BOOK REVIEW / Statesman who bottled out: 'Tired and Emotional: The Life of Lord George Brown' - Peter Paterson: Chatto, 20 pounds

George Brown was sometimes the worse for drink, but more often he was all the better for it. It fuelled him, consoled him and turned him into an irresistible political character. As a Times leader argued in 1967, on his suitability for high office: 'No one has ever been met who behaves like Mr Brown . . . he is impossible: he is 'too much'; one would not invite him to cucumber sandwiches with one's maiden aunt - but he is a remarkable man with some of the qualities and all the courage of a great statesman.' Nine years later, when Brown announced his resignation from the Labour Party and promptly fell over in the gutter, the Times again sprang to his defence, declaring that 'George Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) sober.'

There were, of course, strong political reasons for Brown's sympathetic treatment from the Tory press. He was a right-wing Labour man of the old school, reared by Ernest Bevin, more Gaitskellite than Gaitskell himself. He was an unswerving supporter of British membership of the Common Market, an early witch-hunter of Trotskyist 'entryists' in the Labour Party and a scourge of CND (it was he who proposed the expulsion of Bertrand Russell from the Labour Party). His first speech at a party conference, as a young delegate in 1939, was a withering attack on Sir Stafford Cripps.

But it was not merely his anti-Leftist stance that earned George Brown the affection of the Fourth Estate - and, so far as one can judge, the public. Amid the calculating compromisers and time- serving placemen of the Wilson governments in the 1960s, he stood out as a man of passion and almost reckless determination. He was a Cabinet minister for only three and a half years, first as the founder of the Department of Economic Affairs and then as Foreign Secretary, and although the former - with its now-forgotten National Plan - was doomed to failure, his achievements during his 18-month tenure of the Foreign Office were substantial. Peter Paterson argues, persuasively, that more than any other individual he was responsible for our joining the Common Market, battering on the door of Europe while much of the Cabinet was opposed to the policy and Harold Wilson was slyly ambivalent. He also wrote and forced through Resolution 242 of the UN Security Council, to this day the basic text for a Middle East settlement.

Inevitably, however, his Foreign Secretaryship tends to be remembered for other reasons, especially by those ambassadors (and their wives) whom he insulted. Even before Labour came to office, a briefing note prepared by the American Embassy in London for President Kennedy drew attention to certain of Brown's 'character defects such as irascibility, impulsiveness and heavy drinking', and Paterson fills many pages of his entertaining book with eye-popping anecdotes of undiplomatic eruptions.

Brown's boozy instability was married to a huge chippiness about class. Born in the Peabody Buildings in Lambeth and having left school at 15, he never conquered his resentment of the middle-class, Oxbridge-educated intellectuals who dominated the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s, whom he suspected of looking down on him. The suspicion was not unjustified - Dick Crossman, who was once thumped by him in a House of Commons corridor, referred to Brown and other working-class Labourites as 'illiterates' - but it led to his self-destructive feud with Harold Wilson, who had not only won one of the most brilliant Oxford Firsts this century but also had the temerity to defeat him in the 1963 leadership election after the death of Hugh Gaitskell.

There is no definitive tally of how many times Brown threatened to resign from Wilson's Cabinet in the 1960s, but the number is certainly in double figures (Paterson puts it at 17). He eventually ran out of rope on the Ides of March, 1968, after a night as bizarre as any in parliamentary history. Wilson convened an emergency meeting of the Privy Council to declare a non-statutory Bank Holiday the following day, enabling him to close the London gold market and prevent a run on sterling. Brown - for reasons that are still in dispute - did not receive his invitation to the meeting, even though he was officially Deputy Prime Minister as well as Foreign Secretary. Furious at his exclusion, he gathered a midnight cabal of other ministers at the Commons, rang Downing Street and demanded Wilson's immediate attendance. Tony Benn, who was with Brown at the time, heard him yelling down the phone: 'Now don't say that; don't say in my condition. That may have been true some other nights, but not tonight. Don't say in my condition.'

Perhaps he wasn't squiffy, but he was certainly in a wild mood that evening. Although Barbara Castle thought him 'emotion- intoxicated, not drunk', she also recorded that when she had gone through the division lobby with him at 10 o'clock he had unbuttoned the back of her blouse and 'grinned like a schoolboy'.

Brown and his gang finally met Wilson at Downing Street at 1.30 am, whereupon, in Benn's words, 'George stood up and shrieked and bellowed and shouted abuse as he went round the table, then left the room.' He lurched back to the Commons, loudly airing his grievances in the Tea Room and elsewhere. 'Is George Brown resigning?' the Tory MP James Prior asked a policeman in the corridor behind the chamber. 'I don't know, sir,' the officer replied, 'but I've just heard him tell Ray Gunter he'll never serve under that bloody little man again.' And nor he did.

After his resignation, Brown's political decline was swift and sad. He lost his seat in 1970 and was sent to the House of Lords, where his increasingly embittered outbursts cost him most of his remaining friends in the Labour movement. He became, as Paterson notes, 'just another strident newspaper columnist, predictable and unvarying in his style, increasingly a prisoner of right-wing editors interested only in milking his receding fame as a once-upon-a-time Labour 'rebel' '. In the pursuit of easy money, he wrote columns for the News of the World and Tit Bits, and even appeared in television commercials for P & O Normandy Ferries, in which his sales pitch was constantly interrupted by a large stuffed seagull.

The received wisdom these days is that political journalists should concentrate on 'policies, not personalities'. Peter Paterson's riveting biography proves what nonsense this is. The question of 'character' is crucial, and the reason for Brown's eventual failure was, as Paterson suggests, that 'George, perhaps, had proved himself rather too much of a character'.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border