Commentary: John Prescott…and George Brown18 May 2008
I’ve been meaning to write about a few non-book review subjects for a while now, but have had a difficult time trying to determine precisely what kind of commentary I want this blog to contain. It may seem a little odd to open with this particular topic, especially now that other pieces of news have supplanted this topic in the public mind, but of late my thoughts have been drifting back to John Prescott’s recent admission that he has been struggling with an eating disorder.
Further information appears here from the Guardian and the Independent (along with marginally sympathetic commentary by Armando Iannucci.) Although these articles only hint at it, much of the general political blogosphere seemed to think that this ‘confession’ is part of a publicity stunt designed to sell copies of Prescott’s forthcoming memoirs. More generally, the responses tended to degenerate into snide, crude, or openly hostile comments about Prescott’s weight, appearance, intelligence, political leanings, sexual appetites, and so forth. Yet the more I read about Prescott, more my thoughts kept coming back to another Labour politician who engaged in similarly self-destructive behaviours.
John Prescott entered the House as the Member for Hull East in 1970, a General Election in which more than a few Labour MPs lost their seats. One of those lost seats was Belper, where a 5 percent swing to the Tories turfed out the MP who’d represented the constituency since 1945: George Brown.
George Brown’s been all but forgotten by the history books, except for perhaps a dozen winceworthy anecdotes of slurred speeches and drunken rages. In truth, he seemed to vanish from the public consciousness almost from the moment Harold Wilson finally got fed up with him and accepted the last of his many resignations in March 1968. Yet there are a number of repeated patterns — unsettling echoes, if you like — in both men’s behaviours, in the way they were treated by the political press, and in the way that they were regarded inside and outside their party. (One Telegraph writer even made the comparison rather more explicit by describing Prescott as ‘a kind of George Brown without the charm.’) And although some commentators may remark that at least George Brown had the excuse of his horrible addiction to alcohol to explain his temperament, a comparative look at the two men reveals some points to ponder.
Both George Brown and John Prescott occupied the unenviable symbolic sinecure of First Secretary of State (Brown as Minister for the short-lived conglomerate Department of Economic Affairs, Prescott as deputy PM and as the head of another cobbled-together superdepartment now known as Defra). Both garnered the reputation of aggressive, deal-brokering, pull-no-punches politicians, repelling many of their colleagues and often embarrassing or exasperating their few patient supporters in the process. Going back further in their political careers, the similarities keep cropping up. Education was a sore point with both of them — Brown went to a junior grammar school, but left school at 15 to start working, while Prescott’s poor showing in the eleven-plus sent him to a secondary modern — and both ended up supplementing their schooling with further education (Brown at night schools and Workers’ Education Association classes, Prescott at Ruskin College in Oxford). Both came from trade union backgrounds, and made much of their links to the trade union movement as a badge of Labour Party authenticity. Both had turbulent marriages: George Brown ended up leaving his wife for his secretary, and although Prescott may have stayed with his wife he nonetheless owned up to his own infidelity. And on the whole, both do not seem to have been truly capable of dealing with the pressures of political life, particularly towards the end of their careers in the House.
I think a full and properly considered comparative study of Brown and Prescott would require in-depth research into press coverage of both men, with appropriate weight given to the general changes in the timbre and focus of political reporting since the 1960s. Private Eye immortalised the phrase ‘tired and emotional’ in connection with George Brown, and Simon Hoggart’s political sketches seldom failed to take advantage of Prescott’s struggles with public speaking — not to mention Jeremy Paxman’s The Political Animal, with its apocryphal quip that in recent years, prospective Hansard editors had to ‘translate’ a John Prescott speech into intelligible text as part of the application and vetting process. Apart from the official press coverage, George Brown’s antics often cropped up in the diaries of Richard Crossman and Tony Benn, and perhaps a forthcoming crop of diaries and memoirs from politicians of the Blair years (in addition to the ones that are available now) will reveal more stories about Prescott. It’s a study worth conducting, I think, if only because I would hate to see another Labour politician conveniently forgotten by those who prefer to distance themselves from history.