Richard Austen Butler
Richard Austen Butler; drawing by David Levine

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.

But during these fifteen years of unimpeded progress, culminating in a series of brilliant budgets, Butler continued to make mistakes. In 1940, after the fall of France, he was still pressing for a negotiated peace with Germany, to the embarrassment and outrage of many of his colleagues. His handling of the Education Bill was less successful and determined than it might have been, and he missed a unique opportunity to bring the public schools into a fully integrated national system. By espousing the mixed economy and the Welfare State so enthusiastically when in opposition, he cut himself off from many right-wing Conservatives, and was accused of being a milk-and-water socialist. And even in Churchill’s government, his power base was less strong than it should have been. He made influential enemies within the party hierarchy, like Lord Woolton; he underestimated the growing challenge to his position that was being mounted by Harold Macmillan; and he made no effort to conceal the fact that he did not take Eden entirely seriously.

In retrospect at least, Butler’s career passed its zenith in 1955. His wife Sydney died of a particularly gruesome form of facial cancer, and thereafter Rab was never quite the same man. To make matters worse, he was himself soon afflicted by a severe viral infection, which further diminished his effectiveness. In Eden’s Cabinet reshuffle following Churchill’s retirement, Butler grudgingly gave up the Exchequer, and let himself be fobbed off with the posts of Lord Privy Seal and leader of the House of Commons, without a department, and without a real role in government. Meanwhile, Harold Macmillan advanced inexorably, first to the foreign secretaryship and then to the Exchequer. Then came Suez, where Butler’s touch was noticeably maladroit. Throughout the crisis, he seemed distant and uncertain. Yet when Eden’s health collapsed, it fell to Rab to bring home the troops, restore the pound, and repair the Anglo-American alliance. All this was well accomplished, but there was no glory in it; and so, as Butler played the part of the loyal and dutiful caretaker once more, it was the more flamboyant and adventurous Macmillan who battled and intrigued his way to the top.

Beyond doubt, his first failure to obtain the supreme office hit Butler very hard. Thereafter, he was subjected to a succession of sustained humiliations at Macmillan’s hands that, even twenty years later, do not make pleasant reading. By giving him the Home Office rather than making him foreign secretary, Macmillan satisfied Butler’s hankering to return to a major department, but ensured that he would only do himself further damage with the right wing of the party. Thereafter, he was loaded with more offices, including the chairmanship of the Conservative party. But since these party and government jobs were fundamentally incompatible, they only diminished his effectiveness while increasing his labors. Eventually, he attained the even higher posts of first secretary of state and deputy prime minister. But in practice, this meant he became an increasingly marginal figure. He was obliged to give up the Home Office, and subsequently spent much of his time abroad, dealing efficiently but unobtrusively with the dissolution of the Central African Federation.

Nevertheless, despite the decline in Butler’s position between 1957 and 1963, the very great trouble taken by Macmillan to place him at every conceivable disadvantage was the surest possible indication that even the prime minister had to recognize him as the man most likely to be his successor. Since he was nine years Macmillan’s junior, and since many in the party believed he had been badly treated in 1957, he would have another chance. His marriage to Mollie Courtauld—the widow of Sydney’s cousin—brought him renewed happiness, and she had absolutely no doubt that her husband should be the next prime minister. As chairman of the party and of its research organization, Butler remained a formidable figure. His work as home secretary, though controversial, meant he was constantly in the news. His long experience in government, his undoubted expertise in administration, and his publicly acknowledged position as the second man in the Cabinet, meant that he was generally regarded as being as much the natural successor to Macmillan in 1963 as he had been to Eden in 1957.

But again, he failed. While Butler once more took over the government in the aftermath of the prime minister’s illness, Macmillan did everything he could, even from his hospital bed, to prevent the succession going Rab’s way, including making the fourteenth earl of Home the next prime minister. After this second disappointment, Butler’s career soon collapsed. He became foreign secretary for a brief period, but his heart was no longer in it. He played almost no part in the 1964 election campaign, except to give a catastrophically indiscreet interview in which he correctly predicted the Conservatives’ defeat by Harold Wilson. Thereafter, it seems that everyone wanted to be rid of him. Sir Alec Douglas-Home tried to remove him from the opposition front bench by offering him an earldom. More successfully, Harold Wilson urged on him a life peerage and the mastership of Trinity College. He accepted, reigned in grandeur, and wrote his memoirs. In 1980, he made a brief return to political life to lead a successful revolt in the Lords against the Thatcher government’s proposals for educational reform. This was his final fling.

Precisely because Howard’s biography is written from such an unusual—albeit “official”—standpoint, admirers and opponents of Lord Butler may both find it to their taste. For if anything, this account accentuates, rather than resolves, the contradictory views that are held about him. Indeed, in some ways, it makes him more of an enigma. After four hundred pages, his temperament remains elusive, the reasons for his ultimate failure unclear, and his place in history uncertain. Perhaps the key to his unfathomable character lies in the contradictory nature of his circumstances. He was too worldly to be an academic, and too detached to be a partisan. He was middle-class by origin, and plutocratic by marriage, yet he lived the life of a country squire. He was a child of the empire who spent much of his adult life helping to give it away, a patriot who would go to any lengths to accommodate Hitler. At times it is difficult to resist the conclusion that he never really knew who he was, what he was doing, or where he was going.

We need to know more than we are told in this biography about the life of Rab’s mind. That he was donnish, skeptical, intellectual is true but banal: no attempt is made here to explore his ideas or to describe how his views changed—as they did, very dramatically. In the 1930s, his opinions seem to have been the conventional Tory ones about religion, the countryside, and the national community: he was Baldwin without the pipe, Halifax minus the Indian elephants. Unlike his more radical rival Harold Macmillan, Rab seems to have shown little interest in contemporary social or economic problems. Yet somehow, sometime in the 1940s, he became a convert to Keynesian economics and welfare state policies. How the champion of rustic decency became transformed into the apostle of full employment and the mixed economy is not explored. Whether Butler worked this out for himself, or whether he merely absorbed unthinkingly the received wisdoms of the time, is left unexplained.

Nor is it altogether clear from this account quite why it was that Butler never got to the top. As befits his essentially journalistic approach, Howard puts a great deal of it down to luck. Throughout his book he is very sensitive—and often rightly so—to the importance of accident, the unpredictability of events and the quirks of personality that so powerfully influence political life, even though professional historians are sometimes embarrassed to admit it. And in Rab’s case, it is clear that the luck was distributed very unevenly, and ultimately very disadvantageously. Until the mid 1950s, he was astonishingly fortunate: in his marriage, in his progress during the Thirties, in his survival in 1940, in the Tory defeat of 1945, and in Oliver Stanley’s premature death. But thereafter, luck ran very much against him, while it ran very favorably for Macmillan. Yet explanations such as this do not go very deep.

The author’s more penetrating explanation is that Butler was defeated by the “blue blood and thunder group” of the Conservative party, the aristocratic and military element exemplified by the Cecils, the Cavendishes, and the Churchills, who had reasserted themselves in 1940 and who still, according to Howard, wielded great weight in the upper echelons of the party twenty years later. In their eyes, Rab was wholly unacceptable: partly because he was middle class, and partly because he was an appeaser. As the careers of Macmillan (a publisher’s son) and Lord Home (a Chamberlain acolyte) both showed, it was quite possible to be one or the other and still get to the very top. But Rab was doubly damned. And that, combined with his irreverence and his indiscretions, meant that the magic inner circle was determined to do him down. Ever since 1963, this explanation has received wide currency: but the amount of evidence that can actually be marshaled in its support still seems decidedly thin, even in this book.

Indeed, as Howard emphatically insisted in his New Statesman review, and as he more reluctantly concedes here, the person who bears the greatest responsibility for Rab’s ultimate failure is Rab himself. In his early years, everything had perhaps gone too easily for him, with the result that he came to expect events to go his way, and never learned the arts of private intrigue or of public theater to which any ambitious politician must eventually have recourse if he (or she) is to become prime minister. And Butler not only lacked the means to fight: he also lacked the will. He would not stoop to conquer. Had he chosen to exert himself in 1957, or again in 1963, it seems likely that he would in fact have prevailed. But as Macmillan ruthlessly calculated, Butler always held back. It does Macmillan little credit that he treated Rab as he did between 1957 and 1963. But it does Butler even less that he acquiesced so passively in his own emasculation. Like another academic turned statesman, but even more so, Rab was too proud to fight.

By definition, the publication of a posthumous official biography transforms its subject from a recently deceased contemporary into an authentic historical figure. Yet in Butler’s case, this process was well under way even before Howard’s book appeared. As the first (and last) great Tory “wet,”—as liberal, accommodating Tories came to be called—he was a waning force even in the era of Macmillan; but in the age of Thatcher he seems at best an anachronism and at worst simply irrelevant. With a Conservative government exploiting the Falklands war and proclaiming its commitment to the free-market economy, Butler’s supposedly solid achievements—turning the Tory party away from its delight in unrestricted competition and its imperial pride—now look decidedly more ephemeral than they did only twenty years ago. In death, as in life, Rab seems fated to occupy a subordinate role. Although he relished ironies, it is difficult to believe he would have appreciated this particular one.

This Issue

December 17, 1987