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Richard Austen Butler, Baron Butler of Saffron Walden, KG CH DL PC (9 December 1902 – 8 March 1982), who invariably signed his name R. A. Butler and was familiarly known as Rab, was a British Conservative politician. Butler was one of the few British politicians to have served in the three posts of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, but never achieved—and was twice passed over for—the Premiership.

Early life

Butler was born in Attock Serai in India to Sir Montagu Sherard Dawes Butler and his wife, Anne Gertrude Butler (née Smith), Lady Butler. His father later remarried and thus he gained a half-sister, Iris Mary Butler, who become Iris Portal upon marriage.

Butler's was a family of Cambridge don and Indian Governors; as a child his right arm was injured in a riding accident, leaving his hand never again fully functional. 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. He was educated at Marlborough Collegemarker and Pembroke College, Cambridgemarker, where he was President of the Cambridge Union Societymarker in the summer term of his third year; in March 1924, as a newly-elected President, he entertained the Opposition Leader Stanley Baldwin at a debate.

While at Cambridge he read French (in which he obtained a First), German and, in his fourth year, History and International Relations, in which he obtained one of the highest Firsts in the University. He specialised in the study of Sir Robert Peel, a man whose actions had split the Conservative Party and who may have greatly influenced Butler's later political trajectory. Butler also took part in the ESU USA Tour, the debating tour of the United States run by the English-Speaking Union.

After a brief period as a Cambridge don, teaching nineteenth century French history, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Saffron Waldenmarker in the 1929 general election. Butler held this seat until his retirement in 1965.

Member of Parliament

Butler held a series of junior Ministerial posts throughout the 1930s, often enacting controversial policy decisions. After a brief period as Parliamentary Private Secretary (i.e. personal assistant) to the India Secretary Samuel Hoare, he was given his first ministerial job as Under-Secretary of State for India (1932-37) at the time the Indian Home Rule Act was being debated in Parliament amidst massive opposition, led by Winston Churchill, from rank-and-file Conservative supporters. In 1937-8 he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour.

Subsequently he was (appointed 1938) Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Neville Chamberlain's government. Butler's close association to the government's policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany may have been instrumental in limiting his political career. Butler himself would later claim that appeasement had been aimed at buying time for Britain to rearm, and that he had little input into the direction of foreign policy and that true power was held by Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, with the Prime Minister speaking in the House of Commons for the major aspects of government foreign policy instead of Butler, who was 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 on Butler).

Butler disliked Churchill. Jock Colville recorded in his diary in May 1940, when Churchill was replacing Chamberlain as Prime Minister:

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.

David Lloyd George intended a compliment when describing Butler as "playing the part of the imperturbable dunce who says nothing with an air of conviction".

1944 Education Act

In the summer of 1941, Butler received his first Cabinet-level 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 Officemarker. 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 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.

Resistance plans

Butler had been designated to be one of the regional representatives of King George VI, as part of the secret plan of resistance had Britainmarker been occupied by the Nazi forces. Little even today is known about this proposed plan. 201, 202 and 203 Battalions of the British Home Guard would have been the foundation of this British resistance.


After the Conservatives lost their majority in the 1945 general election, Butler emerged as one of the most prominent figures during the rebuilding of the party. He served a record term as Chairman of the Conservative Research Department from 1945 to 1964. When the Conservative party returned to 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 Economist commented on these similarities by referring to a hybrid Chancellor, "Mr Butskell", from which the term Butskellism derives.

Butler planned to move to system of free-floating the pound ("Operation ROBOT"), but this was scuppered by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in a rare intervention of his in domestic politics.

In 1953 Butler acted as head of the Government when Winston Churchill suffered a stroke, whilst his successor Anthony Eden was undergoing an operation overseas. Many have speculated that Butler could have become Prime Minister had he persuaded Churchill to retire at this point, but Butler lacked the ruthlessness that would have been necessary to accomplish this, and may have been concerned about opposition to 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, about whom a number of Butler's sardonic witticisms surfaced. He described Eden as "half mad Baronet, half beautiful woman" and once agreed with a journalist that Eden was "the best Prime Minister we have". His penultimate budget slashed taxation immediately before the 1955 general election but soon afterwards it became apparent that the economy was "overheating" (i.e. inflation and the balance of payments deficit were rising sharply), and his final budget undid several of the tax cuts, leading to charges of electoral opportunism. In December 1955 Butler was moved to the post of Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons. Although Butler 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, was assured by Eden that Butler was not senior to him.

Despite this Butler chaired the Cabinet in Eden's absence. However Butler's stock stumbled during the Suez Crisis, particularly during Eden's absence in Jamaicamarker, during which time Butler was seen to give weak leadership.

Butler and Macmillan

In January 1957 Eden resigned as prime minister, 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 Churchill (who backed Macmillan), Edward Heath (who as Chief Whip was aware of backbench opinion) and from Lord Salisbury, who 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 only between one and three were for "Wab"). The advice was overwhelmingly to appoint Macmillan as Prime Minister instead of Butler. The media were taken by surprise by this choice, but Butler himself later confessed in his memoirs that while there was a sizeable anti-Butler faction on the backbenches, there was no such anti-Macmillan faction.

Macmillan sought to placate Butler by appointing him to a senior position, albeit as Home Secretary rather than Foreign Secretary, the job he wanted. 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". Butler held the Home Office for five years, in which he once more demonstrated his radical reforming credentials through a number of pieces of legislation, although his liberal views on hanging and flogging did little to endear him to rank-and-file Conservative members. 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, the latter job prompting a newspaper analogy with Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power through control of the Soviet Communist Party.

The succession to Macmillan

In the "Night of the Long Knives" reshuffle in 1962, Butler at last received the formal titles of Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State. 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 his successor. The following year, 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. Lord Hailsham was rejected after using the Conference to campaign openly for the job in a manner considered vulgar at the time. Support gathered around the outside candidate Lord Home. Much ink has been spilled on how badly the consultation process was rigged, but in the end Macmillan recommended Home for the premiership.

Many were outraged over the way that Butler had been passed over yet again. Hailsham and Maudling were dissatisfied by the choice, but agreed to serve under Home. Enoch Powell and Iain Macleod (who later claimed in print that the leadership had been stitched up by a "Magic Circle" of old Etonians) 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. However Butler refused to join Powell and Macleod; he even alleged in a letter to The Times that to have done so might have led to a Labour government (this suggestion was later dismissed as absurd by Harold Wilson, then Opposition leader). Some have attributed Butler's actions to his university study of Peel, and to his resultant fear of splitting the Tory party. Powell, a former 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, a metaphor which speaks volumes about how Butler's lack of military experience affected his colleagues' image of him.

It is worth observing that despite Butler's immense experience, he was not an overwhelming choice as leader. In leadership elections a generation later, it has often been the case that the initial frontrunner (eg. David Davis in 2005), or the "obvious" and publicly popular candidate (eg. Michael Heseltine in 1990, or Kenneth Clarke in 1997 and 2001) loses at the final hurdle to a "second-best" candidate who enjoys a wider consensus of support in his own party. Anyway, there is no doubt that 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 as Foreign Secretary, and it was in this post he served until his party narrowly lost office at the 1964 general election. Many believed that the Conservatives would have won under Butler's leadership, but 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".

Retirement from politics

At the comparatively young age of 62 Butler 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 Collegemarker Cambridgemarker. The same year he was awarded a life peerage as Baron Butler of Saffron Walden. He would then sit as a cross-bench peer in the House of Lords. He had declined offers of an hereditary earldom, both by Alec Douglas-Home in his resignation honours list and by Harold Wilson.

At the time of his retirement from Parliament he was the longest continuously serving member of the Commons and Father of the House. 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 also actively served as the first Chancellor of the University of Essexmarker from 1966 until his death in 1982 at Great Yeldhammarker, Essex. He is buried in the churchyard of the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in Saffron Waldenmarker.

Butler's son Adam served as a Member of Parliament from 1970 to 1987 and as a junior minister under Margaret Thatcher.

In fiction

In the alternate reality depicted in John Wyndham's short story Random Quest, where the Second World War did not happen, Rab Butler is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The story was written in 1954, when his achieving that office was a serious possibility.

Styles and honours

  • Mr Richard Butler (1902–1929)
  • Mr 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)

Lord Butler of Saffron Walden had been twice offered an hereditary earldom and would have perhaps become the Earl of Saffron Walden had he accepted such an offer. Instead, he chose to accept a life peerage although the reason for this remains unknown.


  1. Graham Stewart, Burying Caesar. Churchill, Chamberlain and the Battle for the Tory Party (Phoenix, 1999), p. 425.
  2. Maurice Cowling, The Impact of Hitler. British Politics and British Policy, 1933-1940 (Chicago University Press, 1977), p. 403.
  3. Hennessy, p. 199


  • F. S. Pepper (ed.), Handbook of 20th Century Quotations, Sphere Study Aids, 1984, p. 105, ISBN 0-7221-6770-9
  • Peter Hennessy, Having It So Good: Britain In The Fifties, Penguin Books, 2006, ISBN 978-0-141-00409-9

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