Butler, Richard Austen, Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, 1902-1982, politician, was born at Attock Serai in the Punjab, India, 9 December 1902, the eldest of a family of two sons and two daughters of (Sir) Montagu Sherard Dawes Butler [qv.] and his wife, Anne Gertrude Smith. His father, who had passed top into the Indian Civil Service, was a member of a remarkable academic dynasty (since 1794) of Cambridge dons, which included a master of Trinity, two headmasters of Harrow, and one of Haileybury. He later became governor of the Central Provinces and, finally, of the Isle of Man. His mother, warm, sympathetic, and encouraging, and to whom Butler was always devoted, was one of ten talented children of George Smith, CIE, a Scottish teacher, journalist, and editor in India. She was the sister of Sir George Adam Smith [qv.].
When Butler was six, he fell from his pony and broke his right arm in three places, an injury which was aggravated by a hot-water bottle burn. The arm never fully recovered, and successful games playing was thus ruled out though he became a keen shot. Returning to be educated in England, Butler attended the Wick preparatory school at Hove. Having rebelled against going to Harrow because of a surfeit of Butlers there and having failed a scholarship for Eton, Butler (by now known as Rab as his father had intended) went to Marlborough. After a final year learning modern languages which were better taught than the classics he had earlier endured, Butler went to France to improve his French with the Diplomatic Service in mind. He won an exhibition to Pembroke College, Cambridge—the money was needed—which after a first class in the modern and medieval languages tripos (1923) was converted into a scholarship. He became secretary of the Union as a Conservative. An unsuccessful love affair and a mainly nervous collapse did not stop him becoming president of the Union (1924). In his fourth year Butler gained a first in history (1925) and a fellowship at Corpus Christi College.
While an undergraduate he had met Sydney Elizabeth Courtauld, a capable, strong-minded girl, who became his wife in April 1926. Her father, Samuel Courtauld [qv.], an industrialist, settled £5,000 a year on Butler for life tax free. This financial independence enabled him to decide on a parliamentary career, though his father told him that strong personal executive decisions were not his forte and he should aim for the speakership. While the honeymooners went round the world, the Courtauld family secured for them a fairly safe seat, Saffron Walden in Essex, and on their return Butler was duly selected without the complication of competing candidates. He had a comfortable victory in the general election of 1929 and held the seat until his retirement in 1965. Before the election he had become private secretary to Sir Samuel Hoare (later Viscount Templewood) [qv.], and he soon became known to the party hierarchy. His first notable public act was a sharp exchange in The Times with Harold Macmillan (later the Earl of Stockton), who was advised to seek a pastime more suited for his talents than politics.
In the national government in 1931 Hoare became India secretary and Butler his parliamentary private secretary. At the second Round Table conference, Butler was deeply impressed by M. K. Gandhi [qv.], the current hate figure of many Conservatives and of his father. After a tour of India, Butler became Hoare's under-secretary in September 1932. His support of constitutional reform and knowledge of the Indian scene made him a natural choice, even though he had been in Parliament only three and a half years and was easily the youngest member of the government. India was the issue on which (Sir) Winston Churchill was challenging Stanley Baldwin (later Earl Baldwin of Bewdley), and in the Commons Butler compared himself to the miserable animal, a bait in the form of a bullock or calf tied to a tree awaiting the arrival of the Lord of the Forest. Yet he was never devoured by Churchill and proved himself Hoare's able lieutenant in defending the India Bill during the fierce two-and-a-half-year war waged against it by the Conservative right wing.
The Butlers had since 1928 lived in the constituency first at Broxted and then at Stansted Hall, Halstead, where their three sons and a daughter were largely brought up, and where in 1935 Baldwin came for the weekend and Churchill was invited. They also had a flat in Wood Street, London, until they moved to 3 Smith Square in 1938. They entertained generously in both London and the country.
Neville Chamberlain's accession to the premiership in May 1937 brought Butler a welcome release from the India Office but not a department of his own. However, his stint as parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Labour gave him a useful acquaintance with the depressed areas and with mass unemployment. After nine months he went to the Foreign Office as under-secretary of state in February 1938. With the foreign secretary, the first Earl of Halifax [qv.], in the House of Lords he was once again prominent—in the long run, indeed, too prominent. The policy of appeasement cut across the Conservative Party much more deeply than India or unemployment, and, when Churchill took over, Butler was on the wrong side of the divide. Appeasement was held against him in a way it was not against those more minor supporters of the Munich agreement, Lord Dunglass (later Lord Home of the Hirsel) and Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone).
Butler was an enthusiastic Chamberlainite and like Chamberlain regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Adolf Hitler. He was disposed, however, to interpret Benito Mussolini's invasion of Albania as a general threat to the Balkans, until Chamberlain told him not to be silly and to go home to bed. Butler remained an appeaser down to the outbreak of war, opposing the Polish alliance signed on 25 August 1939 because it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. After Chamberlain's fall he, together with Alec Dunglass and two friends, drank to the King over the water and described Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern times.
Despite his conspicuous identification with the ancien régime, Butler survived Churchill's reconstruction of the government in May 1940. I wish you to go on, Churchill told him, with your delicate manner of answering parliamentary questions without giving anything away; the prime minister also expressed appreciation of having been asked to Butler's private residence. The Foreign Office was now a backwater, whose calm was only disturbed by Butler's imprudent conversation about peace with the Swedish minister in June 1940, which Churchill thought might indicate a lukewarm attitude to the war if not defeatism. Bombed out of both Smith Square and his father-in-law's house, Butler went for a time to stay in Belgrave Square with (Sir) Henry Channon, his parliamentary private secretary since 1938.
Butler remained at the Foreign Office against his wishes when Sir Anthony Eden (later the Earl of Avon), whom he did not admire, succeeded Halifax in December 1940. But in July 1941 after nine years as an under-secretary he became president of the Board of Education. Even further removed from the war than the Foreign Office, education was nevertheless a political minefield and had seen no major reform since 1902. Ignoring Churchill's warnings not to stir up either party politics or religious controversy, Butler decided on comprehensive reform. Although in the end he had to exclude the public schools, every child was given the right to free secondary education and, to make that right a reality for the poor, provision was made for the expansion of both nursery and further education and for the raising of the school leaving age. All Butler's formidable diplomatic and political skills were needed to secure the agreement of the churches and the acquiescence of Churchill. The 1944 Education Act was Butler's greatest legislative achievement and was deservedly called after him.
Butler became chairman of the Conservative Party's post-war problems central committee in 1941, and in November 1943 he joined the government's reconstruction committee. The only leading Conservative clear-sighted enough to oppose an early election, he became minister of labour in Churchill's caretaker government in May 1945. After the electoral defeat in July—Butler's own majority fell to 1,158—Churchill made him chairman both of the Conservative Research Department and of the high-powered industrial policy committee. From these two positions Butler exerted the major influence in reshaping Conservative policy, and, even more than Macmillan, was chiefly responsible for the civilized conservatism of the post-war party. In 1947 the industrial policy committee produced the Industrial Charter, which, Butler later wrote, was an assurance, that in the interests of efficiency, full employment, and social security, modern Conservatism would maintain strong central guidance over the operation of the economy. Mass unemployment was to be a thing of the past; as Butler put it, those who advocated creating pools of unemployment should be thrown into them and made to swim. The right wing regarded Butler's efforts as pink socialism, a recurring charge under various names in his later career. He himself believed that, without the rejection of unemployment and the acceptance of the Welfare State, the spectre of the thirties would not be exorcized and the Conservative Party would remain in opposition.
Contrary to the general expectation and his own, Butler became chancellor of the Exchequer in October 1951 and inherited the usual economic crisis. He tackled it by import controls and the resurrection of monetary policy. The cabinet rejected, however, his plan for a floating exchange rate, a decision which Butler both then and later regarded as a fundamental mistake. Butler's first two budgets were popular and successful, expansion and the promotion of enterprise being his general themes, and such was his standing that in September 1952 in the absence of both Churchill and Eden he was left in charge of the government. The same happened for a longer period in the summer of 1953 when, with Eden ill in Boston, Churchill was felled by a stroke. The gravity of Churchill's illness, concealed by his entourage, was known to Butler; this was perhaps the first occasion on which he could have become prime minister had he striven for the job. He had no such thoughts and ran the government well. Since Marlborough, painting had been Butler's chief hobby; after the war he occasionally painted with Churchill, once being commanded by him to take the mountains, while his leader would take the sea. Butler thought their paintings were of about the same standard.
At the Treasury Butler, who was one of the two best post-war chancellors, had two special difficulties. Sir Walter Monckton (later Viscount Monckton of Brenchley) [qv.] had been made minister of labour by Churchill to conciliate the unions, and conciliation entailed conceding excessive wage claims, sometimes in concert with the prime minister and without consulting the chancellor. The second was the Conservatives' pledge to build 300,000 houses a year, which Macmillan, the minister of housing, never allowed the chancellor or the cabinet to forget. In consequence, too many of the nation's resources went into the housing drive. In 1954 Butler's third budget was, as he said, a carry-on affair with few changes, but later in the year he predicted the doubling of the country's standard of living within twenty-five years
In December 1954 his wife died after a long and painful illness. His grief and the loss of her influence as well as the effects of three gruelling years affected Butler's political judgement. His troubles were in any event growing: inflation and balance of payments difficulties necessitated a stop, and in February 1955 Butler raised the bank rate and brought back hire-purchase restrictions. Nevertheless he produced an electioneering budget, taking 6d. off income tax. That was his first mistake. After the election Eden invited him to give up the Treasury, but Butler refused, which was his second mistake. A run on the pound compelled an autumn budget whose unimaginativeness underlined the errors of its predecessor—his third mistake. In December 1955 Eden decided to replace Butler with Macmillan, who showed by his stipulated terms that he was determined also to replace Butler as Eden's heir apparent. Butler consented to become merely lord privy seal and leader of the House—his fourth and biggest mistake. He needed a change, but ministerial power in British politics rests with the big departments and for Butler to allow himself to be left without a department was a gratuitous act of unilateral disarmament.
Though Macmillan was to the left of him on economics, there was no issue on which Butler was, in the eyes of the Conservative Party, seen to be right wing. Many Conservatives saw him as a Butskellite. Hence he was always more popular in the country than in his own party. His appearance was not charismatic, with his damaged arm, his sad, irregular features, and his clothes, described by Channon as truly tragic. But behind it there was a Rolls-Royce mind and a sharp sardonic wit which he enjoyed exerting at the expense of his colleagues. He was the master of many types of ambiguity—my determination is to support the prime minister in all his difficulties or there is no one whose farewell dinner I would rather have attended—and occasionally the cause of ambiguity in others. His famous saying that Eden was the best prime minister we have was put to him as a question to which he rashly assented. Butler had a strong vein of innocence, rare in sophisticated politicians. He was also abnormally good-natured and inspired great affection.
Butler was ill when President Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal Company in 1956 and was in no danger of being infected by the collective reaction. He missed the first cabinet meeting at which the fatal route to Port Said was mapped and he was not included in the Egypt committee that Eden set up, though he occasionally attended it. His freedom from departmental responsibilities would for once have been an advantage, but cool, detached advice was not what Eden wanted. Over Suez Butler's predicament was acute. Far too intelligent to accept Eden's likening of Nasser to Mussolini, he had nevertheless an appeasing past to live down. Believing that party and public opinion required action of some sort, Butler also believed that Britain should act in accordance with international law.
Hence Butler was in a similar position to John Foster Dulles, the American secretary of state, and was driven to similar deviousness: as the international position altered, different expedients had to be produced to prevent Eden launching an attack on Egypt. But what was permissible in Dulles, trying to divert an ally from folly, looked less so in the cabinet's nominal number two seeking to restrain his leader, sick and unbalanced though Eden was. Butler would probably have done better to state his position unequivocally or to keep quiet or to resign; doubts were not enough. Even so, if he had succeeded, as his phrase went, in keeping Eden in a political strait-jacket he would have done the prime minister and the country a great service. But by October Butler had run out of strait-jackets, and he used the wrong tactics for defeating the Anglo-French-Israeli plan. Instead of joining with Monckton in direct opposition to a grubby conspiracy which was bound to fail, Butler implausibly advocated an open attack on Egypt by the three countries which would have been scarcely less disastrous. After the UN had voted for an emergency force and an Israeli-Egyptian cease-fire seemed imminent, Butler tried to prevent the Anglo-French invasion as it was by then redundant; and when two days later Eden told the cabinet that a cease-fire was essential, Butler like Macmillan strongly supported him.
Butler's deviousness over Suez was honesty itself compared with the duplicity of Eden and some colleagues; and he was more consistent than Macmillan whose fire-eating bellicosity first drove Eden on towards destruction and who then suddenly demanded peace. Yet Butler ended up by pleasing virtually no one, and his varying indiscretions to different back-bench groups gave the impression that he was not playing the game. Others were playing a deeper one.
Eden's retreat to the West Indies to recuperate left Butler to do the salvage work at the head of a weak and divided government. Butler was at his best but gained no credit for limiting damage that he had not caused. Instead he incurred odium for unpopular though necessary decisions, made at Macmillan's insistence, over Britain's unconditional withdrawal from Egypt. In consequence, when Eden finally resigned in January 1957, Butler had no chance of succeeding him. The cabinet voted over-whelmingly for Macmillan, and back-bench soundings gave a similar result. Churchill, too, recommended Macmillan. Eden gave no advice to the Queen: he disliked both men although he preferred Butler. Butler took his defeat well. Macmillan refused him the Foreign Office, and Butler did not insist, accepting the Home Office while remaining leader of the House. At least he now had a department. He also, as under Churchill and Eden, had the government to run from time to time. When Macmillan in 1958 went on his Commonwealth tour after settling his little local difficulties over the resignation of his entire Treasury team in January, Butler was left, as he said, to hold the baby. As usual he held it well, and this time was popular. As home secretary he was a reformer, which was less popular.
After the October 1959 election Butler became chairman of the Conservative Party in addition to being home secretary and leader of the House. Other than demonstrating that there was almost no limit to his capacity for transacting public business—at which he was indeed the unrivalled master—there was little point in Butler's new job. It was in any case scarcely compatible with his existing ones. His leadership of the House entailed trying to get on with the opposition in the Commons, while his chairmanship of the party entailed attacking the opposition in the country. Further, as home secretary, Butler was intent on penal reform, while many of his party faithful were intent on the return of flogging. However Butler was always adept at squaring circles, and he squared those three. Much more important to him than the acquisition of offices was his wedding, in the presence of the couple's ten children, in October 1959 to a relative by marriage of his late wife, Mollie, widow of Augustine Courtauld [qv.], polar explorer, and daughter of Frank Douglas Montgomerie, of Castle Hedingham, Essex. The marriage was strikingly happy and gave Butler renewed strength. He was an outstanding home secretary, making few mistakes in handling a notoriously tricky department and initiating much useful legislation. He beat the flogging lobby and passed a major Criminal Justice Act; he reformed the laws of gambling, public houses, prostitution, and charities; and also passed in 1962 the Bill to curb immigration which had been prepared by Churchill's government and successively deferred.
In October 1961 Butler lost two of his offices, retaining only the Home Office, and was made overseer of the common market negotiations which in practice meant little. In March 1962 Macmillan, tired of the squabbling between the Colonial and Commonwealth Offices, formed a new central Africa department and persuaded Butler to take charge of it. This was a real job, if a thankless one; characteristically, Butler merely added it to his other one. But in the cabinet massacre of July 1962 he lost the Home Office and was left with his central African responsibilities with the honorific title of first secretary of state plus the intimation that he would be serving as deputy prime minister. Macmillan was thus able both to heap burdens on to the good-natured Butler and to strip him of them again almost at will. For nearly all his long parliamentary career Butler had been a minister: this gave him a unique experience of administration but made him too addicted to Whitehall ever to think of withdrawing. He had, too, the character and quality of a great public servant.
Macmillan weakened his government by banishing Butler from the home front. Yet the government gained in Africa. At the Victoria Falls conference in July 1963 Butler achieved the seemingly impossible feat of an orderly dissolution of the Central African Federation without conceding full independence to Southern Rhodesia.
Butler made no attempt to take advantage of Macmillan's considerable troubles in the first half of 1963, and the prime minister's revived fortunes had persuaded him to fight the next election, when his prostate operation altered that decision. Butler was yet again asked to deputize. Yet Macmillan was determined to prevent Butler succeeding him and played an unprecedented part in choosing his own successor. At first he supported Hailsham and then switched to Home. Even more important, he devised a procedure under which he kept control of events. In acquiescing, the leading cabinet ministers, Butler above all, were markedly trusting or negligent. And after fudged consultations with cabinet ministers by the lord chancellor, Lord Dilhorne [qv.], who produced an idiosyncratic reading of the results, and with MPs by the whips, some of whom knew the answer they wanted and went on till they got it, and after some apparent refining of the figures by the chief whip, Sir Martin (later Lord) Redmayne [qv.], Macmillan adjudged Home the winner.
This decision was leaked on 12 October 1963, the day before Macmillan was to see the Queen. That evening a meeting of cabinet ministers at Enoch Powell's house telephoned Butler urging him to fight. Hailsham did the same very strongly. Butler's response was merely to ask the lord chancellor the next morning to call a meeting of all the leading candidates. Home felt like withdrawing, but was dissuaded by Macmillan who ignored the opposition to his compromise choice and did not change his intended advice to the Queen. Shortly afterwards Home was on his way to the palace where he was asked to see if he could form a government. Even then Butler could have prevailed: both Hailsham and Reginald Maudling [qv.] had agreed to serve under him, he had much cabinet support, and his wife was urging him on. But his heart was not in the fight, and after reserving his position he became foreign secretary on 20 October. Perhaps, as his father had long ago told him, he could not take strong personal executive decisions. Perhaps, like his old chief in 1940, Halifax, he did not really want the job. More likely he was inhibited by fears of splitting the party; and Home had been a friend since their Chamberlain days. Whatever the truth, his forbearance did not help the Conservatives. The supporters of both Butler and Hailsham thought their man would win the election of 16 October 1964, and both were probably right. Home just lost it. In his farewell message to the party conference, Macmillan hailed the coming into existence of the party of our dreams, which accepted a pragmatic and sensible compromise between the extremes of collectivism and individualism; at the very same time he was blocking the man who was at least as responsible as himself for the existence of such a party, thus ensuring that the dream was short-lived. The 1964 election was crucial. A Conservative victory would have consolidated such a party and probably produced a Labour realignment. Defeat led to the later polarization of the parties and an abandonment of Macmillan's compromise.;`IiÔo?A';A1>y'ÃI_nÿThe rest, politically, was for Butler anticlimax. The job he had wanted in 1957 and 1960 no longer presented much of a challenge. He ran the Foreign Office easily, but had no opportunity or inclination to do anything of note. Had the Conservatives won the election, he would not have been reappointed. Butler was given no part in the election preparations and only a bit part in the election itself, though he gave one rather unfortunate interview. After the election he lost his chairmanship of the Conservative Research Department. Home offered him an earldom which he refused; in 1965 the new prime minister, Harold Wilson (later Lord Wilson of Rievaulx), offered him the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge, which he accepted. He then accepted a life peerage in 1965 and took his seat on the cross-benches. Butler was the first non-Trinity man to become master for 250 years, and his appointment was at first not wholly welcome in the college. Nevertheless he and his wife were pre-eminently successful there, and in 1972 91 out of 118 fellows present voted for the maximum extension of Butler's term of office. In 1971 he published his autobiography. Lively, wise, and relatively accurate, The Art of the Possible was a strong contrast to the multi-volume efforts of Eden and Macmillan and was one of the very few political autobiographies to enhance its author's reputation. This was followed in 1977 by The Conservatives, a history of the party, which Butler edited and introduced. In the same year he retired from Trinity. To this Dictionary he contributed the notice of Sir Lionel Fox.
His son, Adam, was a member of the 1979 Conservative government, but Butler like Macmillan had no great liking for the new Conservative regime. In February 1980 he defeated in the Lords the government's proposal to allow local authorities to charge for school transport, which he saw as a breach of the 1944 Act's promise to provide free secondary education for all. Butler's portrait was painted by Margaret Foreman for the National Portrait Gallery, where he was last seen in public. He finished The Art of Memory (1982) which was little more than a footnote to its predecessor and was published after his death. He died 8 March 1982 at his home in Great Yeldham, Halstead, Essex.
Butler was sworn of the Privy Council in 1939, and was appointed CH in 1954 and KG in 1971. He was awarded honorary degrees by thirteen universities (including Oxford and Cambridge, both in 1962), and elected an honorary fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1941, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1952, and St Antony's College, Oxford, in 1957. He was rector of Glasgow University (1956-9), high steward, Cambridge University (1958-66), chancellor of Sheffield University (1960-78), chancellor of Essex University from 1962, and high steward, City of Cambridge, from 1963. He was president of the Modern Language Association and of the National Association of Mental Health from 1946, and of the Royal Society of Literature from 1951. He was given the freedom of Saffron Walden in 1954.
R. A. Butler, The Art of the Possible, 1971, and The Art of Memory, 1982 (autobiographies)
Anthony Howard, Rab, 1987
Molly Butler, August and Rab, 1987
Robert Rhodes James (ed.), Chips, The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, 1967
John R. Colville, The Fringes of Power, 1985
Contributor: Ian Gilmour