chamberlain had tried to get rid of those Conservatives who refused to toe his line on Tariff Reform – which does not seem very gentlemanly conduct. Both then and later, Chamberlain suffered from hurt feelings. He was quick to take offence and to imagine a slight when none had been offered. This again was scarcely very gentlemanly behaviour, though the Duke of Wellington once complained of the time he had to waste composing what gentlemen called their feelings.
If Balfour had few ideas on internal policy, Chamberlain had only one, and that was his father’s. As Chancellor of the Exchequer after the war, his conduct had a modern ring. He was economically orthodox and his policies accentuated the post-war slump. By the middle of 1921 unemployment had reached 2½ million. His brother Neville made some suggestions, but Austen took the Balfourian line that ‘a positive policy’ was ‘apt to be associated with the spending of large sums of money’. It was not until the 1929 Election that he realised how bad housing conditions were in his own constituency of West Birmingham. Handsworth, next door, was like ‘another planet’. This was scarcely forgivable even in a fairly successful Foreign Secretary. The non-intellectual Chamberlain was more out of touch than Balfour, and he was a bad constituency member.
The only liberal thing about Chamberlain was his name: in all other respects he was an unimaginative right-wing Conservative. As such, he was well fitted to play a prominent role in the pre-1914 Conservative Party. At dinner in Paris during the Peace negotiations, Lloyd George, without Austen’s demurring, likened the Opposition benches in the House of Commons to the Trade Union Congress and the Government benches to the Associated Chambers of Commerce. Nevertheless the Conservative Party was beginning to revert to type. Legislative inactivity, laissez-faire and low taxation were no longer enough. Neither Balfour nor Chamberlain had a high opinion of Baldwin, and Austen was always slightly condescending to his younger brother. Yet, for all their foreign policy mistakes, Baldwin understood the need to soften the class struggle, and Neville Chamberlain the need for social reform, far better than Balfour or Austen understood either. In consequence, when the Conservatives at last brought in protection in 1932, they were, and remained, less like the American Republican Party than they had been thirty years before. Unfortunately, as we know, the ghost of Cobden and laissez-faire had not been finally laid and was destined to reappear in the guise of Milton Friedman.