Peter Frost remembers a Tory home secretary most of us would much rather forget
Leon Brittan, the home secretary who organised Thatcher’s national army of police to wage war on the miners in the 1984-85 strike, has died aged 75.
It is not clear whether history will remember him as as the home secretary who did Thatcher’s dirty work, as a paedophile or someone who covered up for them, or even as a rapist.
Could he even have fallen victim to Establishment anti-semitism, particularly from the spooks in British intelligence? Let’s look at the facts.
Brittan was born to parents of Lithuanian Jewish descent. He was educated at the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was president of the Cambridge Union Society and chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association.
After standing for Parliament in North Kensington in 1966 and 1970 and losing both times, he opted for the safer seat of Cleveland and Whitby in February 1974.
Between 1979 and 1981 he was minister of state at the Home Office, and was then promoted to chief secretary to the Treasury. He warned cabinet colleagues that spending on social security, health and education would have to be cut “whether they like it or not.”
At the 1983 election he was elected MP for Richmond and then promoted to home secretary — the youngest since Sir Winston Churchill.
In September of that year he gave MI5 permission to tap the telephone of John Cox, vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a member of the Communist Party.
During the miners’ strike of 1984–85 he repeatedly attacked the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers. Thatcher’s government had carefully planned for a miners’ strike and a Whitehall committee had been meeting in secret since 1981 to prepare for a long dispute.
As soon as the strike began in 1984 it was home secretary Brittan who set up a National Reporting Centre in New Scotland Yard to co-ordinate intelligence and the moving of police officers between forces. This led to unprecedented police violence on the picket line.
In the same year, Brittan headed the government’s crisis committee during a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London. Thatcher and foreign secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe were out of the country.
In 2014 secret government papers pertaining to the incident disclosed that British officials including Brittan were twice warned by Libya that the protest would turn violent, hours before police officer Yvonne Fletcher was killed at the scene.
Thatcher demoted Brittan in September 1985, as she felt that he was “not getting the message across on television.” One example was his clumsy handling of the government’s censorship of a BBC television programme on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Brittan banned the documentary, At the Edge of the Union, using the BBC board of governors to rule that it could not be shown. Hundreds of television and radio workers took strike action against this blatant government censorship.
He resigned as trade and industry secretary in January 1986 over the Westland Helicopters affair. He had authorised the leaking of a letter that had accused Michael Heseltine of inaccuracies in his campaign for Westland to be rescued by a European consortium. Thatcher favoured a deal with the US.
Jonathan Aitken wrote of Brittan’s resignation: “It was a combination of a witch hunt and a search for a scapegoat — tainted by an undercurrent of anti-semitism.”
Brittan was paid off with a knighthood and shipped off to Europe as a commissioner. His British parliamentary career was over. In 1995 he became European commissioner both for trade and for external affairs, also serving as a vice-president of the European commission.
He resigned in 1999 amid accusations of fraud. During his time in the role one prominent member of his office was a young Nick Clegg.
After being made a baron in February 2000, Brittan — like all Tory ex-ministers — started to collect lucrative non-executive jobs.
He was vice-chairman of UBS AG Investment Bank, non-executive director of Unilever and member of the international advisory committee for Total Oil. In August 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed him trade adviser to the British government.
Throughout his long career dark stories clung to him, hinting at a deep involvement in paedophilia and various cover-ups.
In 1984 he had been handed a 40-page dossier by Tory MP Geoffrey Dickens. The file detailed alleged paedophile activity in 1980s Westminster and listed many members of the Establishment as perpetrators.
That explosive dossier is believed to have named members of the royal family, government ministers including at least one ex-prime minister, as well as other politicians, celebrities, high-ranking police officers, civil servants and military figures.
It gave details of them of visiting brothels and of abusing, and perhaps even murdering, young men and women.
Today the dossier has conveniently disappeared, along with other files on organised child abuse previously held by the home office. The long-promised inquiry into this cesspit of Establishment abuse has still not begun its deliberations.
Two chairwomen have resigned — the second, Dame Fiona Woolf, because of her close relationship with Leon Brittan and his wife.
Brittan claimed that he had no recollection of any of the content of the dossier. Last year he reluctantly admitted that he had met Dickens at the Home Office and had written to him on March 20 1984, explaining what had been done in relation to the files.
A Home Office review in 2013 found that copies of Dickens’s material had “not been retained,” but decided that Brittan had acted appropriately in dealing with the allegations — a classic Whitehall whitewash.
In October 2014, Labour MP Jim Hood said in a debate on the miners’ strike that: “The current exposé of Leon Brittan — the then home secretary — with accusations of improper conduct with children will not come as a surprise to striking miners of 1984.”
In June 2014 Brittan was interviewed under caution by police in connection with the alleged rape of a 19-year-old student in his London flat in 1967. The case was ongoing at the time of his death, and will now never be resolved.
So how will we finally judge Leon Brittan? We’ll never know for sure — not unless we find that long-lost dossier.
First published Morning Star 28 January 2015