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23 March 2021

From the NS archive: Losing the game

16 July 1971: If only Rab Butler had possessed the killer instinct, he could conceivably have become prime minister on three different occasions.

By Anthony Howard

In 1971 Anthony Howard, who would the following year become this magazine’s editor, reviewed “The Art of the Possible”, the memoirs of British Conservative politician Richard Austen (Rab) Butler (1902-1982). Butler had an academic career before entering parliament in 1929, where he strongly supported the appeasement of Nazi Germany, and later served in the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. His autobiography, Howard wrote, was “a brief and graceful piece of reminiscence” that did not “solve the riddle of Rab” in its entirety, but went some way in explaining why Butler never became leader of the Conservative Party – not least because throughout his life he had things rather too easy. “The Art of the Possible”, Howard concluded, “offers no pretence of being an exhaustive chronological account of a political career” and notably left out Butler’s “total mistakes and blunders” .


Rab Butler was the Conservative Party’s Jim Callaghan. He had similarly developed political antennae, the same instinctive understanding of the British character, the identical capacity to operate as his party’s anchor man. Yet, like Callaghan, he was flawed in one respect: always willing to wound – not least with one of those “Butlerisms” about his colleagues – he lacked the courage to strike. As a politician he had, in fact, everything except the killer instinct. If only he had possessed it, he could conceivably have become prime minister on three different occasions: in 1955 (by elbowing Eden aside as Churchill’s successor), in 1957 (by not allowing himself to be “taken” by Macmillan) and in 1963 (by personally standing out against Alec Home’s accession). Yet on each occasion he failed to stand up for himself. What was the reason? Maybe we shall never know – but Enoch Powell perhaps got closest to the real Rab when on television last autumn he gave this account of the Tory Party’s tribal battle over the leadership in 1963:

There were six or eight in the cabinet for Rab to be Prime Minister who quite strongly believed that this was right and necessary for the party. You see, Rab Butler had it in his hands. He could have had it for one shot and we – you know who I mean by “we” – gave him the weapon. We said, “You see, Rab – look at this. This is a revolver, we’ve loaded it for you, you don’t have to worry about loading it. Now you see this part here, it’s the trigger. If you put your finger round that, then all you have to do – you just squeeze that and he’s dead, see?’ And Rab said, “Oh yes, well thank you for telling me – but will it hurt him? Will he bleed?” And we said, “Well, yes – I’m afraid, you know, when you shoot a man, he does tend to bleed.” “Oh,” said Rab, “I don’t know whether I like that. But tell me something else – will it go off with a bang?” And we said, “Well, Rab, I’m afraid we must admit, you know, a gun does make rather a bang when it goes off.” “Ah … then,” he said, “well thank you very much, I don’t think I will. Do you mind?”

Alas, in Rab’s own memoirs* there is nothing as pithily vivid or as strongly etched (the final “Do you mind?” surely has the quintessence of Rab in it) as Powell’s splendid piece of evocation. But in these days – when old men no longer forget but remember at marathon length – The Art of the Possible still represents a very welcome and refreshing variation in the practice of political autobiography. A brief and graceful piece of reminiscence, it may not solve the riddle of Rab (“or “Rabbit” as Randolph Churchill used unkindly to call him); but, in its own way, it does throw some light on the mystery of why he never became leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.

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[See also: From the NS archive: At home with the bomb]

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To begin with, throughout his life Rab clearly had things much too easy. If there was a softness and a flabbiness there, it was because – until he got to the top – he never really had to fight for anything. The very nickname of “Rab” itself had, as he engagingly confesses, been “deliberately designed as a useful sobriquet for life” by his father in choosing his initials. True, he missed winning an Eton scholarship; but everything else – the success as Marlborough, the two firsts followed by the Fellowship at Cambridge, the marriage at the age of 24 to one of the country’s richest heiresses, Sydney Courtauld – seems to have come to him effortlessly. Indeed, one of the surprises of this book is just how firmly Rab had his roots in a now entirely lost upper-crust world. Who, after all, among the young politicians of today could write, seemingly without self-consciousness?

I had long intended to go into politics. I therefore made the decision to give up the Fellowship at Corpus and go round the world for a year as a preparation for entering public life.

Or later on, could add?

When we arrived at Sooke Harbour, British Columbia, there was a letter waiting for us from my wife’s eldest cousin, William Courtauld, saying that the sitting member for the Saffron Walden constituency, William Foot Mitchell, was unlikely to stand at the next general election… He was of the opinion that I should put my name forward and he said that the family would support me.

Not unnaturally, with such backing, Rab (though only 25 at the time) got the seat – and proceeded to hold it undisturbed for the next 36 years. But good fortune did not just smile on him over his passage into the House: it continued to shine brightly upon him once he had arrived there. When he had been an MP for a mere six years Baldwin – an expansive weekend country guest – was already telling him:

I am so glad to have seen you at home in the country. Life in the country makes you see things whole and will enable you, like me, to steer between Harold Macmillan and Henry Page-Croft: then you will be on the path to leader of the Conservative Party.

Yet it was not only the smoothness of his start that made the later personal challenges more daunting for Rab than they otherwise might have been. The quality of amused detachment at the antic of his fellow Tories that he always carried about with him seems to have been his hallmark from the beginning. Thus as early as 1934 he is quite capable of writing to a friend in India:

At our last party conference the audience would have been a credit to the zoo or wild regions of the globe. No ray of enlightenment shone on a single face except the shining pate of Sir Henry Page-Croft who at least has the merit of looking well-groomed.

It was, no doubt, because the Page-Crofts and their successors in the Tory Party rightly suspected that that was the condescending way in which Rab regarded them that they never felt at home with him. It was bad enough that the fellow was clever: it was worse, much worse, that he should take such delight in showing it – often at their expense. When the time came they wielded not once but twice the only power they bad – that of veto.

[See also: From the NS archive: Mr MacDonald in America]

Rab himself, however, has always refused to concede, at least in public, that the fact that he never became prime minister makes his career in politics in any sense a failure. “Surely,” he once said in a very typical Butlerian flight, if you’re not made Pope in the Roman Catholic Church, you can be a perfectly good Cardinal. You could be Archbishop of Milan or anything else, even Archbishop of Dublin, and still be a great success.” This book of memoirs is plainly designed to make out precisely that case. It offers no pretence of being an exhaustive chronological account of a political career. Instead it concentrates on what Rab, looking back from the Master’s Lodgings at Trinity, clearly views as the milestones of his life. Thus the battle over the India Bill of the Thirties, the Education Act of 1944, the various post-war Tory Charters, even his work at the Central Africa Office in 1963 –  all are amply (and none too modestly) discussed. Only his four year period as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the early 1950s seem to cause him as his own hagiographer any problem; and that is wholly understandable – since what he chooses to describe as his grip on an idee en marche had, by the second budget of 1955, begun to look like an idee fixe which had all but ruined the economy.

What tend, however, to get wholly left out are the total mistakes and blunders. It is not just that so blatant an indiscretion as his famous railway carriage conversation with George Gale during the 1964 election does not rate a mention even on crucial issues. Rab is often at his evasive worst. On Suez, for instance, he simply shrinks from confronting the question of collusion at all: like every other British participant in that disaster he cannot – though it has been fully documented elsewhere – bring himself to acknowledge that the notorious Villacoublay meeting ever too place. Virtually, In fact, the only place where Rab breaks the rules is in filling in Eden’s baleful remark (“There are always weak sisters in any crisis and sometimes they will be found among those who wee toughest at the outset of the journey”) by pointing the finger of accusation directly at Harold Macmillan.

[See also: From the NS archive: The age of reason]

To his credit, Rab does not try to hide the degree of his resentment at his treatment by Macmillan. But it is only in retrospect that it seems to have dawned on him just how he served as clay in the potter’s hands. The final confession, when it comes, is all too bitter and human. Macmillan, he writes, while denying him throughout his heart’s desire of the Foreign Office, “chose to heap upon me the honours of Pooh-Bah”. Exactly: Macmillan understood only too well that Rab would take the titles (running all the way eventually to being unofficially deputy Prime Minister) and keep quiet about what he really wanted. Like Austen Chamberlain, whom in a single give-away moment he hails as “the uncrowned prime minister”, Rab Butler “always played the game and he always lost it”.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)