Private acts in a public theatre

Lord Goodman

February 18, 2000

Was Lord Goodman's failure a 'failure of life'? Robin Butler thinks not.

In January 1999, when the newspapers were carrying stories that Lord Goodman and his solicitors' firm had misappropriated Portman Trust money, Brian Brivati wrote an article for The THES suggesting that there might be some fire behind the smoke. Many of Goodman's friends who believed that he would not have been reckless enough to mishandle a client's money, even if he had been disposed to do so, feared that Brivati's book, then in the final stages of preparation, would be a hatchet job.

In September 1999, shortly before publication of his book, Brivati wrote another article for The THES withdrawing the charge about the Portman money. For some time the confidentiality agreement covering the settlement between Goodman Derrick and Lord Portman had prevented either side from making any statement. But eventually the firm felt able to give a statement to the author, following Portman's death, indicating that all the Portman funds were accounted for to the satisfaction of the court. This, together with the relatively modest settlement accepted by Portman and the obvious commercial motives for Goodman Derrick to make a settlement rather than to fight the case in court (a course of action that, it is reasonable to assume, Goodman would have advised one of his own clients to accept), led Brivati to conclude that, as his book went to press, "the balance of the argument swung back decisively in Goodman's favour".

There are other instances where Brivati strives to be fair and rejects interpretations that would have made his book more sensational and more welcome to Goodman's critics. But these specific conclusions do not soften the asperity of Brivati's overall assessment. In his September article, Brivati said: "His failure was much deeper than a failure of honesty, it was a failure of life."

Brivati's main grounds for criticism are Goodman's avoidance of public accountability and his greater concern with the achievement of settlements than their substance. Brivati described these as vices of the old British establishment. Whether these strictures justify the description "a failure of life" is a matter of judgement and, since Brivati would no doubt regard me as a member of the British establishment, I doubt he would think I was competent to make it. But it is as an odd set of values that would regard these as deeper failures than dishonesty.

There is not much else in the book to cause concern among Goodman's friends. In some cases Brivati appears to rely on information from interviewees who were not prepared to have their information cited in the source notes. For example, without attribution, he speaks of one person who had crossed Goodman and felt it necessary to take refuge out of the country until Goodman was dead, and of another who felt he had been swindled by Goodman and his clients in a huge property deal. Without any citable evidence, one feels that, in return for clearing Goodman of the main charges against him, Brivati may be too ready to reproduce tittle-tattle without establishing its validity.

My own encounters with Goodman were tangential but related to three separate areas of his life. I was a private secretary in 10 Downing Street during Harold Wilson's second term as prime minister in 1974-76; in my time as Margaret Thatcher's principal private secretary in 1982-85, I was sometimes the recipient of telephone calls from him on public issues; and, when I was cabinet secretary, he was present on the side of the Churchill trustees when they made their first approach to the government about selling the Churchill archive. Second, I was secretary to the opera committee of the Royal Opera House and assistant secretary to the board while Goodman was a director. Finally, I now hold the post of master of University College, Oxford, which Goodman held from 1973-85 - in fact I am writing this in his bedroom in the Master's Lodgings.

For what it is worth, there is nothing in these experiences that is inconsistent with Brivati's account. His statement that Goodman was less influential during Wilson's second term than his first is supported by the fact that I remember no incident in 1974 or 1975 in which Goodman played a significant part, although his method of going directly to the top means that I would not necessarily have known of such participation. During Thatcher's premiership, as Brivati notes, Goodman's access and influence were slight, though in such encounters as I had with him - not over major issues - he impressed me with the precision and persuasiveness of his way of expressing himself.

In the affairs of the Royal Opera House, I remember him as a source of bons mots rather than for his role in matters of policy. The episode that stands out most strongly in my memory was when he hosted a meeting of the board of Covent Garden at University College that I attended as secretary. I sat with Goodman directly between me and Sutherland's portrait, which now hangs in the dining hall of University College - an experience that highlighted the merits of the portrait.

At University College, Goodman is remembered with affection, not so much for his impact on the affairs of the university (although, as Brivati notes, he was very helpful in negotiating a package that was necessary for restoring the college's over-extended finances in the 1970s) as for countless and private acts of generosity, large and small, to individual fellows and students. Not much evidence of snobbery here.

Goodman had remarkable gifts. He was a master of "the yes-able proposition", using precision of language, humour, self-deprecation and mental agility to achieve his ends. Overall, I believe that he used these qualities for good. If he enjoyed himself in doing so, who would blame him? He did not enrich himself. Secrecy is not a popular quality these days but it is valuable in a confidential adviser.

Brivati's book is an easy read. There is some editorial carelessness - names are introduced without explanation and, in the Rhodesian negotiations, Goodman in one place is described as having the codename "Friend" to Sir Max Aitken's "Hot Dog" and in another it is the other way round: the latter is more plausible.

Overall, Brivati gives the impression of a man who started with a conclusion and found, inconveniently, that the evidence did not support it. Moreover, the evidence is only the published evidence and that of such of Goodman's friends and associates - by no means all - who were prepared to speak to the author and his predecessor, Iris Freeman. A more complete account would need access to Goodman's private papers, if such exist. Since that, I suspect, is a book that will never be written, this may be the best, or the worst, we shall get.

Lord Butler is master, University College, Oxford.

Lord Goodman

Author - Brian Brivati
ISBN - 1 86066 156 4
Publisher - Richard Cohen
Price - £20.00
Pages - 285

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