Sir Adam Butler: Tory minister and PPS to Thatcher

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The Independent Online

Adam Courtauld Butler, businessman and politician: born London 11 October 1931; ADC to Governor-General of Canada 1971-73; staff, Courtaulds 1955-73; MP (Conservative) for Bosworth 1970-87; Parliamentary Private Secretary to Minister of State for Foreign Affairs 1971-72; PPS to Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 1972-74; an Assistant Government Whip 1974; an Opposition Whip 1974-75; PPS to Margaret Thatcher, Leader of the Opposition 1975-79; Minister of State, Department of Industry 1979-81; Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 1981-84; PC 1984; Minister of State for Procurement, Ministry of Defence 1984-85; Kt 1986; chairman, Samuel Courtauld Trustees 1989-2005; Chairman, Airey Neave Trust 1989-99; Chairman, British Hallmarking Council 1998-2004; Vice Lord-Lieutenant, Warwickshire 1998-2005; married 1955 Felicity Molesworth St Hubyn (two sons, one daughter); died Lighthorne, Warwickshire 9 January 2008.

No freshly elected person ever arrived in the House of Commons with a more heavily plated silver spoon in his mouth than Adam Butler. His paternal grandfather, Sir Montagu Butler, Governor of the Central Provinces of India 1925-33, became Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge. His father, "Rab" Butler, was the architect of the post-1945 Conservative Party domestic policy, Churchill's Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1951-55, reforming Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, who had been chosen by Harold Wilson to be Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Adam's mother, Sydney, was the much-doted-upon only child of Samuel Courtauld, leading industrialist of the 20th century and patron of the arts.

Yet, as his school friend and contemporary, I can think of no boy who appeared less spoiled or more modest yet tough. As his Parliamentary pair, on and off, for 17 years between 1970 and 1987, I can vouch for the fact that no MP could have been more punctilious or considerate. Never did Butler "cash in" on his pedigree. On the contrary, he may have overcompensated by the modesty of his demeanour, to the extent that he was insufficiently "high profile" to attain political jobs to which his own abilities and ministerial competence might have entitled him.

Born in 1931, Butler went to school at Eton, where he was in the house of G.W. Nickson, one of the most discerning, intelligent, and certainly wittiest of all Eton "beaks", who treated his 13-year-olds as if they were undergraduates. After two years' National Service with the King's Royal Rifle Corps, spent mostly in the Middle East, which proved a formative experience, Butler went up to Cambridge, to his grandfather's college, Pembroke, to read History, supervised by the congenial, young and gifted economic historian David Joslin.

Then, in the knowledge, kept for a long time from his sons, that their mother had terminal cancer, Rab Butler arranged for Adam to go to Canada for the year 1954-55 as ADC to his friend Vincent Massey, Canadian High Commissioner in London from 1935 and throughout the war (and brother of the actor Raymond Massey), who had become Governor General of Canada in 1952.

Adam Butler often told me that his contact with Massey had been a crucial influence in his life. Massey believed that the Crown belonged to Canadians and, as the sovereign's representative, his job was to strengthen that bond. He combined a respect for the Crown and its ceremonies with a commitment to using the Office of Governor General to promote Canadian unity and identity. Butler's view of the Commonwealth was much influenced by Massey. He accompanied Massey on many travels: when visiting corners of Canada that could not be reached by plane or ship, they went by canoe or dog team. I am told by his industrial colleagues that Butler made it his business to go to any corner of the huge business firms with which he came to be associated.

Rab Butler wrote in his autobiography: "I went to America in September 1954 a very troubled man. Sir Stanford Cade had operated on my wife and had confirmed that the diagnosis was cancer. He showed me his library of casebooks of the disease and gave me to understand that he could offer little hope. He continued, however, to send me reports as encouraging as he reasonably could. I visited my son Adam, who was ADC to Vincent Massey as Governor General of Canada. I saw how well everything was being handled there, and since they were making Adam feel at home I advised him not to return."

Sydney's death in 1954, and his elder brother's distinguished farming and NFU career, meant that Adam Butler was the Courtauld family figure in the business. His tact won the respect and friendship of senior figures in the firm – especially Frank (later Lord) Kearton, the company's chairman. From 1955, Butler worked his way up from the bottom. In 1966 he became manager of the hosiery manufacturers Aristoc Ltd, a Courtaulds subsidiary, and two years later he was put in charge of another subsidiary, F.W. Sellers Ltd.

In June 1970 he was prevailed upon to become the Conservative candidate in the Bosworth constituency in Leicestershire, as a well-respected local businessman who had little or no chance of beating the well-known Labour MP and Panorama television personality Woodrow Wyatt. In the event, to Butler's surprise, it turned out to be a Conservative gain with a swing of 8.4per cent and a Conservative victory by 30,732 votes to 29,677. It was typical of Butler that he should wait six months, getting the feel of the House of Commons, before he made his maiden speech – on the Industrial Relations Bill's second reading on 15 December 1970:

As right honourable and honourable members would expect, I shall speak from my own experience and from a study of industrial relations for a number of years. I have worked, and I mean worked, in industry for 15 years. I started off by experiencing 168 hour working, and I may be one of a comparatively few honourable members who have done so. I do not mean 168 hours round the clock: Honourable members will recognise the seven-day, three-shift system. Recently I have risen to management and have been running manufacturing and selling units in my constituency. This is a broad experience which allows an insight into industrial problems.

My experience has been largely in an industry where industrial relations are good. Our principal union is the hosiery workers' union and I say "our" because management and union see eye-to-eye on the main objectives. As the Prime Minister said this afternoon, both sides see that on the future prosperity and profitability of our industry depend its ability to pay good wages and defend the jobs of the union members. Relationships are good, in that we have procedural and substantive agreements which allow for plant bargaining. We have in the past negotiated three-year agreements which have been observed, and, for men at least, we have moved from what might be described as the obsolescent system of piece-rate payment to what is effectively a time-rate with an added incentive bonus. This has all been done under a voluntary system.

Butler commended Edward Heath's Industrial Relations Bill, saying that the proposals put maximum emphasis on the continuance of voluntary relationships within a framework of law, as opposed to in terference by Government. "In this country we observe and respect the law if it is fair and sensible, but we in industry bitterly resent interference in matters which industry can better deal with itself from its own experience."

Even my Labour colleagues sensed that Adam Butler was less a politician in Parliament with industrial experience than he was an authentic representative of industry who had somehow drifted into the House of Commons. Kearton told me that had Adam Butler not been "sidetracked" into politics, he would certainly have become company chairman of Courtaulds, and a very shrewd one, too.

During his first years in Parliament he faced a tough challenge in holding his seat against the formidable Labour candidate Martin Sloman, a distinguished National Coal Board economist. In February 1974 the Bosworth figures were: Adam Butler, Conservative, 28,151; Martin Sloman, Labour, 26,464; Morris Galton (a university lecturer), Liberal, 16,859, on an amazing 86 per cent turnout. Six months later, Butler squeezed in by 28,490 votes to Sloman's 28,188 and Galton's 12,082, a majority of 302 and just 0.4 per cent of the vote. I am told that he would certainly have been defeated had it not been for the frenetic hard work of party activists, who liked him very much, and constituents who saw him as a wonderfully conscientious local MP with a deep and effective interest in their problems.

Between 1971 and 1974 he acted as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Joe Godber, first at the Foreign Office, and then at Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, before making it on to the front bench as an Assistant Government Whip, and then Opposition Whip after the 1974 election. When Margaret Thatcher unexpectedly deposed Heath, equally unexpectedly she chose Butler as one of her Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

In the view of Geoffrey Howe, Butler was "one of the bridge builders between factions in the Tory Party.

He was diffident but effective. It was a matter of surprise that Margaret Thatcher chose him, along with John Stanley, to be one of her two parliamentary private secretaries; but probably at the time she wanted to stretch out to a different wing of the Conservative Party and who better than Rab Butler's son as a symbol.

In 1979, with a Conservative victory, Butler was an obvious choice as Minister of State in the Department of Industry. However, he was too much of a conciliator for Thatcher's liking, and he was instead shunted sideways to Northern Ireland as Minister of State. There, he told me, he felt that although he was doing a number of constructive things, he was too much the quintessential Englishman for the taste of the Celts.

He was more at home when he was transferred to the Ministry of Defence as Minister of State for Procurement. Far more relaxed about his constituency – which he had won by 8,435 votes against Derek Fatchett in 1979 and by a whopping 17,294 votes in 1983 – Butler devoted himself to the detailed work of the Ministry of Defence. Making his maiden speech in that department in a debate on the Royal Navy in 1984, Butler started, "I have the feeling that naval debates have a touch of freemasonry about them". He was dead right: those who spoke were either "naval buffs" or had constituents working in dockyards.

Butler was extremely good at receiving delegations from those who had genuine worries and was untinged by Mrs Thatcher's adversarial style. However, he was enormously hurt when she sacked him the following year. Perhaps feeling himself out of sympathy with the trend of the Conservative Government, he decided to leave Parliament in 1987. He then immersed himself in industry and in organisations for the promotion of riding schools.

A question which screams to be asked is why Adam Butler never attained Cabinet rank. His Prime Minister knew him extremely well as her loyal PPS, in difficult party times for her as leader of the opposition. He was utterly dependable – what politicians call a "safe pair of Parliamentary hands". He was exceptionally well regarded by the civil servants in every department in which he served, as being brisk doing business, immaculately courteous and friendly, decisive, and on top of his complex brief. He was personally extremely popular with his Conservative colleagues and both liked and well-regarded by Labour MPs.

I think that the second son of Rab Butler and Sydney Courtauld had in him a streak of something rare among politicians – a genuine and active aversion to self-promotion. The worst thing I ever heard Butler say about a colleague was a quiet: "Don't you get the feeling that he tends to be a little flamboyant?" Butler knew that he was happier to spend his life in the boardrooms of Courtaulds and their subsidiaries than in the House of Commons – yet his presence enhanced the gravitas of Parliament, such as it was.

Tam Dalyell