Did Theresa May really not consider the potential banana skins when she appointed Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary? By airing his personal opinions on Britain’s dubious relationship with the appalling Saudi regime, Boris has contradicted official Government policy on the subject, even if few outside of Government would dispute his comments had more than a ring of truth about them. However, it was evident Boris was given the Foreign Office to neutralise the threat he may have presented to the PM from the backbenches; she probably presumed his natural talent for putting his foot in it might be curbed by the prospect of high office. It was a clever move on her part, though a considerable gamble; and by doing so, she was replicating the machinations of a predecessor in Downing Street who also handed the same prestigious post to a controversial rival – Harold Wilson.
George Brown may only be mostly remembered now by those who were around when he was a prominent Minister, but in his day was as divisive and colourful a character as Boris. A working-class hero in the traditional Labour mould, Brown had left school at 15 to earn a living and harboured a grudge over the privileged and university-educated thereafter; he’d come up through the Trades Union ranks and could rely on their support when selected for the seat of Belper near Derby at the 1945 General Election, which he duly won. Mentored by Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour during the wartime coalition, Brown wasted little time in making enemies by plotting to remove Labour PM Clement Attlee, something Attlee responded to by giving Brown a Ministerial post to keep him busy whilst keeping an eye on him.
Dismissive of Labour’s left-wing, Brown was opposed to the failed coup to install Aneurin Bevan as leader during the fall-out from losing the 1951 General Election; when his ideological comrade Hugh Gaitskell was elected Labour leader, Brown was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, but his erratic temperament didn’t always win friends or influence people. Brown was, in the phraseology of the time, an ‘old soak’ – that is, he drank to excess; and this excessive consumption exacerbated his somewhat bullish manner. Despite this drawback, he became Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 1960 and fought off challenges from both Barbara Castle and Harold Wilson during his tenure in the job.
When the sudden death of Hugh Gaitskell prompted a Labour leadership contest in 1963, Brown seemed to be the natural successor, but his combative approach and – especially – his fondness for the bottle worked against him. Labour’s leading intellectual of the right, Anthony Crosland, famously reacted to the front-runners (Wilson and Brown) by claiming the party was faced with ‘a choice between a crook and a drunk.’ In the end, the crook won and Brown retained the Deputy Leader post, regaining respect within the party by playing a prominent part in organising Labour’s successful 1964 General Election campaign. Wilson rewarded him by creating the Department of Economic Affairs, an office about as much use as the Department of Administrative Affairs in ‘Yes Minister’; but, again, it kept Brown busy.
Following a post-financial crisis reshuffle, Harold Wilson raised a few eyebrows by appointing George Brown Foreign Secretary, a position for which a deal of diplomatic tact is generally required. After leading Britain’s failed attempted to join the Common Market in 1967, he publicly insulted the wife of Britain’s Ambassador to France; he resigned from the job following a drink-induced shouting match with Wilson, and the familiar ‘Private Eye’ euphemism for pissed MPs, ‘tired and emotional’, was first coined in reference to Brown. Brown lost his seat by over 2,000 votes at the 1970 General Election, though was elevated to the peerage more or less immediately after. His drinking continued to be a source of public embarrassment, infamously captured on camera when he fell into the gutter in 1976, though by this time he was perceived as a harmless has-been, admired for being ‘a bit of a character’ more than for anything he had achieved politically.
Despite leaving the Labour Party and supporting the formation of the Social Democratic Party, Brown’s old Labour colleagues who had broken away to set up the SDP thought his reputation would be more of a hindrance than a help and he only officially joined the SDP the year he died, 1985. His death, unsurprisingly, was due to cirrhosis of the liver. He was 70.
Whether Theresa May’s decision to promote Boris Johnson to the same post Harold Wilson appointed George Brown to fifty years before will result in an eventual resignation prompted by some ill-timed slip of the tongue remains to be seen. But the decision was a similar gamble taken for similar reasons. Nevertheless, Boris has made a promising start and I look forward to watching his progress.
GREG LAKE (1947-2016)
2016 has not been a good year for Prog Rock’s most contentious supergroup, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. In March, keyboardist Keith Emerson committed suicide and now we learn the band’s guitarist and vocalist Greg Lake has passed away at the age of 69 from cancer.
Whilst his longest association with any group of musicians was with Emerson and drummer Carl Palmer, Lake first came to prominence as singer with the original line-up of King Crimson, providing the vocals on their landmark debut LP in 1969, ‘In The Court of the Crimson King’. Neither Crimson nor ELP were ever destined to be a hit singles act; their musical vision was far too expansive to be condensed into the three-minute pop song and they arrived at a moment when the album was considered rock’s premier art form.
Ironically, however, the two tracks Greg Lake is most associated with in the public eye were both massive hits, both peaking at the No.2 position in the singles chart – ELP’s instrumental, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, and his own solo hit two years before, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’. Thanks to the now obligatory promotion of archive seasonal smashes via the extension of Christmas from a week to a full month, it’s hard to leave one’s home in December and not hear Lake’s 1975 monster blaring out somewhere. Pipped to the No.1 spot by ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’ is no throwaway novelty ditty, sharing its grandiose musical structure with Prog by borrowing a melody from a classical composer (in this case, Prokofiev) and employing a full orchestra. The only miracle is that he manages to cram it all into 3 minutes, 31 seconds.
Though pretty much sick to death of Christmas hits now, even those less sentimental ones that illuminated my childhood, I retain a soft spot for ‘I Believe in Father Christmas’; and if I hear it playing in Sainsbury’s tomorrow I’ll probably exit the shop humming it – and, for once, not hating myself for doing so.
© The Editor