Sunday, October 25, 2009

Balfour

I've finished reading a life of A.J.B. Balfour by R.J.Q. Adams (I know: three initials).

Somehow this book almost makes the great crises of British politics from the 1880s to the 1920s seem boring. This may be the effect of seeing things through Balfour's eyes. He wasn't as indolent as many people always thought, and he showed a surprising toughness when he had to. His reputation at the highest levels of British politics always somehow surpassed his actual accomplishments. He was promoted by his uncle Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury (from which we get the typically English irreverent observation on those who are lucky, "Bob's your uncle." Once in Cabinet, he seemed the natural choice for leader of his party. His brief tenure as Prime Minister was more or less a disaster, he was out of office in 1906, and he was not trusted by the ultra-Tories. When Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, started seeking Tories who might join a wartime Cabinet, Balfour for a while was the only one. As Lloyd George manouvred to take over from Asquith, Balfour became one of the indispensable "Coalition" ministers. Churchill comments in Great Contemporaries that Balfour shifted from Asquith, who had supported him, to Lloyd George who had criticized him, without batting an eye. Adams' defence is that Balfour sincerely believed Asquith could not win the war, whereas Lloyd George could.

Post-War, the Tories had a chance at power, and Balfour eventually re-insinuated himself with his own party. Adams does not unduly flatter his subject, or sugar-coat events, but it is questionable whether he conveys the true extent to which Balfour was successful despite his failures--perhaps the most successful twit, or Bertie Wooster type, ever. Part of his secret seems to have been that he knew to whom he had to show loyalty--this was often his most powerful subordinates.

Perhaps the biggest fiasco is the Balfour Declaration, promising a Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine, in 1917, with the war still on and Lloyd George as Prime Minister. Balfour always claimed that he thought this could be worked out with the local Arabs, then in a majoriy, in a peaceful way, and he certainly seemed surprised at the extent of Arab outrage. The only member of Cabinet to vote against the Declaration was also the only Jew--Edwin Montagu. He feared that the Declaration would be bad for the Jews. There was plenty of anti-Semitism (the problem Balfour claimed to be addressing), and anti-Semites could embrace the Declaration as a statement that the Jews should all go to Palestine--Europeans no longer had to put up with them. This was about twenty-five years before the Holocaust, which makes it a lot less funny.

Adams gets a bit into Balfour's bachelor status, and sexuality. There is a possibility of some kinky stuff with a long-time married lady friend, but it seems possible this was a series of excursions for a man who was as gay as Liberace since at least his time at Eton.

All of this makes me want once again to read more about Lord Salisbury, the twit's uncle. I've sent a way for the 1921 biography by Salisbury's daughter, Lady Gwendolen (sic) Cecil.

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