Finest Hour 171, Winter 2016
Review by D. R. Thorpe
Michael Jago, Rab Butler: The Best Prime Minister We Never Had? London: Biteback, 2015, £25, 464 pages.
In his memoirs The Art of the Possible Rab Butler describes one of his predecessors as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary, Sir Austen Chamberlain, as “the Uncrowned Prime Minister.” In time, the sobriquet has become one ever attached to Butler himself, three times a possible prime minister, and one reflected in the subtitle of this carefully researched and authoritative new biography.
However, Butler’s supporters, and they were manifold, should not grieve, but, in Wordsworth’s words, “rather find strength in what remains behind.” For Butler, like two other “nearly men,” Joseph Chamberlain (Austen’s father) and Roy Jenkins, left more of an imprint on his times than many who did make it to 10 Downing Street. Butler’s great monument is the 1944 Education Act, the foremost piece of domestic legislation enacted by Churchill’s war-time government, which transformed the possibilities for generations of young people after the Second World War.
Born in India in 1902, Butler had undoubted ambition and this was fortified by his 1925 marriage to the formidable Sydney Courtauld, only child of one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country. Marriage brought emotional contentment, a happy family, independent wealth, and ultimately a safe seat at Saffron Walden, which Rab represented from 1929 to 1965. It was said of Sydney that “she flew like an arrow” and her support was vital to Rab as he climbed the political ladder. Her premature and lingering death from a painful cancer on 9 December 1955, Rab’s fifty-third birthday, was a turning point from which Rab’s life and career never really recovered, despite the happiness of his second marriage in 1959 to Mollie Courtauld, Sydney’s cousin by marriage.
Another turning point had been in July 1945, when the Conservatives had been soundly defeated in the General Election. Butler had warned Churchill of complacency in the campaign, not that this endeared him to the old warrior, always ambivalent about Butler. The next six years, when Churchill was Leader of the Opposition, were to prove the second great phase of Butler’s career, in which he was prominent among those MPs reforming the Conservative Party along progressive and modern lines.
Jago underestimates, however, Rab’s role as one of a trio of reformers, the others being Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Jago expertly discusses Churchill’s options for a Cabinet after he had returned to power in October 1951. Rab was, unexpectedly to many, appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. According to the outgoing Chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell, this was because Churchill knew the job to be intolerable and so gave it to Rab, “whom he dislikes very much.”
So many spells at the Treasury end in tears, and Rab’s tenure was no exception. The pressures on the economy coincided with the protracted illness of Sydney Butler. Jago shows that during this time “Rab’s prospects of becoming Leader of the Conservative Party evaporated.” Ironically, as Jago correctly demonstrates, the money Rab provided for Harold Macmillan’s housing programme diminished the Chancellor just as, in proportion, it enhanced the standing of the coming man who was to be his nemesis.
Macmillan replaced Rab at the Treasury and, when he became Prime Minister in January 1957, moved Rab to the Home Office, traditionally the graveyard of those aspiring to be prime minister. Jago’s account of the machinations of the Suez Crisis in 1956, not Rab’s finest hour, is fascinatingly detailed, as is his account of Rab’s career from 1957 to 1963, under Macmillan’s premiership. The high spot for Rab during this period was his liberalisation of much social policy and his work on dismantling the Central African Federation. But this did not guarantee him the key to 10 Downing Street.
So Jago considers the question. Why did Rab never become Prime Minister? He shows two factors to be vital. In May 1940, when he was Under Secretary at the Foreign Office 1940, Rab met the Swedish Ambassador Bjorn Pritz in St. James’s Park and informally discussed possible peace overtures with Germany. Jago’s account of this episode is very convincing at explaining how the anti-appeasers in the Tory Party never forgot or forgave Rab.
The second hurdle Rab had to overcome was what the Sunday Times described in 1961 as “that most dangerous of political vices, indecision.” At one of those interminable fringe meetings at 1950s Conservative Party conferences debating capital punishment, the chairman of the meeting, Sir Douglas Glover (with whose widow Margaret Thatcher later holidayed), thanked Mr. X at the end for putting the case so well for capital punishment, and Mr. Y for putting the case so well against capital punishment, then concluded without any conscious sense of irony by thanking Butler for putting the case so well for both sides.
Jago discusses the three occasions when Rab was a candidate for the premiership—June 1953, January 1957, and October 1963— with great understanding. Rab Butler told me in 1975 that his one real chance of becoming Prime Minister was in the summer of 1953 when Churchill was incapacitated at Chartwell with the stroke that was kept secret from the public, and when Eden was in Boston having a further operation after his failed gall bladder surgery in London. Rab, in addition to being Chancellor, seemed to be acting for both absentees, an impossible burden. But he did not have the bottle to demand the succession, something not forgotten in January 1957, when the Cabinet indicated by eighteen votes to two that it favoured Macmillan. In October 1963 Rab knew he would not be chosen, since he had already been told in the summer by John Morrison, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, that “the chaps won’t have you.”
D. R. Thorpe is the author of major biographies of Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Sir Alec Douglas-Home.