Brendan Bracken: “Winston’s Faithful Chela”
“Stanley Baldwin, showing an unexpected familiarity with Indian phrases, described Brendan Bracken as ‘Winston’s faithful chela,‘ wrote the biographer Charles Lysaght. “This is what gave Bracken his place in history, a minor but still an important one.”
The Hillsdale College Churchill Project has published two articles on Brendan Bracken, Churchill’s loyal ally and friend for four decades. The first begins with a memoir by the late Ron Robbins, a Canadian journalist who early on covered the House of Commons, where he met Bracken. The postscript is by me, followed by reviews of the two Bracken books by George Gale and A.J.P. Taylor. A second feature—Bracken’s defense of Churchill’s frequent visits to war fronts—is also published.
Excerpts follow. For the full articles click on “Great Contemporaries: Brendan Bracken” and “Necessary Risk: Churchill at the Front.”
There was no more enigmatic figure in Churchill’s life than Brendan Bracken, who cloaked his birth and upbringing with mystery while hinting broadly that he was the great man’s illegitimate son. Close friendship, not errant fatherhood, encompassed their relationship. But Churchill, with characteristic impishness, apparently never gave the direct lie to Bracken’s implied claim. This annoyed Churchill’s wife and peeved his son, Randolph, who spoke satirically of “my brother, the bastard.” To quell the noisome rumor Churchill quipped: “I have looked the matter up, but the dates don’t coincide.”
By the time I encountered him, he was a formidable figure in corridors of power and London financial circles. The Labour Party came to power in July 1945. Bracken’s arch opponent was the Minister of Health, Aneurin Bevan, a fiery Welshman. Bevan was steering the National Health Bill, the first large-scale national heath service, through morning committee meetings. I wrote “running reports.” A copy boy would come in every five minutes or so, collect what I had written, and phone it to the agency.
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Bracken would thrust at Bevan, jolting him in a tough fight over every clause in the Bill. Bracken always attacked in time to catch new editions of the evening papers. This ensured him headlines, especially in the Evening Standard, owned by Lord Beaverbrook, an intimate friend of his and Churchill’s.
One morning as I hurried to the committee, Bracken caught up with me and complimented me on my coverage. No journalist worth his salt likes to feel exploited, particularly by a politician. So I said: “You have a great knack of talking in headlines just in time to catch every edition.” He roared with laughter and produced a pocket diary. He flaunted a page on which he had written the edition times of all the London papers. Smiling ruefully, I said: “I didn’t imagine that you were relying solely on chance.” “No,” he replied, “it’s a trick I learned early on from Churchill.”
Bracken died of cancer in 1958 at the age of 57. Churchill reacted sorrowfully to the news of his death. Churchill mourned for him with a father’s grief. —Ron Cynewulf Robbins
We have a memorable glimpse of Brendan Bracken on 11 May 1940, Churchill’s first full day in office. One of the first axes fell on Chamberlain’s toady Sir Horace Wilson, a civil servant promoted far above his station. He was an arch appeaser, both indirectly (as an adviser) and directly (as an emissary to Hitler).
With his usual courtesy, Churchill told Wilson he would obliged if Sir Horace left Ten Downing Street by 1pm. Wilson characteristically took this as a “negotiable demand” and toddled off to lunch. Returning, he found Bracken and Randolph Churchill seated on his office sofa, smoking huge cigars and glaring at him. They exchanged no words. Wilson turned and fled. Later he sent for his effects. He never appeared at Number Ten again.
During the war, Bracken enabled Evelyn Waugh to obtain leave so that he could write Brideshead Revisited. Waugh unkindly wrote Bracken into the story as Rex Motram, a boorish, money-grubbing exploiter of the colonies. That was typical of Waugh, but undeserved. As Lord Beaverbrook said: “To know Bracken was to like him; those who didn’t know him did not like him.”
Bracken in biography
The Bracken biographies may be viewed in similar light. (Click here and scroll to “Further reading.”) Boyle’s Poor Dear Brendan is the more showy and brash, Lysaght’s Brendan Bracken the deeper and more revealing. “Above all,” wrote Charles Lysaght,
Bracken was great fun. He found appropriate names for everyone. Baldwin was “the ironmonger,” Neville Chamberlain“the coroner.” Eden was “Robert Taylor,” or “the film star at the Foreign Office.” He described Harrow, Churchill’s old school, as “that bloody old Borstal of yours.” Only Churchill himself was exempt from Bracken’s darts. His description of Aneurin Bevan, enjoying Beaverbrook’s champagne, is of classic quality: “You Bollinger Bolshevik, you ritzy Robespierre, you lounge-lizard Lenin! Look at you swilling Max’s champagne and calling yourself a socialist.” Bevan listened to this tirade with delight.
After the war Bracken seemed to burn out like a fallen meteor, contemplating a future with, alas, all too accurate a vision. He said of Keynes: “He will be best remembered as the man who made inflation respectable.” He said of himself: “I shall die young and be forgotten.” History will not forget him. —RML
Necessary risk: Bracken’s defense
During World War II, Churchill’s frequent excursions to various fronts caused critics to complain that he was taking unnecessary risk. Criticism mounted when Churchill hied to France only six days after D-Day. He revisited the front several times through March 1945.
Captain Alec Stratford Cunningham-Reid DFC (1895-1977) was a distinguished flying ace in World War I. In 1922-45 he served periodically as a Conservative Member of Parliament. Peppery and contentious, he engaged in numerous arguments, which in 1943 resulted in fisticuffs with another MP. Both apologized the next day, but in America the Los Angeles Times headlined, “England Grins as Members of Commons Trade Punches.”
Churchill went to France in mid-June 1944. Cunningham-Reid complained: “The Prime Minister should not risk his life unnecessarily…. Was there ever such a good target as the one presented by our not inconspicuous Prime Minister perched up high on a Jeep? Nobody could have mistaken or missed that massive figure, complete with cigar to identify him…. Subsequently, the Prime Minister, General Montgomery, Field-Marshal Smuts, General Sir Alan Brooke, and, in all probability, the Supreme Commander [Eisenhower] and other key men got into a huddle…. The Minister of Information will, no doubt, correct me if that is not so.”
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The Minister of Information was Brendan Bracken, who did indeed respond. In a brilliant few minutes, Bracken delivered a superb defense of Churchill’s visits to the front. Because it has not been published, even in The Churchill Documents, we thought it worth bringing to the attention of readers. Here is an extract:
I think it is a good thing for prime ministers that they should go into the front line and see the troops, and the soldiers, who matter most, like to see them. I daresay some hon. Members of this House remember that, in the last war, some suggestions were made by timid French Ministers to M. Clemenceau that, owing to the Germans having a big gun that shelled Paris, they should leave that city for a safer place. They discovered for the first time that the old Tiger was amenable. He said, “Yes, let the Government leave Paris. Let it go to the front.” It was a very sound piece of advice. If men like Clemenceau lived in this generation, France would not be in its present predicament.
Click here for Bracken’s complete speech.
“Churchill’s Secret“: good film portrayal of how Bracken and two other Press Barons dekated the news about Churchill’s 1953 stroke.