A century of George Brown

Brown Streisand

September 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of one of the most eccentric Labour politicians in British political history. George Brown was a leading figure in Harold Wilson’s government. He deserves to be remembered as more than just a drunk. He was, however, an erratic sometimes aggressive figure who will always be associated with Private Eye’s famous euphemism ” tired and emotional”.

Like the “unwell” in the title of the play, “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell”, tired and emotional was usually taken to mean “pissed again”.

Although he rose to be Foreign Secretary and almost became party leader, Brown’s career was blighted by his tendency to get drunk on very small amounts of alcohol. Ironically, Harold Wilson, Brown’s chief rival, who ultimately bested him by becoming party leader and then Prime Minister is now known to have been effectively an alcoholic while in office. But the fact is, Wilson seems to have been able to hold his drink. He certainly concealed his condition much better than Brown did.

I’ve no idea, incidentally, why he is with Barbara Streisand in the above picture.

Here are some of the highs and lows of Brown’s career (he is no relation to Gordon Brown):


1914: Brown is born in Lambeth. He will prove to be one of the few genuinely working class figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour cabinet of 1964-70. His father is a van driver who is beaten up during the 1926 General Strike.
1945: Is elected MP for Belper in the post-war Labour landslide.
1956: Has a row with Soviet leader Khrushchev during a special private dinner in honour of the Soviet leader’s visit. Khrushchev is later quoted as saying that if he were British, he would vote Tory.
1950s: Brown launches a physical assault on colleague Richard Crossman after the latter criticised him in the press. Crossman is physically larger than Brown and ends the assault by sitting on him.
1963: Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell (a Brown ally) dies suddenly. Writing in his diary, Anthony Wedgwood (Tony) Benn expects Brown to be elected as his successor: this is the general view at the time. In the end, he is beaten by Harold Wilson, something Brown never gets over, partly because of concerns about Brown’s private behaviour. Less than sympathetic observers see the choice as between “a crook and a drunk”.
Brown famously humiliated himself on the evening of President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 (see this link, for a full account): https://chrishallamworldview.wordpress.com/2013/11/20/the-strange-case-of-eli-wallach-george-brown-and-the-death-of-jfk/
1964: After 13 years, Labour return to power with Brown as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs in charge of the National Plan.
Brown’s car breaks down on one occasion as he attempts to transport the only copy of the Plan. He flags down a bearded man and a pretty young girl in a Mini (leaving his own personal driver behind) ordering them to take him to Whitehall, rudely insisting that he is on “important government business”. Rather surprisingly, the couple agree to do so. On being dropped off, Brown realises he has left the Plan in the backseat of the Mini. Luckily, for him, the couple return it before morning.
1968: Brown finally resigns as Foreign Secretary. During his tenure, he has threatened to resign eighteen times, a post-war record. He attempts to retract his resignation but fails, effectively marking the end of his political career. He remains Deputy Prime Minister until 1970.
1970: Brown goes down fighting in the 1970 General Election, his defeat after 25 years in Belper inevitable, not because of his behaviour but due to boundary changes (Labour unexpectedly lose power in the election anyway, returning in 1974).
During one speech in Norfolk, a pretty girl in the audience shouts “Never!” in response to something he has said. Brown breaks off to say:
“My dear girl, there are some big words which little girls should not use and “never” is one of them.
Later in an early version of the 2001 “Prescott punch” Brown punches a long-haired student heckler to the ground. Bizarrely, a number of journalists assist Brown. “I left one long-haired young man…very surprised indeed…” Brown later wrote “when he found himself lying on the floor as the result of the accidental collision of his chin with my fist.”
Brown loses Belper and never returns as an MP. He changes his surname to George-Brown to ensure that on receiving a peerage both names are included in the title Lord George-Brown.
1976: Brown resigns from the party. The Times reports “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than Harold Wilson sober”. Brown falls over during the announcement of his resignation. He is widely assumed to be drunk. In fact, for once, he isn’t.
By coincidence, Wilson resigns suddenly as Prime Minister only a few days later.
1981: Like many right wing pro-European Labour politicians, Brown joins the fledgling SDP.
1982: Brown, aged nearly seventy, leaves his wife after thirty-five years, to move in with his personal assistant, then in her thirties. He does not change his will, however, and Lady George-Brown inherits the estate on his death.
1985: Brown converts to Catholicism shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver, aged 71.

Brown and JFK

7 thoughts on “A century of George Brown

  1. What a character Brown was. What if he had become Prime Minister ? We’ll never know the things that might have happened. with him in Downing Street.
    This piece makes me yearn for the sixties again.
    It’s hard to believe that George Brown would be one hundred years of age now.
    Great photo of him with JFK.

  2. Fascinating article on a much-maligned politician! Brown was, in fact, quite an astute politician with a common touch and an ability to get the message across. He was also very adept at handling hecklers when making public speeches. His addiction to the booze, however, made him volatile, explosive and totally unpredictable. At least, though, he did guve the newspaper editors something to print – even if for all the wrong reasons. Today’s bland crop of MP’s fade feebly into the background in comparison.

      • Thanks Shaun! He was very able, it’s true. I don’t think you get to be Foreign Secretary without some degree of shrewdness and I think his better qualities are often overlooked. That said, he also seems to have had a nasty bullying side and wasn’t much fun to work with I suspect.
        Did the booze make him the colourful figure that he became though or was he like that anyway?

      • No worries Chris. Full credit where it is due…

        Like I say, a really interesting article. As someone who looks back to the 60’s/70’s with a fondness (I suppose) as our esteemed MP’s of today pale into a wishy washy comparison when compared to the politicians around back then. I agree about the darker side to him as (from the accounts I have read about him down the years) he often got into arguments/slanging matches with those politicians on his own side!! That said, he was a very good public speaker who was able to hold his audience and hold them well.

        I’m not too sure if this might have been the product of his poor upbringing but he did seem to be a bit of a “throw the dummy out of the pram” politician if he couldn’t get his own way. I also think his plotting (firstly against Attlee then latterly against Wilson) would mean he was untrustworthy and so viewed with suspicion by his colleagues. To keep him busy I understand Attlee promoted him to some junior cabinet post which took up much of his workload and so left little time for plotting and scheming!
        [Think LBJ of J Edgar Hoover – “it’s better to have him inside the tent peeing out than outside peeing in…”!!

        Consider the times he resigned (or threatened to) during his time in office. Did he like to get his own way, perhaps?? With regard to the booze: it seems he was yet another working class lad done good but destroyed by the drink type character. The latest casualty of this I think would be Gazza (as in the footballer). It seems they come from nothing, hit the top of their tree by hard work but, once they mix in certain circles (money helps of course!!) they hit the bottle and it’s all downhill from there.

        I think, in a nutshell, he was definitely a flawed genius but colourful none the less. I also believe in this day of 24-hour rolling news there’s no way he could have got away with half his antics as he did back then. Our ‘PC’ times wouldn’t allow this anyway!!!

        When I think of George Brown I am always reminded of a story when he was addressing a meeting and was continually being interrupted by an awkward member of the audience. Brown turned to the heckler and suggested they form a double act. The heckler agreed with this to which Brown replied “I’ll sing Swanee River: you sir, can go and jump in it…”….

        They don’t make them like that anymore….

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