Frank Longford recalls Butler and Baldwin and reviews two new works on these eminent statesmen
RAB — The Life of R A Butler by Anthony Howard (Jonathan Cape, £15). Baldwin by Roy Jenkins (Collins, £12.95).
BOTH these eminent politicians are well commemorated in these books: R A Butler in a comprehensive, very discerning biography by Anthony Howard; Baldwin very elegantly in what Roy Jenkins calls "a biographical essay".
Butler's record of achievement is impressive, with one controversial period. Elected a member of parliament in 1929 at the age of 26, he retired from the House 36 years later, on becoming Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was to be admired by all.
He was invaluable as UnderSecretary for India in the Indian reforms. He was all too clever, one may think now, in defending appeasement as Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. He was the architect of the Butler Education Act of 1944, for which alone he deserves to be remembered in history. The post-war new Conservatism owed more to him than to anyone. As Home Secretary, he created an atmosphere favourable to penal reform, though he cannot be said to have sustained his interest.
No one who had not been Prime Minister has influenced domestic policy as significantly as he did in the 20th century. Yet, as we all know, he was passed over for Premier first in 1957, secondly in 1963. On the first occasion Macmillian was his successful rival; on the second, he did much to engineer Butler's downfall.
It is sometimes said, plausibly enough, that R A Butler was the best Prime Minister we never had. I cannot quite accept that verdict. Hugh Gaitskell lacked Rab's toleration, an attractive quality, but was far more decisive.
Anthony Howard does his best to refute the charge against Rab of indecisiveness, but repeats the amusing story told by Sir Nicholas Henderson of Rab as Foreign Minister where he was a somewhat unhappy figure. On a certain day Rab enquired three times of his private office whether he ought to go to a reception given by the Moroccan Ambassador. Three times he was told it was quite
unnecessary. "Next morning the suggestion was made to Rab that he ought to write to the Moroccan Ambassador to apologise for his unavoidable absence of the night before". "Oh! I went", replied Rab provoking mystification all round.
It is not surprising that in 1957 Churchill, not long retired, advised the Queen in favour of Macmillan as "more decisive", and Butler's indecisiveness seemed to increase with the years.
What he could not do, though honourably ambitious, was fight for himself. Here he was defeated time and again by the ruthless Macmillan. Lord Blake, illustrious Tory historian, is quoted with approval by Anthony Howard: "In blocking the claims of Rab to the Prime Ministership Harold Macmillan did a lasting disservice to the Tory Party." That remains a matter of opinion.
Rab Butler came of an exceptionally distinguished family, eminent for two centuries in the academic world and later in public service. In that sense his background was non-political. Yet no-one was ever more fascinated by the art of politics. In short he was like no-one but himself.
His indiscretions to journalists and his ambiguous "Rabisms" provided much amusement but told against him in the end. When I gave the address at the Memorial Service for the second Lord Birkenhead in St Margaret's Westminster, Rab greeted me afterwards with the words: "Very good, of course. It's a pity they don't put in microphones here. I could hear perfectly, but then I was in the front row".
His first marriage was a fine partnership. His second a true love story.
Roy Jenkins says that "although Baldwin gave Butler the start of his 33 [sic] years of ministerial office, and Butler cherished Baldwin's memory, it is difficult to think of two political career . of more
contrasting shape, or two minds which worked more differently."
Without disputing those propositions I can think of many analogies between the two. Butler certainly regarded Baldwin as his favourite Prime Minister. A clue to the resemblance may be found in a quotation from Howard. He tells us: "Rab's most prominent characteristic as a politician was his feeling for the continuity of history and, above all, his sense of allegiance to what was for him a living English tradition of the true art of government".
Baldwin was, in an academic sense, an unintellectual man. I have heard him expressing his reluctance to meet "a great intellectual" like the late Lord Lothian. Butler got two first class degrees at Cambridge (admittedly with a second in between). Baldwin emerged from the same university with a third, although no-one then or later doubted his general intelligence.
When, as a young Conservative, I once asked him what political philosopher had influenced him most, he replied: "Sir Henry Main". "Rousseau", he went on, "had claimed that society had proceeded from contract to status. Main had demonstrated that it proceeded from status to contract." A pause. A look of horror came over his face. "Or was it", he asked, leaning confidentially towards me, "the other way round?"
But Baldwin's love of England and her history was emotionally at least as deep as Butler's. It possessed a religious dimension which was much less pronounced in Butler and was expressed on occasion with an artistry and power to move his fellow Englishmen that was beyond Butler's range.
It was not to be expected that with so much already written about Baldwin many new facts could be produced by Roy Jenkins. As always his narrative method is a joy. So is his epigramatic style.
What is most valuable is the kind of judgment which comes from an author who occupied positions as high as those of Butler if not quite (up until now) those of Baldwin. "Baldwin had three major long-term issues with which to contend during his years as the dominant figure (for such he undoubtedly was) of British politics". (He does not
include the abdication, though it is often regarded as Baldwin's supreme triumph). The three long-term issues were: first, the thrust to power of the organised working class expressing itself in industrial challenge and the rise to government of the Labour Party; second, the impact of Britain's relative industrial decline, and third, Mussolini's threat to a rather flimsy world order, "which quicky became
subsumed in Hitler's more massive threat to the independent existence of British and French democracy".
Putting it crudely in academic terms, Jenkins gives Baldwin an alpha under the first head; a beta under the second and a gamma or worse under the third. But he argues that in face of the international perils that arose under his last premiership, Baldwin's method was not different from that which would have been followed by at least 40 of the 48 prime ministers since Walpole. So he lets him off lightly.
Both were men of reconciliation and peace. The confrontational policies of' Conservativism today would have repelled them equally but they would have seen them against the long background of British wisdom and error.