Richard Austen Butler, Baron Butler of Saffron Walden KG CH PC DL (9 December 1902 – 8 March 1982), generally known as R. A. Butler and familiarly known from his initials as Rab, was a prominent British Conservative politician. The Times obituary called him "the creator of the modern educational system, the key-figure in the revival of post-war Conservatism, arguably the most successful chancellor since the war and unquestionably a Home Secretary of reforming zeal." He was one of his party's leaders in promoting the Post-war consensus through which the major parties largely agreed on the main points of domestic policy until the 1970s, sometimes known as "Butskellism" from an elision of his name with that of his Labour counterpart Hugh Gaitskell.
Born into a family of academics and Indian administrators, Butler enjoyed a brilliant academic career before entering Parliament in 1929. As a junior minister, he helped to pass the Government of India Act 1935. He strongly supported the appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938–39. Entering the Cabinet in 1941, he served as Education Minister (1941–45, overseeing the Education Act 1944). When the Conservatives returned to power in 1951 he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1951–55), Home Secretary (1957–62), Deputy Prime Minister (1962–63) and Foreign Secretary (1963–64).
Butler had an exceptionally long ministerial career and was one of only two British politicians (the other being John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon) to have served in three of the four Great Offices of State but never to have been Prime Minister, for which he was passed over in 1957 and 1963. At the time, the Conservative Leadership was decided by a process of private consultation rather than by a formal vote. After retiring from politics in 1965, Butler was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Butler was born in Attock Serai, Attock, India, to Sir Montagu Sherard Dawes Butler of the Indian Civil Service and his wife, Anne Gertrude (née Smith). Butler's mother belonged to an Indian Civil Service family of Scottish origin.
Butler's paternal family had a long and distinguished association with the University of Cambridge, dating back to his great-grandfather Dr George Butler. Butler's father was a Fellow of Pembroke College.
In July 1909, at the age of six, his right arm was broken in three places in a riding accident. The injury was aggravated by a burn from a hot water bottle and an attempt to straighten the arm by hanging weights from it, leaving his hand not fully functional. His limp handshake and lack of military experience (and his stooping donnish manner at a time when many politicians were former officers) were political handicaps in later life.
Butler attended several preparatory schools but refused to attend Harrow, where many of his family had been educated. He failed to win a scholarship to Eton, and so he attended Marlborough College. He left Marlborough at the end of 1920, a week after his 18th birthday, and spent five months in France with a Protestant pastor in Abbeville. He returned briefly to England to sit the exams for Pembroke College, Cambridge, where in June 1921 he won an exhibition worth £20 per annum (around £1,000 at 2014 prices), then returned to France to be tutor to the son of Robert de Rothschild. His plan at this stage was to enter the Diplomatic Service.
As a child of Empire, from his mid-teens onwards, Butler was expected to look after his younger siblings, arranging for them to stay with relatives during school holidays and sending them Christmas presents that he pretended had been sent by their parents. His sister was the writer Iris Mary Butler (born 1905), who became Iris Portal upon her marriage and her elder daughter is Jane Williams, Baroness Williams of Elvel, the mother of Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. Butler's younger brother Jock, a Home Office civil servant and Pilot Officer, was killed in a plane crash at the end of 1942.
Butler studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, starting in October 1921, initially reading Medieval and Modern Languages. He soon became active in student politics, being elected to the Committee of the Cambridge Union Society by the end of his first year. At the end of his second year, he was elected Secretary for Michaelmas (autumn term) 1923 at his second attempt, by the narrow margin of 10 votes out of 500. At that time, Secretary was the only office normally contested, putting him on track to be Vice-President for Lent 1924 and President for Easter (summer term) 1924. At the end of his second year (June 1923), he achieved a First in French Part I and was awarded an £80 scholarship to supplement his £300 parental allowance (approximately £4,000 and £15,000 at 2014 prices).
Butler suffered a nervous breakdown that summer and had to postpone his plans to study History to a fourth year, taking a less strenuous course in German in the meantime. He spent part of the summer of 1923 abroad learning German, and became unusually fluent in the language, impressing his hosts with his near-native syntax. He also came to feel that the Germans had been harshly treated in the recent Treaty of Versailles.
In Michaelmas 1923, as Secretary, he persuaded the Cambridge Union to affiliate to the National Union of Students, of which he became a Vice-President. Psychiatric illness was then still little understood. In November 1923 his college put him in the care of a doctor and in December 1923 his uncle Cyril sent him to a specialist in Bristol, after which he made a recovery from his breakdown. On 11 March 1924, after taking office as President, he entertained the Leader of the Opposition, Stanley Baldwin, at the Change of Officers Debate to oppose the motion that "This House has the Highest Regard for Rhetoric". The following morning, Rab had to escort Baldwin back to the railway station, where, according to one version of the story, Baldwin bought him a copy of "Something Fresh" by P. G. Wodehouse with an admonition not to take life too seriously. At the end of his third year (1924), he received a Second in German. He graduated as a BA in 1924.
In the summer of 1924 Butler took part in the ESU USA Tour, a seven-week debating tour of Canada and the United States run by the English-Speaking Union. They debated two motions: democracy versus personal liberty and closer relations with the Soviet Union.
During his fourth year at Cambridge, he concentrated on study, reading for Part II in History and International Law. He was able to use notes which his uncle Geoffrey had prepared for a planned book on International Law. In his International Law exam, he was dissatisfied with his essays, and at half time, he tore up his answers and wrote six fresh ones on six sheets of foolscap. In History, he took the Peel special subject, at one point knowing by name which way every Conservative MP voted in the split over the Irish Coercion Bill of 1846. He received one of the highest firsts in the university across all subjects, known at the time as a "I:I".
Private and family life
Butler married Sydney Elizabeth Courtauld on 20 April 1926. She was the daughter of Samuel Courtauld and heiress to part of the Courtauld textile fortune. His father-in-law awarded him a private income of £5,000 a year after tax for life, the equivalent of a Cabinet Minister's salary, and equivalent to almost £260,000 at 2014 prices.
The Butlers lived at Stanstead Hall and, in 1938, they moved into 3 Smith Square, which remained Butler's London base throughout his career. During the Second World War, Butler was bombed out of Smith Square and stayed with his Parliamentary Private Secretary Chips Channon in Belgrave Square.
The Butlers' children were Sir Richard C. Butler KT DL (1929–2012), Adam Courtauld Butler (1931–2008), who was also a politician, Samuel James Butler (1936–2015) and Sarah Teresa Butler (born 1944).
Following the death of his wife from jaw cancer in 1954, Butler married Mollie Courtauld (née Montgomerie) on 21 October 1959. She had been married to Augustine Courtauld (Sydney's cousin), who had died in March 1959.
The Butlers had inherited Gatcombe Park from Sam Courtauld in 1949. In 1976 it was sold to the Queen as a home for Princess Anne, for a sum between £300,000 and £750,000 (Howard gives the figure as "more than £500,000"). He recorded that the Royal Family had driven a hard bargain but joked in public that he was “glad it was going to a good family”.
The Butlers also had a home on the Isle of Mull and, in later years, a flat in Whitehall Court. They bought back Spencers, the old Courtauld family home in Essex where Mollie had previously lived with Augustine Courtauld. Mollie continued living at Spencers after Butler's death in 1982, until her death on 18 February 2009, at the age of 101.
Early political career
Member of Parliament
In his autobiography, The Art of the Possible, Butler attributed his political gifts to his grandmother Mary Kendall of Pelyn, Lostwithiel, Cornwall. He wrote a lengthy paragraph on the Kendall family, who had served in Parliament since 1368 and had been active in politics for many generations. It has been remarked of this family that they have perhaps sent more members to the British Parliament than any other in the United Kingdom.
Butler spent a brief period as a don at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, teaching French history since 1870. In summer 1926, he resigned his residential fellowship to go on a honeymoon tour of the world, becoming instead a supernumerary fellow. He renewed his contact with Leo Amery, whom he had met in July 1924 at a British Empire Students Conference, and who now put him in touch with contacts in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Whilst in Vancouver in June 1927, he learned of a vacancy for the safe Conservative seat of Saffron Walden, and returned from Quebec by sea on 31 August 1927; Courtauld connections arranged for him to be selected unopposed as the Conservative candidate on 26 November 1927. Butler toured local villages showing films of his Empire tours.
Butler was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Saffron Walden in the 1929 general election, and held the seat until his retirement, in 1965. His father advised him that he lacked facility for executive decision-making and that he should aim for the Speakership. He also warned him, in 1926, not to acquire a reputation as a bore by specialising in Indian affairs in Parliament. He then advised him, in 1929, that he should either devote his life to India as he had done or aim to come out later as a provincial governor or even as Viceroy.
Before being elected to Parliament he became private secretary to Samuel Hoare. Butler was one of a number of young MPs who had a sharp exchange of letters in The Times (27–28 May 1930) with Harold Macmillan, then out of Parliament, over the Mosley Memorandum. Macmillan had suggested that the "game" of politics was worth "hardly worth bothering to play at all" if governments were not willing to adopt radical solutions to reduce unemployment; Butler replied that if that was his view he should seek a "pastime more suited to his talents". Butler recorded that the whips had "chuckled" at the letter, but it may have contributed the enmity that Macmillan, who was to be a backbench rebel in the 1930s whilst Butler was a rising ministerial star, felt towards him in later years.
In 1930, he referred to the rebels against Stanley Baldwin's leadership, led by the Press Barons Lords Rothermere and Beaverbrook, as the "Forty Thieves". He wrote of "Brigadier-General this and Colonel that" amongst Conservative backbenchers and thought Beaverbrook "green and apeish". Butler supported Duff Cooper in the Westminster St George's by-election, 1931 in March 1931.
India Office Minister
In August 1931, when the National Government was formed, Butler was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the India Secretary, Samuel Hoare. The India Committee, one of whose leading lights was Winston Churchill, had been formed to resist plans for greater Indian self-government after the Gandhi-Irwin Pact. Sydney had written to Butler's mother that she would "pray for snow and sleet" if Mahatma Gandhi visited London in his loincloth. As PPS, Butler was Hoare's eyes and ears at the Second Round Table Conference then in progress. He was soon impressed by Gandhi. He was sent to India on Lord Lothian's Franchise Committee, one of three committees set up as part of the Round Table Conference. He left in January 1932 and returned on 21 May. The Committee recommended an increase in the Indian electorate from 7 million to 36 million.
Butler returned to find himself now a joint PPS with Micky Knatchbull, MP for Ashford in Kent. Butler soon reestablished himself as Hoare's main adviser and persuaded him to attend the Conservative Conference at Blackpool that October, where Churchill was planning to move a motion critical of the government's Indian policy. He was given his first ministerial job as Under-Secretary of State for India (29 September 1932) when Lord Lothian resigned along with the rest of Herbert Samuel's Official Liberals over the National Government's abandonment of free trade. At 29, he was the youngest member of the government.
At the end of March 1933, Butler had to open for the government on the last day of the debate on the Government's proposals for Indian Home Rule. He called for a Joint Select Committee of Both Houses to examine the recent White Paper and make proposals for a bill. Expecting a fierce response from Churchill, he compared himself (29 March) to "a bullock calf tied to a tree, awaiting the arrival of the Lord of the Forest", adding that the tiger would be shot by riflemen when tempted out. Butler was active speaking in the country on behalf of the Union of Britain and India, a front organisation funded by Conservative Central Office and launched on 20 May 1933. Butler faced significant opposition from Conservative activists in his constituency, including some who deplored the granting of independence to Ireland over a decade earlier and one woman who thought it wrong to give the vote to Indians, as she believed them to be savages who were still fighting with bows and arrows.
During the passage of the bill Churchill praised Butler in the House of Commons (5 June 1935) but not Hoare. Baldwin replaced Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister (7 June 1935) during the Third reading of the bill. In the resulting reshuffle Hoare became Foreign Secretary and was succeeded as India Secretary by Lord Zetland, so Butler had to steer the final stages of the bill through the House of Commons; Lord Dunglass attributed the success of the bill, which became the Government of India Act 1935, to him.
Butler continued as Under-Secretary for India for the rest of Baldwin's government (1935-7). He had a distant relationship with Lord Zetland, who required him to book an appointment in advance if he wanted to see him. In his memoirs Butler makes no mention of the 1935-7 period except a single paragraph sneering at Zetland, despite the crises in foreign policy (German remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Italian expansion into Abyssinia and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War) which took place in this period.
Neville Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937. Butler was Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Labour in the new government until February 1938. He served under Ernest Brown, Minister of Labour, who was also responsible for Regional Development, giving Butler experience of the human cost of regional unemployment.
Foreign Office Minister: Appeasement, Anschluss and Munich
In February 1938, Butler was appointed Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the reshuffle caused by the resignation of Anthony Eden as Foreign Secretary and Lord Cranborne as Under-Secretary. At an early meeting with a German diplomat on 24 February, shortly before his formal assumption of office, Butler spoke of how little support Eden had enjoyed in the Cabinet and of the recent sidelining of the anti-German foreign office mandarin Robert Vansittart, and of how Butler believed that the older generation of French-speaking and pro-French diplomats were now being pushed aside. Although such views were widely held in the upper reaches of the government, Butler’s forcefulness in sharing them with the Germans was unusual.
With the new Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax in the House of Lords, Butler was the main Foreign Office spokesman in the House of Commons. In practice the Prime Minister often spoke in the House of Commons on foreign policy, and initially when Butler spoke on sensitive issues such as the Anschluss of Austria (March 1938) or the ongoing Spanish Civil War, he was greeted with cries of "Where's the Prime Minister? Fetch him in!" Butler's PPS was the diarist "Chips" Channon, who described Butler (28 February 1938) as "a scholarly dry-stick, but an extremely able, cautious, canny man of great ambition" and (12 March 1938) as having "the brains and ability of a super clever civil servant, but completely unprejudiced. He seems to have no bias on any subject and looks on the whole human race as mental."
In internal foreign office discussions after the Anschluss, Butler counselled against a British guarantee to go to war to defend Czechoslovakia, and approved of the Cabinet decision (22 March) not to give one (he later omitted these facts from his memoirs). Halifax and Butler assisted Chamberlain in drafting his statement for 24 March. Chamberlain did not rule out war altogether, but was influenced by advice from the chiefs of staff that Czechoslovakia was indefensible. Jago argues that Butler helped to tone down Chamberlain’s speech, sticking to a more logical approach than was usual for Chamberlain and stressing the commitment to peace.
In June 1938 Helmuth Wohlthat, Commissioner for the German Four Year Plan, met Butler and reported that he was favourably-disposed to Germany. Butler spent most of the Sudeten Crisis with Channon at a meeting in Geneva about reform of the Covenant of the League of Nations. He strongly approved of Chamberlain’s trip to Berchtesgaden (16 September), even if it meant sacrificing Czechoslovakia in the interests of peace. Channon recorded Butler as saying (16 September 1938) that “the man in possession when challenged must inevitably part with something”. After Chamberlain’s return from Godesberg, where Hitler had presented inflated demands, Butler’s job was to talk to Maxim Litvinov, Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs. He obtained an assurance (“anodyne” in Jago’s view) that the USSR “would take action” and “might desire to raise the matter with the League” if Germany acted without agreement.
Butler returned to the UK to make the winding-up speech for the Government in the Parliamentary Debate on the Munich Agreement on 5 October. After Churchill had spoken, Butler said that war solved nothing and that it was better to "settle our differences with Germany by consultation". He implied the government’s critics to be insular by mentioning how Chamberlain was praised abroad and at Geneva. However, he did not directly defend the Munich settlement; the motion was to support the avoidance of war and the pursuit of lasting peace. When Duff Cooper resigned in protest (12 October), Butler wrote of his speech that "Duff's veins stood out and he was very rude".
One of Butler’s constituents in Saffron Walden was the businessman Ernest Tennant, a leading member of the Anglo-German Fellowship, who pushed for Anglo-German friendship until he became convinced of Hitler’s malignant intentions in the winter of 1938-9. On 30 November Butler gave a speech to a group of politicians and business leaders called “The Parlour”. His surviving notes, discussed with Chamberlain’s foreign policy advisor Horace Wilson, indicate that he thought Hitler would “Bluster West, Infiltrate East”. In other words, he thought war involving Britain and France was unlikely, but that there would be further changes to eastern European boundaries, including very likely German occupation of the rump of Czechoslovakia, Danzig and Memel and eventual German participation in rule of her former colonies confiscated after the First World War, although the recent Kristallnacht would make Anglo-German agreement difficult for the time being. Butler approved of Chamberlain’s talks with Mussolini and believed that Germany was still economically weak.
Butler was sworn of the Privy Council in the 1939 New Year Honours as the youngest person to join it since Churchill in 1907. Channon found Butler “very sly and subtle” (15 January 1939). Lloyd George called him “the Artful Dodger” at this time, referring to his refusal to give straight answers about the government's views about Spain, where General Franco's victory was clearly imminent. Between the reopening of Parliament on 31 January 1939 and Hitler's seizure of Prague on 15 March Butler was kept very busy in Parliament, making 544 oral statements, including 35 in two days on 1-2 February 1939) and giving 35 written answers. He wrote during the Palestine Conference (17 February 1939) that he found it “rather peaceful to bathe in these Arab-Jewish difficulties” and that he did not share recent Cabinet concerns that Hitler might bomb Britain or invade Holland.
Foreign Office Minister: After Prague
When Hitler occupied Prague (15 March 1939), Butler, like Chamberlain, was shocked at his duplicity in breaking the Munich Agreement. Britain attempted to deter further German aggression by pledging to go to war to defend Poland and other east European countries. This sea change in policy was driven more by Halifax than by Chamberlain and evidence suggests that Butler did not support it, and would have preferred Poland also to be sacrificed in the interests of peace.
Channon recorded (26 March) that the mooted Polish guarantee was unwise as it might “stiffen the resistance” of the Poles as had happened with the Czechs the previous year. This very likely reflects Butler’s views, as he wrote that summer that he “never liked the Polish Guarantee. It gave Russia just the excuse not to defend herself against Germany.” The guarantee was finally given on 5 April, and that day Channon recorded that Butler was irritated that Halifax had not consulted him over the matter. Butler thought Benito Mussolini's seizure of Albania in (7-12 April 1939) would destabilise the Balkans; Chamberlain told him not to be so silly and to go home to bed. However, Channon also recorded (13 April) that Halifax was aware that Butler still had the Prime Minister’s ear and was still encouraging him to conciliate Hitler.
Butler, following a meeting with the Duke of Buccleuch who had recently accompanied Butler’s friend Lord Brocket (another leading member of the Anglo-German Fellowship) to Berlin, vainly urged Halifax to encourage Poland to make concessions to Germany and to push for better Anglo-German trade links (in fact, not even Chamberlain or Wilson favoured British economic assistance for Germany). Butler was also impressed by Hitler’s Reichstag Speech of 28 April, which appeared to hold out the possibility of a renewed Anglo-German agreement and a settlement of the Danzig issue. By May Halifax and the Foreign Office were deeply concerned that Chamberlain and Horace Wilson were inclining to appeasement again.
Although not yet a member of the Cabinet, Butler became a member of the foreign policy committee, which from 16 May discussed the possibility of an Anglo-Soviet Alliance. The Cabinet decided on such an alliance on 24 May, contrary to Chamberlain’s and Butler’s wishes, but Butler and Horace Wilson persuaded Chamberlain to hamstring the search for an agreement by including a requirement that Britain would not fight without League of Nations approval. On 13 June Butler wrote directly (i.e. without allowing Foreign Office officials to comment) to Halifax recommending “forward moves” between Britain and Germany over trade, restoration of German colonies, and a renewed naval agreement; Halifax was dismissive. Butler had a long talk with the Nazi sympathiser the Aga Khan (28 June) and sent Halifax a full report, although Butler claimed to have supported an Anglo-Soviet agreement to preserve the balance of power. Butler wanted the Aga Khan to visit Berlin, and when Halifax did not approve Butler lobbied Chamberlain and Wilson, who also did not approve. Butler’s friend Lord Brocket opposed the British guarantee to Poland and Rumania and appears, to Lord Halifax’s irritation, to have given the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop the impression in June 1939 that Britain would not fight for Danzig or the Polish corridor, to which he believed Germany to have a good claim. On 17 July Butler lobbied Halifax for Britain to lean on Poland to reach agreement with Germany; he wanted only an “anodyne” agreement with the USSR but a renewed Anglo-German Naval Agreement, to be followed eventually by an agreement over colonies.
With a German move against Poland looming, Butler returned from holiday in the South of France on 24 August, the day after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Butler later wrote that he believed that “Germany might have negotiated had we influenced the Poles earlier in the summer” and he agreed with Burckhardt, High Commissioner for Danzig, that “Polish diplomacy was not clever and that they brought much of the trouble upon their own heads”. On 25 August Butler advised Chamberlain, Halifax, Cadogan (Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office) and Horace Wilson that signing the Polish Treaty that afternoon “would have a bad psychological effect upon Hitler and would wreck the negotiations”. He favoured Hitler’s proposal, received that day, that Germany be allowed to settle matters with Poland as she wished and in return for concessions over her former colonies sign an Anglo-German alliance guaranteeing German defence for the British Empire. Butler’s and Wilson’s response struck Leslie Hore-Belisha (Secretary of State for War) as “fulsome, obsequious and deferential”. In fact the signature of the Anglo-Polish Treaty on the afternoon of 25 August encouraged Hitler to postpone the invasion scheduled for 26 August. Oliver Harvey recorded (27 August) that Butler and Horace Wilson were “working like beavers” for “another Munich”, however, eventually Cadogan’s advice was taken and the government agreed to honour the guarantee to Poland.
As late as the start of September 1939, with German invasion of Poland imminent, comments in Channon’s diary suggest that Butler was sympathetic to last-minute Italian efforts to broker peace and that he and Butler were heartened by a delay in the British declaration of war on Germany, although in fact the delay in the issuing of the British ultimatum was because of lack of agreement with the French over timing.
Foreign Office Minister: later views and Butler's memoirs
Butler's close association with appeasement was often held against him later in his career, more so than against Lords Home or Hailsham, his rivals for the party leadership in 1963, who had been more junior. This did not prevent him from holding many further senior ministerial positions, whilst the immediate causes of his failure to achieve the premiership would be (in 1957) his open discontent with Eden’s leadership in general and with the Suez adventure in particular, and his reluctance to pander to the Tory right, and (in 1963) his reluctance to cause a political crisis by refusing to serve under Home. Although Churchill valued his abilities as a minister, by the time of Suez his past, coupled with his lack of personal military experience, damaged his reputation in the eyes of the younger generation of Conservative MPs, many of them Second World War veterans. Macmillan, who later recalled Butler as having been "the most cringing of the Munichites", often made sure the point was repeated.
Although at the time Butler had strongly supported reaching agreement with Hitler as necessary for peace, in his memoirs (“The Art of the Possible”, 1971) he made the opposite argument, defending the Munich Agreement as essential to buy time for Britain to rearm and to gain support in Britain and the Dominions, and also claiming that he had had little input into the direction of foreign policy. He argued that Dominion support was not forthcoming in 1938, that France might not have stood firm because of domestic troubles, and that the Sudeten Germans could not be denied self-determination. Anthony Howard concedes that he was right to argue that public opinion in Britain and the Dominions was more willing to accept war in autumn 1939 than had been the case a year earlier.
The sections on appeasement in Butler’s memoirs attracted little attention from reviewers (the exception being Labour Leader Harold Wilson, as Britain’s refusal to intervene in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republic was still a totemic issue to the Left a generation later). Butler stressed his role in answering Parliamentary questions, travelling to League meetings in Geneva and, whilst in London, meeting with foreign diplomats (Halifax disliked foreign travel and having dealings with the Soviets and Japanese). Paul Stafford writes that “The impression that “The Art of the Possible” creates, that Rab welcomed the drive away from appeasement after Prague and supported Halifax for leading it, is wholly false”. For all their differences, Chamberlain and Halifax had by this time largely agreed that no agreement with Hitler was worthwhile without at least the threat of war, and that a line must be drawn over Danzig. Butler’s own papers suggest that he had gone to “greater lengths to meet Hitler’s demands than any other figure in the British government” in 1939. His efforts to revoke the Polish guarantee in the summer of 1939 went beyond even Horace Wilson’s and it seems doubtful whether he was willing to fight Hitler over Poland at all. “Rab’s pre-war record at the Foreign Office is not a creditable one. Had the truth about his activities in 1938-9 been clearly appreciated while he was still in politics, the effect on his career would probably have been catastrophic.”
Butler tried to prevent the publication of Channon’s diaries in the 1960s, lest they shed light on his activities in this era. Patrick Cosgrave wrote that “Butler did not merely go along with appeasement, he waxed hard, long and enthusiastic for it, and there is very little evidence in public records at the time that he took the slightest contemporary interest in the rearmament programme to which he devotes such emphasis in his memoirs”. Halifax made not one reference to Butler, who was by then a leading member of the government, in his 1957 autobiography “Fullness of Days”. Halifax's biographer Andrew Roberts writes: “It is hard to see Butler as a sympathetic figure in the 1930s. He took to appeasement with an unholy glee not shared after the Anschluss by anyone else in the Foreign Office … a thoroughly unattractive figure”. Jago comments that it is “hard to disagree”. Over appeasement Butler “distorted the facts, grossly misrepresenting his responsibility and attitudes in 1938”. Although not the direct cause of his defeats in 1957 or 1963 “it was … always there, the blemish that he could not quite reason away.”
Foreign Office Minister: Phoney War
On the outbreak of war Butler hoped to be promoted to Minister for Economic Warfare, a Cabinet-level position. Channon recorded that he was also considered for the post of Minister of Information, but was kept in his current job as Chamberlain found him too useful. Paul Stafford suggests that Butler’s closeness to Chamberlain was owed in part to Chamberlain’s wish to avoid war as far as possible, unlike Halifax and the majority of the Cabinet who had been resigned to war, albeit at a moment opportune to Britain.
On 20 October 1939, after the Fall of Poland, Butler was (according to Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky) still open to a compromise peace and agreement to restore Germany's colonies to her, provided it was guaranteed by all the powers, including the USA and USSR. He dismissed as an “absurdity” any suggestion that Germany first be required to withdraw from Poland. Butler disapproved of Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty and publicly opposed any hint of compromise peace. After Churchill made a confident war speech on 12 November 1939, not vetted by the Foreign Office and saying that it was "absolutely for certain" that the war must end in the utter defeat either of Britain and France or of Nazi Germany, Butler had to tell the Italian Ambassador (Italy was still neutral) that Churchill was speaking only for himself, not for the government. He told Jock Colville that he "thought it beyond words vulgar". Butler again hoped in vain to be promoted to a ministry of his own on Hore-Belisha’s dismissal (5 January 1940). On 10 and 12 January 1940 Butler strongly opposed “Operation Catherine”, Churchill’s proposal to send a fleet of warships into the Baltic to interdict Swedish iron ore shipments to Germany.
Butler was quicker than many to realise the social change which war would bring. He spoke to Robert Barrington-Ward of The Times (12 February 1940) of "the new social revolution that is making its way, and how to anticipate and meet it." Maisky proposed (22 February) Butler as an intermediary in the Russo-Finnish War. Channon was opposed to this, thinking it would be seen as another Munich. Butler opposed (12 March) the government’s plans to send an expeditionary force to Finland if talks with Soviets broke down. On 13 March 1940 Butler still hoped to get Pope Pius XII, Mussolini and President Roosevelt to put pressure on Hitler to make peace.
With Chamberlain's position untenable after the Norway Debate, Butler tried (10 May 1940) to persuade Halifax to accept appointment as Prime Minister, but he was out at the dentist. Churchill was appointed instead. Colville recorded in his diary on 10 May 1940 that Butler, Lord Dunglass (as Lord Home was then called), and two others drank the health of the "King over the Water":
Rab said he thought that the good clean tradition of English politics, that of Pitt as opposed to Fox, had been sold to the greatest adventurer of modern political history. He had tried earnestly and long to persuade Halifax to accept the Premiership, but he had failed. He believed this sudden coup of Winston and his rabble was a serious disaster and an unnecessary one: the 'pass has been sold' by Mr. C., Lord Halifax and Oliver Stanley. They had weakly surrendered to a half-breed American [i.e. Churchill] whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type.
Butler wrote to Chamberlain on 11 May, urging him to carry on as a member of the government in the hope of achieving a negotiated peace. Butler later grew to respect Churchill after serving under him.
Foreign Office Minister: under Churchill and the Prytz Affair
David Lloyd George intended a compliment when describing Butler as "playing the part of the imperturbable dunce who says nothing with an air of conviction". Butler was reappointed to his Foreign Office job on 15 May 1940, Churchill telling him: "I wish you to go on with your delicate manner of answering parliamentary questions without giving anything away".
On 17 June 1940, three days after the Fall of Paris and the day Marshal Petain asked for an armistice, Butler had a mysterious meeting in St James's Park with the Swedish trade envoy Dr Björn Prytz. The meeting may have been deliberate, as the park is a traditional place where government figures arrange to “accidentally” meet. The meeting continued for a few minutes in the Foreign Office, during which Butler conferred briefly with Lord Halifax in his office (peace proposals had been made through Swedish channels in autumn 1939, and in late May, Halifax had suggested approaching Italy, then on the verge of entering the war, to see if a compromise peace could be brokered, a suggestion vehemently resisted by Churchill). Prytz reported back to Stockholm that Butler had declared that British policy must be determined by "common sense not bravado" (the phrase was repeated in English) and that he had "assured me that no opportunity for reaching a compromise (peace) would be neglected if the possibility were offered on reasonable conditions." Prytz’s report mentioned that Halifax might succeed Churchill as Prime Minister at the end of June 1940. Christian Günther, the Swedish Foreign Minister, asked Victor Mallet, the British Envoy to Sweden, for clarification. On 20 June, after another meeting with Butler, Prytz requested that the cable not be forwarded to Berlin, which in Jago's view might suggest that that had been Butler's original intention.
Churchill was furious when he found out, probably through intelligence intercepts of Swedish diplomatic cables. He wrote to Halifax on 26 June complaining of Butler's "odd language", which hinted at a lukewarm or even defeatist attitude. Butler, who was lucky not to be sacked, made a four-page handwritten reply the same day, claiming that he had kept to the official British line and had said “nothing definite or specific that I would wish to withdraw”, but offering to resign. On 28 June, after being shown Churchill’s letter, Butler wrote to Halifax “you might enquire why … I was reported as saying that “common sense and not bravado” would dictate our policy.” He gave an unconvincing explanation, which he later repeated in his memoirs, that by "common sense not bravado", he had been pushing the official line that there could be no peace until Germany had disgorged her conquests. Jago argues that the slightly odd wording suggests that Halifax had suggested the phrase and that Butler may have been covering for him.
Halifax's biographer, Andrew Roberts, describes Butler's explanation as "risible" and offers a different interpretation. He believes that Butler, who did not get on with Halifax and was never invited to his home, was unaware of Cabinet-level policy changes and had been putting words into Halifax's mouth. Roberts argues that Halifax, who, on 17 June, was wishing in his diary that a single bomb would kill Hitler and Mussolini, had already moved away from his earlier openness to a compromise peace. On 22 July, Halifax delivered a speech rejecting Hitler's public "peace offer" of 19 July, and he rejected further tentative German peace feelers throughout the year.
Butler kept his job and was allowed to make two broadcasts on the BBC (21 October and 15 December 1940). At the reshuffle on Chamberlain’s resignation from the government (22 October 1940) Churchill's sidekick Brendan Bracken offered Butler promotion to the Cabinet-level job of President of the Board of Education, but no offer was forthcoming from Churchill.
Butler had little respect for Eden but reluctantly agreed to remain at the Foreign Office when Eden once again became Foreign Secretary in December 1940. In March 1941, with Eden in Cairo, Churchill handled Foreign Office business personally instead of delegating it to Butler. By then, Butler's responsibilities had been restricted to "routine drudgery" such as negotiating safe passage for diplomats, repatriation of neutral seamen and, on one occasion, arranging extra clothing coupons for foreign diplomats so that the Duke of Alba could buy more socks. Butler and Geoffrey Lloyd attempted to register for military service in May 1941, but their application was referred to Ernest Bevin (Minister of Labour), who, in turn, referred it to Churchill. He vetoed it on the grounds that their work as government ministers was more important. As late as May 1941 a memo from Hitler to Albrecht Haushofer, a foreign policy advisor to Rudolf Hess, listed Butler as somebody in London who was likely to be sympathetic to peace talks.
Butler gained permanent fame for the Education Act of 1944. It was a key part of the reform package that responded to strong wartime popular demands and helped reshape postwar society. It was the only reform for which the Conservatives obtained popular credit. The main provisions were drafted by senior civil servants based on ideas that had been in circulation for years. Butler's decisive role was to secure passage by negotiations with interested parties from Churchill to the churches, from educators to MPs.
In July 1941 Butler received his first Cabinet post when he was appointed President of the Board of Education. Some writers, such as Addison, suggest that Education was a backwater and Churchill offered him that or a diplomatic post to remove him from the more sensitive Foreign Office. However, he had been keen to leave the Foreign Office, and press stories that he had previously declined Cabinet positions were misinformed. His biographer argues that the promotion was not, contrary to Butler's own later insinuations (such as that Churchill had talked of "wiping babies' bottoms"), intended as an insult. At the time, Butler recorded that Churchill had demanded more patriotic history teaching: "Tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec".
Butler was also the chair of the War Cabinet Committee for the Control of Official Histories. Butler became Chairman of the Conservatives' Postwar Problems Central Committee on 24 July 1941. This had subcommittees to deal with demobilisation, agriculture, industry and finance, education and social services, constitutional and administrative affairs and national security.
Butler proved to be one of the most radical reforming ministers on the home front. The main problem standing in the way of education reform was the question of integrating church schools into the state system, which had bedevilled Balfour's Act in 1902. H. A. L. Fisher had failed to integrate the church schools in his 1918 Act. Butler wrote to Churchill (12 September 1941) to suggest a Joint Select Committee. Churchill did not want a new bill and replied (13 September) that "we cannot have party politics in wartime". Churchill warned him not to "raise the 1902 controversy during the war". Butler later wrote that having seen the Promised Land, "I was damned if I was going to die in the Land of Moab. Basing myself on long experience of Churchill over the India Bill, I decided to disregard what he said and go straight ahead."
Negotiation with the churches
More than half the schools in the country were church schools. However, Church of England schools now educated 20% of children, down from 40% in 1902 (Roman Catholic schools educated 8% of children). Many church schools were in a poor state of repair. The previous President of the Board of Education had produced a "Green Book" of proposals, which had been overtaken by the Five Points demanded by the Protestant Churches (both Anglican and Nonconformist), concerning Christian worship in schools. Butler received a deputation, including the two Anglican Archbishops, on 15 August 1941. There was a five-day debate on education in February 1942. Cosmo Lang, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke in the House of Lords, demanding the Five Points. James Chuter Ede, Butler's junior minister, dissuaded him from bringing in a draft bill to satisfy the Church's demands, as it would prevent a general settlement with other denominations. Temple succeeded the elderly Lang on 1 April 1942. The Church of England had been sympathetic to the "Green Book", but Chuter Ede's new "White Memorandum" aimed to end "single school areas", most of which were in rural districts. Butler had a meeting on 5 June with the National Society (the body of Church of England schools). He proposed that Church schools could choose either to be 50% aided or else fully funded with a local education authority majority on the school governing body. Temple agreed to persuade his flock to accept the deal and later obtained the concession that denominational teachers could be allowed in fully controlled schools if parents so wished. In the end, 3,000 of the 9,000 Anglican schools accepted 50% aided status, not the 500 anticipated. In early October 1942, Butler sold his scheme to the Nonconformist leaders of England and Wales.
Butler had less success in his dealings with the Roman Catholic Church. He was not able to have talks with the elderly Cardinal Arthur Hinsley until September 1942. Butler was told that his plans for aided status were not acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church (15 September 1942). He thought it better to present the Catholic Church with a fait accompli. Plans for 1943 were scuppered by a letter to The Times from Hinsley, stressing Franklin Roosevelt's commitment to freedom of conscience and arguing that Catholic schools should not be bullied by the state, as they often provided for the poorest inner-city communities. Churchill telephoned Butler to tell him. "You are landing me in the biggest political row of the generation". (Butler later embellished the story to claim that Churchill had sent him a mounted copy of the letter, with "There you are, fixed, old cock" scrawled across it). Butler once presented himself at Southwark for talks, only to be asked what he had come for. On another occasion, Butler and Chuter Ede drove to the Northern Bishops' conference at Ushaw College, near Hexham, but were given dinner but no concessions.
Serious thought was given to integrating public (fee-paying) schools into the state system. Butler was supportive, believing that standards would be raised in state schools if affluent and articulate parents were involved in the system. The Fleming Commission, assembled by Butler, recommended in July 1944 that a quarter of public school places be given to scholarships. However, nothing came of it, not least as the idea of spending ratepayers' money on a few bright pupils often did not meet with local authority approval.
With Churchill's leadership being questioned after recent reverses in the Far East and North Africa, Ivor Bulmer-Thomas (14 August 1942) commented that some Conservative MPs saw Butler rather than Eden as a potential successor. In late November 1942, Butler toyed with the idea of allowing himself to be considered for the job of Viceroy of India (in succession to Lord Linlithgow; Eden had been offered the job by Churchill and was seriously considering accepting it). In the end, Field Marshal Wavell was appointed. Butler helped to write King George VI's Christmas broadcast at the end of 1942.
Butler lobbied John Anderson, Kingsley Wood and Ernest Bevin for an education bill in 1943. By the end of 1942, proposals for a White Paper (a statement of the government's plans, drawn up by civil servants) were proceeding through the Lord President's Committee. In March 1943, with Allied victory (sooner or later) looking increasingly likely, Churchill was now open to the idea of an education bill in 1944. He needed to promise postwar improvements and reforming schools would be cheaper than implementing the Beveridge Report. When the White Paper was published on 16 July 1943, Church-State relations received the least attention whilst Anderson and Wood were happy that the White Paper helped to distract from the Beveridge Report. The resulting bill was produced to a civil service blueprint. In November 1943, Butler joined the Government Reconstruction Committee. James Stuart (Chief Whip) welcomed the publication of the bill in December 1943, as a way of keeping MPs happy without too much party strife.
The bill became the Education Act 1944 (often known as the "Butler Act"). It brought in free secondary education - until then, many grammar schools charged for entry albeit with local authority assistance for poorer pupils in recent years. It institutionalised the Tripartite System, with children graded in the eleven plus exam. The Act also expanded nursery provision and raised the school leaving age to 15, with a commitment to raise it further to 16 (although this would not happen until 1972). The Church groups were satisfied as well. Butler thought Conservative MPs who opposed the Act "a stupid lot".
At the Second Reading in March 1944, Thelma Cazalet-Keir, part of Quintin Hogg's Tory Reform Committee, proposed two amendments, one to raise the school leaving age to 16 by 1951 and one demanding equal pay for women teachers. The latter passed by one vote on 28 March 1944. This was the only time the Coalition suffered a significant defeat in a division. Churchill made the amendment a matter of confidence, and ensured its defeat on 30 March. This was one of the events which made Churchill and the Conservatives appear reactionary, contributing to their election defeat in 1945. The Butler Act became law in August 1944.
With party politics restarting, Butler opposed the nationalisation of iron and steel on 9 April 1945. After the end of the European War in May, Butler was Minister of Labour for two months in the Churchill caretaker ministry. In the Labour landslide of July 1945 he held Saffron Walden narrowly, his majority falling to 1,158. His rival was the wartime mayor of Saffron Walden. He would probably not have held the seat if the Liberal candidate had not polled over 3,000 votes and split the opposition vote.
After the Conservatives were defeated in the 1945 general election, Butler emerged as the most prominent figure in the rebuilding of the party. He became Chairman of the Conservative Research Department, assisted by David Clarke and Michael Fraser. He was opposed to detailed policy-making, not least as he felt the party was not yet pointing in the ideological direction he wanted. In 1946, he became chairman of the Industrial Policy Committee. In 1947, the Industrial Charter was produced, advocating full employment and acceptance of the welfare state (Butler himself said that those who advocated "creating pools of unemployment should be thrown into them and made to swim"). In 1950, he welcomed the "One Nation" pamphlet produced by new MPs including Iain Macleod, Angus Maude, Edward Heath and Enoch Powell.
Chancellor of the Exchequer
When the Conservative Party returned to power in 1951, Butler was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. He became Chancellor because Oliver Stanley was dead and Oliver Lyttleton was seen as too linked to business and the City of London.
Butler inherited a balance of payments crisis caused, in part, by Labour defence spending around the time of the Korean War. Butler correctly predicted a doubling of living standards by 1970. Butler initially planned to let the pound float (in practice, devalue) and become partially convertible ("Operation ROBOT"). ROBOT was struck down by Lord Cherwell and his adviser Donald MacDougall, who prepared a paper for Churchill. The counterargument was that the balance of payments would have worsened, as any reduction in demand for imports would have been swamped by the rise in prices of imported goods. Furthermore, 90% of other countries' sterling balances, kept in London, were to be frozen: they too would have been devalued, which would have angered Commonwealth countries and broken the rules for the International Monetary Fund and would not have been allowed under the new European Payments Union. Butler's junior minister, Arthur Salter was also opposed. Lord Woolton, insisted that Eden have a say on ROBOT, as it affected relations with other countries. Eden opposed it in a rare intervention in domestic politics. It was finally buried at two Cabinets, on 28 and 29 February 1952.
Butler followed to a large extent the economic policies of his Labour predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell, pursuing a mixed economy and Keynesian economics as part of the post-war political consensus. The name "Butskellism", referring to the generally similar economic policies pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments, was coined partly in response to Butler's extension of Gaitskell's NHS charges in 1952, the issue over which Aneurin Bevan and other Labour left wingers had resigned in April 1951. In 1954, The Economist published an editorial headed "Mr Butskell's Dilemma", which referred to the "already... well-known figure" Mr Butskell as "a composite of the present Chancellor and the previous one". However, Butler had more interest in monetary policy and in convertibility whereas Gaitskell was more inclined to exchange controls, investment and planning.
Butler maintained import controls and began a more active monetary policy. In his March 1952 budget, Butler raised bank rate to 4% and cut food subsidies by 40% but also cut taxes and increased pensions and welfare payments. Foreign exchange reserves began to increase. In September 1952, Butler was left in charge when Churchill and Eden were both abroad.
The 1953 budget cut income tax and purchase tax and promised an end to the excess profits levy. In the summer of 1953, Butler acted as head of the Government when Churchill suffered a stroke while his presumed successor, Eden, was undergoing an operation overseas. He did not strive to seize the premiership. Between 29 June and 18 August 1953, Butler chaired sixteen Cabinet meetings. In July Macmillan recorded a conversation with Walter Monckton, who was willing to serve under Eden but not Butler, whom he thought "a slab of cold fish". Britain's economic problems at this time were worsened by Monckton's appeasement of the trade unions (e.g. the 1954 rail strike, settled on the union's terms with Churchill's backing) and by Macmillan's drive to build 300,000 houses a year.
Butler was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour in 1954. He supported Churchill's proposal for Eden to take "command of the Home Front" in summer 1954, not least as he hoped to succeed Eden as Foreign Secretary. Butler was one of those ministers who demanded to Churchill's face (22 December 1954) that he set a date for his retirement.
Move from the Exchequer
Butler's political judgement was affected by the painful illness and death (9 December 1954) of his wife, Sydney. In February 1955, he hiked bank rate and restored hire purchase restrictions. The 1955 budget cut 6d off income tax, allegedly based on faulty Treasury statistics, immediately before Anthony Eden succeeded Churchill as Prime Minister in April 1955. After the Conservatives won the May 1955 general election, Butler declined Eden's request to move from the Exchequer although he later admitted that he should have accepted. In an unfortunate speech on 18 October, he commented that the country must not sink into "easy evenings with port wine and over-ripe pheasant". The Daily Mirror commented that he had "dropped his silver spoon upon the polished floor". By now it was apparent that the economy was "overheating" (inflation and the balance of payments deficit were rising sharply). The Cabinet refused to agree to cut bread subsidies and there was a run on the pound. His final budget (26 October 1955) reversed several of the measures from the spring budget, leading to charges of electoral opportunism. Hugh Gaitskell accused him of having deliberately misled the electorate, which amused Macmillan, who wrote in his diary of how Butler was always talking of "honour" in Cabinet. The introduction of purchase tax on kitchen utensils caused it to be labelled the "Pots and Pans" budget. Macmillan was already negotiating with Eden for Butler's job.
In December 1955, Butler was moved to the post of Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons. Although he continued to act as a deputy for Eden on a number of occasions, he was not officially recognised as such, and his successor as Chancellor, Harold Macmillan, insisted on an assurance from Eden that Butler was not senior to him. Harry Crookshank warned him that he was committing "sheer political suicide" by giving up a big department. He recorded that after December 1955, "it was never again said of me, or for that matter of the British economy either, that we had "la puissance d'une idée en marche".
Butler suffered from what his biographer calls an "inability to take Eden wholly seriously". A number of his sardonic witticisms about Eden, who was already subject to press criticism, surfaced. The People claimed, on 8 January 1956, that Eden was to resign and hand over the premiership to Butler. When it was officially denied, on 9 January, Butler expressed to the "Manchester Guardian his "determination to support the Prime Minister in all his difficulties" and agreed with the journalist that Eden was "the best Prime Minister we have".
Butler threatened resignation in March 1956 over Macmillan's plans to reverse the 6d cut in income tax. Macmillan himself then threatened resignation if he were not allowed to make spending cuts instead.
Butler was Rector of the University of Glasgow 1956–59.
Butler was ill when Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and was not formally a member of the Cabinet Egypt Committee, and he later claimed that he had tried to keep Eden " in a political straitjacket". He advocated an open invasion of Egypt, which would, in Gilmour's view, have attracted even more international opprobrium than Eden's pretence of enforcing international law.
Butler seemed to be doubtful of Eden's Suez policy but never said so openly. Macmillan recorded (24 August) that Butler was "uncertain" and "wanted more time" before resorting to force. On 13 September, he recorded that Butler preferred to refer the matter the United Nations (as Labour and the churches wanted to do). After the UN voted for an emergency force and an Israeli-Egyptian ceasefire seemed imminent, Butler tried to have the Anglo-French invasion halted. He ended up pleasing neither those who were opposed to the invasion nor those who supported it. "Butler's… indiscretions… gave the impression that he was not playing the game. Others were playing a deeper one."
On the evening of 6 November 1956, after the British ceasefire had been announced, Butler was observed to be "smiling broadly" on the front bench and astonished some Conservatives by saying that he "would not hesitate to convey" to the absent Prime Minister the concerns which had been expressed by Gaitskell. Eden's press secretary William Clark, an opponent of the policy who along with Edward Boyle (Economic Secretary to the Treasury), resigned as soon as the fighting was over, complained: "God how power corrupts. The way RAB has turned and trimmed." Butler was seen as disloyal because he aired his doubts freely in private whilst supporting the government in public, and he later admitted that he should have resigned. On 14 November, Butler blurted out all that had happened to twenty Conservative MPs of the Progress Trust in a Commons Dining Room (his speech was described by Gilmour as "almost suicidally imprudent").
It fell to Butler to announce British withdrawal from the Canal Zone (22 November), making him once again appear an "appeaser" to Conservative supporters up and down the country. That evening, Butler addressed the 1922 Committee (Conservative backbenchers), where his pedestrian defence of government policy was upstaged by a bravura speech by Macmillan. Butler was seen to be an indecisive leader who was not up to Macmillan's stature. However, the Press Association were briefed that Rab was "in effective charge" during Eden's absence in Jamaica from 23 November. Eden was not in telephone contact and did not return to Britain until 14 December.
Shadow Chancellor Harold Wilson said that Butler had “the look of a born loser” (20 December). Butler spent most of his Christmas break shooting. He later recorded that during his period as acting Head of Government at Number Ten, he had noticed constant comings and goings of ministers to Macmillan's study in Number 11 next door and that those who attended all later received promotion when Macmillan became Prime Minister. Butler, unlike Macmillan, preferred the assessments of the Chief Whip (Edward Heath) and Chairman of the Party (Oliver Poole) that Eden could survive as Prime Minister until the summer recess provided his health held up. However, there is circumstantial evidence that Butler may have colluded with Eden's doctor, Sir Horace Evans, to exaggerate the state of Eden's health to encourage him to resign. Evans wrote Rab an ambiguous letter about "your help and guidance over my difficult problems with AE" and added, "Here we have made, I have no doubt, the right decision". Anthony Howard observes that any interpretation of this letter is "purely speculative" and that there is "no concrete evidence" of what actually occurred.
Succession to Eden
Eden resigned as Prime Minister on Wednesday 9 January 1957. At the time, the Conservative Party had no formal mechanism for determining a new leader, but the Queen received overwhelming advice to appoint Macmillan as Prime Minister instead of Butler, rather than wait for a Party Meeting to decide. Churchill had reservations about both candidates but later admitted that he had advised her to appoint "the older man", Macmillan. In the presence of Lord Chancellor Kilmuir, Lord Salisbury interviewed the Cabinet one by one and with his famous speech impediment asked each one whether he was for "Wab or Hawold". Kilmuir recalled that three ministers were for Butler: Walter Monckton, Patrick Buchan-Hepburn and James Stuart, all of whom left the government thereafter. Salisbury himself later recorded that all the Cabinet were for Macmillan except for Patrick Buchan-Hepburn, who was for Butler, and Selwyn Lloyd, who abstained. Salisbury may not have been an entirely impartial returning officer, as Butler had replaced Salisbury (Lord Cranborne as he had been at the time) as Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs in 1938 when the latter resigned over policy towards Italy. Julian Amery, who was not a member of the Cabinet at the time, alleged that Salisbury interviewed ministers in the order of their loyalty to Macmillan and kept the tally in plain view on the table so that waverers would be more inclined to plump for the winning candidate.
Heath (Chief Whip) and John Morrison (Chairman of the 1922 Committee) advised that the Suez group of right-wing Conservative backbenchers would be reluctant to follow Rab. The Whips rang Boothby (pro-Macmillan) in Strasbourg to obtain his views, but there is no evidence that they were very assiduous in canvassing known pro-Butler MPs.
Butler later claimed to have been "not surprised" not to be chosen in 1957. In fact, he appears to have fully expected to be appointed Prime Minister and aroused his sister's misgivings by asking, "What shall I say in my broadcast to the nation tomorrow?" Heath, who brought him the news that he had not been chosen, later wrote that he appeared "utterly dumbfounded" and that for years afterwards was known to ask colleagues why he had been passed over and suggests that this caused a loss of confidence which prevented him from gaining the premiership in 1963. The media were taken by surprise by the choice, but Butler confessed in his memoirs that while there was a sizeable anti-Butler faction on the backbenches, there was no such anti-Macmillan faction. Butler spoke bitterly the next day about "our beloved Monarch".
Butler attributed his defeat to Macmillan's "ambience" and "connections". He said "savage" things to Derek Marks of the Daily Express, who protected his reputation by not printing them and, years later, told Alistair Horne, Macmillan's biographer, that he "could not understand" why he had been passed over after "picking up the pieces" after Suez. Nigel Nicolson, who had conceded that "in the circumstances", Macmillan was the right choice, wrote of the "melancholy that right had not triumphed" with which Butler proposed Macmillan as leader at the party meeting on 22 January.
In Gilmour's view, Butler did not organise a leadership campaign in 1957 because he had expected Eden to hang on until Easter or summer. Campbell wrote, "The succession was sewn up before Rab even realised there was a contest". Richard Crossman wrote in his diary (11 January), "This whole operation has been conducted from the top by a very few people with great speed and skill, so that Butler was outflanked and compelled to surrender almost as quickly as the Egyptians at Sinai". Brendan Bracken wrote that besides his perceived stance of pursuing Labour policies, the "audience (was) tired of" Butler who been the heir apparent for too long, an analysis echoed by Campbell, who likens Macmillan's sudden emergence after a quick succession of senior jobs to that of John Major in 1989–90 and points out that - like Major - Macmillan pretended to be "right wing" to win the leadership despite having views similar to his opponent's.
Butler had to accept the Home Office under Macmillan, not the Foreign Office which he wanted. In his memoirs, Macmillan claimed that Butler "chose" the Home Office, an assertion of which Butler drily observed in his own memoirs that Macmillan's memory "played him false". Edward Heath corroborates Butler's claim that he had wanted the Foreign Office, and suggested that with his "quiet charm" he could have won over the Americans. Butler also remained Leader of the House of Commons. Early in 1958 he was left "holding the baby", as he put it, after Macmillan departed on a Commonwealth tour after the resignation of Chancellor Thorneycroft and the Treasury team.
Butler held the Home Office for five years, but his liberal views on hanging and flogging did little to endear him to rank-and-file Conservative members; he later wrote of "Colonel Blimps of both sexes – and the female of the species was more deadly, politically, than the male". Butler later wrote that Macmillan had given him "a completely free hand" which may well be, in Gilmour's view, because reform was likely to blacken Butler in the eyes of Conservative activists. Macmillan's official biographer believes that he simply had no interest in Home Affairs. Butler later said "I couldn't deal with Eden, but I could deal with Mac".
Butler inherited a Homicide Bill which introduced different degrees of murder. He had privately come to favour abolition of hanging but signed off on the execution of James Hanratty (thought at the time to be a miscarriage of justice). He declined to reintroduce corporal punishment, according to the recommendation of the prewar Cadogan Report. Butler gave a very successful speech at the Conservative Conference in 1959. Despite the recommendations of the Wolfenden report he was not able to decriminalise homosexual acts between consenting adults (this did not happen until 1967), although Conservatives were happier to implement Wolfenden's recommended crackdown on street prostitution. He passed the Licensing Act 1961 and reformed the law on obscene publications. The Betting and Gaming Act legalised betting. Annual immigration from the Indian subcontinent had risen from 21,000 in 1959 to 136,000 in 1961; Butler introduced the first curbs on immigration (although the Eden Cabinet had contemplated measures in 1955), initially opposed by Labour, who were to bring in stricter curbs when they were in office later in the 1960s.
Enoch Powell praised Butler's performance as a great reforming Home Secretary. He recalled that if Butler was absent from his post as Chairman of the Cabinet Home Affairs Committee, it was if the government itself "came to a standstill".
Other Cabinet positions
Besides the Home Office, Butler held other senior government jobs in these years; he likened himself to the Gilbert and Sullivan character "Pooh Bah". In October 1959, after the 1959 General Election, he was appointed Conservative Party chairman, a job which required him to attack Labour in the country while as Leader of the House he had to cooperate with Labour in the Commons. His new job prompted an analogy (described as "ludicrous" by Anthony Howard) in "The Economist" with Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power through control of the Soviet Communist Party.
In 1960 Macmillan moved Selwyn Lloyd from the Foreign Office to the Exchequer (telling him that it would put him in a good position to challenge Butler for the succession). He appointed Lord Home as Foreign Secretary, refusing again to appoint Butler and telling him that it would be "like Herbert Morrison" if he took the job ("fantastically insulting" in Campbell's view, as Morrison was then regarded as "the worst Foreign Secretary in living memory"). Butler disagreed with the analysis, but accepted it, enabling Macmillan to claim once again that he had declined the Foreign Office (Butler declined to accept Home's old place as Commonwealth Secretary).
In the October 1961 reshuffle Butler lost the party chairmanship to Iain Macleod, who also insisted on getting the job of Leader of the House, which Butler had held since 1955. Butler retained the Home Office, and declined Macmillan's suggestion that he accept a peerage. Butler gave an excellent party conference speech in October 1961. In March 1962 Butler was made head of the newly created Central African Department. Butler was, however, given oversight of the EEC entry negotiations, which he strongly supported, despite worries about the agricultural vote in his constituency. A cartoon showed Macmillan and Butler as the miserable emigrating couple in Ford Madox Brown's painting The Last of England.
Butler helped to precipitate Macmillan's brutal "Night of the Long Knives" reshuffle by leaking to the Daily Mail on 11 July 1962 that a major reshuffle was imminent. He himself referred to it as the "Massacre of Glencoe". Macmillan later told Selwyn Lloyd (1 August) that he thought Butler had been planning to split the party over EEC entry. In the reshuffle Butler lost the Home Office (although he kept the Central Africa Department) but at last received the formal titles of Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State. At this point Macmillan told him that he was still his most likely successor as Prime Minister.
However, Macmillan used the occasion to promote younger men such as Lord Hailsham (in charge of negotiating the Test Ban Treaty), Reginald Maudling (Chancellor of the Exchequer, with a remit to reinflate the economy going into the next General Election) and Edward Heath (in charge of the EEC entry negotiations), from amongst whom he hoped to groom an alternative successor. By 1962, Howard writes, "Macmillan had come to regard Rab as a trout that he could tickle and play with at will".
Succession to Macmillan
Profumo, Peerages and Africa
Butler told Tony Benn in February 1963 that he expected Macmillan to stay on and fight the next general election, which could occur no later than 1964.
During the Profumo affair, in which Macmillan's government almost fell, Butler received a visit from Martin Redmayne (Chief Whip) and Lord Poole (Party Chairman) asking whether he would, in principle, be willing to serve in a Maudling government. Butler received a visit from Maudling in which the latter obtained a mutual promise that they would, if necessary, agree to serve under each other, Maudling believed that he had gained an advantage in obtaining the agreement of Butler, his senior, to serve under him if necessary. However, William Rees-Mogg claimed in The Times on 28 July that Butler led Maudling by 2:1 in the Cabinet although Maudling had more support amongst backbench MPs.
On 16 July, the Lords amended the Peerage Bill then passing through Parliament, so that any existing peer could disclaim his peerage within twelve months of the bill becoming law, not after the next general election, as originally planned. The Peerage Act 1963 received Royal Assent on 31 July, thus allowing Lords Hailsham and Home to become potential candidates for the succession.
By mid-1963, Butler had largely come to believe (or so he alleged in a 1966 interview) that he was probably too old for the leadership, and that when Macmillan resigned the job would go to a younger man. This may explain why Butler did not put up all that much of a fight for the leadership that autumn, although in fact Home, the eventually successful candidate, was almost exactly the same age as Butler, and both men were substantially younger than Macmillan himself had been when he first entered 10 Downing Street.
In the summer of 1963, Macmillan told Lord Hailsham, "Rab simply doesn't have it in him to be Prime Minister". Just before Butler departed for the Victoria Falls Conference in July 1963, John Morrison, still Chairman of the 1922 Committee, told him bluntly to his face: "The chaps won't have you".
At the Victoria Falls Conference, Butler dissolved the Central African Federation. The following year the Nyasaland Protectorate became independent as Malawi and Northern Rhodesia as Zambia; Southern Rhodesia declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965.
Conference and customary processes
In October 1963 Macmillan, having just decided to stay on and to lead the party into the next general election, was taken ill on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference. Butler insisted on occupying the leader's suite at the Imperial Hotel and on delivering the leader's speech on the final day (12 October). During the conference, Lord Home announced that Macmillan was to resign as Prime Minister. In the confusion of the next few days, Hailsham campaigned openly for the job in a manner considered vulgar. Butler, Home and their wives lunched together on Saturday 12 October. Home said that he would be seeing his doctor that week, i.e. hinting that he might be about to put his name forward for the leadership. Butler's speech, when he delivered it, was an attempt to update the postwar Charters to modern politics, and he reprinted some of the speech verbatim in his memoirs. However, his delivery was, in Heath's later description, "monotonous and ineffective and did him no good whatever". Howard described it as "flat and uninspiring", and Peregrine Worsthorne wrote at the time that he spoke in a "limp and faltering voice". Butler later called the Imperial "that awful hotel" and refused ever to visit Blackpool again.
Back in London, Macmillan, from his hospital bed proposed (14 October), a four-track consultation to "take soundings" (of the opinions of Cabinet, MPs, peers and leading members of the party organisation in the country) and select a consensus leader through the "customary processes". The Cabinet met, chaired by Butler, on 15 October and approved the plan, which was to be completed by 17 October. Howard argues that Butler should also have insisted that the Cabinet meet again on 17 October to approve the results of the soundings.
Selwyn Lloyd visited Macmillan in hospital on 16 October, and argued against Butler, who, he said, was much disliked in the constituency associations "particularly the Women. Why that is, no one seems to know". Amongst current ministers who visited Macmillan in hospital, Duncan Sandys advised for Home not as a compromise but on his own merits, whilst Edward Heath felt that Butler would be uninspiring, and had not emerged as a natural and undisputed successor in the way he should have done. Other ministers thought either Butler or Home would be suitable. Edward Boyle later felt he had been too favourable to the idea of a Home leadership, leading to his being wrongly recorded as a Home supporter. Sitting at the Cabinet table on 16 October whilst the soundings were under way, Butler said "I don't know what's happening" before adding, "but I do really". When asked what he would do if once again not appointed Prime Minister he replied, "I shall behave with dignity".
Results of the Consultations
Much ink has been spilled on how badly the consultation process was rigged, but Macmillan recommended outside candidate Lord Home for the premiership.
Lord Chancellor Dilhorne had already begun polling the Cabinet at the Blackpool Conference and claimed that not counting Macmillan or Home, 10 were for Home (including Boyle and Macleod, both of whom later insisted that they supported Butler), 4 for Maudling (originally 3, amended to 5, then down to 4), 3 for Butler and 2 for Hailsham. Ian Gilmour alleged (in his review of Volume II of Horne's official Life of Macmillan in the "London Review of Books", 27 July 1989) that Dilhorne had falsified the figures and repeated his scorn in 2004. Dilhorne recorded Hailsham as saying that he could not serve under Butler; Hailsham in fact claimed that he had offered to serve under Butler if necessary. Frederick Errol, President of the Board of Trade, had been told by Chief Whip Martin Redmayne at Blackpool that the succession was already arranged for Home, as had John Boyd-Carpenter, a Butler supporter, on 9 October.
Redmayne's whips had also begun polling MPs and junior ministers at Blackpool, and claimed that 87 supported Home and 86 Butler, another claim ridiculed by Ian Gilmour. 65 MPs were found to be for Hailsham, 48 for Maudling, 12 for Macleod and 10 for Edward Heath, with Home being well ahead on second preferences. Despite denials by the whips, Redmayne let slip in a radio interview (19 December 1963, subsequently published in The Listener) about the four questions they asked: namely, their first and second preferences as leader, whether or not there was any candidate they especially opposed and whether they would in principle accept Home as leader. Humphry Berkeley refused to answer the "hypothetical question" of whether he would support Home as compromise between Butler and Hailsham. Jim Prior (then a backbencher) and Willie Whitelaw (then a junior minister) later recalled how they felt the whips were pushing Home's candidacy. Prior's first choice was Maudling and second Butler, and he opposed Hailsham but suspected he had been recorded as pro-Home after repeated pushing on the fourth question; Whitelaw thought the fourth question "improper".
Amongst Conservative peers, Home led Butler by 2:1.
The constituency parties, in so far as their views could be ascertained, were reported as being 60% for Hailsham and 40% for Butler with strong opposition to both. They had not really been offered Home as a candidate, but it was reported that they would "rally round him".
The "Quad" Rebel
The results of the consultation became known to the rest of the Cabinet around lunchtime on 17 October. Powell, Macleod, Hailsham and Maudling (known as "the Quad" in some accounts of the following days) were outraged and sought to persuade Butler to refuse to serve in the belief that it would make a Home premiership impossible and result in Butler taking office. Macleod and Maudling demanded that Dilhorne lay the results of his consultations before the Cabinet, but he refused to do so. Butler was not present at the meetings (17 October) at 5pm at Macleod's flat and that night at Powell's house, at which Maudling agreed to serve under Butler. Hailsham, who was at a separate gathering but keeping in touch with Powell's house by telephone, also agreed to serve under Butler; he telephoned Butler and repeated his answers aloud to the room as if he were a barrister "leading" a slow witness (Butler said had been "dozing off" and ended the conversation by repeating that he was off to do so) before telling him "you must put on your armour, dear Rab". The "Quad" summoned Martin Redmayne, who stood firm against their demands. They demanded that he pass on their concerns to the Palace. Then Lord Aldington, who had also been at the meeting, drove Redmayne back and telephoned Sir Michael Adeane, the Queen's Private Secretary, to make sure the message was passed on.
Powell, a wartime brigadier, observed that they had given Butler a loaded revolver, which he had refused to use on the grounds that it might make a noise. Macleod commented that they had put the "golden ball in his lap, if he drops it now it's his own fault".
“The Times” wrote of Butler on Friday morning (18 October) that “he always looks as if he will be the next Prime Minister until it seems that the throne may actually be vacant”. Macmillan finally resigned that morning, the Queen calling on him in hospital shortly afterwards to receive his written "advice". He had likened the "Quad" to the Fox-North Coalition and had to urge Home, who had agreed to stand only as a compromise candidate, not to withdraw. Butler called Dilhorne the same morning to demand a meeting of the three main candidates (himself, Home and Maudling) before the succession was resolved; "no reply was vouchsafed", as Butler put it. Butler, Macleod, Hailsham and Maudling met at the Treasury on 18 October as Home was at the Palace, accepting the Queen's invitation to try to form a government.
Butler was pushing for a two-way meeting with Home when he should, in Howard's view, have insisted on Home confronting the "Quad". Home immediately moved into Number Ten and interviewed Butler then Maudling early in the afternoon. Butler did not at first agree to serve, as he had reservations about whether Home, a peer and not a moderniser, was a suitable Prime Minister. Hailsham, Butler and Maudling finally met Home that evening after dinner, by which time Hailsham was already wavering and expressing a willingness to serve under Home. Butler's old friend, Geoffrey Lloyd, sat up with him until 3am on the morning of Saturday 19 October, telling him that "if you're not prepared to put everything to the touch, you don't deserve to be Prime Minister".
Butler agrees to serve
The next morning (19 October), Butler and then Maudling agreed to serve under Home. Home was able to return to the Palace to report that he could "form a government" and to "kiss hands": formally accept appointment as Prime Minister. The Queen is thought to have privately preferred Home, whom she knew well socially, to Butler although that did not influence the decision. The Palace were aware that Home could not form a government without Butler serving although Home himself later said that he could have formed a government without Butler but not without Maudling.
Some, including Macmillan, argued that Butler's vacillation was further proof of his unfitness to be Prime Minister. Lord Poole commented that "if you had seen him yesterday morning, dithering about in a gutless sort of way, you would not want him to be Prime Minister of this country. I was quite appalled, quite disgusted".
Butler later alleged in a letter to The Times that not to have served might have led to a Labour government (this suggestion was later dismissed as absurd by Wilson himself). Butler later described Home as an "amiable enough creature". He was motivated by his knowledge of Robert Peel and the split over the Corn Laws, later telling Elizabeth Longford that this was "the supremely unforgettable political lesson of history.… I could never do the same thing in the twentieth century, under any circumstances whatever".
Powell and Macleod both refused to serve under Home. Butler had planned to make Macleod Chancellor of the Exchequer and discussed the names of economists who could be asked to advise.
Butler was less devastated than in 1957, as this time it was largely a voluntary abnegation. In a BBC radio interview in 1978 he discussed that in 1963, he had been passed over in favour of a "terrific gent", not a "most ghastly walrus". Home and even Macmillan, himself in the 1980s, later conceded that it might have been better if Butler had become leader. The episode of Home's elevation was a public relations disaster for the Conservatives, who had to elect their next leader (Edward Heath in 1965) by a transparent ballot of MPs.
Foreign Secretary under Douglas-Home
Home appointed Butler Foreign Secretary but he lost the title of Deputy Prime Minister. Macmillan, trying to control events from his sick bed, had urged Home to appoint Heath as Foreign Secretary but conceded that allowing Butler to have the job that he had always coveted might be a necessary price for his agreeing to serve.
Macleod's article in The Spectator, 17 January 1964, in which he claimed that the leadership had been stitched up by a "Magic Circle" of Old Etonians, damaged Macleod in the eyes of Conservatives, but some of the damage stuck to Butler as well. Butler later wrote in "The Art of Memory" (April 1982) that "every word" of Macleod's Spectator article "[wa]s true".
Butler was able to speak fluent French to French Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville, to the latter’s surprise. His only major foreign trip was to Washington in late March 1964, where President Lyndon Johnson complained about Britain selling Leyland buses to Cuba, whose Castro regime was then under US trade embargo.
He played only a small part in the 1964 general election campaign, showing his lack of stomach for the fight by agreeing with the journalist George Gale of the "Daily Express" that the very close campaign "might yet slip away" in the "last few days". Randolph Churchill wrote that he had "uttered his own death-wish and death warrant". He would not have retained the Foreign Office if the Conservatives had won; the job had already been promised to Christopher Soames. Many, including Wilson, said that Butler would have won the 1964 General Election had he been Prime Minister.
At the comparatively early age of 62, Butler left office with one of the longest records of ministerial experience amongst contemporary politicians. After the election, he lost the chairmanship of the Conservative Research Department, which he had headed for twenty years, and refused an earldom.
Master of Trinity
Butler remained on the Conservative front bench into the next year. Harold Wilson felt that the Conservatives had made Butler a scapegoat after the “Daily Express” incident during the election, and offered him the job of Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, where his great uncle Henry Montagu Butler had previously been Master, on 23 December 1964. Butler did not accept until the middle of January 1965, taking office on 30 June. The same year, he was awarded a life peerage as Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, sitting as a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords. Between the 1964 election and his retirement from the House of Commons he had been Father of the House.
Charles, Prince of Wales studied at Trinity (1967–70) during Butler's time as Master. A humorous cartoon of the time showed Butler telling the Prince that he was to study a specially made-up history course "in which I become Prime Minister". Instead Butler recommended that, unlike previous members of the Royal Family, Prince Charles live in College, study for a normal degree and sit Finals like any other undergraduate. After initial reluctance, the Palace agreed. Butler was publicly promoted as a mentor and counsellor to the Prince, making himself available for a 45-minute time slot each evening before dinner should the Prince wish to seek his advice. He turned a blind eye to Prince Charles keeping a car in college (in breach of the rules) but exclaimed “Hell no!” when the Prince asked if he might join the Labour Club. He also gave Lucia Santa Cruz, his research assistant for his memoirs, a key to the Master’s Lodge and often let her stay, which gave rise to rumours that he was facilitating a romance between her and the Prince. Butler’s appointment to the Order of the Garter on 23 April 1971 was seen as a gesture of recognition for his guidance of the young Prince.
There had been little consultation of Trinity fellows prior to his appointment, but his opponents had backed down the face of public approval. Butler was the first master in 250 years not himself to have been educated at the college; by 1971 the fellows had warmed to him enough to vote recommending (successfully) that he be given a second six-year term, despite the normal retirement age for masters being seventy. In June and October 1976 he spoke in the House of Lords against the planned nationalisation of Felixstowe Docks, which are owned by Trinity College. He argued that Trinity, which has had more Nobel Prize winners than the whole of France, spent the income on science research and on subsidising smaller Cambridge colleges. The bill was abandoned after being delayed by the House of Lords. Butler House at Trinity is named after him.
Butler was also active as the first Chancellor of the University of Essex from 1966 until his death and Chancellor of the University of Sheffield from 1959 to 1977. He was High Steward of Cambridge University from 1958 to 1966 and High Steward of the City of Cambridge from 1963 until his death.
From 1972 to 1975, he chaired the high-profile Committee on Mentally Abnormal Offenders, widely referred to as the Butler Committee, which proposed major reforms to the law and psychiatric services, some of which have been implemented.
Final years and publications
By the early 1970s Butler’s physical and mental powers were in unmistakable decline; he was, in the description of Charles Moore, then a student at Trinity, well into his “anecdotage”. He scaled back his public appearances after an incident at a book launch in London, at which he told ill-judged anti-semitic jokes, causing grave offence to the publisher George Weidenfeld.
As early as 1938, Chips Channon had called his clothes "truly tragic" and as he grew older, Butler acquired an ever more disheveled appearance. He ate and drank too much as Master of Trinity, causing him to put on weight and begin to suffer from heart problems. On a visit to Cambridge in 1975, the first time the two men had met in a decade, Macmillan commented on how fat Butler had become. Butler also suffered from a skin complaint from the 1950s, which grew progressively worse, to the point towards the end of his life that he would sometimes appear unshaven in public.
Butler's last speech in the House of Lords (March 1980) was to defend the provision of free school buses, which he regarded as vital for Conservative support in rural areas. His last public appearance, by which time he was unwell and had to remain seated, was on 13 January 1982, at the unveiling of his portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.
Butler died of colon cancer in March 1982 at Great Yeldham, Essex. He is buried in the churchyard of the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Saffron Walden (see image). His will was probated at £748,789 (21 October 1982) (over £2.3m at 2014 prices). His banner as Knight of the Order of the Garter hangs in the church of St Mary's, Saffron Walden (see image).
Butler's memoirs, The Art of the Possible, appeared in 1971. He wrote that he had decided to "eschew the current autobiographical fashion for multi-volume histories" (Macmillan was bringing out an autobiography, which would eventually run to six large volumes). The work, largely ghosted by Peter Goldman, was described as the best single-volume autobiography since Duff Cooper's Old Men Forget in 1953.
He also published The Conservatives in 1977. A further volume of memoirs, The Art of Memory, appeared posthumously in 1982. The latter was modelled on Churchill's Great Contemporaries but in Howard's view matches it "neither in verve nor anecdote".
His son, Adam Butler, was a member of parliament from 1970 to 1987 and a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher. His grandson Ed Butler is a retired Brigadier who commanded 16 Air Assault Brigade and 22 Special Air Service.
Butler opened his memoirs by saying that his career had been split between academia, politics and India, and that his main regret was never having been Viceroy of India. He regarded the 1935 India Act and the 1944 Education Act as his "principal legislative achievements". He also wrote that the way to the top was through rebellion and resignation, whereas he had gone for "the long haul" and "steady influence". In an obvious dig at Home, he said in retirement "I may never have known much about fishing or flower-arranging, but one thing I did know was how to govern the people of this country".
Along with the 1944 Education Act and his reforms as Home Secretary, John Campbell sees Butler's greatest achievement as the "redefine(ing of) the meaning of Conservatism" in Opposition, encouraging the careers of talented younger men at the Research Department (Heath, Powell, Maudling, Macleod, Angus Maude, all of whom entered Parliament in 1950) ensuring Conservative acceptance of the welfare state and a commitment to keeping unemployment low. Macmillan acknowledged Butler's role in his memoirs, whilst stressing that these were the very policies he had promoted in vain in the 1930s. Butler enjoyed 26.5 years in office, equalled only by Churchill in the twentieth century.
Jago argues that the Latin tag which Butler applied to Eden, “omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset” (by common consent fit to rule until he ruled), could have been applied just as accurately to Butler himself. He argues that Butler was possibly the best Chancellor of the Exchequer since the Second World War, but that his achievements were overshadowed by the “pots and pans” budget of 1955, and that he would almost certainly have become Prime Minister had he not destroyed his reputation between April 1955 and January 1957 (his disastrous last budgets, and Suez). Jago believes that “the coup de grace administered seven years later by Macmillan was posthumous”. Jago also argues that his handling of the Central African Federation, even though both Welensky and Ian Smith commented on how ill he was, suggests that he may have been “the best Foreign Secretary Britain never had”. However, Jago also stresses Butler's reputation for chronic indecisiveness, often about petty matters. He argues that he was indecisive as Chancellor, and recounts how during the Profumo Affair he once telephoned a junior civil servant to ask what he should do, as well as occasions on which he was unable to decide on the menu for an official lunch, or whether to attend a reception at the Moroccan Embassy.
Roy Jenkins, describing a stormy meeting Butler had with Lyndon Johnson, pinpointed a tendency in Butler's character: "while Butler represented the forces of urbane, civilised superiority and Johnson the raw brashness of the insecure arriviste, it was also the case that Butler was the natural servant of the state and LBJ the natural ruler" and wrote that a similar dynamic was at work in Butler's relations with the equally domineering Winston Churchill.
Edward Pearce wrote of his legislative record that "Rab's failure was more brilliant than most politicians' success."
Iain Macleod said of him that “Rab loves being a politician among academics and an academic among politicians; that is why neither breed of man likes him all that much.” Lobby correspondents (journalists who report on political affairs, including non-attributable information leaked to them) were advised never to believe anything Rab Butler told them, but never to ignore anything he told them either. Ian Gilmour argues that Butler was always more popular in the country than in his own party, and that he acquired an unjust reputation for deviousness but was in fact less so than a number of his colleagues.
"The Guardian” and the "Daily Mirror” praised him (on his return to Cambridge in June 1965) but wrote that he had lacked the ruthless streak needed to get to the very top in politics. “The Economist” (27 June 1970) called him “the last real policy-making Chancellor”.
In the alternative reality depicted in John Wyndham's short story Random Quest, where the Second World War did not happen, Butler is the prime minister. The story was written in 1954, when Butler acceding to the premiership was a serious possibility.
Butler becomes World War II prime minister in the 2007 alternative history novel Resistance by Owen Sheers. However, he leads a collaborationist puppet government after Germany has largely conquered the British Isles.
Butler and Lord Halifax engineered a June 1940 British surrender to Germany, and occupation, in the background to the alternative history novel The Big One, leading to his assassination by resistance forces.
In the alternative history novel Dominion by C. J. Sansom, World War II ended in June 1940 when the British government under Lord Halifax signed a peace treaty with Germany in Berlin. In November 1952, Butler was Foreign Secretary in the Cabinet of Lord Beaverbrook.
He is portrayed by Michael Culkin in the Netflix series The Crown
Styles of address
- 1902–1929: Mr Rab Butler
- 1929–1939: Mr Rab Butler MP
- 1939–1954: The Rt Hon. Rab Butler MP
- 1954–1965: The Rt Hon. Rab Butler CH MP
- 1965–1971: The Rt Hon. The Lord Butler of Saffron Walden CH PC
- 1971–1982: The Rt Hon. The Lord Butler of Saffron Walden KG CH PC