A very ordinary failure

September 24, 1999

Harold Wison's fixer Lord Goodman was not a crook after all, his biographer Brian Brivati has decided. His 'flaws' went far deeper than that.

In Britain, in the years between the Profumo scandal of 1963 and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Arnold Goodman, Harold Wilson's lawyer, was the pre-eminent grey eminence: the British establishment's fixer.

Journalists who were the victims of Lord Goodman's libel-threatening letters were the first to rejoice in the allegations this January that Goodman, who died in 1995, had systematically defrauded the Portman family of Pounds 10 million. I believed the allegations in January.

I do not believe them now.

At its height, Goodman's role in old Labour's power structure combined Alistair Campbell's bullying of the press, Peter Mandelson's love of power and Derry Irvine's legal influence. His political master, Harold Wilson, operated a system of cronyism that rivalled new Labour's network of special advisers in influence if not in scope. Goodman was the heart of the network and was seen as a sinister figure because of his repeated role in trying to suppress press reports hostile to Wilson.

The allegations that surfaced in January were that in handling the accounts of the Portman family, who own a large estate in central London, Goodman, as sole trustee, misused the family's money. In 1993, Lord Portman issued a writ demanding a full account of how Goodman had managed the family's money since the 1950s. The Portmans had been asking questions about the handling of their funds for a number of years but had been consistently bamboozled by Goodman.

Lord Portman was 20 in 1954 when the reorganisation of the family estate took place. Advised by his father and Goodman, he signed everything he was told to. He later alleged that Goodman, who had been given a free hand to manage the family's affairs, used the Portman money to buy influence within the Labour Party.

My biography of Lord Goodman was in the final stages of completion when Goodman's partners in the legal firm Goodman Derrick issued a statement to me. This showed clearly that they can prove that all transactions handled by the practice on behalf of the Portman family, going back 40 years, can be accounted for.

In fact, Goodman was, if not exactly always on the side of the angels, at least mostly harmless. Frequently he helped people: lending money, finding jobs, saving marriages and companies, giving his time to good causes and pressuring his wealthy friends to donate to the charities that he chaired and the college - University College, Oxford - of which he was master.

He appeared complicated, but was in fact very simple. He loved opera, particularly the grand drama of the Verdi variety. He treasured his corner table at the Savoy Grill, with its English school-dinner menu and large jugs of lemonade. He loved to be praised as exceptional and unique. He enjoyed intense relationships with a series of widows, who, in the main, stood up to him and teased him, or else looked after, and spoilt him.

For his friends he will always be the White Knight. They will stubbornly insist that he was more Robin Hood than Don Quixote. For his enemies, particularly the Private Eye journalists of that period, he will remain a bully and a crook. In truth, he was something in between: a public figure who did not want to be accountable for his public actions; a private man who barely had a life that was not in some way fashioned by his professional and public contacts.

I have been told that my view of the great man is superior, patronising and that I have failed to get him at all right. Some object to the fact that I call Goodman a snob. They object to the picture I paint of the world of the great and the good, of the self-reverential land of committees and commissions he dominated for so long. But most of all they object to the fact that I judge Goodman's life to have been a failure and a very typical failure for a man of his generation. Typical of men who forge their identities through work, he died a lonely figure, almost a caricature of himself. In his final years, defending his public reputation became a means of defending the life he had chosen.

The men of Noel Annan's Our Age, the characters who inhabited the administrative machines of postwar Britain, the middle management of the collectivist age, feel themselves judged and found wanting through my portrait of their paragon: Goodman.

In attacking Goodman for putting work before family life, networking before friendship, in finding satisfaction in the banality of social recognition, I am expressing my sadness that such an obviously intelligent and kindly man should have come to define his sense of success in such devalued currencies. His failure was much deeper than a failure of honesty, it was a failure of life.

My critique of Goodman goes further and offends his friends more deeply. He would never test his access to power against the scrutiny of others, nor did he create anything. The task of the fixer is to find the temporary resolution to a dispute and not to solve the problem.

Goodman combined all the virtues and all the vices of the old establishment's leading men: a paucity of emotional and personal development and a distrust and disdain for democratic accountability and scrutiny. In attacking Goodman in this way I am also attacking his friends who inhabit the bastions of the British establishment to this day - people like former Observer proprietor and editor David Astor, and Lord Rayne, former chair of the National Theatre.

Academics who sit outside the gilded cage these people inhabit should approach it with caution. In ten years working in contemporary history, I have never received a rude or pompous letter from a politician about something I have written about them. When they disagree, they disagree about the substance of the argument. The reason is simple. They have put themselves through processes of accountability and scrutiny. They have been attacked and ridiculed throughout their careers.

Some of the most robust and least pompous exchanges I have had on my work have been from some of the legal sources for Goodman. But those that have taken exception have done so in a language and at a level of detail entirely new to me. The reason may simply be one of discourse. When lawyers respond to something you have written they use the language of writs, defamation, libel etc, which is terrifying. While politicians will try to get you to write them into the story a little more, lawyers will suggest that perhaps you should drop the whole book. I leave the world of Lord Goodman behind with great relief and will return to writing about politicians: a far more robust bunch.

Brian Brivati is reader in history at Kingston University. His biography of Lord Goodman (Richard Cohen Books) is published next month, Pounds 20.00.

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