George Brown’s resignation in 1968….
“Tighten your seat-belts. Here comes George!“…so murmured Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson as his Foreign Secretary, George Brown entered a Buckingham Palace reception. Wilson was understandably nervous, George Brown (1914-1985) was a troublesome drunk whose behaviour could be described as ‘erratic’ at best. A man who infuriated his friends and rivals with equal measure, his tenure as Foreign Secretary finally came to a shambolic and merciful end in March 1968.
Known and called by all as ‘George Brown’ he held a number of senior positions in the Labour Party and governments including Deputy Leader, Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and Shadow Home Secretary. Brown’s style was upfront and often aggressive which, once fuelled by drink, caused both himself and Harold Wilson huge embarrassment on many occasions.
This reliance on alcohol constantly tested Wilson, whilst the press did not publicise it until later in his career, his fellow MP’s were well aware of his drink-fuelled exploits which came to prominence quite spectacularly in 1963 when he was invited to appear on television to speak about the death of President Kennedy. In what would lead to the invention of the glorious term “tired and emotional” to describe Brown’s condition (and future such incidents with public figures) following his disastrous drunken interview, Brown turned up heavily intoxicated, had a backstage fight with the American actor Eli Wallach before giving a morose, rambling and slurred account of his admiration for Kennedy.
Brown was a rival to Wilson, he was a clever man and able politician who despised losing to Wilson in the leadership election yet campaigned hard and successfully to see Wilson win the General Election in 1964. As Foreign Secretary from 1966 until his resignation in 1968 his alcoholism grew worse and with it his ministerial behaviour. By early 1968 Britain’s finances were in turmoil and in March, Wilson wished to declare an emergency bank holiday to help alleviate the stress on the pound despite earlier devaluation. An emergency meeting was called but Brown was nowhere to be found, presumed asleep and worse for drink. A Privy Council meeting was called without him and once word got to Brown he became furious at Wilson, gathering other uninvited ministers to face down the Prime Minister in a meeting in the middle of the night.
Wilson, to his credit, stood up to the inebriated Brown, giving back as good as he got. The next day Wilson received no apology other than a note that evening from Brown saying a parting of company was for the best. But the note contained no actual resignation so Wilson replied with a thirty minute ultimatum to confirm his resignation or otherwise. Brown did not reply and so limped out of office unceremoniously as a relieved Wilson tore up some seventeen drafts of the reply he had been so nervous to send.
In 1976 Brown left the Labour Party, as he left the headquarters he stumbled and fell into the gutter in front of the waiting press. Blaming the fall on his new bifocals the headlines ran “Out and Down!” Brown died in 1985 from a stroke whilst suffering from cirrhosis of the liver.
Further reading from the year of 1968: