The Home Secretaries (29): Leon Brittan

Leon-BrittanLeon Brittan, 1983-85

Conservative, under Thatcher

Leon Brittan was the youngest home secretary since Churchill, whose front line political career came to a premature end in 1986, when his resignation was deemed necessary to ensure Margaret Thatcher’s survival in the Westland affair.

He was the son of Lithuanian Jews, who had come to Britain in 1927 (Malcom Rifkind is a cousin; you can read about him here: to come). At Haberdashers’ Aske School, he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with double firsts in English and Law; he was also president of the Union, and chairman of the university Conservative association. Another contemporary at Cambridge was the future home secretary and Tory leader, Michael Howard (you can read about him here: to come). He also got to know another of his successors in the Home Office, the future chancellor and current father of the House: Ken Clarke (you can read about him here and here: to come). Two other colleagues of his in Thatcher’s cabinets, John Gummer and Norman Fowler, were also contemporaries at Cambridge.

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After a year at Yale, he was called to the bar in 1962 and became a leading libel lawyer, taking silk in 1978. A career in politics loomed. In the 1960s, he was chairman of the liberal Conservative Bow Group, and editor of its magazine, Crossbow: as such, he caused a stir when he put a picture of a scantily clad young woman on its cover (see the video below).

He entered parliament in February 1974. He rose fast, becoming a junior opposition spokesman on devolution, then on industrial relations, drawing up much of the framework of the Conservatives subsequent trade union reforms. In 1979, he was given a junior post in the Home Office under Willie Whitelaw, who was very much a mentor. His other mentor was Sir Geoffrey Howe. In the 1981 reshuffle, he was promoted to cabinet as chief secretary of the Treasury, over the head of Nigel Lawson: he was now the youngest member of Thatcher’s cabinet. Howe found Brittan far more congenial. Brittan succeeded the arch-monetarist John Biffen, who as ideologues sometimes do, had struggled with the weight of detail required in the annual spending round. Brittan, with his acute intellect and legal regard for detail, managed it very well.

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His promotion to the Home Office in 1983 was no surprise. In many ways, he was the most qualified of Thatcher’s home secretaries; he was also the youngest since Churchill. He introduced reforms: to police procedure, for example. He was, senior officials would later claim, the only modern home secretary to recognise the full extent of the notorious and deep-lying dysfunctionality of the department.

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Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be given the time to do anything about it, as Thatcher would move him to trade and industry after just two years. It’s not that Thatcher didn’t rate him. In fact, Brittan was one of the few ministers who was willing to come to her with uncomfortable home truths, whilst remaining absolutely loyal: qualities Thatcher valued highly. She also valued his ability. Nor was he above the dangling of a bit of populist red meat to please the Tory faithful: there were the inevitable stiffer sentences, and he voted in favour of hanging (in a free vote in the Commons).

He was home secretary at the time of the 1984 miners’ strike. From the government perspective, he played a significant role in defeating the miners: he made sure that New Scotland Yard (the Metropolitan police HQ) controlled the policing of the strike; he was part of the secret cabinet committee that had prepared for a confrontation the government had seen coming. The policing of the strike was controversial at the time and remains so today: the police were certainly not neutral, and the events of the battle of Orgreave, for example, are still bitterly resented by many. However, Brittan helped ensure there would be no repetition of 1972, or 1974: the miners lost. As such, he played a key role in further cementing Thatcher’s position and in ensuring the onward march of the Thatcher revolution.

If he was expecting gratitude, however, he was going to be disappointed. It was certainly true to say that Brittan lacked the populist, or common touch. He looked and sounded like an intellectual. He reliance on logic and argument was interpreted as being distant, even patronising. Thatcher would later recall that he seemed ‘aloof and uncomfortable’ on television. There was an unpleasant strain of anti-Semitism to some commentators and backbench mutterings against him (not helped by the fact that his Labour shadow, Gerald Kaufmann, was also Jewish). In the words of one colleague, he was ‘too brainy and too Jewish’.

The desire to offer up some more of the aforementioned red meat to distrustful backbenchers, popular press and wider party led Brittan into some political trouble in 1985. The Tory right have always railed at what they see as the BBC’s left-wing bias. For much of the press, the BBC were not just left wing, they were a rival. Thus, a spot of BBC-bashing has always gone well with the troops. In this case, he was also under pressure from his boss.

In 1985, the BBC were producing a documentary for the series Real Lives, in which they interviewed, at some length, Martin McGuinness.  Later, McGuinness would go on to be the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. However, in 1985, McGuinness was a senior figure in Sinn Fein, former commander of the IRA in Londonderry and was still believed by many to be actively in the IRA command. In 1985, 57 people were killed in the Troubles: 29 of them were from the security forces, and a further 17 were civilians. On 28th February, the IRA had murdered nine RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) officers and injured 30 others when they attacked a police station in Newry.

The previous year had seen the Brighton bombing. On 12th October 1984, the night before Thatcher was due give her conference speech, the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel. It was an attempt to murder Thatcher, who only survived because, characteristically, she was up late working and had not gone to bed: had she have done so, she would probably been killed. As it was four people were killed; one of her closest colleagues, Norman Tebbit, was badly injured and his wife was left disabled for life.

Thatcher had already called for the Republican leadership to be kept off the airwaves: in her words, to starve them of the ‘oxygen of publicity’. When details of the programme leaked out, she was apoplectic. In response, Brittan wrote to the BBC’s director general, demanding that the programme should not be shown, because it would ‘materially assist the terrorist cause’.

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In the short term, Brittan won. The BBC’s governors took the extraordinary step of viewing the film. One was Lady Faulkner, wife of the former Unionist prime minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner: she thought it ‘utterly horrifying’. William Rees-Mogg (former editor of The Times and, yes, father of Jacob) described it as ‘wholly unacceptable’. The BBC management had not seen the film, and its director general, Alasdair Milne (father of Seamus, Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Strategy and Communications) was on a cruise. His deputy, Michael Checkland, pleaded that to ban the film would be to undermine the BBC’s independence.

The governors banned the film. The management and the governors were at loggerheads. When Milne returned, he too demanded that the film be shown. Once more, the governors refused. A strike followed. A month later, the film was shown, with minor amendments.

The whole affair had dominated parliament, the press and the airwaves. In it, Brittan’s failings as a television performer were all too evident. Furthermore, though very much at Thatcher’s behest, he had managed to be seen to be both authoritarian, opposed to a free media, and yet simultaneously weak. Thatcher certainly had her ruthless streak, and she applied it now. Brittan was reshuffled: demoted to the Department of Trade and Industry. Within two months, he had lost his job.

Britain’s only helicopter manufacturer, Westland, was in financial trouble. The company, with the support of the DTI, wanted to sell it to an American-led consortium. The minister of defence, Michael Heseltine, proposed a European alternative. Then, a letter from the solicitor-general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was leaked. In it, he stated that Heseltine’s proposals contained ‘material inaccuracies’. The leak was, obviously, one that favoured the government. In a stormy cabinet meeting, Thatcher backed Brittan: Heseltine walked out.

It was a dangerous moment for Thatcher. Heseltine was a big beast: darling of the party conference and, certainly, a potential prime minister.

Modern governments leak all the time. Nowadays they hardly seek to deny it: now, as then, ‘sources close to the minister’ is a polite euphemism. Thatcher’s own press officer, Bernard Ingham, always denied leaking, or spin; it might well be thought he protesteth too much on the matter. However, de jure, leaking was illegal, breaking the Official Secrets Act. Furthermore, this was no ordinary leak: the advice of a government law officer was private, and meant to remain so.

If the leak could be placed at the door of number ten, Thatcher was in serious trouble. In truth, she had wanted the letter released and number ten’s imprint was all over the leak, in the form of Ingham and Charles Powell. Thatcher’s private secretary. As it was, an official in the DTI leaked the letter, with Brittan’s knowledge: Thatcher knew. In all this, an emergency debate in the Commons was called. In the course of the afternoon of that debate, Thatcher twice privately remarked that she hew she might have to resign. In her Commons statement, she seemed shifty and unconvincing.

Two things helped save her. One was a frankly awful reply by the leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock. Had Kinnock taken apart her statement with a forensic eye for its clear elisions of the truth, that may well have been that. Unfortunately, forensic analysis wasn’t Kinnock’s strong point. Something else had already done as much to save her, though. Three days before, Leon Brittan had fallen on his sword. Someone had to go: in doing so, he helped save Thatcher’s bacon. Had he told all, she would have fallen.

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He left British politics in 1989, joining the European Commission, subsequently as vice-president in charge of external trade policy: as such, he played a key role in the negotiation of what was known as the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which created the World Trade Organisation. Brussels suited him: his ability to master detail with a clear eye earned him a stellar reputation in the commission. Brittan found himself out of sympathy with an increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party. That earned him attacks from the right wing press: many, once more, had unpleasantly anti-Semitic overtones.

Brittan’s last years were dogged by lurid and ludicrous allegations. It was alleged that, as home secretary he had failed to deal with a dossier presented to him by the Conservative MP, Geoffrey Dickens, alleging the existence of paedophile ring at Westminster, involving men in high places. The simple answer was that Brittan had not acted upon it, for the simple reasons that the allegations were preposterous, as was Dickens. The Metropolitan Police launched Operation Midland, based upon allegations from an obvious fantasist, ‘Nick’: as part of that, the police raided Brittan’s home. After Brittan’s death, the Met were forced to apologise and pay damages to his widow. Sadly, Brittan died before the police had to admit, de facto, that they had allowed themselves to be drawn into a wholly improbable and hysterical witch-hunt.

Instead, we can now see Brittan as a substantial figure in the Thatcher government, as a home secretary who had good intentions but who, perhaps, lacked political antennae. He was also the fall guy in the aftermath of the Westland affair. Then, he was as a European Commissioner and defender of free trade, and a Europhile, in the face of a Conservatism that was becoming increasingly Eurosceptic. Whatever side of that divide one is on, we might wish for men and women of such stature, and grasp of fine detail now.

Here is that 1967 Crossbow interview:

And being interviewed on the night of the 1987 general election:

And here’s his Spitting Image puppet, with others:

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