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Churchill's Irish fixer was the real Big Brother

A new film uncovers the life of a man who became the most trusted aide of Britain's wartime leader, writes Jerome Reilly

Published 12/12/2010 | 05:00

HE was the secretive Irishman who became the political aide, spin doctor and confidant of Britain's war leader Winston Churchill.

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But the mercurial Brendan Bracken, who created the Financial Times and eventually became a viscount and a peer of the British realm, did his utmost to conceal his republican pedigree and his lower-middle class roots in Templemore.

The First World War anthem It's A Long Way To Tipperary might have been written for Bracken. He reinvented himself countless times before finding a place at the very heart of Winston Churchill's war cabinet.

During his four years as a much feared Minister for Information between 1941 and 1945 Bracken was known to his civil servants as "BB".

Among those civil servants was a young writer called Eric Blair who greatly disliked the authoritarian Bracken. Later Blair adopted the pen name George Orwell and, in his celebrated satire 1984, BB became 'Big Brother' and the Ministry of Information became the 'Ministry of Truth'.

Now a new film Brendan Bracken: Churchill's Irishman has uncovered new facts about Bracken, whose penchant for secrecy followed him to the grave. On his deathbed, in 1958, he asked that his personal papers be burned. This was carried out the day after he lost his battle with throat cancer.

It means that we still know little enough about a man described in the film by the former editor of the London Times, William Rees-Mogg, as a "brilliant political fixer."

But it is clear that Bracken's rise to wealth and influence at the centre of Britain's war effort was achieved by extraordinary subterfuge. And it could be argued that Winston Churchill might never have become Britain's wartime leader were it not for Bracken -- according to the new documentary produced by a distant relative, Adrian Bracken of Marbella Productions, in association with RTE, to be broadcast on December 21.

Bracken and Churchill were so close over so many years, despite a considerable age gap, that the rumour went around that Bracken was Churchill's illegitimate son. Though the rumour was nonsense, neither man ever discouraged the slander.

It is clear Brendan Bracken organised the bailout of Winston Churchill when he was consumed by losses sustained in the stock market crash.

If Churchill, a profligate spender who had debts of £18,000, had been declared bankrupt he would not have been able to stand for the House of Commons.

Bracken also, the film suggests, played a key role in the delicate political machinations that led to Churchill becoming Prime Minister.

When Neville Chamberlain was preparing to step down as PM in May 1940 it appeared his successor would be Lord Halifax, who also supported appeasement. Charles Lysaght, who wrote Bracken's biography, told the story in a memorial lecture at Churchill College, Cambridge.

"Bracken's great moment came in May 1940 when, following the fall of Norway, a large number of Conservatives failed to support the government on a confidence vote. A national government was imperative but the Labour party would not serve under Chamberlain. If Lord Halifax was called upon to form a government, Churchill felt he would have to agree to serve. Chamberlain and David Margesson, the chief whip, called Halifax and Churchill to a meeting. Before this took place Bracken exacted from Churchill a promise that he would remain silent if it was proposed Halifax should succeed. This he did when Chamberlain and Margesson put forward the name of Halifax.

"After two minutes Halifax broke the silence and said that he did not think that he, as a member of the House of Lords, was in the best position to form a government. It was, claimed Lord Beaverbrook who was closely involved, 'the great silence that saved England.'"

Bracken's star rose with that of Churchill, whom he had supported since 1923. But even Churchill knew little of Bracken's real background and, if asked, described his old friend as "an Australian".

Born in 1901 in Templemore, Co Tipperary, Brendan Bracken was the son of a builder Joseph Kevin Bracken, a member of the Fenian Brotherhood and a founder of the GAA, and Hannah Agnes Ryan. His father died when Bracken was a toddler and his mother later remarried.

Bracken was educated at Mungret College in Limerick but was a tempestuous youth and ran away. Back in Dublin, where the family had settled, he was regularly in trouble with the law and, in desperation, his mother sent him to Australia. He spent four years there and educated himself when a friendly nun gave him access to her large library.

He shipped up in Britain and in 1920 appeared at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, claiming to be 15 years old (he was 19) and began a life of subterfuge. He claimed to be an Australian, to have been orphaned in a bush fire, and to have a family connection to Montagu Rendell, then headmaster of Winchester College.

He got into Sedburgh on that basis. He stayed for just one term but he left the school sporting all the traits of the English public school class -- a long way from his lower middle-class Irish heritage.

It was a pretence he kept up for the rest of his life as he relentlessly climbed to the top of the British political elite.

He died, a single man, of throat cancer at the age of 57, by then ennobled as Viscount Bracken of Christchurch in the County of Southampton -- but he never used the title, nor did he sit in the House of Lords. In his business life, he was responsible for merging the Financial News into the Financial Times in 1945.

Sunday Independent

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