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George Alfred Brown, Baron George-Brown, PC (2 September 1914 – 2 June 1985) was a British Labour politician, who served as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1960 to 1970, and served in a number of positions in the Cabinet, most notably as Foreign Secretary, in the Labour Government of the 1960s. He was a leader of the right-wing element of the Labour Party, and an effective, if aggressive, election campaigner, but was ultimately unable to cope with the pressures of high office without excessive drinking. He was always known as 'George Brown' and for this reason he insisted on combining his first name and surname in his peerage title - so as to be familiarly referred to as 'Lord George-Brown' - which was created on 6 November 1970.
Brown was born in his maternal grandmother's flat, which was in a working-class housing estate in Lambeth built by the housing charity the Peabody Trust. His father had worked as a grocer's packer, lorry driver and served in World War I as a chauffeur to senior army officers. Brown went to Gray Street Elementary School in Blackfriars where he did well enough to pass an entrance examination to the West Square Central School, which was a junior grammar school. Brown had already adopted his parents' left-wing views and later claimed (probably accurately) to have delivered leaflets for the Labour Party in the 1922 general election when he was 8 years old.
The school wanted Brown to stay on beyond the age of 15, but Brown decided to leave to earn his living and help his parents financially. He started work as a junior clerk in the ledger department of a City firm, but was made redundant after pressing his fellow clerks to join a trade union. From 1932 he worked as a fur salesman for the John Lewis Partnership, dropping his cockney accent to appeal to society customers. Brown earned a great deal on commission. During this time, Brown continued his education through London County Council night schools and the Workers' Educational Association. The poverty of his upbringing led Brown in later life to resent those who had a more privileged background and a university education.
Trade Union organiser
Shortly after his marriage to Sophie Levene on 22 April 1937, Brown was employed as a ledger clerk with the Transport and General Workers Union, and appointed District Organiser for Watford the next year. By now Brown was active within the Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth. He ran as a moderate candidate for the Chairmanship but at the Labour Party conference in 1937 he was defeated by Ted Willis, a left-wing candidate later known as a television scriptwriter. At the 1939 Labour Party conference Brown made his mark by a strong speech demanding the expulsion of Stafford Cripps for his advocacy of a Popular Front. For the rest of his life, Cripps refused to speak to Brown.
His TGWU activities brought him into close contact with Ernest Bevin, the Union's founder and General Secretary. Bevin was one of the Labour leaders brought into the wartime coalition government. Brown himself served as a temporary civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture from 1940 onwards.
Member of Parliament
As a TGWU official, Brown was an attractive candidate to Labour constituencies seeking a candidate, as the TGWU would sponsor him and pay election expenses. He was selected for Belper, a mixed constituency near Derby which was one of the top Labour target seats. In the 1945 general election Brown won the seat with a majority of nearly 9,000. He was invited as one of a dozen 'Young Victors' to a private dinner given by Hugh Dalton on 30 July 1945 who was talent-spotting and networking. Brown was immediately chosen to be a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) by George Isaacs, who had followed the promoted Bevin as Minister of Labour, but his time with Isaacs was brief.
Brown was both adept at understanding political issues and how to communicate them, and convivial and generally popular within the Parliamentary Labour Party (save among the left-wing faction, whom he attacked as 'long-haired intellectuals'). He briefly worked as PPS for Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton from April 1947, at a time when the economic situation of Britain had barely improved and the Chancellor needed the maximum political support. Brown launched an unsuccessful plot to have Clement Attlee replaced as Prime Minister by Ernest Bevin, although without consulting Bevin who did not approve.
Attlee, despite knowing all about Brown's plot to depose him, swiftly appointed Brown as Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. The Prime Minister had decided that it would be best if Brown were kept busy. At the Ministry of Agriculture, Brown worked to pass the Agriculture Act 1947 which provided price support to farmers, and also to provide more arable land and ease shortages of machinery and foodstuffs. Government policy aimed at increasing food production so that rationing could be lifted, but progress was slow. However, Attlee grew to appreciate his talent.
When his mentor Bevin died in April 1951, Brown was appointed Minister of Works in the reshuffle - at the head of a Ministry but not in the Cabinet. Brown inherited a long-running struggle by the Government to have the Tower of London open to tourists on Sunday, and managed to solve it by outsmarting the Constable of the Tower in negotiations.
Brown's ceased to be a cabinet minister when Labour lost the 1951 general election at the end of October. As with other government ministers, Brown found himself forced to rely on an inadequate parliamentary salary which led him to consider a return to being a trade union official. However, in 1953 he was hired as a consultant by the Mirror Group newspapers, enabling him to stay in politics.
Brown was a partisan participant in the Labour Party's internecine struggles in the early 1950s, opposing the Bevanite campaign. His natural campaigning ability became prominent, but also his tendency to be rude to those with whom he had disagreements. Shortly after the 1955 general election, Brown was elected to the Shadow Cabinet for the first time; from that December Brown found it easier to win promotion as his friend Hugh Gaitskell became Leader of the Labour Party. Brown had a private but widely publicised shouting-match with Soviet leaders Nikita Khruschev and Nikolai Bulganin when he was part of a Labour Party delegation invited to dine with them on their British visit in April 1956. That year, he lost the election for Treasurer of the Labour Party to Aneurin Bevan.
After Bevan died in the summer of 1960, the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party became vacant at a time when the Labour Party was severely divided over Clause IV of the party constitution. Brown was encouraged to stand as the candidate of the Gaitskellite right; the other candidates were left-winger Frederick Lee and the moderate but insufficiently senior James Callaghan. Brown was elected, beating Lee by 146 votes to 83 when Callaghan had been eliminated. Gaitskell as Leader and Brown as Deputy Leader were not viewed by most of the Labour left as a balanced ticket, and Brown was challenged for the job in both 1961, by Barbara Castle, and 1962, by Harold Wilson. Part of his job was to improve Labour's by-election campaigning, and he was successful in winning several - most notably, Middlesbrough West.
Gaitskell's sudden death in January 1963 made his challenge for the party leadership inevitable. However he mishandled the campaign badly. At the first Shadow Cabinet meeting after Gaitskell's death, Brown and his Leadership rival Harold Wilson agreed to a clean fight. Wilson, who was accused by the right of undermining party unity, then informed the press that each agreed to serve under the other, which countered his reputation for plotting; Brown repudiated any such agreement, laying himself open to that accusation.
Many on the right of the Labour Party, most notably Anthony Crosland and Denis Healey, supported James Callaghan for the leadership. They were opposed to Wilson's being elected leader, but they had good reason not to trust Brown. Partly this was because of private knowledge of his excessive drinking, which exacerbated his rude and aggressive style of politics. Crosland called the leadership election "A choice between a crook (Wilson) and a drunk (Brown)." Many Labour MPs who were prepared to accept Brown as deputy leader were unhappy with the idea of his being in charge, and Wilson was easily elected.
The mainstream press had not publicised his drinking, but it later became apparent when Brown was invited on Associated-Rediffusion television to pay tribute to John F. Kennedy after his assassination (Brown was probably the closest Labour politician to Kennedy). Brown had come from a dinner in Shoreditch where he had already drunk a great deal, and drank more while preparing to go on air - having a row with actor Eli Wallach which became physical. When Brown went on air, millions of viewers saw him interpret a fair question as an accusation of his having overstated his closeness, then give a morose and slurred tribute from which it was apparent he was intoxicated. Brown had to issue a public apology.
Brown bitterly resented his leadership defeat, which came only weeks after he had defeated Wilson for the deputy leadership. He disappeared for five days after the result was declared, using an assumed name to book a flight to Glasgow; the newspapers were full of stories about the vanishing politician. When he returned he demanded of Wilson that he be appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary, which Wilson refused.
He retained the deputy leadership and despite his personal differences, played an important part in advising Wilson about Labour's campaign strategy in the 1964 general election. It was decided that Wilson would make only a limited number of major campaign speeches outside London, while Brown would tour the country speaking in all the marginal seats (his main theme was predicting an imminent economic crisis). Brown later calculated that he had made 100 speeches. In one he made a gaffe by suggesting that the mortgage interest rate could be cut to 3 per cent; the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling was quick to capitalise on this and ask how much it would cost.
Department of Economic Affairs
Labour won the election with a small parliamentary majority. As previously arranged with Wilson, Brown was appointed to the newly created Department of Economic Affairs through which they both hoped to institute long-term economic planning and remove some of the power of the Treasury. Brown also took the honorific title of First Secretary of State to cover his seniority as Deputy Leader of the Party (Brown, but no-one else, claimed that he was actually the Deputy Prime Minister).
Immediately on taking office Brown was told that the budget deficit for the coming year was forecast at £800 million, double what the Labour Party had predicted as the worst possible figure before the election. The leading economic ministers were presented with three options, including devaluation of the Pound Sterling, to meet the crisis. They decided on a temporary surcharge on imported goods. However, over the next few months Brown was persuaded by his deputy Anthony Crosland that ruling out devaluation had been a mistake. The pound continued to be under pressure in 1965 and Brown struggled over a 12-hour meeting at the Trades Union Congress to persuade the unions to accept a tougher prices and incomes policy, to which he was personally opposed.
The most important function of the DEA was to prepare a 'National Plan' for the economy. Brown became personally identified with the project, which helped increase enthusiasm for it among officials and the Labour Party, while also interesting the press. After nearly a year's work the Plan was unveiled on 16 September 1965, pledging to cover "all aspects of the country's development for the next five years". The Plan called for a 25% growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from 1964 to 1970, which worked out at 3.8% annually. There were 39 specific actions listed, although many were criticised as vague.
After the 1966 general election at which Labour won re-election with a parliamentary majority of 96, the government was hit by a severe financial crisis. The question of devaluation was raised again in a more pressing way, with Brown now strongly supporting it, but Harold Wilson was firmly opposed, preferring a set of deflationary measures including spending cuts and interest rate rises. Brown believed that these measures would damage the economy. Chancellor of the Exchequer James Callaghan found himself in the middle, as he opposed devaluation but felt that without prompt action it was inevitable. Wilson tried to keep Brown on board, even offering to make him Chancellor should Callaghan resign, but Brown stood firm. When the Cabinet voted by 17-6 against devaluation, Brown sent a letter of resignation.
Wilson craftily sent the letter back to Brown so that he could deny having received it, and then sent George Wigg to try to talk Brown out of it. This did not prevent the news reaching the public; Wigg then changed his position and told Brown that Wilson would accept his resignation. Bizarrely this convinced Brown to stay and he accepted all of Wilson's terms for staying in the government in a late night meeting before announcing his "un-resignation" to the press in Downing Street.
Brown was reshuffled to become Foreign Secretary in August 1966, a job he coveted. This decision had implications for the government's stance on the European Economic Community as Brown had always favoured entry. Wilson had been sceptical, but not opposed outright, to joining but Brown persuaded him and the rest of the Labour Party to support an application. In May 1967 it was announced that Britain had made its second application to join. Like the first, it was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle.
Brown's drinking was became more pronounced as he became depressed by his loss of face in July 1966. His reaction to his depression was to launch vituperative attacks, for example at the son of newspaper proprietor Cecil King in October 1967. After Wilson was told of this, Brown came round and told Wilson that he had just had a terrible row with his wife and could not continue in Government. More and more people were becoming aware of Brown's alcoholism, and Private Eye managed to hint at the scandal with a parody of a memo titled "Brown: F.O. Acts". The memo gave translations into various languages for the words tired, overwrought, expansive, overworked, colourful, and emotional. This coined the phrase "tired and emotional" as a euphemism for drunk; this phrase was first used by his agent, Edward Eldred, when he had to make excuses for Brown's behaviour after a long flight.
Brown, indeed, once boasted that "Many Members of Parliament drink and womanise - now, I've never womanised"; which was almost certainly true. There was never a whisper about his sex-life during his career.
Rumoured Archbishop of Lima incident
During his time, and subsequently, a widely circulated but evidently false rumour had it that Brown had embarrassed himself while drunk at an official reception in South America. Brown was said to have lumbered over to a tall, elegant vision in red, and requested the honour of the next dance, to be told, "I will not dance with you for three reasons. The first is that you are drunk. The second is that the band is not playing a waltz, but the Peruvian national anthem. The final reason is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima." Although the story is amusing, checks have not substantiated it. Brown did not visit South America during his term, and the story had originally circulated about a different minister.
Despite devaluation in November 1967, the pound came again under severe pressure in March 1968. When Wilson wanted to declare an emergency bank holiday to give breathing space, he attempted to contact his Foreign Secretary. Brown could not be found and his staff reported his condition as "only 'so-so' when last seen," and so Wilson convened a special meeting of the Privy Council without him. Brown was incensed that Wilson had not tried further to contact him, and got together with other ministers who had not been informed to face down Wilson at a meeting in the early hours of the morning. Brown, who appeared very drunk, incoherently shouted at Wilson, who was almost as angry and stood up for himself. At the end of the meeting Brown stormed out.
It was unclear whether he had resigned but Brown did nothing the next day to apologise. At 6 o'clock that evening he sent a letter which said "I think it better that we should part company" but did not mention "resignation". Wilson decided to reply by accepting Brown's resignation but also sent a message saying that Brown had half an hour to say whether the letter had been misinterpreted. Brown did not act on this and so left the government, but not in the blaze of glory for which he had hoped.
Brown's constituency of Belper had been the site of considerable development since he had been elected. Most of the new housing was for middle-class areas near Derby and contained mostly Conservative voters. Although a Boundary Commission report in 1969 recommended the abolition of the seat, the Government decided to postpone the changes and Brown was forced to stand in a seat which was shifting away from his party. Added to this problem, he remained deputy leader of the Labour Party and toured the country making speeches for other Labour candidates during the 1970 general election. His Conservative opponent Geoffrey Stewart-Smith had spent the last four years nursing the constituency. Brown lost his seat by more than 2,000 votes.
Brown swiftly decided not to try to regain his seat but to go to the House of Lords, and received a life peerage in the Dissolution Honours List. When the award was announced, Brown told the press, "As I understand it, I have to pick a title — but I hope to everybody, I will simply remain George Brown." This foreshadowed a long dispute over the wording of the title. Brown wished to be "Lord George Brown", but Garter King of Arms argued that peerage titles traditionally included only surnames, not forenames. Brown had no sympathy with the objection, and noted that there had been counter-examples such as Lord Ritchie-Calder and Lord Francis-Williams. Eventually, Garter King of Arms gave way on condition that Brown simultaneously change his surname to George-Brown, so finally his title ended as Baron George-Brown, of Jevington in the County of Sussex.
In 1971 he published his autobiography In My Way, which Harold Wilson said privately was where he had always found Brown. He found work at the textile company Courtaulds, and later worked for Commercial Credit (Holdings) and British Northrop.
On 2 March 1976 George-Brown announced that he was leaving the Labour Party in protest at government legislation which strengthened the closed shop. Typically and tragically, this announcement was overshadowed when he collapsed and fell into a gutter, having to be helped out by newspaper reporters, which was presumed to be a result of his drinking. The Times the next day printed the opinion that "Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister sober." Harold Wilson was still in office, and the opinion had been voiced occasionally in private for many years by those who disliked the Labour left.
George-Brown became the president of the Social Democratic Alliance in January 1981, and was a signatory to an advert in The Guardian on 5 February, placed by the Campaign for Social Democracy. However, he did not announce his membership of the Social Democratic Party or SDP for another four years. By that point, his reputation had so declined that Bill Rodgers, who had been Brown's Parliamentary Private Secretary at the DEA and the Foreign Office, described him as "an embarrassment rather than an asset to his old friends who founded the SDP." His brother Ron, who had been a Labour MP since 1964, had also joined the party. On 24 December 1982 Brown walked out on his wife of 45 years to set up home with his 35-year old secretary, Maggie Haimes. However, he did not change his 1969 will which gave his estate to Lady George-Brown. As his health deteriorated, he converted from his previous Anglo-Catholic religious beliefs, entering the Roman Catholic church near his death. Suffering cirrhosis of the liver, Lord George-Brown died after a stroke on 2 June 1985, at the home in Truro which he shared with Maggie Haimes. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium in London; his ashes are buried under a rose bush in the gardens.
- The National Plan (Cmnd. 2764). Department of Economic Affairs (HMSO, London, 1965)
- In my way: The political memoirs of Lord George-Brown by Lord George-Brown (Victor Gollancz, London, 1971)
- The Private Eye Story by Patrick Marnham (Andre Deutsch Ltd, London, 1982)
- Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott (HarperCollins, London, 1992)
- Tired and Emotional: The life of George Brown by Peter Paterson (Chatto and Windus, London 1993)
- Dictionary of Labour Biography edited by Greg Rosen (Politico's Publishing, London, 2001)
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Sir Herbert Wragg
|Member of Parliament for Belper|
| Succeeded by|
|Minister of Works|
| Succeeded by|
|First Secretary of State|
| Succeeded by|
|Secretary of State for Economic Affairs|
| Succeeded by|
|Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs|
| Succeeded by|
|Party political offices|
|Deputy Leader of the Labour Party|
| Succeeded by|