Greasy Pole: Alcoholics Non-Anonymous

Just when the Lib Dems could have been pardoned for congratulating themselves on their progress towards being the electoral alternative to the Labour Party their leader Charles Kennedy had to spoil their fun by catching a stomach bug, or smoking too much, or suffering from the over-consumption of alcohol. Or perhaps all three. Whatever the matter with him it prevented Kennedy contributing to the pointless shenanigans of Prime Ministers Questions and the Budget statement – which cost his party some TV publicity. He made it, just about, to the Lib Dem’s spring conference but that did not turn out too well because the media  concentrated on the fact that he had lost weight and was sweating as he spoke. Of course that might have been down to nervous guilt at having to mouth yet more of the nauseating deceptions inescapable from capitalist politics. What worried his party’s spin doctors was that his condition was so entrancing to the media that it got in the way of them getting the kind of publicity they crave. “We could not” wailed one M.P., “have too many weeks like last week again”.

So Kennedy got a lot of advice – unwanted, unqualified, unheeded – about his health. Cut down on fags, take more exercise, drink less. And while he was about it could he give some attention to his lack of what is called gravitas?  It does not help the case of a party which has ambitions to be involved in government to be led by someone known as Chatshow Charlie after his appearance on the politician-baiting Have I Got News For You. It does not help either for him to have so keen a reputation for what is politely known as a “sociable lifestyle”. Kennedy brushed it off as a bad case of media stereotyping; as a red-headed Highlander he had to be assumed to be over- fond of a tipple which, if it sometimes gets the better of him, will have to explained away as a passing malady.

Parliamentary Drunks

Well of course Kennedy is not the first example of the Mother of Parliaments nurturing someone with an alcohol problem. Arthur Greenwood was a power in the Labour Party between the wars. In Ramsay MacDonald’s 1929 government he was Minister of Health (a lot more important a job than it is today) and after the 1935 general election, while the MacDonald experience still tormented Labour  he was elected  Deputy Leader of the party. But his addiction to alcohol prevented him reaching his potential in the ascent of the greasy pole. By 1940 he was losing his grip, although in the Coalition government and later in the 1945 Attlee government he was allocated some lesser posts. It was almost as if someone felt sorry for him. He died in 1954.

Then there was Nicholas Scott, who was M.P. for Chelsea before it was combined with Kensington to form the safest Tory seat in the country. In the Thatcher government Scott was Minister of State for Social Security and the Disabled, which sounded like a nice job for a man with  a reputation as a kindly toff. Whatever chances he had of being nominated to stand for the Tories in the new seat (the M.P. for Kensington was obligingly standing down) were blown away when he was found face down in the street after attending a Conservative Party reception. The Tories who had successfully stomached the Falklands war, the defeat of the miners and the introduction of harsher conditions for benefit claimants, drew the line at their Member advertising his drink problem and Scott was deselected. In his place the Tories chose Alan Clark, who was not known as kindly but who could be relied on to drink with the best of them without falling over in public.

But Clark was not immune to the effects of alcohol and this, combined with his ready contempt for many of the Members, created a problem for him. In July 1983, as Parliamentary Secretary of State at the Department of Employment, he had to commend- speak in the Commons in support of – an Order. Instead of studying the speech prepared for him Clark preferred to spend the evening dining and “wine tasting” with a friend  and as a result when it was time, later in the evening, for him to speak he was “muzzy . . . I found myself . . . sneering at the more cumbrous and unintelligible passages . . . I gabbled. Sometimes I turned over two pages at once, sometimes three. What did it matter?” This rambling went on until Clare Short, never one to shrink from putting her foot in it, said that although she had read that it was not permissible for an Honourable Member to accuse another of being drunk in the House she believed Clark was incapable and “It is disrespectful to the House and to the office that he holds that he should come here in this condition”. Clark fumbled to the end of his speech. “This week,” he recorded “I went up a stubby ladder; then down a very long snake.”

George Brown  

Probably the most obvious, colourful and instructive example was George Brown, who almost became Labour Party leader and so Prime Minister after the 1964 election. We can only imagine what sort of government it would have been with such an intrusive alcoholic at its head. Brown was not one of Labour’s high flying university graduates; he came up the hard way with a father who drove lorries for a living. A spell as a fur salesman may have provided him with a taste for the high life as well as a sharp, manipulative approach to problems, not to mention a liking for a drink. It did not take him long, after being returned as MP for Belper in the 1945 general election, to immerse himself  in some back stabbing schemes. He took a leading part in a conspiracy to replace Attlee as Prime Minister with Ernie Bevin but Bevin only approved of conspiracies of which he was the instigator and brutally rejected Brown’s advances.

As the post war generation of Labour leaders died away they were replaced by the likes of Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan and Brown. In the leadership election after Gaitskell’s death in 1963 the final contest was between Brown and Wilson and Brown did not take it lightly when Wilson won easily. His bitterness endured, in spite of all Wilson’s efforts to heal the breach so that they could both get on with the serious work of running British capitalism-like disciplining the workers, supporting the American war effort in Vietnam, fostering the prosperity of the ruling class and so on.

Perhaps in the faint hope of placating Brown and of keeping him too busy to organise any more conspiracies, Wilson put him in charge of a new ministry with a brief to stimulate the British economy outside the restraining hands of the Treasury. It was called the Department of Economic Affairs; Wilson had his doubts about the move: “I was taking a risk with George Brown, with his erratic habits. The drink problem was always with us.” During the first few months of that government Barbara Castle and Dick Crossman recorded thirteen different occasions when Brown was incapably drunk. But Wilson was canny enough to have been aware that he was driving a wedge between Brown and his other big rival James Callaghan, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer could be relied on the fight the Treasury’s corner against the new ministry.

National Plan

With characteristic energy Brown got his ministry up and running and within a couple of months he produced its first offspring – a Declaration of Intent in which the employers and unions made vows about wage demands, restrictive practises and job security. It was, in brief, an agreement to make capitalism behave out of character and so was doomed but Brown was not deterred from producing his next great delusion. The National Plan emerged in September 1965, with a lot of publicity about long term planning and how a little more effort from everyone (well, at least from those who work for their living) could bring about a controlled economy without any of the slumps and booms which  had become so tiresomely regular.

The National Plan was supposed to organise an increase in national production of 25 percent over the next six years through an annual growth of 4 percent. In fact the unrealistic nature of the whole enterprise was quickly exposed when, just before the plan was published, Brown informed the Cabinet that he could foresee a growth of only 1 percent over the coming year. After the Plan had been consigned to a discredited  past it emerged that the idea of 25 percent growth was not based on any real experience but was an assumption followed by scraping around for evidence to support it. The Plan did not last for six years but for only about ten months. The crisis of July 1966 when, in Wilson’s words, the government’s economic strategy was “blown off course” was enough to collapse all Brown’s promises. The voluntary assumptions in wage negotiations were replaced by giving statutory force to the decisions of the Prices and Incomes Board. It was, in other words, back to Square One; for a while the Plan gathered dust in a few Whitehall trays while the Treasury savoured its victory. In a straight swap with Michael Stewart, Brown became an unlikely Foreign Secretary.


More and more, he developed the reputation of a hopeless drunk. Ray Gunter – one of his admirers – said he started on the whisky at nine o’clock in the morning. Denis Healey got fed up with “acting as a psychiatric nurse to a patient who was often violent”. When Wilson and a couple of his ministers responded to the latest currency crisis by closing the gold market, which meant asking the Queen to declare a Bank Holiday, Brown offered yet another resignation but perhaps to his surprise – and everyone else’s relief – this time it stuck and he was out of a job. For a while he sulked; nobody took seriously his declaration that “the left has a new leader”. In the 1970 general election he lost his seat at Belper to Geoffrey Stewart-Smith, a Tory distinguished by an ambition to set up a kind of McCarthyite pursuit of Communists in this country. Brown tried his luck with the SDP, went to the Lords and ended his days, predictably, with some comfortable directorships in industry.

Alcohol persuades a lot of its dependents that life is not as bad as it is; problems seem a lot more tractable through the bottom of a glass. It also encourages some people to believe that they have abilities which they did not know they possessed – like the drunk who imagines he is Pavarotti, waking you up singing in the street in the small hours. Perhaps that is why alcoholism is seen so often among politicians. But alcoholic delusions are dangerous, not only to the drunks themselves but to others as well.


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