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Too Proud to Fight?

RAB: The Life of R.A. Butler

by Anthony Howard
Jonathan Cape, 422 pp., $26.95

It is a cliché of American history that the inscription on Thomas Jefferson’s tomb at Monticello carries understatement almost to the point of self-indulgence. There is no mention of the great offices of state that he held: instead he is remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as the architect of the University of Virginia. The same disdain for government may be seen in the words on the gravestone of R.A. Butler in Saffron Walden churchyard, which make no allusion to his long and illustrious ministerial career: all that is recorded is that he was the member of Parliament for the constituency for thirty-six years and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, for a further thirteen. There, however, the similarities end. Jefferson’s indifference to worldly distinction was that of a man whose public career had been triumphantly successful; whereas with Butler, it coyly concealed the fact that he twice failed to become prime minister of England.

To his supporters, who insisted on calling him the best prime minister Britain never had, this was an unmitigated disaster—for Butler, for his party, and for his country. His ministerial career, lasting from the early 1930s to the mid-1960s, was among the longest and most distinguished of twentieth-century statesmen. The Education Act that he passed in 1944 established the modern system of secondary schooling, and is one of the few pieces of legislation known by the name of its promoter. As the leading figure in postwar Tory policymaking, he reconciled the party to the Welfare State, and was the chief architect of its long spell of power between 1951 and 1964. As chancellor of the Exchequer in the early 1950s, he came close to presiding over an economic miracle, and as home secretary at the end of the decade, he was notably reformist, civilized, and humane. Viewed in this light, his claims to lead the Conservative party were beyond dispute, and it was only the towering ambition and vindictive cunning of Harold Macmillan that denied him the supreme office, in 1957 and again in 1963.

But to his enemies—and, significantly, they seem to have been more within his own party than without—this was a wildly distorted picture of a man who was well fitted to be a permanent understudy, but who lacked the essential qualities for the leading role. Throughout his career, Butler was indecisive, accommodating, inclined to give way. He lacked rhetorical style, and had no verve or charisma. In foreign affairs, he was an incorrigible appeaser. During the 1930s, he surrendered over India and Germany; in the 1940s his commitment to total victory was distinctly lukewarm; in the 1950s he was supine over Suez; and in the 1960s he was in charge of another withdrawal, this time from the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

On the home front, he was no more robust. His belief in the mixed economy and the Welfare State marked him out as a socialist fellow traveller; as chancellor of the Exchequer he was, in his policies, all but indistinguishable from Hugh Gaitskell, his Labour predecessor; and as home secretary he was too eager to compromise on law and order and immigration. In all these ways, his critics asserted, he was quite unfitted to lead the Tory party, and in keeping him down and out, Macmillan was merely doing his duty.

Throughout his long career, these competing views of Butler regularly reappeared, and they resurfaced once more on the publication, in 1971, of his autobiography. Written when he was Master of Trinity College, The Art of the Possible, with its irreverence and detachment, was widely praised. This short book was a most effective riposte to the ponderous, multivolume memoirs that Harold Macmillan was producing. Admirers like Edward Boyle and Enoch Powell greeted it rapturously, seeing in its pages the quintessence of those liberal and humane qualities that had always made him the last best hope of the Tory party. But his critics were unrepentant. One reviewer in particular argued that Butler’s memoirs were complacent and self-serving autohagiography; that they left undiscussed the many “mistakes and blunders” of his career; and that the real reason he had failed to gain the supreme office was that, for most of his life, he had never had to fight for anything, and so lacked the killer instinct. This young, dismissive, and perceptive writer was at the time the deputy editor of the New Statesman.1 His name was Anthony Howard.

Only a politician with as well developed a sense of irony as Butler would have appointed the critic of his autobiography to be the author of his official life. In 1980, two years before he died, that is precisely what he did. At first glance, Howard’s qualifications for the post were quite inappropriate. He was a political journalist, not a political historian, and had never undertaken a large work based on serious scholarly research. And, as befitted a man who later became the editor of the New Statesman, he was a supporter of the Labour party, expressed a “wary admiration” for Harold Wilson, and greatly admired mavericks of the left like Richard Crossman. Yet Howard has in fact produced an enthralling book. It is certainly not the last word on the subject; but it is a fascinating and surprisingly sympathetic account of one of the major figures in twentieth-century British politics. It would surely have given Lord Butler satisfaction that it provides ample support for his critics and his champions alike.

Butler was born in India in 1902. He was descended from a long line of Cambridge dons who had been Fellows—and occasionally Masters—of their colleges since the mid-eighteenth century and who were thus firmly ensconced among the intellectual aristocracy of late Victorian Britain. By that time, they had also branched out into public life, and Butler’s father was a member of the Indian Civil Service who ended his career as governor of the Central Provinces. The young Richard Austen (who was given those names to provide him with the soubriquet “Rab,” by which he was known throughout his life) returned to England for preparatory and public schooling, but it was at Cambridge that his career blossomed. He obtained firsts in history and modern languages; he was elected president of the university debating society, the Cambridge Union; and he became a Fellow of Corpus Christi College on graduation. Shortly after, he married Sydney Courtauld, one of the richest heiresses of her generation. This brought Rab wealth, country houses, and fine pictures in abundance. And in 1929 it also propelled him into politics, when he was elected for the Courtauld-controlled constituency of Saffron Walden, at the remarkably early age of twenty-seven.

Beyond any doubt, this was a formidable and fortunate base from which to launch a career in public life. Yet in many ways, despite these unusual advantages, Butler’s background did not fit him ideally for the rough competition of politics. The traditions of academic detachment and government service were not easily reconciled with the loyalty, passion, and partisanship rightly demanded of a party politician. As a child of empire, he was often separated from his parents, and this engendered a sense of isolation and a melancholy bordering on fatalism and self-pity that was to prove another major disadvantage throughout his public career. There was no martial blood in his veins, and after a riding accident in India he was bad at games, unfit for military service, and generally hostile to both—not the soundest of views for a Tory MP to hold. Even as a young man, he seemed weak and uncertain in a crisis: he apparently suffered a serious nervous breakdown in his third year at Cambridge, about which it would have been instructive to know more.

Nevertheless, during the 1930s, Butler’s career continued its seemingly effortless and inexorable advance. He was by now fully established as an Essex country gentleman, with an impressive London town house in Smith Square, and he was rapidly taken up by the three most powerful figures in the Tory party: Stanley Baldwin, Lord Halifax, and Neville Chamberlain. Within two years of entering Parliament, he was given minor jobs, and he was soon appointed a junior minister at the India Office. He was conspicuously accomplished in piloting through the Commons the complex and controversial Government of India Act of 1935, and in so doing won favorable opinions from friend and enemy alike (Churchill included). Having established himself as a sound, safe, reliable company man, he was moved to the Foreign Office in February 1938, where he was deputy to Lord Halifax. Since this obliged him to represent his department in the Commons, he came into close contact with Neville Chamberlain, whose protégé he then became, and whose policy of appeasement he wholeheartedly supported.

But as war came closer, it was clear that Butler’s identification with the men of the Munich Pact was excessive and potentially damaging. Already, in the early Thirties, he had clashed with a young, radical, dissenting Tory named Harold Macmillan. Throughout 1938 and until the outbreak of war and beyond, he was committed to appeasement, to a far greater extent than he was later prepared to admit in his memoirs, where he took great pains to conceal the active, energetic part that he had played, and to defend the policy on the grounds that the later Britain went to war with Hitler the more prepared the country would be. Howard candidly demonstrates that no such considerations seem to have occupied the mind of the younger Rab at the time. In private and in public, he favored appeasement, simply because he believed in Anglo-German friendship, thought Hitler could be trusted, and felt that German demands should be met.2 So when Chamberlain’s government and policy crashed in ruins in May 1940, Butler was understandably dismayed at the prospect that he, too, might be a victim.

Yet for all Butler’s dislike of Churchill as a buccaneering “half-breed,” his own luck, astonishingly, held. While most of the appeasers were cast out, Rab found himself the unexpected—and still largely the unexplained—beneficiary of Churchill’s magnanimity. He was soon promoted to president of the Board of Education, and piloted through the measure that bears his name. Even the electoral defeat of 1945 worked out greatly to his advantage. As the only major Tory figure with recent experience of domestic—as distinct from foreign or military—affairs, he was put in charge of the Conservative Research Department, and soon produced the first of the “Charters” that reconciled the party to the Welfare State. The death of Oliver Stanley in 1950 meant that when the Conservatives returned to power the following year, and Rab became chancellor of the Exchequer, he was the undisputed third-ranking figure in government. The next five years saw him at the peak of his power and influence; when Churchill and Eden were both incapacitated during the summer of 1953, it was Butler who took over as acting head of government, and on Eden’s assumption of the prime ministership two years later, there seemed no doubt that Butler ultimately would succeed him.

  1. 1

    Anthony Howard, “Losing the Game,” New Statesman, July 16, 1971, pp. 83–84.

  2. 2

    For a much fuller discussion of this point, see Paul Stafford, “Political Autobiography and the Art of the Possible: R.A. Butler at the Foreign Office, 1938–39,” Historical Journal, vol. 28 (1985), pp. 901–922.

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