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  George Alfred Brown (1914–1985), by Paul Joyce, 1976 George Alfred Brown (1914–1985), by Paul Joyce, 1976
Brown, George Alfred, Baron George-Brown (1914–1985), politician, was born on 2 September 1914 at Flat 22, I Block, Peabody Buildings, Duke Street, Lambeth, London, the elder son of the four children of George Brown, a grocer's packer who later worked as a driver, and his wife, Rosina (Rose) Harriett, née Mason. His paternal grandfather, John Brown, was a carter, while his maternal grandfather was an asphalter. For a career in Labour politics, George Brown had impeccable working-class credentials.

Making of a trade union organizer

More than that, George Brown saw himself as having been born into and later married into the labour movement. His father had worked in a London dock warehouse and been a member of the Dock, Wharf and Riverside Workers' Union before becoming a car, van, and lorry driver, with his union forming part of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU). After the First World War his father graduated from branch secretary to a member of the union's executive committee. The young George Brown experienced hard times after his father was sacked for actively supporting the general strike in 1926.

Brown grew up in a poor working-class community in Southwark. After his birth his parents had left the small flat which they shared with his grandmother Anne Mason in Lambeth for their own accommodation at another Peabody Trust block at Peabody Square, Blackfriars Road, Southwark, near Waterloo station. He attended Gray Street elementary school, then West Square central school, both close to his home. While still at elementary school he became a choirboy and a committed Christian, much influenced by Father John Sankey of the City of London church of St Andrew by the Wardrobe. He was a keen Labour Party supporter, even at school. He later claimed, probably accurately, to have leafleted for Labour in 1922. He left school at fifteen, but attended evening classes run by the London county council near by, near the Elephant and Castle, then Workers' Educational Association and National Council of Labour Colleges courses.

George Brown gained his first two jobs through an agency which helped promising boys from his and other similar schools. He spent a year as a clerk in a Cheapside merchant firm, then worked in retailing as a fur salesman for the John Lewis Partnership at its Oxford Street store. He worked there until he was twenty-two. He pursued his political interests by seeking a job in his father's trade union. He failed to secure a post as a trade union officer but instead returned to being a clerk in the TGWU ledger room. After two years he applied successfully to be a district organizer based in Watford, where he organized agricultural, brickyard, building, and other workers in the small towns of the area. With the coming of the Second World War he became involved in organizing within war industries, serving on industrial committees and trade boards and also on the war agricultural executive. He volunteered for the RAF but Ernest Bevin, the minister of labour, kept Brown and other trade union officials in their civilian jobs.

Labour party activist, MP, and minister

Brown's main ambition lay in politics, not in trade unionism. While living in Streatham, at Mountearl Gardens, he was active in his local Labour Party. In 1932, at the nadir of the Labour Party's fortunes, he became vice-president of the Streatham constituency Labour Party and a member of the national advisory committee of the Labour league of youth. He also became an avid participant in Clarion events sponsored by Sir Stafford Cripps, and enjoyed spending weekends at conferences and schools at the Clarion youth hostel at Hoddesdon. It was through this group that at the age of eighteen he met his future wife, Sophie Levene (1911–1990), like her father, a bookbinder. In marrying her, he married into a very committed Labour Party family: her father, Solomon Levene JP, was a founder member of the Mile End Labour Party and, with his wife, Kate, a lifelong Labour Party activist. They married at Stepney register office on 27 April 1937 and bought a house at 59 Lakeside Crescent, East Barnet, before moving during the war to Potters Bar. In Barnet he quickly became secretary of the St Albans divisional Labour Party, unsuccessfully stood for the East Barnet urban district council in 1938, and went as the constituency delegate to the Labour Party conference in 1939.

Brown's speech on 29 May 1939 at the Labour Party conference, supporting the expulsion of Sir Stafford Cripps from party membership, first established him as a tough spokesperson for the moderate wing of the Labour Party. In it he struck what were to be characteristic stances. He stated that his constituency party was ‘entitled to some greater consideration … than the views of those centres of revolutionary activity in the centre of London which have been sending us such long-winded circulars on the subject’. As well as deploring the distraction Cripps caused from campaigning, he also denounced ‘a small, noisy section of intellectuals and the middle class’ in his own constituency for trying to tell others what to do. He ended with a call for Cripps and his associates to ‘forget to be a leader for a little while and work as a rank and file member’ (Report of the 38th Annual Conference, 1939, 235–6). This speech won the support of that year's party chairman, George Dallas, who had had a long career in the Workers' Union and was a former member of St Albans Labour Party. Dallas helped to secure Brown the nomination as prospective parliamentary candidate for Belper, Derbyshire, a seat with a Conservative majority of only 828 to overturn. Belper was one of several east midlands constituencies whose Labour Party was predominantly working class and loyal to the moderate leadership of the Labour Party. Brown, sponsored by the TGWU, was elected with a majority of 8881 in the general election of 1945, and held the seat until 1970. From 1945 until 1964 the Browns lived at 77 Court Lane, Dulwich, then in 1964 moved to 103 Portsea Hall, Marble Arch.

In parliament Brown almost immediately became parliamentary private secretary to George Isaacs, the minister of labour. He accompanied Isaacs to Canada and the USA for the annual meeting of the International Labour Organization, and met the big figures in American trade unionism. In 1947 he became parliamentary private secretary to Hugh Dalton, chancellor of the exchequer. While in this role Brown was a conspicuous plotter to replace Attlee as prime minister with Bevin, an activity deplored by Bevin. Attlee, nevertheless, appointed him under-secretary of state for agriculture, a post he held from 7 October 1947 until 26 April 1951. Brown then attained ministerial rank and membership of the privy council, but not membership of the cabinet, as minister of works, a post he held until the fall of the government in October 1951.

In opposition: champion of the Labour right

However, now accustomed to a ministerial salary, Brown, faced with a great drop in income, seriously considered leaving parliament and returning to trade union work. He was kept in politics by a £500 a year (later £1250 a year) retainer from Cecil King to advise the Daily Mirror, then the biggest mass circulation newspaper.

Brown emerged from office as a combative anti-Bevanite. Shortly after the general election defeat Dalton reported in his diary that ‘Brown thinks it ought to be war to the knife with the Bevanites’ (Dalton, 567–8). George Brown actively organized opposition to Aneurin Bevan and the left-wingers loosely associated with him, the Bevanites. In March 1954 he secured a power base. Tony Benn wrote in his diary of this that ‘After fifteen years of pleasant slumber the Trade Union Group [of Labour MPs] have been seized in a most unscrupulous coup d'état’ and he described Brown as ‘thrusting, ambitious, unscrupulous’ (Benn, Years of Hope, 178). One of several south London working-class Labour MPs, Brown followed in the footsteps of Bevin, his former trade union boss, and Herbert Morrison, the leading south London Labour politician. He supported Herbert Morrison, for a period, but Attlee's continued tenure of the leadership of the Labour Party led Brown by 1955 to become a supporter of Hugh Gaitskell. While Brown fitted in badly with many of Gaitskell's intellectual supporters (including the so-called ‘Hampstead set’), with Gaitskell complaining in his diary on 9 November 1954 that Brown was ‘a difficult person, and at times has an irritating chip on his shoulder’ (The Diary of Hugh Gaitskell, 1945–1956, ed. P. M. Williams, 1983, 348), his abilities and his trade union credentials were welcome. Brown also reinforced his anti-left-wing credentials when, at a dinner in honour of the Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchov and Marshal Bulganin in 1956, he objected to Khrushchov's critical comments on Britain's war efforts and condemned the Soviet pact with Ribbentrop, thereby causing a substantial row with the Russians.

This probably did no harm to Brown's attempt to succeed Hugh Gaitskell, the new party leader, as party treasurer. However, the hitherto reliable ‘loyalist’ trade union block vote was divided by an upsurge of support for Bevan in some trade unions and by the candidature of two other ‘moderate’ trade union-supported candidates. Most areas of the National Union of Miners backed Bevan, as did the railway workers' and shopworkers' unions. In October 1956 Bevan beat Brown by a small margin, 3,029,000 to 2,755,000 votes. Brown won the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1960, winning the support of most of the trade union group and also most of the Gaitskellites. In the first ballot he polled 118 to Fred Lee's 73 and James Callaghan's 55 votes; in the second round he gained 148 to Lee's 83.

This was a high-water mark for Brown within the party. In opposition he increasingly eased stress with alcohol. Ironically, given his ultra-sensitivity to middle-class intellectuals in the Labour Party, his heavy drinking was tolerated by Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson; a contrast to some earlier working-class temperance figures such as Arthur Henderson, who had acted firmly against alcoholism in party officials. Even such supporters as Hugh Dalton were concerned by 1960 about his volatility: Dalton noted in his diary that Brown was the best candidate, even ‘though very awkward, vain, sensitive and fundamentally self-seeking and unfaithful’ (Dalton, 700). Nevertheless, Brown was respected for his sharp intellect, his position as the ablest trade union MP, and his considerable skills as a speaker in the House of Commons and on public platforms. He was one of the twentieth century's great performers in general elections, an excellent knock-about open-air speaker who dealt brilliantly with hecklers.

However, Brown's dependence on alcohol and his general volatility undermined his bid to succeed Hugh Gaitskell as the Labour Party leader in 1963. The eminent Liberal Lady Violet Bonham Carter noted in her diary after appearing on the radio programme Any Questions? with Brown in October 1954, ‘I have never before—in the course of an unsheltered life…—met anyone so completely un-house-trained’ (Daring to Hope, 140). When it came to the leadership contest she expressed views widely held at the time: ‘Brown v. Wilson presents a harsh choice between an often (though not always) drunken boor—rude, clumsy, devoid of finesse or subtlety, but an honest & loyal man—& a very able, clever, experienced but universally distrusted one, of proven disloyalty’ (ibid., 264). The candidature of James Callaghan provided opponents of Wilson with a less volatile alternative than Brown. In February 1963 Wilson polled 115, Brown 88, and Callaghan 41 votes in the first round; Wilson defeated Brown by 144 to 103 votes in the second round.

Brown was mortified by his defeat. Far from being magnanimous, he withdrew for five days and was not contactable. He asked to be shadow foreign secretary, a post Wilson refused to give him. Brown's drinking remained a problem and he was often unpredictable. Of the many embarrassing incidents, the best remembered was an emotional but drunken tribute to President John F. Kennedy after his assassination; later, early in 1967, the satirical magazine Private Eye coined the euphemism for inebriation ‘tired and emotional’ in relation to Brown (P. Marnham, The Private Eye Story, 1982, 117, cited in Paterson, 8).

The Wilson government: economic affairs and Foreign Office

With Labour's victory in the general election of 1964 George Brown became first secretary of state and secretary of state for economic affairs, posts he held from 16 October 1964 until 11 August 1966. The Department of Economic Affairs was intended to be the powerhouse of modernizing and reconstructing British industry. It was responsible for economic planning, increasing productivity, and securing competitiveness in external and internal markets. George Brown and his planning department drew up a long-term economic plan, the national plan, published on 13 September 1965. Harold Wilson later described it as ‘a remarkable and thorough piece of work’ (Wilson, 137). A controversial part of the planning was carried out by the prices and incomes department of Brown's ministry, which Brown appointed the former Conservative ministry Aubrey Jones to head. Brown was also behind the establishment of the Industrial Reorganization Corporation, which assisted industrial mergers in an attempt to create larger, more efficient units which could compete with industry in the USA and elsewhere. In 1966, faced with a serious balance of payments crisis, the government's determination not to devalue led to the July deflationary measures, which undercut Brown's work. Brown, who by this time accepted the need for devaluation, was dissuaded from resignation by an appeal from over 100 Labour MPs. Staying on in office, he had to argue (against his own views) in favour of a statutory incomes policy.

On 11 August 1966 Brown achieved one of his aspirations by becoming foreign secretary. He was a successor to Bevin, whom he much admired. Perhaps he also admired Palmerston, for he replaced a portrait of George III with one of Palmerston in his Foreign Office room. He ran the Foreign Office in a highly controversial way, laying great stress on his aim to break down the class prejudice there, and getting the office run more informally (a synonym for his notorious rudeness to civil servants). He continually complained about ‘the old, protocol-ridden regime’ (Sunday Times 7 April 1968, 50).

Always pro-American, Brown joined Wilson in trying to secure an honourable basis for American withdrawal from Vietnam, but he was less optimistic than the prime minister. Brown was an enthusiastic advocate of British entry into the Common Market. His statement of the British case for EEC entry at the meeting of the Western European Union in July 1967 was impressively argued, and came to be recognized as a state paper of major importance (The Times, 1 July 1970, 11). Although he refused to be daunted by General de Gaulle's second veto of 27 November 1967, and kept Britain's application for entry active, the failure to be admitted was a major disappointment for him as foreign secretary. Brown succeeded in restoring diplomatic relations with Egypt, and with the help of Hugh Mackintosh Foot, Baron Caradon, British ambassador to the United Nations, he was involved in drafting the Security Council resolution 242 (22 November 1967), which sought to achieve a basis for peace between Israel and the Arab states following the Six-Day War.

Brown, highly sensitive about his political status after losing the leadership contest in 1960, was increasingly suspicious and resentful of Harold Wilson's preference for dealing with his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of favoured associates rather than carefully consulting Brown and other ministers. His repeated threats to resign became legendary. Brown had legitimate cause for complaint when Wilson's associates briefed the media that Brown favoured resumption of arms sales to South Africa. What was probably an inevitable breach between the two men came in March 1968, when Brown was outraged that Wilson failed to prioritize seeking out Brown to consult him over the closure of the London gold market and the declaration of a special bank holiday. Brown resigned on 15 March 1968, never to return to office.

Life peer

Brown soon regretted resigning. He later saw Wilson, but Wilson made it clear that he would not remove Michael Stewart so Brown could return as foreign secretary and Brown would accept no lesser post. Wilson, according to Richard Crossman, considered giving Brown a leading role at Transport House, the then Labour Party headquarters. Brown addressed some 200 meetings during the general election campaign of 1970, dynamic and impressive performances. However, boundary changes had always made it likely that he would lose Belper, which he did by 2424 votes. In the dissolution honours announced in August 1970 he was made a life peer, taking the title Lord George-Brown of Jevington in the county of Sussex (the location of his weekend cottage), after a lengthy tussle over his title with the Garter king of arms.

Brown had taken his defeat badly for the Labour Party leadership in 1960 and he took his departure from office in 1968 and the loss of his seat (and thereby the post of deputy leader) even worse. He very soon made clear his differences with the Labour Party in the introduction (finished in December 1970) to his autobiography In my Way (1971). During 1970–75 Labour's repudiation of the EEC was an important component of his alienation from the party. He emphasized the idealism that lay behind the idea of creating the EEC in the 1950s and believed that the idea of entry was too important to be influenced by party-political considerations. Moreover, the former political voice of the trade unions became increasingly their vigorous opponent, writing hostile pieces for the News of the World and, by the early 1980s, for the Daily Express and Sunday Express.

Labour's failure to assert itself against the trade unions had previously caused Brown to consider the possibility of a centre party, and in March 1976 he moved from the Labour benches to the cross-benches of the House of Lords after opposing a government bill to restore certain forms of legal rights to trade union ‘closed shops’. His resignation was accompanied by degrading press photographs of him falling over beside his car and being helped to his feet by journalists. ‘One is torn between pity and loathing for a man who is ruined’, Tony Benn recorded (A. Benn, Against the Tide: Diaries, 1973–76, 1989, 526). Benn saw Brown as ‘a fallen angel. He was one of the high-flying leaders of the Party and now earns his living attacking it’ (A. Benn, Conflicts of Interest: Diaries, 1977–80, 1990, 508). He became president of the Social Democratic Alliance in January 1981 and was a signatory to the ‘Limehouse declaration’ in February 1981, but delayed actually joining the Social Democratic Party for four years.

Brown's private life ended equally unpredictably. His family had appeared the epitome of the close-knit London working-class family. Sophie Brown loyally backed him. They had two daughters, Frieda and Pat, and were proud grandparents by the time he entered the cabinet. He also received loyal political support from his brother Ron [see below]. While his political dedication and his alcoholism put strains on the marriage from the 1960s, there was general surprise when he walked out of his home on Christmas eve 1982 and thereafter lived in Sussex, then Cornwall, with Margaret Rosalinde Mary (Maggie) Haimes (b. 1947), his secretary. As his health deteriorated he also turned his back on his Anglo-Catholic religious beliefs and converted to the Roman Catholic church. He died of liver complaints on 2 June 1985 at the Duchy Hospital, Truro, Cornwall. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium. He was survived by his wife and by Maggie Haimes.

Brown's younger brother, Ronald William [Ron] Brown (1921–2002), politician, was born on 7 September 1921 at 5 North Peabody Square, Southwark, London. He was educated at elementary school in south London, then went on to study engineering at Borough Polytechnic. During the war he served as a gunner in 156 (Pathfinder) squadron of the RAF, and always counted himself lucky to have survived. On 28 October 1944 he married (with his brother, George, as a witness) Mary Matilda Munn (b. 1921/2), who was serving in the NAAFI. She was the daughter of George Alfred Munn. They had two daughters and a son. After demobilization he returned to Borough Polytechnic as a lecturer in electrical engineering, eventually becoming principal of its industrial training school. He was active in Labour politics, serving as leader of the opposition on Wanstead and Woodford borough council from 1953, then as leader of Camberwell borough council from 1956 and Southwark borough council in 1964. He beat the trade unionist Clive Jenkins to become Labour candidate for Shoreditch and Finsbury in 1963 and was duly elected in 1964; he sat for the reconstituted seat of Hackney South and Shoreditch from 1974. There were allegations of nepotism when his brother let slip that he had helped him in the selection contest for this safe Labour seat.

In parliament Ron Brown was inevitably overshadowed by his older brother, whose accent and speaking style as well as political views he shared. He was briefly an assistant whip in 1966–7 but never liked, and was never liked by, Harold Wilson. He was particularly active in European affairs, serving as a member of the Council of Europe assembly and Western European Union assembly from 1965 to 1976, of the indirectly elected European parliament from 1977 to 1979, and of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union council from 1979 to 1983. He was increasingly embroiled in conflict with the Labour left both within his constituency and more widely. From the later 1960s working-class London Labour MPs like Ron Brown, Ernest Perry, and Bob Mellish felt threatened by ambitious, often middle-class, activists who spoke the irreverent language of 1960s anti-establishment left-wing politics, and who were impatient of suggestions of respecting the older generation of Labour stalwarts. As chairman of the London group of Labour MPs he was described by Ken Livingstone, the left-wing leader of the Greater London council as ‘a particular problem’ who ‘did everything possible to sour relations between Labour MPs and the GLC’ (Daily Telegraph). To add insult to injury, he shared the name Ron Brown with another, much more left-wing, Labour MP, Ronald H. Brown, and was as a consequence frequently berated by constituents and others for, for instance, supposedly supporting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He eventually left the party to join the Social Democratic Party in 1981, complaining bitterly of the ‘extremism, viciousness and spitefulness’ in the Labour Party (The Times). He lost his seat in the 1983 election, coming third behind the Labour and Conservative candidates.

From 1984 to 1987 Brown worked as director of industrial relations for the Federation of Master Builders, and was deputy director-general from 1987 to 1991. He was also a member of the North-West Thames regional health authority (1974–88), and a governor of St Bartholomew's Hospital and its medical college (1964–95), and lay member of its medical research and ethics committee (1980–94). In later life he and his wife, Mary, lived in Pevensey, Sussex. He rejoined the Labour Party in 1997. He died on 27 July 2002 at Eastbourne District General Hospital, Eastbourne, of peritonitis, colonic diverticular disease, and cancer of the thyroid, and was survived by his wife and their three children.

Chris Wrigley


G. Brown, In my way: the political memoirs of Lord George-Brown (1971) · P. Paterson, Tired and emotional: the life of Lord George-Brown (1993) · DNB · The political diary of Hugh Dalton, 1918–1940, 1945–1960, ed. B. Pimlott (1986) · B. Castle, The Castle diaries, 1964–1970 (1984) · R. H. S. Crossman, The diaries of a cabinet minister, 3 vols. (1975–7) · The backbench diaries of Richard Crossman, ed. J. Morgan (1981) · H. Wilson, The Labour government, 1964–1970: a personal record (1971) · A. Benn, Years of hope: diaries, 1940–62 (1994) · T. Benn, Out of the wilderness: diaries, 1963–67 (1987) · A. Benn, Office without power: diaries, 1968–72 (1988) · Daring to hope: the diaries and letters of Violet Bonham Carter, 1946–1969, ed. M. Pottle (2000) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · The Times (31 July 2002) · Daily Telegraph (31 July 2002) · The Guardian (31 July 2002) · The Independent (2 Aug 2002) · b. cert. [Ronald William Brown] · m. cert. [Ronald William Brown] · d. cert. [Ronald William Brown]


Bodl. Oxf., papers · Bodl. RH, corresp. relating to colonial issues |  King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · NL Wales, letters to Desmond Donnelly · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook · U. Warwick Mod. RC, Richard Crossman diaries · U. Warwick Mod. RC, Transport and General Workers' Union papers


P. Joyce, photograph, 1976, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

£81,436: probate, 24 Sept 1985, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · under £13,000—Ronald William Brown: probate, 30 Sept 2002, CGPLA Eng. & Wales