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15 January 2009

Was Arthur James Balfour (1848 - 1930) intersex?

Arthur Balfour was born in East Lothian. He was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge where he read Moral sciences, and took a second-class degree.

He expected to marry his cousin, May Littleton, but she died of typhus when he was 27. He then remained a bachelor. He is credited with the expression: "Nothing matters very much and most things don't matter at all”. In middle-age he had a long friendship with Mary Wemyss, who was later Countess of Elcho, but biographers have not established that this was a sexual relationship. On the other hand he was in good terms with Harold Nicolson, the homosexual diplomat husband of Vita Sackville-West.

Balfour was a product of nepotism, in the most literal sense, in that his uncle, Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, the last Prime Minister to rule from the House of Lords, paved most of his way. This is often taken to be the origin of the expression: “Bob’s your uncle”. In the words of Ben Pimlott, Balfour is best described as an 'imperturbably arrogant, effortless mediocrity'. He was born into a family with several members active in Parliament; at 21 he inherited an enormous fortune; at 26 his uncle arranged for him to have a safe Conservative seat. His uncle arranged his promotion within the commons, and in 1902 handed over the premiership to him. He was Prime Minister 1902-5.

His imagination was limited in that he had a complete lack of experience of anything outside the aristocratic establishment, and he was totally against any kind of positive action. He was against Poor Law Reform, and he approved the anti-union Taff Vale judgement (which did a lot to help the Liberals win the 1906 election). He supervised the Entente Cordiale with France in 1904, which would commit the UK to war ten years later. He is most famous today in that he gave his name to Britain's declaration in 1917 for a national home for Jews in Palestine. In 1919 he, as Foreign Secretary, backed the British invasion of Russia of that year. In all he was 27 years in the cabinet.

Despite his enormous fortune, he never married. At Cambridge and in Parliament he was the object of homophobic putdowns. His biographer, Mackay, says that he did not find any indications of homosexual involvement, but he does not show that he was heterosexual either. He goes on to quote from A.J.P. Taylor's life of Beaverbrook, the newspaper magnate, where Beaverbrook, having been put in his place by Balfour, retaliated later by asserting 'Balfour was a hermaphrodite. No one ever saw him naked'. Taylor asks whether it was usual to see cabinet ministers naked?

Mackay does come up with an incident whereby Balfour was indeed seen naked as part of his official duties. Sydney Parry, who was Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Treasury from 1897 to 1902, recalls in his memoirs that he was sent to 10 Downing Street with an urgent dispatch during the Boer War. Balfour was still upstairs. 'I ran up with it, heard him splashing in his bathroom, and knocked at the door: "Lord Lansdowne wants an immediate reply. Shall I come back in twenty minutes?" "Is it very urgent?" "Yes." "Bring it in, then. If you don't mind, I don't." So I slipped in and read it aloud, while A.J., in native majesty like Milton's Adam, towelled himself and dictated his reply simultaneously.'

Mackay thinks that this proves that Balfour could not be hermaphroditic (intersex), but of course there are more forms of intersex than he allows for.
  • A.J.P Taylor. Beaverbrook. Penguin.1972: 154.
  • Ruddock F Mackay. Balfour: Intellectual Statesman. Oxford University Press. 1985: 8-9.
  • “Arthur Balfour”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

So, case not proved. However it is an intriguing suggestion.

It was suggested in the 1970s that the later bachelor Prime Minister, Edward Heath (1916-2005, PM 1970-4), was gay, and as Mackay did of Balfour, Heath's biographer John Campbell, writing in 1993, examined the supposed evidence and found no substance. However Heath's friend Jeremy Norman, who founded the London gay club, Heaven, said in 2006 that "Unquestionably, he was a gay man". Also Graham Chapman once claimed to have had sex with Heath, and Conservative Brian Coleman has said that Heath was warned to stop cruising in 1955 when he became a Privy Councillor and Chief Whip.

So I think that we can say that Mackay, despite his competence as a political biographer, is rather naive re homosexuality and intersex.

Beaverbrook claiming that Balfour was a 'hermaphrodite' is simply being homophobic, but the word choice does indicate that rumours had been going around.

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