Brendan Bracken was the original ‘International man of mystery’, about whom nobody knew anything for certain before he entered the British political scene in 1929. There was always a sense of secrecy, danger, and ruthlessness about him that he tended to encourage the closer he got to power. Through his engaging personality and unquestioned loyalty, he became one of Winston Churchill’s two closest friends throughout the 1930s, the Second World War, and its aftermath, and held the posts of Minister of Information, joint head of the Political Warfare Executive, and First Lord of the Admiralty. Bracken’s real importance, however, lay not in the posts he held (with distinction) but in his role as Churchill’s confidant, spin-doctor, and intimate advisor.
All that we really know for certain about Bracken’s early life and upbringing are that he was born in Ireland in 1901, though sources differ as to exactly where. His father was a well-to-do builder who died when Brendan was three years old, and after being sent to a Jesuit school in Dublin, Bracken was shipped off to Australia at fifteen in the care of his step-uncle, a Roman Catholic priest. We do not know where he spent the next three years, but somehow he acquired an encyclopaedical knowledge of the history of Britain in the eighteenth century.
On his return to England in 1919, Bracken borrowed £200 from his mother to pay a year’s school-fees at Sedburgh, a public school in Yorkshire, even though he was older than the leaving age when he enrolled. It was said that he got the place there by posing as an Australian whose parents had perished in a bush fire. Although he loved and stayed in contact with his mother, he refused to have any contact with his brother or sister.
After Sedburgh, which he adored and to which he was later to donate large amounts of money, Bracken taught at a prep school, sold newspaper advertising in Scotland, and on November 8 1923 he met Winston Churchill, and became his campaign manager in the West Leicester seat that he fought (as a Liberal) in the general election. Churchill lost.
It was soon rumoured, partly because they both had red hair, that Bracken was Churchill’s illegitimate son, which to Clementine Churchill’s understandable annoyance neither her husband nor Bracken did anything to scotch, although Churchill did tell her, ‘I looked it up, but the dates don’t coincide.’ (Churchill had been in South Africa fighting the Boer War for most of the year before Bracken’s birth.)
By the age of twenty-five, Bracken was on the board of a newspaper publishing company. He made a fortune in the mid-1920s revitalizing the publishing interests of the financially-incompetent and intellectually limited Crosthwaite-Eyre family, culminating in his merging the Financial News and the Financial Times in 1945. He also founded other publishing ventures, including The Banker, Investor’s Chronicle and History Today, and took a part ownership in The Economist. The chairman of The Economist, Sir Henry Strakosch, another friend of Churchill’s, appointed Bracken to the chairmanship of the South African finance house, the Union Corporation.
His fortune made, Bracken then threw himself into politics. No orator, he nonetheless won North Paddington in the 1929 general election, which he kept until the Labour landslide of 1945. In the House of Commons, Bracken and Churchill were inseparable personally and politically. Although Stanley Baldwin described Bracken as Churchill’s ‘faithful chela’, a Hindu word meaning devoted disciple, others who knew them well sensed that the relationship was much more nuanced than master and servant. ‘Brendan was almost more Churchillian than Churchill,’ noted the newspaper editor Colin Coote, who knew them both well, ‘and it is a singular tribute to his character that the alliance was forged at the outset of ten of the blackest years in Churchill’s career. He was no fair-weather friend.’ If Bracken had simply been interested in ambition and advancement, he would never have hitched his star to Winston Churchill in the 1930s, his Wilderness Years.
Entirely self-made, Bracken was a proselytizer for free enterprise and competitive individualism. He was a Thatcherite avant la lettre, a believer in free trade, low taxes and strictly limited government, accompanied with a profound moral loathing for Socialism in all its forms.
There were occasions in the 1930s that the Tory opposition to Neville Chamberlain (who Bracken nicknamed ‘The Coroner’) and his policy of appeasing Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany was reduced to four or five MPs in the division lobbies of the House of Commons. Churchill and Bracken made up two of them, voting against appeasement week after week, month after month, year after year. They were abused and belittled for this, shouted down, ridiculed in the Press, threatened by the Whips, ignored by the public – but they were eventually proved right.
Another of those brave few anti-appeasement Conservatives, the future prime minister Harold Macmillan, saw how little Bracken simply followed Churchill unquestioningly. ‘They quarrelled like husband and wife,’ he recalled, ‘but Churchill expected that – and it never lasted or affected their true harmony.’ Macmillan added that Bracken ‘sometimes helped to keep Churchill on the rails, especially in the war.’
Bracken became Churchill’s parliamentary private secretary at the Admiralty when war broke out. Both then and when Churchill became prime minister in May 1940, Bracken was the only person allowed to enter any of Churchill’s meetings without knocking and one of the very few people who had free license to tease Churchill to his face. When he cheekily lit his cigarette with the prime minister’s cigar-end, Churchill told the Chief Whip, ‘I have murdered men for less.’
Bracken has been blamed for the Conservatives’ defeat in the 1945 general election, for encouraging Churchill to take on Socialism ideologically and head-on. ‘The cause of his tough line on Socialism was founded on contempt for their prewar attitude,’ wrote Coote, ‘scorn for their desertion of Churchill in the hour of victory, and belief that they might well become intoxicated by the feats of the Red Army into becoming Reds themselves.’ To that list ought to be added Bracken’s enthusiastic reading of Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944) and a lifelong belief that Socialism was corrosive to the human soul.
After the electoral catastrophe, Bracken opposed the Labour Party’s nationalization of key industrial sectors as well as the Bank of England, the (largely uncosted) establishment of the Welfare State, and the socialization of British medicine. The extent of his beliefs in free market economics and the dangers posed by Socialism can be gauged in My Dear Max, the collection of his letters to Lord Beaverbrook written between 1925 and 1958, which were edited by Richard Cockett and published in 1990.
Tragically for Bracken, who was a heavy smoker, he was not able to see the day when Margaret Thatcher took on the post-war settlement, because he died of throat cancer on 8 August 1958, aged only fifty-seven. Churchill was staying with Lord Beaverbrook on the French Riviera at the time. ‘Tell me one thing, Pat,’ he asked Sir Patrick Hennessy, Bracken’s friend who had been with him at the end, ‘Did he die bravely?’. When told that Bracken had indeed died very bravely, all Churchill said, ‘tears streaming down his face’, was, ‘Poor, dear Brendan.’ Three months later Churchill told his and Bracken’s mutual friends at a dinner of the Other Club,
We have suffered a great, swingeing blow. Brendan has gone. We can all remember how, in dark times, his spirit, his charm and wit were able to rise superior to personal sorrow or grave events. He bore his illness with courage and patience. Now he is no more, and we all feel the poorer for his loss.
Bracken died having refused the last rites of the Catholic Church, and forbade his executors to arrange any kind of funeral or memorial service. His viscountcy – which he never used, nor did he ever sit in the House of Lords which he dubbed ‘the Morgue’ – died with him, as he never married. His ashes were scattered on Romney Marshes.
Although there are two highly readable biographies of Bracken – Andrew Boyle’s Poor, Dear Brendan (1974) and Charles Lysacht’s Brendan Bracken (1979) – neither could be definitive because Bracken ordered all his private papers to be destroyed on his death, a terrible crime against Clio, but ensuring that parts of his mystery – why was he sent to Australia? What had he got against his siblings? how did he fund his earliest businesses? – continue to this day.
‘I shall die young and be forgotten,’ Brendan Bracken predicted of himself. He did indeed die young, but Churchill’s ‘faithful chela’ and most trusted political adviser, the man who stood by him through the Wilderness Years, the great Minister of Information during the Second World War and the avid free-marketeer, should not be forgotten by those who value liberty.