Arthur James Balfour (1848- ), British statesman, eldest son of James Maitland Balfour of Whittingehame, Haddingtonshire, and of Lady Blanche Gascoyne Cecil, a sister of the third marquess of Salisbury, was born on the 25th of July 1848. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1874 he became M.P. in the Conservative interest for Hertford, and represented that constituency until 1885. When, in the spring of 1878, Lord Salisbury became foreign minister on the resignation of the fifteenth Lord Derby, Mr Balfour became his private secretary. In that capacity he accompanied his uncle to the Berlin congress, and gained his first experience of international politics in connexion with the settlement of the Russo-Turkish conflict. It was at this time also that he became known in the world of letters, the intellectual subtlety and literary capacity of his Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879) suggesting that he might make a reputation as a speculative thinker. Belonging, however, to a class in which the responsibilities of government are a traditional duty, Mr Balfour divided his time between the political arena and the study. Being released from his duties as private secretary by the general election of 1880, he began to take a rather more active part in parliamentary affairs.

He was for a time politically associated with Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff and Sir John (then Mr) Gorst, the quartette becoming known as the "Fourth Party," and gaining notoriety by the freedom of the criticisms directed by its leader, Lord Randolph Churchill, against Sir Stafford Northcote, Lord Cross and other prominent members of the "old gang." In these sallies, however, Mr Balfour had no direct share. He was thought to be merely amusing himself with politics. It was regarded as doubtful whether his health could withstand the severity of English winters, and the delicacy of his physique and the languor of his manner helped to create the impression that, however great his intellectual powers might be, he had neither the bodily strength nor the energy of character requisite for a political career. He was the "odd man" of the Fourth Party, apparently content to fetch and carry for his colleagues, and was believed to have no definite ambitions of his own. His reputation in the parliament of 1880-1886 was that of a dilettante, who allied himself with the three politicians already named from a feeling of irresponsibility rather than of earnest purpose; he was regarded as one who, on the rare occasions when he spoke, was more desirous to impart an academic quality to his speeches than to make any solid contribution to public questions.

The House, indeed, did not take him quite seriously. Members did not suspect the reserve of strength and ability beneath what seemed to them to be the pose of a parliamentary flâneur; they looked upon him merely as 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. As a member of the coterie known as the "Souls" he was, so to speak, caviare to the general. Indolence was supposed to be the keynote of his character - a refined indolence, not, however, without cleverness of a somewhat cynical and superior order.

That these views were not shared by Lord Salisbury was sufficiently shown by the fact that in his first administration (June 1885-January 1886) he made Mr Balfour president of the Local Government Board, and in forming his second administration (July 1886) secretary for Scotland with a seat in the cabinet. These offices gave few opportunities for distinction, and may be regarded merely as Mr Balfour's apprenticeship to departmental responsibilities. The accidents of political life suddenly opened out to him a career which made him, next to Lord Salisbury, the most prominent, the most admired and the most attacked Conservative politician of the day. Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, who was chief secretary for Ireland, suffered from an affection of the eyes and found it desirable to resign, and Lord Salisbury appointed his nephew in his stead. The selection took the political world by surprise, and was much criticized. By the Irish Nationalists it was received with contemptuous ridicule, for none suspected Mr Balfour's immense strength of will, his debating power, his ability in attack and his still greater capacity to disregard criticism.

The debates on the Crimes Bill and the Irish Land Bill quickly undeceived them, and the steady and even remorseless vigour with which the government of Ireland was conducted speedily convinced the House of Commons and the country that Mr. Balfour was in his right place as chief secretary. His policy was that of "coercion" - the fearless administration of the Crimes Act, - coupled with remedial legislation; and he enforced the one while he proceeded with the other, regardless of the risk of outrage outside the House and of insult within. Mr Balfour's work in this office covered one of the most turbulent and most exciting periods in modern parliamentary history and Irish administration. With a courage that never faltered he broke down the Plan of Campaign in Ireland, and in parliament he not only withstood the assaults of the Irish Nationalists, but waged successful warfare with the entire Home Rule party. He combined an obstinacy of will with a mastery of facts unsurpassed by any of his predecessors in the secretaryship. Events, it is true, were in his favour.

The disclosures before the Parnell Commission, the O'Shea divorce proceedings, the downfall of Mr Parnell and the disruption of the Irish party, assisted him in his task; but the fact remains that by persistent courage and undeviating thoroughness he reduced crime in Ireland to a vanishing point. His work was also constructive, for he broadened the basis of material prosperity and social progress by creating the Congested Districts Board in 1890. During this period, from 1886-1892, moreover, he developed gifts of oratory which made him one of the most effective of public speakers. Impressive in matter rather than in manner of delivery, and seldom rising to the level of eloquence in the sense in which that quality was understood in a House which had listened to Bright and Gladstone, his speeches were logical and convincing, and their attractive literary form delighted a wider audience than that which listens to the mere politician.