Alistair McAlpine, Baron McAlpine of West Green
Robert Alistair McAlpine, Baron McAlpine of West Green (14 May 1942 – 17 January 2014), often known as Alistair McAlpine, was a British businessman, politician and author who was an advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. McAlpine was descended from the McAlpine baronets who made their fortune in the construction industry. McAlpine held a variety of jobs before becoming prominent in British politics in the 1980s as the treasurer and a major fundraiser of the Conservative Party. A close ally of Thatcher, McAlpine did not support her successor as Prime Minister John Major, and later joined James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. McAlpine later rejoined the Conservatives but resigned his seat in the House of Lords to retain his taxation status.
Outside of politics McAlpine was prominent in a variety of business developments in Australia as well as being an art collector and memoirist. Shortly before his death McAlpine returned to public prominence after he was falsely accused of child abuse.
Early life and career
McAlpine was born at the Dorchester Hotel in London. His great grandfather was "Concrete Bob", Robert McAlpine, the first of the McAlpine baronets and the founder of the McAlpine construction firm. He was the second son of Ella Mary Gardner (Garnett) and Edwin McAlpine, the fifth Baronet, and the brother of William McAlpine, the sixth and current Baronet. He described his childhood as "idyllic" but not luxurious. He went to boarding school at the age of six. He suffered from dyslexia and left Stowe School at 16 with three O-levels. He then worked on a McAlpine building site on the South Bank, keeping time and dealing with wage packets.
At the age of 21, McAlpine became a director of the company, at the time named Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons. He made money in property development in Australia and worked in the building business until he entered politics.
McAlpine founded his own publishing house in London in the 1960s, and was variously an art dealer, art collector, zookeeper (in Broome, Western Australia), horticulturist, aviculturist, agriculturist, gardener and passionate traveller.
Though the inner circle of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had once considered appointing McAlpine as a fundraiser, McAlpine was entranced by the new Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher at a 1975 dinner party, and she soon appointed him Conservative treasurer, a position he would retain until 1990. They continued to have a close working relationship throughout her time as prime minister and he led the fundraising efforts for the Conservative's general election campaigns. He would later describe his relationship with Thatcher in his book The Servant. Using Machiavelli's The Prince for his analogy, the "Servant" (himself) is an important part of the success of the Prince (Thatcher). McAlpine's obituary in The Daily Telegraph described him as "...probably the most successful fundraiser the party ever had; yet by nature a dilettante, he did not become a significant political figure" and "...never really "into" politics. At heart he was an 18th-century amateur..."
McAlpine was nominated to the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1980, despite protests at a perceived lack of experience in the field and his opposition to public subsidisation of the arts. He served on the Council from 1981 to 1982. Other public bodies on which McAlpine served included the Theatre Investment Fund, of which he was chairman. McAlpine was also a trustee of the Royal Opera House and a director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
As party treasurer, McAlpine raised large sums to support the Conservative Party in elections. Often this was done over lunches with business leaders, by pointing out the problems with Labour candidates. Money would never be discussed directly at the lunches, McAlpine would later say that "I used to lurk...I lurked all over London where rich people went." The Conservative party had raised £1.5 million the year before McAlpine became treasurer, the figures had increased to £4 million by the 1979 general election, and more than £9 million by the time of Thatcher's departure in 1990. McAlpine also channelled funds through offshore accounts, and received funds from US and Hong Kong nationals. One of the funders of the era was Asil Nadir of Northern Cyprus, who was in 2012 convicted of stealing money from the Polly Peck company. McAlpine told the Daily Mail it was a "moral imperative" for the Conservative party to return Nadir's donations, amounting to over £400,000, to the creditors of Polly Peck. Other foreign businessmen courted by McAlpine included Li Ka-shing and Mohamed Al-Fayed. McAlpine also claimed that he worked to help Major raise a large sum from Greek businessman Yiannis Latsis, though Major denied it.
McAlpine was allegedly on a target list of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). He was on Thatcher's team when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, but was not injured. In 1990 the IRA bombed West Green House, a mansion in Hartley Wintney, where he had lived just weeks before, and where in the past Thatcher had been a guest. In the mid 1980s, for reasons of safety and tax, McAlpine decided to move to Monaco and Venice. Before his departure he had sold many of his possessions at Sotheby’s.
McAlpine was deputy chairman of the party from 1979 to 1983. After Thatcher left in 1990, he remained fiercely supportive of her, and dismissive of her successor John Major, particularly his policies on the European Union. McAlpine joined James Goldsmith's Referendum Party six months before the 1997 general election, chairing its October 1996 party conference. He was expelled from the Conservatives in the House of Lords soon thereafter. In 1997 he became the Referendum Party's leader following Goldsmith's death, although the party would soon become defunct. He was very critical of the Conservative Party under William Hague and sat as an Independent Conservative for some time in the House of Lords before rejoining[when?] the Conservatives.
In 2010 McAlpine stepped down from his seat in the House of Lords because of changes in the British tax code, to maintain his non-domiciled status and so be able to avoid paying UK residents' taxes.
McAlpine liked the Conservative Party chairman Cecil Parkinson, and disliked Parkinson's successor, John Gummer, who he thought dull. Owing to his influence over Thatcher, McAlpine was said to have ensured Gummer's replacement as party chairman by Norman Tebbit.
McAlpine first went to Western Australia around 1960, after hearing that the government was to privatise road-building. In the mid 1960s he went to Perth to work, developing a hotel and office blocks. He worked on the first five-star hotel in Perth.
In the 1980s McAlpine attempted to invigorate the tourism business in Broome, Western Australia. McAlpine had first been impressed with Broome in the late 1970s. He felt the area had great tourism potential. He invested $500 million on various developments, such as restoring crumbling buildings, fixing up a film theatre, and creating the Cable Beach Resort club, and the Pearl Coast Zoological Gardens. He also bought a stake in a pearl farm, and helped promote Broome's South Sea Pearl. He promoted local culture including Aboriginal artwork. He spent several months a year there, for a time.
McAlpine also gave to charities as well as startup businesses. The changes were not without controversy, explored for example in the 1990 documentary film "Lord of the Bush" by Tom Zubrycki. Economic conditions worsened in the early 1990s, and tourism was affected by the 1989 Australian pilots' dispute. McAlpine had to sell his stakes and leave in the mid-1990s. The zoo closed, but many of his efforts lasted such as the Cable Beach club. When he revisited Broome in 2012 he was described in several media stories in positive terms and the town leaders honoured him as Freeman of the Municipality.
- The Servant. London: Faber & Faber, 1992. ISBN 9780571173402. This work discusses his relationship with Thatcher. He later re-released it as part of a compilation called The Ruthless Leader, which also included The Art of War by Sun Tzu and The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, along with an introduction.
- Letters to a Young Politician – From his uncle. London: Faber & Faber, 1995. ISBN 9780571170579.
- Once a Jolly Bagman: Memoirs. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997. ISBN 9780297817376. Contains numerous critical comments about former associates such as John Major, Edward Heath, and Michael Heseltine.
- The New Machiavelli: The art of politics in business. New York; Chichester: John Wiley, 1998. ISBN 9780471350958.
- Collecting and Display, with Cathy Giangrande. London: Conran Octopus, 1998. ISBN 9781850299561.
- The Collector's Companion: A source book of public collections in Europe and the USA, with Cathy Giangrande. London: Everyman, 2001. ISBN 9781841590806.
- Bagman to Swagman. London: Allen & Unwin, 1999. ISBN 9781865083896.
- Adventures of a Collector. London: Allen & Unwin, 2002. ISBN 9781865087863.
- Triumph from Failure: Lessons from Life for Business Success, with Kate Dixey. New York: Texere, 2003. ISBN 9781587991813.
Art and collecting
McAlpine had been a passionate collector of a wide range of objet d'art and ephemera since his youth. McAlpine had a "cupboard of curiosities" as a child, including a snake in a bottle, and a piece of a Zeppelin air ship. Later objects collected by McAlpine included beads, books, furniture, police truncheons, dolls, textiles, ties, sculpture, rare breeds of chicken, Renaissance tapestries, a five-legged lamb in formaldehyde, and a dinosaur penis. He was an early collector of the American painter Mark Rothko. He was very interested in Abstract expressionism and artists such as Morris Louis and Jackson Pollock. He also collected the work of Australian painter Sidney Nolan. He made collections of folk art from various continents. He was also interested in modern sculpturists such as William Turnbull, Naum Gabo, Michael Bolus and David Annesley. He owned a gallery on Cork Street as well. He once owned a warehouse to store his collections, but also he periodically sells or donates portions of them to museums.
In 1970 McAlpine donated 60 sculptures to the Tate from including works by David Annesley, Michael Bolus, Phillip King, Tim Scott, William Tucker, William Turnbull and Isaac Witkin. McAlpine also donated hundreds of erotic pictures to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, including works by Bob Carlos Clarke, Karl Lagerfeld, David Bailey, Terence Donovan, and others. Bloomsbury Book Auctions sold many of these items in 2003. The auction was entitled "A (Very) Private Collection: Fashion and Eroticism Photographs 1970–1990".
In the 1970s McAlpine and the classical architect Quinlan Terry constructed various follies in the grounds of West Green House. One of these, a 50 feet high column topped by an elaborately carved design bears a latin inscription declaring that "this monument was built with a great deal of money which otherwise someday would have been given into the hands of the public revenue". McAlpine also constructed a classical triumphal arch topped with an obelisk that bears a plaque dedicating the arch to the "first lady Prime Minister of Great Britain". Other features in the folly garden include a trompe l'oeil Nymphaeum, a smoke house, an "eye catcher", Chinese cow sheds and an island gazebo.
McAlpine had been married three times. McAlpine married for the first time in 1964, to Sarah Baron. They had two daughters together, and divorced shortly after McAlpine became the Conservative Party treasurer. His two daughters did not speak to him for many years following the divorce. McAlpine married his second wife, Romilly Hobbs, in 1980. She had been his political secretary and was a "glamorous and popular hostess" during Thatcher's premiership. McAlpine and Hobbs had a daughter, and divorced shortly after McAlpine second heart operation owing to his adultery. McAlpine said of his relationships that "I keep changing my life, houses and relationships. I reinvent myself every few years. My first marriage lasted 15 years and this one [to Romilly] 20. It's hardly into bed and out the other side. There was a great deal of love. But there comes a point when life is just a habit, and I'm rather against habits. I just didn't want to carry on."
In 1987 McAlpine had bypass surgery, which led him to relax his lifestyle and stop smoking. In 1999 he had further heart bypass surgery that led to complications resulting in his having a tracheotomy and difficulty speaking. McAlpine was in a coma for a month on a life-support machine following his second heart operation. McAlpine converted to Roman Catholicism after his second heart operation.
McAlpine and his third wife, Athena Malpas, whom he married in the early 2002, opened a bed-and-breakfast in an old monastery that they renovated in Puglia, in Southern Italy. It is called Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli.
False allegations of child abuse
In November 2012, McAlpine was falsely implicated in the North Wales child abuse scandal, after the BBC Newsnight TV programme accused an unnamed "senior Conservative" of abuse. McAlpine was widely rumoured on Twitter and other social media platforms to be the person in question. After The Guardian reported that the accusations were the result of mistaken identity, McAlpine issued a strong denial that he was in any way involved. The accuser, a former care home resident, unreservedly apologised after seeing a photograph of McAlpine and realising that he had been mistaken. The BBC also apologised.
The decision to broadcast the Newsnight report without contacting McAlpine first led to further criticism of the BBC, and to the resignation of its Director-General, George Entwistle. The BBC subsequently paid McAlpine £185,000 in damages plus costs which he donated to charity. He also won £125,000 in damages plus costs from ITV following a November 2012 edition of This Morning which linked Conservative politicians to allegations of child sex abuse, again donating the damages to charity. McAlpine intended to pursue twenty "high profile" tweeters who had reported or alluded to the rumours.
In February 2013, McAlpine dropped the defamation claims against Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers in return for a £25 donation to the Children in Need charity. In March 2013, McAlpine's representatives reached an agreement with writer George Monbiot, who had tweeted on the case and had at that time more than 55,000 followers on Twitter, for the latter to carry out work on behalf of three charities of his choice whose value amounts to £25,000 as compensation.
May 2013 High Court case
On 24 May 2013, the High Court in London ruled that a tweet by Sally Bercow, "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*", mentioning McAlpine, was libellous. McAlpine's solicitor said that Bercow had agreed a settlement in the case, Lord McAlpine donated the damages awarded to Children in Need.
McAlpine died on 17 January 2014 at his home in Italy, aged 71.
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- Headley and Meulenkamp 1986, p. 78.
- Headley and Meulenkamp 1986, p. 79.
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- George Monbiot – My Agreement with Lord McAlpine 12 March 2013. Retrieved 25 May 2013.
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- Dowell, Ben (23 November 2012). "McAlpine libel: 20 tweeters including Sally Bercow pursued for damages". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 May 2013.