Lord Alexander of Weedon

'King of the Bar' who became chairman of NatWest

In some respects Bob Alexander - the distinguished lawyer and banker Lord Alexander of Weedon - resembled the heroes from the novels of C.P. Snow. Like them, he was a self-made man from a modest background who ended his life as a chartered member of the great and the good with all the self-confidence this implies, though he was not vain or conceited, merely fully aware of his qualities. These attributes were reinforced by his impressive appearance and lofty height - of six feet four inches. He also had the rare capacity to speak in perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs even though he was not naturally articulate.

Thanks to these qualities, allied to great intelligence, application, sense of responsibility, and conscientiousness, he became known as the "King of the Bar" well before his 50th birthday.

His background was totally undistinguished, for his father had been the owner of a petrol station at Newcastle-under-Lyme in the Potteries. His parents financed him through Brighton College and he went up to King's College, Cambridge, without any clear idea as to his future career. He read English for two years but did not find it a "coherent discipline" and turned to the law - encouraged by his father, who had been greatly helped by a lawyer at a key moment in his business life.

He was lucky to be taught by Kenneth Polack, a famous law tutor, who guided him away from his original idea of becoming a solicitor into a career at the Bar. Even in 1961 this was something of a gamble for someone without any private means. But he was immediately successful, a QC within 12 years. Lord Denning described him as "the best barrister of his generation".

As chairman of the barristers' trades union, the Bar Council, he created a major storm when he asked for judicial review of a change in legal fees proposed by Lord Hailsham, then Lord Chancellor and normally one of Alexander's heroes. The request, partly based on what Alexander claimed was lack of prior consultation, was unprecedented, but successful when Hailsham backed down.

Despite his success, Alexander had hesitated before taking up his career, because, as he told an interviewer, "I found it very difficult to speak in public. I never plucked up courage to speak at the Cambridge Union." Yet advocacy perfectly suited his brilliantly organised mind. Speaking in court was something that came naturally to him, for, as he once said,

you had a clear, ordered role and did not have to 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.

He was frighteningly thorough in preparation, which even he admitted sometimes went too far. "I would prepare my questions," he said,

so that if I got the answer yes, I would go one way, and if not, another. It meant that you thought through the various permutations in advance.

His obvious seriousness, sense of responsibility and lack of the oily over-articulateness found in many successful advocates enabled him to persuade judges of the soundness of his cases.

During a career of over a quarter of a century at the Bar he acted for the Thatcher government in its case against trades-union representation at GCHQ, for Kerry Packer against the Test and County Cricket Board, for Geoffrey Collier, the City of London's first convicted insider trader, and for Ian Botham, whom he represented in fighting a suspension from Somerset for bringing cricket into disrepute.

But his most famous case was when he represented Jeffrey Archer in the most sensational libel litigation of the last quarter of the 20th century. In doing so he demonstrated two major qualities: ruthlessness and thoroughness. He destroyed the late Monica Coughlan, the wretched prostitute at the centre of the defendants' case, by his implacable cross-examination. It merely made matters worse when he offered her a box of tissues after she had broken down in the witness box having given evidence that turned out to be a more accurate account than that provided by Alexander's client. More impressive was the way he prepared his final speech. "The preparation," he said later,

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.

Alexander was a master of the modern "conversational" style of advocacy.

Nevertheless by the late 1980s he had decided that he needed a career change. His children were grown-up and he had bought houses in London, near Aylesbury and in Spain as well as the house in the Dordogne that became his favourite residence. He had no real need of money, for he had been earning the then fabulous sum of £500,000 a year. He had been offered a High Court judgeship and could even have gone directly to the Court of Appeal. But he could not resist the challenge of moving into another world, for, like many successful barristers, he felt that he was more intelligent than the great majority of his clients.

As Chairman of the Bar Council he had fought attempts by successive Lord Chancellors to diminish what he perceived as the independence of barristers and the pretensions of solicitors. His efforts had so impressed Robin Leigh-Pemberton, the Governor of the Bank of England, that in 1987 he was asked to take the role of Chairman of the Takeover Panel, then the only effective regulatory body for the City, and this led, two years later, to his appointment as chairman of NatWest Bank, a job he accepted only after consulting the accountant Lord Benson, who had replaced Polack as Alexander's guru.

Unfortunately this proved to be the only role in which he did not distinguish himself. The last of the breed of amateur bank chairmen who had ruled the banking roost for so many years, Alexander never showed any signs of grasping the essentials of national or international banking. He admitted that he had found the change of environment very difficult. "There was an enormous gulf," he said, between the informal world of chambers and "the corporate life where the structures are more formal . . . it was the hardest period of my life" - though he proved to be a quick learner. The bank had been in trouble ever since the mid-1970s when the then chairman was forced to deny that it was bankrupt as a result of the slump which followed the first oil crisis of 1973. It was known as the "banana-skin bank".

Three years after he became chairman Alexander took the bold step of appointing as chief executive NatWest's most brilliant employee, the 44-year-old Derek Wanless, a maths graduate from Cambridge, and together they managed to reduce the bank's previous over-staffing - a step made the easier because Alexander had none of the career banker's traditional obsession with size rather than profits. But throughout the 1990s the bank was perceived as a "perennial under-achiever", unsure of its aims, rebuffing an approach from Barclays and trying, unsuccessfully, to create partnerships with Prudential and Abbey National.

In 1994 NatWest abandoned the idea of buying a building society and returned to the investment banking scene with disastrous results, for Wanless needed as chairman someone with the breadth of experience of the financial world which Alexander so notably lacked. Within a couple of years of Alexander's departure, NatWest had been taken over by the much smaller Royal Bank of Scotland.

A sometime chairman of MCC and the Royal Shakespeare Company, Alexander emerged in the last 15 years of his life as a powerful, and liberal, voice in social and constitutional affairs. He was chairman of Justice and of Crisis, the organisation designed to support the homeless. His only book, a series of essays, The Voice of the People: a constitution for tomorrow (1997), showed the wide range of his intellectual interests, but also his lack of originality and a style vitiated by a patronising attitude emphasised by the way that it had obviously been dictated, not written.

He was in frequent conflict with what he obviously regarded as the sloppiness and lack of organisation of the Blair government. He was a member of the Jenkins commission which recommended that a fifth of MPs should be elected through proportional representation, a report which, as he said, was "kicked into the long grass". And he was a vocal opponent of the Blair government's plans for reform of the House of Lords and the judicial system - which "bore all the hallmarks of change worked out on the back of an envelope".

Alexander's moral qualities were shown at their best in his attack on the legal agenda behind the decision to go to war in Iraq. In a lecture he declared that the Attorney-General was forced to "scrape the bottom of the legal barrel" to give legitimacy to the attack on Iraq, and, after analysing the relevant provisions of the United Nations Charter as possible justifications for the attack on Iraq, he concluded that it was "risible" for the Government "to rely on the Resolution 678 passed in 1990 to liberate Kuwait as the basis for an invasion of Iraq in 2003 which ministers knew that the UN would not authorise".

Alexander was married three times. In 1985 he found lasting happiness when he married Marie Anderson, a beautiful, sparky Irish barrister and former model.

Nicholas Faith