Anyone who lived in London during the Blitz will be able to confirm the important part played by the bomb stories in the vibrant folklore of the city. Everyone had at least one yarn about the bomb that had fallen on them, their neighbours, their aunty’s neighbours, and they told them eloquently to anyone who would listen. Many of the most fantastical were perfectly true. It was the mundane ones – insofar as there were any mundane bomb stories – which one had to distrust.
In much the same way, anyone who inhabited the Palace of Westminster or patrolled the corridors of power in Whitehall during the six years of the first Wilson Government acquired a fund of George Brown stories. The fact that many were so preposterous as to be incredible did not mean that they were untrue. Even when they redounded to Brown’s credit, which they occasionally did, it was quite possible that they were authentic.
As with those wartime bomb stories, one sometimes felt that it was a pity no one had thought of collecting and annotating this rich fund of popular culture. Now, at last, someone has done the job. It makes highly entertaining reading. Alas, it is also deeply depressing for anyone who (like me) had high hopes of the Wilson Government at the time.
Needless to say, not all the Brown saga is included in Mr Paterson’s recital – that would require thousands of pages. But many of the most familiar stories are here, together with several I had not heard before. Almost all are sheer nightmare, involving such outrageous behaviour that it could only be funny to people who weren’t directly involved. Some are so disgusting that one wonders now, as one did at the time, how George could possibly bring himself to soldier on, let alone why Wilson allowed him to do so.
Present in these pages, for example, is the tale of the Beautiful Lady In Red (though, unlike most of the others, not very well told). This concerns a state ball in the capital of Brazil, where our hero, as Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, is the guest of honour. When the orchestra strikes up a toe-tapping tune, George spots an attractive figure clad entirely in scarlet, approaches, bows unsteadily, and declares with exaggerated gallantry: ‘Oh beautiful lady in red, may I have this waltz?’ The person thus addressed replies: ‘No, Mr Brown, and for three reasons. First, you are too drunk to dance. Secondly, this is not a waltz but the Brazilian national anthem. And thirdly, I am not a beautiful lady in red but the Papal Nuncio.’
Mr Paterson records that another version of the same story places the incident in Austria, and identifies the figure in red as the Cardinal-Archbishop of Vienna, which may seem to cast doubt on its veracity. Yet the story could easily be true, for there are much worse accounts of George’s scandalous behaviour at similar functions during his stint as Britain’s most senior diplomat. There was, for example, the occasion when he woke up from a drunken doze at a state banquet in Brussels and informed his hosts that, while they had been wining and dining, the frontiers of Belgium were being protected by British soldiers and Belgian soldiers were busy in the brothels of Brussels. Safely back in the Embassy that night, he demanded a fire in his room. When the ambassador pointed out that it was past midnight and the servants had all gone, Mr Brown insisted that the ambassador’s wife be dragged from her bed to lay a fire – which she was.
In the best tradition of bomb stories, I have one or two of my own. The most frightening of these concerns the Thursday immediately before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in June 1967, when Brown briefly found himself in charge of the Government in Wilson’s absence. Having successfully deputised at Prime Minister’s Questions, he made his way to the terrace of the Commons, where he encountered me. ‘You,’ he screeched in that curious strangulated high tenor, ‘You haven’t bought me a drink for years. A gin and tonic, and toot sweet.’ As I made my way towards the Strangers’ Bar, the penetrating voice followed me. ‘A large one, mind.’ This procedure was repeated twice more, causing anxious Labour MPs to urge me to disobey my instructions. But what was a mere hack to do when under the orders of the Acting Prime Minister? To my certain knowledge, George consumed at least five large gins in the space of an hour and a half that afternoon. The shooting began in the Sinai Desert the following Monday.
Frightening though this was, it at least disabused me of the widely-held theory that George Brown had a weak head and therefore got drunk more easily than ordinary mortals. As Mr Paterson confirms, he shifted enormous quantities of booze unseen by outsiders, often starting in his office before ten in the morning. On this occasion, he was by no means drunk when I made my excuses and left. That came later in the afternoon – just a few hours closer to the outbreak of what might easily have been Armageddon.
As Paterson remarks, none of this behaviour did George any harm with the general public. They saw him as a genuine card, and therefore a welcome relief from the pompous bores who normally ran the country. It is not quite true to say that he could do no wrong – he got a very hostile postbag after a toe-curling display of maudlin egocentricity on television the night Kennedy was assassinated. But the good old British proletariat found it easier to forgive his foibles than those on the receiving end did. Had they known that most of his victims were people just like them – i.e. not confined to the ranks of the aforesaid pompous bores – they might have taken a different view.
Or perhaps not. The really depressing thing about this excellent book is that, in spite of the appalling message conveyed by the author’s recital of the Brown folklore – viz. that George was a shit of the first order – the reader is almost bound to share the author’s ultimate view that Brown was essentially right about the key issue which decided the fate of the 1964/70 Labour Government. It is impossible not to wonder whether, had Brown been marginally more self-controlled, he could have persuaded Wilson to devalue in 1965 or 1966. Had he done so, the history of the 1964 Government would almost certainly have been very different. Instead of being a failure by its own self imposed criterion – namely, ending the stop-go cycle of post-war economic policy – it might have managed to establish a steady pattern of industrial growth through the Sixties and into the Seventies. With the contribution of North Sea oil, this might have turned Wilson’s fanciful claim to have made Labour the real party of government into a reality.
But such pipe-dreams can be extended indefinitely, and pointlessly. For if George Brown had been able to control himself better then it is very likely that none of this would have arisen – for the simple reason that he would probably have beaten Wilson in the ballot to succeed Hugh Gaitskell after the latter’s unexpected death in 1963. That he didn’t win that contest was almost entirely due to the justified anxiety of many right-wing and middle-of-the-road Labour MPs about George’s uncontrolled drinking, and their knowledge that they were not just electing a leader of the Labour Party but, in effect, a prime minister. They just didn’t dare do it, and the grim recital of his misdeeds in Mr Paterson’s book shows why they were justified in those fears. Wilson was by far the better candidate, but contrary to popular mythology, more because of character than intellect. In spite of Harold’s reputation as a Mega-Mastermind, it is by no means certain that he was more intelligent than George. It is almost certain that he was less imaginative.
So why did Brown behave so abominably? Mr Paterson offers two answers. The first was that his humble birth, poverty-stricken upbringing, trade-union training and almost total lack of formal education made him obsessively hostile to snobbish middle and upper-class intellectuals who had been to fancy schools and ancient universities. His problem was that such people were very far from being confined to the Tory Party or the Civil Service. On the contrary, they dominated the upper reaches of the Labour Party in the post-war years. One has only to think of Dick Crossman, Tony Crosland, Patrick Gordon-Walker and, of course, Hugh Gaitskell. This, coupled with his hatred of lefties like Nye Bevan, who he believed to be splitting the Labour Party, drove him simultaneously to be a ferocious witch-hunter on behalf of the right, and to the bottle.
Mr Paterson’s second explanation arises directly from the first. He argues that Brown was shattered to be beaten by Wilson for the party leadership, which he believed to belong to him more or less by right as Gaitskell’s faithful follower and hatchetman. As a result, he never forgave ‘the little man’ (as he oddly called Wilson, being just about the same size himself). In Paterson’s view, almost everything he did after that could be traced in some way to the bitterness of his defeat and humiliation at the hands of Wilson the Oxford graduate and scholarship boy.
Whatever the truth, it is clear that very little could have been done to change matters. When the hated ‘intellectuals’ went out of their way to be nice to him, he would assume that he was being patronised. Cecil King subsidised him with a secret retainer from the Daily Mirror: his response was to bite the hand that was feeding him, and insult his benefactor’s wife. The simple and unalterable truth is that, whatever the cause of his difficulties, you just couldn’t get it right with George.
One might ask oneself why Wilson put up with Brown for so long. And the answer must be that he, too, recognised some unique spark in this former fur salesman from Peabody Buildings, Southwark. But whatever the reason, it is impossible to imagine any other leader of any other party putting up with the endless succession of disasters, fiascos, uproars and crude farces which George Brown precipitated on an almost daily basis. Little Harold may have been a devious, scheming politician, but he was also an extraordinarily nice chap.
He was also profoundly wrong about devaluation, while George was right, even if only by conversion. As this book records, George was one of the three top economic ministers – the others were Wilson himself and the then Chancellor, Jim Callaghan – who decided on Day One of the new Labour government that there would be no devaluation of sterling, and that the matter should therefore be regarded as a closed book for ever afterwards. But it is difficult to believe that Brown would have gone along with this pre-emptive strike by Wilson if he had had much to do with economic policy before taking office (he had had overall responsibility for home affairs in opposition). As it is, he was put in charge of the proposed rival to the Treasury in economic matters, the much-lamented Department of Economic Affairs, with a remit to produce a National Plan for industrial expansion. He duly produced the plan – it inevitably became known as the Brown Paper – and then came to realise that virtually nothing it contained could be realised without devaluation.
From 1965 onwards he fought tirelessly to breach the blank wall erected by Wilson against a change of parity. It was at the centre of the so-called July Plot of 1966, when Wilson and his allies managed to persuade many of their colleagues (together with the present writer) that George’s devaluation pitch was designed solely to prepare the ground for UK entry into the Common Market. On that basis, Wilson was able to beat off the devaluationists. It was the second biggest mistake of the Wilson Government, the first being the decision not to devalue in 1964. Brown’s defeat was followed by his removal from the DEA, by the winding-down and eventual abolition of that excellent department, and by his own appointment as Foreign Secretary. As this book chronicles, the new job led directly to a sharp escalation in Brown’s boozing, and thus to the downward slide which led in turn to his 18th and final resignation, to his squalid departure from the party he had served since his childhood, and in the end to his being photographed lying in a gutter outside the House of Lords.
As if this were not enough, Paterson also records the gruesome history of George’s forty-year marriage to Sophie, the nice Jewish girl he met at a Labour League of Youth summer school in the Thirties. For most of their life together he seems to have treated her as little better than a doormat, only to walk out on her without warning one Christmas Eve in order to set up house with a Foreign Office secretary less than half her age. To cap it all, the young woman faithfully nursed him through his final illness – cirrhosis, needless to say – only to discover that she was not even mentioned in his will. No doubt thinking he was making amends, George left everything to Sophie.
In spite of all this, Mr Paterson finds it in his heart to write kindly of this frightful but talented man. Indeed, he is generous, claiming that Brown’s monument will be that he did more than anyone else to ensure Britain’s entry into the European Community. This is a judgment which may surprise Ted Heath, among others. But whether it is true or not, it does little to encourage me to think well of him. On the whole, I prefer to think of him as the young man who, in his first departmental post as Clement Attlee’s Minister of Works, took on the snobbish military establishment at the Tower of London and forced them to open their gates to the public on Sundays as well as weekdays. Next time I’m in the Tower on a Sunday I’ll do my best to remember that.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.