Churchill's Irish fixer was the model for Big Brother
A new film uncovers the life of a man who became the wartime PM's most trusted aide, writes Jerome O'Reilly
He was the secretive Irishman who became Winston Churchill's political aide, spin doctor and confidant. But the mercurial Brendan Bracken, who created the Financial Times and eventually became a viscount and a peer of the realm, did his utmost to conceal his republican pedigree.
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 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. It means that we still know little enough about the man.
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.
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 he did not think that he, a member of the Lords, was in the best position to form a government. It was, said 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.
Born in 1901 in Templemore, Co Tipperary, Brendan Bracken was the son of builder Joseph Kevin Bracken, a member of the Fenian Brotherhood and a founder of the GAA, and Hannah Agnes Ryan. 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, (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. It was a pretence he kept up for the rest of his life. He died, a single man, of throat cancer at 57, by then ennobled as Viscount Bracken - but he never used the title, nor sat in the Lords.
In business, he was responsible for merging the Financial News into the Financial Times in 1945.