The Best Prime Minister We Never Had?
London: Biteback Publishing, 2015
Hardcover. xv+464 pages. ISBN 978-1849549202. £25
Reviewed by Trevor Harris
Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)
This is a good story, well told, about a man who is invariably presented as one of the most unfortunate figures in British political history. In fact, Michael Jago sets out his stall straightaway, describing as “inaccurate” the idea that Rab was “the best Prime Minister that Britain never had” [xiv]. Returning to his rhetorical question in the final pages, Jago states his very unambiguous conclusion: “Rab Butler was decidedly not the best Prime Minister that Britain never had” . Jago shows, in this imposing and enjoyable biography, that Butler, a man possessed of obvious and very considerable personal gifts and family connections, despite having several opportunities to do so, never quite had what it takes to make it to the top of the greasy pole.
Butler, a child of Empire, was born in Attock, India, in 1902, to a family with a long and celebrated history in the administration of the Raj. The Butler family also boasted an impressive record of academic excellence, notably through a long association with the University of Cambridge: here were a number of trump cards and the expectations were correspondingly high from the outset. The young Richard Austen Butler, however, failed to obtain the scholarship to Eton which he and his family felt was the natural progression from prep school. Educated instead at Marlborough, “Rab” went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1921. His time at Cambridge, as Jago makes clear, was studded with numerous achievements. Yet, here too, things did not quite go as planned. Rab pushed himself hard, too hard, referring to his predicament as akin to being caught in an “avalanche” . To his academic ambitions Rab added a central role in the University’s student politics, setting his sights on the presidency of the Cambridge Union Society for 1924. But it all proved a bit too much: Rab suffered a breakdown at the end of his second year, had to reconcile himself to a lighter programme for his third year and put off his final exams to a fourth.
Jago’s account of Rab’s education sets the tone for the whole of this very substantial and entertaining study, at once sympathetic and searching, unerringly fair in his treatment of Rab, but never allowing him off the hook. The gist in the early chapters is that Rab, notwithstanding his numerous qualities and gifts, remained in essence a square peg: he was unable, as it were, to knock off the corners which prevented him from fitting comfortably into life at public school, or indeed at Cambridge. Jago sees this as a prolepsis for the later stages of his argument. If Rab was a somewhat reluctant Marlburian, it was no doubt because the school was a pis-aller for Eton, but also because Rab found himself in a milieu which was “more at ease with hunting and shooting than with Cézanne and Manet” . Rab clearly chafed at the anti-intellectualism he found there, an antagonism which becomes something of a leitmotiv of Michael Jago’s biography, constituting one of the main reasons for Rab’s lack of appeal to the Conservative Party at the most critical moments of his political career.
The beginning of that career can be traced to the end of Rab’s second year at Cambridge. In the late summer of 1923, Rab’s fortunes took a decisive turn when he met the energetic and determined Sydney Courtauld, daughter of the textile magnate, Samuel Courtauld. The two began a courtship in which, Jago stresses, Sydney, not the rather shy Rab, was very much the senior partner. Rab completed his Tripos in 1925, obtaining a first, and was appointed to a residential fellowship at Corpus Christi. But he soon abandoned the fellowship and he and Sydney married in April 1926. They embarked on a world tour and soon after their return Rab was enjoying his first parliamentary success, being elected as Conservative MP for Saffron Walden at the election of 1929. Both his selection as Conservative candidate and his election—unopposed—were due in very large part to arrangements made by the Courtauld family. To cap it all, Courtauld gave his son-in-law an annual tax-free income of £5,000 (over £250,000 in today’s terms). His path thus smoothed, Rab quickly attained junior responsibility as Personal Private Secretary to Samuel Hoare at the India Office in the National Government formed in 1931. Rab, it seemed, was on his way.
However, as Michael Jago proceeds to demonstrate, Rab’s particular brand of ambition meant that his judgement was impaired by his need to cleave to the most reliable route to office. He soon clashed publicly, for example, with Harold Macmillan, over the latter’s criticism of the Government’s approach to such key issues as unemployment: a confrontation which would return to haunt him. Rab was a staunch supporter of Baldwin, thus also incurring the displeasure of a number of older Tory grandees. He managed to place himself on the wrong side of Churchill’s temper, too, by his support for Hoare’s Indian policy. Above all, from February 1938, as Under-Secretary to Halifax at the Foreign Office, Rab played a leading and willing role in the policy of appeasement, to which Jago devotes an entire chapter. It was this crucial episode which clung limpet-like to Rab throughout his career. While not the “sole cause of Rab’s undoing” , Jago insists that it was loyalty to Chamberlain which “most contributed” to it . Rab was, from 1938 on, “tarred with the brush of appeasement” . He would later attempt to diminish his implication in the policy by suggesting that it had given Britain more time to rearm. But he did not abandon the policy easily, even after Munich. Jago emphasises the point by adding that “Chips” Channon (Rab’s PPS) asserts in his diaries that “Rab went to greater lengths to accommodate Hitler than any other member of Chamberlain’s government” , and persisted even after Halifax himself had changed course, right up to declaration of war and the fall of Poland. Jago insists that “the policy of keeping Germany sweet, moreover, continued into November” . Rab was characterised, in a memorandum written as late as May 1941 by a German diplomat, as “no Churchill or Zion advocate” [footnote 11, 90]. In effect, Rab was one of the “guilty men”. After Chamberlain’s fall from power, Rab duly found himself sidelined by Churchill in the early years of war.
None of this, of course, means that Rab acted for anything other than the best motives, but he was clearly on the wrong side of history. He had an exaggerated faith in reason, enlightened discussion and negotiation. Jago summarises this by suggesting that Rab was attempting to fight the war “in the cultured language of the drawing room”  and criticises him for his “remarkable myopia” . This was perhaps the most blatant example of Rab’s intellectualism leading to that “erratic judgement”  which Jago identifies as one of Rab’s main faults, and which, at length, halted his progress through the ranks of the Tory Party and of government.
In the meantime, Churchill was too pragmatic, and too astute a politician, to consign all of Chamberlain’s erstwhile supporters to the political margins. But he was careful to try to keep the clever, ambitious Butler under his thumb. In July 1941, Churchill invited Rab to take on the Board of Education. This was clearly intended as a way of keeping Rab well-disposed while simultaneously shunting him, given the wartime priorities, into a political siding. Rab had other ideas. He resolved to use the Board as a vehicle to translate his reforming drive into reality: in this, the changing fortunes of the Allies were to assist him. Michael Jago suggests that in accepting Churchill’s offer, “Rab adapted his methods to changed circumstances”, realising “that he needed to refashion his own image if he were to be in the van of post-war Tory reform” . But in the process Rab was none the less switching his political allegiance to “the very people [...] on whom he had poured scorn in the Chamberlain era” .
Whether in doing so Rab was driven by his reforming instincts or by a desire to be in the “van”, or by both, there is little doubt that Rab’s time in Education (to which, understandably, Jago devotes one of the longest chapters in the book) yielded a momentous reform. Churchill attempted to constrain Rab’s enthusiasm, and succeeded for some months. But by the end of 1941 the “tide” of war was beginning to turn and it was the Labour members of the wartime cabinet—Attlee, Bevin and Morrison—who, highly favourable towards reform, were increasingly in tune with the general public’s growing support for post-war reconstruction. Rab benefited greatly from this, as well as from the help of a number of leading figures inside and outside Parliament. Yet there is no denying the significance of Rab’s achievement in getting the Act through Parliament during wartime, or the impact it had on generations of schoolchildren after the war. His work was rightly admired and applauded both at Westminster and throughout the country.
The passage of the Act heralded the beginning of Rab’s most productive and successful years. Jago recounts in detail how, following the colossal defeat to Labour in 1945, Rab was central to “Reshaping the Conservative Party, 1945-51” [chapter 10]. Rab had rightly judged—pace Beaverbrook, Bracken and others—that the post-war election would be difficult for the Tories, and his political nous was soon in demand. He took the chairmanship of the revived Conservative Research Department and quickly realised that in order to bounce back the Conservatives had to be more like Labour: his work led directly to the publication of, among other things, The Industrial Charter of 1947, “a wholehearted attempt to reposition Tory policy” . Rab’s star continued to rise inexorably over the next few years and reached a high point when, during the summer of 1953, in the absence of Churchill and Eden, both in poor health, Rab regularly chaired meetings of the Cabinet.
Yet, as at the end of the 1930s when Rab, after a very promising period during which it seemed that nothing could prevent him from rising to the very top, became mired in the fallout from Munich, so at the end of the 1950s, after a period when Rab looked for all the world like a Prime Minister in waiting, he once again backed the wrong horse by supporting Eden over the Suez Canal crisis. Michael Jago is relentless in his examination of all the minute stages in the Westminster intrigues which slowly, painfully, unpicked all Rab’s painstaking work. Having thrown in his lot with Eden—despite being, at heart, fundamentally opposed to military action—it was Rab, in early 1957, who was left to clean up the political and diplomatic mess. Macmillan was the principal beneficiary, succeeding Eden and, furthermore, slowly but surely marginalising Rab. In 1963, Rab, for the third time, was passed over for the leadership of the party and, as a result, for occupancy of Number 10, this time by Alec Douglas-Home. Rab retired from politics less than two years later, gratefully accepting Harold Wilson’s suggestion that he should become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Jago is studiously fair on Rab, producing a detailed chronicle of the events of his life and of the subtleties of his character, and showing very clearly that Rab was a gifted, likeable and admirable man. On the balance sheet of Rab’s life, the “plus” column is faithfully filled-in. Indeed, the scope and detail of Jago’s account are impressive throughout (even if the bibliography and index are disproportionately short in relation to the solid text which precedes them). The main merit of Jago’s book is that he is never lured into over-proximity to his subject, something which can overtake biographers, who, drawn to their subject’s most endearing qualities, subsequently struggle against giving a more indulgent account than they themselves initially expected to write. It would have been easy, having catalogued Rab’s many achievements, to fall in with a general scratching of the head and wonder why on earth Rab did not make it to the very top: poor old Rab, so near yet so far! The truth, Jago concludes, is that Rab was not quite the right man for the top job.
It would be terrible condescension to suggest that Rab was only, merely, a good second-in-command. Rather, Rab never endeared himself to his party hierarchy. The older Tories, especially, quickly spotted a man they thought “too clever by half” [253, 408, 430, 434] and Rab’s intellectual arrogance gave them all the ammunition they needed. Further, when a difficult situation presented itself, Rab almost invariably hedged his bets, making virtues of sitting on the fence and rhetorical opacity. Churchill and Macmillan knew that sometimes the plunge had to be taken, even if it meant plunging in the knife: both men treated Rab accordingly. Worse, when the crunch moments came—Munich, Suez, the party leadership—he was fatally indecisive, giving in at length to moral rather than rational criteria: Rab was always more likely to be loyal than lucid. Indeed, in the light of Rab’s conduct during the Munich and Suez crises, and Jago’s own thorough analysis of these, it is difficult to agree wholly with the final suggestion that where Rab was concerned the Foreign Office was “the Office of State to which he was most suited” .
Rab was prone to “unfortunate comments [...] tactical blunders and [...] indiscretions” : perhaps these were not deal-breakers. The Tory Right saw him as “well-meaning but ineffective” : ditto. But Jago inexorably tots up the minus column: indecision, insecurity, erratic or faulty judgement, a tendency to be too scrupulous... Any one of these would have made it difficult for Rab to reach the top: taken together they make it very clear why he did not get there.
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