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9 November 2012

Reviewed 12 years ago, this biography remains one of the best accounts of the period.




ONCE A JOLLY BAGMAN


Author : Alistair McAlpine. First published Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1997 (subsequently revised and updated).

Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT


Marketed as 'The most explosive political disclosures since the publication of Alan Clark's Diaries', this book does not live up to its billing.

The political disclosures, if anything, are tame and discreet. Which is not to say that the book is not the most candid memoir since Alan Clark's first volume of diaries.

It is simply that the majority of people will read it for disclosures of how he went about raising funds for the Conservative Party as its Treasurer from 1975 to 1990 and on that subject he remains the master of discretion. Next to no names of contributors appear, next to no methodology of how funds were raised is revealed. One can but guess by reading the rest of the book.

Despite having left the Conservative Party to join Sir James Goldsmith's erstwhile Referendum Party, he can be said, therefore, to have performed his services to the Tories with distinction - he acted as the perfect cut-out between those making political contributions and the two Prime Ministers he served.

In comparison, subsequent Labour Party fundraising, especially from 1995, has looked befuddled.

Naturally, some political scores are settled, as in all political biographies, but this 'putting the record straight' is limited and largely confined to two chapters. If anyone takes repeated flak, it is John Major.

Scion of the family owning one of Britain's largest contracting companies, he clearly learnt from his father, who entertained in grand style at the Dorchester when the family owned it, how to win business by building a relationship with with people and the same techniques would appear to have been put to good use as Treasurer and, indeed, one suspects, to overcome personal financial difficulties in the nineties.


One person who his father championed and made friends of was a Secretary of State for Education and Science called Margaret Thatcher in Edward Heath's administration. Both father and son had been given life peerages within five years of her coming to power. This is classic Margaret Thatcher to those who were acquainted with her wider circle - she rewarded generously those who offered her personal support of their own volition, sometimes even those who merely had had the courage to entertain her well.

For those familiar with West End contemporary art galleries, Fountain House in Mayfair, architects and the scions of civil engineering and building contractors, there is much in this book that will ring bells and many familiar figures from those worlds appear.

Coverage of the Thatcher years in Britain is not comprehensive but the book still provides perhaps the best perspective of the politics at Central Office in those years. The best previous account was probably Lord David Young's memoirs.

Lord McAlpine is a person who has lived his life the way he has largely wanted to, eschewing conformity or concern about career that some might argue is the bane of the new era of globalisation. It is as if someone so essentially creative could never have been so straightjacketed. Lord Beaverbrook's dictum of 'whatever you do, never be boring' certainly has an adherent in McAlpine.

For one who is dyslexic, his prose style is remarkably elegant, direct and accomplished. Due to the candidness of the book, one fervently hopes that he managed it without ghosting because it is an admirable read.

It might be said that McAlpine was born to many of the things he was involved with during his life :- civil engineering contracting, collecting, dealing, art patronage, fund raising and politics. It is the chapters on on his part-time participation in Australian life which demonstrate that the creativity and directness that he showed in all his endeavours in Britain were not due mainly to honey on a silver spoon, or privilege.

In Australia he launched into setting up a zoo, preserving traditional buildings to the point of moving them lock, stock and barrel, attempting to create a new international airport and becoming the equivalent of the squire of Broome, a town in Northern Australia. A determined player, too, in Western Australian real estate and, to a limited extent, in Australian politics, he doubtless annoyed a fair few Australians as the Pommie intruder, playing politics and business in their backyard.

It is to his credit that he did it anyway, in a land where most are descended from incomers in all events, giving rein to his enterprise and creativity.