The Blessed Arnold, king of fix and fudge

Lord Goodman by Brian Brivati (Richard Cohen Books, £20)
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The Independent Culture

LORD GOODMAN, otherwise known as "the Blessed Arnold" or "Four Dinners", embodies the ethos of the Sixties. He straddles its key aspects: Profumo and Private Eye ; Vassall and Rachmanism; the Arts Ministry and the Open University. He was the chief Quangocrat, the ultimate fixer, both bête noire and éminence grise .

LORD GOODMAN, otherwise known as "the Blessed Arnold" or "Four Dinners", embodies the ethos of the Sixties. He straddles its key aspects: Profumo and Private Eye ; Vassall and Rachmanism; the Arts Ministry and the Open University. He was the chief Quangocrat, the ultimate fixer, both bête noire and éminence grise .

Goodman was omnipresent. He ran the arts, launched Centre Point, bought off the unions, led the newspaper owners, represented private medicine, headed an Oxford college. In the mid-Seventies, he was serving all three party leaders at once: as Wilson's lawyer and trust chairman, as Heath's secret agent in southern Africa, and as Thorpe's minder in legal grapplings with Norman Scott. In his too, too solid flesh, Goodman typified Old Labour corporate man.

Brian Brivati's readable biography sheds new light on this clay-footed titan. It was no easy task, since Goodman's memoirs were anecdotal and he left no papers. As always, oral evidence from journalists and other contemporaries (who often had a private agenda) is not the best substitute. Even so, Brivati successfully penetrates Goodman's complex and recessive persona.

He also ably confronts allegations that Goodman was a bully, a liar and a thief. The verdict is mixed. The first charge is clearly correct, the second sometimes valid (as in handling the affairs of Lord Boothby and Thorpe), the third (relating to the Portman estate) very probably untrue - although without documentary evidence, it is hard to be certain. On the other hand, the good that he did (sometimes at a price) in active promotion of the arts, adult education, and the Motability scheme for the disabled, emerges equally clearly. This was a profoundly enigmatic man, but one who in many ways left an honourable legacy.

Goodman's rise and rise began as a solicitor. He made his name in a libel case, shielding Labour's Morgan Phillips from accurate charges that, during a socialist congress in Venice, he had been blotto on the Rialto. A man of law whose skills extended into the demi-monde of private influence, public relations and moral blackmail, Goodman defended Labour during the Vassall scandal and intrigued shamelessly to conceal Lord Boothby's and Tom Driberg's links with gangland and the homosexual world. He was, a fellow lawyer observed, "not a detail man". But as an élitist go-between with synoptic vision and an eye on the main chance, he defined an era.

Politically, his entrée came via Harold Wilson's bloodhound and dirt-gatherer, George Wigg. From then on, Goodman ascended remorselessly. Wilson made him chairman of the Arts Council; Goodman's commitment here was reinforced by his love for Jennie Lee. The latter resisted sex: "How can I love that body?" Patricia Hollis's biography of Lee suggests that Goodman had a lucky escape.

Wilson used him for a rich mix of roles, fixing the newspapers and the BBC, and even for private sorties to Ian Smith. Goodman told Roy Jenkins of Wilson's impending resignation. But, like others, he found Marcia Falkender impossible and Wilson's 1976 "lavender paper" honours list deplorable. Callaghan avoided him, while for Mrs Thatcher, Goodman symbolised the worst excesses of the ancien régime . The ultimate insider became an outsider, this time for good.

Goodman was a paradox - gregarious loner and unassuming snob; dedicated bachelor who adored rich widows; adviser for left-wing politicians, though with no settled convictions; proud Jew who played the cricket-loving English patriot; instinctive cultural conservative who nurtured the avant garde; a man who lusted for power but had few creative ideas on its purposes.

The king of fix and fudge, Goodman was summed up by Kenneth Tynan as "a fanatical compromiser". What defined him was his style, not his agenda. No one better illustrates Edward Shils's "English disease": the cult of secrecy. Now, in a post-corporate age of devolved accountability with a forthcoming Freedom of Information Act, Goodman's method may be placed alongside another of the totems of his time - Monty Python's incontestably deceased parrot.

The reviewer's books 'The People's Peace' and 'Callaghan: a Life' have been republished by OUP

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