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

Francis Wheen
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:53

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'.

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