I am prompted by a charming exchange with the delightful and somewhat enigmatic Hatfield Girl to consider for a moment one of her heroes, the late Rab Butler.

For some he was the best Prime Minister the Conservatives never had, he having failed to grasp the mantle of Premiership on the two occasions when it might have been his: in 1957 when Macmillan succeeded Eden and in 1963 when Macmillan resigned, giving way to Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Apart from that he is best known for having steered through Parliament the 1944 Education Act which was to give a stability now unknown to the education system for the next twenty years and paved the way for the comprehensive school system which so blights our education today. Chunks of the Act remained in force until subsumed in the 1996 Education Act. Thirdly he gave his name to the concept of “Butskellism”, the post-war policy of consensus on the new welfare state and the economy, which was to lead us down a blind alley that was only ended in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher’s election victory.

There is another, darker, episode in Rab Butler’s career that lies largely forgotten, swept behind the veil of war and later success. This was his part in the policy of appeasement which so besmirched the reputation of some in the Conservative Party. He was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to Lord Halifax between 1938 and 1941 and spoke in that time in the Commons for his master.

It is a curious incident in June 1940 that casts a particular shadow a cross his reputation and may explain why he had so few backers for the leadership when it was thought to be within his purview. By mid-June 1940 the issue of whether Britain would fight on had largely been settled, not least because of the recovery of the majority of the personnel (though not the equipment) of the British Expeditionary Force, saved by the sound common sense of Viscount Gort, CinC BEF, on 24th. May to opt for evacuation over a hopeless offensive and by the skill and courage of the Royal Navy’s operations at Dunkirk. John Lukacs “Five Days In London May 1940”, (Yale University Press 1999) is an excellent account of the political battle that Churchill fought and won to ensure our remaining in the war.

It was on 17th. June 1940, however, that Rab Butler was to play a part in a tawdry tale of behind the scenes chicanery. The day before Pétain had taken control in France and was preparing shamefully to prostrate France before the German jackboot.

Butler met with the Swedish Minister in London, one Björn Prytz, in St. James’ Park on the morning of the 17th. and then invited him to the Foreign Office wheree told Prytz that “no opportunity would be neglected for concluding a compromise peace if the chance offered of reasonable conditions…. The so-called diehards [ie Churchill et el.] would not be allowed to stand in the way of negotiations”. It is a reasonable inference that they did not meet by chance and that Butler spoke with Halifax’s authority. Then Butler left Prytz in his office while he called on Halifax. Coming back he conveyed an explicit message from Halifax: “Common sense and not bravado would dictate the British Government’s policy”, though this should not be read as ‘peace at any price’. This had been the tenor of Halifax’s position in the earlier arguments in the War Cabinet, a position which had been rejected and roundly defeated.

Prytz certainly thought that this was official policy for he went back swiftly to his Embassy and conveyed the details of his conversation in an immediate telegram, in which he also intimated that he had heard that Churchill might yet be swept aside by Halifax. It Italians in Stockholm heard of the message and took it to mean that proposals were being made for peace. Prytz was then forced to disabuse everyone of that notion and backtrack somewhat in his assessment that a feeler for peace was being extended, which was not the case.

Churchill found out about this communication and was obviously very cross about it and the defeatist message that it had sent out. Nonetheless, no action was taken against Rab Butler, doubtless to keep Halifax on board, and indeed the latter was left with no alternative but to knuckle down to official policy so that on 19th. July 1940 he had to issue a ringing ‘no’ to Hitler’s peace blandishments on behalf of the government.

The only reasonable inference to be drawn is that Halifax had not given up on what he saw as the inescapable logic of coming to an accommodation with Germany and was prepared, notwithstanding that this was wholly contrary to agreed and settled policy, to hold out the prospect that Churchill could still be manœuvred out of office and be replaced by more reasonable men who would be willing to talk peace (as they saw it) or, as was really the case, shameful surrender. In that dishonourable exercise Rab Butler was Halifax’s Catspaw.

One imagines that this story would have become well-known in Tory circles and I have always thought it must have had much to do with Rab’s failure to get much support on the two occasions when his hat was in the ring for the Leadership.

Is there anything to be said for the thought that Mr Chamberlain knew better than most the condition of the factories and capacity to meet the requirements of modern war and that he bargained for the time needed to get the midlands and the north into production?, asks Hatfield Girl.

This has always been the defence of the appeasers, that they were consciously buying time for Britain because they realised that war was inevitably coming. Sadly this does not stand up to analysis. Chamberlain believed implicitly that Hitler’s word at Munich in the autumn of 1938 could be trusted and it was for that reason he signed along the dotted line, swallowing Hitler’s assurance that this was his last territorial demand in Europe. He continued to believe this to be so until the following spring when Germany seized the remains of a rump Czechoslovakia after Slovakia declared its independence. At that point the scales fell from his eyes and he opted to rewrite a speech he was about to make in Birmingham which signalled conversion to the idea that Hitler was not to be trusted. Only then did measures such as conscription and the galvanising of industry begin to put us on a war footing.