Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02
BY CHARLES EDWARD LYSAGHT
The Legacy or “Winston’s Chela” Lasted Far Longer Than He Expected
Finest Hour 63 reviewed the two biographies of Churchill’s longtime friend and colleague Brendan Bracken: Poor, Dear Brendan by Andrew Boyle (1974), and Brendan Bracken by Charles Lysaght (1979). We stated: “Boyle’s treatment is robust, but perhaps Lysaght takes us nearer to Bracken’s real character.” We are honored to publish herewith biographer Lysaght’s Brendan Bracken Memorial Lecture on May 9th at Churchill College, Cambridge, which proves our point.
Brendan Bracken was Winston Churchill’s closest friend and Minister for Information in Churchill’s wartime government. He was also a benefactor of Churchill College before it opened its doors. Three months prior to his death, in August 1958, he wrote to Lord Tedder, Chancellor of the University, offering to provide furniture, silver and pictures for the Master: “In distant times the comforts and dignity of the Masters’ Lodges encouraged all sorts of useful people to seek their hospitality. And so I hope the Churchill College will not only be acclaimed as a house of learning but also one of discerning hospitality.”
In his will, Bracken left the residue of his estate to a Trust Fund to stock the Master’s cellar and to furnish his rooms. He also left for the use of the Master his own dining room suite, his port railway as well as his silver and several paintings, including one by Winston Churchill, and the portrait of Edmund Burke attributed to Romney.
Brendan Bracken shared Burke’s reverence for the past, his conservatism, his love of England. He also shared Burke’s Irish Catholic background. He was born in Templemore, a small town in Tipperary, in 1901. His father, Joseph Kevin (J.K.) Bracken, a well-to-do builder, was a member of the oath bound Fenian brotherhood which was committed to win Irish independence by force of arms.
J.K. Bracken died when Brendan was three. A few years later his widow moved to Dublin with her four children and two stepdaughters. Brendan grew into an almost delinquent if engaging child. He vandalized neighbours’ gardens and threw one schoolfellow into a canal. In an effort to tame him, his mother sent him to a Jesuit boarding school, but he ran away. In despair she packed him off, aged less than fifteen, to Australia, where she had a cousin who was a priest. Brendan led a peripatetic existence there, moving between Catholic religious houses, doing some teaching, and reading incessantly.
In 1919 he returned to Ireland, finding that his mother had remarried and moved to the country. Rebellion was raging and his stepfather, Patrick Laffan, was sympathetic to the rebels. Brendan decided to settle in Liverpool. In January 1920, posing as an Australian four years older than he was and claiming falsely to be a former head-boy of an Australian public school and a graduate of Sydney University, he got a teaching post at Liverpool Collegiate School.
In September 1920 Bracken turned up at Sedbergh School in Lancashire, applying to be taken on as a pupil. He said he was less than 16 when he was in fact 19, and claimed that his parents had died in a bush fire in Australia but had left him money to complete his education. He may have claimed some connection with Montagu Rendall, the headmaster of Winchester, for he gave his name as Brendan Rendall Bracken. He was admitted and remained one term. He won a history prize and emerged a public school man.
Next followed a number of small teaching jobs, the last of which was in Bishop Stortford. “My first impression,” recalled one colleague, “was that I was looking at a Polynesian with dyed hair, for he had a large red mop that stood out like a kind of halo; his features, almost Negroid, were like those of a Papuan.” He was pretty idle; the main impression he made on his colleagues was as a compulsive name-dropper. He joined the local League of Nations Union and made pro-imperialist speeches. He moved to London and got a post on a periodical called the Empire Review. This brought him into contact with J.L. Garvin, former editor of The Observer, who introduced him to Winston Churchill in the summer of 1923.
At the General Election in December Churchill, still a Liberal although alienated from its leadership, stood unsuccessfully in Leicester West. Bracken organised his campaign. Four months later, when Churchill stood as an independent in a bye-election in Westminster, Bracken was again to the fore. Noticing Bracken’s extraordinary influence with Churchill, people began to ask, “Who is he?” So emerged the clinging rumour that Bracken was Churchill’s natural son, fanned, perhaps, by reports that Bracken was exhibiting Churchill family photographs in the flat he had taken in Mayfair.
Mrs. Churchill taxed her husband with this rumour and asked if it was true. “I looked it up,” her husband replied teasingly, “but the dates don’t coincide.” Not surprisingly Mrs. Churchill was not enamoured of the less than couth young colonial, whom she had first encountered when he stayed uninvited, sleeping on the sofa in her drawing room with his shoes on, and who insisted on calling her Clemmie.
In 1924 Churchill rejoined the Conservative Party, was returned to Parliament and became Chancellor of the Exchequer under Stanley Baldwin. “I shall never be so happy as I was last week,” Bracken wrote to his mother. “Dear Winston became Chancellor.” Churchill wrote to a friend that Bracken “was a brilliant young Australian of quite exceptional powers and vitality.”
Shortly afterwards there was an unexplained rift which persisted until 1929. Meanwhile, Bracken made his way in publishing. He was introduced to Major John Crosthwaite Eyre, a director of Eyre and Spottiswoode, and took over a monthly they published called the Illustrated Review that had previously been edited by Hilaire Belloc. He renamed it English Life and commissioned articles from the famous and well-born. Crosthwaite Eyre and his wife Dorothy, the Eyre heiress, were greatly impressed by the young protégé whom they hoped might wake up their sleepy company. In 1926 they agreed to his plans to start The Banker and co-opted Bracken to the board. He was less than 25.
Over the next three years Bracken persuaded his employers to acquire a City daily called the Financial News and a half-share in The Economist. To preserve the independence of the editor of The Economist from the proprietors, it was agreed that he could not be removed without the consent of independent trustees. The Investors Chronicle, The Liverpool Journal of Commerce and The Practitioner were acquired shortly afterwards.
Bracken set himself up in a town house in North Street, Westminster, later renamed Lord North Street at his behest. There was an outsize knocker that betokened the style of life within. He acquired period furniture, old masters and handsomely bound books. He held forth to his guests on architecture, literature and history as well as on contemporary events and personalities. He installed a butler and cook, James and Beatrice Costello, who were to remain with him for the rest of his life. During his luncheon and dinner parties, Costello was primed to inform him that the Prime Minister or some other notable was asking for him. He also had a country cottage in Bedfordshire and a Hispano-Suiza motorcar driven by Churchill’s old chauffeur, Alexander Aley. He became a ubiquitous and noisy socialite. This is where Evelyn Waugh would have met him. Hence Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, a fast talking, social-climbing colonial bounder who knows everyone and can fix anything.
Like Mottram there was an air of mystery about Bracken. His apparent wealth was unexplained. So were his origins. They did not feature in his conversation except to mislead. “I was born there,” he said to one acquaintance as they passed Carlton House Terrace. “My grandfather wrote that,” he remarked when Greenland’s Icy Mountains by Bishop Heber was played. In the summer of 1930 he invited a party of friends to a palazzo in Venice that he claimed had been left to him by his mother. Nowhere in these tales of his origins did Ireland ever appear.
But he did not cut himself off entirely from his Irish roots. He plied the mother who had exiled him, but whom he seems to have loved very deeply, with affectionate letters, and made forays to Ireland to see her up to the time of her death from cancer in 1928. When she died, an anonymous tribute appeared in the obituary columns of The Times of a Mrs. Laffan of Beauparc (which could have been anywhere) reciting her many virtues. It was plainly written by Brendan, but for what audience apart from himself is difficult to divine.
A brother Peter was a constant thorn in his side. Deeply in debt and threatened with dismissal from his senior position in the Irish police, Peter once backed his demands for a loan by burgling the house in Lord North Street and making off with Brendan’s portrait of Edmund Burke. It should be added that Bracken later helped Peter and other needy members of his family in Ireland, although he saw little or nothing of them.
Early in 1929 Bracken got himself adopted as Conservative candidate for North Paddington and was returned to the House of Commons at the General Election later that year which brought Labour to power. In Parliament he attached himself to Winston Churchill, who resigned from the Front Bench because Baldwin supported the Labour government’s plans to give self government to India.
When the Conservatives returned to government in 1931, Churchill was left outside, campaigning against the Government of India Act 1935 and, from 1934 onwards, urging rearmament in face of Hitler. In these years Bracken was Churchill’s sole consistent supporter in the House of Commons. Stanley Baldwin, inspired by his cousin Rudyard Kipling, called him “Winston’s faithful chela”‹chela was the Hindustani word for a disciple.
When Churchill’s morale was sagging or the dreaded “Black Dog” assailed him, Bracken was uniquely able to revive him with his vitality and outrageous ebullience. Churchill always called him “dear Brendan.” “They quarrelled and argued incessantly,” Harold Macmillan recalled, “just like a happily married couple.”
Bracken sold Churchill’s articles to newspapers for good money and found him, in Sir Henry Strakosch, a financial backer without whose assistance he would have been seriously embarrassed financially in 1937. But Bracken epitomized to many the erratic unsteadiness of the whole Churchillian world. He was greatly distrusted by Clementine Churchill who told me that she felt he took her husband away from her. Churchill’s only son Randolph not unnaturally came to resent Bracken’s place in his father’s affections.
The Financial News, the main newspaper in Bracken’s group, was hard put to survive in the Great Depression of the early Thirties. It emerged as a lively paper staffed by a vigorous corps of young, opinionated journalists. Bracken was a demanding boss, full of ideas, who threw his weight about endlessly. But if he was quick to upbraid, he was slow to sack. He had an interest in high standards of writing for its own sake not shared by many newspaper controllers. He became a close associate friend of Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian proprietor of the Daily Express. It was at one of Lord Beaver brook’s parties that he delivered the memorable tirade to Nye Bevan, the young Labour politician: “You lounge-lizard Lenin, you Ritzy Robespierre, you Bollinger Bolshevik, there you sit swilling Max’s Champagne and calling yourself a socialist.” But Bracken was sometimes at the receiving end. “Everything about you is phoney,” one acquaintance told him. “Even your hair, which looks like a wig, isn’t.”
When it came to girlfriends, Bracken, like his prototype Rex Mottram, wanted the best in the market. He became the suitor of the ethereal Penelope Dudley Ward, whose mother Freda was for years the mistress of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. He liked it to be thought that he was single because she turned him down. Others thought that he might be homosexual. There were smiles about the affectionate terms in which he addressed good looking young men in the Financial News. Both Andrew Boyle, who wrote the first Bracken biography, and Thomas Kilroy, the author of a play called Double Cross about Bracken and Lord Haw-Haw, claimed to have evidence of Bracken’s sexual deviance, but neither responded to my requests to produce it.
In the Thirties Bracken’s house at 8 Lord North Street became the centre of the fight against appeasement. It was from there that Churchill sallied forth in 1938 to deliver his denunciation of the Munich agreement. When, on the outbreak of war in 1939, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, Bracken accompanied him as his parliamentary private secretary. While Churchill was loyal to Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, Bracken was not and briefed the press incessantly about the pusillanimous way in which Chamberlain (“The Coroner”) and those around him were fighting the war.
Bracken’s great moment 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 would not serve under Chamberlain. If, as was likely, Lord Halifax was called upon to form a government, Churchill felt that he would have to agree to serve under him. Chamberlain and David Margesson, the chief whip, called Halifax and Churchill to a meeting. Before this took place Bracken exacted from Churchill a promise that he would remain silent if it was proposed that Halifax should succeed. This he did when Chamberlain and Margesson put forward the name of Halifax. 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 closely involved, the great silence that saved England.
Bracken refused ministerial office, preferring to remain close to Churchill, who overrode the opposition of the King and had Bracken made a member of the Privy Council. He moved into 10 Downing Street, and had a big say in choosing members of the government outside the small war cabinet. He also interested himself in other appointments, including bishops and the masters of Cambridge colleges.
At the very center of government at one of the great historic moments of British history he was, indeed, in Randolph Churchill’s phrase, the fantasist whose fantasies had come true. Characteristically he used his position to do innumerable good turns for both the great and obscure. He was much better acquainted with the United States than other British politicians, and he lobbied American correspondents so that Roosevelt would be persuaded to send aid. Significantly, when Roosevelt’s righthand man, Harry Hopkins, visited England in the winter of 1940-41, it was Bracken who went to meet him at Poole Airport and to convince him that Britain was able and determined to fight on.
Meanwhile the Ministry of Information was languishing under the leadership of Duff Cooper. The newspapers were discontented with the censorship and with the sparse amount of information they were getting on military campaigns. In July 1941 Bracken was conscripted, much against his will, to take over as Minister. He was a spectacular success. He also reorganized the relationship with the BBC, and left it free to comment on domestic affairs while ensuring that propaganda to neutral and enemy countries was efficiently organized. He never sought to emulate Dr. Goebbels, or indeed Duff Cooper, by broadcasting propaganda himself. Ironically, for a man who had so often laced fact with fiction, he may deserve some of the credit that the mendacities of British propaganda in the First World War were not repeated.
Easily bored, Bracken could not abide the routine of ministerial office and preferred the excitement close to Churchill at the center of events. Here he had an invaluable role as a go-between, heading off the endless confrontations between Churchill and those who worked with him. He enjoyed a special licence, not shared by many, to tell Churchill he was wrong or behaving foolishly. He won the respect and gratitude of Churchill’s wife and most of those who worked with Churchill himself.
As the war moved to a close, minds turned to the future of peacetime Britain. Beaverbrook encouraged Bracken to think of himself as a future Prime Minister. Both believed that wartime restrictions should be abolished and free rein given to merchant adventurers of the kind that had made Britain great in bygone days. They made bad blood with Labour, so precipitating the breakup of the wartime coalition.
Bracken became First Lord of the Admiralty in the Caretaker cabinet formed by Churchill to govern until the 1945 election. He was a leading Conservative spokesman at the general election, at which Churchill led the charge, raising scares that Labour would set up a totalitarian state. The Conservatives were heavily defeated, Bracken losing his own seat in North Paddington. When the Party looked around for scapegoats, Bracken stood next to Beaverbrook among those blamed.
He quickly got back into Parliament at a bye-election at Bournemouth. For a few years he applied himself quite diligently to the business of opposition. Unlike other leading Conservatives he was not prepared to accept high taxation or nationalization, and his hard-hitting opposition to the Bill nationalizing gas attracted much notice. But he was out of sympathy with Butler, Macmillan and others who were trying to move the party to the left. Yet he did not mount open opposition to their ideas. He was content to debunk the “charter-mongers,” as he called them, to Churchill and others.
More progressive Tories probably suspected that Bracken was hoping to climb back into high office on Churchill’s coat-tails and were apprehensive of the influence he would wield. But in 1951, when Churchill became Prime Minister again, Bracken declined office and announced his retirement from politics on the grounds of ill health. He became Viscount Bracken of Christchurch in Hampshire, his last constituency, but never took his seat in the Lords, which he called “the morgue.” The only preferment that came his way was to be made a trustee of the National Gallery. He remained close to Churchill as trustee of the fortune that Churchill made out of his books. He was the instigator of the press conspiracy to cover up Churchill’s stroke in 1953.
Bracken was highly critical of ministers like Butler and Macmillan, who failed to cut back public expenditure. His commentary is contained in spicy correspondence to friends. Maynard Keynes, he declared, was “the man who had made inflation respectable.” Even the mild inflation of those days alarmed Bracken: “Robin Hood or even Al Capone,” he wrote “was a respectable man compared with those who created a state of inflation.” The best of Bracken’s correspondence is very good and a valuable historical source.
Meanwhile he carried on a business life as Sir Henry Strakosch’s successor as Chairman of a South African mining house called the Union Corporation, and of the Financial News group. In 1945 they had bought the Financial Times and merged the old Financial News into it. It was a great success story, especially from the time Gordon Newton took over as Editor in 1949.
In 1950 Bracken became chairman of the Board of Governors of Sedbergh School and made frequent visits there. He gave money to restore its 18th century building as a library, over the entrance of which was the message, “Remember Winston Churchill” But it was perhaps indicative of the nature of the relationship that Churchill was not among his many friends who visited the school. Lady Churchill, having begun by feeling Bracken was using her husband, ended up embarrassed that Winston took all Brendan did for him so much for granted.
In his last years Bracken’s health remained indifferent. He used to disappear for weeks on end and, apart from a few chosen friends, he had become something of a recluse. He probably drank too much. “I shall die young and be forgotten,” was his constant refrain. Early in 1958 he paid the penalty for years of heavy smoking and was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. He met death courageously although he was not sustained by any religious belief. “The blackshirts of God are after me,” he told a friend after he had banished an uninvited cleric who hoped to reconcile him to the Catholic Church.
He decreed that his ashes should be scattered on Romney Marsh and ordered his faithful chauffeur to burn all his papers. He had no wish to be the subject of a biography or to be commemorated . But his friends could not let go so easily. Harold Macmillan, who had visited him days before he died, suggested a memorial connected with Sedbergh, but the committee led by Sir John Colville and Cyril Radcliffe came down in favour of Churchill College. Beaverbrook wrote, dissenting: “His memory would be overwhelmed by the glory of Churchill.” So, perhaps, it has happened. But Brendan Bracken himself so loved Churchill that he would not have minded that.
How significant a figure was he? It is not an easy question. In politics he had not the contribution of a man who holds high office for many years or pioneers an ideological crusade, although he showed prescience and was a precursor of Thatcherism. His main contribution in his own time was to have sustained, promoted and protected Churchill. Without him Churchill might not have survived politically, let alone become Prime Minister. He was also a spin doctor par excellence half a century before the term was invented. He was the effective founding father of the modern Financial Times, Great Britain’s highest quality daily newspaper.
The Earl of Longford has written that Brendan Bracken was the most remarkable man he ever met. I incline to the view that his significance and interest is much more in his personality than in his achievements, however formidable one assesses them: in what he was, rather than what he did. He is like an unforgettable character in a novel. As such he was, I say with gratitude, a great subject of biography.
It is fortunate that diaries and other contemporary accounts as well as his own letters enable one to recreate the person his contemporaries knew, or thought they knew. There are, of course, unanswered questions about him and his turbulent life. One thing is certain. He inspired immense affection among a large circle of friends. The room in this college, for which they subscribed about half a million pounds in today’s money, is a monument to friendship and loyalty, two of the central themes of his own life. In it people can read, as he often did, into the small hours, and from their reading, like him, draw inspiration for life. I like to think that they will remember with gratitude and reverence, and not without a smile, an early benefactor of Churchill College, and an ardent lover of this ancient, civilized and heroic nation.