On a cycling holiday in Scotland A.C. Benson went to meet Arthur Balfour at Whittingehame. The prime minister was out practising on his private golf course. They saw him ‘approaching across the grass, swinging a golf club – in rough coat and waistcoat, the latter open; a cloth cap, flannel trousers; and large black boots, much too heavy and big for his willowy figure. He slouched and lounged as he walked. He gave us the warmest greeting, with a simple and childlike smile which is a great charm.’ Even across the width of a fairway, the author of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ was already melting under the impact of A.J.B. Lord Vansittart, a junior at the Foreign Office when Balfour was foreign secretary, confessed that he found it ‘hopeless to avoid devotion’. The secret of Balfour’s charm was his nonchalance. Staying cool seemed to be his only rule. Vansittart thought that he viewed events ‘with the detachment of a choirboy at a funeral service’. Almost alone among politicians, he was indifferent to what his colleagues, the public or posterity thought of him or his policies. He kept no diary, made no attempt to preserve his papers.
His sloth was legendary too. He seldom appeared before 11 a.m., though as First Lord of the Admiralty before the Battle of Jutland he did consent to be called at nine. As a young MP, it was only when his third session in the House loomed that he showed up, spurred on by his Aunt Georgie Salisbury’s chiding that it was time to show some ‘overt signs of parliamentary activity’. He claimed never to read the newspapers, made no effort to get to know his backbenchers or to frequent the Members’ Dining Room and Smoking Room, and refused to stay on the front bench until the end of Question Time. In any case, he had such a wretched memory for names that he would not have remembered whom he had met or been listening to.
But he had an endless appetite for the lighter pleasures. He never refused an invitation and would play after-dinner games with the Souls deep into the night or would entertain them on one of his four concertinas. He was sports-mad, startling Gladstone by turning up at Hawarden on his bicycle, missing lunch with the kaiser in order to see the Eton and Harrow cricket match and throwing bread rolls with deadly accuracy at the Lyttelton dinner table. When in Scotland he liked to play two rounds of golf a day, to keep his handicap down to ten (about the same as Ian Fleming and better than P.G. Wodehouse). On the links at North Berwick, when he made a bad shot, he would turn away and gaze over the Forth and then turn round again, smiling. At times he sounds like a fully paid-up member of the Drones club. No one, after all, was better equipped to live a life of a sporting fainéant: he had inherited 180,000 acres at Whittingehame from his grandfather, a nabob who had secured the Admiralty contract for provisioning all ships of the Royal Navy in Indian waters.
Yet A.J.B. led the Unionist Party for longer than anyone before him since Pitt the Younger. He was a minister for longer than anyone else in the 20th century, even Churchill. He was the only Unionist invited to join Asquith’s first war cabinet, and he continued in the government as foreign secretary after the coup that brought Lloyd George to power. Churchill commented sourly: ‘He passed from one cabinet to the other, from the prime minister who was his champion to the prime minister who had been his most severe critic, like a powerful, graceful cat walking delicately and unsoiled across a rather muddy street.’ Twenty years after Balfour had ceased to be prime minister, and by then in his late seventies, Baldwin sought him out to shore up his fragile government. He remained indispensable to the last.
Yet, if brutally summarised, the concrete results of his efforts can only seem pitiful. He fought three general elections as party leader and lost them all. The premiership he had inherited from his uncle Lord Salisbury, almost as a family heirloom, lasted less than four years and ended in the Liberal landslide of 1906, the greatest electoral humiliation for the Conservatives until 1997. At that election, he became the only prime minister in the 20th century to lose his own seat.
Some, like Curzon, maintained that Balfour’s sloth was partly a pose and that he was in fact a hardworking and capable minister. Yet with suspicious regularity his policies came to pieces in his hands or in the hands of his successors or even, as his ministerial career was so long, when the pieces were back in his hands again. His first impulses were often borrowed or dictated by more powerful wills than his own. As Irish secretary, he obeyed to the letter the priorities of his uncle Salisbury: ‘The severity must come first. They must “take a licking” before conciliation will do them any good.’ For the Irish, he became indelibly ‘Bloody Balfour’ as a result. Like many mild-tempered men, Balfour thrilled to the smack of firm government and was not averse to taking a hand in the smacking. No doubt something needed to be done to restore the rule of law as well as to meet the piteous plight of the peasants in the West of Ireland, but there was no need to say, as Balfour did, ‘I shall be as relentless as Cromwell in enforcing obedience to the law’ – a bit like George Bush describing the invasion of Iraq as a crusade. Balfour’s land reforms in Ireland lived on after him; he claimed that ‘the Ireland the Free State took over was the Ireland that we made.’ Yet the legacy of his insensitivity lived on too.
At times, it seems, he simply did not think hard enough about political choices and their consequences. He did not have to fight for his own interests – his waspish sister-in-law Lady Frances Balfour said: ‘Arthur’s opportunities were all made for him’ – and he found it hard to imagine that those less fortunate would fight for theirs. He told his sister Evelyn Rayleigh that ‘his mind did not naturally turn to politics. He never thought about them in bed, which was the test.’ Unlike the great platform orators such as Rosebery and Churchill, his speeches tended to be delivered spontaneously with little preparation, with the result that they were often too long and flawed by digression and tangled argument. He was unwilling to campaign for his own leadership or for his policies to be seen in a better light. After the Battle of Jutland, the kaiser was quick to declare a German victory, although it was the German fleet which had fled, never to venture out again. The First Lord of the Admiralty declared nothing at all. Only after several ambiguous official communiqués was there a more forthright and upbeat report, drafted at Balfour’s request by his predecessor Winston Churchill. One may disapprove of spin, but there are limits.
Balfour’s teacher at Eton, William Johnson, described him as ‘fearless, resolved and negligently great’. The sting is in the ‘negligently’; Johnson, author of the ‘Eton Boating Song’, was also the author of the famous and equally sharp judgment on Balfour’s great Liberal opponent, Lord Rosebery: ‘He is one of those who like the palm without the dust.’ Balfour (1848-1930) and Rosebery (1847-1929) were nearly exact contemporaries. They were both huge landowners in the Lothians, both hypochondriacs, famously charming, subject to fits of indolence, lovers of motor cars and all modern gadgets, believers in popular democracy and votes for women – though decidedly odd in their relations with them. Naturally, they hated each other. When Rosebery became prime minister, Balfour said that he was unaware of any particular quality that Rosebery had demonstrated save a talent for self-advertisement. Rosebery said that Balfour had done wonderfully well ‘for an amateur politician’. In 1911, Balfour cautioned the Palace against awarding the Order of Merit to Rosebery. Five years later, Rosebery bitterly opposed Balfour’s OM.
It is perhaps over the top for R.J.Q. Adams to subtitle his Life of Balfour, ‘The Last Grandee’, with Rosebery lurking up the Firth of Forth getting steadily fatter and redder in the face, while Balfour remained lithe and bonny on his 36 holes a day. But Adams gives us a worthy companion piece to Leo McKinstry’s Rosebery (reviewed in the LRB, 22 September 2005), just as readable and equally surefooted on the politics – he is the biographer of Bonar Law and a historian of British domestic and foreign policy from 1890 to 1945. Balfour: The Last Grandee may perhaps lack the intimate charm of Max Egremont’s biography of 1980, which first untangled the scant skeins of Balfour’s love life, but in its lucid, generous and unobtrusive fashion, it offers readers everything they need to form a judgment on this baffling character. Adams’s reluctance to be censorious may lead the reader to make that judgment sterner than it would have been.
One of Balfour’s grounds for despising Rosebery was that he regarded himself as a serious philosopher and writer, while Rosebery was merely a lightweight fatally addicted to the vulgar pleasures of the turf. Balfour presented himself as a curious mixture of Bertie Wooster and Bertie Russell. Certainly, no British prime minister has been more at the centre of a genuinely intellectual circle. His brothers-in-law were Lord Rayleigh, who became head of the Cavendish Laboratory and won the Nobel Prize for Physics, and Henry Sidgwick, the Cambridge philosopher who with his wife Eleanor Balfour founded Newnham College. In 1896, he joined his brothers-in-law, along with James Bryce, G.K. Chesterton, R.B. Haldane and Sir Oliver Lodge in founding the Synthetic Society, which, in an age of waning faith, set out to contribute towards a working philosophy of religious belief.
A decade earlier, several of the same cast had joined Balfour in founding the Society for Psychical Research. While claiming to be sceptical about the ectoplasm and the furniture-moving, Balfour never lost his taste for séances and lapped up messages from the astral plane. On his deathbed, he was happy to receive Mrs Willett, his brother Gerald’s favourite medium, who immediately announced that the room ‘was full of presences’ and two days later made contact with the spirits of several departed Souls of whom Balfour had been fond, especially May Lyttelton. Mrs Willett told Balfour that May had sent a message: ‘Tell him he gives me joy.’ Balfour murmured that he was profoundly impressed.
Compared with all this, Tony Blair’s fear that he might be thought ‘a nutter’ for taking an interest in religion seems rather tame. Yet one wonders how deeply committed to any of it Balfour really was. In his writings he could be eloquent about man’s desolation in an indifferent universe. The famous passage in his Foundations of Belief still makes you shiver:
Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets … after a period, long compared with the individual life, but short indeed compared with the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe, will be at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. ‘Imperishable monuments’ and ‘immortal deeds’, death itself, and love stronger than death, will be as though they had never been.
This grim scenario was only a prelude to the argument already rehearsed in his Defence of Philosophic Doubt and his opening paper to the Synthetic Society: that natural science on its own could not explain or underpin man’s sense of morality, beauty and reverence. Yet he conceded so much to evolutionary processes – their ability to generate altruism, for example – that his faith in a First Cause seems a bit pallid and residual. It sustained him, none the less, as an easy-going communicant in both the Presbyterian and Anglican churches all his life. If there was a fundamental pessimism lurking beneath his blithe exterior, it does not seem to have troubled him much. He was happy whistling in the dark.
There was, though, a rather unnerving contrast between his appetite for dwelling on large speculative questions of philosophy and religion and his rather cursory attention to questions of long-term political and economic strategy (as opposed to short-term tactics, at which he was as adroit as he was on the putting green). As a young man, he liked to claim that he was prey to hopeless indecision and could never decide whether to descend from the first floor by the left or by the right of the two great staircases of his London house. What was so damaging was his affectation that political decisions might ultimately matter just as little. When his party was torn apart by the dispute over tariff reform, he infuriated both factions by making it clear that he did not care much either way. When it came to Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909, Balfour was initially prepared to accept that the House of Lords for the first time in two centuries might throw out a budget that had been passed by a huge margin in the Commons; then he energetically sought to resolve the ensuing crisis by inviting their Lordships to back down. The budget he had denounced as unconstitutional suddenly seemed to be constitutional after all, and it was the Lords themselves who were behaving unconstitutionally.
This ability to see both sides of the question but to see nothing important in either of them could result in his announcing contradictory aims in the same sentence without a blush, for example in the so-called ‘Valentine Letter’ of 14 February 1906 to Austen Chamberlain, in which Balfour asserted that ‘the establishment of a moderate general tariff on manufactured goods, not imposed for the purpose of raising prices or giving artificial protection against legitimate competition, and the imposition of a small duty on foreign corn, are not in principle objectionable.’ But what other purpose or result could these new taxes conceivably have? Not surprisingly, this facing-both-ways didn’t even succeed in warding off his prime fear, that of splitting the Tories. ‘I cannot become another Robert Peel in my party,’ he moaned. Well, the party split anyway, and unlike Peel, Balfour had achieved nothing.
In the same way, the Declaration for ever associated with his name, which derived from his long-standing friendship with Chaim Weizmann, contained irreconcilable contradictions within its final wording: it called for the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, but at the same time, Edwin Montagu and Curzon, who knew what they might be in for, were to be placated by the rider that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice 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.’ Balfour saw no looming conflict, and even ten years later, having in the meantime been cheered by Jewish settlers in Jerusalem and rescued by French cavalry from an angry mob in Damascus, he still maintained that ‘nothing has occurred during that period to suggest the least doubt as to the wisdom of this new departure.’
As for Ireland, in 1916 Lloyd George said that in the cabinet ‘Bloody Balfour’ fought for the new settlement ‘as if he had been a Home Ruler all of his life’.
Even when he saw clearly, he seldom saw steadily. ‘If Constantinople fell,’ Adams imagines him reasoning when it was first suggested that the slaughter on the Western Front could be shortened by a diversion to the East, in particular by an attack on the Dardanelles, ‘who would then possess it and control the Bosporus? For that matter, would a campaign to topple Turkey, or a successful Russian assault in the East, really “finish the war”? Might it not be “regarded as merely subsidiary”, inflicting its wounds but leaving Germany undefeated and the Western Front essentially as it was?’ Yet, little by little, more passionate advocates like Churchill wore him down, and by the end of the tragic venture he was the last man in the cabinet arguing against the evacuation of the Gallipoli peninsula.
He accused his successor as prime minister, the Liberal Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, of being a ‘mere cork, dancing on a torrent which he cannot control’. But the same could just as well be said of himself. After following Balfour through some of his serpentine manoeuvres, one often feels like echoing Campbell-Bannerman’s exasperation: ‘The Right Honourable Gentleman comes back to this new House of Commons with the same airy graces – the same subtle dialectics – and the same light and frivolous way of dealing with great questions. I say … enough of this foolery.’
It was impossible ever quite to pin Balfour down. He was as flirtatious and elusive as Cherubino. In his youth he had always been a pet. To Randolph Churchill and the young bloods of the ‘Fourth Party’, he was ‘Posslethwaite’; to the Souls he was ‘Adored Gazelle’. Charm he had in abundance, but more than charm he would not give. In responding to (and returning) a love letter from Mary Elcho (née Wyndham), he said: ‘I do not regret that I said nothing in my last epistle of the kind which perhaps you wished. Such things are impossible to me.’ Echoes here of his contemporary Henry James, allegedly, to Hugh Walpole: ‘I can’t, I can’t.’ In another letter, he wrote: ‘Whether I have time for Love or not, I certainly have no time for Matrimony.’ He was, none the less, expected to marry May Lyttelton, and was described as being ‘staggered to the last degree’ by her death from typhoid at the age of 25. Yet there is no hint in any of his or May’s letters of any such attachment or plan. He was often deeply upset by the death of his friends, and was always glad to hear news of them from the Other Side.
Naturally, he was said to be quite sexless. Beaverbrook said: ‘Balfour was a hermaphrodite. No one ever saw him naked.’ Not quite true: though he usually dictated in his dressing-gown, he would sometimes do so in his bath. For most of his adult life he enjoyed what was at the least an amitié amoureuse with Mary Elcho, but she wrote sadly after thirty years of it: ‘I’ll give you this much, tho, for although you have only loved me little yet I must admit you have loved me long.’
There are stray hints in their correspondence, always from her side, that they had paddled a little further together, perhaps in an unorthodox direction. In November 1911, just after he had resigned as party leader, she wrote: ‘It seems to me a pretty tribute that upon yr attaining yr liberty a certain (white) slave should also be liberated. What think you?’ In 1905, after seeing a play about a finishing school, she wrote: ‘It reminded me, not that it in any way resembled it, of our school – the one I have aptly named and rather wittily named “the finishing school” – certainly, in many respects you gave that poor young girl a “liberal education” and left no regions of her little body! unexplored, after that night there will have been few surprises left for her.’ Two years later: ‘I must send you a valentine tonight … the Valentine objects are somewhat obscure – to the left is a birch rod, to the right a brush and a tin of squirting grease (smells of peppermint).’
Perhaps we’ll just leave it there. It is not surprising, in view of her weird lover and her faithless husband that Mary consented to be thrown to the ground in the most straightforward manner by the poet-Lothario Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, her cousin twenty years her senior, who was leading Mary and her children on an expedition into the desert. As Irish secretary, Balfour had had Blunt jailed for nationalist agitation. Knowing of A.J.B.’s tendresse for Mary, the old goat may have derived extra satisfaction when he crept into her tent. Balfour was scarcely likely to compete with the words Blunt claimed he had whispered through the tent flap: ‘It is the voice of my beloved that knocketh saying open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled, for my head is filled with dew and my locks with the drops of the night.’ I do think, though, in view of the track record, that Adams is being a little charitable when he protests that the Souls ‘only occasionally lapsed (within the group, at any rate) into actual adultery’.
In the end, I am afraid, the charm is all that remains. On coming to the end of Balfour’s almost interminable public life, I cannot help feeling a little like Anthony Blanche after going round Charles Ryder’s exhibition: ‘Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art’ – and it’s not too good for Scotsmen either.