Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

class in which the responsibilities of government are a traditional duty, Mr Balfour divided his time between the political arena and the study. Being released from his duties as private secretary by the general election of 1880, he began to take a rather more active part in parliamentary affairs. He was for a time politically associated with Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff and Sir John (then Mr) Gorst, the quartette becoming known as the “Fourth Party,” and gaining notoriety by the freedom of the criticisms directed by its leader, Lord Randolph Churchill, against Sir Stafford Northcote, Lord Cross and other prominent members of the “old gang.” In these sallies, however, Mr Balfour had no direct share. He was thought to be merely amusing himself with politics. It was regarded as doubtful whether his health could withstand the severity of English winters, and the delicacy of his physique and the languor of his manner helped to create the impression that, however great his intellectual powers might be, he had neither the bodily strength nor the energy of character requisite for a political career. He was the “odd man” of the Fourth Party, apparently content to fetch and carry for his colleagues, and was believed to have no definite ambitions of his own. His reputation in the parliament of 1880–1886 was that of a dilettante, who allied himself with the three politicians already named from a feeling of irresponsibility rather than of earnest purpose; he was regarded as one who, on the rare occasions when he spoke, was more desirous to impart an academic quality to his speeches than to make any solid contribution to public questions. The House, indeed, did not take him quite seriously. Members did not suspect the reserve of strength and ability beneath what seemed to them to be the pose of a parliamentary flâneur; they looked upon him merely as a young member of the governing classes who remained in the House because it was the proper thing for a man of family to do. As a member of the coterie known as the “Souls” he was, so to speak, caviare to the general. Indolence was supposed to be the keynote of his character—a refined indolence, not, however, without cleverness of a somewhat cynical and superior order.

That these views were not shared by Lord Salisbury was sufficiently shown by the fact that in his first administration (June 1885-January 1886) he made Mr Balfour president of the Local Government Board, and in forming his second administration (July 1886) secretary for Scotland with a seat in the cabinet. These offices gave few opportunities for distinction, and may be regarded merely as Mr Balfour's apprenticeship to departmental responsibilities. The accidents of political life suddenly opened out to him a career which made him, next to Lord Salisbury, the most prominent, the most admired and the most attacked Conservative politician of the day. Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, who was chief secretary for Ireland, suffered from an affection of the eyes and found it desirable to resign, and Lord Salisbury appointed his nephew in his stead. The selection took the political world by surprise, and was much criticized. By the Irish Nationalists it was received with contemptuous ridicule, for none suspected Mr Balfour's immense strength of will, his debating power, his ability in attack and his still greater capacity to disregard criticism. The debates on the Crimes Bill and the Irish Land Bill quickly undeceived them, and the steady and even remorseless vigour with which the government of Ireland was conducted speedily convinced the House of Commons and the country that Mr. Balfour was in his right place as chief secretary. His policy was that of “coercion”—the fearless administration of the Crimes Act,—coupled with remedial legislation; and he enforced the one while he proceeded with the other, regardless of the risk of outrage outside the House and of insult within. Mr Balfour's work in this office covered one of the most turbulent and most exciting periods in modern parliamentary history and Irish administration. With a courage that never faltered he broke down the Plan of Campaign in Ireland, and in parliament he not only withstood the assaults of the Irish Nationalists, but waged successful warfare with the entire Home Rule party. He combined an obstinacy of will with a mastery of facts unsurpassed by any of his predecessors in the secretaryship. Events, it is true, were in his favour. The disclosures before the Parnell Commission, the O'Shea divorce proceedings, the downfall of Mr Parnell and the disruption of the Irish party, assisted him in his task; but the fact remains that by persistent courage and undeviating thoroughness he reduced crime in Ireland to a vanishing point. His work was also constructive, for he broadened the basis of material prosperity and social progress by creating the Congested Districts Board in 1890. During this period, from 1886–1892, moreover, he developed gifts of oratory which made him one of the most effective of public speakers. Impressive in matter rather than in manner of delivery, and seldom rising to the level of eloquence in the sense in which that quality was understood in a House which had listened to Bright and Gladstone, his speeches were logical and convincing, and their attractive literary form delighted a wider audience than that which listens to the mere politician.

In 1888 Mr Balfour served on the Gold and Silver Commission, currency problems from the standpoint of bimetallism being among the more academic subjects which had engaged his attention. On the death of Mr W. H. Smith in 1891 he became first lord of the treasury and leader of the House of Commons, and in that capacity introduced in 1892 a Local Government Bill for Ireland. The Conservative government was then at the end of its tether, and the project fell through. For the next three years Mr Balfour led the opposition with great skill and address. On the return of the Unionists to power in 1895 he resumed the leadership of the House, but not at first with the success expected of him, his management of the abortive education proposals of '96 being thought, even by his own supporters, to show a disinclination for the continuous drudgery of parliamentary management under modern conditions. But after the opening session matters proceeded more smoothly, and Mr Balfour regained his old position in the estimation of the House and the country. He had the satisfaction of seeing a bill pass for providing Ireland with an improved system of local government, and took an active share in the debates on the various foreign and domestic questions that came before parliament during 1895–1900. His championship of the voluntary schools, his adroit parliamentary handling of the problems opened up by the so-called “crisis in the Church” caused by the Protestant movement against ritualistic practices, and his pronouncement in favour of a Roman Catholic university for Ireland—for which he outlined a scheme that met with much adverse criticism both from his colleagues and his party,—were the most important aspects of Mr Balfour's activity during these years. His speeches and work throughout this period took a wider range than before his accession to the leadership of the Commons. During the illness of Lord Salisbury in 1898, and again in Lord Salisbury's absence abroad, he was in charge of the foreign office, and it fell to his lot to conduct the very critical negotiations with Russia on the question of railways in North China. To his firmness, and at the same time to the conciliatory readiness with which he accepted and elaborated the principles of a modus vivendi, the two powers owed the avoidance of what threatened to be a dangerous quarrel. As a member of the cabinet responsible for the Transvaal negotiations in 1899 he bore his full share of controversy, and when the war opened so disastrously he was the first to realize the necessity for putting the full military strength of the country into the field. At the general election of 1900 he was returned for East Manchester (which he had represented since 1885) by a majority of 2453, and continued in office as first lord of the treasury. His leadership of the House of Commons in the first session of the new parliament was marked by considerable firmness in the suppression of obstruction, but there was a slight revival of the criticisms which had been current in 1896. Mr Balfour's inability to get the maximum amount of work out of the House was largely due to the situation in South Africa, which absorbed the intellectual energies of the House and of the country and impeded the progress of legislation.

The principal achievements of the long session of 1902 (which extended to the autumn) were the passing of the Education Act,—entirely reorganizing the system of primary education, abolishing the school boards and making the county councils the local authority; new rules of procedure; and the creation