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Arthur James Balfour

(1848—1930) prime minister and philosopher


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(b. Whittingehame, East Lothian, 25 July 1848; d. Woking, 19 Mar. 1930)

British; leader of the House of Commons and First Lord of the Treasury 1891–2, 1895–1902, Prime Minister 1902–5, Foreign Secretary 1916–19; Earl 1922 The grandson on his mother's side of the 2nd Marquess of Salisbury, Balfour was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, aged 26, and combined political activity with scholarship, penning several books on philosophy—his first, A Defence of Philosophic Doubt, was published in 1879. In parliament, he was a member of Lord Randolph Churchill's ‘Fourth Party’ before being appointed private secretary to the Foreign Secretary, his uncle, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. He entered government in 1885 as president of the Local Government Board and the following year became Secretary for Scotland. While in that post he was elevated to Cabinet rank. In 1887 he began a four-year tenure as Chief Secretary for Ireland—gaining the sobriquet of ‘Bloody Balfour’ for the determined way he restored the rule of law—before being appointed in 1891 as First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons, leading the Conservative Party in the House of Commons while his uncle served as Prime Minister in the House of Lords. When Salisbury finally retired in 1902, his nephew succeeded him.

His premiership was to be destroyed by the battle within the Conservative Party over protection. In 1903 Joseph Chamberlain began his campaign for Imperial Preference, encountering the vehement opposition of Conservative free traders. Balfour attempted to reach a compromise but failed. In December 1905 he offered the government's resignation. The Liberal leader Campbell-Bannerman accepted the King's commission to form a government, did so, and then went to the country and won an overwhelming victory. The Conservatives won only 156 seats. Balfour was among the MPs who were defeated. He was immediately found a new seat and returned to the House as MP for the City of London. In Opposition, he fared little better than in government. The Conservative majority in the House of Lords was used to frustrate government measures and to reject the budget in 1909. The government introduced the Parliament Bill in order to reduce the House of Lords' veto power over legislation. Balfour's handling of the response to the bill encountered criticism from within the party and a ‘BMG’ (Balfour Must Go) movement got under way. In 1911, citing age as a reason, an exasperated Balfour resigned the leadership. It is perhaps surprising that he held on to the leadership for as long as he did, carrying on for six years after the party had lost office.

Balfour's career was by no means over after he gave up the party leadership. In May 1915 he was brought into the wartime government as First Lord of the Admiralty and then in 1916, with Lloyd George taking over the premiership in a Conservative-dominated coalition, he became Foreign Secretary. He was the signatory to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, recognizing the right for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and he was a member of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. In 1919 he became Lord President of the Council, serving until the fall of the coalition in 1922. A few months before it fell, he was created the Earl of Balfour. He was brought back into government by Baldwin in 1925, serving as Lord President of the Council for the remainder of that parliament. On his 80th birthday, members of both houses presented him with a Rolls-Royce. He left office in June 1929, at the age of 81, and died ten months later.

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Subjects: British History.


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