Balfour, Arthur James, 1st earl of

views updated May 18 2018

Balfour, Arthur James, 1st earl of (1848–1930). Prime minister. Essentially a mid-Victorian, Arthur Balfour seems miscast as a 20th-cent. prime minister. He was the last representative of the traditional landed class to rise to the top and achieved it largely through the patronage of the 3rd marquis of Salisbury. Naturally fitted for life in a rural vicarage or an Oxford college, Balfour did in fact produce an original work, A Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879), which his critics thought summed up his approach to politics admirably.

Balfour grew up on the family estate at Whittingehame in the Scottish borders; his father had been a Tory MP and his mother was a sister of Robert Cecil, the future Lord Salisbury. Though a member of the Souls (a cross-party group of gifted young politicians), the young Balfour remained a solitary, intellectual figure, especially after the death in 1875 of his intended wife, May Lyttelton. He never married. Having no particular purpose in life, he decided to enter politics, and from 1874 to 1885 represented Hertford, the Cecil family's pocket borough. A poor speaker, Balfour underlined his rather detached position by involvement with Lord Randolph Churchill's ‘Fourth Party’.

However, around 1885–6 Balfour's career took off. He left the security of Hertford and, despite his distaste for mixing with the electorate, contested a new, popular constituency, East Manchester, which he held until 1906. Acting as, in effect, his uncle's secretary, he entered upon a lengthy apprenticeship for the prime ministership. He served briefly as president of the Local Government Board (1885) and as secretary of state for Scotland (1886), but really made his reputation as chief secretary for Ireland (1887–91). In that role Balfour adopted a twofold strategy. First he ruthlessly suppressed rural violence, earning thereby the epithet ‘Bloody Balfour’. Second, he attempted to conciliate nationalist opinion by policies of social interventionism, including the sale of land to tenant farmers on easy terms, and investment in light railways and seed potatoes.

By promoting his nephew as leader of the House in 1891–2 and 1895–1902, Salisbury placed him in line for succession as prime minister in the latter year. Unhappily, Salisbury also bequeathed to Balfour the accumulated problems of his own prolonged reign. In particular, the financial cost of the South African War led Joseph Chamberlain to take up the cause of tariff reform. Though Balfour cleverly manœuvred Chamberlain into resigning from the cabinet, this only led him to launch a campaign from 1903 onwards which largely captured the party for protectionism. Balfour struggled to maintain party unity by offering a compromise acceptable to Tory free traders and protectionists. This meant adopting ‘retaliation’, in effect to use the threat of tariffs to force other states to reduce their barriers against British goods. However, Balfour's clever dialectics merely convinced colleagues that he did not care very much about the issue, and earned him the contempt of both sides. Free traders felt he had failed to support them in their constituencies, while the protectionists blamed his ambiguous approach for losing the 1906 election. None the less, although immersed in this controversy, Balfour's government did take several important initiatives including the passage of the 1902 Education Act, the Anglo-French Entente of 1904, and the establishment of the Committee of Imperial Defence and the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws.

After 1906 the parliamentary party became predominantly protectionist in sympathy and Balfour exercised little effective leadership. In 1909 he made no attempt to stop the Tory majority in the Lords from rejecting Lloyd George's budget. This proved to be a serious error. It resulted in Balfour having to lead his party through two unsuccessful elections in 1910, and as a result 1911 saw the development of a ‘Balfour Must Go’ campaign. He resigned—the first in a long line of modern Tory leaders to fall victim to their own backbenchers.

Yet a remarkably long career as a respected elder statesman still awaited Balfour. From the outbreak of war in 1914 he became an unofficial adviser to the Liberal government, and not surprisingly, Asquith appointed him 1st lord of the Admiralty in the coalition of May 1915. Subsequently he served Lloyd George as foreign secretary (1916–19) in which capacity he produced the famous Balfour declaration committing the government to the establishment of a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews. His last role was as lord president of the council under Lloyd George (1919–22) and under Baldwin (1925–9).

Martin Pugh


Zebel, S. H. , Balfour (Cambridge, 1973).

Arthur James Balfour

views updated May 11 2018

Arthur James Balfour

The British statesman and philosopher Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour (1848-1930), was prime minister of Great Britain. He later was chiefly responsible for the Balfour Declaration, favoring the establishment of Palestine as the national Jewish home.

Arthur James Balfour was born on July 25, 1848, at Whittinghame House, East Lothian, Scotland, the son of James Maitland Balfour, a country gentleman, and Lady Blanche Balfour, daughter of the 2d Marquess of Salisbury. Well educated, strong-minded, and evangelical in outlook, Lady Blanche dominated the early years of her children. Balfour was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Balfour pursued two careers, philosophy and politics, often simultaneously. As a metaphysician, his main concern was to find bases for modern religious belief. The doctrine of naturalism repelled him; he believed that one should be no more skeptical about religion than about science. His writings include A Defense of Philosophical Doubt (1879), Foundations of Belief (1896), and most important, his Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, published as Theism and Humanism (1915) and Theism and Thought (1923). His scholarly honors were legion, including the presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1904) and of the British Academy (1921). In 1891 he was named chancellor of Edinburgh University and in 1919 chancellor of Cambridge. His cultivation of mind, social graces, and gift for conversation brought him a prestige in English life for which, it is said, one must go back to the 18th century British statesman Charles James Fox for an equal. He never married.

At the suggestion of his uncle, Lord Salisbury, Balfour entered politics and won a Conservative seat in the House of Commons in 1874. As parliamentary private secretary he accompanied Salisbury, now foreign secretary, to the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Balfour's own parliamentary gifts were not fully revealed until the Salisbury administration (1886-1892). Balfour served successively as secretary for Scotland, as chief secretary for Ireland (he restored order and enacted salutary land reforms), and finally in 1891 as first lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons. When Salisbury retired in 1902 during his second administration, the succession as prime minister fell naturally to Balfour.

During his own government (1902-1905) Balfour proved more successful as a statesman than as a politician. His leadership brought proposals for military reform and legislation of monumental significance: the Education Act of 1902, unifying elementary education, and the Irish Land Act of 1903, greatly simulating outright ownership of land by Irish peasants. Also there came an end to diplomatic isolation, with the Entente Cordiale with France (1904) and the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1905). But when Joseph Chamberlain challenged the sacred doctrine of free trade, splitting the party asunder, Balfour proved incapable either of restoring unity or indeed of developing a policy; the Conservatives, including Balfour, suffered total defeat in the election of 1906. A safe seat from the City of London was soon found for Balfour, who directed Conservative efforts to block the Liberal government's legislation program of fiscal and social reform. With the Parliament Act of 1911, which limited the role of the Lords, it was clear that Balfour had failed and he resigned the party leadership.

Balfour's political career was by no means at an end, however. In 1915 he joined the coalition War Cabinet as first lord of the Admiralty and was foreign secretary in the Lloyd George Cabinet. Balfour was largely responsible for the declaration (1917) which bears his name, authorized by the War Cabinet and affirming British support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. At the peace conference after World War I Balfour was active in the Council of Ten. In 1919 he shifted to the office of lord president of the Council and rendered distinguished service at the Washington Arms Conference (1922). He was created an earl in 1922. He presented the Balfour Report at the Imperial Conference of 1926, enunciating the doctrine of "equality of status" of the Dominions with Great Britain, which was formalized in the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Lord Balfour left office in 1929. He died on March 19, 1930.

Further Reading

Kenneth Young, Arthur James Balfour (1963), is the standard biography. An older, more personal treatment is Blanche E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour (2 vols., 1936). For special topics consult Denis Judd, Balfour and the British Empire (1968), and Alfred Gollin, Balfour's Burden (1965), a study of the tariff issue during 1903-1905.

Additional Sources

Harris, Paul, Life in a Scottish country house: the story of A.J. Balfour and Whittingehame House, Whittingehame, Haddington: Whittingehame House Pub., 1989. □

Balfour, Arthur James (1st Earl of Balfour) (1848-1930)

views updated May 23 2018

Balfour, Arthur James (1st Earl of Balfour) (1848-1930)

British prime minister, classical scholar, and one of the most brilliant and eminent students of psychical research. In 1882, through his sister, the wife of Henry Sidgwick (first president of the Society for Psychical Research ), he became interested in psychic phenomena and the question of survival. In 1893 he became president of the Society for Psychical Research, serving his term between two periods as vice-president, from 1882 to 1892 and from 1895 to 1930. (His brother, the Rt. Hon. Gerald W. Balfour, another keen student of psychical research, was president of the Society for Psychical Research from 1906 to 1907.)

Born July 25, 1848, at Whittinghame, East Lothian, Scotland, Balfour was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge University (M.A.). He was awarded honorary degrees in law and philosophy by British, American, and Polish universities. From 1874 to 1885, he was a member of the British Parliament, and after holding various official posts, he became prime minister (1902-05), first lord of the admiralty (1915-16), and foreign secretary (1916-19).

In the field of psychical research, he held many sittings with Mrs. Willett (W. M. S. Coombe-Tennant ). He died March 19, 1930, in Surrey, England. It is reported that as he lay dying, he remarked, "I am longing to get to the other side to see what it's like."


Balfour, Arthur James. Chapters of Autobiography. London: Cassell, 1930.

. The Foundations of Belief. 8th ed. London: Longmans, Green, 1906.

. Science, Religions, and Reality. London: Sheldon Press, 1925.

. Theism and Humanism. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915.

Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.

Prince, Walter Franklin. Noted Witnesses for Psychical Research. Boston: Boston Society for Psychical Research, 1928. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1963.

Balfour, Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl

views updated May 23 2018

Balfour, Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl (1848–1930) British statesman, prime minister (1902–05), b. Scotland. Balfour succeeded his uncle, the Marquess of Salisbury, as prime minister. His government introduced educational reforms (1902), but the Conservative Party fractured over the tariff reform proposed by Joseph Chamberlain. Balfour resigned and the Conservatives lost the ensuing general election. Balfour returned to the cabinet in the coalition governments of Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. As foreign secretary, he issued the Balfour Declaration (1917).