The Chancellor Balfour Declaration: our university, imperial knowledge and the racialised global order
60 Perugini

Blog post by Nicola Perugini, University of Edinburgh

On July 8 1903, the first Allied Colonial University Conference took place at the Hotel Cecil on the Thames Embankment in London. The development of knowledge production and university networks was meant to foster British imperial rule. One of the main architects of this imperial turn to academe was Arthur James Balfour, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at that time, and also Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. Balfour had been appointed to the Edinburgh post in 1891 and ultimately held the position until 1930 – the longest chancellorship in the history of Scotland’s most prominent university.

At Hotel Cecil, Balfour presided the conference dinner attended by universities delegates, heads of colleges, and “men prominent in educational and scientific work.” After the customary toasts, Balfour delivered a speech in which he celebrated the foundation of the new British-colonial academic alliance and explained why this was a remarkable political achievement: “It is not merely, or simply, or chiefly that there are here in this room representatives of scholarship, of science, of all the great spheres of activity in which modern thought is indulging itself. It is that we are here representing what will turn out to be, I believe, a great alliance of the greatest educational instruments in the Empire – an alliance of all the universities that, in an increasing measure, are feeling their responsibilities, not merely for training the youth which is destined to carry on the traditions of the British Empire, but also to further those great interests of knowledge, scientific research, and culture without which no Empire, however materially magnificent, can really say that it is doing to share in the progress of the world.”

In Balfour’s mind, the new academic alliance was a crucial tool for cementing Britain’s global dominance. But it was also a key instrument for affirming a sense of a racialised Anglo-Saxon unity: “We boast a community of blood, of language, of laws, of literature,” the ecstatic Chancellor-PM exclaimed at the conference dinner.

After ending his tenure as Prime Minister in 1905, Balfour withdrew for almost a decade from the centre-stage of imperial foreign policy, before making his return in 1916 as Foreign Secretary. But in those ten years, the Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh continued to construct British academic space as an imperial project.

In 1912, perhaps also due to his growing interest in “the Orient,” Balfour was asked to chair a session of the Second Congress of the Universities of the Empire on The Problem of Universities in the East in Regard to their Influence on Character and Moral Ideals. In his opening speech, he underscored how in Western universities there has been “mutual adjustment” between scientific knowledge and socio-cultural traditions, while in Eastern universities science and social customs were on course for “collision.” This idea of an inherent incompatibility between Eastern traditions and science was grounded in a concept of natural racial inequalities that Balfour had articulated quite clearly a few years earlier, in his book On Decadence. In this book, Balfour theorised that Oriental history was dominated by a monotony of despotism and an incapacity of self-government, and how “any attempt to provide widely different races with an identical […] educational [environment] can never make them alike. They have been different and unequal since history began; different and unequal they are destined to remain.”

This kind of racial thinking shaped Balfour’s imperial world-making both as a statesman and a man of science and academia. This racialised understanding of global order constituted the backbone of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which created a new imperial legal framework in the Middle East. The Declaration, issued on the 2 of November, endorsed the creation of a territorial based settler national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, while denying Palestinians their national rights and offering them only civil and religious rights. Ultimately, and in line with his writings, Palestinians were Orientals incapable of governing themselves or achieving self-determination.

Balfour wrote and signed the Declaration before visiting Palestine. In fact, his first visit took place in 1925, when he inaugurated the Hebrew University of Jerusalem dressed in the robes of Edinburgh and Cambridge (where he had become Chancellor in 1919). As a guest of the Zionist movement, he toured the first “Jewish colonies” established in Palestine, including Balfouria, a settlement dedicated to him by the Zionist leadership.

In his inauguration speech on Mount Scopus, Balfour celebrated the Hebrew University as an experiment of adapting “Western methods” (“Jewish science and theories”) to an Asiatic site and as an institution capable of regenerating a “stagnant Palestine.” Balfour-the-statesman espoused the Zionist narrative about the need to regenerate the arid Palestine also when he wore the clothes of Balfour-the-Edinburgh-Chancellor. As Chaim Weizmann – who played a decisive role in convincing Balfour to issue the 1917 Declaration and invited him to give the inauguration speech in 1925 – made clear in his Trial and Error, the Hebrew University was “the fulfilment of my particular dream of the early days of the movement” and a crucial tool for Zionist affirmation in Palestine. Significantly, after the inauguration, Hebrew University was included in the network of allied imperial universities Balfour had helped constitute in the beginning of the century.

The link between Balfour’s contribution to imperial governance and his contribution to the development of British imperial academia have for some reason been completely erased and does not appear in the vast amount of literature and the contemporary debates on his involvement in global imperial affairs and his infamous Declaration on Palestine.

That is why this year we might use the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration to rediscover this link and raise some fundamental questions on the imperial history of the University of Edinburgh, as well as Scottish and British academia, and its relevance to the present. As universities that formally and publicly embrace the decolonial agenda and try to decolonise curricula and academic spaces: how could we decolonise our historical imbrication with the injustice to which Palestinians have been subjected as a result of the imperial declaration issued by one of our chancellors? 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? What would be the implications of such a recognition? And since the question of Palestine is still alive as a colonial question that continues to generate violence and dispossession, as we have seen also recently: how could we contribute, with concrete and tangible institutional actions, to decolonise Palestine and repair our institutional entanglement with a settler colonial project that continues to deny Palestinians the right to self-determination and uproot them from their land?

After all, the Balfour Declaration was also our Chancellor’s declaration.

This article is based on a research project on the imperial legacy of the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the Centre for Research Collections and with the support of SPS and CAHSS.

Image credit: Balfour inaugurates the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925 Source: Library of Congress.