‘The best prime minister we never had’ is not an epithet exclusive to Rab Butler. Widely applied to the late Denis Healey, it was also said of Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod and Roy Jenkins. (More recent candidates would include Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke.) All had arguably greater intellects than the prime ministers they ended up serving, all enjoyed significant popularity in the country and all were committed to the centre-ground of British politics. Yet while ‘The best PM we’ve never had’ is a club rather than a solitary designation, Rab Butler is pre-eminent among its members. The holder of all three great offices of state — a record shared with only Sir John Simon and James Callaghan — the architect of postwar Conservative policy, a deputy prime minister and first secretary of state, there were no fewer than three occasions on which he might have become prime minister, on two of which he was expected to.
So why didn’t he? The conspiratorial answer is that he was denied the highest office by a cabal of Old Etonians. (Butler went to Marlborough, having failed to win a scholarship to Eton.) This theory was popularised by Iain Macleod who, in a famous article for this magazine, argued that the 1963 Conservative leadership election had been rigged by a ‘magic circle’ of establishment grandees in favour of the Scottish aristocrat Lord Home. But as Michael Jago argues in this careful chronicle of Butler’s political career, Butler himself was responsible for his failure to reach the top.
A liberal Conservative who three times infuriated the right of his party — over Suez, over flogging, and over his much-derided 1955 ‘Pots and Pans’ budget — Butler lacked the force of personality to convince his own party that his leadership credentials matched his brains. Indeed his brains were as much a handicap as an asset. Notoriously described by John Stuart Mill as the ‘stupid’ party, the Conservative party has always distrusted intellectuals and hasn’t chosen one as its leader since Arthur Balfour. With his donnish manner (he became a Cambridge don, having achieved a remarkable double first), his clothes — described by the flamboyant Tory MP Chips Channon as ‘truly tragic’ — and his sad irregular features, Butler could never compete with the Edwardian-styled Harold Macmillan reading Jane Austen on a grouse moor.
More detrimental than his flawed image was Butler’s indecisiveness — his ‘gently barbed ambiguity’. This was fatal to his chances of becoming prime minister and, according to Jago, why Butler would not in fact have been a particularly good premier. His most damaging flip-flop was over Suez — ironic, since Macmillan performed a complete volte-face and yet still managed to pluck the crown from the thorn-bush. Equally disastrous was Butler’s decision to levitate above the fray of the 1963 leadership election before throwing away his last chance to become PM by agreeing to serve under Alec Douglas-Home. As Enoch Powell later remarked, Butler had been given a loaded revolver but refused to pull the trigger.
With style and persuasive analysis, Jago guides us through the ups and downs of Butler’s political life: his ill-conceived zeal for appeasement, the triumph of the 1944 Education Act, his prosperous time at the Exchequer, his liberal time at the Home Office, and his all too brief time in charge of foreign affairs. What is sadly missing from this book, however, is any sense of Richard Austen Butler the man. Though we learn on page 403 that he enjoyed shooting, there is little discussion of any wider hinterland, personality, or even the philosophy which guided his politics. Admittedly he was an enigma to many of his contemporaries: ‘Anyone who understands Rab Butler,’ a waggish colleague remarked, ‘must be gravely misinformed.’ But it is a shame that more is not revealed beneath the diffidence and the ‘Rabisms’. However, this excellent political biography remains well worth reading. Not the ‘best prime minister we never had’ but one of our most gifted and important politicians.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21.25 Tel: 08430 600033. Tim Bouverie is a producer for Channel 4 News.