George Brown

George Brown

George Brown was born on 2nd September, 1914. His father was a lorry driver. He was also branch secretary of Transport and General Workers Union and after the General Strike lost his job and was blacklisted.

After leaving school he became a ledger-clerk in London. This was followed by work as a salesman with the John Lewis Partnership. In 1936 Brown became a full-time union official where he worked under Ernest Bevin at the Transport and General Workers Union. His first post involved organizing agricultural workers, brickyard workers, building trade workers and canal boatmen.

Brown joined the Labour Party and as secretary of the St Albans branch attended the Labour Party National Conference in 1939. Brown impressed Clement Attlee with a speech attacking the views of Stafford Cripps and other left-wing members of the party.

Selected as the parliamentary candidate for Belper in Derbyshire, Brown entered the House of Commons following the 1945 General Election. Clement Attlee appointed Brown as parliamentary secretary to Hugh Dalton, Chancellor of the Exchequor.

In 1947 Brown was involved in a plot to replace Clement Attlee as prime minister with Ernest Bevin. Although the conspiracy was discovered by Attlee he did not sack Brown and in May 1951 he was promoted to Minister of Works. Brown lost his position following Attlee's defeat in the 1951 General Election.

When Hugh Gaitskell became leader of the party Brown was appointed shadow spokesman on Agriculture (1955-56), Supply (1955-59), Defence (1956-61) and Home Affairs (1961-64). When Gaitskill died in 1963, Brown was one of the main contenders for the party leadership but Harold Wilson was able to defeat his right-wing rival.

Following the 1964 General Election Brown became Secretary of State for Economic Affairs. He upset many members of the Labour Party by establishing a Prices and Incomes Board. His decision to appoint Aubrey Jones, a Conservative Party MP, as chairman, also created a great deal of controversy.

In August 1966 Brown became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Over the next two years he led the government's decision to apply for membership of the European Economic Community. He resigned on 14th March 1968 after a dispute with the prime minister, Harold Wilson, concerning government decision-making.

Brown was defeated in the 1970 General Election. He was created Baron George-Brown but was not an active member of the House of Lords and in March 1976 left the Labour Party. He went into business and worked for Courtaulds (1968-73). He was also a director of Commercial Credit and British Northrop.

George Brown died on 2nd June 1985.

Primary Sources

(1) George Brown, In My Way (1970)

Dalton used to come back from No. 10 seething with rage about what he called 'the incompetent little Prime Minister who just sat there doing nothing to influence a decision "while I had to sit listening to rambling monologues from your friend Ernie Bevin".

I didn't share Dalton's view on Bevin, but I did begin to wonder about Mr Attlee. Everybody seemed to be talking about Attlee's indifference, and I spent a lot of time in the tea room of the House of Commons (I've learned better since!) listening to, and taking part in, the discussions that went on. At that time Patrick Gordon Walker was Herbert Morrison's P.P.S., and he and I had long discussions about what we regarded as the Attlee problem. Finally we decided that we should have to do something about it, so we determined to organize a 'putsch' to get rid of Mr Attlee and replace him by Bevin. Bevin was the only possible strong man to take his place as Prime Minister. One lot in the Parliamentary Labour Party wouldn't have Cripps, others wouldn't have Morrison, and nobody would have Dalton. So Bevin was the only man, and we set out to organize a revolt by collecting signatures in the tea room to a resolution demanding the resignation of Mr Attlee and his replacement by Bevin. I was deputed to be the man to go to Bevin to tell him that we'd got all this arranged, so would he please put on his best suit and be ready to go to the Palace at any moment.

(2) Herbert Morrison, An Autobiography (1960)

When Kruschev came with Bulganin on 25 April, 1956, to that by now famous dinner with the Parliamentary Labour Party, he appeared at first to be a quite new type of Russian leader - jolly, ready to laugh and be friendly, and on the surface perfectly genuine. I suspected that it was a post-Stalin policy of the Kremlin to choose extrovert, human personalities for positions of power and public office so long as they had brains and Communist convictions as well.

At the dinner Kruschev went through the motions of not wishing to make a formal speech, wanting to leave the limelight to Bulganin, who was of course Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers and Prime Minister. Bulganin spoke conventionally and courteously, friendly greetings to Britain and all that.

Mr. K. did speak, as I knew he would. He started his speech pleasantly enough with harmless, friendly material, but the longer he spoke the more he boasted. It was the usual sort of thing. The Soviet Union had won the war. Britain had done little. The men who most obviously showed their annoyance at this were George Brown and Aneurin Bevan. Soon they were making protests which Kruschev could not pretend he had not heard.

This annoyed Kruschev very much and he lost his temper. He made it very plain that he disliked being contradicted and that he was not accustomed to it. He was cross also when Gaitskell raised the question of the Communist imprisonments of Social Democrats.

(3) George Brown, In My Way (1970)

Aneurin Bevan was a strange man. He had great ability and great ambition. He could do the most contrary things, but you could never call him insincere. He had a burning faith in whatever seemed good to him at the time but, outside politics, had no personal faith at all. I have tried to write of what the Christian faith has meant to me in my approach to the Labour movement in its widest sense: many others in the Party have likewise come to Labour primarily because of religious faith - there is a long history of Christian Socialism in our movement. Others, of whom Ernie Bevin was one, grew up without religious faith, but acquired faith in such qualities as the dignity of man; it was a different sort of faith, but it gave them something that they stood by all their lives. Aneurin, and certainly his friends, seem to have grown up without faith in anything. He was a bigger man than his friends, a law to himself, and he had qualities which set him apart from those who were called (or called themselves) Bevanites. He certainly saw himself as a potential Prime Minister, a greater Lloyd George. He was flattered by all the attention and the publicity he got, but he never commanded that solid backing in the Labour movement which would have been necessary to give him the leadership.

Aneurin had great charm. Some people are naturally made to be bigots and they deliberately try to turn on charm when it suits them. Aneurin was the other way round; he was naturally made to be charming, and he had deliberately to turn on the bile. He was generous in every sort of way, and naturally kind. Paradoxically, he could also be a bully, but really he only bullied those who let themselves be bullied. If you stood up to him he would smile broadly, and accept that you were not going to let him get away with something. We had tremendous battles - I remember his describing me at one meeting of the Parliamentary Party as 'Arthur Deakin's lackey'. And yet, in spite of everything and our wide divergencies politically, there was a kind of friendship between us which couldn't be denied.

(4) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: The Making of a Prime Minister, 1916-64 (1986)

I was taking a risk with George Brown, with his erratic habits. The drink problem was always with us. It was not that he drank more than anybody else but that he could not hold it. For a time he was on his best behaviour. He had high ability and a very sharp mind, enjoyed a solid position of trade union support in the Party and would I knew face down the Treasury whenever the occasion arose.

(5) George Brown, In My Way (1970)

The particular incident which brought things to a head was the Prime Minister's decision to ask the Queen, at a hurriedly called meeting of the Privy Council late at night, to proclaim a Bank Holiday in order to meet a request from America which had to do with arrangements being made internationally to steady the chaotic gold situation which then existed. No announcement of this had been discussed among Ministers and no statement had been made to the House of Commons. The statement that was subsequently made at 3.20 a.m. on the following morning was only made because of the events of that night leading to my declared intention to resign.

The point was that the Cabinet was not consulted. Although I was Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and a member of the Economic Committee of the Cabinet, I for one knew nothing about it. Other Cabinet Ministers learned by chance that Mr Wilson Mr Jenkins and Mr Peter Shore had gone to the Palace to attend a Privy Council to have the holiday proclaimed. We had no idea what was happening, whether another devaluation was imminent what on earth was afoot. It was a decision taken by Mr Wilson in the presidential manner, without consulting us, without even informing us. That was what made it so important. It was the way in which the decision was taken, not the decision itself, which seemed to me then - and seems now - to mark a clear breach in constitutional practice.

(6) George Brown, In My Way (1970)

I became the Labour Party's spokesman in the House of Commons on defence, and this got me more and more involved with European colleagues, in NATO, in the Western European Union, and in an American-European consultative body called the NATO Parliamentarians. Quite without planning I became a main spokesman for the Labour Party in all these various bodies, and I began thinking of Europe on a much wider basis than at Strasbourg. I began to think deeply about European defence, and about European and American relationships. Gradually my views changed and I became a convinced 'European'. That is something much more than being merely a Common Market man. My belief that Britain should join the Common Market developed out of my thinking on European integration. Important as it is, the Common Market in my view is only part of the wider process of creating a politically integrated Europe, capable of standing up both to the Russians and the Americans.

Geographically, historically and in every other way the British are among the leading nations of Western Europe. I have always quarrelled with Dean Acheson's much-repeated remark about Britain's having lost an empire and not found a role. We have a role; our role is to lead Europe. We are, and have been for eleven centuries since the reign of King Alfred, one of the leaders of Europe. It may be that Britain is destined to become the leader of Europe, of Western Europe in the first place, and of as much of Europe as will come together later on. The little bit of water that comes between us and the mainland is a help in the sense that it provides a point from which you can stand back and observe without getting too involved in the passions of States in the centre of the Continent, but it is no longer a barrier because wars will never again be fought in a way that makes the Channel a barrier.

(7) George Brown, In My Way (1970)

There can be no doubt that Ernest Bevin stands out among all the people I have met. He is in a place by himself. He was a man with little or no taught advantages, who relied wholly upon his own brain, his imagination and his capacity for envisaging things and people. In this capacity he was not surpassed and I think not even matched by anyone else I have ever met. The Churchills, the Attlees, and most other leaders, political or industrial, had all the advantages which their social position and long formal education can bestow. Bevin had none of these advantages, but I have seen him in every kind of situation - trade union negotiations round a table, trade union meetings facing often hostile critics, meetings with industrialists, with statesmen - and on every occasion it was quite clear that he was master of the situation. He said that he hated politics, yet in making politics or in running a political department few could match him. He had a natural dignity which offset his endowment of determination and ruthlessness.

It wasn't until the war that he got his real chance to make a major impact on national history. His work as Minister of Labour during the war contributed as much to victory as that of any of the generals and, as Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government after the war, there were times when he seemed to hold the Western world itself on his great shoulders.

(8) Harold Wilson, letter accepting George Brown's resignation (15th March, 1968)

You refer to the events of last night. As you know, unsuccessful efforts were made to get in touch with you at a critical phase, so that you could be brought into the immediate decision, which had to be taken with great urgency if most serious consequences for the nation and for the international community were to be averted.

(9) Denis Healey, The Time of My Life (1989)

George Brown carried an enormous chip on his shoulder, which tended to make him jealous of anyone with a university education. Like many people with an inferiority complex, he could be an appalling bully. But he did not mind people standing up to him. After being subjected to a particularly tiresome tirade, his Private Secretary, a small man called Donald Maitland, pulled himself up to his full height, looked George in the kneecaps, and said: 'You do not imagine, Foreign Secretary, do you, that a person of my stature has got where he is today, by kow-towing to bullies?' George was suitably abashed.

He had a powerful mind allied with great energy, and could often get to the heart of a problem faster than anyone else. But he was quite unpredictable, and came to depend so much on drink that in the end I tried to avoid seeing him after midday. He was always resigning, sometimes on the most trivial issues. When our troops in Aden were under particular strain, I decided to call up a few reservists who were being paid extra specifically for accepting such a liability - something my predecessors had never dared to do. George exploded. 'They'll never stand for it in Swadlincote,' he said. Swadlincote was a small, village in his constituency, always quoted by George as a touchstone of public opinion. 'There'll be revolution. The Government will fall.' And he resigned. Next morning only one newspaper even mentioned the call-up, and that in a single paragraph. George withdrew his resignation.

In spite of everything, we managed to work quite well together. But the strain of acting as a psychiatric nurse to -a patient who was often violent became intolerable. My patience was finally exhausted when George once again resigned one evening in March 1968, on the grounds that Wilson had not consulted him properly about the decision to close the gold market. I was touring RAF stations in the West country at the time. One of his friends rang me after midnight to say that George was in the House of Commons drinking heavily; he had given news of his resignation to a number of lobby correspondents as well as to any MP who would listen. Would I speak to him, as so often in the past, and ask him to withdraw his resignation? I said no, and went back to bed.