Arthur James Balfour was born on July 25, 1848, at Whittingehame House, East Lothian, Scotland, the eldest son of James Maitland Balfour (1820–1856) and Lady Blanche Gascoyne-Cecil (1825–1872). His father was a Scottish MP, as was his grandfather James; his mother, a member of the Cecil family descended from Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, was the daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Salisbury and a sister to the 3rd Marquess, the future Prime Minister. His godfather was the Duke of Wellington, after whom he was named. He was the eldest son, third of eight children, and had four brothers and three sisters.
Balfour was educated at Grange Preparatory School at Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire (1859–1861), and Eton College (1861–1866), where he studied with the influential master, William Johnson Cory. He then went up to the University of Cambridge, where he read moral sciences at Trinity College (1866–1869), graduating with a second-class honors degree. His younger brother was the Cambridge embryologist Francis Maitland Balfour (1851–1882).
Balfour met his cousin May Lyttelton in 1870 when she was 19. After her two previous serious suitors had died, Balfour is said to have declared his love for her in December 1874. She died of typhus on Palm Sunday, March 1875; Balfour arranged for an emerald ring to be buried in her coffin. Lavinia Talbot, May's older sister, believed that an engagement had been imminent, but her recollections of Balfour's distress (he was “staggered”) were not written down until thirty years later.
Balfour remained a lifelong bachelor. Margot Tennant (later Margot Asquith) wished to marry him, but Balfour said, “No, that is not so. I rather think of having a career of my own.” His household was maintained by his unmarried sister, Alice.
In middle age, Balfour had a 40-year friendship with Mary Charteris (née Wyndham), Lady Elcho, later Countess of Wemyss and March. Although one biographer writes that “it is difficult to say how far the relationship went,” her letters suggest they may have become lovers in 1887.
Balfour was a leading member of the social and intellectual group The Souls.
Balfour’s initial interests were not political. He enjoyed music and poetry, and was first known as a renowned philosopher, publishing “A Defense of Philosophic Doubt,” “The Foundations of Belief” and “Theism and Humanism.”
In 1874 he was elected the Conservative Member of Parliament for Hertford. Four years later, he became private secretary to his uncle, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury, then Foreign Secretary in Benjamin Disraeli’s government. He accompanied Salisbury to the Congress of Berlin and gained his first experience in international politics in connection with the settlement of the Russo-Turkish conflict.
In 1885 Balfour was a member of Randolph Churchill’s “Fourth Party” group (distinct from the Conservatives, Liberals, and Irish Nationalists), which brought down William Ewart Gladstone’s government with a motion opposing the Home Rule for Ireland Bill.
It was thought that Balfour was merely entertaining himself with politics – indeed the House did not take him quite seriously. Members looked upon him as just a young member of the governing classes who remained in the House because it was the proper thing for a man of family to do.
Lord Salisbury appointed Balfour President of the Local Government Board; the following year he became Secretary for Scotland with a seat in the cabinet. These offices, while offering few opportunities for distinction, were an apprenticeship.
In early 1887, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, resigned because of illness and Salisbury appointed his nephew in his place. The appointment surprised the political world and possibly led to the British phrase “Bob’s your uncle!”
Despite widespread doubt that he was up to the demanding job of Irish Secretary, Balfour proved to be a tough incumbent, restoring the rule of law. His land development legislation was considered well-judged and has been credited with calming the Irish conflict for a generation.
On the death of W. H. Smith in 1891, Balfour became First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the Commons. After the fall of the government in 1892, he spent three years in opposition. When the Conservatives returned to power in 1895, Balfour again became Leader of the House and First Lord of the Treasury.
During the illness of Lord Salisbury in 1898, and again in Salisbury’s absence abroad, Balfour oversaw the Foreign Office.
When Lord Salisbury retired on July 11, 1902, Balfour became Prime Minister, but his cabinet split on the free trade issue and his relations with the new king, Edward VII, were poor.
Defeats in the Commons and in by-elections led to his resignation in December 1905. After the general election of 1906, Balfour remained party leader, his position strengthened by Joseph Chamberlain’s absence from the House of Commons after his stroke in July 1906, but he was unable to make much headway against the huge Liberal majority in the Commons.
In the Liberal landslide that followed, Balfour lost his own seat but returned via a by-election soon after. He continued to lead his party until 1911 but, despite stepping down, his career was far from over and succeeded Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915. When H.H. Asquith’s government collapsed in December 1916, Balfour became Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s new administration.
Balfour, who had known Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann since 1906, opposed Russian mistreatment of Jews and increasingly supported Zionism as a program for European Jews to settle in Palestine. On November 2, 1917, Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild affirming the government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” on the understanding that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” This became known as the Balfour Declaration.
According to historian Benny Morris, Balfour said “he had been motivated by a desire to do something for the Jews, because they had suffered greatly at the hands of the Christian world during the previous 1,900 years and because of the values and norms, including monotheism and the notions of social justice, that they had bestowed on humankind through the Old Testament.”
Balfour resigned as Foreign Secretary following the Versailles Conference in 1919 but continued in the government as Lord President of the Council until Stanley Baldwin’s government fell in 1929. With 28 years of government service, Balfour had one of the longest ministerial careers in modern British politics, second only to Winston Churchill.
In February 1922, he was made a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter, becoming Sir Arthur Balfour. A few months later, Balfour was raised to the peerage as Earl of Balfour and Viscount Thaprain, of Whittingehame, in the county of Haddington. This allowed him to sit in the House of Lords.
Balfour was regular tennis player and served as first president of the International Lawn Tennis Club of Great Britain in 1924. At the end of 1928, most of his teeth were removed and he suffered the unremitting circulatory trouble which ended his life. Balfour died at his brother Gerald’s home, Fishers Hill House in Hook Heath, Woking, on March 19, 1930.
His obituaries in The Times, The Guardian and the Daily Herald did not mention the declaration for which he is most famous outside Britain.