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1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Balfour, Arthur James

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BALFOUR, ARTHUR JAMES (1848-), British statesman (see 3.250), was confronted, as Conservative leader, after the general election of Jan. 1910, with a situation of some embarrassment. He had to endeavour to save the effective authority of a second Chamber and to avert Irish Home Rule, with his supporters not yet completely united on the issue of Tariff Reform, and in face of a Liberal Ministry dominated once more by a body of 80 Irish Nationalists, who held the balance of power in the House of Commons, and who notified their intention not to vote for Mr. Lloyd George's disputed budget unless their forward policy was adopted. He advocated House of Lords reform as an alternative to the Ministerial Veto Resolutions, which he denounced as irrational; and when Mr. Asquith announced that, if he could not secure statutory effect for his policy in that Parliament, he would not dissolve except under conditions which would ensure that the will of the people should be carried into law in the next Parliament, he exclaimed that the Prime Minister had “bought the Irish vote for his Budget, but the price paid is the dignity of his office.” In the lull in the party fight which followed the death of King Edward, Mr. Balfour welcomed the suggestion of a conference between the parties to endeavour to arrange a compromise, and was one of the eight leaders who met on 21 occasions between June and Nov. without coming to an agreement. When the conference failed and ministers announced another dissolution, Mr. Balfour did his best to rouse the country to the dangers which, in his opinion, threatened it. In a speech at the Albert Hall he expressed his readiness to submit Tariff Reform to a referendum, and maintained that the Government for their part should be ready to submit Home Rule also to a referendum. The offer was not accepted. When the second general election of 1910 confirmed the verdict of the first, the dissatisfaction with Mr. Balfour's leadership, which had been long entertained by a considerable section of the Unionists, began to spread. It was pointed out that he had now led the party to three electoral defeats in succession; and this record was contrasted with Lord Salisbury's victories in 1886, 1895 and 1900. The course of the session of 1911 intensified this dissatisfaction. Mr. Balfour did indeed fight the Parliament bill, in its passage through the House of Commons, with courage, persistency, acuteness and passion. While he admitted the need for some change in the Constitution, and promoted Lord Lansdowne's measure for reconstructing the House of Lords and making it a Chamber partly hereditary, partly nominated, and partly elective, he denounced the Ministerial bill as practically constituting single-chamber government. Ministers, he said, were forcing constitutional changes on the country by coercion as they had imposed them on the country by fraud. In committee he strove hard, but in vain, to get fundamental laws exempted from the operation of the bill. But he shrank, as in 1832 the Duke of Wellington had shrunk, from encouraging the House of Lords to persist in opposition, when ministers announced that they had obtained the King's consent to the creation of sufficient peers to make its passage certain. He did indeed move a vote of censure imputing to ministers a gross abuse of the Constitution in the advice they had given to the Crown; but he declared that he would stand or fall with Lord Lansdowne in the recommendation which the latter made to the Unionist peers to abstain from further resistance as being no longer free agents. This attitude was passionately resented by a large number of “Diehards,” who organized themselves under the leadership of Lord Halsbury, and with the approval of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, then in retirement owing to illness. Mr. Balfour's counsel prevailed, and the bill was allowed to pass; but his position and authority as leader had been seriously shaken. Though both he and leading “Diehards,” in speeches in the autumn, treated the dispute as ancient history, he decided that the time had come for him, after 20 years of leadership, to resign; and he announced his decision to a meeting of the Conservative Association in the City of London on Nov. 8. He said that he desired to abandon his heavy responsibility before he could be suspected of suffering from a sort of petrifaction in old courses and inability to deal with new problems; and that he felt he had not the vigour, at his time of life, again to conduct a ministry. He treated the unrest in the party as nothing exceptional, and spoke of Unionism as on the upward grade. The announcement, in spite of the signs of discontent, came as a great shock to the party and the country; and the Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, himself expressed the general feeling when he said at the Guildhall banquet next day that the resignation involved an irreparable loss to the daily life of Parliament.

Mr. Balfour was then only 63, and his powers as a parliamentarian were really at their height. Although after his resignation of the Unionist leadership he devoted more time to his manifold other interests in life — philosophy, science, literature, music — he still took at intervals a prominent part in debate, and made occasional speeches in the country, giving throughout a loyal support to his successor in the House of Commons, Mr. Bonar Law. The renewed controversy on Home Rule afforded him a great opportunity, and the powerful series of speeches which he delivered, at Westminster and elsewhere, in the course of the next three years, did much to awaken Great Britain to the imminent danger of civil war in Ireland, and to force ministers into the policy of excluding Ulster, in some form or other, from the operation of their bill.

When the World War broke out he cordially accepted the policy of the Unionist leaders in sinking all political differences in support of the national Government. Speaking at the Guildhall on Lord Mayor's Day 1914, he said that the Allies were fighting for civilization and the cause of small states, and, whether the war was short or long, they would triumph. In this spirit he joined the first Coalition Government in May 1915, accepting the first lordship of the Admiralty under Mr. Asquith; and from this time onward he took a statesman's share in the conduct of the war, and in the making of peace. The Admiralty had been distracted by a quarrel between Mr. Churchill, the First Lord, and Lord Fisher, the distinguished admiral, who was First Sea Lord. Both had now resigned, and Mr. Balfour appointed an eminent scientific sailor, Adml. Sir Henry Jackson, as First Sea Lord, and speedily restored the harmony of the Board. He also reversed Mr. Churchill's policy of differentiating against prisoners from submarines as compared with other German prisoners, though he insisted that there was no change of opinion as to the unlawful, mean, cowardly, and brutal character of their acts. In introducing the Navy Estimates in 1916 he said that, except in armoured cruisers, the fleet was far stronger than when war broke out; that ships, guns and ammunition had increased and would increase; and that the personnel had more than doubled. His principal critic was Mr. Churchill, who averred that the existing Board had not so much energy, speed, push and drive as his own, and who, to the astonishment of the House, recommended the recall of Lord Fisher — a suggestion upon which Mr. Balfour commented severely. Perhaps the best work which he did at the Admiralty was the issue, at intervals, of some cogent papers, mainly for the benefit of the Americans, vindicating the great work of the British navy in the war, and exposing the fallacies involved in the captivating phrase, “the freedom of the seas.” The chief naval battle of the conflict, the battle of Jutland, was fought during his term of office; and he incurred widespread criticism by the manner in which the news was officially communicated to the public, the great losses in men and ships being dwelt on to such an extent as to suggest that, instead of being a victory, the action was a defeat. In a speech a few days later he claimed that, as a result of the fight, the Germans were relatively far inferior to what they had been. In late Oct. there was a daring German raid by 10 destroyers into the English Channel; an empty British transport and one British destroyer were sunk and another destroyer seriously damaged. Mr. Balfour confidently predicted at the Guildhall on Lord Mayor's Day that any further Channel raiders would suffer disaster. His confidence was probably based in part on a new arrangement of the high naval appointments, which he announced before the end of November. Sir John Jellicoe was brought into the Admiralty as First Sea Lord, and Sir David Beatty was appointed to succeed him as commander-in-chief. These changes were promptly followed by a change of First Lords when Mr. Lloyd George formed his Ministry in Dec. 1916. Lord Grey of Fallodon declined to continue at the Foreign Office under the new Prime Minister; and as it was essential to have a man of experience and weight there, the post was pressed upon Mr. Balfour, who had in times past occasionally acted as Foreign Secretary in Lord Salisbury's absence, and had been intimately associated, during his Premiership, with Lord Lansdowne's work in the department.

Mr. Balfour took up his new duties as Foreign Secretary only a few weeks before Germany instituted the unrestricted submarine warfare which brought the United States into the war; and in April 1917 he headed a British mission which visited America in order to arrange for regular cooperation between the two countries. His attractive personality greatly impressed his hosts, and he received the compliment of being invited to address the House of Representatives on May 5; his speech showed a complete sympathy, that was highly appreciated, with the spirit in which the United States had entered the war. He subsequently proceeded to Canada, and there addressed the two Houses of Parliament. The concentration of power in the hands of the War Cabinet, and the great personal ascendancy which Mr. Lloyd George, as Prime Minister, rapidly acquired, both tended rather to reduce the importance of the Foreign Secretary during Mr. Balfour's tenure of the post. It should be noted, however, that it was Mr. Balfour, as Foreign Secretary, who in Nov. 1917 gave a promise on behalf of his Government to provide a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine after the war. The exceptional amount of work to be dealt with at this period impelled him to ask for extra help in the office; and Lord Robert Cecil was taken from the Ministry of Blockade in the summer of 1918 and made an assistant Secretary of State. Mr. Balfour went to the Paris Conference in 1919 as the second British plenipotentiary; but as eventually the terms of peace were settled by a council of three, Mr. Wilson, M. Clemenceau, and Mr. Lloyd George (or of four, when the Italian prime minister attended), his share in the work was somewhat subordinate, though he appended his signature to the Treaty of Versailles, and to the treaty of guarantee to France against German aggression. When the Conference was over, he was glad to be relieved of the burden of a laborious office, and therefore relinquished the Secretary of State's seals to Lord Curzon, but remained himself in Mr. Lloyd George's Cabinet in the honourable but comparatively sinecure office of Lord President of the Council. He was appointed chief representative of the British Government at the first Assembly of the League of Nations in 1920; and also at the Disarmament Conference at Washington, D.C., in Nov. 1921.

Mr. Balfour's eminence, and his patriotic readiness to resume in war-time, in spite of advancing years, official labours in a secondary position, were suitably recognized on the King's birthday in 1916 by the grant of the Order of Merit. In 1919 he received a distinction which he must have peculiarly valued, when he was elected chancellor of his old university, Cambridge, in succession to his brother-in-law, Lord Rayleigh.

(G. E. B.)