Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Arthur Balfour: The Scot who Authored the Palestinian Tragedy

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Historian Chris Bambery argues its time to come to terms with the role of Scottish imperialist Arthur Balfour – the man who authored the Balfour Declaration, dispossessing the Palestinian people. Understanding his racism, and the British state’s role in the region, is part of resisting the assault on Gaza today.

On Saturday, thousands marched in a national demonstration through Edinburgh. Few remember that just miles away, in the picturesque village of Whittingehame, lies the body of Lord Arthur Balfour.

Perhaps he was turning in his grave, as Saturday’s protests were part of the largest ever movement in support of the Palestinian cause, and Balfour was one of the men most responsible for the disasters which have befallen the Palestinians over the last hundred years. It was he who authored the infamous Balfour Declaration, promising the territory of Palestine to the leaders of the Zionist movement.

Imperial Dynasty

The Balfours were a powerful Scottish dynasty, who emerged with the triumph of the British Empire. The family home at Whittingehame was built by Arthur’s grandfather, James Balfour, a Scottish nabob (a class of wealthy merchants emerging with colonialism) who made a fortune as a trader in India supplying the Royal Navy, before returning to Scotland to buy several landed estates, including Whittingehame. His son James, and ultimately his grandson Arthur, all became Tory MPs.

They were as connected as it got – linked with the Cecil family, still important in Tory circles, and related to the Duke of Wellington. The phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ derives from the fact that Arthur was the nephew of Robert Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, who first appointed him to a ministry in 1885, and whom he would succeed as Prime Minister. In this way Arthur Balfour remains a reference for nepotism.

In 1886 he was made Secretary of State for Scotland by Salisbury, specifically to deal with the Highland League’s resistance to further clearances, which he did to the satisfaction of Salisbury and his aristocratic friends. Consequently, later in that same year, he was made Chief Secretary of Ireland.

There the Land War was raging, led by Michael Davitt and supported at that point by Charles Stewart Parnell. Balfour made it clear at the outset what his attitude would be: “I shall be as relentless as Cromwell in enforcing obedience to the law.” It was a clear reference to the brutal conquest of Ireland of the 1600s. He would earn the nickname “Bloody Balfour” for his policy of repression there.

Racial Imperialism

Balfour was an imperialist, true and blue. Like so many of his co-thinkers, he had a racialised view of the world, that justified European colonialism. He developed a theory of natural racial inferiority regarding the Arabs and other Muslim people. In his book “On Decadence,” 1908, Balfour wrote of the races: “They have been different and unequal since history began; different and unequal they are destined to remain.”

In 1906 he defended the disenfranchisement of the Black majority in South Africa, stating: “We have to face the facts. Men are not born equal, the white and black races are not born with equal capacities: they are born with different capacities which education cannot and will not change.”

Like many European leaders who supported the idea of a separate Jewish state, he was an antisemite. As Prime Minister, he introduced the 1905 Aliens Act, Britain’s first immigration law, which was designed to prevent Jews fleeing antisemitic persecution in Czarist Russia finding refuge in Britain. It was preceded by a campaign in the press depicting Jews in stereotypical racist terms and images.

Antisemitism was shaped by European colonial attitudes in this period. The idea of fundamental racial differences between Europeans and conquered peoples in Africa and Asia, also led to the racialisation of society inside Europe itself. Imperialism helped to corrode nationalisms based in ideas of republicanism, citizenship and universalism, and encourage concepts of racial nationalism.

From Czarist Russia, to France, Germany and elsewhere, antisemitism flourished in the first decades of the 20th century, as class and imperial tensions grew and bred paranoia among European elites. Britain was far from immune, and many leading imperialists like Balfour and Winston Churchill, readily took up the view of Jewish people as essentially ‘alien’ non-Europeans.

Backing the calls for a Jewish state, he said it would: “…mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body [the Jews] which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.”


The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was faciliatated by antisemitism and white supremacism, but was also rooted in the British Empire’s geostrategic interests. Since the 1840s Britain had toyed with the idea of helping to establish a Jewish colony in the Middle East, to improve its own influence in the region. With the onset of WW1 in 1914, conversations began about how to anchor a British geostrategy in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, already in severe decline.

Balfour’s public declaration, on behalf of the British Government (he was Foreign Secretary at this time) was issued to the small Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, but its audience was global. It was a statement of intent by the British in its negotiations with the French over the spoils of war, and intended to galvanise the international movement for Jewish settlement in Palestine. At the time of its publication, Zionist sentiments were held by only a minority in the international Jewish community. No Palestinian Arabs were consulted in the drafting of the statement, despite Britian’s activities in support of Arab uprisings against Ottoman rule.

It read: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

These promises to protect the rights of Arab inhabitants were dismissed in private communications between members of the British governing elite.

In a letter to Lord Curzon, written in 1919, Balfour insisted: “For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country …the Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires or prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land…in short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.’

The Defence of Empire

Balfour attended the San Remo international conference in 1920, to move towards the new Middle East, where France and Britain would carve up the old Ottoman territories, and lesser powers would take some scraps and concessions. France took the mandate in Syria, and Britain took the mandate in Palestine. These mandates operated under the authority of the League of Nations, the first meeting of which Balfour personally chaired.

The end of the first world war saw the cracking of old Empires, and a flourishing of demands for national self-determination. But it would be simplistic to view the development of the ‘Jewish national home’ (a concept without international legal standing at the time) as a simple part of this process. The steady increases in Jewish migration to Palestine through the 1920s and 1930s was encouraged and protected by the British Empire – which, along with other powers and principally France – denied national self-determination to the peoples of the region. Not only were Arabs dispossessed in Palestine (and far beyond), but promises for national independence made by the Allied powers to the Armenian and Kurdish peoples were also abandoned.

The territories under mandate rule were ostensibly independent. But, of course, in reality they were possessions of the ruling imperial power. Both cracked-down on the political manifestations of those living under the mandates. This was great power politics, plain and simple.

Balfour made clear that the new colonial venture was about Britain’s interests. On October 13, 1920 he wrote to Lloyd George: “Whether Zionism be good or bad—and, as you know, I think it good—we are now committed to it, and failure to make it a success will be a failure for us.”

Scotland and Empire

Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, has distinguished himself among leading western politicians in his personal reaction to the horrific events of recent months. The street movement for Palestine in Scotland has added its weight to those around the world demanding and end to the slaughter in Palestine.

We should also think about how we respond to Scotland’s historic role in this catastrophe. We should think about how we deal with Balfour. Some permanent rejection of him and the Balfour Declaration could help galvanise the movement

There is also the matter of leading Scottish institutions, which must deal with their own position in regards to Balfour – including my Alma Mater the University of Edinburgh. Balfour became Chancellor of the University from 1891 to 1930 – remaining to this day the longest serving chancellor in the history of this symbol of the Scottish elite. He used his role to strengthen ties with the emergent colonial sub-state under the British mandate, visiting the settlements in 1925 to help establish the university system.

As Nicola Perugini, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, argued in early 2022: “Why don’t we publicly acknowledge that the man that has been appointed to enhance our global academic reputation for forty years, was also a key political-intellectual actor in the production of a racialised imperial order that has dispossessed so many peoples?”

Today, Israeli Defence Forces bombard Palestinian universities, hospitals, mosques, schools and homes. It is surely time to reckon with the history, which laid the basis for the policy our politicians still adhere to – unconditional support for Israel, regardless to the crimes committed. It is coupled with a a joint embargo, with the entire western order, of the national rights of the Palestinians – already ignored all those years ago by Balfour in 1917. What better way to snub Balfour’s legacy than ending this baleful foreign policy.

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