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Men of the Day. No. 1213
The Right Hon. A.J. Balfour
He is heartily ashamed of himself.
There has been no more brilliant failure in any phase of life for a century past. Following those family traditions which so often force a man to uncongenial courses, he entered Parliament in 1874 as member for Hertford. His debut was most unpromising. For two years he never opened his mouth; hardly attended the sittings of Parliament in fact. In his third session he made his maiden speech on Bimetallism, and was at once voted by a curious House a witless fool. Another year elapsed before he spoke again, and this fresh effort merely underlined the first impression. The trouble was then, as now, a lack of vital interest. He had, even in those days, that art of saying nasty things in a pretty way which is a common enough weapon of weakness, but he poked and patted at the burning problems of the day with an irritating dilettantism; showed during four years no single sign of political ambition or ability, and seemed at one time in danger of becoming a butt for the more virile members of the House.
After going to the Berlin Congress as private secretary to Lord Salisbury, he returned to England, and made some small stir by the publication of his "Defence of Philosophic Doubt" - a book which people praised without reading and read without praising. It is worth while noting that even his written works have left his followers in some uncertainty as to his views: he was for some time looked on as a confessed atheist, a characteristically erroneous impression.
All at once he became a figure in Parliament. As a member of the Fourth Party he made a speech on Egyptian affairs which electrified the House and marked him as a man to be reckoned with. From that time he made rapid progress. But his appointment in 1887 as Irish Secretary caused a howl of merriment throughout the Commons. Ireland was just then seething with revolt. Brilliant men - Forster, Cavendish, Trevelyan, and Hicks-Beach - had been utterly impotent in dealing with the organised Irish forces when this delicate, effeminate "Clara" took up the reins. Then the unexpected happened, and the mild, fatuous dilettante suddenly became a hard, ruthless ruler, scrupulously fair, but inflexible. From the constant fighting his position entailed Arthur Balfour emerged the man he is to-day.
His political career is wholly uninteresting, save as a study in personality. He is a constant problem to his associates, and it is amazing that a man of such evasive and elusive intellect should swing so much power as a practical leader. He is always aloof from his followers, vague and nebulous, peering ahead with calm philosophic curiosity, and refusing to concern himself with mundane details, even when they trip him up. He has never been a real member of the House of Commons. "The truth is," said Sir William Harcourt once, "Arthur looks on us as vulgar fellows." Yet when he comes out of the clouds he shows astounding qualities of readiness and versatility. He leaves the preparation of vital speeches to the last second, is careless of dates and figures, knows practically nothing of the every-day life of the Commons or the country, is maddeningly forgetful, and shows a quite indecent indifference to everthing; and yet, in spite of these drawbacks, he holds the premier debating position in the House. He will answer with brilliance and point a speech which he has not heard, and will plunge effectively into any debate at a moment's notice. But his energy is desultory; he lacks sustaining power; and after a vigorous dive in the mud of politics quickly flies up again to the calm clouds of philosophic speculation. Habitually, he is pliantly evasive and in doubt, and when he reaches to firmness and decision it is merely in hot spurts.
He is an inveterate trifler, an incorrigible, intellectual loafer, whose eccentric intellectual development is a constant puzzle to those who tread a lower world. But even some of his intellectual faults are physical ones. He is like a singularly perfect machine, which, equipped with an inadequate boiler, suffers continually from a lack of steam.
A born philosopher, he is all the while conscious of the price he is paying for his politicis; and realising his gifts - easy, brilliant, butterfly gifts, almost of genius - he thinks on his state and is ashamed.
With enough steam behind him he might just now have rocked all England; he has, instead, tickled it with a philosophic doubt, His brain has been a martyr to his delicate body, but with the aid of poverty he might have achieved greatness; he is, instead, merely brilliant.
No one knows his mind, himself least of all; but in lucid moments he is genuinely sorry for himself.