Leon Brittan

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The Lord Brittan of Spennithorne

portrait photograph of a 57-year-old Brittan
Brittan in 1996
Vice-President of the European Commission
In office
16 March 1999 – 15 September 1999
PresidentManuel Marín (acting)
Preceded byManuel Marín
Succeeded byNeil Kinnock
European Commission 1989–1999
European Commissioner for External Relations
In office
23 January 1995 – 15 September 1999
Preceded byFrans Andriessen
Succeeded byThe Lord Patten of Barnes
European Commissioner for Trade
In office
6 January 1993 – 15 September 1999
Preceded byFrans Andriessen
Succeeded byPascal Lamy
European Commissioner for Competition
In office
6 January 1989 – 6 January 1993
PresidentJacques Delors
Preceded byPeter Sutherland
Succeeded byKarel Van Miert
Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
In office
2 September 1985 – 24 January 1986
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byNorman Tebbit
Succeeded byPaul Channon
Home Secretary
In office
11 June 1983 – 2 September 1985
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byWilliam Whitelaw
Succeeded byDouglas Hurd
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
In office
5 January 1981 – 11 June 1983
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byJohn Biffen
Succeeded byPeter Rees
Minister of State for Home Affairs
In office
4 May 1979 – 5 January 1981
Prime MinisterMargaret Thatcher
Preceded byThe Lord Boston of Faversham
Succeeded byPatrick Mayhew
Member of Parliament
for Richmond (Yorks)
In office
9 June 1983 – 31 December 1988
Preceded byTimothy Kitson
Succeeded byWilliam Hague
Member of Parliament
for Cleveland and Whitby
In office
28 February 1974 – 13 May 1983
Preceded byJames Tinn
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Personal details
Leon Brittan

(1939-09-25)25 September 1939
North London, England
Died21 January 2015(2015-01-21) (aged 75)
London, England
Political partyConservative
Diana Peterson
(m. 1980)
Children2 (stepdaughters)
RelativesSamuel Brittan (brother)
EducationHaberdashers' Aske's Boys' School
Alma mater
AwardsKnight Bachelor (1989)

Leon Brittan, Baron Brittan of Spennithorne, PC, QC, DL (25 September 1939 – 21 January 2015) was a British Conservative politician and barrister who served as a European Commissioner from 1989 to 1999. As a member of Parliament from 1974 to 1988, he served several ministerial roles in Margaret Thatcher's government, including Home Secretary from 1983 to 1985.

Early life[edit]

Leon Brittan was born in London, the son of Rebecca (née Lipetz) and Joseph Brittan, a doctor. His parents were Lithuanian Jews who had migrated to Britain before the Second World War.[2]

He was educated at the Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was President of the Cambridge Union Society and Chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association. Brittan then studied at Yale University on a Henry Fellowship.[3] Sir Samuel Brittan, the economics journalist, was his brother.[2] The former Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind, and the music producer Mark Ronson, were cousins.[4][5]

Political career[edit]

MP and minister[edit]

After unsuccessfully contesting the constituency of Kensington North in 1966 and 1970, he was elected to parliament in the general election of February 1974 for Cleveland and Whitby, and became an opposition spokesman in 1976. He was made a Queen's Counsel in 1978. Between 1979 and 1981 he was Minister of State at the Home Office, and was then promoted to become Chief Secretary to the Treasury, becoming the youngest member of the Cabinet.[6] He warned cabinet colleagues that spending on social security, health and education would have to be cut "whether they like it or not".[7]

At the 1983 election Brittan was elected MP for Richmond. Following the election, he was promoted to Home Secretary, becoming the youngest since Churchill.[6] During the 1984–85 miners' strike, Brittan was a strong critic of the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers. He accused them of organising violence by flying pickets, whom he described as "thugs".[8] One factor in the defeat of the strike was central control of local police forces. As soon as the strike began, Brittan set up a National Reporting Centre in New Scotland Yard to co-ordinate intelligence and the supply of police officers between forces as necessary. Margaret Thatcher's government had carefully planned for a miners' strike and a Whitehall committee had been meeting in secret since 1981, to prepare for a long dispute.[9]

In 1984, after the murder of British police officer Yvonne Fletcher during a protest outside the Libyan embassy in London, Brittan headed the government's crisis committee as both Thatcher and the Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, were away at the time.[10] In January 2014, secret government documents released by the National Archives disclosed that British officials were twice warned by Libya that the Libyan embassy protest would become violent – hours before WPC Fletcher was killed.[11]

In September 1986, Brittan was cleared by a High Court Judge of acting unlawfully when, as Home Secretary, he gave MI5 permission to tap the telephone of a leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.[12]

In September 1985, Brittan was moved to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.[13] The reason for his demotion, according to Jonathan Aitken, was that the prime minister Margaret Thatcher felt that Brittan was "not getting the message across on television".[14] In her memoirs, Thatcher wrote of Brittan: "Everybody complained about his manner on television, which seemed aloof and uncomfortable."[15]

Brittan had been criticised as a poor communicator and for his role in the suppression of a BBC television programme in the Real Lives series on The Troubles in Northern Ireland, At the Edge of the Union.[13] Brittan stated that transmission of the programme would be against the national interest and in August 1985 he wrote to the BBC chairman, Stuart Young, asking for the broadcast to be cancelled. The BBC's Board of Governors called an emergency meeting and ruled that the documentary could not be shown. The controversy led to a rift in the BBC between the boards of Management and Governors. It also led to a day of strike action by hundreds of television and radio workers who protested against what they perceived as government censorship.[16][17]

Resignation over the Westland affair[edit]

Brittan resigned as Trade and Industry Secretary in January 1986, over the Westland affair.[18] Brittan had authorised the leaking of a letter from the Solicitor General that had accused Michael Heseltine of inaccuracies in his campaign for Westland to be rescued by a consortium of European investors.[18] The rest of the Government, led by Margaret Thatcher, supported a deal with the American business Sikorsky Fiat.[18]

Jonathan Aitken wrote of Brittan's resignation: "Soon after a poisonous meeting of Tory backbenchers at the 1922 Committee he fell on his sword. It was a combination of a witch hunt and a search for a scapegoat – tainted by an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. […] I believed what should have been obvious to anyone else, that he was being used as a lightning conductor to deflect the fire that the Prime Minister had started and inflamed".[14] It was later revealed that Brittan had attempted to persuade British Aerospace and General Electric Company (GEC) to withdraw from the European consortium.[18]

In October 1986, in a House of Commons debate, Brittan made a bitter attack on Michael Heseltine, accusing him of "thwarting the Government at every turn" in its handling of the Westland affair. Brittan said that Government decisions "should have the support of all its members and should not be undermined from within".[19]

In 1989, Brittan revealed in a Channel 4 programme that two senior Downing Street officials, Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell, had approved the leaking of the letter from the Solicitor General. Brittan's claim led to calls from some Labour MPs for there to be a new inquiry into the Westland affair.[20]

European Commission[edit]

Sir Leon Brittan (centre) as a European Commissioner in 1994

Brittan was knighted in the 1989 New Years Honours List.[21] He was made European Commissioner for Competition at the European Commission early in 1989,[18] resigning as an MP to take the position. He accepted the post as European commissioner reluctantly, as it meant giving up his British parliamentary ambitions.[22] Margaret Thatcher appointed Brittan to the Commission as a replacement for Lord Cockfield, whose pro-European enthusiasm she disapproved of; however, in doing so she had overlooked Brittan's own record as a supporter of the European Union and subsequently found his views and policies at odds with those she had expected from him.[22] Brittan passed the merger regulation in 1989,[23] which enabled him to ban the ATR/De Havilland planned merger in 1991.[24]

In 1993 he became European Commissioner for Trade and in 1995 European Commissioner for External Affairs, also serving as a Vice-President of the European Commission. Brittan resigned with the rest of the Santer Commission in 1999 amid accusations of fraud against Jacques Santer and Édith Cresson.[18] During his time as a Vice-President of the European Commission, one subsequently prominent member of his official office was Nick Clegg,[25] who became leader of the Liberal Democrats in December 2007[26] and deputy prime minister in May 2010.[27] In 1995, he was awarded an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Laws) by the University of Bath.[28]


Lord Brittan as the Prime Minister's Representative for Trade in 2011

Brittan was created a life peer (Baron Brittan of Spennithorne, of Spennithorne in the County of North Yorkshire) on 9 February 2000.[29] He was vice-chairman of UBS AG Investment Bank, non-executive director of Unilever and member of the international advisory committee for Total. In August 2010, Brittan was appointed as a trade adviser to the UK government. Prime Minister David Cameron said that Brittan had "unrivalled experience" for the job, which was scheduled to last for six months.[30]

Brittan's wife Diana (née Clemetson, born 1940),[1] Lady Brittan of Spennithorne, was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2004 Birthday Honours "for public service and charity".[31]


Brittan died at his home in London on 21 January 2015, at the age of 75; he had been ill with cancer for some time. He had two stepdaughters.[32]

False allegations[edit]

Paedophile dossier[edit]

In 1984, in his capacity as Home Secretary, Brittan was handed a 40-page dossier by Geoffrey Dickens MP which detailed alleged paedophile activity in the 1980s, including, according to Dickens, allegations concerning "people in positions of power, influence and responsibility".[33][34] The whereabouts of the dossier is currently unknown.[33] Brittan denied any knowledge of the matter in an e-mail to a Channel 4 News reporter in 2013,[35] and later replied that he had no recollection of it to a query from The Independent newspaper.[36]

Brittan later declared in 2014 that Dickens had met him at the Home Office and that he had written to Dickens on 20 March 1984, explaining what had been done in relation to the files.[35] In an article for The Times, journalist James Gillespie quoted a letter from Dickens dated 7 January 1984 in which he thanked Brittan for his 'splendid support' in the matter. He also gave examples of the allegations contained in the dossier including a woman protesting that her 16-year-old son had become homosexual after working in Buckingham Palace kitchens and a civil servant advocating persons caught by Customs and Excise importing child pornography should be referred to the police.[37]

An initial review by Home Office civil servant Mark Sedwill in 2013 concluded that copies of Dickens's material had "not been retained" but that Brittan had acted appropriately in dealing with the allegations. In November 2014, a review by Peter Wanless followed. Wanless said there was no evidence to suggest that files had been removed to cover up abuse.[38]

Allegations pursued by Labour MP[edit]

In June 2014, Brittan was interviewed under caution by police in connection with the alleged rape of a 19-year-old student in his central London flat in 1967, before he became an MP. They had not pursued the allegation when it was first made, on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The police reopened the investigation after Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, had been lobbied by Labour MP Tom Watson to investigate further.[39] In a statement on 7 July 2014, Brittan denied the claims.[40] At the time of his death, Brittan had not been told by the police that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for the alleged rape of the woman.[41] The deputy assistant commissioner of the Met, Steve Rodhouse, wrote a letter of apology to the solicitors of Brittan's widow.[42]

In October 2014, the Labour MP Jimmy Hood used parliamentary privilege to refer to claims that Brittan had been linked to child abuse.[43][44] After Brittan died in January 2015, Watson accused him of "multiple child rape"; he said he had spoken to two people who claimed they were abused by Brittan.[45] Convicted fraudster Chris Fay[46] alleged that he had seen a photograph of Brittan with a child at Elm Guest House in mid-1982.[47] In March 2015, it was reported that detectives from Operation Midland, set up by the Metropolitan Police to investigate claims of child sex abuse, had visited and searched two homes in London and Yorkshire formerly owned by Brittan.[48] One of Brittan's accusers subsequently told BBC's Panorama that he originally named Brittan as a joke and told the Metropolitan Police that two well-known campaigners may have led him into making false claims.[49] On 21 March 2016, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that Operation Midland had been closed without any charges being brought.[50]

On 1 September 2017, it was reported that the Metropolitan Police had paid substantial compensation to Brittan's widow for having raided the Brittans' home "after accepting that the searches had been unjustified and should never have taken place."[51] Carl Beech, whose claims spurred Operation Midland, was convicted of making up the allegations in July 2019.[52]


  1. ^ a b Lamont, Norman (10 January 2019). "Brittan, Leon, Baron Brittan of Spennithorne (1939–2015), politician". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/109058. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b "Man in the News; Crisis Commander". The New York Times. 23 April 1984. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
  3. ^ [Anon.] (2016). "Brittan of Spennithorne, Baron cr 2000 (Life Peer), of Spennithorne in the County of North Yorkshire (Leon Brittan)". Who's Who. ukwhoswho.com. A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc. doi:10.1093/ww/9780199540884.013.U8773. Retrieved 18 May 2019. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
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  8. ^ Russell, William (13 August 1984). "Brittan keeps up attack on miners' union leaders". The Glasgow Herald. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
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  12. ^ "Judge clears Brittan over phone tap on CND leader". The Glasgow Herald. 3 September 1986. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
  13. ^ a b "Thatcher's biggest-ever cabinet shuffle sees Home Secretary Brittan demoted". The Montreal Gazette. 3 September 1985. Retrieved 13 January 2014.
  14. ^ a b Aitken, Jonathan (2013). Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality. London: Bloomsbury. p. 514 open access. ISBN 978-1-4088-3184-7.
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  38. ^ "'No cover-up found' in abuse review by Peter Wanless". BBC News. Manchester. 11 November 2014. Retrieved 11 November 2014.
  39. ^ Merrill, Jamie (6 July 2014). "Exclusive: Lord Brittan questioned by police over rape allegation". The Independent on Sunday. London. Retrieved 6 July 2014.
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  52. ^ Evans, Martin (22 July 2019). "Carl Beech aka Nick found guilty of making up Westminster VIP paedophile ring". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 22 July 2019.

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