Wednesday, August 15, 2007

MP who trusted people, took chances, and got burned

SEVERAL hundred people attended the funeral in Edinburgh last week of the former Labour MP Ron Brown, who died aged 69 after being ill with liver failure. Well-liked by many people even if they didn't always agree with him, Ron Brown could perhaps have been better appreciated, as well as better advised, by some of us on the Left.

Ron earned the vituperation of the capitalist press and doubtless the bitter anger of the secret services, as well as the dismay of Labour leaders, by paying visits to the then pariah states of North Korea and Libya and the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan which was overthrown by the CIA-backed mujaheddin. Considering that the British government has made up with Gaddafi (it was left to the Scotsman to thank Brown for assisting Scots-Libyan trade) and seeing what has happened in Afghanistan, perhaps we can look on Ron Brown's initiatives with a kinder eye.

Ron's performance in grabbing the Mace during a 1988 parliamentary debate about supplementary benefits paid the unemployed did not trouble his Scottish constituents as much as it did his colleagues and the media hacks affecting outrage. "If that bauble or ornament is more important than all the struggle then there is something wrong with this party." he said, when Labour MPs took away the party whip from him for three months.

Though he paid the £1,500 bill for having dropped and damaged the baubie, he endeared himself to Leith folk by saying the unemployed in his constituency could have fixed it just as well and more cheaply. Further respect and popularity came when he and his wife May went to the sheriff court for defying the poll tax.

What did damage Ron's standing and support was the incident which led to an appearance in court charged with theft and damage to the flat of a former researcher and girlfriend at St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex. The newspapers made hay with headlines about him allegedly stealing the woman's knickers. He was cleared of theft, though found guilty of causing criminal damage. Those who did not know Ron chortled about the story, then might have forgotten it. (Julie Burchill, in her first column for the Times, managed to dig up the story but get the "culprit" wrong, accusing George Galloway, who promptly threatened to sue and got an apology).,12123,1170342,00.html

Those who did know Ron might have suspected a set-up, and certainly accepted his story that he had gone to her flat to retrieve some tapes, angrily confronted her, and in reaching to grab the cassettes from the sideboard, inadvertently picked up some items of underwear that happened to be next to them. These things happen, but it's not everyday they are given in a story to the police and the papers.

What upset friends and Labour Party supporters was that Ron had so fallen into Westminster ways as to make a fool of himself, letting down himself and his faithful wife and comrade May, who was a well-loved militant and party activist. Deselected by Labour, Ron soldiered on as MP till 1992, when he was defeated by the official candidate Malcolm Chisholm, though he still kept 4,000 votes. In 1999 he stood for the Holyrood parliament as a Scottish Socialist Party candidate.

I never knew Ron Brown well, more's the pity, but we met when I was in Scotland in 1968-9. He was a skilled engineer, and member of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers(AUEW), working in the Electricity Supply industry. He was a friend of a couple with whom I stayed, also called Brown, in Edinburgh. One Saturday evening me and Ron set off together with a Young Socialist comrade to sell our Workers Press paper around the pubs in Falkirk. About 10pm we were almost finished when the local constabulary intercepted us.

They were not sure whether to accuse us of taking the young lad into licensed premises or (since we swore he had remained on the doorstep with a collecting tin) of doing an unauthorised street collection. We were held in a cell while they deliberated and asked Edinburgh colleagues to check the addresses we had given (I gather Marie Brown, my "landlady", gave them a right fierce telling off for disturbing respectable folk after midnight). Rventually we were released without charge but so we didn't get back till the wee small hours of the morning. I particularly remember how Ron Brown was worried, indeed scared, as to what May would say when he got home.

A less amusing incident occurred about the time I was leaving Edinburgh. Ron had been sent to do some work at an electricity sub-station. Finding the gate locked but thinking the power had been turned off, he threw his tool bag over and was climbing over to join it when there was a flash. Severely burned, Ron spent some time in hospital, where even his children could not recognise him. Despite plastic surgery he remained scarred for life.

As a Leith councillor, Ron not only campaigned for local residents but caused a stir by asking that Edinburgh city council erect a plaque to honour the birthplace of the great Irish socialist James Connolly. The area has more than its share of Orangemen, but Connolly has been commemorated.

Due to a misunderstood remark in conversation with a colleague, I did not realise at first that the Ron Brown in parliament was the one I knew; but about 1986 we did meet, during a gathering at the Commons about Palestine, and Ron asked me to join him afterwards for a drink in the Members Bar. When we arrived there a young woman who seemed in a merry mood insisted on helping us off with our coats. Ron explained that she was his secretary. Something about her performance seemed incongruous and artificial. It made me feel uneasy, and Ron seemed slightly ill at ease introducing her.

Still we had our drink, and another MP said hello, then moved on. Ron wtold me he was staying in Stockwell, south London and would be more than than willing to speak at any public meetings if Workers Press invited him. I reported this back to the comrades, but nobody seemed interested. Looking back, I think the rebel MP was feeling isolated and wanted the opportunity to get out of Westmininster and back among left-wing activists for an evening.
Maybe we could have helped him get his feet back on the ground, politically and socially.

The last time I bumped into Ron Brown must have been towards the end of his parliamentary career. It was on a Summer evening, outside the Red Lion on Whitehall, where MPs sneak off to get a drink away from Parliament. We had a pint, and Ron spoke sadly, almost sympathetically about his ex-researcher/ girlfriend/ nemesis, saying other MPs told him she was a plant, but he thought she was a just a silly girl who did not realise what she was getting into. I don't know about that, but I think Ron Brown was a good working class socialist, and probably not the first or last who went adrift in the alien atmosphere at Westminster, not realising what they had got into.

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