HC Deb 10 March 1982 vol 19 cc845-9 3.30 pm
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to express the great sense of loss which the country and Parliament have sustained by the death of Lord Butler of Saffron Walden, and to extend our sympathy to his family, especially to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler).

Rab Butler was one of the greatest statesmen and most distinguished personalities of our time. He was, indeed, a giant of his generation. His long, busy, active life was dominated by one overriding purpose—to serve his country and his fellow men.

He was determined to continue his family tradition of public service. His father had been Governor of the Central Provinces in India and Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Rab's early years were a characteristically meticulous preparation for the path which he had chosen to follow. At Cambridge he won a double first and became President of the Union. At the age of 27 he was elected to this House and represented the same constituency without interruption for 36 years before he went to another place.

He was in office for 26 out of those 36 years, half of them as a member of the Cabinet. Within three years of his arrival in the House of Commons he became Under-Secretary at the India Office, and then at the Foreign Office, before becoming Minister of Education in 1941. It was in that capacity that I first heard him speak—at Oxford.

His four years in that Department were among the most rewarding of his life. He regarded the Education Act of 1944 as a deep and abiding contribution to the future of his country. Then followed a brief spell as Minister of Labour.

After the defeat of his party in 1945, Rab was the major intellectual force in refashioning policy for the post-war world. Mr. Churchill appointed him as chairman of the research department and no chairman has ever exercised as powerful or as lasting an influence as Rab.

He became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first post-war Conservative Government. His first Budget Statement, delivered 30 years ago tomorrow, concluded with these words: We must now set forth, braced and resolute, to show the world that we shall regain our solvency and, with it, our national greatness."—[Official Report, 11 March 1952; Vol. 497, c. 1305.] Rab was a patriot, a scholar and a statesman. Whether at the Treasury or as Leader of the House, as Lord Privy Seal or Home Secretary, as First Secretary of State or Foreign Secretary, his patriotism, his scholarship, as well as his genius as a politician, shone through.

Twice during those years, in 1957 and in 1963, he suffered grievous disappointment. He allowed neither event to diminish his zeal or his work for the cause which he served throughout his life.

Although we remember him primarily as a statesman and politician, there were two other aspects of Rab's life which meant so much to him. He was devoted to the cause of learning. He was High Steward of Cambridge university for six years and Chancellor of Sheffield university and of the university of Essex. But nothing gave him greater pride than his presidency of the Royal Society of Literature and his mastership of Trinity. It was singularly fitting that he, with so much experience at home and abroad, with a deep understanding of our constitution, should have been master when the heir to the throne became an undergraduate at Trinity.

Throughout his arduous life, Rab was supported by a loving family. His first wife died in 1954. He married again in 1959 and Lady Butler brought a new comfort and purpose into his life.

The last 17 years of Rab's life were spent out of office, but they, like the earlier years, were filled with achievement and the pride of a united family, and all the while the sometimes indiscreet but always lovable sense of humour kept coming through.

On the day that Winston Churchill resigned in 1955, Rab wrote to him saying: this time with you has given me … the strength to face all things quietly. He ended with the words of St. Augustine: Let nothing disturb thee, Let nothing affright thee, All passeth away, God alone will stay, Patience obtaineth all things. Those words are also a fitting tribute to the man whom we honour today.

3.36 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

I am glad to respond to the Prime Minister's remarks and also to offer the Opposition's sympathies to Lady Butler and to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler).

I can remember Rab Butler in this House over many years. The Opposition regarded him not only as one who made a considerable contribution to the politics of the period but also as a formidable opponent. In the early period, it is natural enough that some of us regarded him in a different light. The Abbé Sieyés was once asked what he did in the French Revolution. He replied that he had survived. Lord Butler survived. He survived through the 1930s and the later period. Indeed, he survived so successfully that I believe that most of those on this side of the House who knew him best expected that he would become the Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.

I remember vividly, in 1957, in those far-off days of the inscrutable process by which the Conservative Party then chose its leader, the morning of the announcement that Mr. Harold Macmillan had been chosen to succeed. I remember my conversation on that occasion with Aneurin Bevan and the gasp of astonishment that he unloosed. He, I am sure, like many of us, believed that Rab Butler was likely to be chosen as Leader.

Rab went on to make many other contributions. Many of his writings, I believe, have added to the politics of the country. He wrote one of the best political autobiographies under the title "The Art of the Possible". I conversed with him a short while before the book had that title ascribed to it. I suggested that the title should be different, that it should be called "The Best Possible Prime Minister". He would not accept my suggestion. No doubt it was partly wisdom and partly modesty which led him to refuse that title.

Rab was the master of the compliment that kills, of the embrace that can suffocate; he could make a stab in the back seem like a caress and he carried his writings and instruction right up to later days. Not only would I recommend "The Art of the Possible" to anyone who wishes to know how the Conservative Party has survived so long against all the odds, but I would also recommend the introduction to Disraeli's "Sybil" which I believe was one of Rab's last writings.

Contrary to any supposition that there might be, Lord Butler was not an admirer of Disraeli. I know that fashions change in these matters. Indeed, I suppose that in a sense, although he would never have used the term himself, Lord Butler might have been described as the original "wet".

Lord Butler approached his own politics in his own way, and although he was scornful of Disraeli in many respects, in his introduction to Disraeli's "Sybil", with the touch of irony that added to everything that he said, he wrote: Even today there is in Britain a 'one nation group' led by Lord Hailsham and Lord Hinchingbrooke which is dedicated to uniting the rich and the poor. As I believe the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) wrote in The Times this morning, the witticisms of Lord Butler were always deliberate and I think that they were deliberate in the sentence that I have quoted. I doubt whether Lord Hailsham and Lord Hinchingbrooke have exchanged a word in the past two decades. Moreover, I doubt whether Lord Butler, who was never a member of the "one nation" group, was as enthusiastic about it as that sentence might suggest.

Lord Butler presented politics to the nation in an original manner and tone and the Opposition are happy to join the Prime Minister in the tribute that she has paid.

3.43 pm
Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

The Liberal and Social Democratic Parties would like to be associated with the tributes that have been paid to Lord Butler and with the sympathy offered to his widow.

Together with Harcourt and Joseph Chamberlain, Rab was one of the trio of leading politicians of their time who never became Prime Minister. Yet he has left an imprint on our affairs greater than that left by many Prime Ministers. The background against which all parties have developed their policies on education and the Home Office derives not only from the reforms that he introduced but from his capacity to crystallise opinion and to generate consensus. Butskellism can be seen as the practical application of the doctrines of Keynes—the patron saint of responsible capitalism and the mentor of those who try to manage the mixed economy.

Rab was at once a reforming and a unifying figure in a post-war world in which, without him, politics might have been much more abrasive. I personally regret that he did not become Prime Minister after Suez. I believe that Britain at that time was ready for wider reforms of the type at which he excelled and which, had they been carried out with the good will that he engendered, would greatly have improved the performance of our industry, our industrial relations and the well-being of our country.

His talents, his kindness and his taste are celebrated. Everyone was always glad to see Rab. People gravitated towards him and were often rewarded by the latest Rabism. His illuminating ambiguities said more than many straight answers, and the expected oblique was part of his charm. I once asked him to dinner on a certain Wednesday. After consulting his diary long and earnestly, he looked up and said with an absolutely straight face, "If you had asked me on Tuesday, I could not have come."

We shall all always miss him, and our heartfelt wishes go out to his widow and family.

3.45 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer in his speech yesterday remarked that there are few left in this House who heard R. A. Butler introduce his first Budget. Perhaps one who not only heard that speech but worked under and with R. A. Butler for six years before that may add a few words to what has been said.

In the many tributes, written and spoken, of the past 24 hours, one important trait has strangely and unduly been absent. There has not been adequate reference to the attention and respect which Rab Butler commanded in this House. No man can occupy any position in the politics of this country who has not learnt to deserve the respect and to govern the attention of the House of Commons. Schooled perhaps by his experiences in those difficult years of defending the sometimes scarcely defensible in the 1930s, he had learned that art and had gained that position as few others have done. Whether the occasion was a little one or a great one, the House looked forward to what Rab Butler would say, knowing that it would not be disappointed.

Reference has been made already to a certain peculiar turn of his wit—the Rabism, as it was called—of which those of us who loved him most were the most zealous collectors. It might perhaps be called the art of the backhander. I am certain, however, that it betokened no meanness or bitterness of spirit nor any desire to injure, but was a sign of the deep and humorous comprehension of his fellow men and of the world which sometimes took the form of that self-deprecatory expression—for the Rabism was always in part directed against Rab himself.

It is more than 16 years since he sat in this House. When we go hence, our room is soon filled, and we are soon forgotten. Those who knew Rab Butler will be glad that the time and space were still not so long that those who knew and remembered him could not bring their tribute where he would most have wished it—to the Floor of the House today.

3.47 pm
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

As the current Member for the constituency that Lord Butler represented in this House for so long, I should like to add my tribute. That he was a great statesman requires no repetition from me. Nor do I need to enlarge on his skills and sensitivity as a politician. It is worth remarking, however, what a tremendous source of inspiration he was to many people of my generation in their formative political years. He has undoubtedly left his mark on the politics of this country—a mark which many of us regard as indelible.

I venture to suggest that nowhere outside the family circle, to whose members I send my personal condolences. will he be more greatly mourned than among the people whom he represented and the communities that he served in the towns and villages of north-west Essex. For all that Rab held high office and moved in the highest circles during most of his 35 years' membership of this House, he was the most attentive of constituency Members. His devotion to the details of constituency life earned him an enviable reputation. For as long as it exists, I doubt whether Saffron Walden will ever be thought of as other than Rab's seat.

In the past four-and-a-half years, I have been struck by the volume of tales, memories and anecdotes about what Mr. Butler did for people and their continuing affection and regard for him. Whenever I had the privilege of seeing him in these last years, he would always end by saying, "Give them my love." I can attest that that love is returned in the fullest measure by the people of Saffron Walden. The reputation of being at heart a good constituency man is an essential part of the statesman whom we honour today, and I suspect that it is the epitaph which Rab himself would most appreciate.

3.50 pm
Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I speak briefly to express on behalf of the people of Cambridge, of all parties and of none, our grief at the loss of a true friend as well as an eminent statesman, and our warmest wishes to Lady Butler and to his family.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) referred to the fact that Rab was an inspiration to a particular generation. I, too, am a member of that generation. He was to me not only a friend, a mentor, and a critic, but also an inspirer. He will be remembered long, not only in my constituency and in the House—as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) so rightly put it—but also in the hearts of those who believe that public life is not about getting but about giving.

Mr. Speaker

I trust that the House will allow me to conclude these proceedings by saying that I consider it a great privilege to preside over the House when it reminds itself of a very great parliamentarian. I served in the House for 21 years when Rab Butler was a Member. His kindness to people who sat on the other side of the House from himself was something to be experienced and never forgotten.