About Brendan Randell Bracken
created 8 Jan 1952 Viscount Bracken, of Christchurch in the County of Southampton note Director, Eyre and Spottiswoode Ltd 1924-40; Chairman, Financial News 1928-40; Managing Director, The Economist 1928-40 ; Member of Parliament for North Paddington 1929-45, for Bournemouth 1945-50, and for East Bournemouth and Christchurch 1950-51; Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister Churchill 1940-41; Privy Councillor 1940; Minister of Information 1941-45; First Lord of the Admiralty 1945
Brendan Randell Bracken, 1st Viscount Bracken PC (15 February 1901 – 8 August 1958) was an Irish businessman and a minister in the British Conservative cabinet. Primarily, the 1st Viscount Bracken is remembered for opposing the Bank of England's co-operation with Adolf Hitler, and for subsequently supporting Winston Churchill's prosecution of the Second World War against Hitler. Bracken was also the founder of the modern version of the Financial Times. He served as Minister of Information from 1941 to 1945. Many literary academics believe that it was Bracken who inspired George Orwell to create the character Big Brother in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell himself was a civil servant under Brackens department during the war years.
Bracken was born in 1901 in Templemore, County Tipperary, Ireland. He was the second son of Joseph Kevin (J.K.) Bracken and Hannah Agnes Ryan. J.K. Bracken was a successful builder, who was a member of the Fenian brotherhood that was committed to winning the independence of Ireland from Britain by force. Prior to J.K Bracken's marriage to Brendan's mother, he had two children from a previous marriage. J.K Bracken was a founder member of the Gaelic Athletic Association established in 1884. Brendan's father died in 1903, when Brendan was three. His widowed mother then moved to Dublin with Brendan, his three full siblings and his two step sisters. She later married Patrick Laffan who was also sympathetic to Irish rebellion. Brendan was educated by the Christian Brothers in Dublin and later by the Jesuits at Mungret College, a boarding school in County Limerick, but ran away in 1915. In Dublin, like many fatherless young boys of his age, Brendan became all but uncontrollable, engaging in pranks and altercations. In desperation his mother sent him to Australia to live with one of her cousins who was a Catholic priest (Fr Laffan) in Echuca in Victoria State. Brendan led a nomadic existence in Australia, moving often but reading avidly and acquiring a self education.
In 1919 Bracken returned briefly to Ireland, finding his mother settled in Co Meath with her new husband and child. He distanced himself from his siblings who were in revolt with his mother over his father's inheritance, moving instead to settle in Liverpool. In 1920 he appeared at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, claiming to be 15 years old, an Australian, to have been orphaned in a bush fire, and to have a family connection to Montagu Rendell, then the headmaster of Winchester College. Without fully believing this story, he was accepted by Headmaster Weech at Sedbergh who was impressed by the depth of knowledge displayed by the young Bracken, and his eagerness to progress his education. At the end of one term he emerged having succeeded in blending his Irish republican heritage and his five formative years in Australia, with the elements and trappings of a British public school man.
He might have had good reason for seeking to hide his Irish heritage as the War of Independence (1919–1921) aroused great hostility towards the Irish living in Great Britain. For whatever reason this denial became a regular feature of his personal strategy in life. A second example occurred in 1926 when he met Emmet Dalton in London. This British soldier turned IRA confidant, who was one of Michael Collins's right-hand men, recalled meeting Bracken at primary school in Dublin. Bracken denied this, but Dalton insisted that he remembered the smell of Bracken's corduroy trousers. A third example occurred during the Second World War when Bracken told people that his brother had been killed in action at Narvik, when in fact his brother was alive, well, and asking Brendan for money, from Ireland.
In the 1981 ITV Drama series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years it was suggested that he encouraged a rumour that he was Churchill's illegitimate son and that as a result Clementine Churchill actively sought to turn her husband against him. Lady Churchill's initial antipathy towards the tall red-haired "Irish-Australian" whom she had found one morning sleeping on her couch with his boots on, softened in later life as the loyal support of "Churchill's Faithful Chela" proved invaluable both politically and personally.
Business and political career
After Sedbergh, whose "old boy" tie he used to good effect, Bracken was briefly a schoolmaster at Bishop's Stortford College. He then made a successful career from 1922 as a magazine publisher and newspaper editor in London. His initial success was based on selling advertising space to at least cover the cost of each number. In the 1923 election he assisted Winston Churchill's unsuccessful attempt to be elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Leicester West, which started their political affiliation. Bracken himself stood for parliament, being elected to the House of Commons in 1929 for the London constituency of North Paddington. Many of his early magazine stories included a political flavour and he commissioned articles from a wide range of politicians such as Churchill and Mussolini. Business and politics permanently overlapped in his life, in a similar way to the career of his occasional friend Lord Beaverbrook. He needed politicians for stories and they needed the publicity given by his publications.
Bracken's physique was memorable. Very tall and fit, immaculately dressed, with a shock of long unruly red hair, he was also very short-sighted and wore thick lenses. He tended to converse in lengthy monologues. To many this was a repellent combination, but he could also memorize an impressive array of gossip, facts and anecdotes, and his publishing career was always successful.
A supporter of Winston Churchill from 1923, when Churchill was out of parliament and in the political wilderness, in the 1930s he was invited to join Churchill's "Other Club". Their lives changed from the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. When Churchill became prime minister in May 1940 Bracken helped in moving him in to Downing Street. Bracken was sworn of the Privy Council in 1940, despite his lack of ministerial experience. He served as, and was regarded as an excellent Minister of Information from 1941 to 1945 after a short stint as Churchill's Parliamentary Private Secretary. However, he was unpopular with his civil servants, who cheered when news of his defeat in the 1945 General Election came through.
One of the Ministry of Information employees with whom Bracken was unpopular was George Orwell, who under his given name of Eric Blair worked under Bracken on the BBC's Indian service. In some ways the character of Big Brother in Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was based on Bracken. Bracken was customarily referred to by MOI employees by his initials, B.B., the same initials as the character Big Brother. Orwell also resented the war time censorship and need to manipulate information which he felt came from the highest levels of the MOI and from Bracken's office in particular. Ironically, much of the attempts to manipulate the media actually came from Government Departments other than Bracken's, and Bracken himself constantly resisted his Prime Minister's desire to control the press. He was particularly vociferous in his support for the independence of the BBC, having re-structured the financial basis of the broadcaster and streamlined war-time foreign propaganda activities away from domestic reporting and news functions. Bracken's inside track with the Prime Minister was the source of intense envy and anger within both the civil service, and senior Conservative ranks. Churchill's son Randolph, also possibly envious of Bracken's close personal and political relationship with his father, summarized the jealous antipathy towards Bracken when he dismissed him as "the fantasist whose fantasies had come true". Bracken's ability to wear his war-time hair-shirt inside out ruffled a lot of feathers, and when strategies had to be implemented, very few prisoners were taken.
Assists in selection of Churchill
In two matters relating to Churchill, Bracken can be said to have played a key part behind the scenes. When Neville Chamberlain prepared to resign in May 1940, his successor would be Churchill or Lord Halifax. The political issue at stake at the time was the formation of a National British Government, and the particular dilemma surrounded which of Chamberlain's potential successors would be acceptable to the Labour Party. The view in Churchill's mind was that the Labour Party would not support him, and he had therefore agreed with Chamberlain to nominate Lord Halifax. When Bracken became aware of Churchill's agreement to nominate Lord Halifax, he moved heaven and earth to convince Churchill that the Labour Party would indeed support him as Chamberlain's successor, and that Lord Halifax's appointment would hand certain victory to Hitler. Bracken advised Churchill tactically to say nothing when the three met to arrange the succession. After a deafening silence during which Churchill was expected to nominate Halifax, the latter obligingly ruled himself out and Churchill was put forward as Britain's War-time Prime Minister, having avoided any appearance of disloyalty to Chamberlain.
Support from USA 1940-41
An interesting insight into the nature of the relationship between Churchill and Bracken is found in Churchill's history of World War II. Churchill writes that he had received telegrams from Washington about Harry Hopkins, "stating that he was the closest confidant and personal agent of the President. I therefore arranged that he should be met by Mr. Brendan Bracken on his arrival." The strong suggestion, of course, is that Churchill arranged, as is diplomatic custom, for Hopkins to be met by the person who was his closest counterpart in British government, and that Bracken often played the role of confidant and personal agent to Churchill. After Bracken met Hopkins' flight on 9 January 1941, Churchill and Hopkins forged a close association. According to Lysaght's biography, Bracken and Hopkins had met in America in the late 1930s, and this personal tie helped speed the decision to assist Britain nearly a year before the USA actually entered the war. Churchill's references to Bracken's role in his political and personal life are noticeable by the stunning nature of their absence. Several intriguing explanations exist for this ranging in possibility from a situation where Bracken merged with the fabric of Churchill's life to the extent of becoming invisible, to the more likely situation in which Churchill agreed to comply with Bracken's unique quest for no personal glory. The latter might be summarized by Bracken's apparent motive: "True hero worship is an entirely selfless process."
In 1945 Bracken was briefly made First Lord of the Admiralty but lost the post in the fall of the Churchill government to Clement Attlee's Labour Party. He himself lost his North Paddington seat but returned as MP for Bournemouth in a November 1945 by-election. He was a relentless critic of the Labour Government's policy of nationalisation and the retreat from Empire. At the 1950 general election he was returned for Bournemouth East and Christchurch, a seat he held until the general election the following year. In early 1952 he was elevated to the peerage as Viscount Bracken, of Christchurch in the County of Southampton, but never used the title nor sat in the House of Lords. He retired from publishing in 1956.
His most famous business achievement was in merging the Financial News into the Financial Times in 1945. The latter was published from Bracken House, clad in pink stone to match the colour of the paper, just east of St. Paul's Cathedral, which was remodelled in 1989. At this stage he was also publishing The Economist. In 1926 he was the founding editor of The Banker magazine and they still name their respected annual Bank of the Year awards "Brackens" in his honour. The Banker also features a regular column called "Bracken", focusing on providing views and perspectives on how to improve the global financial system, which reflects Brendan Bracken's enormous contribution to open discussion and understanding of international finance.
Such was Brendan Bracken's larger than life persona that he both intimidated and inspired many of his contemporaries. In one lifetime, to have been the model for the brash Rex Mottram in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and George Orwell's Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four, speaks to the immense contemporary size of the man himself. Because he destroyed all of his personal papers, the memory of his life has been open to mis-interpretation, mis-understanding, and historical neglect. If he had lived as a media mogul and politician in modern times, he would have been surrounded by an army of image and pr consultants. But Brendan Bracken did not appear to care about his personal image as much as he cared about fashioning an opportunity to contribute on the political and economic stage of his generation. Though he dated several glamorous ladies in the 1920s, including the well-connected starlet and model Penelope Dudley Ward, he never married. He died of esophageal cancer on 8 August 1958, aged 57. A former Catholic, he refused the last rites of the Church despite efforts by his nephew Fr. Kevin Bracken, a Trappist monk in Bethlehem Abbey, Portglenone, to persuade him to return to the Catholic faith. "The Blackshirts of God were after me" Bracken reportedly said, "but I sent them packing!" The Viscountcy died with him.
2010 television documentary
On 21st December 2010 RTÉ One broadcast an hour long TV documentary about his life, entitled "Brendan Bracken - Churchill's Irishman." The programme was made by Spanish Production company Marbella Productions, in association with RTÉ, and examined Bracken's life through photographs, interviews, rare archive footage and dramatic reconstructions, and told of his importance in the areas of British political and journalistic life, despite his attempt to hide from history by having all his papers burned after his death.