Why does Balfour Still Matter?

Bloody Balfour – Who Bloody Cares?

by Gwydion M. Williams

If we stand on the shoulders of cannibal giants, it is embarrassing.  An inconvenient truth that we need to face up to.

We must also ask if there a better way?  Except for those way out of tune with modern life, the answer would mostly be ‘no’.

We live in a world made by the European Enlightenment.  Violently re-made by radical democracy in the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.  Remade yet again in the ‘disastrous’ 20th century by socialist reformers and by the radical violence of Global Leninism.

The Enlightenment ideal was the Enlightened Autocrat, who gave people what they would never be wise enough to choose for themselves.  Such democratic movements as existed were largely Extremist Puritans.  A few of these shared Enlightenment ideas such as more equality for women, but most felt the opposite.  The merger of these two antagonists in the French Revolution was a surprise, and naturally was a messy process.

Arthur Balfour was a late-blooming version of the original Enlightened Aristocrats.  He’d have made a good Enlightened Autocrat, had the times been suitable.  As things were, he was called ‘Bloody Balfour’ for his repression of Irish Nationalism.  Much less well-known is his successful curing of the Irish Land Question by buying out the landlords.  His clever solution of turning their tenants into small farmers of the sort that had largely vanished in England.

Arthur Balfour was a highly intelligent Tory who was Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, and then Leader of the Opposition till 1911.[1]  He was also Foreign Secretary from 1916 to 1919, and in this role he issued the Balfour Declaration that laid the basis for Jewish colonisation of a British Mandate of Palestine carved out of the defeated Ottoman Empire.  But though it bears his name, it was a collective decision by most of Lloyd George’s wartime Coalition Cabinet.  (Surprisingly, the only Jew in that Cabinet, Edwin Montagu, was anti-Zionist and disapproved of it.[2])  Balfour continued in major roles under later Tory government, holding the major office of ‘Lord President of the Council’ till 1929 and dying in 1930, aged 81.

He was the most interesting ruling-class intellectual since Edmund Burke

Balfour was born into the inner circles of Toryism, where aristocrats still counted for a lot.  More specifically, he was close to his uncle Lord Salisbury, promoted early by him and succeeding him as Prime Minister.  This relationship is the likely source of the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’:

“The origins are uncertain, but a common theory is that the expression arose after Conservative Prime Minister Robert “Bob” Cecil appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, an act which was apparently both surprising and unpopular.”[3]

In office, Balfour proved to be a tough and intelligent politician:

“In early 1887, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, resigned because of illness and Salisbury appointed his nephew in his place…  The selection took the political world by surprise, and was much criticized. It was received with contemptuous ridicule by the Irish Nationalists, for none suspected Balfour’s immense strength of will, his debating power, his ability in attack and his still greater capacity to disregard criticism. Balfour surprised critics by ruthless enforcement of the Crimes Act, earning the nickname ‘Bloody Balfour’. His steady administration did much to dispel his reputation as a political lightweight.”[4]

Unlike most politicians, Balfour could also write intelligently about matters well away from his own experience:

“He became known in the world of letters; the academic subtlety and literary achievement of his Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879) suggested he might make a reputation as a philosopher.

“Balfour divided his time between politics and academic pursuits.”[5]

And like many highly intelligent and creative people, he had an unconventional personal life.  You find among them disproportionate numbers of gays and lesbians, and also heterosexuals bad at forming stable relationships or with sexual interests that divert from actual sexual reproduction.

Some people re baffled that Natural Selection ‘allows’ homosexuality.  I have never seen anyone expressing the same puzzlement about celibacy, suggesting that Christian traditions have more of a grip on their minds than they realise.  In any case, this puzzlement arises from a misunderstanding of what Natural Selection is about: the survival of an entire species.

Humans thrive on the basis of forming abnormally large social groups: much larger than any of our ape and monkey relatives.  Groups which feed together and take risks for each other, unlike the vast but asocial herds of grazing beasts or flocks of birds.  (Flocks of birds, romantically viewed as forming a collective mind, turn out to be fragmented individualists who merely know that there is safety in numbers.[6])  And as humans evolved in small bands, genes that made their recipient more likely to be creative and less likely to reproduce could be favoured by Natural Selection. [7]

If Balfour was born with non-standard personal and sexual desires, that would fit a pattern.  But it may also have been due to an early tragedy:

“Balfour was a lifelong bachelor. He met his cousin May Lyttelton in 1870 when she was 19. After her two previous serious suitors had died, Balfour is said to have declared his love for her in December 1874. She died of typhus on Palm Sunday, March 1875; Balfour arranged for an emerald ring to be buried in her coffin…

“Margot Tennant (later Margot Asquith) wished to marry him, but Balfour said: ‘No, that is not so. I rather think of having a career of my own.’ His household was maintained by his unmarried sister, Alice. In middle age, Balfour had a 40-year friendship with Mary Charteris (née Wyndham), Lady Elcho, later Countess of Wemyss and March. Although one biographer writes that ‘it is difficult to say how far the relationship went’, her letters suggest they may have become lovers in 1887 and may have engaged in sado-masochism, a claim echoed by A. N. Wilson. Another biographer believes they had ‘no direct physical relationship’, although he dismisses as unlikely suggestions that Balfour was homosexual, or, in view of a time during the Boer War when he replied to a message while drying himself after his bath, Lord Beaverbrook’s claim that he was ‘a hermaphrodite’ whom no-one saw naked.”[8]

The man’s detached attitudes suggest to me a man who hadn’t got what he wanted out of life, despite his wealth and apparent success.  It is also possible he saw the decline of his class and his values and had no wish to father children who’d live in what he’d have seen as a darkening world.  Or just wished to avoid the extra social entanglements that having a wife of his own class would have involved.

Unlike the New Right, Balfour knew that society was an organic thing.  He was of course concerned mostly with the interests of the rich elite he had been born into.  But he also shows deep understanding of what was actually going on.  Had the New Right mixed a little Balfour with their Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, they might not have made such a mess of their brief dominance in the 1990s.

People on the left also need to read, mark and inwardly digest Balfour, to become more effective politically.

There is however no need to view Balfour as anything other than an enemy: in fact more of an enemy than most people realise.  He created the Committee of Imperial Defence,[9] a confidential body set up by him as Prime Minister in 1902.  Its overt role was to create a strategic vision defining the future roles of Britain’s armed forces.  It set up Security Services that evolved into MI5 and MI6.  And covertly, it did a lot to prepare for a war to break the rising power of Germany.  Balfour was very much bound up with this, and blundered.  It was a disaster that hastened the decline of both Balfour’s class and the British Empire in general.

But his Old Right tradition once meant something, and its insights have been lost amidst a flood of New Right nonsense and weak liberal-left capitulation to their errors.

It is also useful to remind people how alien the Toryism of the late-19th and early-20th century was.  And how little inclined to change it was at the time.  Those who claim that Global Leninism failed, seem ignorant  of how much all modern Western thinking includes ideas once confined to Marxists.   Social values that for many years had been chiefly championed by Communists and their sympathisers.[10]

There are plenty of reason to hate Balfour.  But hate is unproductive, mostly hurting you more than the target.  Balfour needs to be studied dispassionately, because he accurately sees the flaws in the liberalism of the time.


The works reproduced in this magazine come from an 1893 collection called Essays and Addresses.  In his introduction, Balfour says:

“This volume consists of a certain number of Essays and Addresses which have been delivered or written during the last eleven years. None of them have any relation to party politics except perhaps, to a very slight extent, the review of Mr. Morley’s Cobden. But even in this case it seems to me that the changes that have come over current political theories since Mr. Cobden’s death are so great that an estimate of certain particular aspects of his public career may be attempted without unduly raising controversies in which modern politicians are immediately concerned.”

Unless I specify otherwise, all text and quotes from Balfour come from a free version of Essays and Addresses.[11]   Additions within his text are indicated by square brackets.

I have excluded almost all of Balfour’s notes, which you can find on-line if you want to check anything.  Those I found interesting or necessary are incorporated in the text.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Balfour.  All Wiki quotes are from the text as it stood on 23rd July 2018.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Montagu#Views_on_Zionism

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob%27s_your_uncle

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Balfour#Service_in_Lord_Salisbury’s_governments

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Balfour#Early_career.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boids

[7] https://gwydionwilliams.com/20-science/natural-selection-as-survival-of-the-grandkids/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Balfour#Background_and_early_life

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Committee_of_Imperial_Defence

[10] https://gwydionwilliams.com/history-and-philosophy/the-left-redefined-the-normal/

[11] Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/essaysandaddres01balfgoog