Prey for Blessed Arnold

January 29, 1999

When it came to money, Labour's 'fixer' Lord Goodman was generous to a fault. The fault? It wasn't his money. But Brian Brivati finds more to Blessed Arnold than light fingers

I have been working on a life of Lord Arnold Goodman, the former lawyer and master of University College, Oxford, for two years. Last week, two Independent journalists, Steve Boggan and Paul Lashmar, scooped me with a vengeance. They revealed that since 1955 the late Lord Goodman had, in all probability, stolen Pounds 1 million from his clients, the Portman family.

This first part of the scoop was not a complete surprise, but the second part made the story sensational: Pounds 400,000 of the Pounds 1 million had been lent, with little pressure for repayment, to Labour cabinet ministers including George Wigg, Harold Lever and perhaps also Jennie Lee. In a vault somewhere there exists a list of names with the amounts that each politician received.

I was not entirely ignorant of the Portman business, as I hinted in The THES on November 20, when I mentioned my uncovering of stories about Goodman's financial misdemeanours and harassment of widows. There were certain irregularities in Goodman's record-keeping style that had led me to believe that there might be a problem. In addition, a portrait of him by Lucien Freud was left to Lord Portman's son. It is probably worth Pounds 50,000 today.

There was also the Private Eye story from 1971. Goodman had been negotiating on behalf of the then Conservative prime minister Edward Heath with Ian Smith in Rhodesia. As he stepped off the plane back in London he was handed a copy of Private Eye, which contained an article that read:

"When Lord Goodman returns from Salisbury he will, no doubt IJnot have time to answer the increasingly hysterical letters from officials at Barclays Bank in the Strand where Lord Goodman's private account is overdrawn by nearly Pounds 20,000. The overdraft has crept up from the Pounds 14,000 mark since 1967 despite scores of letters and phone calls begging Lord Goodman to make it good."

In fact, the account was a Portman family account that Goodman controlled. He immediately phoned the Eye demanding the editor, Richard Ingrams, and writer of the piece, Paul Foot, appear in his office. Goodman went berserk: thumping the table, saying that they had committed a crime, that he wanted the Eye closed down and on and on. Foot leant across the table and said quietly: "You don't know what else we have got." Goodman went white and changed tack. Private Eye printed an apology. But Goodman did not sue. What now seems clear is that Private Eye had taken a photograph of Goodman's use of client account funds and Goodman knew that there was much more to be uncovered. Some more of this has now come out.

When the press picks up on a story, it is like a tropical storm. It passes quickly but leaves plenty of devastation. I am left picking over the flotsam of revelation and denial that litters the papers of the past two weeks. I have to re-evaluate my man in the light of what was divulged. There are more stories to come about Lord Goodman and there is a strong case for his defence. But the essential shape of the case against his integrity has now been made public. Will his reputation survive?

Luckily there are many compartments in Goodman's life that do not need to be besmirched by his political dealings. The Charities Aid Foundation, the National Theatre, the South Bank Centre, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the English National Opera and University College, Oxford, all have reason to be grateful to Goodman.

The proposal to rename the Purcell Room at the South Bank Centre the Goodman Room will now presumably be quietly dropped, but that is no reason for the arts and education communities to stop honouring his name. But in legal circles his reputation will have suffered gravely.

The assault of the press on the memory of Goodman produced a number of intriguing stories. Though it is not a research technique I would recommend be used regularly, the rapid gaze of a dozen British media hounds as they desperately played catch-up to the Independent's scoop did produce a few nuggets that I had missed. Anthony Howard, to whom I have spoken on a number of occasions about Goodman, dropped the following gem into his piece the day after the Independent story. Apparently, during Harold Wilson's last days as prime minister, Wilson asked Goodman to help him become master of University College, Oxford. As Goodman told the story: "It was one of the most awkward moments of my life, since I had in my pocket at the time a letter from the fellows of the college offering the job to me." This little story, if true, might explain the falling out between Wilson and Goodman in 1976.

"Influence but no power" was Goodman's description of the master's role at University College. During the 1980s, contacts with rich potential donors became part of his job and he left the college finances more healthy than when he arrived. He was a successful master and the "Friends of Arnold" were tapped for cash, some more successfully than others. Millionaire industrialist Max Rayne became an honorary fellow and gave money to the college. Goodman tried to get a donation of Pounds 100,000 from the Wolfson Trust but was disappointed to obtain only Pounds 25,000.

He loved the social life of college and enjoyed the mixed pleasures of High Table. Forte consultants were brought in to look at the menus. But his choice of consorts for this entertaining had a mixed reception. Goodman liked the company of society widows and met his last close friend, Clarissa Avon, in these years. His old partner Anne Fleming was not a great success with the fellows, nor was Jennie Lee. But his Christmas week celebrations, which attracted personalities from the arts and politics, were generally enjoyed.

Goodman's life at University College also produced his other sharp confrontation with Private Eye. The issue of January 18 1980 contained an item mentioning his name, which read: "I am glad to hear from Oxford that the Blessed Arnold Goodman is still living up to his name 'Two Dinners'. Apparently he haunts the Old Parsonage Hotel, Banbury Road, with young undergraduate friends. And the waiters are now used to the Blessed Arnold's habit of crying 'Same again please!' as he wipes his plate clean."

Goodman sued and the matter was resolved with a grovelling apology in Private Eye on November 5 1981 and the payment of substantial damages. The apology stated that the article had been an obvious suggestion that Lord Goodman was a homosexual but the suggestion appears far from obvious and in any case hardly so serious and so offensive that an apology might seem necessary.

The snippet about Goodman led to a year of legal shadow boxing with the magazine, perhaps unwisely stoked by Private Eye encouraging a correspondence from readers about the causes (primarily obesity) and details of hiatus hernia, from which Goodman suffered in spring 1980.

The press has long been after Goodman. And now they have got him. For my purposes, the real impact of these revelations about Goodman is the light it casts on his character. We know that he was made by Harold Wilson. We did not know the lengths he would go to to do his master's bidding. When they fell out, I suspect, Goodman's need for money was reduced.

The confidentiality agreement reached between the Portman family and the Goodman estate is binding until 2006. On this date, the names of Labour politicians who received money from Lord Goodman will be made public. It might be coincidence, but 2006 is 30 years from 1976 and the date on which public records relating to the premiership of Harold Wilson will be made public.

Depressing from a historian's point of view was the dynamic that made Boggan and Lashmar's original story run, the comparison with today: depressing because no national newspaper is interested in the 95 per cent of my biography about the gradual rise of a political fixer in postwar Britain. They are interested in parallels with new Labour and contemporary sleaze.

But Goodman was not in the same league as many Conservative Party apparatchiks of the same and later vintages. One untold story of the 1980s is the relation between Conservative ministers and firms in the City of London that handled the privatisation of Britain's nationalised sector.

Goodman's actions in lending Pounds 400,000 of someone else's money need to be understood in this context. He would be easier to defend in these terms if his own self-image had contained any moral humility. It did not. His reaction to any sort of criticism was a verbose indignation that bordered on the ridiculous. That he managed to get away with so much speaks volumes for the fear induced in journalists of Fleet Street by his proximity to ministers and to power.

The only possible parallel in techniques of legal intimidation, though not, it should be stressed, in level of criminality, is with Robert Maxwell. Goodman disliked Maxwell almost as much as he disliked another great rogue of the postwar period, James Goldsmith. Perhaps a part of him that could look into his own Dorian Gray image saw disturbing likenesses in how he might be remembered when the truth came out.

But I do not believe he will simply go down in history as one of the great postwar crooks. There is more to his contribution to the life and culture of Britain than this. His image is forever tarnished by the role corruption played in his rise to the top, but it is not destroyed. As I hope my book will show, there are many individuals and institutions that owe Goodman much. In the long run this must be set against the ambiguities of his relationship with the truth.

Brian Brivati is reader in history, Kingston University. His biography of Lord Goodman will be published by Richard Cohen books in the autumn.

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