George Brown, Baron George-Brown

From Academic Kids

George Alfred Brown, later George Alfred George-Brown, Baron George-Brown, PC (September 2, 1914June 2, 1985) was a British politician who served as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party from 1960 to 1970, and was a senior Cabinet minister (including as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) in the Labour government of the 1960s. He was a leader of the right wing within the Labour Party and an effective, if aggressive, election campaigner, but was ultimately unable to cope with the pressures of high office without excessive drinking. He changed his surname from Brown to George-Brown in order to incorporate his first name into his peerage title, which was awarded on November 6, 1970.

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George Brown

Family and early life

Brown was born in his maternal grandmothers' flat, which was in a working-class housing estate in Lambeth built by the housing charity the Peabody Trust. His father had worked as a grocer's packer, lorry driver and served in World War I as a chauffeur to senior army officers. Brown went to Gray Street Elementary School in Blackfriars where he did well enough to pass an entrance examination to the West Square Central School, which was a junior grammar school. Brown had already adopted his parents' left-wing views and later claimed (probably accurately) to have delivered leaflets for the Labour Party in the 1922 general election when he was 8 years old.

The school wanted Brown to stay on beyond the age of 15, but Brown decided to leave to earn his living and help his parents financially. He started work as a junior clerk in the ledger department of a City firm, but was made redundant after pressing his fellow clerks to join a trade union. From 1932 he worked as a fur salesman for the John Lewis Partnership, dropping his cockney accent to appeal to society customers. Brown earned a great deal on commission. During this time, Brown continued his education through London County Council night schools and the Workers Educational Association. The poverty of his upbringing led Brown in later life to resent those who had a more privileged background and a university education.

Trade Union organizer

Shortly before marrying Sophie Levene in 1937, Brown was appointed as a ledger clerk with the Transport and General Workers Union, moving to be District Organizer for Watford the next year. Brown was already active within the Labour Party and the Labour League of Youth. He ran as a moderate candidate for the Chairmanship but at the Labour Party conference in 1937 he was defeated by Ted Willis of the left, later a noted playwright and television dramatist. At the 1939 Labour Party conference Brown made his mark by a strong speech demanding the expulsion of Stafford Cripps for his support for the Popular Front. Cripps refused to speak to Brown for the rest of his life.

His TGWU activities brought him into close contact with Ernest Bevin, the Union's founder and General Secretary who was brought into the wartime coalition government. Brown himself served as a temporary Civil Servant in the Ministry of Agriculture from 1940.

Entry to Parliament

As a TGWU official, Brown was an attractive candidate to Labour constituencies seeking a candidate, as the TGWU would sponsor him and pay election expenses. He was selected for Belper, a mixed constituency near Derby which was one of the top Labour target seats. In the 1945 general election Brown won the seat with a majority of nearly 9,000. He was invited as one of a dozen 'Young Victors' to a private dinner given by Hugh Dalton on July 30, 1945 who was talent-spotting and networking. Brown was immediately picked to be a Parliamentary Private Secretary by George Isaacs, who had followed the promoted Bevin as Minister of Labour.

The job of the Parliamentary Private Secretary (usually known as a 'PPS') was almost made for Brown, who was both adept at understanding political issues and how to communicate them, and convivial and generally popular within the Parliamentary Labour Party (save among the left-wing faction, whom he attacked as 'long-haired intellectuals'). He transferred to be PPS to Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton in April 1947, at a time when the economic situation of Britain had barely improved and the Chancellor needed the maximum political support. Brown launched an unsuccessful plot to have Clement Attlee replaced as Prime Minister by Ernest Bevin, although without consulting Bevin who did not approve.

Ministerial office

Attlee, despite knowing all about Brown's plot to depose him, swiftly appointed Brown as Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. The Prime Minister had decided that it would be best if Brown were kept busy. At the Ministry of Agriculture, Brown worked to pass the Agriculture Act 1947 which provided price support to farmers, and also to provide more arable land and ease shortages of machinery and foodstuffs. Government policy aimed at increasing food production so that rationing could be lifted, but progress was slow. However, Attlee grew to appreciate his talent.

When his mentor Bevin died in April 1951, Brown was appointed Minister of Works in the reshuffle - at the head of a Ministry but not in the Cabinet. Brown inherited a long-running struggle by the Government to have the Tower of London open to tourists on Sunday, and managed to solve it by outsmarting the Constable of the Tower in negotiations.


No sooner had Brown got to grips with his office, than he was forced to leave it when Labour lost the 1951 general election. As with other Government ministers, Brown found himself forced to rely on an inadequate Parliamentary salary which led him to consider a return to being a Trade Union official. However, he was appointed in 1953 as a consultant to the Daily Mirror Group of newspapers, enabling him to stay in politics.

Brown was a partisan participant in the Labour Party's internecine struggles in the early 1950s, opposing the Bevanite campaign. His natural campaigning ability became prominent, but also his tendency to be rude to those with whom he had disagreements. Shortly after the 1955 general election, Brown was elected to the Shadow Cabinet for the first time; from that December Brown found it easier to win promotion as his friend Hugh Gaitskell became Leader of the Labour Party. Brown had a private but widely publicised shouting-match with Soviet leaders Nikita Khruschev and Nikolai Bulganin when part of a Labour Party delegation invited to dine with them on their British visit in 1956.

Deputy leadership

After the death of Aneurin Bevan in the summer of 1960 the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party became vacant at a time when the Labour Party was severely divided over Clause IV of the party constitution. Brown was encouraged to stand as the candidate of the Gaitskellite right; the other candidates were left-winger Fred Lee and the moderate but insufficiently senior James Callaghan. Brown was elected, beating Lee by 146 votes to 83 when Callaghan had been eliminated. Gaitskell as Leader and Brown as Deputy Leader did not seem to most on the left of the Labour Party to be a balanced ticket, and Brown was challenged for the job in both 1961 (by Barbara Castle) and 1962 (by Harold Wilson). Part of his job was to improve Labour's by-election campaigning, and he was successful in winning several - most notably, Middlesbrough West.

Gaitskell's sudden death in January 1963 left Brown no choice but to challenge for the Party Leadership. However he mishandled the campaign. At the first Shadow Cabinet meeting after Gaitskell's death, Brown and his Leadership rival Harold Wilson agreed to a clean fight. Wilson, who was accused by the right of undermining party unity, then informed the press that each agreed to serve under the other, which undermined his reputation for plotting; Brown repudiated any such agreement, laying himself open to the accusation. This tactical mistake opened the door for right-wingers who distrusted Brown to nominate James Callaghan against him. Many Labour MPs who were prepared to accept Brown as Deputy Leader were unhappy to have him in charge, and Wilson was easily elected.

Personal problems

Part of the reason for the distrust of Brown was the private knowledge of his excessive drinking, which only exacerbated his rude and aggressive style of politics. The press of the day did not publicise this problem, but it became publicly apparent when Brown was invited on Associated-Rediffusion television to pay tribute to John F. Kennedy after his assassination (Brown was probably the closest Labour politician to Kennedy). Brown had come from a dinner in Shoreditch where he had already drunk a great deal, and drank more while preparing to go on air - having a row with actor Eli Wallach which became physical. When Brown went on air, millions of viewers saw him interpret a fair question as an accusation of his having overstated his closeness, then give a morose and slurred tribute from which it was apparent he was intoxicated. Brown had to issue a public apology.

Brown bitterly resented his leadership defeat, which came only a matter of weeks after he had defeated Wilson for the Deputy Leadership. He disappeared for five days after the result was declared, using an assumed name to book a flight to Glasgow; the newspapers were full of stories about the vanishing politician. When he returned he demanded of Wilson that he be appointed Shadow Foreign Secretary, which Wilson refused.

He retained the Deputy Leadership and despite his personal differences, played an important part in advising Wilson about Labour's campaign strategy in the 1964 general election. It was decided that Wilson would make only a limited number of major campaign speeches outside London, while Brown would tour the country speaking in all the marginal seats (his main theme was predicting an imminent economic crisis). Brown later calculated that he had made 100 speeches. In one of them he made a gaffe by suggesting that the mortgage interest rate could be cut to 3%; the Conservative Deputy Leader Reginald Maudling was quick to capitalise on this and ask how much it would cost.

Department of Economic Affairs

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Front cover of 'The National Plan'

Labour won the election with a narrow majority. As previously arranged with Wilson, Brown was appointed to the newly created Department of Economic Affairs through which they both hoped to institute long-term economic planning and remove some of the power of the Treasury. Brown also took the honorific title of First Secretary of State to cover his seniority as Deputy Leader of the Party (Brown, but no-one else, claimed that he was actually the Deputy Prime Minister).

Immediately on taking office Brown was told that the budget deficit for the coming year was forecast at 800 million, double what the Labour Party had claimed as the worst possible figure when prophecying before the election. The leading economic ministers were presented with three options, including devaluation of the Pound Sterling, to meet the crisis. They decided on a temporary surcharge on imported goods. However, over the next few months Brown was persuaded by his deputy Tony Crosland that ruling out devaluation had been a mistake. The pound continued to be under pressure in 1965 and Brown struggled over a 12-hour meeting at the Trades Union Congress to persuade the unions to accept a tougher prices and incomes policy, to which he was personally opposed.

The most important function of the DEA was to prepare a 'National Plan' for the economy. Brown became personally identified with the project, which helped increase enthusiasm for it among officials and the Labour Party, while also interesting the press. After nearly a year's work the Plan was unveiled on September 16, 1965, pledging to cover 'all aspects of the country's development for the next five years'. The Plan called for a 25% growth in Gross Domestic Product from 1964 to 1970, which worked out at 3.8% annually. There were 39 specific actions listed, although many were criticized as vague.

July Measures

After the 1966 general election at which Labour won re-election with a landslide, the government was hit by a severe financial crisis. The question of devaluation was raised again in a more pressing way, with Brown now strongly supporting it, but Harold Wilson was firmly opposed, preferring a set of deflationary measures including spending cuts and interest rate rises. Brown believed that these measures would damage the economy. Chancellor of the Exchequer James Callaghan found himself in the middle, as he opposed devaluation but felt that without prompt action it was inevitable. Wilson tried to keep Brown on board, even offering to make him Chancellor should Callaghan resign, but Brown stood firm. When the Cabinet voted by 17-6 against devaluation, Brown sent a letter of resignation.

Wilson craftily sent the letter back to Brown so that he could deny having received it, and then sent George Wigg to try to talk Brown out of it. This did not prevent the news reaching the public; Wigg then changed his position and told Brown that Wilson would accept his resignation. Bizarrely this convinced Brown to stay and he accepted all of Wilson's terms for staying in the government in a late night meeting before announcing his "un-resignation" to the press in Downing Street.

Foreign Secretary

Brown was reshuffled to become Foreign Secretary in August 1966, a job he coveted. This decision had implications for the government's stance on the European Economic Community as Brown had always favoured entry. Wilson had been sceptical, but not opposed outright, to joining but Brown persuaded him and the rest of the Labour Party to support an application. In May 1967 it was announced that Britain had made its second application to join. Like the first, it was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle.

However, his drinking was becoming more pronounced as Brown became depressed by his loss of face in July 1966. His reaction to his depression was to launch vituperative attacks, for example at the son of newspaper proprietor Cecil King in October 1967. After Wilson was told of this, Brown came round and told Wilson that he had just had a terrible row with his wife and could not continue in Government. More and more people were becoming aware of Brown's alcoholism, and Private Eye managed to hint at the scandal with a supposed memo entitled "Brown: F.O. Acts". The memo gave translations into various languages for the words tired, overwrought, expansive, overworked, colourful, and emotional. This coined the phrase "Tired and emotional" as a euphemism for drunk.


Despite devaluation in November 1967, the pound came again under severe pressure in March 1968. When Wilson wanted to declare an emergency bank holiday to give breathing space, he attempted to contact his Foreign Secretary. Brown could not be found and his staff reported his condition as "only 'so-so' when last seen", and so Wilson convened a special meeting of the Privy Council without him. Brown was incensed that Wilson had not tried further to contact him, and got together with other uninformed Ministers to face down Wilson at a meeting in the early hours of the morning. Brown, who appeared very drunk, incoherently shouted at Wilson, who was almost as angry and stood up for himself. At the end of the meeting Brown stormed out.

It was unclear whether he had resigned but Brown did nothing the next day to apologise. At 6 pm he sent a letter which said "I think it better that we should part company" but did not mention "resignation". Wilson decided to reply by accepting Brown's resignation but also sent a message saying that Brown had half an hour to say whether the letter had been misinterpreted. Brown did not act on this and so left the government, but not in the blaze of glory for which he had hoped.


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The BBC election night programme in 1970 shows Brown losing Belper. From left to right, victorious Conservative Geoffrey Stewart-Smith, George Brown, and Sophie Brown.

Brown's constituency of Belper had been the site of considerable new development since he had first been elected. Most of the new housing was for middle-class areas near Derby, and therefore contained mostly Conservative voters. Although a Boundary Commission report in 1969 recommended the removal of this area, the Government decided to postpone the boundary changes and Brown was forced to fight in a seat which was trending away from him. Added to this problem, he remained Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and toured the country making speeches for other Labour candidates during the 1970 general election. His Conservative opponent Geoffrey Stewart-Smith had spent the last four years nursing the constituency.

Brown lost his seat by more than 2,000 votes. He swiftly decided not to try to regain his seat but to go to the House of Lords, and received a life peerage in the Dissolution Honours list. When the award was announced, Brown told the press "As I understand it, I have to pick a title–but I hope to everybody, I will simply remain George Brown." This foreshadowed a long dispute over the precise wording of the title. Brown wished to be "Lord George Brown," but Garter King of Arms argued that peerage titles traditionally included only surnames, not forenames. Brown had no sympathy with the objection, and noted that there had been counter-examples such as Lord Ritchie-Calder and Lord Francis-Williams. Eventually, Garter King of Arms gave way on condition that Brown simultaneously change his surname to George-Brown.

In 1971 he published his autobiography "In My Way", which Harold Wilson said privately was where he had always found Brown. He found work at the textile company Courtaulds, and later worked for Commercial Credit (Holdings) Ltd and British Northrop Ltd.

Later life

On March 2, 1976 Brown announced that he was leaving the Labour Party in protest at Government legislation which strengthened the closed shop. Typically and tragically, this announcement was overshadowed when he collapsed and fell into a gutter (having to be helped out by newspaper reporters), which was presumed to be a result of his drinking. The Times the next day printed the opinion (which had been voiced occasionally in private for many years by those who disliked the Labour left) that "Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister sober" (Harold Wilson was still in office).

Brown was a signatory to an advert in The Guardian on February 5, 1981 placed by the Campaign for Social Democracy, although he did not announce his membership of the Social Democratic Party or SDP for another four years. By that point, his reputation had so declined that Bill Rodgers, who had been Brown's loyal Parliamentary Private Secretary at the DEA and the Foreign Office, described him as "an embarrassment rather than an asset to his old friends who founded the SDP." His brother Ron, who had been a Labour MP since 1964, had also joined the party. On December 24, 1982 Brown suddenly walked out on his wife of 45 years to set up home with his 37-year old Secretary, Maggie Haimes. However, he did not change his 1969 will which gave his entire estate to Lady George-Brown. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Lord George-Brown died after suffering a stroke on June 2, 1985 at the home in Truro which he shared with Maggie Haimes.


  • The National Plan (Cmnd. 2764). Department of Economic Affairs (HMSO, London, 1965)
  • In my way: The political memoirs of Lord George-Brown by Lord George-Brown (Victor Gollancz, London, 1971)
  • The Private Eye Story by Patrick Marnham (Andre Deutsch Ltd, London, 1982)
  • Harold Wilson by Ben Pimlott (HarperCollins, London, 1992)
  • Tired and Emotional: The life of George Brown by Peter Paterson (Chatto and Windus, London 1993)
  • Dictionary of Labour Biography edited by Greg Rosen (Politico's Publishing, London, 2001)

Preceded by:
Richard Stokes
Minister of Works
Succeeded by:
David Eccles
Preceded by:
Aneurin Bevan
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party
Succeeded by:
Roy Jenkins
Preceded by:
New office
Secretary of State for Economic Affairs
Succeeded by:
Michael Stewart
Preceded by:
Michael Stewart
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by:
Michael Stewart

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