George Brown, Minister for Economic Affairs and foreign secretary under Harold Wilson lived for much of his political career at 77 Court Lane. He bought the house in 1945 on becoming an MP and lived there till November 1963, moving to a flat in Bayswater- on the day that President t58uKennedy was assassinated. Brown was deputy leader of the Labour Party from 1960 to 1970, as well as briefly acting as leader in the interregnum between Hugh Gaitskell’s death in 1963 and Wilson’s election to the party leadership, a contest in which Brown was the losing candidate. Between 1966 and 1968, Brown, as first secretary of state, was in effect deputy Prime Minister. In contrast with many other significant political figures of his generation, his former residence still lacks a blue plaque. The reason for this is perhaps reflected in the sole biography of Brown, which is subtitled ‘tired and emotional’ - Brown had a reputation as an alcoholic, which certainly blighted the later years of his political career. An alternative reason could be that he moved out just before he took up his position into Government. There is however a strong case for reassessing Brown’s political legacy as well as for a blue plaque.
Member of parliament for Belper in Derbyshire from 1945 to 1970, Brown was a South Londoner. Born in Peabody buildings in Duke Street (now Duchy Street) near Waterloo station, he grew up on the Peabody estate on Blackfriars Road. He attended the Gray Street elementary school and then the West Square Central school, leaving at the age of 15. Brown was one of the last working-class Labour politicians, coming into Labour politics through the trade union movement, to achieve a prominent position. With an Irish and Jewish background, Brown’s father was a van driver for Lyons and the Evening Standard, later a fur salesman, but an active trade unionist who became a full-time employee of the Transport and General Workers Union. On leaving school, George Brown followed his father - first into the fur trade and then after taking classes through the Workers Education Association and the London County Council evening classes, to became first a clerk in the TGWU office in Finsbury Park and then TGWU district organiser in Watford. Politically active from a young age, he joined the Labour League of Youth and campaigned for George Isaacs, the Labour candidate in Southwark North in the 1929 general election. Moving out of London, he was secretary of the St Albans Labour Party, coming to national prominence at the 1939 Labour Party Conference by making a vigorous speech supporting the expulsion of left-wingers Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and George Strauss (the latter being MP for Lambeth North) who were arguing for an alliance with Communists and ’other progressive forces’ in a Popular Front. When George Dallas, former Scottish coalminer, MP and Labour Party chairman, decided to stand down as prospective parliamentary candidate for Belper, he proposed Brown as his successor and Brown having continued as a union official throughout the war, which exempted him from military service, became an MP in 1945 at the age of 30.
Brown soon became a leading member of the Labour Party’s trade unionist right wing and a close ally of Arthur Deakin, who had succeeded Ernest Bevin as TGWU general secretary in 1940 when Bevin was appointed Minister of Labour in the wartime coalition, and of Herbert Morrison, fellow South Londoner ( born in Stockwell and died in Peckham) the former London County Council leader who became Home Secretary and then succeeded Bevin as Foreign Secretary. By 1955, Brown was in the shadow cabinet as shadow minister of Supply as well as chairing the trade union group within the Parliamentary Labour Party. In 1952, the future party leader, Hugh Gaitskell, commented in his diary that Brown had ‘unlimited courage and plenty of sense’. In 1956, Brown narrowly failed to succeed Gaitskell as party treasurer, being defeated by Gaitskell’s great rival, Aneurin Bevan. Brown gained further notoriety as well giving an indication of his ‘unlimited courage’ when at a dinner with Soviet leaders Khrushchev and Bulganin on a fraternal visit to London in 1956, at which Khrushchev was critical of the British wartime record, Brown had the audacity to point out that it was the Russians who in 1939 signed a pact with Hitler, not the British. Brown was a strong anti-communist. By 1960, as Labour spokesman on defence, he was opposing the growing unilateralist movement led by CND within the Labour Party and supporting NATO. On Bevan’s death, Brown became deputy leader, defeating Jim Callaghan and Fred Lee. However, when Gaitskell died in 1963, the right- wing vote was split between Brown and Callaghan, leading to the succession of Harold Wilson, at that time the champion of the party’s left wing, and to Wilson’s leadership of the Labour government elected the following year.
Brown was appointed to the new post of Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, in effect a new economic planning ministry, which took over significant functions from the Treasury, and immediately brought him into conflict with Jim Callaghan, who Wilson had appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Perhaps Wilson’s greatest skill was in dividing his main rivals. The National Plan produced by Brown and his ministry is perhaps the most significant attempt by a British government at long term economic planning. Drawing on French and Belgian as well as Russian experience (though criticised by Conservatives at the time, and subsequently, as being Soviet inspired), the plan set national growth targets and a regionally based framework for implementation. It however depended on trade union collaboration at a time when individual trade union leaders sought to protect free collective bargaining and were reluctant to agree any framework for controlling incomes as well as prices. However, in July 1966, sterling was under attack on the currency markets and could only be stabilised by a deflationary package of reductions in public expenditure. Brown supported the alternative of reducing the value of sterling, but this was not supported by Callaghan and Wilson. With the deflationary package, the ambitious growth plans of the National Plan were in effect shelved and Brown publicly humiliated. In his memoirs, Brown saw this as a betrayal by his colleagues. Brown was moved to the Foreign Office, which however he saw as revenge on Callaghan, who had also sought that role.
Brown was a fervent pro-European and argued the case for joining the Common Market. Gaitskell had opposed the Common Market, preferring the transatlantic partnership with the US. Brown was supported by other right-wingers such as Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, though not by Douglas Jay, who was President of the Board of Trade. Wilson was ambivalent, just as Jeremy Corbyn is today. On the Vietnam war, Brown was pro-American, in contrast with Wilson who succeeded in avoiding any British involvement in the war despite American pressure to provide troops to support the US. Brown also argued with Wilson on the issue of ending the embargo on arms sales to the apartheid South African regime. Brown and Denis Healey wanted to sell arms to South Africa. Michael Stewart who had succeeded Brown at the Economic Affairs ministry. was opposed. Wilson sided with Stewart. Wilson considered that Brown was using the issue to challenge his leadership. In March 1968,
Brown who had by now lost the confidence of Wilson, having been excluded from an important meeting on the latest economic crisis (whether intentionally or by accident is uncertain), organised a meeting of half the cabinet to share their complaints about Wilson’s leadership. This led to a direct confrontation with Wilson and Brown accusing each other of unacceptable behaviour. The meeting ended with Brown storming out saying he was resigning. Brown had a habit of threatening resignation when aggrieved - one commentator counted some 17 resignation threats. This time Wilson did not ask him back and his colleagues did not argue for his reinstatement. That was basically the end of Brown’s political career, although Brown stayed as deputy leader of the Labour Party for two more years. He also stayed on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee long enough to block Wilson’s attempt to appoint Anthony Greenwood as Labour’s general secretary.
In the 1970 election, the Belper seat was lost to the Conservatives, as Edward Heath moved into government. Brown went into the Lords as Lord George--Brown of Jevington in Sussex, a village to which he had retired. In 1983 he publicly supported the social democratic breakaway from the Labour Party by the group of four - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. In his final years, Brown moved to Cornwall, having left his wife of forty years, to share a house with his secretary. He died in 1985, perhaps not surprisingly, of cirrhosis of the liver. He had much in common with that earlier trade unionist Labour leader and Dulwich resident. Jimmy Thomas, who had been a senior minister in the Ramsay Macdonald Labour and National governments of the 1920’s and early 1930’s.
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