In his history of Britain in the 1950s, Having It So Good, Peter Hennessy recounts a delicious little anecdote about Richard Austen, or "Rab", Butler (1902-82). One Friday evening, the then Conservative chancellor stormed into his private office, clutching a copy of the Economist.
"I work very hard for this country and they are very critical of me in here," he said. "Can you ask to cancel my subscription?"
It speaks volumes about Butler. He was a politician of "vague ambition", as Macmillan once gibed, lacking the hunger and ruthlessness, if not the guile, to reach the summit of politics. To many of his contemporaries, he would forever be a "Munich Man", guilty of the original sin of appeasement, and therefore unworthy of the prime ministerial crown. But his record in office, as an MP from 1929-65 and five times in
cabinet between 1951 and 1963 - second only to Churchill's in longevity - bears comparison with many of the political giants of the 20th century.
While Churchill fought tooth and nail to preserve British imperialism in India, Rab's first achievement was to steer through the Government of IndiaAct 1935, legislation that alienated Indian nationalists but prefigured the country's independence after the Second World War. He chaired the wartime coalition's reconstruction committee, tasked with preparing for postwar social reform, while the Education Act of 1944, which laid the foundations for a new education settlement, still bears his name in the annals of political history. With skill and determination, he created a free secondary school system, raised the school-leaving age to 15, and bound the church schools into a relationship with the state which lasts to this day. Britain's great wave of social mobility in the 1950s and 1960s owes much to Butler's pioneering expansion of secondary schooling.
Unlike many other Conservatives, Butler understood that the Attlee government would transform the economic and social foundations of postwar Britain, and as chancellor he governed within the Keynesian framework of full employment and demand management it had created, relaxing wartime controls and ending rationing along the way. Although he disliked the charge of Butskellist consensus with Labour on economic policymaking, he acknowledged that he and Gaitskell both spoke "the language of Keynesianism", even if they did so with "different accents". After 1979, such an acknowledgement would become unthinkable for a Conservative chancellor.
He was also a reforming home secretary who started to "loosen the corset" of social conservatism in the late 1950s, opening the way for Roy Jenkins's liberalism of the 1960s. He legislated to restrict the use of capital punishment and faced down what he called the "Colonel Blimps of both sexes" in his party to liberalise the laws on licensing, gambling and prostitution.
Rab deserves more than a footnote in the history of British decolonisation. He oversaw independence for Malawi and Zambia, and he swept up the mess left behind from the Suez crisis. While appeasement will always be a deep stain on his record, few Conservatives
can match his commitment to social reform and public service.
Nick Pearce is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research