- 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.
His career spanned almost half a century, but not everyone thought him significant. When Lloyd George was asked what would be Balfour’s place in history he replied: ‘He will be just like the scent on a pocket handkerchief ... Joseph Chamberlain will have a greater place. There is little positive in Balfour’s achievement, whereas Joe made contributions to social and imperial policy.’ But Lloyd George was too harsh. Balfour may have failed to control or to lead that carnivorous animal, the Conservative Party. Nor did he reveal any fighting instincts as First Lord of the Admiralty. But he had the gifts of a great administrator: a cool and rational mind, which commanded the admiration of Beatrice Webb and H.G. Wells, clear-cut goals, and strong reserves of determination. He was the most effective Irish Secretary of the 19th century. He forced through the great Education Act of 1902 and established the Committee of Imperial Defence. A supporter of Zionism, he proclaimed the British Government’s promise to establish a ‘national home’ for the Jews in Palestine. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 was negotiated by Balfour, and although he never displayed an interest in social reform he greatly encouraged state expenditure on scientific and medical research.
Balfour was at the very least an eminent and interesting busybody who left a large collection of papers. But for a biographer today the problem is that Balfour is in so many respects old hat. His niece Blanche Dugdale wrote a two-volume biography published in 1936. Two modern biographies have appeared, from Kenneth Young (1963) and Sidney Zebel (1973). Dennis Judd’s Balfour and the British Empire (1968) explored so many of the major issues of his career, including the Boer War, tariff reform and imperial defence, as to constitute the better part of a biography in itself. At this stage of the proceedings, we stand in need either of a moratorium on the subject, or of something special – an exciting new cache of evidence, or better still, fresh ideas.
Some biographers claim to be destroying a myth. Max Egremont sets himself the more modest goal of illuminating in some degree a remote and elusive personality. Nor is it hard to discover why it is that Balfour piques his curiosity. His interest is, in part, hereditary. Two of his own family, the Wyndhams, experienced the full force of the Balfourian personality, attracted by the flame but also singed by it. In their youth George Wyndham, his sister Mary and Arthur Balfour were inseparable friends, social butterflies together at weekend gatherings of ‘the Souls’ – the celebrated clique of upper-class aesthetes formed in reaction against the Philistinism of most country house society. The emotional ties proved enduring but also unequal. Balfour always took more than he gave, inspiring love but granting only friendship in return. The pattern was set early on, and for the rest of their lives brother and sister danced to his tune. George was eventually promoted to the Cabinet, but when the time came to sack him for incompetence, Balfour refused to soften the blow by moving him to another post. The wound was permanent.
Mary Wyndham, who married Lord Elcho and was later Countess of Wemyss, was often supposed to be Balfour’s mistress. Kenneth Young wrote freely of the affaire between them, and Egremont confirms that they were pledged to each other and had some kind of sexual liaison, fading in the course of time into the friendship of two old people. But as he shows, the relationship was not straightforward. What precisely the butler might have seen remains problematic. It looks as though Balfour vetoed intercourse and obliged Mary to settle for some kind of unspecified ‘fun’: we catch a glimpse of her longing to get away from a concert to smack the great man’s bottom. The sex life of politicians is much the most entertaining thing about them, but whether austere scholars like myself learn anything of historical importance from crouching at the keyhole is another matter. In the case of Balfour I doubt it. The outstanding features of his psychology were self-containment and fear of emotion, and there is no need to enter the bedroom to find them. As his first biographer, Blanche Dugdale, wrote in 1936, ‘his power of becoming aloof at will was perhaps the most important thing for an understanding of his character and the only way of explaining a paradox that lurked in the depths. He basked all his days in affection, and repaid it to the full. Yet no misfortune, no bereavement, could have broken him, for he was a solitary at heart.’
Egremont is at his best exploring the social world where Balfour held court, surrounded by adoring women and dangling his toes in a little pool of flattery and romantic intrigue. But most of the book is devoted to Balfour’s public life, and in these parts inspiration flags. The book will be bought at Hatchard’s, borrowed from the public libraries, and enjoyed by many a reader on a Cook’s tour of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. But Egremont is a history graduate, and confronted by Balfour the politician and statesman he could have tried a lot harder. He has done his homework and his book can be taken as a worthwhile source of reference for the period after 1902, though it is too compressed in its treatment of Balfour as Salisbury’s lieutenant: Ireland and South Africa are taken at breakneck speed. If there are still Balfourian bones to be disinterred from the Public Record Office, Egremont appears to have neglected them, but it may well be that by now the record of Balfour’s activities is fairly well established. In any case, biography obviously has to press on from the problem of what someone did to the question of who the person was. Egremont, however, has done very little with Balfour’s political identity, a weakness reflected in a style that is easy to read but only sometimes well written.
Take the problem of Balfour as a Conservative. Egremont discusses Balfour’s philosophical pessimism, and sees how it underpinned his allegiance to Conservative party politics. But what has become of Balfour’s speeches? What language and rhetoric did he devise to justify his party on the public platform? And what of his strategic thinking? How deeply did he reflect on land tenure in Ireland, or education in England? Surely he must have written letters discussing policies and tactics, and revealing his analysis of the parliamentary chessboard? One of the most significant characteristics of Egremont’s version is the lack of extended quotation. Time and again there is just time to sketch in the context of a political event, put our hero briefly into the picture, and then move on to the next tableau. Balfour’s thought processes get squeezed out.
A related problem is the nature of Balfour’s skills as a politician. Egremont explains that Balfour was ‘not a demagogue’. But for twenty years he was MP for East Manchester. What were his relations with his constituency, and how did he fare at the hustings? Are there no newspaper reports of his meetings, or relevant files in his papers? Again it would be interesting to know more about Balfour’s relations with his civil servants, how far he depended on their ideas, and who ran whom in the office. And why was it that Balfour lost control of the Conservative Party? Egremont quotes Lord Selborne as writing in 1911 that ‘Arthur’s ideas of leadership out of the House of Commons are as scanty as his power of leadership in the House is wonderful.’ Perhaps this was the problem: the rise of a militant rank-and-file outside Westminster, demanding a type of gut politics that Balfour was ill-equipped to provide. But for enlightenment on the subject readers will have to turn to the first two chapters of John Ramsden’s excellent volume on the history of the party from 1902 to 1940.
Whatever their merits, biographies hold for readers an indestructible core of interest. Story is more deeply rooted in our minds than theory, and the life-cycle is the oldest story of all. One of the functions of biography is to minister to fantasy, to let us imagine what it would have been like to have lived as, or maybe just with, someone else. In this respect the life of Balfour has a strong appeal to escapism. He led, after all, a serenely invulnerable existence on a magic carpet of wealth and emotional detachment. A millionaire at 21, he inhabited that Arcadian world of sweeping lawns and strawberries and cream that so obsesses the present-day British. From grief and suffering he anaesthetised himself after the death of May Lyttelton. When Margot Asquith complained that if three of his closest women friends all died he would never miss them, he replied: ‘I should mind if you all died on the same day.’ Even the political battle left him unscarred. He liked to play tennis with Leo Maxse, the most strident critic of his leadership of the Conservative Party, and when at last he was forced to resign he remarked: ‘I really think I must ask Leo Maxse to dinner tonight, for we are probably the two happiest men in London.’ Evading hatred and sorrow, Balfour paid the inevitable price of never experiencing the heights of joy and enthusiasm. But this did not worry him, and anyone longing to escape for a few hours from the horrors of the present could do worse than follow Max Egremont into the extraordinarily pleasant world of Arthur Balfour.