Adored Gazelle

Ferdinand Mount

  • Balfour: The Last Grandee by R.J.Q. Adams
    Murray, 479 pp, £30.00, November 2007, ISBN 978 0 7195 5424 7

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.

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