Not while I'm alive, he ain't - Part 2
Presented by Brian Walden
Broadcast on The Westminster Hour, Sunday April 7 2002
Of course at Westminster politicians and journalists have been discussing since Mr Wilson's statement two questions: one, will this slash and freeze policy stop the rot and restore confidence, and secondly where is Mr George Brown and will he resign?
Robin Day's question - will George Brown resign - was one we got used to asking about the temperamental Deputy Prime Minister during Harold Wilson's Labour government in the 1960s. On this occasion, in July 1966, the answer was both yes and no. Brown resigned in protest at a freeze on wages and prices and other crisis economic measures, which the government felt forced to introduce. Within hours he was persuaded by friends to withdraw his resignation, a decision he announced to the media on the steps of Downing Street at nearly midnight.
This was only one of many attempts to resign by Brown. They happened so often that it led to the following joke becoming current. A Downing Street aide rushes into Wilson's office clutching a piece of paper and tells him, "We've just received a resignation letter from the Deputy Prime Minister." Wilson nonchalantly replies, "Put it on file with all the others."
These serial resignations by the impulsive Brown were just one manifestation of the tense, unhappy relationship between the two men at the top of the Labour government. Barbara Castle, a fellow cabinet minister and a close ally of Wilson, took the prime minister's perspective on George Brown.
He treated Harold absolutely abominably. He was the thorn in Harold Wilson's side, partly his uncontrolled public behaviour, which is very embarrassing if you're prime minister and he's your right-hand man, but also because he was so rude to Harold, didn't hide the fact that he thought he ought to have been leader and not Harold.
And Brown had very little respect for Wilson, according to another cabinet minister who witnessed their relationship at close hand, Denis Healey.
Brown did regard Wilson, as he was, as an opportunist without any real principles and that is borne out by everything we know and have learnt about Wilson since.
If that's how Brown regarded Wilson, how did Wilson regard Brown?
Well, as a pain in the rear end, really. Everybody found it difficult to work with George.
Underlying their relationship was also a complete contrast in values and roots between the pragmatic Wilson and the confrontational Brown. This is how it was seen by Ron Brown, George's younger brother, but also a Labour MP at the time.
Harold was virtually a civil servant. That's how he started in life in the war. And he had this aura about him of being a don, ex-university man, and so on. He could have been just as well in any other party. Whereas George came from a home where we were Labour folk. We were in the trade union movement from the day we could join the trade union movement. We were brought up on that. Therefore we had an object in life. The actual labour movement was our goal in life. So I think there was a difference in actual attitude towards the whole of politics.
Wilson had risen in the party during the 1940s and 50s as a left-wing intellectual. Brown's power base was with the trade union MPs on the right of the party, and this had provided him with the deputy leadership in the early 60s. When the then leader Hugh Gaitskell died suddenly in 1962, Brown was widely expected to beat Wilson in the contest for leadership. But some Labour MPs who supported Brown's politics failed to back him personally. The future cabinet minister Bill Rodgers, then a key organiser among MPs on the right of the party, explains why.
I think that at that moment after Gaitskell's death people felt there ought to be stability. Brown I think was enjoyed by people. We said, yes, George, you're a good thing George, you'll be a great success, but I don't think he's quite got the balance and the steadiness. But of course the other thing you have to remember was that George did make enemies. Harold Wilson on the whole didn't. George, if he was irritated, always said so, and if he didn't like members of Parliament at any time he didn't restrain his own natural behaviour.
Brown was deeply upset by the defection of some of his expected supporters, and, according to Castle, reacted characteristically to the result.
When Harold won the leadership, I was at that party meeting at which the announcement was made, and of course George Brown was sitting on the platform. He was livid that he'd lost the leadership, and everyone in the room knew that he hadn't the temperament for it. But Harold at once asked him, "And I hope that George will be my deputy". Well, the party was yearning for someone to say the healing word. George Brown's response was to toss his head and stalk off the platform. That was to mark the whole of their relationship. The nicer Harold was to George, the more George resented it.
A few days later Brown did decide to become Wilson's deputy and work with him. When Labour won the 1964 election a year later, Wilson gave Brown the new post of Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. This was at the head of a new department, the Department of Economic Affairs or DEA, which was to promote economic growth through a national plan. The DEA was created deliberately as a counterweight to the Treasury, which Labour distrusted. Whatever the merits of the idea it was a structure which led to practical difficulties, as Bill Rodgers, who became one of Brown's junior ministers at the DEA, discovered.
It was an awkward tripartite after all. Normally you have a prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer, and they're balanced, one and the other, and they work together, even if they disagree. They are the key figures. And in a sense George Brown was the third member, which upset the apple cart.
It resulted in an unstable balance of power which could only last for so long. Ron Brown.
George did tremendously well, got industry together, got the trade unions together, got the country working as a whole. But Wilson came along with it, and it was only when Jim Callaghan as chancellor began to be pushed by his mandarins to stop this creeping of the DEA into their territory, he was persuaded to withdraw support from George in the issue, did nothing to counter the absurd comments in the media, about he's standing there with his national plan, and rubbishing it.
But there was also a major underlying policy dispute. Callaghan and the Treasury were set resolutely against devaluing the pound, which consistently faced immense selling pressure on the international exchanges. They instead favoured deflationary measures which they hoped would restore confidence in the pound. Brown in contrast had backed devaluation as a means of avoiding deflation, unemployment and low growth. Wilson backed the Treasury view. With hindsight we know that Brown was right and that devaluation proved inevitable, but that didn't happen until 1967. The failure to devalue in July 1966 was regarded by Brown as the fatal end of his expansionary approach, according to his brother Ron.
George thought it was a mistake. He thought it was wrong and that we would pay a price for it and because of the attitude that if you didn't do that he couldn't see the DEA being able to advance a lot of their plans for the future, and so he therefore wanted to resign. Now there were a lot of us, I was one, I said "No, don't do it", and with the help of a lot of good friends, Bill Rodgers and others, he was persuaded to stay.
So why did Bill Rodgers try hard to keep Brown in government?
Because he had great talent. Though he was very vulnerable, I thought he could do a lot to help the government of the time. He'd started well. He should get the credit for what he'd done. He was admired by a lot of people.
A month after Brown revoked his resignation there was a government reshuffle in which he was moved to Foreign Secretary. His brother argues that Wilson continued to conspire against George. On one occasion, according to Ron Brown, when the cabinet was split on the sale of arms to South Africa, Wilson went so far as to inspire his whips to circulate a Commons motion undermining George's position while George was out of the country.
They were bringing round an early day motion. Brian O'Malley on behalf of John Silkin on behalf of Harold Wilson was getting it round the House when George was in Bonn. When I rang him, he said they don't know what they're doing, the little man - he used to call him the little man - the little man came along with it, the little man has never been any different, the Simonstown agreement we were talking about at that time. He said the little man agreed it. BW: 'George called Wilson the little man?' RB: That's right.
That phrase - the little man - suggests the level of resentment and contempt that Brown felt for the man who had defeated him years previously for the top job. He never learnt to control the way his emotions got in the way of his talents, as Barbara Castle notes.
You would sit in Cabinet alternating between exasperation at his moodiness and temperament and anger, and admiration of his brilliance. I used to admire George's command of a subject. When he was on the pure policy he was totally admirable, but when it came to some personal application of the policies that affected him, he seemed to lose all control and all judgement. It was very sad. It was as if though was an explosive mixture there. All the worse if someone had passed him the sherry at the same time.
And Castle's mention there of alcohol refers to a factor that was to become increasingly and tragically important in Brown's life.
He began to suffer very much from drink. He was one of these people who would get drunk on the smell of the cork. It wasn't that he drunk a lot, he just couldn't take drink.
His cabinet colleague Denis Healey. And indeed Ron Brown confirms that the Brown family has a metabolic problem with processing alcohol. So he doesn't drink at all. But his brother George wasn't so wise. Healey again.
I had to work with him because I was defence secretary at the time when he was foreign secretary and we arranged that we would meet once a week for an hour. I found I had to have the meetings before 12 in the morning, because otherwise there was the risk that George would be the worse for drink. It was a very, very serious problem with him.
The drinking badly exacerbated Brown's erratic behaviour. Documents released by the Public Record Office show how bizarre the consequences could be. On one evening he phoned Wilson at 11 pm to say he had just had a row with his wife and would have to resign. His wife then phoned Wilson and told him to take no notice. On another occasion Brown and Wilson were in a meeting, disagreeing about the role of No 10 staff in foreign policy. Brown suddenly demanded a shorthand writer so that he could dictate a resignation letter. When this was refused, he tried to phone his office to dictate his resignation in the form of a press release.
When the Downing St switchboard disconnected the call, Brown stormed out. A little later he returned. Wilson then remarked that "now that the 16th resignation was out of the way, they could discuss the matter further when the occasion came for the 17th". Brown immediately stormed out again. But in the morning he was back at his desk in the foreign office. Inevitably however there would eventually be an incident which would not be resolved by a night's sleep. It came in March 1968, when Wilson and the Chancellor, Roy Jenkins, decided late one night to declare an emergency bank holiday because of an international crisis in the gold market.
Ron Brown, a backbencher, heard the news from a contact in the city before it reached his elder brother, one of the most senior members of the government.
I heard that they were going to close the banks and I got hold of George and said, Have you heard this? George rang to talk to Wilson and then the story came from his permanent secretary that he had just left to go to the Palace. BW: The story was put about at the time that they had been trying to get in touch with George all day. Did they put that to George? RB: Yes indeed, and he said how. They said by telephone. George rang the switchboard, the foreman of the switchboard, I was on the other end of the line, he was told I was listening, and George put to him, Have you been asked from 10 Downing St to get hold of me today. Chap said, No sir, not at all.
In the face of his exclusion from this decision George then resigned, for the final time, because he stuck to it, and Wilson made no attempt to dissuade him. And by this time, there were few other ministerial colleagues who wanted to hang on to him either. Barbara Castle.
We were all immensely relieved because we knew that the whole government was in danger as long as George was on the loose. You never knew when this explosive mixture was going to ignite, and of course the press was hanging around all the time ready to exploit that situation actually. So it was an enormous sense of relief.
Brown stayed as a backbench Labour MP until he lost his seat in the general election two years later in 1970. The next year he published his memoirs, entitled 'In My Way'. On hearing the title Wilson supposedly commented that it was very appropriate, because that was just where he had always found George Brown over the years.