Too Proud to Fight?

RAB: The Life of R.A. Butler

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

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.