Rab Butler

From Academic Kids

Richard Austen Butler, Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, PC, familiarly known as Rab, (1902-1982) was a British politician, one of the few to have served in all three posts of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary.


Butler was born in India and educated at Marlborough College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was President of the Cambridge Union Society. Whilst at Cambridge he read History and wrote a study of Sir Robert Peel. Many believe that this study of a man whose actions had deeply divided the Conservative Party was to prove deeply influential on Butler's own actions in later life. He was elected as Member of Parliament for Saffron Walden in the 1929 general election.

Butler held a series of junior Ministerial posts throughout the 1930s, often enacting controversial policy decisions. He served as Under Secretary of State for India at the time the Indian Home Rule Act was being debated in Parliament amidst massive rebellions from the Conservative Pary, and later as Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Neville Chamberlain's government. Many believe that his close association to the policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany was instrumental in limiting his political career. Butler himself would later claim that he had little input into the direction of foreign policy, since Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, between them took control, with the Prime Minister speaking in the House of Commons for the major aspects of government foreign policy rather than the sole Foreign Office minister in the Commons (an arrangement devised to respond to criticism of appointing a peer as Foreign Secretary rather than a reflection of Butler).

During the wartime coalition, Butler received his first senior ministerial post when he was appointed President of the Board of Education by Winston Churchill. 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. Despite this he proved to be one of the most radical reforming ministers on the home front, shaking up the education system in the Education Act of 1944, which is often known as the Butler Education Act. At the end of the war Butler briefly served as Minister of Labour for two months in the "Caretaker" administration of Winston Churchill.

After the Conservatives lost power in the 1945 general election, Butler emerged as one of the most prominent figures in the rebuilding of the party. He served as Chairman of the Conservative Research Department from 1945 to 1964, a record term. When the Conservatives regained power in 1951 he was appointed to the senior post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. 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. The magazine The Spectator commented on these similarities by referring to a hybrid Chancellor "Mr Butskell", from which the term Butskellism derives.

In 1953 Butler acted as head of the Government when Winston Churchill suffered a stroke whilst his heir Anthony Eden was undergoing an operation overseas. Many have speculated that Butler could have become Prime Minister had Churchill died or been persuaded to retire, but was thwarted by opposition determined to prevent a "Man of Munich" becoming Prime Minister. Churchill slowly recovered and retired in 1955, handing power to Eden with no controversy.

Butler's career did not prosper under Eden. His penultimate budget slashed taxation immediately before the 1955 general election but soon afterwards it became apparent that the economy was overheating and his final budget undid several of the tax cuts, leading to charges of opportunism designed to win the election. In December 1955 Butler was moved to the positions of Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons - a clear demotion and he did not even receive the principal sinecure office of Lord President of the Council.

Despite this Butler continued to act as a pseudo-deputy for Eden on a number of occasions, including chairing the Cabinet in the latter's absence, and many saw him as the natural successor to Eden. However Butler's stock stumbled during the Suez Crisis.

In January 1957 Eden resigned and did not give advice to Queen Elizabeth II as to who should succeed him. The Queen took advice from senior Ministers, as well as from Churchill, and opted to appoint Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister instead of Butler. Many believed that if the choice had been made by Conservative MPs as a whole, the wider Conservative Party or even the electorate then Butler would have been the clear favourite.

Macmillan sought to placate Butler by appointing him to a senior position, albeit as Home Secretary rather than Foreign Secretary. Butler held this post for five years, in which he once more demonstrated his radical reforming credentials through a number of pieces of legislation. Butler also held various additional posts on different occasions throughout this period, including Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal and Conservative Party Chairman.

In 1962 Macmillan promoted Butler to be Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State. The following year, however, Macmillan was taken ill during the Conservative Party Conference and resigned as Prime Minister, asking his party to select a new leader through the "customary processes" of which there were none, just a handful of confusing precedents. In the confusion of the next few days Butler found himself sidelined as support gathered around first Lord Hailsham then around the outside candidate Lord Home. When Macmillan found support for behind a Home premiership he made the according recommendation to the Queen. Many were outraged over the way that the premiership had been decided by a "Magic Circle" of the great and good of the party, and some ministers such as Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod both sought to persuade Butler to refuse to serve under Home, in the belief that this would make a Home premiership impossible and result in Butler taking office. However Butler refused. Some have attributed this to his university study of Peel, leading Butler to conclude that it was wrong to take action that could split the Conservative Party.

Home appointed Butler as Foreign Secretary and it was in this post he served until the 1964 general election. At the comparatively young age of 62 he left office for the last time with one of the longest records of ministerial experience amongst contemporary politicians. Butler remained on the Conservative front bench for the next year, when he was appointed Master of Trinity College Cambridge, and at the same time he was was awarded a life peerage the same year as Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, of Halstead in the County of Essex. At the time of his retirement from Parliament he was the longest continuously serving member of the Commons and Father of the House.

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

Template:Succession box one to two

Preceded by:
Gwilym Lloyd George
Home Secretary
Succeeded by:
Henry Brooke
Preceded by:
The Earl of Home
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by:
Patrick Gordon Walker
Preceded by:
Winston Churchill
Father of the House
Succeeded by:
Robin Turton

Template:End box


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