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Balfour: A Life of Arthur James Balfour (Phoenix Giants S.) Paperback – 11 May 1998
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The outstanding biography of the Conservative Prime Minister, who was also a brilliant and elusive figure. For this biography, Max Egremont had unrestricted access to the long correspondence with Lady Elcho, with whom Balfour had an intimate relationship for almost fifty years.
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It is therefore understandable that Egremont often seems unable to fully grasp his subject. The many facets of Balfour's character and the sheer length of his career render it difficult to explore one aspect of his life without nullifying the importance of the others. Egremont appears to have decided at the outset not to attempt a rounded portrait but rather to develop Balfour's aura of graceful superiority, at most only a façade, so that it takes on the role of the personality. This leads to an overly-admiring biography that deftly skates round any notion that Balfour was not the omniscient statesman - "The Most Distinguished Figure in the World" as one chapter heading has it - Egremont so fondly imagines.
There is, however, much to be said for the book. Egremont's prose is stylish and engaging. His character sketches of Balfour's colleagues and family circle are perceptive and illuminated by lively anecdote. Original sources and documents are seamlessly interwoven with the body of the narrative and rarely, if ever, seem superfluous. His treatment of Balfour's long political career, whilst clearly biased, is competent and not overly concerned with dry detail.
Egremont's failure is to avoid ascribing to Balfour the responsibility which ultimately rests at his feet: responsibility for the break-up of his government; responsibility for the irresponsible Unionist brinkmanship during the Home Rule crisis of 1910-11; and responsibility for the Admiralty's sluggish response to the U-boat threat during his time there from 1915-16. Because of this unwillingness to venture criticism Egremont sheds no bright light on either Balfour's extraordinary political career or his equally absorbing personality. The feline sinuousness of his political manoeuvres is admired without being analysed, the subtle shades of his character acknowledged without being explored. There is no balanced riposte to Lloyd George's unfair bon mot that Balfour was "not a man but a mannerism", and until there is Balfour remains poorly served by modern biography.
Max Egremont's life of Balfour, first published in 1980, is alive with characters who create themselves through the correspondence and diaries on which the biographer draws heavily and satisfyingly. At times Balfour's story reads like an Evelyn Waugh novel as we become acquainted with the bright young things of his age - the glittering Ladies Elcho and Desborough, the prickly, brilliant Curzon, the doomed romantic George Wyndham (whose career in Government is ruined by his careless filing of letters from his Under-Secretary at the Irish Office), and the hero's lost love, May Lyttelton, whose death from typhoid in 1875, we are invited to suppose, diverts the young Balfour into public life. With the qualified exception of Lloyd George, it is only on the penultimate of Egremont's 340 pages that we meet anybody of humble birth, as Macdonald's Chancellor, the Ickhornshaw-born Philip Snowden, shuffles into Balfour's presence as he lays dying in 1930. In these more innocent times, there could be no surer path to high office than to have a friend or relative who happened to be Prime Minister. Balfour, Salisbury's nephew, knew this for himself, and after he had succeeded his uncle room in the government was found for his cousin Lord Cranborne and his own brother Gerald. The hapless Wyndham, brother of Lady Elcho, likewise benefited of Balfour's long and somewhat ambiguous friendship with his sister. This was government by a Set.
By insistent use of extracts from the letters passed between the members of Balfour's circle, Egremont attempts to create for us Balfour as his admirers saw him. And how they admired him: he is "alarming and formidable", "the heart that to all hearts is nearest", and in his dotage (but still in office under Baldwin) "the most distinguished figure in the world". As judged by the historical record, Balfour does not shine nearly as brightly: apart from the 1906 election debacle, his name is associated with the Dardanelles adventure and the Admiralty's strategy drift early in the Great War; with coercion in Ireland; with the attempt through the League of Nations to bring peace to Europe after Versailles - and above all with Zionism, and with the Constitutional crisis that followed Lloyd George's progressive Budget of 1909. It is a political life distinguished by good intentions (if by anything), more than by achievement.
Max Egremont was just thirty-two when this book was first published. Although plainly another of Balfour's admirers, he has furnished us with an absorbing picture of a strange figure who lived in interesting times but was often dwarfed by them.