Justin McCarthy.

British Political Leaders online

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"Story of the Nations" Series.

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My first acquaintance with Mr. Arthur J. Balfour, who recently became
Prime Minister of King Edward VII., was made in the earliest days of my
experience as a member of the House of Commons. The Fourth party, as it
was called, had just been formed under the inspiration of the late Lord
Randolph Churchill. The Fourth party was a new political enterprise. The
House of Commons up to that time contained three regular and recognized
political parties - the supporters of the Government, the supporters of
the Opposition, and the members of the Irish Nationalist party, of whom
I was one. Lord Randolph Churchill created a Fourth party, the business
of which was to act independently alike of the Government, the
Opposition, and the Irish Nationalists. At the time when I entered
Parliament the Conservatives were in power, and Conservative statesmen
occupied the Treasury Bench. The members of Lord Randolph's party were
all Conservatives so far as general political principles were concerned,
but Lord Randolph's idea was to lead a number of followers who should be
prepared and ready to speak and vote against any Government proposal
which they believed to be too conservative or not conservative enough;
to support the Liberal Opposition in the rare cases when they thought
the Opposition was in the right; and to support the Irish Nationalists
when they believed that these were unfairly dealt with, or when they
believed, which happened much more frequently, that to support the
Irishmen would be an annoyance to the party in power.

The Fourth party was made up of numbers exactly corresponding with the
title which had been given to it. Four men, including the leader,
constituted the whole strength of this little army. These men were Lord
Randolph Churchill, Arthur J. Balfour, John Gorst (now Sir John Gorst),
and Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, who has during more recent years withdrawn
altogether from parliamentary life and given himself up to diplomacy, in
which he has won much honorable distinction. Sir John Gorst has recently
held office in the Government, and is believed to have given and felt
little satisfaction in his official career. He is a man of great ability
and acquirements, but these have been somewhat thrown away in the
business of administration.

The Fourth Party certainly did much to make the House of Commons a
lively place. Its members were always in attendance - the whole four of
them - and no one ever knew where, metaphorically, to place them. They
professed and made manifest open scorn for the conventionalities of
party life, and the parliamentary whips never knew when they could be
regarded as supporters or opponents. They were all effective debaters,
all ready with sarcasm and invective, all sworn foes to dullness and
routine, all delighting in any opportunity for obstructing and
bewildering the party which happened to be in power. The members of the
Fourth party had each of them a distinct individuality, although they
invariably acted together and were never separated in the division
lobbies. A member of the House of Commons likened them once in a speech
to D'Artagnan and his Three Musketeers, as pictured in the immortal
pages of the elder Dumas. John Gorst he described as Porthos, Sir Henry
Drummond Wolff as Athos, and Arthur Balfour as the sleek and subtle
Aramis. When I entered Parliament I was brought much into companionship
with the members of this interesting Fourth party. One reason for this
habit of intercourse was that we sat very near to one another on the
benches of the House. The members of the Irish Nationalist party then,
as now, always sat on the side of the Opposition, no matter what
Government happened to be in power, for the principle of the Irish
Nationalists is to regard themselves as in perpetual opposition to every
Government so long as Ireland is deprived of her own national
legislature. Soon after I entered the House a Liberal Government was the
result of a general election, and the Fourth party, as habitually
conservative, sat on the Opposition benches. The Fourth party gave
frequent support to the Irish Nationalists in their endeavors to resist
and obstruct Government measures, and we therefore came into habitual
intercourse, and even comradeship, with Lord Randolph Churchill and his
small band of followers.

Arthur Balfour bore little resemblance, in appearance, in manners, in
debating qualities, and apparently in mould of intellect, to any of the
three men with whom he was then constantly allied. He was tall,
slender, pale, graceful, with something of an almost feminine
attractiveness in his bearing, although he was as ready, resolute, and
stubborn a fighter as any one of his companions in arms. He had the
appearance and the ways of a thoughtful student and scholar, and one
would have associated him rather with a college library or a professor's
chair than with the rough and boisterous ways of the House of Commons.
He seemed to have come from another world of thought and feeling into
that eager, vehement, and sometimes rather uproarious political
assembly. Unlike his uncle, Lord Salisbury, he was known to enjoy social
life, but he was especially given to that select order of æsthetic
social life which was "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought," a
form of life which was rather fashionable in society just then. But it
must have been clear even to the most superficial observer that he had a
decided gift of parliamentary capacity. He was a fluent and a ready
speaker and could bear an effective part in any debate at a moment's
notice, but he never declaimed, never indulged in any flight of
eloquence, and seldom raised his clear and musical voice much above the
conversational pitch. His choice of language was always happy and
telling, and he often expressed himself in characteristic phrases which
lived in the memory and passed into familiar quotation. He had won some
distinction as a writer by his "Defense of Philosophic Doubt," by a
volume of "Essays and Addresses," and more lately by his work entitled
"The Foundations of Belief." The first and last of these books were
inspired by a graceful and easy skepticism which had in it nothing
particularly destructive to the faith of any believer, but aimed only at
the not difficult task of proving that a doubting ingenuity can raise
curious cavils from the practical and argumentative point of view
against one creed as well as against another. The world did not take
these skeptical ventures very seriously, and they were for the most part
regarded as the attempts of a clever young man to show how much more
clever he was than the ordinary run of believing mortals. Balfour's
style was clear and vigorous, and people read the essays because of the
writer's growing position in political life, and out of curiosity to see
how the rising young statesman could display himself as the avowed
advocate of philosophic skepticism.

Arthur Balfour took a conspicuous part in the attack made upon the
Liberal Government in 1882 on the subject of the once famous Kilmainham
Treaty. The action which he took in this instance was avowedly inspired
by a desire to embarrass and oppose the Government because of the
compromise into which it had endeavored to enter with Charles Stewart
Parnell for some terms of agreement as to the manner in which
legislation in Ireland ought to be administered. The full history of
what was called the Kilmainham Treaty has not, so far as I know, been
ever correctly given to the public, and it is not necessary, when
surveying the political career of Mr. Balfour, to enter into any
lengthened explanation on the subject. Mr. Parnell was in prison at the
time when the arrangement was begun, and those who were in his
confidence were well aware that he was becoming greatly alarmed as to
the state of Ireland under the rule of the late W. E. Forster, who was
then Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant, and under whose operations
leading Irishmen were thrown into prison on no definite charge, but
because their general conduct left them open in the mind of the Chief
Secretary to the suspicion that their public agitation was likely to
bring about a rebellious movement. Parnell began to fear that the state
of the country would become worse and worse if every popular movement
were to be forcibly repressed at the time when the leaders in whom the
Irish people had full confidence were kept in prison and their guidance,
control, and authority withdrawn from the work of pacification. The
proposed arrangement, whether begun by Mr. Parnell himself or suggested
to him by members of his own party or of the English Radical party, was
simply an understanding that if the leading Irishmen were allowed to
return to their public work the country might at least be kept in peace
while English Liberalism was devising some measures for the better
government of Ireland. The arrangement was in every sense creditable
alike to Parnell and to the English Liberals who were anxious to
cooperate with him in such a purpose. But it led to some disturbance in
Mr. Gladstone's government and to Mr. Forster's resignation of his
office. In 1885, when the Conservatives again came into power and formed
a government, Balfour was appointed President of the Local Government
Board and afterwards became Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant - in
other words, Chief Secretary for Ireland. He had to attempt a difficult,
or rather, it should be said, an impossible task, and he got through it
about as well as, or as badly as, any other man could have done whose
appointed mission was to govern Ireland on Tory principles for the
interests of the landlords and by the policy of coercion.

Balfour, it should be said, was never, even at that time, actually
unpopular with the Irish National party. We all understood quite well
that his own heart did not go with the sort of administrative work which
was put upon him; his manners were always courteous, agreeable, and
graceful; he had a keen, quiet sense of humor, was on good terms
personally with the leading Irish members, and never showed any
inclination to make himself needlessly or wantonly offensive to his
opponents. He was always readily accessible to any political opponent
who had any suggestion to make, and his term of office as Chief
Secretary, although of necessity quite unsuccessful for any practical
good, left no memories of rancor behind it in the minds of those whom he
had to oppose and to confront. More lately he became First Lord of the
Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons, and the remainder of his
public career is too well known to call for any detailed description
here. My object in this article is rather to give a living picture of
the man himself as we all saw him in public life than to record in
historical detail the successive steps by which he ascended to his
present high position, or rather, it should be said, of the successive
events which brought that place within his reach and made it necessary
for him to accept it. For it is only fair to say that, so far as outer
observers could judge, Mr. Balfour never made his career a struggle for
high positions. So clever and gifted a man must naturally have had some
ambition in the public field to which he had devoted so absolutely his
time and his talents. But he seemed, so far as one could judge, to have
in him none of the self-seeking qualities which are commonly seen in the
man whose purpose is to make his parliamentary work the means of
arriving at the highest post in the government of the State. On the
contrary, his whole demeanor seemed to be rather that of one who is
devoting himself unwillingly to a career not quite congenial. He always
appeared to me to be essentially a man of literary, scholarly, and even
retiring tastes, who has a task forced upon him which he does not feel
quite free to decline, and who therefore strives to make the best of a
career which he has not chosen, but from which he does not feel at
liberty to turn away. Most men who have attained the same political
position give one the idea that they feel a positive delight in
parliamentary life and warfare, and that nature must have designed them
for that particular field and for none other. The joy in the strife
which men like Palmerston, like Disraeli, and like Gladstone evidently
felt never showed itself in the demeanor of Arthur Balfour. There was
always something in his manner which spoke of a shy and shrinking
disposition, and he never appeared to enter into debate for the mere
pleasure of debating. He gave the idea of one who would much rather not
make a speech were he altogether free to please himself in the matter,
and as if he were only constraining himself to undertake a duty which
most of those around him were but too glad to have an opportunity of

There are instances, no doubt, of men gifted with an absolute genius for
eloquent speech who have had no natural inclination for debate and would
rather have been free from any necessity for entering into the war of
words. I have heard John Bright say that he would never make a speech if
he did not feel it a duty imposed upon him, and that he would never
enter the House of Commons if he felt free to keep away from its
debates. Yet Bright was a born orator and was, on the whole, I think,
the greatest public and parliamentary orator I have ever heard in
England, not excluding even Gladstone himself. Bright had all the
physical qualities of the orator. He had a commanding presence and a
voice of the most marvelous intonation, capable of expressing in musical
sound every emotion which lends itself to eloquence - the impassioned,
the indignant, the pathetic, the appealing, and the humorous. Then I can
recall an instance of another man, not, indeed, endowed with Bright's
superb oratorical gifts, but who had to spend the greater part of his
life since he attained the age of manhood in the making of speeches
within and outside the House of Commons. I am thinking now of Charles
Stewart Parnell. I know well that Parnell would never have made a speech
if he could have avoided the task, and that he even felt a nervous
dislike to the mere putting of a question in the House. But no one
would have known from Bright's manner when he took part in a great
debate that he was not obeying in congenial mood the full instinct and
inclination of a born orator. Nor would a stranger have guessed from
Parnell's clear, self-possessed, and precise style of speaking that he
was putting a severe constraint upon himself when he made up his mind to
engage in parliamentary debate. There is something in Arthur Balfour's
manner as a speaker which occasionally reminds me of Parnell and his
style. The two men had the same quiet, easy, and unconcerned fashion of
utterance, always choosing the most appropriate word and finding it
without apparent difficulty; each man seemed, as I have already said of
Balfour, to be thinking aloud rather than trying to convince the
listeners; each man spoke as if resolved not to waste any words or to
indulge in any appeal to the mere emotions of the audience. But the
natural reluctance to take any part in debate was always more
conspicuous in the manner of Balfour than even in that of Parnell.

Balfour is a man of many and varied tastes and pursuits. He is an
advocate of athleticism and is especially distinguished for his devotion
to the game of golf. He obtained at one time a certain reputation in
London society because of the interest he took in some peculiar phases
of fanciful intellectual inventiveness. He was for a while a leading
member, if not the actual inventor, of a certain order of psychical
research whose members were described as The Souls. More than one
novelist of the day made picturesque use of this singular order and
enlivened the pages of fiction by fancy portraits of its leading
members. Such facts as these did much to prevent Balfour from being
associated in the public mind with only the rivalries of political
parties and the incidents of parliamentary warfare. One sometimes came
into social circles where Balfour was regarded chiefly as the man of
literary tastes and somewhat eccentric intellectual developments. All
this cast a peculiar reflection over his career as a politician and
filled many observers with the idea that he was only playing at
parliamentary life, and that his other occupations were the genuine
realities for him. Even to this day there are some who persist in
believing that Balfour, despite his prolonged and unvarying attention to
his parliamentary duties, has never given his heart to the prosaic and
practical work of administrative office and the business of maintaining
his political party. Yet it has always had to be acknowledged that no
man attended more carefully and more closely to such work when he had to
do it, and that the most devoted worshiper of political success could
not have been more regular and constant in his attention to the business
of the House of Commons. People said that he was lazy by nature, that he
loved long hours of sleep and of general rest, and that he detested the
methodical and mechanical routine of official work. But I have not known
any Minister of State who was more easy of approach and more ready to
enter into the driest details of departmental business than Arthur
Balfour. I may say, too, that, whenever appeal was made to him to
forward any good work or to do any act of kindness, he was always to be
found at his post and was ever ready to lend a helping hand if he could.

I remember one instance of this kind which I have no hesitation in
mentioning, although I am quite sure Mr. Balfour had little inclination
for its obtaining publicity. Not very many years ago it was brought to
my knowledge that an English literary woman who had won much and
deserved distinction as a novel-writer had been for some time sinking
into ill health, had been therefore prevented from going on with her
work, and had in the mean time been perplexed by worldly difficulties
and embarrassments which interfered sadly with her prospects and made
her a subject of well-merited sympathy. Some friends of the authoress
were naturally anxious, if possible, to give her a helping hand, and the
idea occurred to them that she would be a most fitting recipient of
assistance to be bestowed by a department of the State. One of her
friends, himself a distinguished novelist, who happened to be also a
friend of mine, spoke to me with this object, assuming that, as an old
parliamentary hand, I knew more than most writers of books would be
likely to know about the manner in which such help might be obtained.
There is in England a fund - a very small fund, truly - at the disposal of
the Government for the help of deserving authors who happen to be in
distress. This fund is at the disposal of the First Lord of the
Treasury, the office which was then, as now, held by Arthur Balfour. I
was still at that time a member of the House of Commons, and my friend
suggested that, as I knew something about the whole business, I might be
a suitable person to represent the case to the First Lord of the
Treasury and make appeal for his assistance. My friend's belief was that
the application might come with more effect from one who had been for a
long time a member of Parliament, and whose name would therefore be
known to the First Lord of the Treasury, than from a literary man who
had nothing to do with parliamentary life. Nothing could give me greater
pleasure than to become the medium through which the appeal might be
brought under the notice of the First Lord, but I felt some difficulty
and doubt because of the conditions of the time. England was then in the
most distracting period of the South African war. We were hearing every
day of fresh mishaps and disasters in the campaign. Arthur Balfour was
Leader of the House of Commons, and had to deal every day with
questions, with demands for explanation, with arguments and debates
turning on the events of the war. It seemed to me to be rather a
venturesome enterprise to attempt to gain the attention of a minister
thus perplexingly occupied for a matter of merely private and individual
concern. I feared that an overworked statesman might feel naturally
inclined to remit the subject to the care of some mere official, and
that time might thus be lost and the needed helping hand be long
delayed. I undertook the task, however, and I wrote to Mr. Balfour at
once. I received the very next day a reply written in Mr. Balfour's own
hand, expressing his cordial willingness to consider the subject, his
sympathy with the purpose of the appeal, and his hope that some help
might be given to the distressed novelist. Mr. Balfour promptly took the
matter in hand, and the result was that a grant was made from the State
fund to secure the novelist against any actual distress. Now, I do not
want to make too much of this act of ready kindness done by Mr. Balfour.
The appeal was made for a most deserving object; the fund from which
help was to be given was entirely at Mr. Balfour's disposal; and it is
probable that any other First Lord in the same circumstances would have
come to the same decision. But how easy it would have been for Mr.
Balfour to put the whole matter into the hands of some subordinate, and
not to add a new trouble to his own intensely busy life at such an
exciting crisis by entering into the close consideration of a mere
question of State beneficence! I certainly should not have been
surprised if I had not received an answer to my letter for several days
after I had sent it, and if even then it had come from some subordinate
in the Government department. But in the midst of all his incessant and
distracting occupations at a most exciting period of public business Mr.
Balfour found time to consider the question himself, to reply with his
own hand, and to see that the desired help was promptly accorded. I must
say that I think this short passage of personal history speaks highly
for the kindly nature and the sympathetic promptitude of Arthur Balfour.

For a long time there had been much speculation in these countries
concerning the probable successor to Lord Salisbury, whenever Lord
Salisbury should make up his mind to resign the position of Prime
Minister. We all knew that that resignation was sure to come soon,
although very few of us had any idea that it was likely to come quite so
soon. The general opinion was that the country would not be expected,
for some time at least, to put up again with a Prime Minister in the
House of Lords. If, therefore, the new Prime Minister had to be found in

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Online LibraryJustin McCarthyBritish Political Leaders → online text (page 1 of 16)