Robert Brown: Obituary

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The Independent Online
It is rare for civic heads to become members of the House of Commons - Alderman Sir Lesley Lever, Lord Mayor of Manchester at the time United crashed in Munich, became MP for Ardwick; Sir Myer Galpern, Lord Provost of Glasgow, acquired Shettleston and became a marvellously peppery Chairman of Ways and Means in the Commons. But it is quite unique for an MP, and an ex-minister to boot, to leave the House of Commons at the normal retirement age, return to local government, and on merit become Lord Mayor of his City. Yet, this is precisely what Robert Brown achieved when his discerning Tyneside colleagues - and none know their own better - made him Lord Mayor of Newcastle in 1994.

In his maiden speech in April 1966 Brown described how

the people of Tyneside are regarded as Geordies the world over, not as people from Newcastle, Gateshead, South Shields or Tynemouth. "Geordie" is a regional term quite as specific as "cockney". The song "Blaydon Races" is almost regarded as a local national anthem. Is there any honourable member who will confess his lack of culture by saying that he has not heard of "Blaydon Races"? The identification of people on both sides of the river with Newcastle United Football Club, of considerable former fame, is undeniable.

In over 20 years as his colleague, often sitting next to him on the green benches, the harshest words that ever passed between us were when I opined that Jackie Milburn - Bob's "oor Jackie" - and the Robledos Brothers were perhaps not quite the best inside trio the world had ever seen. The Magpies had no more faithful supporter in their great days, and in their less than great days, than Bob Brown.

He was born the son of William Brown, an engineer, and went to local schools and to Rutherford College before being apprenticed at the age of 16 as a plumber to the Newcastle Gas Company in 1937. Joining the Royal Signals in 1942, he saw service in the Middle East and in the Italian campaign. Years later when he presided over the Army Board he said that he chuckled at how a one-stripe 20-year-old acting lance-corporal (unpaid) in the Signals could chair a meeting of distinguished generals. "And they take it so well."

On demobilisation he went back and trained further as a gas fitter, being promoted to Inspector in 1949. For 16 years he was the secretary and agent of the Newcastle West Constituency Labour Party, serving Ernest Popplewell, the railwayman MP, with the total loyalty that was one of Brown's hallmarks in political life. He stuck vehemently by his friends, and he was a good friend to have. He was also among the first of the 1966 intake to be promoted to a government job. I remember well his first debate as joint parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Transport. It was late at night and he had against him two then not very important, very junior shadow ministers with whom he held his own. I quote from Hansard, 17 December 1968:

Mr Michael Heseltine: I did not put this question specifically, but perhaps the honourable gentleman will say

how much economy he thinks could

be achieved from the suggestions made on page 19 of the Report of the Prices and Incomes Board on London Transport?

Mr Brown: I am delighted that the honourable member has intervened because I am coming precisely to that. The honourable lady cannot have her cake and eat it. She cannot complain about the proposed fare increases next year and at the same time berate us for saddling the taxpayer with this pounds 11m-a-year subsidy.

Mrs Thatcher: Many different sorts of financial arrangements could have been made and I do not know what course the negotiations took. This is the arrangement which the honourable gentleman has recommended.

Mr Brown: I am coming to that. The honourable lady made a general statement about the write-off and about the other write-offs of other nationalised industries but in fairness she must concede that this writing-off on behalf of the nationalised industries was something in which her own government had their share. The honourable member for Tavistock and the honourable lady flogged the issue of the National Board for Prices and Incomes and its suggestions.

When the debate was finished I said to Brown that he'd done jolly well. "Ah" he said, "I was lucky that I had two such easy Tories against me!"

Transport had been one of Brown's main interests - albeit he was sponsored by the General and Municipal Workers' Union - and as a Newcastle councillor he had played a leading part in the late 1950s in planning the Scotswood Bridge across the Tyne. He also displayed his special interest in the development of motorways.

Shortly after his election he volunteered himself as one of Harold Wilson's "young eagles" to defend the Government against left-wing critics after the cuts announced on 20 July 1966, a watershed day in the life of the Wilson government. On return to power in February 1974 Wilson appointed him as Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, as which he took a particular interest in the problems of homelessness. In May that year he pointed out that in 1970 there were 350,000 houses completed including 180,000 in the public sector, while by 1973 the total was down to 240,000 with only 107,000 in the public sector.

After the second election of 1974 Brown was given the job for which he will be remembered, as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Army. In circumstances of cuts and where Labour ministers by the very nature of the situation are often not well received by the Service chiefs, Brown was exceedingly well liked and believed to be a man of total sincerity and dedication to the forces - which indeed he was.

On 17 June 1975 Brown told the House of Commons:

The Government are keenly aware of the importance of the regimental system to morale and of the general interest it inspires throughout the country. The Army reorganisation was, therefore, planned to have as little effect on regimental identities as possible. I am sure honourable members on both sides of the House will share my pleasure in the knowledge that all Badged regiments in the Royal Armoured Corps and Infantry, including the Parachute Regiment, will be retained in the future. In the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Royal Corps of Signals, the Army Air Corps and the supporting services there will be some reduction in the overall number of units, but impact on the regimental structure will be kept to an absolute minimum.

The changes which will be made are only those which are essential if the re-organisation of the Army is to be thorough and effective.

Part of Brown's success as an Army minister was because service personnel felt that he really cared about them. On 17 January 1979, I listened to him tackle the question of estranged service wives and the policy towards married quarters. He recognised that the special conditions and demands of a service career often posed considerable difficulties. A serviceman has to be housed near his place of work to meet the requirements of the Service which often involve long and irregular hours and the need to be readily available on standby.

When most people leave the House of Commons that is the end of their public life. Brown, who was a man totally without self-importance, threw himself back into local government helping the disadvantaged and doing as much as he could to ameliorate the effects of the decline in shipbuilding. That his colleagues made him Lord Mayor was a tribute to a thoroughly decent man supported by a wonderful wife, Marjorie, of more than 50 years.

Robert Crofton Brown, engineer, trade-union official and politician: born Scotswood, Newcastle 16 May 1921; MP (Labour) for Newcastle West 1966-83, Newcastle North 1983-87; Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport 1968-70; Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Social Security 1974; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army 1974-79; Lord Mayor of Newcastle 1994-95; married 1945 Marjorie Hogg (one son, one daughter); died Newcastle 3 September 1996.