Alistair McAlpine was larger than life. He was highly individualistic, a man who not only indulged his pleasures but made a good living from them.
He was born into wealth, a scion of the McAlpine construction company, and as a young man had already made his name in politics and the arts. Politically, he was a Thatcherite. His 15 years as Treasurer in the Conservative Party, from 1975 to 1990, coincided almost exactly with Margaret Thatcher’s term as party leader. He was a successful fund-raiser for the party, which spent all that he raised and more. He had a love of the arts and ran what, in the 1980s, was a flourishing antiquities and curiosities shop in London, in Cork Street. In these years he enjoyed the high life and invitations to his parties at the annual Conservative conference were eagerly sought. He was small (5ft tall), cherubic, generous and gregarious.
Life in the 1990s turned sour for McAlpine. His health declined, his business turned down and his great patron, Mrs Thatcher, was ousted from No 10. He was never reconciled to her downfall, regarding it as an act of treachery by the party. He spoke and wrote in the public prints with contempt of John Major. He would have probably done the same whoever replaced her. In 1996 he sold his home in England and lived in Venice. In the 1997 general election he resurfaced as a prominent supporter of the Referendum Party and was expelled from the Conservative Party, although he rejoined it later. Like an 18th century politician, McAlpine gave his devotion to causes and politicians rather than parties.
It is not an exaggeration to say that McAlpine’s interests were also his accomplishments. He was a collector of art and rare books, an expert gardener, set up a zoo in Australia, served on culture quangos and wrote polished articles on these activities for journals as diverse as The Spectator and Country Life. He was also a political commentator. His dyslexia meant that his editors had to work hard on his manuscripts.
He made a living out of his hobbies. In his early twenties he had opened a showroom in Sloane Square to sell plastic mouldings of his plastering and painting company. He decided to brighten up the shop by adding antiques. He became an habitué of galleries and collected and sold the most unlikely objects – beads, urinals, police truncheons, cacti, rag dolls and Soviet manifestos. He would sell them and, a manic collector from childhood, start again.
Alistair McAlpine was born in London in 1942, in the Dorchester Hotel. The family had provided the money for its construction and his father, Sir Edwin McAlpine, was its deputy chairman. Alistair lived in comfort for the rest of his life and later claimed, “My bottle came with the room service.” His schooling at Stowe was not a success. He left with only a handful of “O” levels, and what impressed him most at Stowe were the beautiful gardens. His talents were practical, imaginative and entrepreneurial rather than bookish. At 16 he joined the family firm of civil engineers. He enjoyed his apprenticeship on the building sites and drank heavily with Irish labourers.
McAlpine’s father was a hard businessman but also a successful networker. He had charm and cultivated contacts to gain construction contracts. Young Alistair saw prominent politicians, businessmen and theatre people at his father’s table and may have inherited this bent as well as his father’s strong conservatism (his father was given a peerage by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, taking the title Lord McAlpine of Moffat, four years before Alistair received his, as Lord McAlpine of West Green).
Alistair McAlpine’s dual interests in politics and the arts were well established by his early thirties. He was involved in the pro-EC movement and was made deputy treasurer of the cross-party Britain in Europe campaign which fought the successful referendum on British membership in June 1975. Soon afterwards Thatcher asked him to be Treasurer of the Conservative Party, following the resignation of the two existing treasurers. Both resignations were quickly withdrawn and so McAlpine had to be part of a troika. The other two resented his presence, particularly when it became clear that he was the most successful fund-raiser. Within three years he was the sole treasurer.
He made a successful double act with Jock Bruce-Gardyne, temporarily out of Parliament. Over lunches they warned businessmen of the dangers that another spell of Labour government would do. He also organised conferences for industrialists. At the time he was strongly supported in Central Office by the party Chairman, Lord Thorneycroft.
The Conservative Party spent heavily to win the 1979 general election. McAlpine blandly told Saatchi and Saatchi, the party’s advertising agency, that there was insufficient money to pay them. They would have to wait and, meanwhile, could bask in the glory of their association with the Conservative success. This was his happiest spell in the party.
In 1980 McAlpine fell out with Thorneycroft, who was trying to cut costs and tried to dismiss him. He also had no time for the director of the party’s research department, the young Alan Howarth who, in 1996, defected to Labour. McAlpine was an admirer of Cecil Parkinson, chairman between 1981 and 1983, but again chafed under Parkinson’s successor, John Selwyn Gummer. McAlpine tended to divide his political associates into heroes (and one heroine) and villains or fools. When faced with the latter, he might absent himself for months on end, sometimes going to Australia and sometimes pretending to. He operated out of a bijou terrace house in Great College Street, near the Party headquarters in Smith Square, but had built a hotel and created a zoo in Broome, Western Australia, and liked living Down Under. He knew that he always had Thatcher’s confidence and was a regular visitor to Chequers at weekends.
As Treasurer he handled the large donations from Asil Nadir and Octav Botnar before they had trouble with the law; in 2012, when Nadir was found guilty of fraud in a British court he urged the party to repay the donation. He defended the right of donors to retain confidentiality and the independence of the Treasurer from the party chairman. He felt free to spend money, helping Conservative MPs in financial difficulties and financing private opinion polls in 1986-87 without telling the then chairman, Norman Tebbit. He organised lunches in No 10 for industrialists to meet Margaret Thatcher and to help Party funds. As Treasurer he was unsympathetic to the idea of budgeting; if the Party needed to spend money it should assume that it could raise it.
These attitudes did not survive long after he left Central Office. Within a few years of his leaving the Treasurer had been made responsible to the chairman and donations were made public.
In late 1987 McAlpine went for a medical check-up and the doctor was so horrified at the condition of his heart that within hours he was on the operating table; he required six bypasses. During the annual Party conference the previous week he had hosted lavish parties every night into the small hours. He needed to take it easy and in July 1990 he resigned as Party treasurer. This was a bad year. His antiques business was affected by the recession, his beautiful National Trust home at West Green in Hampshire was blown up by the IRA (it had earlier been damaged by fire in 1973), his father, to whom he was not close, died and a friend, the MP Ian Gow, was assassinated, also by the IRA. Worst of all, his political heroine was forced to resign as Prime Minister.
McAlpine became disillusioned with politics, particularly Conservative politics. This was expressed not only in vindictiveness against John Major but also in cynical writings about politics and the dangers to national identity posed by the European Union. He knew more about the inside of politics than most commentators. He had also seen the worst side of human nature as rich businessmen, without subtlety, made clear their expectation of a political honour in return for a contribution to party funds.
Not surprisingly, his zest for public life fell away. “I feel about politics the way I feel about everything in my life,” he once said. “You’re either in it or you’re out of it; I’ve never dabbled.” He rarely attended the Lords and 2010 he stepped down from his seat to preserve his non-domiciliary status, following changes to the British tax code.
McAlpine served unhappily as a member of the Arts Council in 1981-82. Earlier he had helped to found the Institute of Contemporary Prints and served constructively as a Council member of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. He was a patron of many causes, often associated with the arts.
At the age of 21 he married Sarah Baron, four years his junior. The marriage was dissolved in 1980 when he married Romilly Hobbs, to whom he was married for more than 20 years. There were two daughters by his first marriage and one from his second. In later life he lived in Venice, marrying Athena Malpas, 27 years his junior, in 2002. They settled in Puglia, in southern Italy, and lived in an old monastery which they converted into a bed and breakfast business.
In 2012, at the age of 70 and in poor health, he made headline news in the UK for the wrong reasons when he was mistakenly implicated in a child abuse scandal in a Wrexham care home many years earlier. Both the BBC and ITV made unreserved apologies and paid damages and costs. He successfully sued the many people who had repeated the allegations on Twitter and Facebook and donated many of the funds to charity.
McAlpine was an accomplished writer and wrote The Servant (1992), Letters to a Young Politician (1995) – which gave full vent to his cynicism about the political game – Once a Jolly Bagman (1997), a volume of memoirs, and the self-explanatory Adventures of a Collector (2002).
A Conservative official with a passion for works of art
It is hard to imagine any Conservative Party official other than Alistair McAlpine spending evening after evening engrossed in composing and stringing together necklaces of antique glass Venetian trade beads – and then exhibiting them at the high fashion store Joseph, as he did in 1992, writes Annabel Freyberg. But then such a wide-ranging passion for objets d’art and natural wonders as that he displayed is rare and thrilling wherever it occurs.
McAlpine charted his artistic explorations in “Journal of a Collector”, a regular column in the magazine The World of Interiors, which was published in book form under the same title in 1994. It was an eclectic, international and unflaggingly upbeat record, covering such delights as the best Stetsons in Texas, the cherry blossom season in Japan, pearl diving or shell shops in Australia, and the centuries-old botanical gardens in Padua, along with unsung museums and exciting new fashion or furniture designers: things to buy, but most of all things to wonder at.
His copy was almost illegible and his spelling atrocious, but he had a brio and knowledge that made you want to see what had so appealed to him. In one column he described the early influence of his prep school, housed in the Wiltshire home of the traveller and explorer General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, whose ethnographic spoils were even then displayed in the buildings.
His pursuit of things rare and strange brought to mind the antique tradition of the cabinet of curiosities. So it was with his shop, Erasmus, in Cork Street, the then heart of the London contemporary art world (he sold up in 1995). It was packed to the gills like an Aladdin’s cave: stuffed kiwis alongside medieval sculpture, archaeological finds, narwhal’s tusks and tribal art. It was highly idiosyncratic and extremely decorative: he had a fine eye. His house at West Green in Hampshire showed the same sumptuous mixture – one bathroom, in particular, combining stuffed birds and rich fabrics.
Inevitably, some enthusiasms had to be abandoned as new ones took hold. The contents of West Green and Erasmus were both sold at Sotheby’s, and Venice became a new home and focus. The collecting bug, however, never diminished, and bore fruit in 1998 in Collecting & Display (co-written with Cathy Giangrande), a book which focused on the habit itself and on the pleasures and practicalities of displaying your treasures. It is as surprising and varied as Alistair McAlpine himself.
(Annabel Freyberg died in 2013.)
Robert Alistair McAlpine, politician, businessman, collector and writer: born London 14 May 1942; Director, Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons 1963-95; Hon Treasurer, European League for Economic Co-operation 1974-75, Vice-President 1975-; Hon Treasurer, Conservative and Unionist Party 1975-90, Deputy Chairman 1979-83; cr. 1984 Lord McAlpine of West Green; married 1964 Sarah Baron (divorced 1979; two daughters), 1980 Romilly Hobbs (divorced 2001; one daughter), 2002 Athena Malpas; died 17 January 2014.