Is there any room today for the prophet or the oddball? In politics, even Boris Johnson, who used to cheer everyone up, is no longer the unifying entertainer he once was. Since attaching himself to Brexit he has become a divisive figure. According to the Spectator, his Tory enemies are out to nobble him.
Boris is not the first foreign secretary in recent times whose suitability for office has been questioned. Another was George Brown. He is forgotten now, but in his time he was the most popular politician around. Richard Crossman described him as “a Jekyll and Hyde”, who had “this extraordinary public appeal which time after time earns him public forgiveness for gross misbehaviours and deficiencies … the most attractive member of Cabinet, certainly the most imaginative.”
Brown, Labour foreign secretary from 1966 to 1968, was the origin of the euphemism for drunk – “tired and emotional” – popularised by Private Eye and later adopted for the title of Peter Paterson’s lively biography, Tired and Emotional: the Life of Lord George-Brown (1993).
He was a brilliant campaigner and quick with repartee, but he would turn up slurring and aggressive on television and to Cabinet meetings. On March 2, 1976, the day he resigned from the Labour Party, he fell over in the street outside Parliament and had to be helped to his feet by reporters.
He was also brave. He swam against the fashionable currents of the time. He virulently opposed communism, and was one of the first to fight against the entryist tactics of Labour Trotskyists. He advocated Britain joining the EEC, when Hugh Gaitskell was warning that it would mean “the end of a thousand years of history”.
Unfortunately Brown, a lorry driver’s son brought up on an estate in Lambeth, was burdened with large chips on both shoulders, simmering resentments provoked by the public school Lefties who dominated the Labour front bench. It was typical of his chippiness that when he entered the House of Lords he added a hyphen to his name by deed poll (to make it “Lord George-Brown”) without bothering to discuss it with the Garter King of Arms.
His life unravelled rather chaotically. After 45 years of marriage he left his wife, Sophie, and set up home in a cottage in Cornwall with his secretary – in a period when such behaviour was genuinely scandalous. Sophie told the News of the World that she had known nothing about the affair until Christmas Eve, when “I’d just finished hanging the presents on the tree. When he walked out of the door he was whistling. I haven’t seen him since.”
In a final twist, shortly before Brown died of cirrhosis of the liver in June 1985, he became a Catholic. Just after his death an account of his conversion appeared in the Guardian diary column – written by Alan Rusbridger (later the paper’s editor). I looked it up in the archive. It provides a fascinating glimpse into Brown’s private thoughts.
Out of the blue he rang up his local priest in Falmouth, Canon Michael Walsh.
“Father, I want spiritual help,” he said. “Can you come to see me?”
On their first meeting, Walsh explained, “we talked for at least five hours. I stayed, as we say, ad multum noctem.”
The next day Brown rang and asked to continue the conversation. “He gave me a lot of the history of his own life, and his relationship with others … He had a very lucid, keen insight into matters spiritual. He then told me he would like to join the Catholic Church. He said, ‘Father, I want to come home. I want to be reconciled to God.’
“I said, ‘Well, we’ll take it a little bit at a time, but I’m sure eventually we’ll get there.’ I said all he needed was a little bit of straightening out of one or two items in his spiritual life. In the end we got over all the little obstacles.”
Did the obstacles include Brown’s reported affair with his former secretary, asked the diarist.
“Ah, the $64,000 question,” said Canon Walsh. “The press has given an impression which is not entirely accurate, but even if it were accurate, then it would not preclude him being received into the Church providing a man is willing to do certain things. George did those things, and having done them, was very happy. You don’t realise this fact, I’m sure, but our business is dealing with sinners. We hope that the end product will be a saint.”
After three months’ instruction, Brown was received into the Church. Walsh saw him the day before he died and gave him the last rites. “He was at perfect peace. He said to me, ‘I feel like a new man. I have come home. I am now reconciled to God.’ ”
I wonder whether George Brown would pass the candidate selection board today.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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