Arthur James Balfour
( Originally Published 1907 )
MR. A. J. BALFOUR has probably done the greatest service to his country of any man of his time. He has saved it from Protection.
When Mr. Chamberlain came back from South Africa with the full knowledge of his failure, he resolved on one last desperate throw. He would blot out the past. He would set up a new fever in the blood. Philip sober should be Philip drunk again. "You can burn all your political leaflets and literature," he said to Mr. Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal Whip, in the lobby one day. " We are going to talk about something else." And so he gathered up all the forces of wealth and interest into one frenzied assault on the economic fabric of the State. All his hopes hung upon instancy. There must be no time for the country to recover its equilibrium. It must give its decision while it was reeling under the impact of the blow. It must be carried by storm.
And it was nearly carried by storm. Looking back on the tornado that began at Glasgow and collapsed at the Guildhall with the most memorable interruption to a political speech on record, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that, had Mr. Chamberlain got an appeal to the country forthwith, he would have won. His calculations were sound. Philip was momentarily drunk with the new wine. He forgot the past; he lost his reason; he was at the mercy of the adventurer. But the debauch was brief, and every day of returning sobriety was a new defence flung up against the attack. Mr. Chamberlain was destroyed by delay. And it was Mr. Balfour who wrought that delay.
To this hour no man can say what his motive was in carrying on that amazing duel with his impetuous rival. Perhaps it was personal, for the triumph of Mr. Chamberlain meant Mr. Balfour's definite deposition. Perhaps it was for the sake of the party, for the adoption of Protection involved an organic change in its character and aim. Perhaps it was the love of a situation which called out all the resources of his astonishing intellectual agility. Certainly it was not devotion to Free Trade nor antagonism to Protection, for he cares for neither.
He cares for neither because he is essentially a sceptic. He looks out on life with a mingled scorn and pity scorn for its passionate strivings after the unattainable, pity for its meanness and squalor. He does not know the reading of the riddle, but he knows that all ends in failure and disillusion. Ever the rosy dawn of youth and hope fades away into the sadness of evening and the blackness of night, and out of that blackness comes no flash of revelation, no message of cheer.
The Worldly Hope men set their arts upon
Why meddle with the loom and its flying shuttle? We are the warp and weft with which the great Weaver works His infinite design that design which is beyond the focus of all mortal vision, and in which the glory of Greece, the pomp of Rome, the ambition of Carthage, seven times buried beneath the dust of the desert, are but inscrutable passages of glowing colour. All our schemes are futile, for we do not know the end, and that which seems to us evil may serve some ultimate good, and that which seems right may pave the path to wrong. In this fantastic mockery of all human effort the only attitude is the " wise passiveness " of the poet. Let us accept the irrevocable fate unresistingly.
In a word, Drift. That is the political philosophy of Mr. Balfour.
What, then, brings him into the world of affairs? If all action is idle, if interference with the machine is foolish impertinence, a meddling with what we do not understand and cannot control, why quit the Whittinghame woodlands for the field of battle? The explanation is twofold. He enters Parliament to protect the privileges of his caste and to taste the joys of intellectual mastery.
In defending his caste he is absolutely sincere, even disinterested and patriotic. He believes in the rule of the aristocracy, not in the na´ve, bucolic way of Mr. Chaplin, the last of the " squires," but intellectually. He does not regard the democracy with animus, but as uninstructed and sometimes unruly children, whom it is his task to keep out of mischief. Pity for the poor was bred in him in those far-off days of the Lancashire cotton famine, when his mother taught her children to forego their little luxuries in order to contribute to the funds for the starving operatives. But it is pity for an inferior creation with which he has no common fellowship. He dwells in another hemisphere, breathes another atmosphere. There is no vain assumption in this. It is a plain, indisputable fact of existence, about which he would as little think of being vain as he would of the fact that he stands six feet two or so. He is too astute and too delicate in feeling to express his contempt for the people with the brutal candour of his godfather, the Iron Duke; but essentially his view of democracy is Wellingtonian.
It is this aloofness which has prevented him being a popular figure, just as it prevented his uncle from ever touching the heart of the rank and file even of his own party. For Toryism, though essentially an aristocratic system, has to wear the disguise of democracy to affect a virtue even if it have it not. Whenever it has become vital, it has been at the inspiration of some man who has appealed frankly to the democracy, not from the elevation of a superior caste, but as the authentic voice and obedient instrument of its needs and aspirations. It was so that Disraeli, Lord Randolph Churchill, and Mr. Chamber-lain in turn breathed upon the dry bones of Toryism and made them live. The Cecil philosophy cannot win the democracy: it can only use it.
This conception of aristocratic rule extends to the realm of race. In all his career Mr. Balfour has never lifted his hand or raised his voice on behalf of an oppressed people. It is not that he is wanting in sympathy. It is simply that he is on the side of the aristocratic authority. If the Russian knouts the Jew and the Turk slays the Armenian, he is sorry for Jew and Armenian. But they are the under-dog: they must suffer. If they rebel they must be punished. It is not that he bears malice against Jew or Armenian. If they were the aristocrats in the racial conflict, he would be on their side. He reverses that saying of Goethe's that " when the people rebel the people are always right." When the people rebel the people are always wrong.
Hence his memorable tenure of the Irish Secretaryship. The Irish were to him a mutinous nursery in revolt against the authority of an aristocratic rule. His uncle called them Hottentots. Mr. Balfour was less picturesque, but no less emphatic. He did not hate the Irish: he only despised them. " They have great gifts," he was not unfairly represented as saying; " they have wit, imagination, eloquence, valour; in many respects they are our superiors. But in one respect they are our inferiors, and no amount of Gladstonian rhetoric can make them otherwise. They are politically incapable of self-government. Why not govern them as the Scotch, you ask ? Be-cause they are not the Scotch. They cannot be trusted to govern themselves, for the simple and sufficient reason that Providence, in giving them many gifts, omitted to give them the qualities which ensure stable self-control." And so he whipped them, put them in prison, turned them naked and homeless on to the roadside. There was no bitterness in this. He did it honestly for their good. He did it in obedience to a considered philosophy. The Irish were children in rebellion : they must be broken with the rod. They were the under-dog and must learn to obey their masters.
It is this aristocratic detachment from realities that is at the root of all his mistakes. He cannot enter into the mind of the inferior castes. He cannot understand that if you prick them, they will bleed. Their resentment fills him with sincere amazement with a certain sadness at their want of gratitude. His surprise at the passionate indignation of the Nonconformists in regard to the Education Act was not affected. He still believes that these good people honest, but dull and unenlightened did not know their blessings. It is not that he deliberately outrages a sentiment that he does not share: it is that he is insensible to it.
His vision of society is of a refined company, dowered with delicate appetites and gracious sentiments and protected from the raging mob without by a moral police that is crumbling away and by the more material defence of ancient privilege sustained by the authority of law. Within there is abundance for all light and air, music and perfumes. The mob at the gate clamours to share these, and he does not blame them. But he would hold them at bay, because he believes that their triumph would mean the desolation of the little oasis of culture that is the one reality worth preserving in this phantasmal world. It is not animus against the mob that governs him, but the passion to hold the one priceless thing. Nor is it, perhaps, the sense of aristocratic exclusiveness. He believes that the ravage of his oasis would bring no joy to the hungry horde. It would only blot out the beauty that is the flower of the ages and leave the land
A wilderness indeed,
And the other reason for his presence in politics is to " drink delight of battle with his peers. The House of Commons is the first debating society in the world, and Mr. Balfour is the supreme debater. On the platform he is dull and uninspiring, for he has no message for his time; but on the floor of the House he is the incomparable swordsman. His spirits rise with the combat. The worse the case, the more desperate the attack, the more formidable he be-comes. The air of slack nervelessness vanishes. Every faculty awakes to astonishing activity. He twists and turns with diabolical elusiveness. A dozen swords are at his throat, and to ! he is under the enemy's guard and through them, dealing venomous thrusts on every vulnerable point. He clouds the issue with the dust of his dialectics and with a sudden flank movement changes the whole face of the battle. His one weapon of defence is to attack. If he cannot meet the enemy on the ground they have chosen, he wheels round to a new position, and before they realise that he has escaped they are defending them-selves in the rear. There was truth as well as vanity in his complaint that " the House of Commons did not extend his mind." Parliament has never witnessed so accomplished an intellectual gymnast. There is only one rival to him in these days, and I was not surprised when the Bishop of Southwark one day told me that Mr. Balfour had great admiration for Mr. G. K. Chesterton.
But the country is not governed ultimately by intellectual gymnastics. It is amused by them; it applauds them, and it distrusts them. Mr. Balfour wins his dialectical battles and loses his campaign. He is at once the hope and the despair of his party. They cannot replace his leadership in the House, where intellectual address is necessary; they cannot survive his leadership in the country, where moral purpose alone counts. If Toryism is to rise from its ashes it must make some appeal to the hearts and imaginations of men. It must believe. And Mr. Balfour does not believe. He is a creature of negations and doubts. " You cannot fill your belly on the east wind," said the wise man. The people ask for bread, and Mr. Balfour offers them the east wind of a withering intellectuality.
He breathes no moral oxygen into the air. The murmurs and the agonies of men touch him to no passionate purpose. They cry, and, like those gods of old,
He hears a music centred in a doleful song,
Ireland asks for the deliverance of a dying people, and he says, " Don't hesitate to shoot." cries its ancient cry, and he discusses " the balance of criminality," Outraged citizens ask for defence against the madness of a mob, and he talks of " the limits of human endurance."
Temperamentally, he belongs to the sthetic cult of the eighties-the cult satirised so ruthlessly by Du Maurier and Gilbert, languorous and sensuous, to whom the decorations of life-music, art, literature are the only realities. He is a man of emotions, without a moral, and would" Die of a rose in aromatic pain." Intellectually, he finds in philosophy that extension of the mind which he complained that the House of Commons did not afford. Public affairs interest him only on their speculative side, and his loose hold on facts and figures is characteristic of one whose adventures are all of the mind, and whose ultimate interest is really engaged only when he is discussing some new guess at the nature of matter or the nature of the soul. In politics he is caged, and beats his wings against the bars of circumstance: it is only when he escapes to the limitless realm of speculative ideas that, free and unencumbered, he is truly happy.
Charm he has in a high degree; but it is an illusive charm. His address is curiously winning and appealing; but politically it has no basis in loyalty or rooted affection. He smiles upon his friends and leaves them to the wolves. No man ever had a more chivalrous follower than he had in George Wyndham, but when the Ulster pack were hot upon the scent he sacrificed him without a word sacrificed George Wyndham to Sir Edward Carson! Even the ties of blood are no check to this incurable disloyalty. He saw his cousin, Lord Hugh Cecil, the ablest man on his side, hounded from the party by the Protectionists, and never lifted a finger to save him. He saw honest Sir Edward Clarke hounded from the City and remained darkly. silent.
It follows naturally from this that he is acutely jealous of his honour. Nothing moves him to such brilliant frenzy as the least hint of a stain there. Nothing wounds him so much as a word of reproach from those whose loyalty and honour are above challenge. A rebuke from Sir Edward Grey cuts him to the quick, and it was only when the Duke of Devonshire left his Ministry with words of blunt candour that he was stung into shrill and eager defence of his impenetrable policy.
He has a feminine sensitiveness to personality. He takes the criticism of Mr. Asquith cheerfully, but Mr. Churchill fills him with petulant resentment. It is the resentment of the aristocrat against one who, in his view, is disloyal to his caste. It is the resentment, too, of a mind of subtle refinements against one who is broad and popular, and who, he suspects, deliberately appeals to the gallery. He used to flee from the House in ostentatious scorn when Mr. Churchill assailed him. As he was disappearing on one of these occasions, Mr. Churchill, secure in his triumph, cried, " The right hon. gentleman need not leave the House. I am not going to refer to him." Amidst the shout of laughter that followed, Mr. Balfour turned, and a word of withering scorn was seen rather than heard to issue from his lips.
It is the highest testimony to the fascination of his personality, and the honesty of his point of view, that, in spite of his provocative policy and an ingenuity of mind that suggests disingenuousness, he has no enemies. His smile disarms you. It has been called the chief asset of his party, and it is certainly irresistible. Even the Irishmen, when they emerged from prison, were conciliated by its tender sympathy. He inquired after their health. He hoped they had not been inconvenienced. It was all done quite simply and sweetly. He leaves nothing to rankle in the wound he makes.
His future is one of the most interesting speculations of the political world. He retains the titular leadership; but the army has passed him by. It has gone over, horse, foot, and artillery, to a new idea. It openly scoffs at him. It distrusts his lukewarm surrender, and has ceased to find any pleasure in a conundrum which seems to have no solution. Its most powerful voices in the Press have called repeatedly for his deposition. He is without apolicy, without a following, without a purpose. He has nothing but a crown. It is the crown of Richard the Second. His party only await the advent of Henry Bolingbroke.