I have just got back from a few days in Provence, staying with a friend in her delightful house in a hilltop village north of Avignon, where in-between eating and drinking, visiting markets, and going for walks in the autumn sun, I read Peter Paterson’s life of Lord George-Brown, who was Harold Wilson’s mercurial foreign secretary for a brief period in the 1960s. Peter Paterson was a good friend of mine who died last year; but while I had owned his book since it was published in 1993, I had to my shame never actually read it; so thinking it was about time that I did, I took it with me to France.
It has been a splendid reminder of those exciting days when Britain had probably the rudest foreign secretary in its history. Brown was a gifted and forceful minister, who did more than any British politician other than Edward Heath to get us into the European Common Market (now the Nobel Prize-winning European Union), but he was also a drunk and a bully whose outbursts were as undiplomatic as could be.
Though a committed internationalist and Europhile, he was so abusive even to foreigners that he managed to outdo Nigel Farage of Ukip, who among other things told the Belgian President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, in the European Parliament two years ago that he had the ‘charisma of a damp rag’. Brown was even more insulting to Belgians. At a state dinner given by the Belgian government in his honour in 1967, he made a drunken impromptu speech in which he said: ‘While you have been wining and dining here tonight, who has been defending Europe? I’ll tell you who’s been defending Europe — the British Army. And where, you may ask, are the soldiers of the Belgian Army tonight? I’ll tell you where the soldiers of the Belgian Army are. They’re in the brothels of Brussels!’
Not long before that Brown had been in France discussing Britain’s application for Common Market membership at a meeting with French officials, including the future president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whom he suddenly attacked ‘in highly offensive terms’. ‘He then [according to Paterson] turned to another British representative who spoke French, saying. “You translate that for this Frog.” Giscard could speak perfect English and had understood every word George had said.’
Paterson gives many examples of Brown’s readiness to offend, usually his own officials, or ambassadors, or their wives. For example, he reduced Lady Reilly, the wife of Britain’s ambassador to Paris, to tears by shouting at her during a dinner at the French Embassy in London, ‘You are not fit to be an ambassador’s wife’; and he told an ambassadorial spouse at another dinner that she was too old and unattractive to represent Britain abroad.
But although these incidents of the foreign secretary’s boorishness were widely known, and despite their subsequent denunciation in a letter to the Times by Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh, a former ambassador to Rome, Brown was never dismissed by Wilson from his job or even hauled over the coals. He was considered too important to the government for that; and his departure, when it finally came, was for other reasons.
Yet this week the fate of Andrew Mitchell, the Chief Whip, reportedly hung in the balance because of rudeness of a lesser order. Mitchell may or may not have used the expression ‘f****** pleb’ to a person who forbade him to ride his bicycle through the main gate of Downing Street, but that person wasn’t a civil servant or a diplomat or a diplomat’s wife or even a foreign statesman, to all of whom Brown’s rudeness had been permissible, but a policeman.
The temptation to show rudeness to policemen can, as we know, be considerable, which is probably why the law prohibits it. And it was stupid of Mitchell to vent his frustration on one of them, especially as policemen have notebooks in which they write things down. But he apologised, and the policeman in question accepted his apology, so you might agree with Mitchell’s defenders that this should be the end of the matter.
But if it’s not, it won’t have been because of the Labour party’s screams for his dismissal but because of the Police Federation’s thirst for revenge. The Federation’s leaders, angry with the government for other reasons, have presumptuously described Mitchell’s position as ‘untenable’, and the police protection officers who guard David Cameron and other government ministers have been advertising their discontent by wearing ‘Plebs’ and ‘Toffs’ cufflinks. I find such police uppitiness much more alarming than any rudeness on Andrew Mitchell’s part.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012