In "Old Mortality," Walter Scott's novel of 17th-Century Scotland, it is said of one of the characters, Balfour of Burley (no kin to the subject of this book), that he "skellies fearfully with one eye." In a way, the trouble with Arthur James Balfour, first Earl of Balfour (1848-1930), what kept him from being a total success as a politician, was that there was nothing whatever strabismic about his mental vision. He neither squinted nor employed rose-colored glasses. He saw the world, and human destiny, as they are.
Aloofness, detachment are the key words. His warmth was restricted to his circle of friends. The girl he loved and intended to marry, May Lyttleton, died abruptly of typhoid, and he never married. He had a lifelong, but perhaps rather tepid, amitie amoureuse with Mary Wyndham (Lady Wemyss).
It was not a personality to evoke great popularity, yet in his day (and it was a very long day) Balfour enjoyed, rightly, enormous respect, including the grudging respect of opponents. Balfour's preference for the moderate and the rational, his coolness and detachment, led many to suppose him merely a dilettante, in politics by family influence, who would secretly rather have been a professor.
The record of his public life shows this to be nonsense. True, he was a very wealthy man until the Great War, and he had philosophic interests; but no one would voluntarily undergo the strains, the splendors and the miseries of public life for more than 50 years unless he deeply cared about power and the issues at stake. A godson of the Duke of Wellington (hence the "Arthur"), he entered Parliament in 1874 and sat in the House of Commons for six years.
As secretary to his uncle Lord Salisbury, the foreign secretary, he attended the Congress of Berlin in 1878, meeting Bismarck and Gorchakov. A mere 40 years on, he was himself foreign secretary and attended the Versailles Conference. In the early 1920s he presided at the first meeting of the League of Nations Council, and dominated all meetings of the League in its early years "easily and without effort," as Gilbert Murray said. "It is very curious, and has to be seen to be believed." At the Imperial Conference of 1926, aged 78, he drafted the ingenious formula defining the relations of Britain and the Dominions.
Ruddock Mackay points out (the first to do so, I believe) that Balfour held Cabinet rank for longer than anyone else--27 years. (Churchill did so for 26, Gladstone for 24, Pitt for 22.) He showed his steel, initially holding the Irish secretaryship from 1887 to 1891, traveling all over the country with a revolver in his pocket. He led his party in the Commons throughout the '90s.
Succeeding his uncle as prime minister in 1902, he held the office until December, 1905. No triumph, his time as premier was bedeviled by the ebbing of public support for the Boer War and by the attempt of Joseph Chamberlain, colonial secretary, to end British free trade and introduce tariffs.
After the shattering Tory defeat in 1906 (worse even than in 1945), Balfour dexterously led his party in opposition for five years, then resigned the leadership in 1911. His political career appeared to be at an end but (unique among ex-prime ministers) he had many more years of Cabinet office ahead, as First Lord of the Admiralty then foreign secretary in the wartime coalition, and as Lord President in the 1920s. The Indian Summer of his career lasted as long as some politicians' whole careers.
He was, I think, the most intelligent man who ever held the office of prime minister. The two series of Gifford Lectures at Glasgow University, in 1913 and 1914 and 1922 and 1923 (the Gifford is an endowed lectureship in "natural theology"), are a profound intellectual achievement, clad in the most graceful of language.
Mackay, a New Zealander by birth, a former faculty member at the Royal Naval College and until recently at St. Andrews University, has given us two excellent biographies before this one: a life (1965) of the underrated 18th-Century admiral Lord Hawke, the victor of Quiberon Bay, and one of "Jackie" Fisher (1974). Mackay has made Balfour's defense work one of his two main emphases; the other is education. He unearths some jewels, such as a long, lucid paper of 1892 in which Balfour argues against the feasibility of a naval attack on the Dardanelles--20 years before Gallipoli.
Balfour's work in these areas was indeed important. His Education Act of 1902 set the pattern of public education in Britain for half a century. He created the Imperial General Staff. He cannot often be faulted on foresight. Some would argue that the Balfour Declaration on Palestine (1917) is an exception.