- Balfour by Max Egremont
Collins, 391 pp, £12.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 00 216043 9
There have been aristocrats in British politics since Arthur Balfour. But the career of ‘Prince Arthur’ was the last great expression of the old aristocratic system before it crashed. In the late 19th century a flourishing grapevine of wealthy and leisured families still clambered in profusion around the House of Commons and the Cabinet. At 10 Downing Street Lord Salisbury promoted his relations so vigorously that his administration became known as the ‘Hotel Cecil’, and the apple of his eye was undoubtedly his nephew, Arthur Balfour. A delicate and bookish young man, Balfour was at first written off by men of the world as a bit of a cissy. At Cambridge he was nicknamed ‘Pretty Fanny’, and it was noted that instead of riding and shooting at weekends he preferred to hang about with the girls. But Lord Salisbury knew that his nephew was made of sterner stuff. In 1886, he tried him out as Secretary for Scotland and Balfour proved his worth by imposing law and order on the rebellious crofters of the Isle of Skye. The following year he was promoted to the Irish office and set about the suppression of rural protest with an iron fist. Soon he was heir apparent, and in 1902 it seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should succeed his uncle as Prime Minister.
Balfour tried hard to keep the Hotel Cecil in business. No Prime Minister ever played Happy Families with such aplomb. In a Cabinet reshuffle he did not hesitate to replace his brother by his cousin at the Board of Trade. When Joseph Chamberlain and the Duke of Devonshire both resigned, Balfour promoted their sons, Austen Chamberlain and Victor Cavendish. There was even a romantic tinge to patronage. The two great loves of Balfour’s life were May Lyttelton, whose early death had robbed him of an intended bride, and Mary Wyndham, Lady Elcho. May’s brother Alfred was appointed Colonial Secretary, and Mary’s brother George was brought into the Cabinet. Under Balfour, one of his ministers observed, ‘cabinets degenerated into cliquey conversations between “Arthur” and “Bob” and “George”.’
In spite of all these ties of blood and friendship, Balfour’s regime began to disintegrate right from the start. The magic circle, and the Conservative and Unionist ranks, were torn apart by a series of controversial issues of which the greatest was tariff reform. In 1906, Balfour led the party into a resounding defeat at the polls, and in 1911 he was pushed out of the leadership to be replaced by a Glasgow iron merchant, Andrew Bonar Law. The rule of the charmed circle was finished, yet Balfour managed to stage a personal recovery and embark on a second career, this time as an elder statesman. In the First World War Asquith brought him back as First Lord of the Admiralty, and Lloyd George made him Foreign Secretary. An elderly and immaculate grandee, he was still to be seen pottering about doing the occasional odd job for Baldwin’s Cabinet in the late 1920s.