Top Failure

John Rodgers

  • R.A. Butler: An English Life by Patrick Cosgrave
    Quartet, 167 pp, £6.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 7043 2258 7

Patrick Cosgrave presents us in this short book with a remarkable analysis of why Mr Butler was never chosen to be prime minister. When I think of Rab Butler, I recall Addison’s words: ‘’Tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.’ He undoubtedly had one of the best brains in post-war government – but he was never popular. As Ian Macleod said, ‘Rab loves being a politician among academics and an academic among politicians: that is why neither breed of man likes him all that much.’ With the exception of Winston Churchill, no man in recent years has held more offices and for so long a period of time. On at least four occasions he acted as Deputy Prime Minister. For most men this would have been an amazingly successful political career – yet for him it was not.

According to Dr Cosgrave, Butler has said that he had three ambitions in life and that he failed to achieve any of them. His first ambition was to go to Eton, but he was frustrated when he failed an examination. It is interesting that he had the temerity, even as a boy, to question the supervising master as to whether a mistake hadn’t been made in failing him. Rather than go to Harrow, with which there were long family connections and which was what his family wished for him, he chose to go to Marlborough. Secondly, because he had spent a good deal of his child-hood there, he hoped to become Viceroy of India.

Thirdly, his sights were, of course, set on becoming prime minister. He believed, with reason, that he should have been chosen in 1963, instead of Douglas-Home, and in 1957 instead of Macmillan; he has even said that he felt he, rather than Anthony Eden, should have followed Churchill as prime minister. Butler had little regard for Eden, of whom he said, ‘he is the best prime minister we have got,’ adding when asked to amplify the remark: ‘Oh, capax imperii and all that.’ In other words, capax imperii nisi imperasset, which roughly translated means ‘apparently capable of governing until called upon to do so’. Equally derisive were his words to Patrick Cosgrave: ‘Anthony’s father was a mad baronet and his mother a very beautiful woman. That is what Anthony is, half a mad baronet himself and half a beautiful woman.’

Acid comments of this kind must have made Butler many enemies. In my small contacts with him I found him extremely sympathetic and helpful, but one was aware of a kind of flabbiness in him which inhibited positive action or a definite stance on any question. For example, after the 1950 Election, Butler asked the nine members of the One-Nation Group to have drinks with him at his house in Smith Square, and he told us he would like to write a foreword to our booklet, ‘One Nation’. He recommended the book as a healthy piece of constructive work which would capture the interest of everyone who was anxious to sustain the confidence of the democracy in the programmes which had been undertaken. But he capped his approval by stating: ‘There has been no question, or indeed opportunity, of approving these essays as part of Parliamentary policy. Responsibility both for the editing and for the views expressed rests with the authors.’ This is how Butler’s mind worked. He always seemed to be hedging his bets and never came down wholeheartedly on one side or the other. One might say that this attitude was politically sound, given his belief that politics is the art of the possible. But it is not surprising that he was known to some as ‘Mr Facing Both Ways’.

Many Conservatives, including Churchill, uncompromisingly preferred Harold Macmillan to succeed Eden as Prime Minister and Leader of the Party. Some suspected that Butler had supported the pre-war appeasement policy, though, according to Dr Cosgrave, he tried to exculpate himself by observing that he had only been a junior minister with little responsibility and that he was rarely consulted. Nonetheless, his apparently ambiguous conduct during the Suez affair, and fiasco, in 1956, made people conclude that Rab was still an appeaser. Dr Cosgrave points out that on this occasion ‘as in every major crisis when he disagreed’, he ‘made no serious public protest’. Macmillan waited and Butler was recruited to take charge, but while it was clear that there were many people on the backbenches who would oppose Butler were he to stand for prime minister, there was no anti-Macmillan group. Perhaps it was his habit of not openly declaring what he believed that robbed him of the prize he so desperately desired.

Butler lacked the ‘killer instinct’ which top people in politics must have. He wished to take no part in the war effort and during the war he chose to be Minister of Education – and did a splendid job there. This, together with his starting and supervising the Conservative Research Department, entitles him to be considered probably the most creative and competent politician we have seen since the war. There is no question that both my colleagues Macleod and Powell believed that, had he offered himself for the Parliamentary leadership against Alec Home, he would have won. And yet he appears to have lacked faith in himself. Brendan Bracken remarked of him: ‘It must be truly said, in the words of Coleridge, “I have lost the race I never ran.” ’ After Home’s appointment as Prime Minister, it must have been a great relief to him to have been offered the Mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge by Harold Wilson.

Dr Cosgrave’s study is drawn from many years of working with Butler in the Research Deparment, which now, unfortunately, has been swallowed up in the Conservative Central Office. It is both a knowledgeable and a sympathetic account of this brilliant, enigmatic politician, who occupied nearly all the posts in Parliament except the one he coveted most. His decision not to stand against Home was on the grounds that it might split the Party. Personally, I think his failure to come out into the open issued from the belief that he did not have the courage to fight for what might have been his.