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18. 18 Balfour, Chamberlain, Rosebery

MR BALFOUR OWED HIS POSITION in the first Ministry of which he was a member to the fact that he was Lord Salisbury's nephew and this relationship was again a very important element in his selection as leader of the House of Commons. In 1900 he was practically the head of the Government, not in the sense of dominating its policy which was probably best defined as that of Chamberlain minus Hicks-Beach, but as the reconciling arbiter to whom both Tories and Unionists paid allegiance. He was a rare compound of the university student, the aristocratic society man and the practical politician. His tastes were all intellectual, his tendencies speculative, and his habit of mind sceptical; though with him as with Newman and Lord Salisbury, his reason refusing the common beaten road, scaled the heights of Faith where apparently most inaccessible, finding foothold along the very face of the precipice of the unknowable where it immediately overhangs the sunless gulfs of doubt. In a similar way it was by excursions through the realms of radical Pyrrhonism that he arrived at his orthodoxy in politics as well as in religion. His policy was defensive and wholly dictated by expediency. He clung to the vested interests and established powers because in his opinion their existence proved their necessity and rendered it perilous to alter them except when change was inevitable. Amiable in disposition, bright and engaging in manner, with the flattering deferences and complimentary allusiveness of the drawing room, a quick flow of nervous entertaining conversation, frivolous or serious according to the person addressed, he was extremely popular both in his party and out of it, in the political world and beyond it. He was a cultured gentleman, a thoughtful observer of men and things, a resolute and resourceful administrator, a genial and tactful manager of men and women. Successful with individuals he was a successful leader of the Commons; his followers were attached to him and his adversaries respected his honourable and dignified dealing with them; but his control was sympathetic and not masterful, he did not keep in touch with the


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House as a whole either by the quiet address of his predecessor W. H. Smith or by the supremacy which Gladstone and Disraeli exercised over it. He did not even lead his party as a whole and was often conspicuously out of harmony with the public. The masses did not appeal to him except through his pity; he did not respect them, trust them or understand them and they realised it.

His speeches in spite of their often fine inspiration and quality, even on great occasions not infrequently fell flat. He failed to directly persuade or masterfully convince the nation. It was here that his student tastes and literary habits enfeebled his campaigns. He was no orator, certainly anything but a mob orator, and what depth of passion or flight towards his ideals he may have cherished in his own bosom, his sceptical reflectiveness stifled in his speech. His style was strictly parliamentary and excellently suited to the every-day business of the House; it was colloquial, free, clear, homely, to the point and moving at even rate from step to step of a common-sense argument based upon well-informed handling of facts, and conducted on party lines with sober effectiveness. Emotional himself but timid in yielding to and more timid in expressing his sentiments, he combined a fine delicacy of personal feeling with that sufficient dash of party spirit and aptness in appealing to class or sectional prejudices which English parliamentary life requires and excuses. Gentle and strong, courteous and yet ready to give or take blows, he was an eminently lovable personality and chivalrous chief but not a statesman, except after his uncle's pattern, and with as little constructive capacity and perhaps only the same permanence of purpose, i.e., that of resisting change.

Chamberlain in every respect presented a clear-cut contrast to his colleague. He was neither student nor philosopher nor man of culture, of birth or of society. He was according to British ideas a self-made man, a commercial mind. Assuredly he was and represented the average Briton of the middle class without a single extra or original quality but with all the faculties of the business man raised to their highest power, applied to public affairs and concentrated upon one end. Balfour could have followed half a dozen different careers with almost equal satisfaction to himself. Chamberlain might have been simply a millionaire of the Carnegie type, every whit as ruthless and more aspiring, but no wealth however vast could have contented him. His ambition was to express and shape the policy of his nation and he had achieved it for many years. He had first forced Mr Gladstone's


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hand with his unauthorised programme, next broken the Liberal power and party to prevent Home Rule and finally brought the Tories unwillingly under his banner of social reform. Fixity of purpose, energy of character, force of will, were united in him to an uncommon degree. His capacity for organization and administration was great and distinctly upon mercantile principles. He paid others to do the work under his direction and made them do it without exhausting himself. His intellect was clear, cold, keen and practical. Superficial in his standards compared with Balfour, he was far more realistic. In most respects he resembled Disraeli more nearly than any other statesman; he had his vigour, his abandon, his independence, his broadly constructive genius but not his poetic fire, his dramatic pose, his skilled rhetoric, nor his oriental dreams. He was much closer to the man on the street and more akin to him than the marvellous Jew, much weaker in foreign politics but stronger in his grasp of domestic needs and affairs. Both were born gladiators in debate, capable of failing but not of yielding, splendid guerilla chiefs, indomitable, self-contained, full of ruses, surprises, somersaults and daring adventure; fighting each for his own hand and subduing their parties to their masterful rule. Disraeli, like Balfour, always had another side to his nature, an inner life removed from the crowd and but partially expressed in his books. Chamberlain had no other life than that of public affairs. A consummate politician and nothing but a politician. ‘All thoughts, all passions, all delights, whatever stirred his mortal frame’ was political in its essence. Toil, patience, endurance, stoicism were his and his also at need, relentless hostility, bitterness, venom and rancour. None of these belonged to Balfour or belonged to him only for the moment. His was a pale and colourless personality in politics beside the intense glow of grim determination which quivered under the icy accents of intense animosity with which Chamberlain pursued his foes while they were his foes or were dangerous. The debate over, he bore no malice, remembered no wound when he was victorious and welcomed any useful ally no matter how previously hated or despised, with an unfeigned cordiality. He had passion in abundance but only in relation to his ambition and so absolutely governed by his interests as never to need any effort to control it. He spared neither himself, his colleagues nor his opponents. Balfour, who carefully studied his written style, took no pains whatever with his speeches, regarding them as ephemeral utterances like those of a daily paper to be heard, used and forgotten or


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replaced next day. Chamberlain took immense pains with his speeches—as much as Balfour did with his books—and evolved by incessant application a style which was a model of clear, incisive, convincing exposition. In them he expressed not only himself but all his class, and often all his party, sometimes all his nation. They could scarcely have been better, unless indeed he had been able to add those qualities of imagination, insight, learning and philosophic meditation which made Burke supreme and whose touches occasionally elevated Gladstone's harangues above his subjects and enriched his treatment of them. There was nothing in Chamberlain that was not useful, that was not manufactured and highly finished and though the raw product of his ability was excellent, it was only by infinite labour that he made it as perfect as possible. He understood and to some extent sympathised with the masses whom Balfour ignored, while little affected by individuals who were always to him pawns in the game. He was consequently as much disliked as Balfour was liked and as much detested as he was loved. But this to him was comparatively unimportant. He was admired, accepted and obeyed. He fulfilled his purposes. What could such a man desire more? The trappings of power had no attraction for him. He wanted and wielded its reality. He was the driving wheel of the Salisbury Cabinet, of the party behind it, and more than any other man, of the British Parliament and people.

When Mr Chamberlain was young, even party leaders were accustomed to write their speeches and have them set up in type by the papers in which they were to appear before they were delivered. To this practice which deprived the deliverance of the appearance as well as reality of spontaneity, he distinctly refused adherence from the first. When remonstrated with by a friendly representative of The Times [he] replied: ‘If the public are interested in what I say you will be bound to report me. If they are not interested I don't care to be reported.’ The characteristic self-confidence was justified but the wisdom of the decision proved how well he had gauged his task. He studied his public carefully and provided for it just what it needed, guidance good for the moment, clearly laid down and sufficiently well-linked to what had preceded it to have the air of a continuous policy. He was an Imperialist largely because trade was world-wide, a patriot largely because trade flourishes under the flag's protection, a radical chiefly because business men dislike unfruitful expenses and realise the importance of having the best men available to


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do the work of the hour. Quite insular in his views and prejudices, he knew little and cared little for questions of foreign affairs except so far as they affected imports and exports or the prestige which, whether in the case of a firm or a nation, was a valuable asset. Not that he took merely the broker's view of any issue, but that he was steeped to the eyes in such considerations and had been greatly shaped by them. He was within his limits a sincere man. Of course the Tory alliance meant sacrifices to his partners which he made as cheerfully as if to his associates in a business venture. He paid the price of his position without hesitation like a practical man, but took the best of care for all that to get the best of the bargain and to ensure that their sacrifices to him both in Ministerial offices and in policy should be greater still. He was well satisfied with the transaction and with good reason. His choice of the Coloniesnote showed his customary acuteness and foresight and also his judicious sense of where his own strength lay. By comparison with most of his predecessors he was an ideal head of this Department. He was no whit more devoted to his task than Lord Knutsford or Lord Kimberley, but he had more experience of colonists because they are largely business men, more power of controlling subordinates bred of his mercantile experience, more initiative and far more weight with his colleagues, so that he could both resist interference and obtain an endorsement for projects which they would have pressed in vain and which neither of them would ever have forced forward as he did with strenuous, coercing and controlling will. He was certainly the most formidable man the Australians could have met. His great experience in party negotiations and electioneering treaties, added to his dominating disposition and unbending temper, his power of debate and his sense of the advantages of his position rendered him sufficiently supple to avoid offence, wise to foresee pitfalls, penetrating to gauge his adversaries and obstinate in maintaining his own ground, especially when surrounded, as he had the art to arrange, by a phalanx of capable subordinates, his counsellors in private and the witnesses in the encounter of his dexterity, resource and strength.

The remaining members of the Ministry owed their positions mainly to their birth or fidelity to party. Lord Halsbury, whose evil propensity for jobbery was the most pronounced feature of


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his reputation, was really a man of great business capacity, sound worldly wisdom and dogged pertinacity. In appearance physically insignificant and in face too much resembling the missing link, the brightness of his eye and the grace of his speech atoned for these defects sufficiently to render him presentable. An able advocate of the old school, a good lawyer and a fine crusted Tory with a flavour of flunkeydom and good fellowship, he appeared to be a man for whom life had few illusions and a great many opportunities for profit and pleasure of which he took cheerful advantage for himself and his family. Sir John Gorst was another Minister whose knowledge was wide, courage great and capacity undeniable. He was somewhat soured by his intellectual contempt for most of his own party as well as for more of his opponents and by the subordinate position in the Government assigned to him, while men in every way his inferiors were exalted to Cabinet rank. Mr Wyndham was an understudy of Mr Balfour's without his metaphysical depth and with many more physical and literary attractions. He was the brilliant young junior of the team, somewhat too much of the dandy, dilettante, too volatile in character and too polished to an even finish of mind to promise an originality equal to that of his Chief. The body of the Cabinet, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, Lord Lansdowne, Lord George Hamilton and Mr Goschen were all men of parts able to manage departments and to take their places in Parliament but without leaving in either sphere any trace of original ability. Of them it was clear that they influenced their departments [less] than they were influenced by the permanent officials and though they contributed to form the opinion of their party, were much more formed by it and willing to echo its opinions. Lord Ampthill, Lord Selbourne, Gerald Balfour and Austen Chamberlain were in bud apparently what these seniors were in flower, except that the two last inherited a dash of family vigour wanting in the others. The Attorney-General, Sir Richard Webster, created Lord Alverstone while the delegates were in London and Sir Robert Finlay who succeeded him, were two good specimens of the English Bar. The first had a Shakespearian head and face, an active taste for field sports, and a very dignified bearing which made his high professional attainments more impressive. The second was distinguished by a sweetness of disposition and deference of demeanour which made him a much more universal favourite. He was as good a lawyer, and though less authoritative as a speaker and more retiring in disposition, was more amenable to argument and a more conciliatory


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negotiator than his old chief, who assumed to be something more than he was, while Finlay was actually more than he at first appeared to be. Webster had the wider scope, the more ambitious aim, and the more developed self-esteem. Finlay was kindlier and simpler, more accurate and painstaking, more careful and more even in quality of work.

Outside the Government the leading figures were chiefly those of men whose hereditary advantages had greatly contributed to their prominence. Foremost was the late Leader of the Liberal party, Lord Rosebery, whom good fortune had made the spoiled child of politics. His literary gifts and tastes were as undeniable as those of Mr Balfour and Mr Wyndham, though in aim and style the last was much more allied. He had the gift of style, and of a certain insight both in writing and speaking; was handsome, graceful and winning even after middle age, had married great wealth and increased his own, had gratified his sporting instincts by winning the blue ribbon of the turf while Premier of England, after a political career of many successes and no serious reverse. As a Premier he suffered from insomnia brought on, said some, by the notorious dissensions which prevailed in his Cabinet; by the excesses of his debaucheries which had shattered his nerves, said others. Under the circumstances success had scarcely been possible and the failure was more that of his party, visibly going to pieces after Gladstone's retirement. In 1900 he was and wished to be the enigma of the hour—attacking the Ministry in fine speeches but defending them upon some lines of their policy—officially apart from the Liberals, though strongly represented in their counsels by a party of devoted friends and coquetting with the dissatisfied Conservatives who condemned the feebleness of the Ministry. His policy evidently was to keep the Liberal party in opposition until it should have been subdued by its reverses into accepting him and his policy, which under the new name of National or Liberal Imperialism should detach enough of the middle-class support of the Tories to give him a majority for progressive measures at home and a spirited foreign policy abroad. In the meantime he darted across Europe after making a sensational speech or two to keep himself before the English public and disappeared to write in solitude, said some; to wanton, said others, in a Circean style. Having visited Australia in 1884 and having been President of the defunct Imperial Federation League, he was quick to entertain the delegates and attended several banquets in their honour. There and in his own house they had excellent


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opportunities of seeing him. The impression was not favourable.

His nervous instability was painful, his poses perpetual and his vanity colossal. He was petulant as a child, irritable to a degree at the least criticism, oscillating between apparently unaffected indifference to public opinion and the keenest appetite for its applause. The genuine indifference was that of the jaded man who has lost self-confidence and is thoroughly weak of will. His affected indifference was part of a theatrical part he played with foolish ostentation. He was such a mass of weaknesses and wilfulnesses and insincerities that he leaned for support upon any who could win his confidence, which could always be accomplished by flatterers or intriguers. His undoubted capacity, versatility and all the prestige he had acquired were being dissipated in the most helpless fashion by his utter instability. He sought rest only in perpetual physical motion. At the City Liberal Club where a great speech was expected from him, [he] fell far short of his capacity in the main toast and suddenly resumed his strength when replying impromptu to a splendid speech which evidently awoke his emulation. He utterly failed again at the National Liberal Club when he had another great chance of carrying an audience that was altogether in his favour but, because the speeches before his [had been] delayed and because he had been unfortunate in the day's racing, first would only speak for two minutes, then changed his mind while upon his legs and changed it several times; made a speech which had nothing remarkable in it and sat down dissatisfied with himself and with everybody. He seemed to be on the brink of such a physical break-up as wrecked Randolph Churchill and his career. He was timorous, changeable, inconsistent, erratic, gloomy and absorbed, then sparkling and excitable by turns, his fine face pale and puffy—his fine head rapidly turning grey—his figure growing too portly—his hand trembling, his eye restless, his demeanour that of one who drifted in and out of dreams and some of them bad dreams. Was he like Hamlet crushed under the weight of responsibilities which tempted him, but which he could not bear or like heroes of eighteenth century tragedies haunted by remorse for his dead wife or as his enemies said by fear of exposure of a recent present? He appeared to have no religious faith or fervour or hope for the future; to covet and yet to question the worth of the world's prizes; to live like an epicurean and yet be shadowed by a sense of misspent possibilities; to question all principles either of morals or politics, and to be unable to resolve as [to] their truth or efficacy. He was in truth


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just what a man of highly-wrought temperament would be who in a world from which God and the Soul, the Ideal and the Ethical had been banished was surrounded with temptations like those of Tantalus from his pride, ambition, appetites, culture and wealth to which he yielded by turns and by stealth, until at last all were confused before him, and all was confused around him as half-awakened to the impending tragedy of his fate, he fled from that which could not be escaped and which, because he could not deny himself, he had not courage to conquer or defy.

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