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Food for Thought

The Paradoxes of Arthur Balfour

Tim Madigan on a Philosopher-Prime Minister.

“If you wanted nothing done, Arthur Balfour was the best man for the task. There was no equal to him.” Winston Churchill

With the elevation of David Cameron to the office of British Prime Minister, Number 10 Downing Street now has as its chief occupant a politician whose previous job experience was in corporate public relations. While most occupants in recent years have been primarily political creatures, some had a more varied background. Disraeli, for instance, wrote romantic novels, and his rival Gladstone wrote learned treatises on Homer and the works of Bishop Butler, while Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature, primarily for his historical writings. But only one PM had the honor of giving the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology: Arthur J. Balfour, British Prime Minister from 1902-1905.

Balfour (1848-1930) led a long political life. The scion of a wealthy Scottish family, he was the nephew of Robert Cecil, Marquis of Salisbury, the long-time Victorian Prime Minister, and served him in several capacities, including a stint as Chief Secretary for Ireland, where he earned the sobriquet ‘Bloody Balfour’. Critics pointed out that this literal case of nepotism made career advancement easy for Balfour, and it is said that this was the origin of the expression ‘Bob’s your Uncle’. But there was no doubt that Balfour was an able lieutenant to his uncle Bob, and a natural successor to him when he resigned due to ill health in 1902. Balfour’s brief term in office was torn by cabinet debates over tariff issues, and he led the Conservative Party to three electoral defeats, even suffering the indignity of losing his own seat in 1906. Although a rather unsuccessful PM, he was nonetheless a mainstay in British politics for almost fifty years, and held numerous public offices. He is best known today for drafting the 1917 ‘Balfour Declaration’, issued while he was Foreign Secretary. This stated “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Ever since, people have been struggling to understand just what exactly that statement means; a sign of his masterful usage of the English language to mean different things to different people. He possessed the artful abilities of a born diplomat.

Yet Balfour’s diffident manner and aristocratic airs often drove even his closest supporters to distraction. In the caustic words of Rowland Hunt, a Conservative MP commenting upon the party’s electoral losses under Balfour’s stewardship, Balfour could not “bring himself down from the Olympian heights of philosophy and golf” to effectively lead his party. (His enthusiasm for golf, by the way, is a trait he does share with many of his successors, if not his enthusiasm for philosophy.) In 1911 Balfour was rejected as party leader, but surprisingly went on to serve in most of the subsequent cabinets right up until his death. He used the time away from leading the party to draft his first series of Gifford Lectures, entitled Theism and Humanism (1914), a continuation of arguments first made in his earlier The Foundations of Belief (1895) and A Defense of Philosophical Doubt (1879).

In many ways, Balfour was a sort of anti-Bertrand Russell. Both were related to British Prime Ministers (Russell’s grandfather served in that post from 1846-1852 and 1865-1866). Both wrote works in philosophy and religion, came from aristocratic backgrounds, attended Cambridge (where they studied with the famed Utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick, later to become Balfour’s brother-in-law). And both were noted for their biting sense of humor and skill as debaters. But unlike Russell, Balfour was a strong supporter of Christianity, an arch-traditionalist, a defender of the British Empire, and president for many years of the Society for Psychical Research, something the skeptical Russell would have had no tolerance for. Unlike Russell, a political radical and social reformer who frequently changed his views on matters both philosophical and political, Balfour remarked in his autobiography that, at age 80 it was “appalling how little my views have changed” since childhood.

Russell and Balfour knew each other, and although never friends, had a cordial relationship. Russell puckishly remarked that whenever a crank contacted him with a desire to talk about supernatural matters, he would tell them that Balfour was the expert on that topic and would be a better person to consult – a very convenient way of getting rid of annoying people! And when Russell was arrested in 1918 for opposing the First World War, Balfour, then the powerful Foreign Secretary, helped to arrange for better prison quarters for him, including having access to books and writing materials (which among other things allowed Russell to compose his books Political Ideals: Roads to Freedomand Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy).

What is most interesting is that early in their lives both men were torn between pursuing careers in politics or in academic philosophy. Russell chose the latter, but remained passionately committed to political activism (thrice running unsuccessfully for Parliament), whereas Balfour, with much heaviness of heart, chose to devote himself to political office. Originally elected to Parliament in 1874, he confided to his sister that if he was not re-elected he would “leave politics for philosophy.” But he was successfully returned to office, and thereafter remained in political service until the end of his life, while still finding time to be, among other things, Rector of St Andrews and Glasgow Universities, Chancello r of Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities, President of the British Association, Fellow of the Royal Society and of the British Academy, and both Gifford and Romanes Lecturer (not to mention playing two rounds of golf a day, as well as frequent games of lawn tennis, which he helped to popularize). Ironically enough, both Russell and Balfour were to write humorous treatises extolling the virtues of idleness. It would be difficult to find two less idle men in all creation.

While he was unsuccessful as PM, Balfour’s baffling ambivalence over the tariff, and other matters which split his cabinet and the Conservative Party asunder was part and parcel with his political philosophy, which he shared with his illustrious uncle, who once said that “The use of Conservatism is to delay changes till they become harmless.” This dispassionate stance – very unlike Bertrand Russell’s hot poker fervency – was perhaps the very heart of Balfour’s defense of traditionalism. Russell’s godfather John Stuart Mill once called the Conservatives “the Stupid Party”, but Balfour ably defended it over his long career, as the party which best represented the need for authority. He wrote, “It is authority rather than reason to which, in the main, we owe not religion only, but ethics and politics… it is authority which supplies us with essential elements in the premises of science… it is authority rather than reason which lays deep the foundations of social life… it is authority rather than reason which cements its superstructure.” Balfour’s political philosophy, therefore, was one which advocated delaying tactics rather than radical reforms; compromise over conflict; and a ‘steady does it in the long run’ attitude. For him this was true conservatism. The opening quote by Churchill, who knew and served with Balfour in many administrations, is perhaps not as insulting as it first appears, and it captures nicely Balfour’s flair for ambivalence. In his classic work The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot (1953) the political theorist Russell Kirk devotes a section to Balfour’s “astute delay and amelioration.” Although primarily an attendant lord rather than a brilliant leader, he was an able second-in-command and a trusted advisor. He may not have been a model for Plato’s Philosopher-King, but he did show that it’s possible to be a philosopher in power. And, somewhat like Doctor Johnson’s dog walking on two legs, it’s not so much that he was successful, but that one is surprised to see an actual philosopher in power at all.

More to the point, Balfour is coming back into vogue. A reprint of his Gifford lectures, Theism and Humanism (ed. Michael Perry, Inkling Books, 2000), points out the influence Balfour’s writings had on C.S. Lewis, one of the foremost Christian apologists of modern times, as well as the relevance Balfour’s arguments have for current debates in the philosophy of religion. R.J.Q. Adams’ Balfour: The Last Grandee (John Murray, 2007) gives a detailed account of his life and influence. And Jonathan Schneer’s The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Random House, 2010) ably demonstrates that his maddening ambivalence is still bearing fruit right up to the present day.

Most of all, Balfour continues to baffle. A devotee of science, but also an advocate of religion; a dedicated Christian, yet also a dabbler in spiritualism; a member of the Church of England, and also a Presbyterian Nonconformist; and a practical politician as well as a theoretical metaphysician: Arthur Balfour presents a host of paradoxes that any Russellian should love to try to untangle.

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2010

Tim Madigan’s current favorite Prime Minister is Portugal’s José Sócrates.

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