Biography: Arthur Balfour by Mary Grey

Arthur Balfour 1848- 1930

The facts of Arthur Balfour’s political life are well-known. What is not so obvious is why he, “a scion of both Scottish mercantile wealth and English aristocracy”[1] – should be linked by history to a document with such momentous consequences for the Middle East. The first task is to set out the parameters of Balfour’s political career.

Political life

Lord Balfour had a long and distinguished political life, serving as Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from July 1902 to December 1905, and Foreign Secretary in 1916–1919 – the period that most concerns us here. Balfour was born in Scotland and entered parliament in the 1874 general election, becoming prominent as Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1887–18912. He succeeded his uncle, Robert Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, as Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader in July 1902 but in 1905 he lost power to the Liberals. After a disastrous General Election for the Conservatives in 1906, Balfour lost his Manchester East seat and was rushed back to parliament only through a by-election for the City of London constituency. He continued as Leader of the Opposition, resigning in November 1911. Balfour was famous for his oratory; but in his own personality he was aloof, although in his public persona he could be witty and sociable. His favourite expression was, apparently, “Nothing matters much and very little matters at all”.

Later, Balfour returned to the Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty in the coalition government formed in May 1915. Most importantly for our theme, he became Foreign Secretary (1916–1919) in David Lloyd George‘s coalition government. It was in this post that he authored (or signed) the Balfour Declaration of 1917, supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine: for this his name remains best known today. He retired from the House of Commons at the 1922 general election, and was granted an Earldom. In the late 1920s he would serve as an elder statesman in the second government of Stanley Baldwin.

What were the influences on Balfour that led to the Declaration?

It was Chaim Weizmann who had the most decisive influence on Balfour- along with his deeply –rooted biblical faith. (See biography: Weizmann). It is indisputable that this faith, both biblical and evangelical, was of key importance in influencing Balfour’s attitudes and actions. We know that he was raised in a strongly evangelical Scottish Presbyterian home and nurtured in a Calvinistic evangelicalism similar to that of the Welsh Baptist upbringing of the future prime minister, David Lloyd George (see biography- Lloyd George) . This religious heritage – shared by other members of the Cabinet- is often overlooked by historians looking for motives for the Balfour Declaration. The key religious influence on Balfour was his mother. Born as Lady Blanche Gascoyne-Cecil, she was the sister of Lord Salisbury – three times British prime minister – to be succeeded by his nephew, Arthur Balfour. Since Balfour’s father died when he was eight, the boy was brought up by his mother, who, a strong and courageous woman, and a formidable intellectual in her own right, was an enthusiastic evangelical, teaching her children daily Bible classes. Thus Balfour attained a remarkable knowledge of the geography of Palestine and acquired a familiarity with biblical stories. As Balfour’s niece, Blanche Dugdale would later write in her biography of Balfour:
Balfour’s interest in the Jews and their history was life-long, originating in the Old Testament training of his mother, and his Scottish upbringing.3
Lady Blanche, a person of great moral seriousness, (though she also had a sense of humour) was also known for her personal evangelical activity – notably by distributing Gospel tracts at the railway station in East Linton near the Balfour family estate in East Lothian in Scotland.
This is the background to Balfour’s sympathy and commitment to Zionism: he regarded history as ‘an instrument to carrying our divine purpose.’4
Throughout his life Balfour became known as a critical thinker in defence of religion, -for example, in the context of the Darwinian controversies – but it is his evangelical fervour that concerns us in the discussion of the decision of the Declaration that bears his name. It was this commitment- shared by Lloyd George, and as Stephen Sizer wrote, by Lord Shaftesbury and Lord Palmerston a generation earlier, which would be so historically influential. Even the language that Balfour and Lloyd George repeatedly use concerning the Jews is significant – “the Jewish nation” “the Jewish people” “the Jewish races” and a “Jewish National home”.But this religious orientation was undergirded by strategic territorial interests protecting British imperialism in the Middle East:

As of 1917, Palestine was the key missing link that could join together the parts of the British Empire so that they could form a continuous chain from the Atlantic to the middle of the Pacific.3

Add to this the fact that Britain was losing the war on the western front- did expansion need to be elsewhere?

Balfour and Weizmann had met 10 years earlier in 1906. But already in 1903 Balfour had offered Uganda to the Jews as homeland. Their conversation now was remarkable:

‘Mr Balfour, suppose I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?”

“But Dr Weizmann, we have London”, said Balfour.

True, but we had Jerusalem,” replied Weizmann, who knew that most Anglo-Jewish grandees scorned Zionism, “when London was a marsh”.

“Are there many Jews who think like you?”

“I speak the mind of millions of Jews.”4

Already in 1906Balfour had written to a niece saying that he could see no political difficulty about obtaining Palestine, only economic ones. 5

Later, after the start of the Great War in 1914, Weizmann was summoned by Winston Churchill, then first Lord of the Admiralty, who was keenly interested in his discovery of manufacturing acetone which could be used in the making or cordite explosives for the war effort. 6It was at that point that Weizmann discovered an interest in Zionism in the Cabinet. It was Lloyd George, (see biography), minister of munitions, (who had earlier represented Zionists as a lawyer) who introduced him to Balfour. At this point Weizmann and Balfour began to meet regularly, “strolling around Whitehall at night and discussing how a Jewish homeland would serve, by the quirks of fate, the interests of historical justice and British power”. 7

Tom Segev relates how, one night, Balfour and Weizmann walked backwards and forwards for two hours, after the latter had dined with Balfour:

The Zionist movement spoke, Weizmann said, with the vocabulary of modern statesmanship, but was fuelled by a deep religious consciousness. Balfour himself, a modern statesman, also considered Zionism as an inherent part of his Christian faith. It was a beautiful night; the moon was out. Soon after, Balfour declared in a Cabinet meeting, “I am a Zionist.”8

Added to the sincere Biblical motivation- the return of the Jews to their “origins” – was linked the sympathy for the plight of Russian Jews. Tsarist repression had intensified during the war. Both Balfour and Churchill had an almost mystical conviction of the giftedness of the Jewish race. In addition, American policy might be favourably influenced if returning the Jews to Palestine became part of British policy. Furthermore, the Germans were also considering a pro-Zionist declaration!

Many of these factors would come together in the signing of the Balfour declaration, when, at this juncture, the Asquith government fell (December 1916), and Lloyd George became prime minister.

Cabinet disputes

At this point, Weizmann – who had dined out on the Zionist project with the greatest aristocratic families of the day – had to journey to Gibraltar, and great disputes broke out within the cabinet. Edwin Montagu, the second Jewish person to enter the Cabinetsee biography– was strongly opposed to Zionism – “a mischievous political creed” – and opposed the Balfour Declaration which he considered anti-semitic and whose terms he managed to modify. Basically, he felt he had spent his life avoiding ghettoes and this Declaration would send him back into it. His passion was the assimilation of British Jewry.

In a memo to the cabinet, he outlined his views on Zionism thus: “…I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.”9 He was opposed by his cousin, Herbert Samuel, a moderate Zionist who became the first High Commissioner of Palestine. It was at a meeting- where neither Balfour nor Weizmann were present- that Montagu succeeded in modifying the statement so that finally the words “without prejudice..” were included.

The War Cabinet – first created in 1916 – reconvened on October 4th with Lloyd George as chair and Balfour at his right-hand. Montagu was supported by Lord Curzon and a decision was deferred. But support for the idea was growing: in addition to Balfour and Lloyd George, supporters included Lord Robert Cecil, Under-secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Leo Amery, Assistant secretary to the War Cabinet, (who was responsible for the final wording of the document) and Sir Ronald Graham, an Arabist who had been the first official to discuss the possibility of a Jewish unit within the British army with Jabotinsky. Lord Milner was Lloyd George’s most trusted colleague- and became War Minister. The situation became even more tense when it was feared that the Russian Jews would ally themselves with the Germans.

In June, Weizmann himself had been co-opted to help compose the declaration. After extensive consultation with Zionists and non-Zionists, the outcome was decided on October 31st 1917. (Of course this was taking place at the time when the British army was invading Palestine – which increased the dramatic tension). This day was the famous occasion when Sir Mark Sykes 10 – assistant secretary to the War Cabinet – emerged from a meeting with the War Cabinet to announce to the waiting Chaim Weizmann, “Dr Weizmann, it’s a boy!” The Letter – addressed to Lord Rothschild, the famous leader of the world’s Jewish community, was finally published on November 9th and there was worldwide celebration among Zionists. “Not since Cyrus the Great”, wrote Weizmann, “there was never, in all the records of the past, a manifestation inspired by a higher sense of political wisdom, far-sighted statesmanship, and national justice towards the Jewish people than this memorable declaration”.11 For the Government’s communication with the British people the accent was more on how it contributed to the war effort.

Chaim Weizmann with King Feisal 1 of Iraq

It has to be said, in the light of the enduring consequences, that Balfour and his colleagues had no intention of keeping their word as to the rights of the indigenous peoples of the land- who are not even given a name. In a letter to Lord Curzon, his successor at the Foreign Office, Balfour wrote:
“For in Palestine we do not propose to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants…..The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. “14
After this, the Balfour declaration took on a life of its own. When Balfour went to the United States in 1917 he was impressed and influenced by the ethical idealism of Louis G.Brandeis, a lawyer and an enthusiastic Jewish Zionist. The Declaration itself vindicated Brandeis’s position as he tried to enthuse the Jewish immigrant community’s attitude to their ancestral homeland.

Balfour’s later years

Balfour resigned as Foreign Secretary following the Versailles Conference in 1919, but continued in as Lord President of the Council. In 1921–22 he represented the British Empire at the Washington Naval Conference.

In 1922 he, along with most of the Conservative leadership, resigned with Lloyd George’s government following the Conservative back-bench revolt against the continuance of the coalition. Then Bonar Law became Prime Minister, Balfour being given an earldom in 1922. His first speech in the Lords was to defend the British Mandate – and it was defeated. 

Balfour was not initially included in Stanley Baldwin‘s second government in 1924, but in 1925 he once again returned to the Cabinet, serving in place of the late Lord Curzon as Lord President of the Council until the government ended in 1929. In 1925 he visited the Holy Land – a visit which almost cost him his life. Balfour had remained firm friends with Weizmann who had now realized his dream of creating a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Balfour – now frail, aged 77- was to be the honoured guest: for Weizmann,

No one symbolized better than Balfour the obligation of the British Empire to aid the establishment of a Jewish state. 13

Balfour was feted wherever he went- even a street in Tel Aviv being named after him. But the organizers had reckoned without Arab anger at the injustice that had been done to them. A furious crowd awaited Balfour in Damascus – but he had alighted at the earlier station. The mob surged on to his hotel – but he escaped to Beirut and was soon sailing for Alexandria.

He, who had enjoyed good health and remained a good tennis player all his life, would die five years later, in 1930 – soon after a visit from his good friend Weizmann. This was the year when the High Commissioner in Palestine, John Chancellor, was convinced that the Balfour Declaration was a terrible mistake and attempt- unsuccessfully – to overturn it. It would be six years before the anger of the Arabs at what had been done to them – especially by the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate – was inflamed into a revolt.

End notes

1. Montefiori 409.

2. Apparently it was Salisbury who was responsible for his appointment, giving rise to the expression “Bob’s your uncle!”

3. David Fromkin, A Peace to end all Peace, p.282.

4. Montefiori, p. 410.

5. Cited by Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism- Roadmap to Armageddon, (Leicester: Inter-varsity Press 2004, p.63.

6. The story was later invented by Lloyd George in his memoirs that the Balfour Declaration was given to Weizmann as a reward for his invention of maize-acetone. His invention was important for the war effort, but the link was invented. (Fromkin, op cit.,p.285).

7. Montefiori 412.

8. Segev, p.41. From The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann.

9. Wikipedia/Montagu

10. Sir Mark Sykes was responsible, together with Georges Picot, the French Ambassador, for a secret agreement that had already promised Syria to the French and Palestine to be divided into British and Anglo French zones of influence. Weizmann knew nothing about Sykes- Picot.

11. Segev, p.50.

12. Ingrams, p.73

13. Segev p.218


Fromkin, David. A Peace to end all Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, (New York: Henry Holt and Company1989).

Qumsiyeh, Mazin B. Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle ,Sidmouth: Pluto Press 2004).

Ingrams D. Palestine Papers 1017-1922, (George Braziller: New York)

Lewis, Geoffrey, Balfour and Weizmann, (London: Continuum 2009).

Montefiori, Simon Sebag, Jerusalem: the Biography, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2011). (Balfour Declaration pp.414-ff)

Schneer, Jonathan, The Balfour Declaration: the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (London: Bloomsbury 2012) (His bibliography is impressive)

Segev, Tom, One Palestine Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, (New York: Henry Holt and Co 1999).

Sizer, Stephen, Christian Zionism- Roadmap to Armageddon, (Leicester: Inter-varsity Press 2004).Wikipedia/Balfour

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