10th October 1991. ‘The Hot Potato’.
George Brown and Harold Wilson were described as ‘The hot potato and the cold fish’ in a 1968 newspaper article, discussing the departure of Brown amid a financial crisis.(1)
Brown was Hugh Gaitskill’s deputy up to the time Wilson beat him to the Labour leadership in early 1963.
He rose from Peabody Buildings in Lambeth to become Foreign Secretary and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, though now largely unknown, he was a dynamic and colourful politician of the 1960.s.
Brown was noted for insobriety with frequent gaffes whilst in office, and his volatile performances on television, particularly with ITV’s Robin Day were legendary.
His highly charged political career was wittily described Today in 1991 on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Trivia Test Match’ chaired by veteran cricket commentator Brian Johnston who posed a question about the correct colour-coding of the wires in an electric plug, with Tim Rice recalling a witty mnemonic: ‘that’s easy,’ he said, ‘George Brown is a live wire’.
Brown’s drink problems were ascribed to his being ‘tired and emotional’, a phrase from a spoof Private Eye article in 1967 after Brown’ appointment as Foreign Secretary, this at a time of Britain’s attempts to join the Common Market as it was then called.
The magazine also reported that the Foreign Office had sent a memo to embassies as a guide when dealing with the foreign press, of six characteristics associated with Brown-‘tired, overwrought, expansive, overworked, colourful and emotional’.
The magazine’s cover photo-cartoon (above) shows Wilson and President Charles de Gaulle who is delivering an adamant ‘Non!’.
Brown was a constant thorn in Wilson’s side, (as Gordon Brown was to Blair), referring to him as the ‘little man’.
Wilson as an economist saw a National Economic Plan as a way out of the nation’s economic plight, the direction of which was left to ex-trade-union leader Brown, now Secretary of State for Economic Affairs.
However seeing all his plans threatened by the exchange rate and deflationary policy in 1966, Brown made this one of his many resignation issues.
When he did go, it was not quite ‘without a splash’ as Wilson had previously forecast, as his bluff was called in March 1968 when his resignation was accepted, and in circumstances every bit as bizarre as anything that had happened in the previous three and a half years.
The ostensible cause was the gold crisis when George complained of lack of consultation and that he had deliberately been excluded from a Privy Council meeting. (2)
The reason cited was his unavailability to endorse the US request (with which Wilson and Chancellor Roy Jenkins agreed), given the outflow of UK’s gold reserves, for a Bank Holiday and closure of financial markets the next day.
Brown hoped that a miracle would save him by the Cabinet opposing Wilson, thus bringing his ‘rightful’ leadership, or failing this, someone in favour of collective leadership rather than Wilson’s style of ‘Kitchen Cabinet’.(NB. Blair’s ‘Sofa-Government’.
Was this sense of exclusion rather than the ‘gold issue’ the reason for the sad end of a politician who could fill a town-hall with the power of his rhetoric, as the Author can verify, and who had been a Minister in Attlee’s Government.
George Brown lost his seat in 1970, left his wife for his mistress and resigned from the Labour Party in 1976. He ended in that graveyard of politicians, the Lords.
(1) 17.3.1968. Sunday Times Article.
(2) On Thursday 14th March 1968.
Sunday Times article 1968.