Walter Stoneman. Copyright National Portrait Gallery
This article is from the February 2013 issue of Total Politics
George Balfour was an engineer and co-founder, in 1909, of Balfour Beatty, the engineering company which he ran for the rest of his life, and which grew into a major international construction group. He was also a backbench Conservative MP through the inter-war years until his death in 1941.
Although Balfour’s background was more Gladstonian Liberal than Tory, he detested the radical policies of the Liberal government at the beginning of the 20th century. In his late 30s, Balfour unsuccessfully fought Govan as a Unionist, as the Conservatives were then known, in both the December 1910 general election and – despite support locally from the Labour Party, then annoyed at the Liberal government’s economic policies – the December 1911 by-election.
However, he was swept into the Commons by Hampstead with over 70 per cent of the vote in the 1918 post-war ‘coupon election’, which saw a massive landslide for the Tory-dominated Lloyd George coalition. He held Hampstead very comfortably over the next six elections, including in 1931 when he took a thumping 87 per cent of the vote in the near-whitewash victory of the National Government, fronted by Ramsay MacDonald.
In the House, Balfour was a staunch, die-hard Conservative, positioned in the faction which sought the end of the Lloyd George coalition in 1922 and its replacement by a Tory government.
On the right wing of his party, he was a habitual maverick, even opposing measures of social and political reform promoted by his own party, which was in government through almost all his parliamentary career, either alone or as the dominant coalition partner. For example, as a long-time opponent of female suffrage, in March 1928 he was one of only 10 members to vote against the second reading of the bill finally granting the franchise to women on an equal basis with men.
In the early 1930s, he strongly supported Winston Churchill’s opposition to plans for constitutional reform in British India, and, in the major debate of 3 December 1931, spoke in support of an amendment introduced by Churchill that was massively defeated. He also opposed the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which recognised the changed constitutional relationship between the UK and the white Commonwealth dominions, regarding these imperial reforms as unjustifiable distractions from the National Government’s mandate to deal with the economic crisis.
Balfour exemplifies the businessman MP so common in the first half of the 20th century. Much of his activity in the House related to commercial issues close to his electricity and transportation infrastructure interests, although the Balfour Beatty website describes this rather blandly: “He played a prominent part in debates on electricity in 1919, 1922 and 1926 as well as many discussions on unemployment”. His form of laissez-faire capitalism was sometimes too severe even for his own government in the 1920s, which was recognising the need for some degree of state involvement in strategic infrastructure developments.
In July 1923, when the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was winding up the celebrated Commons debate on capitalism and socialism, initiated by Philip Snowden, he was so heavily barracked by Balfour from the government backbenches that the Speaker had to intervene to tell the heckling Tory capitalist “not to interrupt with these continuous suggestions”.
In what was virtually his valedictory contribution in the chamber, in May 1940, in the debate welcoming the new coalition government formed under Churchill, Balfour injected a partisan note into what was, as to be expected at such a time of extreme national peril, almost entirely a consensual cross-party debate.
He objected to parts of a Labour speech, which he took as suggesting that Labour membership of the coalition was contingent on the consent of the wider Labour Party. When he warned that “whenever this House departs from this principle and hon. members are answerable to another outside body...” a Labour member interrupted with a telling barb: “If there is an Electricity Bill before the House”.
So, Balfour was an active but ultimately not very influential parliamentarian during his years in the House, and never achieved ministerial office. As one biographer neatly put it, “Balfour was never taken very seriously in the inner councils of the Conservative Party, and he remained an individualist rebel by nature, rather than a member of the Establishment.”