Books: If you don't like it, sell your shares

WEINSTOCK by Alex Brummer and Roger Cowe, HarperCollins pounds 24.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN HIS time Arnold Weinstock has played many corporate roles ranging from the young property developer to the billion-pound electrical proprietor hiring former cabinet ministers for his staff. Such a career highlights a distinctive phase in post-war British economic and social history. It needs an historian's touch similar to that conferred by Peter Mathias on Unilever. This book, subtitled "The Life and Times of Britain's Premier Industrialist" is the product of two journalists. It is self- evidently not a work of scholarship but it is an engaging read even if it is stronger on anecdotes than economic analysis.

The book helpfully reminds us how steep and sustained was the early Weinstock climb. Orphaned at an early age, he was evacuated from North London to Warwickshire. He was buttressed by a strong Jewish background and a devotion to hard work, studying statistics at the London School of Economics (in war-time residence at Cambridge). The LSE then sparkled with the brightest lights of socialism, but Weinstock showed little interest in politics and was unimpressed by Laski.

Shortly after the war he made his first steps in wealth creation. He entered the property market, bringing his formidable accountancy skills and his Herculean appetite for work. Marriage to Netta Sobell redirected his life. Her father, Michael, manufactured TV components and had links with EMI. Eventually Weinstock joined the business and made it clear that he intended to be the dominant manager. It seemed only natural given his vigorous youth and fine-tuned accountancy skills. "Weinstock the boss" was a recurring theme. His sense of industrial destiny was fostered when he was approached by GEC, then a lacklustre company desperately in need of new management. His reputation was well known in the industry, and GEC made a bid for Radio and Allied which effectively put Weinstock in charge of the merged group. There was growing concern then that British industry had been living on past memories. The authors make the point with the story of Sir Leslie Gamage, a GEC director and his wife who gave extravagant dinners at Claridges for the ladies and friends of the overseas GEC "which were reported in the Times court pages". Marie Antoinette could have been a non-executive director.

There was a growing concern that a sharp professionalism was desperately needed. This mood coincided with the general feeling that Britain also needed political and social reform. Although Weinstock always kept at arm's length from politics, he had at least an emotional sympathy for the Wilson government. He felt that the old school tie was choking industrial and commercial life. On the other hand he had a reverence for the balance sheet that would have charmed a Tory, and he also held little enthusiasm for such hallmarks of Wilson policy as the National Plan and the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation.

In the mid-1960s Weinstock was well positioned to make bids designed to group most of the British electrical industry around GEC. This was achieved with the linking of GEC, AEI and EE. He cleverly manoeuvred the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation so it should assist in this process. There now proceeded a rather different relationship between Weinstock and the Government. Whitehall rather than the High Street had become the great market place. There were conflicts over power-station design and strong arguments over defence contracts. It was hardly surprising that Michael Heseltine was judged to be the minister who best understood the national needs of industry.

One can well understand the frustrations of Weinstock. In defence equipment he was often outfaced by foreign competitors who had the backing of their governments. The decision of the British government to buy American early- warning equipment rather than the GEC Nimrod system was public and humiliating.

On the other hand the Weinstock business philosophy seems to have changed. He now talked of the need for planned purchasing almost with the enthusiasm of those who promoted electrical cartels in the 1930s. Once again a growing industrial conservatism led him to oppose the privatisation of BT. His reputation in the city faded, and even his prudent accounting was questioned.

Weinstock became one of the many businessmen who denounced Conservative government policy in the 1980s which, it was alleged, was depressing output and producing a high and harmful exchange rate. This view was argued by a Lords Committee of which Weinstock was a member. Nigel Lawson, then Chancellor, with gusto rubbished the report. Later he was subjected to the well known Weinstock assault by telephone.

The closing years at GEC were ill-starred and in contrast to the great successes of the 1960s. The tragic death of his son Simon showed how scant had been the preparation for a successor. For too long the view had been that if shareholders didn't like the company they could sell their shares. It was an outmoded view and although it showed the giant had feet of clay, it could not be denied that in his day Weinstock was a giant.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the 1798 Irish rebellion against British rule, Weidenfeld & Nicolson have published a revised and updated edition of Thomas Pakenham's The Year of Liberty: The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 (pounds 20) adding many more illustrations. (The original edition has also been re-issued at pounds 14.99). Pakenham bases his account on contemporary sources, scrutinising events in the context of the war between Britain and France and the revolutionary fervour sweeping through Europe. His four-part approach is uncluttered and straightforward - Conspiracy, Rebellion, Revolution, Olive branch - steadily recounting and analysing the unfolding drama, but what makes his book so attractive is the seamless integration of the text with a multiplicity of visual sources - caricatures, portraits, posters, cartoons, and maps showing the sites of battles - and informative captions. The illustration above is from 1798 with the great English Whig Charles James Fox (left) and the British radical Horne Tooke (right) caricatured as the creatures of French democracy. Diona Gregory

Comments