Date of Birth: 25 September 1939, Cricklewood, North London, UK
Birth Name: Leon Brittan
Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, who has died aged 75, overcame a humiliating end to his ministerial career during the Westland crisis to become the longest-serving and most effective of Britain’s European commissioners.
Widely respected for his intellect and capacity for hard work, Leon Brittan made his reputation in the early 1980s as a formidable administrator with an unrivalled grasp of the details of his brief, a talent that had previously made him a successful QC.
Suddenly brought into Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet in 1981 promoted over the head of Nigel Lawson to chief secretary to the Treasury he proved highly effective in imposing detailed control on public spending, an intellectually demanding task that his predecessor, John Biffen, had found too unpleasant (or too difficult).
As home secretary after the 1983 election, Brittan imported a raft of ideas for updating criminal justice, including stiffer sentences, and easing restrictions on using tape-recorded witness statements and on independent prosecutions. He produced many reforming Bills and tried to streamline Home Office bureaucracy; senior officials reckoned him the only post-war home secretary to realise what was wrong with the department and try to remedy it.
Brittan was one of the few Cabinet members who could privately persuade Mrs Thatcher that her initial reaction on a particular issue was wrong, and his willingness to argue with No 10 contradicted the popular caricature of him as a placeman.
Yet though he was one of the most gifted of her ministers, he was short on political judgment and sensitivity. Myopic-looking and unashamedly intellectual, Brittan’s manner was widely interpreted, especially by press commentators, as patronising, even contemptuous. In her memoirs Mrs Thatcher recorded: “Everybody complained about his manner on television, which was aloof and uncomfortable.”
Where the public saw arrogance and coldness, Brittan’s friends noted precisely the opposite: a shy, humorous and exceptionally kind man and, improbable as it might have seemed to outsiders, the object of real affection. Even in a wider circle he was notable for being completely free of malice or spite. Yet the criticism that he was too clever for his own good and short on common sense dogged his career.
These failings came to the fore in 1985 when, in response to rising Tory anger at “Left-wing bias” in the BBC, Brittan tried to pressure the corporation’s governors to prevent the screening of a Real Lives documentary on Northern Ireland, an effort which, since he did not succeed, left him looking simultaneously authoritarian and ineffective. This episode prompted Mrs Thatcher to move him, against his wishes, to the Department of Trade and Industry in September 1985. She was also influenced by backbench Tory complaints that Home Office questions, in which Brittan was pitted against Labour’s Gerald Kaufman, who shared his Baltic Jewish origins, was “like being in a foreign country”.
The DTI should have been an easier billet, well suited to Brittan’s backroom talents, and his speech at the party conference soon after brought him an unexpected standing ovation. But then came Westland.
The Westland company of Yeovil, Britain’s only helicopter manufacturer, was in financial trouble and sought to be bailed out by Sikorsky, its American counterpart. The Sikorsky bid ran into immediate opposition from the defence secretary, Michael Heseltine, who claimed that the Americans would turn Westland into a “metal-bashing operation” and suggested the company look for a European buyer.
When Heseltine convened a meeting of the national armaments directors of France, Italy and Germany, as well as Britain, to agree a policy whereby they would only buy helicopters designed and built in Europe, he put himself at loggerheads not only with the Westland board but with the prime minister and her trade and industry secretary, who felt it was wrong for the government to prevent any particular solution to Westland’s problems.
This disagreement erupted into a political crisis, with the arguments played out in Parliament and the press, mostly to the advantage of Heseltine, lobbying frantically behind the scenes. Then extracts were leaked from a confidential letter in which the solicitor-general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, accused the defence secretary of “material inaccuracies” in the presentation of his case.
Following Heseltine’s dramatic resignation in mid-Cabinet on January 9 1986, it emerged that Brittan had authorised the leak, albeit with what he thought was No 10’s consent. On January 24 he offered his own resignation.
Brittan’s departure at the height of the worst internal crisis of Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was the direct result of his loyalty to a prime minister he regarded as a friend. Inevitably, he was seen as the fall guy, a necessary sacrifice to save Mrs Thatcher herself. “He meekly accepted the role of scapegoat,” Lawson recalled. “Had he made public all he knew, she could not possibly have survived.” Perhaps in acknowledgment of this, Mrs Thatcher broke with tradition in expressing a clear desire in her reply to Brittan’s letter of resignation to have him back in Cabinet as soon as possible. But he was never rehabilitated, and in 1989 left for Brussels.
Leon Brittan was born on September 25 1939, the younger son of Lithuanian Jews who arrived in the country as refugees in 1927 and settled in Cricklewood, where his father was a doctor. Leon’s elder brother, Sam, would become a respected columnist on the Financial Times.
From Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, Leon won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. His ambition to succeed in both law and politics was clear: he gained double Firsts in English and Law and became both president of the Union and chairman of the university Conservative association. After a scholarship year at Yale, he was called to the Bar by Inner Temple in 1962 and became a leading libel lawyer, taking silk in 1978.
Two years before, Brittan secured a change in the law of contempt of court in a case that involved The Daily Telegraph. Its reporter Nicholas Comfort had named a ward of court in the paper, and the Official Solicitor brought prosecutions for contempt against the Telegraph and the Slough Evening Mail, which had repeated the story.
After a three-day trial in the High Court both papers were found guilty. The Telegraph’s counsel advised the paper to accept the conviction, but Brittan, representing the Slough Evening Mail, insisted on appealing and so both papers had to contest it. He won, convincing Lord Denning that it was ridiculous there was no permitted defence against a charge of contempt. In the interval he told Comfort, whom as a young barrister he had taught at Trinity, “I don’t think we got this far in the syllabus, did we?”
After being rejected for 14 safe Conservative seats, Brittan was elected MP for Cleveland and Whitby in February 1974. The seat disappeared in boundary changes and in 1979 he won the far-flung Yorkshire farming constituency of Richmond, representing it until he resigned to join the Commission in 1989; the future Conservative leader William Hague took his place.
Brittan’s initial reluctance to go to Brussels owed much to his affection for his constituency. He may have been an improbable countryman but he became an enthusiastic one, with a passion for cricket. Whatever his defects as a national politician, he was a popular local MP.
Within two years of entering the Commons, Brittan became Opposition spokesman on devolution, then on industrial relations, and played an important part in framing Conservative trade union reforms. In Mrs Thatcher’s first government of 1979, he became minister of state at the Home Office under Willie Whitelaw who, with Sir Geoffrey Howe, became his main political supporter and mentor.
It was Whitelaw who recommended him to Mrs Thatcher as a suitable replacement for Biffen in 1981. His promotion as the youngest member of her Cabinet was announced at a party given by Sir Geoffrey in No 11 Downing Street to mark Brittan’s marriage to Diana Peterson, a divorcee with two teenage daughters. Lady Brittan would go on to chair the National Lottery Charities Board and be appointed DBE.
Although Brittan’s appointment as a commissioner was reckoned by some of his friends a poor and belated consolation for his loyalty to Mrs Thatcher, Brussels gave full rein to his talents. Serving first as competition commissioner, he demonstrated not only a lawyer’s mastery of detail but also a steely determination to force through the principles of fair competition against entrenched national interests.
His ability to plough through and absorb mind-numbing detail won him the admiration of staff at the Commission, and his willingness to learn languages (he became fluent in French and German) earned admiration from colleagues and European politicians; the president of the Commission, Jacques Delors, rated him “one of the most brilliant men I have ever met”.
In 1993 he was appointed vice-president of the Commission and given the crucial trade portfolio, a job that pitched him into the centre of the tortuous Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt). Brittan’s mastery of detail proved crucial in reaching agreement with the Americans later that year, a personal triumph which saw his reputation as a high-powered if aloof intellectual transformed into that of a deal-maker on a grand scale.
Yet Brittan’s successes won him few friends; his unshakeable faith in the power of reason left him little sympathy for emotionally tinged arguments in favour of French farming. The Gatt negotiations were notable for an explosive encounter with the French foreign minister Alain Juppé in which Brittan saw off French attempts to scupper the EC-US Blair House Accord limiting farm export subsidies.
Although this triumph kept the Uruguay round alive, the French never forgave him. “He was good,” a German official at the showdown was quoted as saying, “but maybe he was too good.”
French opposition effectively sank Brittan’s hopes of succeeding Delors, and put paid to his hopes of the crucial eastern Europe portfolio after the installation of Jacques Santer. Santer had assured Brittan the job was his, but at the last moment voted for the Dutchman Hans van den Broek, a volte-face which caused Brittan to consider resignation.
Brittan also paid the price for growing Conservative Euroscepticism under Mrs Thatcher and her successor John Major. He sought to counter this in speeches and articles despite personal attacks in the British press, some of which bordered on the anti-Semitic, and a relationship with Major which was no better than cool. But his support for Britain’s entry into the EMS and the Euro put him increasingly at odds with his own party and with sentiment in the country.
Brittan was among the commissioners who resigned en masse in 1999 following allegations of nepotism against their French colleague Edith Cresson. Within days of clearing his desk at the Berlaymont he was appointed vice-chairman of the merchant bank Warburg.
The last year of his life was overshadowed by rumours, including the allegation that as home secretary he had failed to act on a “dossier” prepared by the Conservative MP Geoffrey Dickens detailing alleged child abusers within the British establishment.
Brittan published two books on Britain’s role in Europe, The Europe We Need (1994) and A Diet of Brussels (2000), arguing for the nation to become more fully engaged.
Leon Brittan was sworn of the Privy Council in 1981, knighted in 1989 and created a life peer in 1999.