A short version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 6 2017
The other day, I was reading HLD Mahindapala’s blog about the last days of Prabhakaran, I was surprised to read this: “In a desperate bid K Pathmanathan, the arms procurer appointed as Prabhakaran’s sole representative abroad, contacted Western journalists to send messages to George Brown, British Prime Minister, and President Obama.” George Brown died at the age of 70 in 1985. Brown did serve as British foreign secretary (with embarrassing results) from 1966 to 1968. The British foreign secretary in 2009 was David Miliband.
One of the advantages I find from reaching my advanced age is that historians are publishing books about events that I remember because I lived through them. The doyen of post-war British history writers is Peter Hennessy (Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield). He was born the year after me so lived through the same events. Like me, he grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Like me, he was educated at a grammar school in Gloucestershire. I wonder if I met him when I was playing for the Rugby team of my school, Sir Thomas Rich’s (founded 1666), against the team of his school, Marling (founded 1887). I remember playing rugby at Marling School. The most vivid recollection of the event is being served tea and sandwiches by a team of gorgeous girls. The picture Hennessy paints of the time of my growing up in a series of books Never Again: Britain 1945–51 (1992), Having it so good : Britain in the fifties (2006) and Establishment and Meritocracy (2014) rings true for me.
David Kynaston has ploughed the same furrow. He was born in 1951; like me and Peter Hennessy, he lived through the period he was writing about. He published Austerity Britain, 1945–1951 In 2007 and it was highly praised, named “Book of the Decade” by The Sunday Times. I have it in the form of two volumes entitled A World to Build 1945-48 and Smoke in the Valley 1948-51. I found Kynaston’s work hugely enjoyable and generally reliable, although my confidence wobbled a little when he referred to boxer Randolph Turpin as Dick Turpin. I recall listening to Turpin’s fights on the radio (commentary by Eamonn Andrews, inter-round analysis from W Barrington Dalby) with my father. Kynaston intends to chronicle the history of Great from the end of World War II to the ascension of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Dominic Sandbrook is engaged in an exhaustive survey of the period I have lived through. In 2005, Sandbrook published Never Had It So Good, a history of Britain from the Suez Crisis to The Beatles, 1956–63. The sequel, White Heat, covering the years 1964–70 and the rise and fall of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, was published in August 2006. Sandbrook continued the history of post-war Britain with State of Emergency (2010), covering the period 1970–1974, and Seasons in the Sun, which took the story up to the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979. He has said that a fifth volume, covering the period 1979–1984 and provisionally titled Who Dares Wins, may follow. Sandbrook’s books have won high praise but I am less enthusiastic. To my mind, he does not write as well as Hennessy and Kynaston and is prone to errors (one example is referring to the comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters as “Frank and Bernie Winters”). He often uses the horrible phrase “bored of”, which I first noticed in 1994. Sandbrook was born in 1974 (but has less hair than me) and often displays a tin ear for the period he is writing about. It really does not matter if more people liked Englebert Humperdinck than liked The Beatles but he keeps going on about it. There is little original thought in his books as his intention is to gather together what other people have written. He has been accused of plagiarism (by Michael C Moynihan, cultural news editor for The Daily Beast/Newsweek and the managing editor of Vice magazine – the man who exposed the plagiarism of Jonah Lehrer.) He suggested that Sandbrook was shielded from criticism by his social connections, saying: “There is an element of protection. Media buddies who go to the same dinner parties and all the rest of it.” Sandbrook rejected the allegations and maintained that he “footnoted his sources, and if popular history books sometimes sound familiar that is because there are only so many ways to say things.)” Despite my doubts, Sandbrook has compiled a fascinating catalogue of George Brown stories.
When he was Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, George Brown’s drunken antics caused great amusement to an electorate depressed by poor economic news. This story is probably apocryphal but I wish it were not. Brown attended a function somewhere in South America, having already laid a substantial alcohol foundation at a previous function. He is said to have made a bee-line for a gorgeously crimson-clad figure. George said: “Excuse me, but may I have the pleasure of this dance?” The recipient of Brown’s amorous intentions demurred and gave three reasons: “The first, Mr Brown, 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.”
Once, when he was 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. In the words of his biographer, Peter Paterson, Brown was “accident-prone, outspoken to an extent rare among modern politicians, intensely patriotic, hardworking, even harder drinking, quick as a Gascon to take offence”. He was as swift to apologise for any offence given: he probably wrote more letters of apology than any politician in history”.
Emotional and Tired
Paterson called his biography Tired and Emotional. Private Eye has for many decades used the phrase “tired and emotional” as a euphemism for hopelessly inebriated. I often heard Brown’s slurred tones on the BBC Radio programme Any Questions. He would begin drinking whisky at lunchtime, and top up throughout the day, so he was usually drunk by the time he appeared in the Commons in the evening. “He started two gins ahead of everybody else,” one of his friends later recalled. “He’d go mad, suddenly berserk, on a couple of glasses of wine …Alcohol, no matter how small the amount, used to change him, change his personality so that he became very aggressive.”
A Life on the Right of the Left
Brown’s antecedents were, like mine, in County Cork. He was born in poor circumstances at Flat 22, I Block, Peabody Buildings, Duke Street, Lambeth, in his maternal grandmother’s flat built by the Peabody Trust, a housing charity. Soon after his birth, his family left and moved to the Peabody Trust block at Peabody Square, Blackfriars Road, Southwark, near Waterloo station. His father, also called George Brown, had worked as a grocer’s packer, lorry driver and served in World War I as a chauffeur to senior British Army officers. He did not go to university but left school at 15.
Brown ran as a moderate candidate for the Chairmanship of the Labour League of Youth but at the Labour Party conference in 1937 he was defeated by Ted Willis, a left-wing candidate later known as the television creator of Dixon of Dock Green. In 1963, Brown had a drunken argument with actor Eli Wallach on American TV after the JFK assassination when Brown made a fool of himself by claiming a close friendship with Kennedy which never existed. Brown taunted Wallach for not knowing who Ted Willis was.
Member of Parliament
At the 1945 general election Brown won Belper in Derbyshire with a majority of nearly 9,000. Brown was generally popular within the Parliamentary Labour Party. He briefly worked as PPS for Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton from April 1947. Brown launched an unsuccessful plot to have Clement Attlee replaced as Prime Minister by Ernest Bevin, although without consulting Bevin.
Attlee knew about Brown’s plot but appointed him as Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries as he thought it would be best to keep him busy. In April 1951, Brown was Minister of Works.
When Labour lost the 1951 general election, Brown found himself forced to rely on an inadequate parliamentary salary. In 1953 he was hired as a consultant by the Mirror Group newspapers, enabling him to stay in politics. His natural campaigning ability became prominent, but also his tendency to be rude to those with whom he had disagreements.
After Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in January 1963 Brown made his challenge for the party leadership. At the first Shadow Cabinet meeting after Gaitskell’s death, Brown and his leadership rival Harold Wilson agreed to a clean fight. Wilson, who was accused by the right of undermining party unity, then informed the press that each agreed to serve under the other, which countered his reputation for plotting; Brown repudiated any such agreement, laying himself open to that accusation.
Serving under Wilson
Brown was given a new ministry to promote growth and national resurgence. However, the Department of Economic Affairs proved a disaster. The failure of the National Plan was a severe blow to Brown’s prestige and blamed its collapse on the machinations of Callaghan and his Treasury officials, whose deflationary emphasis destroyed his hopes for growth. Many historians, like Brown, have blamed Harold Wilson for encouraging two different departments to run “diametrically opposed policies”.
British foreign policy after August 1966 was complicated by the fact that George Brown was Foreign Secretary. In 1968, he publicly insulted the wife of the British ambassador to France, Sir Patrick Reilly, at a dinner party at the French embassy in London, and later ended the ambassador’s career over personal differences. At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference, Brown was observed by Barbara Castle “rolling around sozzled” and complaining about his new job. Effectively Wilson had to take over foreign policy.
There is no reliable count of the number of times Brown resigned. He finally left government in 1968. He lost his seat in parliament in 1970 and accepted a peerage in the same year. He resigned from the Labour Party in 1976 and joined the Social Democrats in 1981. He died at the age of 70 in 1985.
Roy Jenkins: ” Brown was certainly not a tepid character. He had great qualities both of intellect and personality, although they were balanced by appalling faults. He drank too much, particularly for his not very strong head…. And he confounded the trouble by being also capable of violent switches of mood, even when sober. On the big issues, he was almost invariably right and pursued his conviction with persistent courage.”
Brown always resented the Oxbridge-educated intellectuals like Jenkins who dominated the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, Richard Crossman was punched by Brown in a House of Commons corridor but the diminutive Brown found himself on the floor with the burly Crossman sitting on top of him.
Brown’s resentments and begrudgeries led to his self-destructive feud with Harold Wilson, who had won one of the most brilliant Oxford Firsts in the 20th Century and defeated Brown in the 1963 leadership election after the death of Hugh Gaitskell. Tony Crosland might have been the kind of intellectual that Brown resented but Crosland preferred Brown to Harold Wilson referring to the contest between the two men for the Labour leadership as a choice between a crook and a drunk.
Although the formidable Barbara Castle thought him “emotion- intoxicated, not drunk”, she also recorded that when she had gone through a division lobby with him he had unbuttoned the back of her blouse and “grinned like a schoolboy”. Even one of his political patrons, the former Chancellor Hugh Dalton, thought that Brown was “very awkward, vain, sensitive and fundamentally self-seeking and unfaithful”.
Brown regularly spoke on Capital Radio about having given up alcohol but always had a stiff whisky before going on air. He had two convictions for drunken driving. Brown once boasted that “Many members of parliament drink and womanise – now, I’ve never womanised. On 24 December 1982, after 45 years of marriage, Brown walked out on his long-suffering wife, Sophie, with whom he had two daughters, and set up home with his personal secretary Margaret “Maggie” Haimes, who was half his age. They had a daughter.