Lord fixit

Lord Goodman

Brian Brivati <em>Richard Cohen Books, 285pp, £20</em>

ISBN 1860661564

Few famous men nowadays have their reputations much improved by death and Lord, born Aby, later Abraham, and finally Arnold, Goodman is no exception. Indeed, his reputation was in fast decline before he died. The apparently omniscient, omnipotent genius who bestrode the Wilson years, looking like Buddha, advising like Solomon, a man on whom the red cap of a Wolsey or a Richelieu seemed to fit so admirably, has shrunken now to that of just another brilliantly successful lawyer.

He was, as many testify, a great chairman of the Arts Council, among his multitude of roles. Equally, he would have been a great chairman of Acas. It was as a compromiser and solution-finder - more brutally, a fixer - for Harold Wilson that he flourished. He was an incomparable networker and acted for many other politicians, both in and out of the legal process, but less successfully. During the Thatcher years, his decline accelerated. When he died in 1995, he was a lonely man; the telephone by which he lived had largely ceased ringing. No one wanted his advice any more.

Brian Brivati's biography - while he was alive, Goodman took care with many, including me, to ensure that other would-be biographers didn't get past first base - is sympathetic but doesn't restore Goodman's one-time stature. Instead, it exposes the contradictions.

He liked being famous but disliked publicity. He had a kind word with everyone but was a snob. He outspokenly defended the freedom of the press yet contrived to prevent accurate stories about his clients being published. He despised Wilson's secretary, Lady Falkender, yet acted for her - for example, keeping out of the Daily Express a story about the father of her two children. This was beyond a solicitor's duty and incompatible with press freedom. He hated Robert Maxwell and yet - a story Brivati doesn't tell - after Maxwell's death he tried to get St Paul's Cathedral for a memorial service. He even advised Mrs Maxwell to fly the octogenarian former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Coggan, by private plane to the funeral in Jerusalem to increase the chances of St Paul's being made available, a strange kindness for one Jew to perform for another. When I asked him, after the exposure of Maxwell's frauds, why he had done that, he replied: "Ah, but I told the family to wait for a year."

Not for the first time, Goodman was acting cautiously on behalf of a client whose dishonesty he either knew or suspected. He represented Robert Boothby, who falsely denied his association with the Kray brothers and took the Daily Mirror for £40,000 for suggesting it. Jeremy Thorpe was a client whose innocence he accepted but of whose defence he was glad to be relieved. He represented Aneurin Bevan, Dick Crossman and Morgan Phillips in their libel action against Another Magazine, which had suggested they were drunk at an Italian conference. Phillips, at least, was perjuring himself, but the politicians won. Goodman, Brivati suggests, "knew, without knowing".

Goodman owed almost everything to Wilson: he told me that but for Lady Falkender, Wilson would have been our greatest prime minister - a ludicrous assertion - yet he later belittled him. He chaired a Wilson trust that secretly received funds from businessmen, some crooked, who consequently received honours. I never knew him to protest or acknowledge anything improper in it.

Goodman could be a kind and generous man, so lax in his billing that he often didn't charge at all. The Friends of Arnold, especially in the arts world, are still numerous and cherish his memory. However, they don't include the Portman family, who accused him of stealing millions from a trust fund. Brivati persuasively clears Goodman of that charge, but Paul Foot, who originally made it, is a meticulous researcher, and I still cannot grasp why, if the accusation was totally unfounded, Goodman's old firm, Goodman Derrick, should have paid Lord Portman half a million pounds not to pursue his writ.

Goodman understood the power of politicians, but not politics. He failed in Rhodesia for more than one government because he didn't see that majority rule was a principle impervious to compromise.

And he could be careless with the truth. He claimed that Wilson asked him, in his last days in office, to help him become master of University College, at a time when he, Goodman, had a letter from the Fellows asking him to accept the post.

Strange, that. About three months before he retired, I asked Wilson if he wanted an Oxford college. "Joe," he said, "after being prime minister, Oxford would be like managing a power station in Outer Mongolia." That had the greater ring of truth to me.

Joe Haines was chief press secretary to Harold Wilson, 1969-76

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?