Effective interpersonal communication skills: The Case of Brendan Bracken

“The fantasist whose dreams came true”

(Lord Randolph Churchill)

The world has known many great survivors and certainly our protagonist in this case, Brendan Bracken, was one of them. Survivors have made a tremendous contribution not only in the world of business and the professions but also in the theatre and literary worlds as well. Bracken House stands firm and proud in the City of London as a permanent monument to our great survivor. On the other side of the river, the Financial Times building on Southwark Bridge Road is another reminder as Bracken’s statute stares almost eternally on all who enter.

But who was this extraordinary personality who apparently arrived out of nowhere and left his stamp on the world he found himself in and departed at the age of 55? Indeed, does Lord Randolph Churchill description of Brendan Bracken above put our protagonist into some prospective for you? 

Winston Churchill and Brendan Bracken during World War ll

Bracken’s physique was remarkable.[1] He was very tall and straight with long wavy red hair. He always looked fit, energetic and, in fact, found no stamina difficulties in running two successful careers simultaneously. As he was short-sighted, he had to wear glasses all his life. He had an attractive, confident and warm manner of speaking which suggests that he could be sensitive to others when he needed to be. He always appeared well dressed.

Bracken was clearly focused on his duel career of publishing and politics. He knew the detail of everything he did and remained focused to his objectives. This focus can be seen in the way he was not prepared to spend time in government ministries away from the excitement of the decision-making centre of Number 10, Downing Street.

Bracken was a master of the English language and had a remarkable memory for facts and data about people and events which was of tremendous aid to him in both the publishing business and politics. He remembered faces and names. He used this extraordinary physique and language masterly and memory to great advantage.

Coming in from ‘shadow’ land

Churchill once described Bracken to a friend as “…a brilliant young Australian of quite exceptional powers and vitality”.[2] Was it not strange that the prime minister especially in a time of war was unaware of Bracken’s background? Were the British Security Services unaware that Brendan Bracken was born in Templemore in County Tipperary in 1901 and not in Sidney, Australia in 1905? Or could it be that Winston Churchill was aware of this all along, and as he found Bracken both extraordinary in every way and very useful, so he did push the issue? The records don’t reveal an answer. After all it was a period for bizarre individuals; the head of Ml5, for example, during these years was Stewart Menzies who certainly was not the conventional figure one would have imagined to hold this position.

Bracken’s father, Joseph Kevin Bracken, was a well-off man. He owned quite a lot of properties and a small estate in Tipperary. When his first wife died he remarried and fathered four children in his second marriage one of which is our protagonist. However, he died of cancer at the age of 55 when Brendan was only 3. It was an event that may very well have affected him later in life much more than people have thought.

The family finally resettled in Dublin and his mother remarried. Brendan was sent to O’Connell’s school where he was later expelled for bad behaviour. On the advice of a Jesuit in Dublin, Bracken was then sent to a Jesuit boarding school at Mungret in Limerick.[3] Unfortunately, he didn’t settle there either. His mother, in apparent desperation, sent him to live with a relative in Australia where he was to remain for three years. It was in Australia where he got his first taste in the newspaper business. He sold advertising space and learnt a lot about the management of people in a family run business.

On his return to Dublin in 1919 he found the country in turmoil due to the War of Independence (1919-1921).  Like his mother, he was a unionist and had little time for the Irish Republicanism of his father. He wasted little time in Dublin and settled in Liverpool and found a job as an assistant teacher at the Liverpool Collegiate School describing himself as Australian and as a graduate from Sidney. From 1919 onwards, he usually described himself as Australian.

While at the school in Liverpool, he met and was befriended by Montagu Randall, the headmaster of Winchester College. According to a genealogical survey of the peerage of Britain, Bracken was a teacher at Winchester College, Hampshire, England in 1919.[4] However, there is absolutely no evidence to support this entry as the evidence shows he was in Liverpool at the time working at the Collegiate School. What is reported in Charles Lysaght and Andrew Boyle’s biographies is that he visited Winchester College on a number of occasions. It is probably a case of Bracken beefing up his C.V. to gain credibility among his peers and colleagues and later making his write-up in the peerage records look good.

Perhaps it was on one of these visits to Winchester that got the idea that he needed to be part of the English public school system[5] to be respected by those he intended to mix with? The following year, styling himself as Brendan Randall Bracken (incorporating the name of his Winchester friend), an Australian whose parents had been killed in an accident, he applied to Sedbergh, a public school in the north of England. He entered the school the following autumn giving his age as 15 (he, in fact, was 19 at this stage) paying one term in advance. In fact, he only stayed one term but he got what he wanted. As very few people would know the details of his stay, he was now openly used the name of Sedbergh and wore the school tie.[6]

Building a new career in publishing

After leaving Sedbergh, Bracken taught at Bishop Stortford College before making his way to London where he obviously always intended to end up.  He reentered the publishing business and got a job selling advertising space on the Empire Review. Bracken did well at selling and making contacts; his extraordinary physical appearance and ability to network helped him establish himself in the publishing world. He was just brilliant at networking and presenting himself (with his new identity, of course). For example, J. L. Gavin the editor of the “Observer”, was apparently so impressed that he had no problem in responding the Bracken’s desire to be introduced to Winston Churchill. This was in 1921 when Bracken was still only 20 years old. What resulted from this meeting was a life-time friendship between this young unknown 20 year old and the 47 year old Churchill.

Churchill and a taste of politics

Two years later, in 1923, Bracken campaigned for Churchill (still a Liberal) in Dundee. Churchill failed to get a parliamentary seat, and came in a poor fourth. Indeed, Churchill with Bracken’s help failed again in Leicester the following year. Churchill quarreled with his Liberal party colleagues and rejoined the Conservatives. They nominated him to stand as the Conservative candidate for the London constituency of Epping in the following election. This time Churchill with Bracken’s help was successful.

Churchill and Bracken were constantly seen together. One of the rumours that spread in London was that Bracken was Churchill’s natural son. When Mrs. Churchill, naturally upset, challenged her husband on the matter, Churchill simply smiled at her and said the dates didn’t match. Indeed, Mrs. Churchill took great exception to Bracken’s behaviour. Bracken used to sleep uninvited on her sofa with is shoes on and call her ‘Clemmie’ instead of her proper name.  She did not appreciate any of this.

Making his opportunities and taking them

Bracken (now as a young Australian educated at Sedburgh; the Sidney part was now dropped) was making his way in the publishing world while building up his relationships with Churchill and with many others within the conservative party. Again through his network of connections he was introduced to Major John Crosthwaite, a director of a publishing company called Eyre and Spottiswoode.  Crosthwaite and his wife were impressed by Bracken creative character. They published the Illustrated Review which was inclined towards a philosophical and even a religious outlook. The magazine’s circulation was quite small mainly due to its orientation. Oddly enough its editor, Hilaire Belloc, had just retired and Crosthwaite who needed someone to ignite some life into the magazine offered Bracken the vacated post. Bracken immediately accepted.

His first act was to rename the magazine, English Life and then he set about changing the character of the magazine making it fit the needs of a wider public. Winston Churchill became a regular contributor which not only brought him in money but also made Churchill and his brand of politics more widely known. As sales increased, so also did advertising. [7]

His new employers were greatly impressed by the progress of English Life so when Bracken suggested in 1926 to launch a new magazine called The Banker there was no opposition at all. Indeed, Bracken, now only 25, joined the board of directors as The Banker was being launched.

No sooner was Bracken a board member of Eyre and Spottiswoode, he persuaded them to acquire the Financial News and a half share in The Economist. Other acquisitions followed such as The Investor Chronicle, The Liverpool Journal of Commerce, and “The Practitioner”. Bracken was now 28 years of age.

He set himself up in a house in North Street, Westminster (a fashionable address). He furnished the house in period furniture and hired a butler, a cook, and a chauffeur. A large portrait of Edmund Burke starred down on all who entered. Burke, has been described as the father of the modern Conservative party, was like Bracken an Irish unionist and whose politics Bracken probably identified with. When Bracken acquired a country cottage in Bedfordshire around the same time, people wondered where he had got the money for this new lifestyle. This question as to the source of his wealth became a popular talking point in some circles in London from then on.

In 1929, at the age of 28, he got himself elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament for Paddington North in London. This was an extraordinary journey; just nine years after returning from Australia Bracken is financially secure, chairman of the board of a well-known and respectable publishing company, and influential enough to be selected for a London constituency by a party that placed so much emphasise on ‘social hierarchy’. Business was good but black clouds loomed in the distance. The Great Depression had arrived and many of his publications were in trouble.

His principal paper, The Financial News, had its difficulties too. But Bracken fought back and with a vigorous group of young journalists with creative writing styles and relevant articles oriented to the needs of their audience. Bracken, who had a wonderful command over the English language himself, pushed his journalist into a lively style of writing on topics that were more central to readers’ interest. He combined political based stories with business ones. The Financial News emerged unscathed.

Bracken understood one basic reality that politicians needed to publish in order to be known (remember there was no T.V) and he needed good articles to sell his various publications. He knew how to link other people’s needs with his own. In order to achieve this end, he built up a huge network of business and political acquaintances. For example, he became close to the influential Lord Beaverbrook who owned the Daily Express. The Express had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world[8] and exercised an enormous influence over the government of the day.

A career in politics

He remained on the backbenches with Winston Churchill for more than a decade. But one could say that their great moment in history came in early 1940. A meeting was called to decide on the replacement of the outgoing prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. The meeting was attended by Chamberlain, the outgoing prime minister, Lord Halifax, the Chief Whip, and Winston Churchill. Before the meeting took place, Bracken, always politically astute, managed to extract from Winston Churchill a promise to remain silent when the name of Halifax was proposed to be the next prime minister as he was in line for the job. Churchill kept to his promise and stayed silent and there was no argument.

Halifax, because he sat in the House of Lords and not the Commons, decided to hand the job to Churchill. [9]

Indeed, Churchill and many others were eternally grateful to Bracken for his sound advice.[10] Bracken’s genius lay in his ability to solve problems in a very human way; arranging matters for others while promoting his own self interest. Churchill offered him a ministerial office but Bracken, a clever man, really didn’t see himself spending his time on administrative matters like running a government ministry. He saw this for other people. He wanted to be where it mattered; he wanted to be part of the war action. He became Churchill political secretary and moved into Downing Street with the new prime minister. Churchill, who now came to rely on Bracken, overruled the King objections, and made Bracken a member of the Privy Council.[11] This gave Bracken a tremendous amount of influence in Downing Street in deciding who was to be in the government outside the small war cabinet.

Now he was free from what he would consider as the drudgery of running a ministry to be where he wanted to be, at the side of Churchill in the centre of power. Funnily enough Bracken, who never attended any church, showed a particular interest in the appointments of the 44 bishops of the Church of England which fell within the prime minister’s domain. It was strange as he professed, like Winston Churchill, to be a complete materialist with no interest at all in religion other than its usefulness as a political tool[12]. Churchill, for example, told his friend Violet Bonham Carter, “I believe death is the end” but Churchill, unlike Bracken, at least gave an impression of supporting the Church of England.[13]

But this situation of being a free agent in Downing Street did not last long. Over at the Ministry of Information, matters were getting out of hand. The newspaper editors and journalist were discontented with the amount of information they were receiving from the ministry. As the war developed, more censorship was introduced and an agreement with the communication world was needed. The channels of communication to the general public needed to be harnessed to the war effort. In 1941 Churchill decided to appoint Bracken as the new Minister of Information (propaganda, of course, was an important part of the ministry’s work). In other words, Bracken became the new ‘spin’ doctor for the war cabinet; a task which he performed very well and one which enhanced his professional credibility.

Although he stayed in this position until the end of the War, he knew very well that the administration of a whole department was not his forte so he gradually began to play a role (albeit a restricted one) in affairs over at N.10 Downing Street once again. This role usually centered round heading off endless confrontations between Churchill and his cabinet colleagues. He was very useful to Churchill. Bracken’s talent for mediating in conflicts on Churchill behalf especially towards the end of the war showed not only his ability as a mediator but his total loyalty to Churchill. This was especially true in defending Churchill against the rising stars of younger conservative politicians such as Macmillan and Butler. Again he gained the gratitude of Churchill. However, many of the younger set were questioning aspects of Bracken’s personal life but it didn’t seem to matter as his professional credibility remained high. Most people were still confused about his background, where his wealth came from, and who his real friends were, and the contradictions.

Before the 1945 election Bracken had became the First Lord of the Admiralty and was the leading conservative spokesperson at the general election of that year. Bracken invented a neat slogan “Labour will set up a totalitarian state”. But not only did Churchill lose the election and was forced into opposition but Bracken lost his own parliamentary seat in North Paddington as well. Many of the younger bloods in the party blamed Bracken on the defeat.

In the 1951, now aged 50, Bracken was elected once again but he refused to join the new conservative government headed by Churchill. Shortly after this he retired from politics altogether. He disagreed with the new Conservative move to the centre and especially on their acceptance of the welfare state. But he did performed one final favour for Churchill. He successfully covered up Churchill’s stroke in 1953. He brought together the press barons and successfully persuaded them not to report Churchill’s health problems. It was his final act of service to Churchill who had now reached the age of 79.

Out of office Bracken was highly critical of both his own party due to its move to the centre and of Labour in particular. He described John Maynard Keynes, the economist as: “the man who had made inflation respectable”. He went to write “Robin Hood or Al Capone was a respectable man compared with those who created a state of inflation”.[14] Finally Churchill offered him a seat in the House of Lords which he only outwardly accepted because of not wanting to seem ungrateful. He took the name of Viscount Bracken but never took his seat. He described the House of Lords as a morgue and, as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t ready to take his place there yet.

The Financial Times

Brendan Bracken was chairman of the Financial News from 1928 to 1940. The following year he became managing-director of the Economist. Although he had been a Member of Parliament from 1929, it was in 1941 that he first became involved directly in cabinet government. After the War his heart was no longer in politics. In 1945 he turned his mind to his last business adventure. One of which was becoming chairman of Union Corporation, a large South African mining company.

However, the gem of this period was the Financial Times. Horatio Bottomley launched the London Financial Guide in early 1888. One month later in February of the same year, it was renamed the Financial Times. Basically it was a four page journal written for the City of London financial community. It became the “Stockbroker’s Bible” and its only rival was the older and more daring Financial News owned by the Bracken Group (as it was now known). In 1945 these two papers were merged by Brendan Bracken to form a single six-page newspaper under the title of The Financial Times.

Each of the papers had their strengths. The Financial Times brought with it a higher circulation, while the Financial News provided enormous editorial talent. From 1945 onward Bracken became chairman of the newly recreated Financial Times, printed on its distinct pink paper.

Is personal integrity necessary?

Like Waugh’s character, Rex Mottram, in “Brideshead Revisted”, there was an air of mystery about Bracken. He cut off from his Irish root except for his relationship with his mother. He very occasionally visited her in Dublin but they were in continuous correspondence. Charles Lysaght gives some insight as what his mother was like. She was a confident and well presented lady and somewhat of a snob and she had financial resources to support this sense of importance. Although both her husbands had been engaged in the Republican cause, her politics were certainly not republican.

She was a Catholic Unionist. She believed in the union of the United Kingdom and Ireland with Ireland having its own autonomous government and official religion. Bracken, although a unionist, did not share his mother’s religious beliefs. Like his close friend Winston Churchill he had been profoundly impressed by Charles Darwin’s ideas and took a dislike to Christianity and more especially to the Catholic Church. Churchill had described himself as “a materialist to the tips of my finger”. It appears that Brendan Bracken adopted a similar attitude to life.[15]

It is suggested that the extra large portrait of Edmund Burke that hung in Bracken’s house in Lord North Street would also indicate this identification.  What is certain from her correspondence is that she was extremely interested in her son’s social and political connections across the Irish Sea and took a special interest in his relationship with Churchill. It is important to note here that Bracken, built a huge network of friendships and alliances. His complete identification with Winston Churchill was noted by all he came into contact with. He submerged his ego in many ways to Churchill’s wishes.

Many things were unexplained about Bracken. Most people still thought he was an Australian but a vocal few did suspect his Irish roots. Others were perplexed as to the origins of his wealth. Nobody could understand how he could afford his lifestyle especially at the beginning of his career in 1929. His personal papers, now at Churchill College Cambridge, tell us little about the sources of his wealth either. It was rather like the wealth of the Count of Monte-Cristo for many.

He left people confused. For example, Charles Lysaght tells us of some such occasions: “I was born there,” he said to one acquaintance as they passed Carlton House Terrace. On another occasion when Greenland’s Icy Mountains by Bishop Heber was played, he remarked to a friend, “My grandfather wrote that.” One another occasion in the summer of 1930 Bracken invited a party of friends to a palazzo in Venice. He told them the palazzo had been left to him by his mother. While at the Department of Information, Bracken told many of his colleagues that his brother had been killed in action at Narvik. This was completely untrue

There were many stories circulating about Bracken’s claims. But he was able to tolerate the conflict which these stories often caused. In one meeting in London in 1926, Bracken met Emmet Dalton face-to-face at a meeting between representative of the British and Irish governments. Dalton recognized him immediately from their school days in Dublin. To Dalton amazement, Bracken coolly said he didn’t know what Dalton was talking about as he was Australian. Unfortunately, Dalton insisted and created a rather embarrassing situation but Bracken in his usual way just wave the issue aside and was able to deal with it.[16]

The example of Bracken’s conflict with Lord Beaverbrook (of the Daily Express) also shows Brackens willingness to engage in conflict with others. Beaverbrook asked him about his origins while in the presence of others, Bracken reacted by cutting Beaverbrook and then refused to speak to Beaverbrook for a number of years. So no more questions were asked. Most people he came into contact with had similar such stories of his lies and deceptions but yet he was respected as his professional credibility was never in doubt by most people.

More confusion was caused by Bracken’s social life. He was a regular figure on the London social scene. This is where Evelyn Waugh would have met him. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the character Rex Mottram appears as a fast talking, social-climber from the colonies who knows everyone and can fix anything. Was this what the social set thought of Bracken?

One writer put this way, “when it came to girl friends, Bracken, like his prototype Rex Mottram, wanted the best in the market”. Girl friends were a source of networking. Pick the right one and doors would be opened. So it is little wonder that he should pick up with the daughter of the Prince of Wales mistress, Penelope Dudley Ward. Then a strange thing happened which added further confusion. After a lengthy relationship he let it be known publicly that she had turned down his marriage proposition. Bracken told people he would never marry because of this.[17] There were, of course, other rumors circulating as to why he didn’t marry. However there is no evidence in his records to support any of these claims.

Finally, another view of Bracken was expressed by Henry Channon’s diary “The 1922 committee was addressed by Brendan Bracken, that kind-hearted, garrulous, red-headed gargoyle, whom I have always considered a fraud, au fond: he is an indifferent minister, promising all and doing little – inoperative in fact and prejudiced”.[18]


Although personal life has little or nothing to do with one’s professional ability to do one’s job, it is interesting here as it was a factor in creating the mystery surrounding Bracken. But none of circulating stories affected his relationship with Winston Churchill. Even Mrs. Churchill found him more acceptable as the years passed by.

Bracken did not invent anything new nor did he found anything, but he was responsible for the birth and flourishing the Financial Times as we know it today. He was also responsible for the Banker and in a large measure for the continuance of the Economist. As Winston Churchill’s parliamentary secretary and later as Minister of Information, he was highly successful especially in convincing media people to cooperate with the government during the emergency years of the war. He used the media (including the BBC) successful and expertly in communicating government propaganda by bringing all the relevant people to agreement on what to communicate.

It was this ability to bring people together and match their needs that seemed to be at the core of his success both in politics and business.[19]

On the other hand, according to accepted wisdom, people who are honest, steady, and reliable have the edge in the communication process as they tend to be trusted. In creating this feeling of trust, the feelings people have about both person’s character and behaviour are inevitably linked. Where doubt, dispute or uncertainty exists, character, as a holistic concept becomes, according to Aristotle in his ‘Rhetoric’, the most important means of persuasion. However, in the case of Brendan Bracken, the majority of people obviously did not follow this line of thinking.

Bracken’s preposterous lies were renowned and when caught out, he simply laughed and waved people away. Some people such as Evelyn Waugh thought him scandalous but the majority took a more favourite view. Evelyn Waugh character, Rex Mottram, in Brideshead Revisited, was widely seen as being modeled on the character of Brendan Bracken but yet it didn’t seem to matter to his business or political colleagues. His professional credibility spoke for itself and together with an imposing personality and excellent interpersonal skills; society has given him his place in history.

Brendan Bracken died of cancer at the age of 57.


General References

  1. Lysaght, Charles Edward, Brendan Bracken: The Fantasist Whose Dreams Came True. Allen Lane, 1979
  2. Boyle, Andrew, Brendan Bracken: Poor, Dear Brendan. Hutchinson, 1974
  3. Official Papers at Churchill centre, Churchill College, Cambridge
  4. Waugh, Evelyn, Brideshead Revisited, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973

[1] http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendan_Bracken,_1st_Viscount_Bracken

[2] http://www.winstonchurchill.org. p.2

[3] Lysaght, Brendan Bracken, chapter on early years

[4] www.thepeerage.com/p14900.htm

[5] English public schools are private schools and should not be confused with the term state school.

[6] Later he returned to Sedbergh and became a member of its board of governors.

[7] It was at the end of these years at  Eyre and Spottiswoode that Bracken emerged as a person of wealth.

[8] The post-war daily circulation was 3,706,000 copies

[9] Both Boyle and Lysaght give  full accounts of this meeting as it is crucial to understanding rise to power

[10] Brendan Bracken: the fantasist Whose dreams Came True – Churchill Centre http://www.winstonchurchill.org  (p.128)

[11] ibrid

[12] See Douglas Russell’s book, “Lt. Churchill: 4th Queen’s Own Hussars”

[13] See Peter Hennessy on Winston Churchill and religion, The Tablet, June, 2008

[14] Brendan Bracken, by Charles Lysaght, www.winstonchurchill.org , p.128

[15] Charles Lysagh- http:/www.winstonchurchill.org

[16] Another incident is reported in Lysaght book in the house of Lady Lavary where Kevin O’Higgins, an Irish minister, was a frequent guest.  Bracken refused even to greet the minister when they met at the house.

[17] All types of rumors circulated about Bracken’s relationships especially those with young journalists.

[18] Henry (chips) Channon,  diary entry, 3rd February 1943. Channon, an American, living in the U.K. was a member of Parliament and basically opposed Winston Churchill’s war time policies.

[19] One of the chief propaganda experts on the German side was also Irish of an unsettled background, William Joyce. Joyce was known as Lord Haw-Haw) and ran the English language propaganda radio station, ‘Germany Calling’.