Today (November 2) in London History – the most important moment in the 20th century

One of the most important moments of the 20th century – the Balfour Declaration – was published on November 2nd, 1917. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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“Winston is back.” Important messages don’t come much more trenchant than that. It’s only one word longer than the shortest verse in the bible: Jesus wept.

“Winston is back” was the signal that went out to the fleet on September 3, 1939, the day Britain declared war on Germany. Part and parcel of that day’s activities was Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointing Churchill to his old post in the admiralty.

And that’s all by way of saying, this is going to be a short podcast. It’ll be more than three words but it’s not going to be long-winded. And the reason is the matter is so well known, so famous and yes, so controversial, that I’m going to keep it short, and adhere rigorously to the facts.

And is it the most important moment in the 20th century? Probably not but it’s certainly in the conversation – a close second or third. A lot of these Today in London History podcasts have been not much more than a bit of fun – delightfully quirky – the Cowboy Circus, the first baseball game played at Lord’s Cricket ground, eating dinner on top of Nelson’s column, maybe the great beer flood (though there were lives lost in that incident). Nothing serious, in other words – those poor beer flood victims excepted. This one is serious. This one is the big leagues. This one is internationally important.

It was on this day, November 2nd, 1917 that what came to be known as the Balfour declaration was published in the form of a letter from Arthur James Balfour, the first Earl of Balfour, he was the Foreign Secretary at the time, a letter from Foreign Secretary Balfour to Lord Rothschild. The declaration bears reading in full. It states: “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.”

Ok, ten relevant facts – and then let’s get out of the kitchen. These ten relevant facts mostly have to do with the immediate 1917 historical background and context.

  1. Balfour, like Prime Minister Lloyd George, was sympathetic to Zionism. When he was prime minister he had supported Joseph Chamberlain’s plans for Jewish resettlement in East Africa.
  2. As the war progressed, the support of Jews in the U.S. and Russia became important.
  3. In the summer of 1917 strategic and Zionist concerns coincided to encourage the Foreign Office, Balfour, Lloyd George and, from September 3rd, the war cabinet to contemplate a public statement. 
  4. There was strong opposition from Edwin Montague, who represented an important section of British Jewry, and George Curzon, the former Viceroy of India. Edwin Montague argued that a Jewish national home would be disadvantageous to the position of Jews in their present countries. George Curzon drew attention to the problems that a ‘national home’ would cause with and for the existing Islamic population in and around Palestine.
  5. The argument in favour of a declaration won through. Its release was authorised on October 31st. The preceding Cabinet discussion had referenced perceived propaganda benefits amongst the worldwide Jewish community for the Allied war effort.
  6. The opening words of the declaration represented the first public expression of support for Zionism by a major political power.
  7. The “national home” had no precedent in international law and was intentionally vague as to whether a Jewish state was contemplated. The intended boundaries of Palestine were not specified, and the British government later confirmed that the words “in Palestine” meant that the national home was not intended to cover all of Palestine.
  8. The second half of the declaration was added to satisfy powerful opponents of the policy – like George Curzon and Edwin Montague – who had claimed, respectively, that it would otherwise prejudice the position of the local population of Palestine and encourage antisemitism worldwide by ‘stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands.’ Accordingly, the declaration called for safeguarding the civil and religious rights for the Palestinian Arabs who composed the vast majority of the local population, and also the rights and political status of the Jewish communities in other countries outside of Palestine. 
  9. The British government acknowledged in 1939 that the local population’s views should have been taken into account.
  10. The British government, belatedly – a hundred years later – recognised that the declaration should have called for the protection of the Palestinian Arabs’ political rights. 

And for a conclusion. Well, strictly speaking I suppose this is not a fact, it’s a learned, scholarly opinion but hardly a controversial one. In the words of historians Ruddock Mackay and H.C.G. Matthew, “Of the many initiatives of the British government in the First World War, it [the Balfour declaration] cast the longest shadow.”

Finally, a little bit of what I do with this sort of thing as a guide. It’s one thing to read about these people in history books or biographies. It takes it to another level entirely when you see where they lived, see their houses. They cease to be names on a page, they become flesh and blood human beings. You understand them a whole lot better. Churchill’s dictum kicks in: we make our houses and then our houses make us.

In Arthur Balfour’s case, when he was 22 he acquired 4 Carlton Gardens. Just up some steps from The Mall and thus Buckingham Palace. The year before he’d inherited his birthplace, Whittingehame, one of the largest neoclassical mansions in the country, the crown jewel of its 10,000-acre estate in East Lothian in Scotland. And for good measure, the 83,000-acre Strathconan estate in Ross-Shire in the Scottish Highlands.

Now 4 Carlton Gardens has 30 rooms. Beginning to get the picture? If you own a 30-room mansion a stone’s throw away from Buckingham Palace and an 83,000-acre estate in the Highlands of Scotland and, elsewhere in Scotland, a 10,000-acre estate that’s crowned with one of the largest neoclassical mansions in this country, you have a sense of entitlement. You just know, right to the tips of your fingers, that you’re born to rule, that there’s nothing in any way extraordinary about your taking decisions that will profoundly affect the lives of millions of people right around the world, far into the future. 

Enough said? 

And for a Today in London recommendation, well, come on, this is slow pitch if there ever was:

Today’s recommendation has to be a visit to the Jewish Museum. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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