The Foreign Secretaries (2): AJ Balfour

Gws_balfour_02AJ Balfour, 1916-19

Under Lloyd George, as part of the National Government

It may seem odd that the former Tory leader would go on to serve under the man who, along with Asquith, did most to doom his leadership, but Balfour served pretty happily under Lloyd George. The mutable party loyalties of the era are shown in the fact that, even in 1910, Balfour was sympathetic to Lloyd George’s musings about the possibility of a cross-party national government. From 1912 on, at Asquith’s invitation, he sat on the newly formed committee of imperial defence (where he emphasised the nature of a future U-boat threat, only to be overruled by Churchill). When Asquith formed his wartime coalition, Balfour went to the Admiralty, replacing Churchill. As such, he held a more senior post than Bonar Law (the Tory leader). When Lloyd George formed his national government, Balfour had played a role in that process and was rewarded with the Foreign Office.

Balfour was not a member of the war cabinet, though he regularly attended and had easy access to Lloyd George, to whom he gave unswerving support. He was also wholly committed to the war, and chose to serve under Lloyd George for that reason. Most importantly, he sailed to Washington to help ensure US entry into the war in April 1917, despite hating sea voyages. He was the first serving British minister to address the House of Representatives.

The single most far-reaching measure of his period of office was the issuing of the Balfour Declaration. By 1914, Balfour had become a Zionist and, with the imminent disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the issue had a new urgency. Already, the Sykes-Picot Agreement had allowed for British control of post-war Palestine. Lloyd George strongly supported the idea of a Jewish homeland. By 1917, Balfour had succeeded in getting the war cabinet and the Americans to agree to his famous letter to Rothschild. In the face of opposition from Lord Curzon and Edwin Montagu (who was Jewish), who were concerned about the impact of it on the Arab world, Balfour got his way. Importantly, it was not the carte blanche for a Jewish homeland it is often depicted as being. It envisaged a Jewish homeland, for sure, but one under British rule and which did not traduce the rights of Palestine’s Arabs. It would, though, do much to change the face of the modern Middle East.

At Versailles, he was very much Lloyd George’s number two, though he did quite a bit of the spadework, and had the undying affection and respect of the British delegation. He was less inclined to be harsh on the defeated Germans than most, and something of that view persisted in the Foreign Office after his departure.

Balfour is one of only two men since 1900 to serve as foreign secretary after being prime minister (one of four party leaders to do so); like the other (Alec Douglas-Home), he found the foreign office a happier home than number ten. He was thus one of seven foreign secretaries to also serve as prime minister (one of ten to also have been party leader). He was not central to the running of the war, but he an important figure and invaluable support to Lloyd George. Perhaps not all political careers end in failure after all.

You can read all about Balfour, in the series on Tory leaders here.

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