Scott Kelly is a Lecturer in Politics, NYU in London and Chief of Staff to the Rt. Hon. John Hayes MP.
This month marks the sixtieth birthday of one of the most influential political figures since the Second World War. These days he may be written-off as something of a has-been, but his character helps to define how we perceive the political class and shapes our understanding of the whole post-war era.
His arrival was announced in the pages of The Economist on February the 13th 1954, not in a column of births, marriages and deaths, but in an article by the economic commentator Norman Macrae who revealed that ‘Mr Butskell is already a well-known figure in dinner table conversations in both Westminster and Whitehall, and the time has come to introduce him to a wider audience.’ Mr Butskell was an amalgam of the names of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer from October 1950 to October 1951, and his Conservative successor Rab Butler who was Chancellor until December 1955. The point of Macrae’s article was not to suggest that there were no policy differences between them, it was rather to consider the tactics the Labour front bench should use to oppose Churchill’s Conservative Government. However, Mr Butskell soon took on a life of his own and became a figure of ridicule for those keen to pour scorn on the rhetoric of politicians.
Even so, Mr Butskell period in the spotlight was initially brief; after Butler left the Treasury Mr Butskell soon fell out of fashion and may have become one of the forgotten men of British politics had he not been revived by historians and political scientists who argued he personified a Keynesian consensus over economic policy that persisted until the 1970s.
When I studied history and politics at school and university in the late 80s and early 90s, Mr Butskell elicited far more attention than either of the men who had inspired his creation. Both sides of the political divide saw it as being in their interests to present the Thatcher Government as breaking from the values of the past. Today, as commentary at the time of Baroness Thatcher’s funeral attests, our understanding of post-war history before Blair is essentially a progression from political consensus to turbulence in the 70s and then divergence: Thatcherism preceded by Butskellism.
It was then something of a surprise that when researching an essay as a student twenty years ago, I actually read Gaitskell’s 1951 Budget speech and found that it bore such little resemblance to the consensualist portrait of Mr Butskell that it sparked an idea in my mind for a potential thesis subject. It wasn’t just that Gaitskell’s rhetoric and policies didn’t seem to conform to the descriptions in most history books; his ideas were also much more radical and interesting than I had been led to believe.
Some years later, after countless long and lonely days in libraries and archives, I published a book ‘The Myth of Mr Butskell’, challenging the prevailing wisdom. I found that rather than personifying consensus, Gaitskell and Butler held beliefs and followed policies that amounted to a fundamentally different approach to economic management. The disagreement centred on the kind of physical economic controls and restrictions we now associate with the wartime economy. Gaitskell thought that physical controls such as building licences and import controls were central to economic planning and to the maintenance of full employment and that rationing was necessary to provide ‘fair shares’ of what he classified as ‘essential’ goods. Gaitskell’s belief in a controlled economy meant that he did not believe the pound should ever be made fully convertible or that restrictions on trade should be lifted. He believed, and was probably right to believe, that such objectives were incompatible with a socialist economy.
Although Butler did not share Gaitskell’s training as an economist, he too had a set of beliefs that supported a clear economic strategy. He believed that controls constrained economic activity and created artificial shortages that justified the imposition of even greater restrictions. Butler believed that if the realities of the world economy were not brought to bear on the British economy then economic policy would amount to little more than constant crisis management. Butler therefore favoured a policy of decontrol, the immediate restoration of convertibility at a floating rate and movement towards an open multilateral trading system. Butler believed that economic management should centre on indirect methods, in particular fiscal and interest rate policy.
The divergence between the policies pursued by Gaitskell and Butler reflected differences between political as well as economic doctrines. In particular, it reflected a fundamentally different approach to the relationship between the individual and the state and to what constitutes individual freedom. This was not an esoteric debate confined to academic literature but an important part of political discourse at the time.
Although I amassed much evidence against Mr Butskell existence, my ‘revisionist’ history went against the tide of academic opinion when it was first published. I have recently released a revised and expanded Kindle edition in the hope, rather than the expectation, that it is now possible to view the years after the war with greater objectivity. It is not my intention to make light of the importance of Conservative reforms of the 1980s, but rather to suggest that the ideological battle that raged at that time had deeper roots than some have claimed. Indeed, in disputes over plan A vs. plan B; the level of income tax and Britain’s future in the European Union – membership of which Gaitskell opposed and Butler was sceptical – such ideological disputes matter much more than cynics care to admit. It is time to put the mythical and trivialising figure of Mr Butskell to rest, and instead turn our attention to the actual ideas of real politicians.