The Home Secretaries (21): Sir Henry Brooke

NPG x86502; Henry Brooke, Baron Brooke of Cumnor by Elliott & FrySir Henry Brooke, 1962-64

Conservative, under Macmillan and Home

After being educated at Marlborough, like his predecessor Rab Butler, Sir Henry Brooke took a first in classics from Balliol College, Oxford. Shortly after, he joined the Conservative Research Department upon its foundation in 1929; he was elected to London County Council before winning a by-election in 1938. In the Norway debate, he made a strident plea in defence of Chamberlain. He lost his seat in 1945, and served as leader of the Conservative group on the LCC until 1951. Even after winning Hampstead and returning to the Commons in 1951, he remained active in London politics.

In 1954, he was made financial secretary to the Treasury and then, in 1957, minister of housing and local government. As such, he was responsible for implementing the Clean Air Act, which ended the notorious London smog. The Rent Act, which abolished rent controls, was more contentious. On the one hand, it brought many homes onto the private rental market. On the other, it allowed rents to rise sharply and opened up the way for landlords to try to force out traditional working class tenants and rent houses by the room. This was exploited by slum landlords to rent out rooms at higher rents in cities, often to new immigrants. The worst of these were the likes of Peter Rachman: Rachmanism became the shorthand for the worst of the slum landlords.

In 1961, Brooke returned to the Treasury, in the new post of chief secretary. He was not there for long. When Macmillan demoted Butler in the Night of the Long Knives, he turned to Brooke as a safe pair of hands at the Home Office. It was not a good choice. As recent events have shown, home secretaries can easily be undone by events, and Brooke turned out to be accident-prone. A series of bizarre stories engulfed him: he deported the controversial American comedian Lenny Bruce twice in three days, for example. Others were tragic: in the wake of the Profumo affair, he pushed through the prosecution of Stephen Ward, who then took his own life. He mishandled the Carmen Bryan case. Bryan was a young Jamaican woman who was convicted for shoplifting goods to the value of £2 and under the terms of newly passed Commonwealth Immigrants Act, she was to be deported. Having imprisoned her for six weeks, he backed down. The visit of the politically controversial king and queen of Greece saw street protests in London. Brooke blamed the protests on ‘a handful of communists, anarchists, beatniks, and members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.’ Some protestors were imprisoned after they were attacked with a half brick by a half-mad police officer; in the subsequent trial, he and several of his colleagues committed perjury to ensure convictions. Brooke delayed the prisoners’ release for a whole year.

Brooke rejected any notions of reform in the law on prostitution and homosexuality. He also fell prey to the other besetting danger of the Home Office: Dangerous Dogs Act syndrome (see the article on Kenneth Baker to come). The popular press pontificates, then the home secretary legislates, and legislates in haste: something must be done, whether badly or not. The Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act and the Dangerous Drugs Act were both conceived in haste, and misconceived. The Malicious Damage Act reacted to the furore over mods and rockers, gangs of youths fighting in British cities and seaside resorts, to a singular lack of effect. He became one of the favourite targets of the satire boom.

Brooke was the last home secretary to send men to the gallows. Whilst at the Home Office, he concluded that the 1957 Homicide Act was unworkable, and likely to provide anomalous and unfair sentences. Being home secretary turned him into an abolitionist. By the time Sidney Silverman’s 1965 bill to abolish the death penalty came before the Commons, Brooke spoke in support of abolition. In doing so, he also warned of the difficulties that larger numbers of prisoners serving very long sentences would cause.

He was a decent man who found himself in a job that often consumes its office holders, and leading a department that requires a degree of detachment from what are often blinkered officials. If he struggled to rise above those limitations, he would hardly be the last home secretary of whom that might be said.

And here was Brooke being lampooned on That Was the Week that Was:

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Filed under 1918 and after Archive, Britain, The Home Secretaries

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