ALEXANDER'S TECHNIQUE; STUDIES IN POWER:
How does he do it? Lord Alexander of Weedon positively exudes the smooth and self-confident attributes of the Great and Good - but then he is "the best barrister of his generation" and Chairman of the NatWest bank
Sunday 03 December 1995
Where men like Bob Alexander, now Chair-man of the National Westminster Bank with a workforce of 90,000 and assets of well over pounds 100bn in his charge, find such commanding smoothness is completely baffling to me. It is composed of a number of elements, the chief of which is the flattering assumption that everyone is on his level. Then comes the alertness to other people's needs, the focus on what they're saying, and the quickness to pick up a point, embellish it and return it without claiming credit. There is something more, which, for want of a better expression, is Jeevesian polish. The great and the good turn themselves out better than most: their shoes are beautifully polished, their shirts pressed, their hair well cut and their figures generally trim, all of which combine in Lord Alexander's case with an acute beadiness in conversation and a height of six foot, six inches to make a pretty impressive figure.
He is the only subject in this series to be a paid-up member of the British establishment, but he shares many characteristics with the other three, the most obvious being his attention to detail. Each interviewee is, in his way, absorbed by the small print of the work in hand and only when that is sorted out does he move on to the overall vision; this is an ability few of us have, for we believe that leadership and power demand great strategic vision and that if only we had had the luck to be put in such a position, we would find little difficulty in issuing orders and plotting the course of thousands of people's lives. The exercise of power is in truth a lot more complicated: there are more restraints than we imagine, more people trying to unseat you, and more intricate judgements to make.
Power nonetheless exists, and we hope that those who possess it manifest those key qualities of wisdom, benevolence, justice and subtlety that I found listed on the office wall of Commander John Grieve, Director of Criminal Intelligence at Scotland Yard. What's interesting about Alexander is that, having achieved a real - and lucrative - private form of power at the Bar, he should in late middle life give that up in favour of a job that makes him very publicly accountable; a job where power involves redundancies and, perhaps, public opprobrium.
As I sat over coffee in Lord Alexander's kitchen, it wasn't difficult to see why the board of NatWest had decided during the course of a single lunch that they would like him to become their chairman. At the time, he had nothing more than a rudimentary knowledge of banking, but he positively exudes those crucial qualities of wisdom, justice, benevolence and subtlety. He's tough, too, and determined, and quick to make jud-gements about people, but these are less obvious attributes, hidden ben-eath the gloss. He sits with his elbows on the table, erect and focused on my questions. His speech is not as fluent as you might expect, and he sometimes pauses to wait for exactly the right word. When this is found, the sentence comes out complete and ready for print (he always dictates the articles that he contributes to the Times on legal matters). He is an impressive performer, and while I listened I found it hard to believe that he was born (in 1936) to the owner of a petrol station at Newcastle-under-Lyme in the Potteries. Robert Alexander's accent and manner are more reminiscent of Eton, and you cannot help wondering at the effort that has gone into this.
I asked him if he recognised the man in the boy: "No, not very much; I don't look back to childhood very much. At school, I think I would have been described as precocious and slightly irreverent, probably keener on my studies than the average pupil. It was a happy childhood with very caring parents, both of whom had left school early and were determined that their children should have the best education [Brighton College] they could provide."
As a boy, Robert Alexander was obviously bright, but had no idea what he wanted to do. At King's College, Cambridge, he read English for two years, but dec-ided it was not what he calls a "coherent discipline". He turned to law. "My father," he told me, "had always admired lawyers because at a key stage when he was building his garage business, he had been very well served by a lawyer and, unlike most people, I was brought up to believe that lawyers were good influences and that the law was a worthwhile profession."
At first, Alexander thought he should be-come a solicitor, but was persuaded by Kenneth Polack, a famous tutor at King's and a lifelong friend who died earlier this year, to go to the Bar. He embarked on a reading programme - the biographies of great advocates like Carson, Hastings and Marshall Hall. They excited him, but he feared he lacked the necessary confidence to perform in court. "I found it very difficult to speak in public, I never plucked up courage to speak at the Cambridge Union, although I really wanted to. But then it was different going to court; you had a clear, ordered role and did not have to jostle to be heard. You had a brief, you had something to say and you said it within an ordered scheme of events." Indeed, the inflexible, seamless quality of his advocacy won Alexander the nickname "the welded rail". "Sometimes," he says, "one was galvanised in court, but there is no substitute for preparation, and perhaps I carried that slightly too far - I would prepare all my questions so that if I got the answer yes, I would go one way, and if no, another way. It meant that you thought through the various permutations in advance." This is a habit of mind which, according to those who work with him at NatWest, has stayed. Alexander is rarely ambushed in argument.
His style in court was said to be conversational, but this is misleading: rather than oratorical fireworks, he had a good line in dry mockery - when he represented Jeffrey Archer in the most celebrated libel case of the past 20 years, Alexander had this to say during cross-examination of a newspaper editor: "Oh, I am coming to your principles on morality, Mr Montgomery, fear not." His manner never faltered, even to the extent of offering Monica Coughlan, the woman who had received money from the novelist, a box of tissues when she broke down under his cross-examination. "The preparation," he says, "is a very lonely exercise because the only way you can do it is to sit down at a table and simply write. In Jeffrey's case, we rose on a Thursday and I had until Monday to prepare my final speech. I spent the whole of the Thursday and Friday in my study writing out every word. Then I spent Sunday going through it with my family, trying to make it sound as if it was impromptu, because it's important that these things carry life."
He was made a QC in 1973, but his celebrity in the law did not come until the late Seventies, by which time Lord Denning had helpfully added to his reputation by naming him the best barrister of his generation. He appeared in a number of high-profile cases: for the Govern-ment against union membership at GCHQ; for Kerry Packer against the Test and County Cricket Board; for Geoffrey Collier, the City's first convicted inside trader; and for Ian Botham, who fought a suspension from Somerset for bringing cricket into disrepute. His last case at the Bar involved fighting against the Jif lemon company in a complicated dispute over the rights to the little plastic lemon container. It was perhaps then he decided that he had done enough to demonstrate his versatility in the law.
At his peak, Alexander had been earning something in the region of pounds 500,000 a year, but by the end of the Eighties he could afford to look beyond the law. The natural progression for an eminent QC would be the bench, and indeed he was offered the opportunity to be a High Court judge. But although he is a passionate supporter of the British judiciary, there was something about the life that did not appeal, and he began to look towards the City. He was 51, his children from the first marriage (David now aged 31, Mary, 29, and William, 25,) were all but grown-up, the big expenses of life were over. He had bought all the houses he could possibly need, and in fact was beginning to think that he was overburdened with property - he had a country house near Aylesbury, a villa in Spain and a house in Islington, north London. Today he has a small place in the Dordogne and the almost ambassadorial establishment in Little Venice, where we talked.
Nonetheless, there were any number of respectable City figures who could have succeeded Sir Jasper Hollom at the Takeover Panel. But the job was in the gift of the Governor of the Bank of England, and Robin Leigh-Pemberton decided that he needed someone without obvious political and City allegiances. He knew Alexander and had admired his chairmanship of the Bar Council, which had coincided with a rather stormy episode in relations with Mrs Thatcher's administration. Alexander stands his ground and had not appeared remotely bothered by publicly taking on Lord Mackay or Lord Hailsham about the arrangements between barristers and solicitors.
He was regarded as a success at the Takeover Panel, and two years later was approached by Lord Boardman to become the chairman of NatWest, which was then beset by the problems of its subsidiary, County NatWest, and that outfit's handling of the Blue Arrow share offer. Clearly, word had got around that Alexander was more than just a competent lawyer; Lord Rothschild, for instance, testified to the remarkable clarity of his mind. He accepted the job, but not before talking to his close friend Lord Benson, who was chairman of the Royal Commission on legal services (like Polack, he also died this year). "He was," Alexander remembers, "really a surrogate father figure to me. He was someone very precious to me."
The move from the essentially solitary conditions at the Bar to the management of a big City board and a bank with a workforce of 110,000 was bound to present problems; "I found it much harder than I was expecting. I believe in case management in the law, but then you were only ever working with a small team in which decisions could be taken quickly and you were visibly responsible for them in court. There is an enormous gulf betwen this and the corporate life where the structures are more formal, more driven by committees. It was the hardest period of my life." It might also be said that it was the hardest period in the lives of the thousands of NatWest employees who lost their jobs, and in those of the hundreds of small business customers who lost NatWest's support in the recession.
The immediate problem was Blue Arrow, and the terrible effect the affair had had on the reputation of the bank; and when, in 1992, there was a hint that the bank had misled Department of Trade investigations into the whole sorry mess in 1989, Alexander wrote directly to Peter Lilley, the Secretary of State, and, rather unusually, asked him to re-open the inquiry, which Lilley did. It was, by general consent, absolutely the right thing to do and put an immediate stop to the gossip. But it's also the sort of thing you might expect from someone who has made his life in the law. There were other, less tractable, problems to do with the general culture of the clearing banks, which during the Eighties had relaxed their lending policy and, in fact, had competed with the other banks to extend loans - NatWest was as guilty as the others in this, and was, moreover, determined to be recognised as the most powerful High Street bank.
For his shareholders, it was a blessing that Alexander came to the City and banking without these macho obsessions about size. He saw that the bank needed to reduce its costs and, within the past five years, some 35,000 NatWest employees have left - the overall reduction comes to about 20,000 because the bank has increased its marketing staff by 15,000. Alexander has this to say: "Because many people had joined the bank on the principle of a 'Job for Life', I took this to the main board for debate, but the fact was we couldn't sustain it. Yes, for those in their forties and mid- fifties, it was very tough indeed." Tough, indeed.
Alexander was, of course, notoriously unfamiliar with banking practices when he arrived in the job, and had, in his first two years, to learn an enormous amount about finance and the economy. This he attacked as if it was an extended brief, mastering as much of the detail as he could while providing the vision for the bank. There must have been moments of acute self-doubt even in someone as polished as Alexander, and it is said that he relied heavily on his third wife, Marie. (He had fallen in love with her while working at the Bar - a former model, she had read law at the LSE and qualified as a barrister - and they travelled together a lot during his last years at the Bar and his first years with NatWest because he finds hotel rooms lonely.) But he never for one moment thought of returning to the law. Instead, he played tennis vigorously, went to the theatre and enjoyed his friends, one of them a schoolmaster in Hertfordshire who has been his close ally ever since they were at school together.
The use of the informed amateur is declining in the City - not before time, some say - but Alexander is generally reckoned to have done his job well in the past five years, attracting board members such as Sir Charles Powell, Mrs Thatcher's former adviser, and Sir John Banham, former head of the CBI. He has also presided over the appointment of a new Chief Executive, Derek Wanless, a Cambridge Double First in Mathematics who had worked in the bank all of his professional life. To take the brightest available person in the organisation was, strangely, a rather bold move in the world of clearing banks.
Having passed through a number of baptisms of fire in his new profession, he began to pick up the traditional sidelines of the great and good. He had already served as a Trustee of the National Gallery; now he was asked to join the committee of the MCC, and to become a governor of the RSC (his first ambition was to be a playwright). He is also a keen reader, and has just finished Evangeline Bruce's Napoleon and Josephine and Robert Harris's Enigma. If he had to pick a Desert Island book, "It would be Other Men's Flowers, Lord Wavell's anthology of poetry which he wrote from memory during the desert war. If there is one book that would not disappear from my bedside, that would be it."
The doubts he had when he took over NatWest in 1989 are gone. You could not meet a more self-assured person. And he has the confidence and knowledge to entertain a much broader world view than he would had he agreed to become a High Court Judge. Still, there is clearly a part of him which will be forever based in the Middle Temple, and he feels deeply about the widening gap between politicians and the judiciary. "There is a clear breakdown in confidence between the two," he says. "I have to start by thinking that we have a pretty good judiciary; if you list their virtues, they are uncorrupt, they have ethical integrity and they are pretty competent taken overall.
"It seems astonishing that, at the Tory party conference, someone should suggest that members of the public who disagree with judicial sentences should write in. Those members of the public don't know the facts of the case and haven't been in court. I mean, are we to suggest that people give their views at the same time as picking up their National Lottery ticket?" It was the only time I saw him remotely exercised, although it's interesting to note that his expression did not alter. He is, I reflected, exceptionally controlled, maybe even a little too steely.
In his view, the crucial development that began just before he left the law was, as he put it - and he means it - "the wonderful doctrine of judicial review" - the means by which a member of the public may challenge the Government or any other official body for abuse of its powers in court. Judicial review is the reason the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, is currently so exercised about the judiciary, for it is under review that his actions are so often found to be wanting or illegal. "When I began at the Bar," Alexander observed, "it was virtually impossible to win a case against the Government. The attitudes have changed, but why? Well, Gov-ernment power has increased and judicial review has been a reaction to that, in the sense that the task of judges is to confine the executive to the proper exercise of its powers. What is interesting is that politicians had accepted this - I mean, you never heard Margaret Thatcher, or Douglas Hurd, or Geoffrey Howe inveigh against judicial review. The respect for decisions was there. Yes, I think the executive today should lay off the criticism." Michael Howard, take note.
I wondered if he had felt any decline in the ethical standards of his contemporaries in the past few years - after all, he had gone to Nat West at a time when anxieties about City abuses were at their peak. "Well, certainly at the Bar," he said, "I think ethical standards are as high as anywhere in any legal profession in the world. The more general point is that the old City accepted insider trading: the old City didn't have anything like the SIB [Securities and Investments Board] regulating the mis-selling of pensions. In fact, what I see is people trying to raise standards. It used to be the case that you could say 'My word is my bond', and now we have a situation where conversations between traders are tape recorded - which you could say is less attractive. But, overall, there is a clear impetus to see financial services well regulated." This is the answer you would expect, for he clearly does not approve of the "old City", of the three-hour lunches, the favours, the handshakes and the furtive little irregularities.
I asked about the qualities he felt were necessary to lead a major clearing bank into the next century. On this, he was curiously vague, but eventually produced an answer: "At the top, you must set the tone, provide the ambience in which others can work. Obviously determination comes into it, particularly in the difficult times, but I think in a sense that it is about indicating to other people where you want to go and getting the best out of them."
He's pretty clear about where he wants the world to go; the taste for command, a taste that could not wholly be met at the Bar, is clearly there. For example, for this series I have asked each subject what he felt was the most destructive force in modern life. The answers were pretty mixed: Charlie Parsons said greed; Stanley Kalms intrusive regulation by government; John Grieve seemed to hint at the interaction of poverty and drug abuse. Alexander's response was surprising: "Internationally, I think it's the failure to create a new world order which respected human rights and which meant that we could avoid the genocide in Europe. I also feel that while many of us agree that it is right to trade with China, one cannot feel comfortable about their human rights record - especially in Tibet. In short, I think we are making more progress in enhancing free trade in the world than we are in enhancing our respect for human rights." One is surprised at the passion - and the sense - of this. After all, there are very few business leaders prepared to think beyond commercial considerations, beyond the vertiginous growth of south-eastern China, to that country's tyrannical regime.
But he has a grand view of Britain, too, and of its problems: "The main thing is our loss of national confidence. Europe is a good illustration; I think we have misplayed our hand in Europe, very disappointingly. We had the op-portunity to shape the community, but we stood aside and declined it. I think that reflects the fact that we don't feel confident about our very considerable abilities.
"It is right that we should be fiercely self-critical, but you look at our strengths in financial services, the strength of our theatre, the quality of our parks, the brilliance of the National Trust, and you realise that there are so many areas that we just don't value. I wonder whether this pervades the whole conduct of politics; whether politicians subconsciously feel that the game is simply about managing decline. If we could just change this, it would lead to a different attitude on so many issues - improving education, reshaping social security. If we believe that we could succeed, then we can."
Robert Alexander believed he could succeed, and he did, though in a way that could not have been expected even of "the best barrister of his generation". He has added sheen to what was already a class act, and with it has come sup-reme self-assurance. He is probably right about Britain, and the world, but he must forgive us if we are not quite as confident as he is. !
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