Dont have an account?Sign up here
George Brown was one of the most spectacular foreign secretaries in living memory – but for all the wrong reasons. His epic capacity for drink, and the grotesque behaviour that that induced, gave rise to the now universal term, ‘tired and emotional’. That term was reportedly applied to him by an apologetic and po-faced BBC announcer after Brown, slurring his words and gesticulating aggressively, paid tribute, as best he could, to John F. Kennedy shortly after his assassination in 1963. He was capable of insulting and embarrassing the highest in the land – including statesmen and diplomats – down to the unfortunate minions who had to handle this ill-tempered, coarse and sometimes even violent, but nevertheless entertaining, man. Indeed, just before entering the studio to pay his tribute to Kennedy, Brown got into a fight with the American actor Eli Wallach, telling him: “Come outside, and I will knock you off your can.”
No wonder Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said of him: “He is a brilliant foreign secretary – until four o’clock in the afternoon.” He rarely, if ever, apologised for any of his wild escapades, probably because he could not remember most of them the following morning. Nearly all the stories about him were true, because they were acts of gross misbehaviour in public, but the most famous anecdote of all was a work of fiction. This was the claim that he had demanded a dance with “that lovely vision in red”. The ‘vision’ turned out to be His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Montevideo.
Once, in an exaggerated gesture, he knelt down on one knee to kiss the hand of Princess Margaret. She was reduced to a fit of giggles when he could not get up again. He could be grossly offensive to womanhood. He once, in a loud voice, told an ambassador’s wife: “What kind of impression must such an old and unfashionable woman give of Britain? Why can’t you look as attractive as the young woman sitting opposite?”
Diplomacy was not his strongest suit. Even in moments of great solemnity, his penchant for getting it wrong often let him down. In March 1976, he announced with great pomp and ceremony that he was leaving the Labour Party because of government legislation that strengthened the closed shop. Unfortunately, after leaving that meeting, he swayed, collapsed and fell into a gutter within the precincts of the House of Commons, visible from the street outside. To make matters worse, he was helped up by a number of reporters whom he quite openly detested. This became apparent when those reporters later invited him to give a statement on his latest eccentricity, and he got his growly dog to snap at their fingers when they put notes through his letterbox.
On one occasion, during a general election campaign, we were eight miles from the next stop, Middlesbrough. It was raining hard and I had no transport. I tentatively asked his driver if he would give me a lift. The driver returned with this message from Brown: “Let the bugger walk.” That evening – I must have made my way there somehow – I was having a drink with him and, speaking of his wife, he said: “Don’t tell Sophie. She thinks I am off the sauce.” As if I would. Once he said: “Many MPs drink and womanise – now, I’ve never womanised.” But he ultimately left his wife of 45 years and set up with his secretary, Maggie Haimes. Brown, or Lord George-Brown, whom he subsequently became, died after a stroke in June 1985.