Churchill's Faithful Chela
Charles Lysaght strips away some of the many mysteries surrounding Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s staunch but enigmatic supporter, and the founder of this magazine.
The memory of Brendan Bracken, the centenary of whose birth occurred in February 2001, is inextricably linked with that of Sir Winston Churchill. ‘He has sometimes been almost my sole supporter in the years when I have been striving to get this country properly defended,’ Churchill wrote to the King in 1940, rejecting royal reservations about making Bracken a Privy Councillor.
But overt political support was only one of the services Bracken rendered Churchill. Harold Macmillan remarked memorably that, like Aaron with Moses, Bracken held Churchill’s arms high during his years in the wilderness. Churchill always called Bracken ‘dear Brendan’ rejoicing in the young man’s vitality and outrageous ebullience that alone seemed able to banish the depression that often enveloped him. The friendship had started in 1923 when Bracken, then only twenty-two, contradicted Churchill at a lunch given by J.L. Garvin of The Observer. It was sustained by lively argument, constant quarrelling and fierce loyalty until Bracken died in 1958. He gave Churchill much more than he took or even asked. In so doing he won his place in history.
Emerging from the newspaper world where he had assembled a stable of quality papers for the publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode, Bracken was first elected to the House of Commons in 1929 as Conservative member for North Paddington. He attached himself to Churchill, who had resigned from the Front Bench because Stanley Baldwin, the party leader, supported the Labour government’s proposals to devolve greater self-government on India. Almost uniquely, Bracken supported Churchill both on India and on the demands he made, from 1934 onwards, for re-armament to counter German aggression. Baldwin, inspired by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, called Bracken Churchill’s faithful chela (the Hindustani world for disciple) To many observers, the younger Bracken, with his brash colonial manner and right-wing views, was the quintessential political adventurer and epitomised the aura of unreliability that surrounded Winston Churchill. Larger than life and constantly overacting, having arrived mysteriously from nowhere, Bracken provided Evelyn Waugh with a model for his character Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited. ‘Everything about you is phoney,’ one interlocutor told Bracken; ‘even your hair which looks like a wig, isn’t.’ He had a great mop of carrot red hair which combined with his white freckled skin, black teeth and features that some thought slightly negroid, to give him a somewhat bizarre appearance.
One of the most important services he rendered the extravagant Churchill was to keep him solvent when he was out of office in the 1930s. Bracken sold Churchill’s articles to newspapers at home and abroad for good money and found in the Jewish financier Sir Henry Strakosch a backer without whose assistance Churchill, who had gambled unwisely on American stocks, might have gone bankrupt in 1937. In the years immediately preceding the Second World War, Bracken’s house, 8 Lord North Street, where Churchill often stayed, became the centre of the fight against appeasement. It was from here that Churchill, accompanied by Bracken, sallied forth in the autumn of 1938 to denounce the Munich agreement in a hostile House of Commons.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty and made Bracken his Parliamentary Private Secretary, having tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to make him Minister for Information. While Churchill was loyal to Chamberlain, Bracken was not and briefed the press incessantly about the pusillanimous way in which the Prime Minister was fighting the war. ‘I hope you'll give them Hell’, he remarked to W.P. Crozier of the Manchester Guardian, commenting on a leader in the Daily Telegraph saying that private members must not express views that would endanger the government.
Bracken’s chance came in May 1940 when, following the fall of Norway, a large number of Conservatives failed to support the government on a confidence vote. A national government was imperative but the Labour party refused to serve under Chamberlain. If, as was likely, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, were called upon to form a government, Churchill felt that he would have to serve under him. Chamberlain and David Margesson, the chief whip, wanted to draft a reluctant Halifax and called him to a meeting with Churchill. Before this took place Bracken extracted from Churchill a promise that he would remain silent if it were proposed that Halifax should succeed. When Chamberlain and Margesson put forward the name of Halifax Churchill did just that. After two minutes Halifax broke the silence and said that he did not think that he, as a member of the House of Lords, was in the best position to form a government. It was, claimed Lord Beaverbrook who was close to events, the great silence that saved England.
From his work in the newspaper world Bracken knew the United States and by cultivating the American press he helped the process of persuading President Roosevelt to support the British war effort by lend-lease and other measures. When in the dark winter of 1940-41 Roosevelt sent his right-hand man Harry Hopkins to England, it was Bracken who went to meet him at Poole Airport and began the task of convincing him that Britain was determined to fight on.
As Minister of Information from 1941 onwards, Bracken did not emulate his German counterpart Dr Goebbels by taking to the airwaves. Instead he cultivated the British and international press on his master’s behalf. He was the spin-doctor par excellence half a century before the word was invented. ‘I have a warm spot for Brendan’, noted Robert Barrington-Ward, the editor of The Times; ‘he is very easy to talk to in the most candid way and, though he may take some colour from his company, that helps the process.’ Later when a suggestion Barrington-Ward had made was acted upon by the government, Bracken wrote to him that ‘The Times is running the country as usual.’
Detractors said that no man knew better than Bracken how to lace fact with fiction. The son of an Irish republican activist, he spent a few teenage years in Australia. Then at the age of nineteen he got himself admitted to Sedbergh school by saying that he was fifteen. He claimed falsely that his parents had died in a bush fire in Australia leaving him money to complete his education. He spent only a term at Sedbergh but that was enough to make him a public school man. In subsequent years he spread many false stories about his parentage and place of birth. Clementine Churchill blamed him for the clinging rumour that he was her husband’s natural son, and it took years of devoted service to waylay her mistrust.
It is ironic therefore that as Minister of Information he was, on the whole, a relentless opponent of false propaganda. He grasped the essential truth that no propagandist can afford to lose credibility, and he deserves some of the credit that British propaganda did not repeat the mendacity of the First World War. It is also to his credit that even in wartime the British Press and even broadcasters on the BBC were allowed to criticise government. He often had to withstand pressure from Churchill on these matters. In doing so Bracken had the advantage that he had not sought ministerial office but had accepted his post only because Churchill begged him to do so.
Bracken retained the chef de cabinet role he had assumed when he moved to live at 10 Downing Street after Churchill became Prime Minister. He was pre-eminent in the inner circle of the men ‘who saw Churchill after midnight’. Bracken busied himself identifying candidates for ministerial office and other posts in the gift of the government – although never a member of any church since he abandoned Roman Catholicism in his teens, he delighted in selecting bishops of the Established Church. More crucially he frequently found himself heading off confrontations between the obstinate Prime Minister and his advisers. The full details of this role are, of their nature, elusive. But it was typical that when Harold Macmillan was minded to resign he turned to Bracken, who persuaded him to hold his hand; soon afterwards Macmillan was made resident minister in North Africa, an appointment that set him on the path to political greatness. Likewise, it was Bracken who persuaded Ernest Bevin not to resign in 1943, so preserving the wartime coalition.
As the war moved to a close, minds turned to the future of peacetime Britain. Bracken believed that the wartime restrictions should be dismantled and free rein be given to enterprising businessmen to rebuild the war-ravaged economy. He and his friend Lord Beaverbrook made bad blood with Labour ministers, so precipitating the break-up of the coalition. Bracken became First Lord of the Admiralty in Churchill’s one-party caretaker government. As the youngest member of the cabinet he was spoken of as a future Prime minister. He was a leading spokesman at the General Election at which Churchill led the charge, raising a scare that Labour would set up a totalitarian state. Yet when the Conservatives suffered a heavy defeat, Bracken lost his own seat. The party looked around for scapegoats, and Bracken stood next to his friend Beaverbrook among those blamed.
Out of office after the 1945 General Election Bracken, soon MP for Bournemouth, was an active and truculent member of the Conservative front bench. Unlike Butler, Macmillan and others who were to dominate post-war Conservative politics, he refused to compromise on nationalisation and high taxation. He waxed eloquent on the importance of reviving the spirit of enterprise and self-reliance that had made Britain great when ‘she was the mother of hard sons’.
He was remarkably prescient and anticipated the kind of economic policies that were to become the received wisdom in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Maynard Keynes was the high priest of the orthodoxy whom Bracken attacked. Of him Bracken remarked that ‘for all his beguiling power of expression and great but disordered force of intellect he would be best remembered as the man who made inflation respectable’. He was a master of the bon mot and the devastating epithet. At a party given by Lord Beaverbrook he berated Nye Bevan, the Labour politician as
‘a Bollinger Bolshevik, a lounge lizard Lenin, a ritzy Robespierre swilling Max’s champagne and calling yourself a socialist’. General Montgomery, he once remarked, was ‘a master of caution in all things except speech’.
As sinusitis and minor ailments sapped his strength and he found himself out of tune with others on the Conservative front bench, Bracken grew tired of the hard grind of the House of Commons. Pleading ill-health he declined to serve in the last Churchill government formed in December 1951 and left politics at the early age of fifty. He was created Viscount Bracken of Christchurch in Hampshire (his last constituency) but he never took his seat in the House that, in his irreverent way, he always called the morgue. Although no longer involved politically and privately critical of many of Churchill’s ministers, he remained close to Churchill and fiercely protective; he was the prime mover in covering up the Prime Minister’s stroke in 1953.
For the most part he now concentrated on his business interests, notably as Chairman of the group of quality papers that included the Financial Times and The Economist where in pre-war days he had devised a constitution with trustees protecting editorial independence that was to become a model of its kind. His papers are his lasting monument. Gordon Newton, the great Editor of the Financial Times, wrote a few years ago of the vision of independence and integrity Bracken implanted and said that for that reason he ‘must be placed in the forefront of the major figures in the paper’s history’. The former headquarters of the Financial Times near St Paul’s, designed to his directions by his friend Sir Albert Richardson, was named Bracken House after his death from cancer of the throat in 1958 at the early age of fifty-seven.
His other architectural memorial was the restoration by Richardson of the eighteenth-century schoolhouse of his alma mater Sedbergh, of whose board of governors Bracken had become chairman. Over the door there is the inscription ‘Remember Winston Churchill’. As a pupil at the school Bracken’s favourite subject had been history. His speeches, conversation and letters bear witness to his knowledge of history and his romantic devotion to England’s past. He was also tireless in advocating the preservation of the great architecture of bygone ages. In his diary Sir John Colville recalled a spring evening in 1941 when Bracken summoned him from his desk in the Prime Minister’s office: as they walked through the bomb-damaged squares and streets of Westminster, Bracken recited the names and recalled the deeds of the occupants during the last 200 years; there were no blue plaques in those days. Before the war Bracken had been the prime mover in having his own North Street renamed Lord North Street, to establish its historical connection with the eighteenth-century premier.
It was therefore wholly in character that in the aftermath of the war Bracken conceived the idea of starting an historical journal with a broader appeal than the academic journals of the universities. So in 1951 the Financial News Group launched History Today, edited by his former assistant Alan Hodge in partnership with Peter Quennell. ‘Love of history ran through his words,’ recalled the historian A.J.P. Taylor, who was present at the launch in Claridges and who was impressed by Bracken’s erudition as well as his commitment, which had to be honoured, to persevere with the magazine even if it did not make money at first.
It was Bracken’s idea that Churchill should complete his History of the English-Speaking Peoples after he retired. Alan Hodge was called in to advise. When Bracken received a gift of the finished product from Churchill in 1957 he wrote back:
Most modern historians are anaemic creatures and therefore write pallid prose. Nature enabled you to make history and to write it as well. What praise could be higher?
But much as Bracken loved history, it did not prevent him from ordering the destruction of his own papers after his death. They must have contained many invaluable memorabilia of the Churchillian age. Happily many of his letters survive in others’ papers. The best are an invaluable historical source.
The late Earl of Longford described Brendan Bracken as the most remarkable man he ever met. Tall, upright, loquacious, with a striking appearance, he was well served by a powerful presence that enabled him to dominate any gathering however distinguished. Although he was something of a bully and had a quick temper and sharp tongue, he was a kind man who helped both the great and the obscure. He even supported his siblings in Ireland from whom he had cut himself off. While he lied to the point of fantasy about himself, especially in his younger days, he was essentially a man of probity. Like Churchill he was a warm character full of sentiment and shed tears easily.
Bracken never married. In his thirties he had been the unsuccessful and rather clumsy suitor of Penelope Dudley Ward whose mother Freda was the intimate friend of the Prince of Wales. Inevitably people wondered if Bracken might be homosexual but no credible evidence of homosexual activity on his part has ever emerged. Anxious as he was to conceal his origins, he remained a very private person. But he gave in friendship and, in turn, inspired immense affection among his friends, who subscribed over half a million pounds in today’s money to build a room in his memory at Churchill College Cambridge. He also left to the College Romney’s portrait of Edmund Burke, a figure from his beloved eighteenth century whose conservatism and romantic attachment to England he shared and to whom in his early days he sometimes even claimed kinship. Brendan Bracken himself must rank as the most significant native Irishman in English political life since Burke.
- Charles Lysaght is the author of Brendan Bracken: A Biography (Allen Lane, 1979)