The Foreign Secretaries (20): George Brown

SCAN-NOP-0054057217802350-1000x1000George Brown, 1966-68

Labour, under Wilson

It is sad that, if he is remembered for anything much nowadays, George Brown is remembered for his drinking.

Brown was hardly unique in being a heavy drinking politician. Indeed, drinking too much has long been an occupational hazard at Westminster. Many of our finest political leaders liked a tipple. Margaret Thatcher liked a wee dram or two, and Bevin many more than two; Wilson’s drinking is often thought to have hastened his decline as prime minister in the ‘seventies. Roy Jenkins was famous for his long lunches, and the claret that went with him. Some have even been prone to becoming significantly the worse for wear, and publicly so. We get the word squiffy from Asquith’s tendency to roll into the Commons after a few too many over dinner; Churchill famously had his moments. In David Owen’s view, in the evening sessions of the late ‘seventies Commons ‘at least a third of the house… were pissed’.

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Brown was certainly not the only Labour politician to have a soft spot for the high life, nor the only one to enjoy the company of beautiful women (above, he is pictured with the American star Barbara Streisand) . Gaitskell’s Hampstead set was formed from the glitterati and the literati: he had a long running affair with Anne Fleming (high society wife of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond). Roy Jenkins moved in similar kinds of circles, and had numerous affairs. They, however, were discrete. Neither were they hammered, and very publicly so.

The most famous tale is probably not true, but should be:

Attending a glittering official reception, with all the military officers in full-dress uniform and the ambassadors in court dress, he is said to have made a bee-line for a gorgeously crimson-clad figure. A colleague later recalled the story: George said: “Excuse me, but may I have the pleasure of this dance?” There was a terrible silence for a moment before the guest, who knew who he was, replied: “There are three reasons, Mr Brown, why I will not dance with you. The first, I fear, is that you’ve had too much to drink. The second is that this is not, as you suppose, a waltz that the orchestra is playing but the Peruvian national anthem, for which you should be standing to attention. And the third reason why we may not dance, Mr Brown, is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”’

Some famous political drinkers could be offensive too: think Churchill again. But, perhaps no one did it quite like George Brown. Harold Wilson’s view was that George Brown didn’t drink more, he just couldn’t handle it when he did. Wilson was half-right: Brown couldn’t handle it, but he drank more too. The real point was that Brown got very obviously drunk.

The stories are legion. At the UN, he tried to eat a bunch of artificial grapes. In the Commons lobby, he tried to undo the back of Barbara Castle’s blouse. Once, when presented to Princess Margaret at a reception, he knelt on the floor to kiss her hand, only to find himself unable to get up again.

Perhaps, this might not have mattered, were it not for the fact that it would ultimately intrude into his politics.

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Brown was born into a working class family, and brought up on a Peabody estate in Southwark, London. He knew poverty too, especially when his father lost his job for supporting the general strike. Brown grew up with three great influences. The first was Christianity, under the influence of high church Anglicanism. He was a Labour supporter as a boy. Like many working class young men, he extended his education through evening classes: the strain of self-improvement that was so common in the Labour party of the first half of the 20th century was very much part of Brown’s development. He also worked for Bevin’s Transport and General Workers Union.

From the start, though, he was a political activist. His wife came from a leading Labour family in London. By 1939, he was the constituency party representative for Barnet at the party conference. He had taken part in Labour Party events that had been organised by Sir Stafford Cripps. However, by 1939 Cripps had moved sharply to the left, and advocated cooperation with the communist party and other far left groups. At the conference, Brown spoke in support of Cripps’ expulsion. It was the party chairman in that year, George Dallas, who helped Brown secure the seat of Belper, and enter the Commons in 1945.

Brown’s rise was rapid and he held a range of junior posts under Attlee. He came under the wing of the likes of Dalton and Bevin. When Bevan resigned, and the Bevanite left began to cause trouble, Brown became one of their leading opponents. By 1955, he was a convinced Gaitskellite. Gaitskell appreciated his ability, and his trade union credentials. He was a brilliant performer at election time and strong in the House. He had a very sharp intellect, and was undoubtedly one of the leading figures on the right of labour. As such, he won the deputy leadership in 1960. Many saw him as Gaitskell’s successor, most of all Brown.

There are a number of reasons why Brown lost out to Wilson in 1963, and not all of them were related to his drinking. As the scourge of the Bevanite left, the left hated him. He returned the compliment, with interest. Even his own side had their issues. Brown had a reputation for duplicity and disloyalty. He had earned the ire of Bevin when he had been active in the plot to oust Attlee in 1947. Anthony Wedgewood Benn, who was no left-winger at the time, thought him unscrupulous. By 1960, even Dalton noted saw him as ‘awkward, vain, sensitive and fundamentally self-seeking and unfaithful’. Gaitskell thought him difficult. The working class Brown bristled up against his middle class and Oxbridge educated colleagues: in short, as Gaitskell noted, he had something of a chip on his shoulder. Dick Crossman said the same. Brown was certainly quick to take offence, and give it; though hardly less quick to apologise.

There was often something to apologise for, whether the drink was involved or not. Brown, offended by an article Crossman had written, physically attacked him in the House. He was famous for his public rows with his wife. That was, in the end, the real problem with his drinking. Brown was naturally combative, prickly and give to rushes of blood to the head when sober. He was, however, an aggressive, loudmouthed and volatile drunk. And, by 1963, he was drunk far too often. He made a public embarrassment of himself over the death of President Kennedy. In the 1964 meeting to decide the Labour manifesto, he was too far-gone to answer simple questions.

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His drinking, his temper, and his bad manners had already probably cost him the leadership in 1963. The Gaitskellite Crossman famously defined the contest between Brown and Wilson as being between ‘a crook and a drunk’. Brown’s reaction to one Callaghan supporter was to spit at him in the Commons lobby; ‘what a shit, what a bastard’, he then said of Callaghan. When he lost, he promptly disappeared to Scotland and was out of contact for five days. Wilson was unable to sack him, but the distrust was there from the start.

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When Labour won in 1964, Wilson gave Brown the title of first secretary of state and the new ministry of economic affairs, intended to oversee domestic policy override the Treasury, leading the reorientation of the British economy towards modernisation and growth. In some ways, Brown had many of the qualities the job required. He made an impressive start. Dick Crossman, no natural ally, thought he was ‘outstanding’. Under the surface, however, there were problems.

Many of them were political. Whenever governments had tried to trim the Treasury’s powers, the Treasury have fought rear-guard actions. Often successfully: Attlee set Morrison up as economic overlord but, by 1948, Cripps’ Treasury had reasserted their position. Attlee and Morrison had looked to long-term planning, only for Keynesian demand management to win the day (see the entries on Morrison, here, Dalton, here, and Cripps, here). Similarly, Whitehall never liked the DEA from the off; the Treasury saw it as something close to a mortal threat. There would, inevitably, be demarcation disputes between the two.

For the DEA to succeed, it would need a minister if immense drive and vision. Brown had those qualities. However, that minister would also need to be able to win over his officials and cabinet colleagues, and have the staunch support of number ten (rather as Bevan managed in creating the NHS, see here). There was the problem. Brown had the immensely able Anthony Crosland as his number two. When Crosland, over drinks, mentioned he had been speaking to Jim Callaghan, the chancellor, about possible demarcation issues Brown went wild, accusing him of treason, and being a ‘backstabber’. Brown’s relations with his officials were soon awful.

bvrwonThen there was his relationship with Wilson. At the root of that was his defeat in 1963; it ate away at him. Brown’s baby was the much-vaunted National Plan. It was to be stillborn. As Crosland quickly realised, faster economic growth could not be just wished into existence. Furthermore, Maudling’s Dash for Growth had left the balance of payments in crisis and sterling vulnerable. As economic policy lurched from sterling crisis to sterling crisis, the need to defend the pound and deflate the economy over-rode all.

Underlying all of these issues was the fact that the pound was over-valued. Both Wilson and Callaghan had set their faces against devaluation. Devaluation is never good politics, looking like weakness and smacking of economic incompetence. And Labour had form where sterling was concerned: 1931, 1947 and 1949. To work, devaluation also required deflationary measures, to ensure that the markets didn’t bear down on the currency even further.

By 1966, however, the case was becoming unanswerable. Defending sterling required deflation in any case, and the pound staggered from crisis to crisis. One of Brown’s qualities was his far-sightedness. Already, a number of leading ministers had come round to the idea that devaluation was inevitable: Jenkins, Crossman, Crosland, Castle and Wedgwood-Benn. Now Brown joined them. Over drinks, he told Callaghan that the way forward was to devalue, and apply for EEC membership. Reluctantly, Callaghan agreed.

Within a few days, he had changed his mind, persuaded by Wilson. What then followed was a crisis in which there were plots and sub-plots against Wilson and Callaghan. Brown resigned, only for Wilson to ignore the letter. In the end, Wilson won the day. There was a deflationary package worth £500m, and the pound stayed at $2.80. It was a political victory for Wilson, in the narrow sense, and Brown was humiliated. Their relationship never really recovered.

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In many ways, it was this, rather than the crisis of 1967, which changed the Wilson government, rather as Black Wednesday did for John Major, in 1992. It may have been a victory for Wilson in terms of cabinet politicking, in every other way it was bad news. Wilson, always prone to suspecting plots, became convinced that his colleagues (notably Jenkins and Callaghan) were plotting against him: if they weren’t actually plotting, they were certainly not averse to it. The pound would lurch into another crisis in 1967. Then there was the problem of Brown.

With the DEA now a busted flush, Wilson decided to mollify him by giving him a job he coveted. As foreign secretary, some of Brown’s virtues were evident. He recognised the need to keep out of Vietnam, but support the Americans, despite the rabid antipathy to them on the left of his party. He supported Denis Healey’s (reluctant) decision to phase out Britain’s commitments ‘East of Suez’. Most of all, he recognised the need for Britain to join the EEC, and played a key role in persuading Wilson to apply, if unsuccessfully (you can read about that here).

In truth though, Wilson ran foreign policy. In part, that was because that is what prime ministers often do, but in this case also because of Brown’s perceived and actual unreliability. On his first day, he went in through the wrong door, and never really got on the right foot thereafter. Again, he alienated his officials. More worryingly, he alienated many others. At one official function he insulted the Belgians, and later the same evening the British ambassador to Belgium. He described the future French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as ‘a frog’.

By now, Brown’s drinking was as much a cause of his problems as it was a consequence. Barbara Castle recalled him ‘rolling around sozzled’. It was, by now, pretty much public knowledge. Harold Wilson used the Lord Chamberlain’s powers to censor stage plays to force Private Eye to cut two scenes 1967 satirical play based upon the regular Eye Column, Mrs Wilson’s Diary:

Harold: ‘Ah, Audrey, do come in. We were just playing a little game we picked up during our brief stay at Balmoral Castle. It’s called Crawling Round Under The Table Pretending You’re Drunk.’

George: ‘Yes. I’ve been playing it for years.’

Audrey: ‘I think a little drink is called for.’

In cutting the scene (which was cut because of the mention of the royal family), the Lord Chamberlain did remark that ‘I suppose everyone knows’ about Brown’s drink problem. However, he also cut this:

So off I do my business
With the nation’s good at heart
I’m tanked up to the brim,
Bloody, resolute and grim
A bastard, a master of art.
I’m the toast of every lady
When I am out on the town
So brothers you may laugh
But I’m a member and a half.
I’m the redoubtable,
The colourful…
The flamboyant…
The excitable…
Drunken Mr Brown.

To add to that, the two years in which he served as foreign secretary were ones of almost permanent crisis. The sterling crisis of 1966, was followed by devaluation in 1967. Another sterling crisis followed in early 1968. In large part that was caused by a crisis in Wall Street, as the costs of Vietnam put huge pressure on the dollar: sterling suffered in its wake. In the end, the Americans wanted the British to declare an emergency bank holiday, and close its gold market. Finally, Wilson and his chancellor, Roy Jenkins, agreed.

By this stage, Brown’s relations with Wilson and his colleagues had reached rock bottom. By one count, over the previous two years Brown had threatened to resign no less than 17 times. To push through the bank holiday, Wilson needed a third privy councillor. When Jim Callaghan was found, the search for Brown was called off, probably to Wilson’s relief. The last thing he needed at this stage was another Brown tantrum.

He got one anyway, and with bells on. When Brown found out that the decision had been taken without him, he erupted. Years of frustration overflowed. Brown denied having been drunk, perhaps rightly, but he was certainly tired and emotional (the euphemism Private Eye would henceforth adopt for being drunk). When Brown finally met with Wilson, he in effect called his boss a liar. Brown then stormed out. He was next seen sat on the backbenches, loudly muttering discontent. Brown expected Wilson to ask him back, but Wilson had had enough. With no message from his boss, Brown resigned. The resulting brouhaha diverted the press and public’s attention from sterling’s woes. Brown, still deputy leader of the party, was never to return to high office.

It was a long, and sad, decline. Wilson could not offer him the Foreign Office back, having just restored Michael Stewart to the post; Brown would not accept a demotion. He played a prominent role in the 1970 general election, but lost his seat (there were boundary changes), though he did manage to punch a bolshie student.

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Over the years that followed, Lord Brown turned against Labour and the trade unions, writing for the News of the World and Express newspapers. He became a crossbencher; even sympathetic to Margaret Thatcher. On the day, in 1976, that he resigned the Labour whip, he fell over beside his car: everyone assumed he was drunk.

george brown drunk

In 1981, he was one of the signatories of the Limehouse declaration that created the SDP (though he didn’t join the party until 1985). In 1982, he left his wife for his new secretary, aged 31. He also converted to Roman Catholicism.

He was a brilliant, complex and deeply flawed man. He had many of the qualities needed to be a great foreign secretary. Unfortunately, his failings were made worse by the drinking that killed him, and his career. At least he had that excuse, unlike some.

Below is a link to an interview Brown gave on election night, 1964, to the BBC’s Robin Day. Brown is on fine and combative form.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics

And here he is addressing the Labour Conference in 1969:

 

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