Churchill’s Jackal

Kenneth O. Morgan

  • Brendan Bracken by Charles Edward Lysaght
    Allen Lane, 372 pp, £10.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 7139 0969 2

‘It’s just that he isn’t a real person. He isn’t a human being at all.’ This verdict on Rex Mottram in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited conveys something of the despairing bafflement of contemporaries towards the real-life right-wing politician on whom Mottram was modelled – Brendan Bracken. Even in the political fluidity of the Thirties and the Second World War, Bracken, with his self-created and well-advertised mystique as a man of mystery, taxed to the limit the Tories’ appetite for self-made adventurers, already fully tested in the past by such as Disraeli and ‘F.E.’

Bracken, on the face of it, seemed the very prototype of the Celt on the make, the unprincipled political upstart and compulsive social climber. He patronised, flattered and exploited professionally editors such as Garvin, press lords like Beaverbrook, businessmen like the elder Sir Robert Boothby, and above all the political eminence of Churchill, to forge the most improbable of political careers. In Michael Foot’s deadly phrase, Bracken was the classic ‘leather-lounged adventurer’, worming his way insidiously up the Tory hierarchy.

That Bracken should have progressed as far as he did still seems extraordinary. He was the archetypal rootless, alienated man, born to be an outsider. The son of an Irish stonemason, orphaned at an early age, he was an outcast from the first, isolated even from his own family. His ungainly appearance, topped by a flame of red hair, added to an inner sense of insecurity. Brought up in an atmosphere of intense Fenian Irish nationalism, he removed himself physically, first to Australia and then to London to become the great advocate of Unionism and the imperatives of the English class system, governor of Sedbergh School, the patron of parish churches, the cultivated enthusiast for English history. He remained implacably anti-Irish in many ways, even over the Lane bequest. By the time he was 27, in 1928, he had become managing director of a chain of leading financial journals and newspapers, including the Economist and later the Financial Times. A political pariah in the Thirties, who followed Churchill in most of his wild-goose chases to the far right over India and appeasement, Bracken suddenly emerged in 1942-5 as a key figure in Tory Party strategy. Even his achievement in helping Churchill to snatch disaster from the supposed jaws of victory in 1945 did not eliminate Bracken’s influence. He was offered the Colonial Office in 1951, and only growing ill-health, which resulted in a tragically painful death from cancer in 1958, may have prevented him from rising higher still, perhaps to the Foreign Office. Had he lived, some surmised, he might well have been prominent in the struggle for the Tory succession in the early Sixties. It was a strange, meteoric career, the product of antagonising and infuriating contemporaries as much as ingratiating and charming them. Twenty years on, the mystery of Brendan Bracken still seems, to a more prosaic, disillusioned generation, almost unfathomable.

An immense aid to solving many of these problems has come with Charles Edward Lysaght’s new biography. The result of years of dedicated research into public and private archives, and of much valuable testimony from Bracken’s friends and acquaintances, it adds considerably to Andrew Boyle’s study, published in 1974. The research into Bracken’s career is comprehensive. His ancestry, his finances, his brooding, introverted personality, his sexual drive (or perhaps lack of it), his intense personal involvement with Churchill and others, are devotedly laid bare. This must be the definitive work. The research is daunting, the scholarship impeccable, the judgment always balanced. Mr Lysaght even pursues such themes as Bracken’s attitude towards corporal punishment during his time as a schoolmaster in the early Twenties. There are some good jokes from this period. Bracken, we are told, built up his dossier of information on the British social scene by learning off Who’s Who by heart, Then he turned to Crockford’s: ‘Now for the bloody clergymen.’ Much of the magic that evidently radiated from Bracken’s personality comes across most vividly. His garrulous, flamboyant, often outrageous behaviour, which led to contrived insults and detectable lies about his family background or parentage (that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son was one fable he signally failed to contradict), was obviously attractive to many. Above all, in addition to an evident warmth, generosity and human kindness rare in public life, Bracken, like other rootless men, developed a passionate faith – a deep attachment to the values and institutions of the alien English world which he had broken into. ‘A romantic posing as a cynic’ was one contemporary’s shrewd judgment. In this sense, his devotion to Churchill, and his fresh appeal to many younger Tories, in contrast to the shop-soiled tawdriness of the Baldwins and Chamberlains, come across very clearly. In explaining the positive as well as the more repellent features of Bracken’s political style, Mr Lysaght’s biography (the work of a fellow Irishman) is genuinely illuminating.

Bracken’s rise to eminence is deftly etched in. Entering English public life in the raffish atmosphere of Lloyd George’s last phase in 1922, he soon gained a foothold in journalism. One important key was the friendship he struck up with another Irishman, Garvin, editor of the Observer. Years later, in 1942, Bracken fought hard but in vain to prevent this famous editorship coming to an end. Another key was his growing friendship with Beaverbrook, who found a kindred spirit in this aggressive, opinionated Irish-Australian arriviste who mouthed the creed of Empire. Most important of all, Bracken proved himself to be a business venturer of genius when he launched his new journal, the Banker, in 1926, and recruited to it such financial experts as Paul Einzig. Two years later, he persuaded Eyre and Spottis-woode to purchase a newspaper group that included the Economist, the Investors Chronicle and the Financial News as well. Long before his 30th year, he was established as a wealthy and successful entrepreneur, the chairman of perhaps the most thriving group of financial newspapers in the world.

But Bracken’s ambitions always focused ultimately on politics, even though his political loyalties, apart from a deep-seated anti-socialism, were vague. The most significant feature of his early career, indeed the political and emotional matrix of his life, was the association with Churchill which began in 1923 (when Churchill was still a nominal Liberal), survived an early breach, and matured into an unbroken record of ungrudging discipleship from 1930 onwards. To the dismay of many of Churchill’s admirers, to the alarm of Churchill’s wife and children, Bracken became Churchill’s confidant, his devoted champion during all the years of unpopularity in the Thirties. Sunday at Chartwell became known as ‘Brendan’s Day’. Churchill became Bracken’s idée fixe, his ideology and his religion. The Irish agnostic had found a faith at last. Together with Robert Boothby (always a more independent figure), Bracken was derided as the ‘faithful Chela’, or alternatively as ‘Churchill’s jackal’. When Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, it was the apotheosis of Bracken’s career. Appropriately, when Churchill fell from power in 1945, in such cataclysmic fashion, Bracken was again the closest of advisers. To the end, he was ‘poor’, dear Brendan’, trouble-shooter, go-between, acolyte and fidus Achates, the unselfish but never self-effacing friend. It is not evident that Bracken ever added much to Churchill’s political ideas or his judgment of great events. Often Bracken had no clear opinion of his own. Over Munich, he backed Churchill despite his private reservations – as he was to give public support to Eden over Suez despite his inner convictions, 18 years later. It was as a fixer and a sustainer of Churchillan morale despite all adversities that Bracken existed in politics, and it forms his major claim to historical importance.

Apart from his ties with Churchill, Bracken’s career in politics did not amount to very much. A good deal of the story that Mr Lysaght has to tell is not very positive in content. Elected as member for North Paddington in 1929, Bracken made little impact either on the Commons or the country. There was something contrived about his political style: Robert Rhodes James has observed that his speeches ‘exuded insincerity’. Bracken was occasionally roused to defend the free-enterprise system by attacking ‘doles’ to the unemployed or minimum wages for miners, but even that roused little Tory sympathy. He still seemed an outsider: he even had to dispel rumours that he was a Polish Jew. After 1931, his ceaseless attachment to Churchill necessarily limited his opportunities: but even in 1938-39 he loomed far less prominently than did other critics of appeasement such as Eden and Macmillan. Churchill made Bracken his PPS at the Admiralty in September 1939 but his main role again lay in the Byzantine realms of political manoeuvre in the clubs, smoothing the way for his heros’s possible elevation. When that came in May 1940. Bracken was still too distrusted by mainstream Tory opinion to be given any post at all; nor did he complain. His role was covert and indirect – though one with much influence, as in his negotiations on Churchill’s behalf with Harry Hopkins in early 1941 (Bracken was always an ardent apostle of the Anglo-American alliance). He was, however, sent by Churchill to the Ministry of Information in July 1941, by far the most important episode in his career and one covered with fascinating detail in this book. Here, Bracken handled a desperately difficult portfolio with immense skill and sophistication; his task was eased by his sensitive understanding of Fleet Street and his personal links with journalists. He also struck out boldly for the freedom of the BBC to comment, on domestic news at least, during the war. For this, he won great admiration, including that of political opponents such as Dalton. Lord Radcliffe later wrote of Bracken at this time: ‘There were few voices in the inner circle of power who spoke a language steadier and more humane.’

It is evidence of Bracken’s intellectual limitations, however, that he quite failed to respond to the new political opportunities afforded by the social reforms and the egalitarian climate of the war years. Unlike Butler and others, Bracken had no time for the shibboleths of post-war reconstruction. He emerged from the war an unrepentant apostle of free-enterprise capitalism. For all his avowed pragmatism, he was someone who had learnt nothing and forgotten everything. Laski now called him ‘the Tory thug’. At the 1945 election, like his hero, Churchill, Bracken paid the supreme political penalty. He was out of Parliament, defeated at Paddington by a disgruntled general turned Labour. His political career never looked so significant again. Even though he was elected for Bournemouth later in the year, he made relatively little impact in the House thereafter, apart from the odd skirmish over nationalisation or ‘controls’. Ill-health played its part in this, but Bracken also seems to have been fatally out of sympathy with the modernist stream of progressive Toryism associated with Butler, Macmillan and Stanley which produced the Industrial Charter. He seemed more of a maverick than ever, suspect for his continuing links with Beaverbrook. He was offered the Colonial Office by Churchill in November 1951: in view of his exceptionally limited attitude towards African and other nationalism (he commented on ‘the unwisdom of forcibly feeding illiterate natives with parliamentary institutions’), it is a mercy that he had to decline. Brendan Bracken as Colonial Secretary handling the troubles of Guyana, Kenya or Cyprus is an alarming thought. The last years were ones of enforced premature retirement, with private pleasures such as Sedbergh School, architectural design and the founding of History Today, and the achievement of final respectability in the world of City finance. When he died in 1958, his friendships were in as good repair as ever, but politically he represented almost an extinct species.

Mr Lysaght concentrates throughout on Bracken’s personality and private qualities. There can be no doubt that he is right. Not only do these help to explain the curious nature of his erratic, lurching Odyssey through British political and financial life: they bear centrally on his abiding relationship with Churchill. Through the efforts of men such as Bracken, Churchill remained politically available, and credible throughout the Thirties – just as he suddenly seemed dated and expendable in 1945. From the evidence presented here, Bracken, for all his insecurity and arrogance, was an honourable enough disciple – far superior in quality of character and of mind to some of those who hovered around that other exiled giant in Elba, Lloyd Goerge. Without the Second World War, Bracken’s career would have been a minor chapter is political history. Faced with this supreme challenge he understood the crisis of leadership, and the quality of the indispensable leader, as few others did. It is a substantial legacy to British History.