Quite a few left wing firebrands from the 1970s and 1980s have now been forgotten. Who can remember Red Robbo, Red Ted and, pictured below, Red Ron? Yes, such a person existed! Red Ron was Ron Brown, MP for Leith and fierce opponent of Margaret Thatcher. He got quite a reputation for being suspended repeatedly from the House of Commons, particularly on one occasion where he chucked the mace to the ground during a debate on the Poll Tax in 1988.
Brown had a touch of John Knox about him. If you look at the picture below of him confronting Thatcher hand raised, you could almost imagine Knox reproaching Mary Queen of Scots. The animosity would have been on a pretty similar level. In 1982, Thatcher visited Scotland where she knew her popularity was nosediving. In fact, this was the start of Scotland’s marked drift from the Tories only reversed in recent years. Brown confronted Thatcher but was rapidly bundled to the ground by police – despite being a sitting MP.
Well, he certainly ended up being a sitting MP after the police had finished with him!
In the polarised political atmosphere of the 1980s, leading left-wingers often had to be larger-than-life characters to withstand the torrent of abuse from the tabloids and the authorities. But this did sometimes leave them as flawed individuals. And not always as politically astute as they should have been – especially on foreign affairs. Brown’s visits to Libya and Afghanistan look spectacularly ill-judged in retrospect.
Brown was from a solidly working-class background. Then not so much of a novelty as it is today with parliament more socially exclusive than ever. As an electrician in his younger years, Brown suffered burns to his face and hands only repaired by plastic surgery. Undaunted, he began his political career in local government where he established a reputation for defying the party whips.
His career ended with a tawdry scandal involving an acrimonious break-up with a mistress where he trashed her flat. He was found guilty of criminal damage and fined. Then the Labour Party expelled him at a time when many militants were being shown the door by leader Neil Kinnock. This was the start of the party’s shift to the right and eventual adoption of Tony Blair’s ‘third way’. Brown ran as a candidate for the Scottish Socialist Party but failed to be elected.