A. J. Balfour

A good piece from the papers of *L.R. Reeve on A.J. Balfour, as a former U.K. Prime Minister he is the highest ranking subject so far (along with Lloyd George.) As usual Reeve is good on his subject's voice and oratorical skills. Reeve's frequent presence at congresses and symposiums of 'leaders of thought' shows him as an almost Zelig-like figure...He ends on a joke, that if not true, ought to be.

Despite his deceptively ornamental appearance, the late Earl Balfour was a worker. Although his attractive manner was unperturbed and casual, he must have experienced periods of unremitting labour through many months; otherwise he could never have written so many theses and philosophical books, added to political publications, parliamentary labours, constituency engagements and university visits.

   His career as a statesman, philosopher and eminent speaker, is too well known to need emphasizing in great detail, but a few outstanding phenomena regarding his life should never be forgotten.
   In appearance he was probably the most aristocratic representative of his period, and was the greatest asset to the perpetuators of the class system. When in his seventieth year he was the leader of a mission to America in 1917, he was one of the most popular visitors England could have sent at any time, because he increased our prestige and disarmed criticism. I mention "perpetuators". Let me make it clear I am not suggesting that Balfour was a determined fighter to maintain the contemporary status quo. He seemed to be fully aware that in this world of fluctuations, there must be modifications of the class system, and an acknowledgement that injustices should be eliminated until the rights of all people are recognized.
   At one time he was Chancellor of his old university Cambridge. At Trinity College, he was as much at home among professors and dons, as he was in the House of Commons, or a stately mansion. Due to the success of his books on philosophy and politics, he was a most respected figure in the assemblies of learned men. During this phase in his life, less is known about his perfect control of a symposium among leaders of thought. His chairmanship on these occasions was masterly; and possibly his most finished activities in the chair were shown during an international congress of Philosophy at Oxford where at one meeting there was a discussion on Relativity. There I witnessed two unexpected aspects of his personality, the first was his voice. I anticipated a drawl and a Cambridge accent, but on the contrary there was no drawl; certainly an educated, but a robust, decisive voice and manner with no vocal legacy from his university; and I expected a somewhat diffident method of control. Instead, after four days I felt he ought to write an instructive volume on "How to be a Chairman". We all remember congresses and summer schools where sessions have been spoilt by ineffective people in charge. Balfour showed that he had learned aptitudes besides statesmanship, philosophy; authorship and the art of conversation.
   Possibly one minor fault during his control at this congress, was when Henri Bergson, the great French philosopher, rose from among the audience to give a short contribution of about five minutes. Bergson looked around and asked in impeccable English, "Shall I speak in English?" As nobody answered he addressed us in French. A pity, for I am sure only a minority understood his language. Balfour should have asked for our native tongue; but I wish now that I had thought to do so.
   It is unnecessary to dwell too much on such an intellectually intoxicating congress, but an event on the Sunday afternoon is worthy of mention. It was during an exceedingly vigorous discussion on Morality and Religion. Was a code possible without a belief? The arguments were heated but healthy, and I was particularly interested when Welldon Carr, an extremely attractive-looking man, jumped up.
   "When you ask whether Morality is possible apart from Religion I just don’t know what you mean:" He quickly sat down, but from the smiles and affirmative nods Carr was probably voicing the opinion of many. When Balfour summed up he gave us his own personal view:
   "Of course Morality is possible without Religion; but it would be the harvest of a very impoverished soil." I can never recall his exact words, but he also stated:
   "Morality occurs when two Ultimate Ends clash. " It is clear that one cannot delve into all Lord Balfour’s many triumphs during his long life, but two major events always command my greatest deference; for each successful result was a justification of his leadership in national affairs. In 1886, when his uncle Lord Salisbury, made him secretary for Ireland, the Irish Nationalists received the appointment with contempt, but before very long the contempt gradually developed into an unwilling respect for one of the most courageous statesmen of his time, who turned one of the most turbulent periods in Irish administration into stability, and defeated the Plan of Campaign. Repeatedly his courage and audacity in Ireland itself won the admiration of friend and foe alike.
   The second great achievement was his leadership of the mission to America in 1917. Here a psychologist was needed and was found. Few people know that he was at one time president of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology. His knowledge of human nature was so extensive that Americans took him to their hearts and paid him the unusual compliment of inviting him to address the House of Representatives. His speech was probably faultless, for on great occasions his approach was robust, decisive and logical, and I can think of no man of his generation better able to secure regular, vital co-operation between America and Britain.
   Having mentioned one presidential office, may be an opportune moment to look at one or two other major appointments. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society; he became president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; and as for his crowning glory as Prime Minister of Great Britain he is among the immortals of modern times: such as Disraeli, Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George. Macmillan and Wilson are unassailable at the present time. We may know the historian’s verdict on their contributions to mankind in another half-century.
   An aristocratic and public school background did not prevent Balfour being a good mixer, and he did not believe that the inhabitants of castles are the only ones born to lead. With his great knowledge of philosophy how would he but respect those outstanding philosophers born of low degree from whose books he learned so much. In Trinity College alone, most of the paintings of great men who look down from the walls were born in modest homes. Newton’s widowed mother kept a farm; Porson’s father was a Norfolk saddler; the great Richard Bentley was self-taught; and from my slight knowledge of great continental thinkers I know many outstanding minds emerged from humble surroundings. Balfour must have quickly realized that in parliament one finds some of Britain's greatest intellects. He certainly appreciated the intelligence of one great Welshman. I trust the story is not apocryphal, for I have read that during his last illness, when informed that the end was near and asked whether he would like a visit from anyone outside the family and household, he expressed a wish to see Lloyd George. Great learning does break down the social barriers of society.
   I doubt whether he knew the number of his honorary degrees, graduates' gowns and decorations, but probably he was unusually gratified to be awarded the Order of Merit; and of the many parts he played, I have heard of his captaincy of a golf club, enjoying many holes at beautiful Sheringham, Norfolk; of tennis in his seventies, and of his musical achievements.
   His was a long life of varied political experiences; a life of infinite variety which encountered the vicissitudes of outrageous fortune known to most of us. He never hesitated to accept an opportunity to learn of some unusual phase of human experience. I believe it is true that on one occasion he sat with one or two acquaintances in a certain London club which was under the scrutiny of the police. Although suspicion was unwarranted, an officer and several constables entered the premises. The inspector asked one of the group.
   "Who are you?"
   "Home Secretary," was the unexpected response. The interrogator turned to another:
   "I suppose you are the Prime Minister?"
   "As a matter of fact I am," replied Mr Balfour.

* The papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5  - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and  L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.

L R Reeve had, in a long life, met or observed a remarkable selection of famous persons. He presents 'vignettes' of 110 persons from all grades of society (many minor or even unknown) they include Winston Churchill, Dorothy Sayers,  H H Asquith, John Buchan, the cricketer Jack Hobbs, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, Marconi, E.M. Forster, Duchess of Atholl, Marie Stopes, Oliver Lodge and Cecil Sharp -- 'it is unnecessary to explain that  many have known have not known me. All of them I have seen, most of them I have heard, and some of them have sought information, even advice from me." Reeve states that the unifying qualification all these people have is '… some subtle emanation of personality we call leadership, and which can inspire people to actions  unlikely to be undertaken unless prompted by a stronger will."

Reeve was a teacher throughout his life and deputy head of 3 London schools, headmaster of Loughborough emergency schools, ex-president of London Class Teachers Association  and very early member of the British Psychological Society (55 years)... I calculate he was probably born in about 1900. His style is markedly unexciting but he has much information unavailable elsewhere.. He sent several typed manuscripts to (from the smell) the chain-smoking agent Hayes…

One thought on “A. J. Balfour

  1. Jim

    An interesting man with wide-ranging intellectual interests.
    I have a copy of Pater's 'Renaissance' and have never been sure whether Balfour's name and (Carlton Gardens) address stamped on it's upper cover detracts from, or improves, it's value.


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