Butskellism is an expression of the notion that both the British Conservative and Labour Parties adopted a broadly similar approach to economic policy in the immediate post-war period, being derived from the fictious 'Mr Butskell', who made his first appearance in The Economist of the 13th February 1954;
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. He is a composite of the present Chancellor and of the previous one.
The "present" Chancellor of the Exchequer being Rab Butler for the Conservative Party who continued in that office until December 1955, and the "previous one" being Hugh Gaitskell, who had briefly served as Chancellor in the Labour administration of 1950-1951.
As The Economist went on to explain;
Whenever there is a tendency to excess Conservatism - such as a clamour for too much imperial preference, for wild dash to convertibility, or even for a little more unemployment to teach the workers a lesson - Mr Butskell speaks up for the cause of moderation from the Government side of the House; when there is a clamour for even graver irresponsibilities from the Labour benches, Mr Butskell has hitherto spoken up from the other.
This was one of those rare moments when The Economist decided to indulge in a little mild satire although many subsequently took this light-hearted piece rather too seriously and Mr Butskell became in a real sense the personification of the notion of some kind of post-war consensus over economic policy that lasted until the election of the Thatcher government in 1979.
Scott Kelly has recently gone to some lengths to demonstrate that the Labour and Conservative parties of the period actually adopted a fundamentally different approach to economic management, whilst Rab Butler was himself dismissive of the notion of any kind of convergence; in his memoirs he wrote; "Both of us, it is true spoke the language of Keynesianism. But we spoke it with different accents and a different emphasis." Gaitskell on the other hand appears to have been more sympathetic to such notions and claimed that with Butler as Chancellor the Conservatives "have really done exactly what we would have done, and have followed the same lines on controls, economic planning etc".
In retrospect however it can be argued that there was much common ground between the Conservative and Labour parties during the 1950s and 1960s, such as a belief in the mixed economy and the involvement of 'both sides of industry' in economic policy making, even if they substantially differed as regards the precise ways in which the economy should be managed. This was in marked contrast with the approach adopted
by Conservative administrations from 1979 onwards which were characterised by a belief in the free market and that economic policy making should be conducted by government without reference to any other interest group, particularly not the trade unions. This latter set of notions, which was once strenously opposed by the Labour Party, has now of course become the new consensus, and might well be termed Blatcherism or something similar if one had a mind to.
The Economist rarely credits any of its contributors and thus the creator of 'Mr Butskell' remained anonymous for many years. However the journalist Norman Macrae, who was employed by The Economist between 1949 and 1988, claimed some forty years later in 1995 that he was responsible for bringing Mr Butskell to life.
- Scott Kelly. The Myth of Mr. Butskell: The Politics of British Economic Policy, 1950-55. (Modern Economic and Social History Series.) Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate. 2002.
- Dominic Sandford, Never Had It So Good (Abacus, 2006)
- The Norman Macrae Archive at http://normanmacrae.com/