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Rab Butler

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Subject: Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, Reginald Maudling, Alec Douglas-Home, Iain Macleod
Collection: 1902 Births, 1982 Deaths, Alumni of Pembroke College, Cambridge, British Secretaries of State for Education, British Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs, Chairmen of the Conservative Party (Uk), Chancellors of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, Chancellors of the University of Essex, Conservative Party (Uk) Life Peers, Conservative Party (Uk) Mps, Deputy Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, First Secretaries of State of the United Kingdom, Knights of the Garter, Leaders of the House of Commons, Lords Privy Seal, Masters of Trinity College, Cambridge, Members of the Order of the Companions of Honour, Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom for English Constituencies, Members of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom, People Associated with the University of Sheffield, People Educated at Marlborough College, People from Attock District, Presidents of the Cambridge Union Society, Rectors of the University of Glasgow, Secretaries of State for the Home Department, Uk Mps 1929–31, Uk Mps 1931–35, Uk Mps 1935–45, Uk Mps 1945–50, Uk Mps 1950–51, Uk Mps 1951–55, Uk Mps 1955–59, Uk Mps 1959–64, Uk Mps 1964–66
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Rab Butler

The Right Honourable
The Lord Butler of Saffron Walden
Deputy Prime Minister of United Kingdom
In office
13 July 1962 – 18 October 1963
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
Preceded by Anthony Eden[a]
Succeeded by William Whitelaw[b]
First Secretary of State
In office
13 July 1962 – 18 October 1963
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
Preceded by Office Created
Succeeded by [c]
Shadow Foreign Secretary
In office
16 October 1964 – 27 July 1965
Leader Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Preceded by Patrick Gordon Walker
Succeeded by Reginald Maudling
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
20 October 1963 – 16 October 1964
Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Preceded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Succeeded by Patrick Gordon Walker
Home Secretary
In office
14 January 1957 – 13 July 1962
Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
Preceded by Gwilym Lloyd George
Succeeded by Henry Brooke
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
20 December 1955 – 9 October 1961
Prime Minister Anthony Eden
Harold Macmillan
Preceded by Harry Crookshank
Succeeded by Iain Macleod
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
28 October 1951 – 20 December 1955
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Anthony Eden
Preceded by Hugh Gaitskell
Succeeded by Harold Macmillan
Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
10 December 1950 – 28 October 1951
Leader Winston Churchill
Preceded by Oliver Stanley
Succeeded by Hugh Gaitskell
Minister of Labour and National Service
In office
25 May 1945 – 26 July 1945
Leader Winston Churchill
Preceded by Ernest Bevin
Succeeded by George Isaacs
President of the Board of Education
In office
20 July 1941 – 25 May 1945
Leader Winston Churchill
Preceded by Herwald Ramsbotham
Succeeded by Richard Law
Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
with Ivor Windsor-Clive (1938–1940)
In office
15 May 1940 – 20 July 1941
Preceded by Ivor Windsor-Clive
Succeeded by Richard Law
In office
25 February 1938 – 10 May 1940
Preceded by Ivor Windsor-Clive
Succeeded by Ivor Windsor-Clive
Member of Parliament
for Saffron Walden
In office
30 May 1929 – 15 October 1965
Preceded by William Foot Mitchell
Succeeded by Peter Kirk
Personal details
Born Richard Austen Butler
(1902-12-09)9 December 1902
Attock Serai, British India
Died 8 March 1982(1982-03-08) (aged 79)
Great Yeldham, Essex
Political party Conservative
Alma mater Marlborough College
Pembroke College, Cambridge
a. ^ Office vacant from 6 April 1955 to 13 July 1962. b. ^ Office vacant from 18 October 1963 to 4 May 1979. c. ^ Office vacant from 18 October 1963 to 16 October 1964.

Richard Austen Butler, Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, KG, CH, DL, PC (9 December 1902 – 8 March 1982), generally known as R. A. Butler and familiarly known as Rab, was a British Conservative politician.

During a long ministerial career, Butler served as Education Minister (1941–45, overseeing the Education Act 1944), Chancellor of the Exchequer (1951–55), Home Secretary (1957–62), Deputy Prime Minister (1962–63) and Foreign Secretary (1963–64).

Butler 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.

After retiring from politics, Butler was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.


  • Early life 1
  • Cambridge 2
  • Private and family life 3
  • Early political career 4
    • Member of Parliament 4.1
    • India Office Minister 4.2
    • Foreign Office Minister 4.3
  • Education Minister 5
  • Post-war 6
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer 7
  • Under Eden 8
    • Move from the Exchequer 8.1
    • Suez 8.2
    • Succession to Eden 8.3
  • Under Macmillan 9
    • Home Office 9.1
    • Central Africa 9.2
    • Succession to Macmillan 9.3
  • Master of Trinity 10
  • In fiction 11
  • Styles and honours 12
  • Further reading 13
  • References 14
  • References 15
  • External links 16

Early life

Butler was born in Attock Serai, James Dunlop Smith. His sister was Iris Mary Butler (was born in 1905), who became Iris Portal upon her marriage, and whose elder daughter is Jane Williams, Baroness Williams of Elvel, the mother of Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury. His paternal uncle was Sir Spencer Harcourt Butler. Butler belonged to a distinguished upper-middle-class family that had produced a succession of public servants and educators.

As a child his right arm was broken in three places in a riding accident, the injury being aggravated by a burn from a hot water bottle, leaving his hand not fully functional.[1] His limp handshake and inevitable lack of military experience (and stooping donnish manner at a time when many politicians were former officers) were political handicaps in later life.[2]

After attending preparatory schools at Brockhurst, Church Stretton,[3] and Wick, Hove. Having refused to attend Harrow, where many of his family had been educated, and having been unsuccessful in winning a scholarship to Eton, he attended Marlborough College. After school he spent a year in Europe learning French and German.[1]


Butler studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, starting in October 1921,[4] and initially reading Medieval and Modern Languages. At the end of his second year (June 1923) he achieved a First in French Part I and was awarded an £80 scholarship (approximately £4,000 at 2014 prices).[5][6] He was also 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.[4] He 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.[7]

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.[8] In 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". Winston Churchill (then out of Parliament and an independent "Constitutionalist") had been invited to speak in favour but had withdrawn. 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.[9][10] Butler took part in the ESU USA Tour, a debating tour of the United States run by the English-Speaking Union.

At the end of his third year (1924) he received a Second in German, to his father’s ill-disguised disappointment. He graduated as a BA in 1924.[11] During his fourth year at Cambridge he concentrated on study, reading for Part II of the Historical Tripos. He took the Peel special subject, at one point knowing by name which way every Conservative MP voted in the splits of the 1840s. He received one of the highest firsts in the University across all subjects, known at the time as a "I:I".[12]

Private and family life

Butler married Sydney Elizabeth Courtauld on 20 April 1926, less than a year after his graduation from Cambridge. 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 per annum at 2014 prices.[5][13]

The Butlers lived at Stanstead Hall (also known as Stansted Hall) in Essex, where they entertained both Stanley Baldwin and Winston Churchill in the 1930s, and in 1938 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 had to stay with his Parliamentary Private Secretary Chips Channon in Belgrave Square.[14]

The Butlers' children were the Hon. Sir Richard C Butler KT DL (1929–2012), Adam Courtauld Butler (1931–2008), who was also a politician, the Hon. Samuel James Butler (born 1936) 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.[15] She had been married to Augustine Courtauld (Sydney's cousin), who had died in March 1959. They had dwellings at Gatcombe Park in Gloucestershire (inherited from Samuel Courtauld, Sydney's father), and a holiday house on the Isle of Mull. They also lived at the Master's Lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge during Rab's tenure as Master.

In 1976 Gatcombe Park was sold to the Queen as a home for Princess Anne, and Mollie and Butler 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.[16][17][18][19]

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 for many generations had been active in the politics of Cornwall and England.[20] 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.[21]

After a brief period as a Cambridge don teaching nineteenth-century French history, Courtauld connections arranged for him to be selected unopposed as candidate for Saffron Walden whilst he and his new wife were away on a honeymoon tour of the world. He was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Saffron Walden in the 1929 general election. Butler held this 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.[14]

Before the election he became private secretary to Samuel Hoare. He had a sharp exchange of letters in The Times (28 May 1930) with Harold Macmillan, then out of Parliament, over the Mosley Memorandum. Macmillan had questioned whether the “game” of politics was worth playing 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”. This may have contributed the enmity which Macmillan, who was to be a backbench rebel in the 1930s whilst Butler was a rising ministerial star, felt towards him in later years.[14]

India Office Minister

In 1931, when the National Government was formed, he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary (personal assistant) to the India Secretary, Samuel Hoare. He went on a fact-finding tour of India. He became the youngest member of the government when he was given his first ministerial job as Under-Secretary of State for India (1932–37). At that time the Indian Home Rule Act was being debated in Parliament amidst massive opposition, led by Winston Churchill, from rank-and-file Conservative supporters. Given the task of replying to Churchill in a debate, Butler compared himself to “a bullock calf tied to a tree, awaiting the arrival of the Lord of the Forest”.[14]

From May 1937 to February 1938 he was Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Labour in Neville Chamberlain's government.[14]

Foreign Office Minister

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. Butler later claimed in his memoirs that appeasement had aimed to buy time for Britain to re-arm and that he had little input into the direction of foreign policy, and that power was really held by Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, with the Prime Minister speaking in the House of Commons on foreign policy instead of Butler. After the Munich Agreement (5 October 1938) Butler had to wind up a debate after Churchill had spoken. He said that war solved nothing, and that it was better to “settle our differences with Germany by consultation”. However, he thought Mussolini’s seizure of Albania in April 1939 would destabilise the Balkans; Neville Chamberlain told him not to be so silly and to go home to bed.[14] With German invasion of Poland looming, and two days after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, he opposed Chamberlain's promise of military assistance (25 August 1939) as he thought it would have “a bad psychological effect on Hitler”.[22]

Butler joined the Privy Council in 1939.[23] His close association to the government's policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany was later instrumental in limiting his political career. Appeasement was held against him more than against Lords Home or Hailsham, who were more junior.[14]

Butler disapproved of Churchill. After Churchill had made a confident war speech on 12 November 1939, Butler told Jock Colville that he "thought it beyond words vulgar".[24] Colville recorded in his diary on 10 May 1940, when Churchill was replacing Chamberlain as Prime Minister, 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 whose main support was that of inefficient but talkative people of a similar type.[25][26]

[27] In May 1940 Churchill retained him at the Foreign Office, saying: “I wish you to go on with your delicate manner of answering parliamentary questions without giving anything away”.[14]

After a mysterious meeting in St James's Park on 17 June 1940, Dr Bjorn Prytz reported back to Stockholm that Butler “assured me that no opportunity for reaching a compromise (peace) would be neglected if the possibility were offered on reasonable conditions.” Churchill was furious when he found out, complaining of Butler’s “odd language” which hinted at a lukewarm or even defeatist attitude, and he was lucky not to be sacked.[28]

Butler had little respect for Eden but reluctantly agreed to remain at the Foreign Office when the latter once again became Foreign Secretary in December 1940.[29]

Education Minister

In July 1941 Butler received his first Cabinet post when he was appointed President of the Board of Education. The position was widely seen as a backwater in wartime, with Butler having been promoted to it to remove him from the more sensitive Foreign Office.

Butler proved to be one of the most radical reforming ministers on the home front. Ignoring Churchill’s request to keep the department quiet, he instead introduced the Education Act 1944, often known as the Butler Education Act, the biggest education reform since Balfour’s Act in 1902. The Act brought in free secondary education (until then many grammar schools had charged for entry, albeit with local authority assistance for poorer pupils in recent years), and institutionalised the Tripartite System, with children graded in the Eleven plus exam. The Act also expanded nursery provision, raised the school leaving age to 15 and brought the church schools into state control, a problem which had vexed previous education reformers. He though Conservative backbenchers who resisted his plans “a stupid lot”.[29]

Butler was also the chair of the War Cabinet Committee for the Control of Official Histories. In 1941 he became chairman of the Conservative PostWar Problems Central Committee. In November 1943 he joined the Government Reconstruction Committee.[29]

After the end of the European War in May 1945, Butler was Minister of Labour for two months in the the Churchill caretaker ministry.[30] In the Labour landslide of July 1945 he held Saffron Walden narrowly, his majority falling to 1,158.[29]


After the Conservatives were defeated in the 1945 general election, Butler emerged as one of the most prominent figures 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.[29]

Chancellor of the Exchequer

When the Conservative Party returned to power in 1951 Butler was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.[31]

Butler initially planned to let the pound float (i.e. sink) 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 IMF and would not have been allowed under the new European Payments Union.[32] ROBOT was also opposed by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in a rare intervention in domestic politics.[33]

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. 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".[34] The term Butskellism was subsequently coined to refer to the generally similar economic policies pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments in the 1950s.[35] However, Butler had more interest in monetary policy and in convertibility, whereas Gaitskell was more inclined to exchange controls, investment and planning.[31]

Butler maintained import controls and began a more active monetary policy.[29] 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.[36] In September 1952 Butler was left in charge when Churchill and Eden were both abroad.[31]

The 1953 budget cut income tax and purchase tax, and promised an end to the excess profits levy.[31] 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.[31] 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.[31]

Butler was appointed CH in 1954.[23]

Under Eden

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,[31] 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.[31] Soon afterwards it became 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 undid several of the tax cuts, leading to charges of electoral opportunism. Hugh Gaitskell accused him of having deliberately misled the electorate.[37]

A number of Butler's sardonic witticisms about Eden, who was already subject to press criticism, surfaced. On one occasion he agreed with a journalist that Eden was “the best Prime Minister we have”.[38] On another occasion he expressed his “determination to support the Prime Minister in all his difficulties”.[39]

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.[2] Harry Crookshank warned him that he was committing “sheer political suicide” by giving up a big department.[40]

Butler was Rector of the University of Glasgow 1956-9.[23]


Butler was ill when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and was not formally a member of the Cabinet Egypt Committee, and 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.[37]

Butler seemed to be doubtful of Eden’s Suez policy but never said so openly.[41] 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.[37] “Butler’s … indiscretions … gave the impression that he was not playing the game. Others were playing a deeper one.”[42]

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” the concerns of Labour Leader Hugh Gaitskell to the absent Prime Minister. 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 of “the way Rab had turned and trimmed”.[43] On 14 November Rab 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”).[44]

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.[45][46] Butler was seen to be an indecisive leader who was not up to Macmillan's stature.[47] However, the Press Association were briefed that Rab was “in effective charge” during Eden’s absence in Jamaica from 23 November.[44] Eden was not in telephone contact and did not return to Britain until 14 December.[48]

Succession to Eden

Butler spent most of his Christmas break shooting.[49] 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.[50] 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 in order 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 this is “purely speculative” and that there is “no concrete evidence” of what actually occurred.[51]

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”, i.e. Macmillan. Lord Salisbury interviewed the Cabinet one by one and with his famous speech impediment asked each one whether he was for "Wab or Hawold". It is thought that at most 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: 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 appeasement. Salisbury called in the Cabinet 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 - his whips were telephoning around MPs, even those who were abroad at the time) and John Morrison (Chairman of the 1922 Committee) advised that the Suez group of right-wing Conservative backbenchers would be reluctant to follow Rab.[52][53]

Butler appears to have fully expected to be appointed Prime Minister and aroused his family's misgivings by asking “what shall I say in my broadcast to the nation tomorrow”?[52] Heath, who brought him the news that he had not been chosen, later wrote that he appeared "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.[54] 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”.[55]

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.[15]

Under Macmillan

Home Office

Butler had to accept the Home Office under Macmillan, not the Foreign Office which he wanted.[55] 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". He 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.[15]

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.[56]

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).[57] He declined to reintroduce corporal punishment, according to the recommendation of the prewar Cadogan Report.[15][58] 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.[56]

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.[15] His new job prompted a newspaper analogy with Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power through control of the Soviet Communist Party. In the October 1961 reshuffle Butler lost the party chairmanship and the leadership of the house, whilst retaining the Home Office. He was, however, given oversight of the EEC entry negotiations, which he strongly supported.[56]

Central Africa

In March 1962 he was given the newly-created post of Secretary of State for the Central African Department.[56] In the "Night of the Long Knives" reshuffle in July 1962, 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 Reginald Maudling (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Edward Heath (in charge of the EEC entry negotiations), from amongst whom he hoped to groom an alternative successor.[56]

In July 1963 at the Victoria Falls Conference Butler dissolved the Central African Federation.[56][59]

Succession to Macmillan

In the summer of 1963 Macmillan told Lord Hailsham that “Rab simply doesn’t have it in him to be Prime Minister”.[56] In October 1963 Macmillan was taken ill on the eve of the Conservative Party Conference and resigned as Prime Minister, asking the party bigwigs to "take soundings" of Cabinet Ministers and MPs, to select a consensus candidate as the leader through the "customary processes". In the confusion of the next few days, Butler found himself sidelined after delivering a poor Conference speech. Hailsham was rejected after using the Conference to campaign openly for the job in a manner considered vulgar. Support gathered around outside candidate Lord Home. Much ink has been spilled on how badly the consultation process was rigged, but Macmillan recommended Home for the premiership. Lord Chancellor Dilhorne claimed that 10 of the Cabinet were for Home (including Boyle and Macleod) and only 3 for Butler, whilst Chief Whip Redmayne claimed that Home led Butler by 87-86 amongst backbench MPs, claims ridiculed by Ian Gilmour.[2][23]

Many were outraged over the way that Butler had been passed over yet again. Hailsham told him “You must put on your armour, dear Rab”.[23] Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod (who later claimed in print that the leadership had been stitched up by a "Magic Circle" of Old Etonians)[60] both refused to serve under Home and sought to persuade Butler to do the same in the belief that this would make a Home premiership impossible and result in Butler taking office. 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.[23] Hailsham, Maudling and Butler himself eventually agreed to serve under Home. Butler even 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 Harold Wilson, then Opposition leader). In Ian Gilmour's view Butler, who later described Home as an “amiable enough creature”, feared splitting the party.[23]

Home, and even Macmillan himself in the 1980s, later conceded that it might have been better if Butler had become leader.[23] 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.

Home appointed Butler Foreign Secretary, and he held this post he served until his party narrowly lost the 1964 general election. Many believed that the Conservatives would have won under Butler's leadership, but he played only a small part in the election, and during the election campaign he had shown his lack of stomach for the fight by remarking to a journalist that the campaign was "slipping away". He would not have retained the Foreign Office if the Conservatives had won.[23] Harold Wilson said that Butler would have won the 1964 General Election.[61]

Master of Trinity

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.[23] Butler remained on the Conservative front bench for the next year until he was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, where his great uncle Henry Montagu Butler had previously been Master. 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. At the time of his retirement from the House of Commons he was the longest continuously-serving member of the Commons and Father of the House. He had declined offers of an hereditary earldom, both by Alec Douglas-Home in his resignation honours list and by Harold Wilson.

Butler was the first master in 250 years not himself to have been educated at the college; in 1971 the fellows voted to recommend (successfully) that he be given a second six-year term.[23] As Master of Trinity, Butler was publicly promoted as a mentor and counsellor to Charles, Prince of Wales, when he was enrolled in university; 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". Butler was active as the first Chancellor of the University of Essex[62] from 1966 until his death. He was High Steward of Cambridge University from 1958 to 1966, and High Steward of the City of Cambridge from 1963 until his death.[63]

Butler was appointed a Knight of the Garter in 1971.[23] 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.[64]

Butler died in 1982 at Great Yeldham, Essex, and is buried in the churchyard of the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Saffron Walden. His will was probated at £748,789 (21 October 1982) (over £2.3m at 2014 prices).[5][65]

Butler's memoirs, The Art of the Possible, appeared in 1971. He also published The Conservatives in 1977. A further volume of memoirs, The Art of Memory, appeared posthumously in 1982.[66]

As he grew older, Butler acquired an increasingly disheveled appearance: Chips Channon called his clothes “truly tragic”.[37] 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.[67]

His son Adam Butler, was a member of parliament from 1970 to 1987 and a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher.

In fiction

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 engineer 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.

Styles and honours

  • Richard Butler (1902–1929)
  • Richard Butler, MP (1929–1939)
  • The Rt. Hon. Richard Butler, MP (1939–1954)
  • The Rt. Hon. Richard Butler, CH, MP (1954–1965)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, CH, PC (1965–1971)
  • The Rt. Hon. The Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, KG, CH, PC (1971–1982)

Further reading

  • Jago, Michael Rab Butler: The Best Prime Minister We Never Had?, Biteback Publishing 2015 ISBN 978-1849549202
  • Howard, Anthony RAB: The Life of R. A. Butler, Jonathan Cape 1987 ISBN 978-0224018623
  • Jeffereys, Kevin. "R. A. Butler, the Board of Education and the 1944 Education Act," History (1984) 69#227 pp 415–431.
  • ) Ian Gilmour(essay on Butler written by  
  • Middleton, Nigel. "Lord Butler and the Education Act of 1944," British Journal of Educational Studies (1972) 20#2 pp 178–191
  • Pearce, Edward The Lost Leaders (essays on Butler, Iain Macleod and Denis Healey), Little, Brown & Company 1997 ISBN 978-0316641784


  1. ^ a b Matthew 2004, p199
  2. ^ a b c "Too Obviously Cleverer". London Review of Books. 8 September 2011. 
  3. ^ Crowe, Raynour, Tony, Barrie (2011). Church Stretton through the ages. Greengates, Church Stretton. p. 115.  This school is not mentioned in his ODNB article (published 2004).
  4. ^ a b Howard 1987 p16
  5. ^ a b c Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound
  6. ^ Howard 1987 p19
  7. ^ Howard 1987 p23
  8. ^ Howard 1987 p22
  9. ^ Howard 1987 p24
  10. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 9. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 199.  
  11. ^ Howard 1987 p25 The book quotes a letter from his father and is clear that he was awarded his BA that summer, presumably as it was three years after matriculating, despite his being about to stay on for a further year of undergraduate study
  12. ^ Howard 1987 p28
  13. ^ Howard 1987 p30-1. Although backbench MPs were then paid less than today in real terms, Cabinet ministers were paid more than nowadays.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Matthew 2004, p200
  15. ^ a b c d e Matthew 2004, p204
  16. ^ "Lady Butler of Saffron Walden: widow of Rab Butler".  
  17. ^ "Lady Butler of Saffron Walden".  
  18. ^ "Lady Butler of Saffron Walden".  
  19. ^ "'"Lady Butler of Saffron Walden: Second wife of Rab Butler, 'the best Prime Minister we never had.  
  20. ^
  21. ^ Evelyn Philip Shirley (1866). The Noble and Gentle Men of England. John Bowyer Nichols & Sons. p. 37. 
  22. ^ Howard, p.85
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Matthew 2004, p206
  24. ^ John Colville, The Fringes of Power. Downing Street Diaries. 1939–1955 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), p. 51.
  25. ^ Graham Stewart, Burying Caesar. Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party (Phoenix, 1999), p. 425.
  26. ^ Colville, p. 122.
  27. ^ Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler. British Politics and British Policy, 1933–1940 (Chicago University Press, 1977), p. 403.
  28. ^ Matthew 2004, p200 In late May Lord Halifax had suggested approaching Italy, then on the verge of entering the war, to see if a compromise peace could be brokered. Churchill had vehemently resisted this. Butler's "odd language" was to declare that policy must be determined by "common sense not bravado".
  29. ^ a b c d e f Matthew 2004, p201
  30. ^ Kevin Jeffereys, "R. A. Butler, the Board of Education and the 1944 Education Act," History (1984) 69#227 pp 415–431
  31. ^ a b c d e f g h Matthew 2004, p202
  32. ^ Matthew 2004, p201-2
  33. ^ Hennessy, p. 199
  34. ^ The Economist, "Mr. Butskell's Dilemma", 13 February 1954, p. 439.
  35. ^ Roger Eatwell, "European Political Cultures", Routledge, 2002, p. 58.
  36. ^ Matthew 2004, p202 Other things being equal, raising interest rates depresses domestic demand (so people buy fewer imports) and makes the country more attractive to foreign capital. Under a fixed exchange rate system, a country with a balance of payments deficit needs to keep stocks of gold or foreign currency to facilitate the purchase of imports. Otherwise, more money would need to be printed to buy foreign currency, with likely inflationary consequences.
  37. ^ a b c d Matthew 2004, p203
  38. ^ Thorpe 2010, p367
  39. ^ Howard 1987, p.222
  40. ^ Howard 1987, p.221
  41. ^ Thorpe 2010, p365
  42. ^ Matthew 2004, p206 The quote refers to Macmillan, who had initially supported the invasion, but was now intriguing to become Prime Minister
  43. ^ Howard 1987 237
  44. ^ a b Howard 1987 p238
  45. ^ Thorpe 2010, p353-4
  46. ^ Howard 1987 p240-1
  47. ^ Keith Kyle (2011). Suez: Britain's End of Empire in the Middle East. I.B.Tauris. p. 534. 
  48. ^ Howard 1987 p241
  49. ^ Howard 1987 p243
  50. ^ Howard 1987 p244
  51. ^ Howard 1987 p245
  52. ^ a b Howard 1987 p246-7
  53. ^ Thorpe 2010, p361-2
  54. ^ Heath, p.179
  55. ^ a b Howard 1987 p249-50
  56. ^ a b c d e f g Matthew 2004, p205
  57. ^ A person sentenced to hang was entitled to appeal to the Monarch for mercy. In practice this meant that the Home Secretary, to whom the task was delegated, had the final say on whether any execution should proceed
  58. ^ the young Margaret Thatcher, just elected to the House of Commons at the 1959 General Election, voted in favour, the only time she ever defied the party line
  59. ^ the following year the Nyasaland Protectorate became independent as Malawi and North Rhodesia as Zambia; South Rhodesia declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965
  60. ^ Williams, Charles Harold Macmillan (2009) p. 448
  61. ^ Williams, Charles Harold Macmillan (2009) p. 453
  62. ^ "University of Essex Calendar". 
  63. ^ Tributes to the late Lord Butler, Hansard, House of Lords, 10 Mar 1982, vol 428, col 199
  64. ^ Debate in Parliament about the case (Hansard, HC Deb 29 June 1972 vol 839 cc1673-85).
  65. ^ Matthew 2004, p207
  66. ^ Matthew 2004, p206-7
  67. ^ Matthew 2004, p203, 207


  • Hennessy, Peter., Having It So Good: Britain In The Fifties, Penguin Books, 2006, ISBN 978-0-14-100409-9
  • Pepper, F. S. (ed.). Handbook of 20th Century Quotations, Sphere Study Aids, 1984, p. 105, ISBN 0-7221-6770-9

External links

  • Richard Austen Butler – Personal Facts and Details
  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Rab Butler
  • The Master of Trinity at Trinity College, Cambridge
  • Saffron Walden Conservatives
  • Archival material relating to Butler, Richard Austen (1902–1982) listed at the UK National Archives
  • R.A. Butler papers in the Conservative Party Archive
  • The Butler Trust – A charity set up, in memory of Butler, to promote and encourage positive regimes in UK prisons.
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
William Foot Mitchell
Member of Parliament for Saffron Walden
Succeeded by
Peter Michael Kirk
Preceded by
Winston Churchill
Father of the House
Succeeded by
Robin Turton
Political offices
Preceded by
Lord Lothian
Under-Secretary of State for India
Succeeded by
Lord Stanley
Preceded by
Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour
Succeeded by
Alan Lennox-Boyd
Preceded by
Viscount Cranborne
Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
With: The Earl of Plymouth 1938–1939
Succeeded by
Richard Law
Preceded by
Herwald Ramsbotham
President of the Board of Education
Succeeded by
Richard Law
Preceded by
Ernest Bevin
Minister of Labour
Succeeded by
George Isaacs
Preceded by
Hugh Gaitskell
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Harold Macmillan
Preceded by
Harry Crookshank
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by
Viscount Hailsham
Leader of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
Iain Macleod
Preceded by
Gwilym Lloyd George
Home Secretary
Succeeded by
Henry Brooke
Title last held by
Anthony Eden
Deputy Prime Minister
Title next held by
William Whitelaw
New creation First Secretary of State
Title next held by
George Brown
Preceded by
The Earl of Home
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
Patrick Gordon Walker
Preceded by
Patrick Gordon Walker
Shadow Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
Reginald Maudling
Party political offices
Preceded by
Viscount Hailsham
Chairman of the Conservative Party
Succeeded by
Iain Macleod
Academic offices
Preceded by
Tom Honeyman
Rector of the University of Glasgow
Succeeded by
Viscount Hailsham
Preceded by
E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax
Chancellor of the University of Sheffield
Succeeded by
Frederick Dainton
Preceded by
The Lord Adrian
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Sir Alan Hodgkin
Preceded by
New university
Chancellor of the University of Essex
Succeeded by
Sir Patrick Nairne
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