The Balfour memorandum, 1903-04

The British Academy was successfully established by Royal Charter in August 1902. But it quickly found itself struggling to convince the Treasury that it merited support from public funds – as evidenced by the episode of the ‘Balfour memorandum’.

In the autumn of 1901, those plotting the establishment of a British Academy drew up the lists of names of distinguished academics who should be its first members. On 11 December 1901, just six days before the proposed Fellows of the British Academy met for the first time as such, the names of Lord Rosebery, Mr Balfour and Mr John Morley were added to the list, as ‘persons distinguished in political life’.

In July 1902, Arthur Balfour became Prime Minister – so the Academy might think it had achieved something of a coup, and that a door might be opened for possible governmental support for the Academy and its activities.

On 23 December 1903, the Academy submitted to the Treasury a case for financial support, summarising the background to the Academy’s foundation, pointing out by way of comparison how the work of the Royal Prussian Academy was generously supported by state funding, and concluding with an appendix of academic ‘enterprises’ that it wished to undertake.

A succession of memoranda by Treasury officials proceeded to belittle both the Academy’s arguments and the fledgling Academy itself. Dismissive comments included:

A more extraordinary piece of self-laudation by a serious body than the document before us would be difficult to find.

The British Academy having first created itself without much support – and with a good deal of irreverent scoffing from the outside public – and having then got itself incorporated by Charter, is very sensitive about its own dignity.

But in a ‘Memorandum by the Prime Minister’, dated 7 April 1904, Balfour leapt to the defence of the Academy. While acknowledging the sad truth that ‘no money can, in existing circumstances, be given to the British Academy’, he was anxious to emphasise that ‘I do not concur in the views expressed in the Treasury Memorandum’.

As well as rebutting the more caustic Treasury remarks, Balfour carefully articulated the justification for this new British Academy.

The Academy represents an endeavour to do for other branches of learning what the Royal Society has so successfully done for Physical Sciences … if this should happen it would be a great national advantage, I have no doubt at all, and I shall therefore like to see it given all due encouragement.

Arthur Balfour, one of the founding Fellows of the British Academy, was Prime Minister 1902-1905.
Arthur Balfour, one of the founding Fellows of the British Academy, was Prime Minister 1902-1905.

He drew a nice distinction between the Royal Society’s role in respect of ‘the discovery of the laws of nature’, and ‘their utilitarian application’ (implicitly a sphere potentially appropriate for the British Academy).

And, whereas the Treasury personnel at that time might think themselves competent to make decisions about funding priorities in those areas of study that we now call the Humanities and Social Sciences, Balfour argued that in future ‘it may be useful to the Government to be able to consult a body representing a large group of studies, but bound exclusively to none, as to pursue the present more haphazard practice.’

Balfour’s framing of the role of the British Academy resonates to this day. Its multi- and interdisciplinary coverage right across the SHAPE disciplines, and the close collaboration between those disciplines and the natural sciences in order to address the major challenges of the day – these remain the Academy’s defining characteristics and its greatest strengths.

Note: The Latin tag in the margin at the top of Balfour’s memorandum – a quote from Virgil, Aeneid, Book I (‘unhappy boy, and ill-matched in conflict with Achilles’) – perhaps signals Balfour’s discomfort in trying to take on the powerful voices of the Treasury.

This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.

12 Decades jpg

Sign up to our email newsletters