THE LIFE of John Poulson is best understood in terms of his influence, both on the lives and careers of the many people he encountered, many of whom came to ruin and disgrace because of him, and on the course of British politics after his downfall. Much of the change in popular perception of the Labour Party during the Wilson era was due to the growing corruption of safe, large, spending Labour councils, particularly in the north-east of England; this benefited the other major parties because it was from 1970 that many traditional but disillusioned Labour electors changed their votes.
John Poulson was born in 1910 in Knottingley, a small village in the Yorkshire West Riding where his father owned a pottery and some slum property, and was affluent enough to send both his sons to a public school. The Methodist doctrine of self-help and individualism was engrained in Poulson early, the accompanying moral tenets of probity never took. He did badly at school and at Leeds College of Art but nevertheless was articled to a Pontefract firm of architects, Garside and Pennington. He did not last long there, being inept at drawing, but his father, in spite of opposing his chosen profession, backed him to start his own practice. Colonel Hustler, his previous employer, said at the time: 'Have you heard that Poulson's starting on his own? Christ, he couldn't design a brick shithouse.'
Poulson took full advantage of the Thirties depression, paying poorly and working hard himself to make others do the same. A workaholic, he demanded total application from his employees and sacked them when they would not work his way. In 1939 Poulson obtained exemption from military service, which enabled him to extend his practice during the war and he was well-placed for the post-war boom. He also by then knew many politicians of all parties.
He married Cynthia Sykes in 1939 and his wife's desire for social position and wealth was a further incentive to success. Her sister Lorna was married to John King (later Lord King of Wartnaby), who made a success as Managing Director and Chairman of Pollard Ball and Roller Bearing Co.
By 1949 Poulson was well established and using his political contacts to obtain large-scale civic work. He noted that many councillors had substantial financial power but were themselves living on small incomes and he used bribes as his main weapon, being often surprised how much work he could obtain with small inducements accompanied by lavish hospitality. In the Sixties he built a series of public hospitals and grandiose new town centres with public money - including the Arndale Centre, in Leeds. By 1965 the practice was one of the largest in Europe with a turnover of more than pounds 1m and a net profit of pounds 96,000; in 1966 it was pounds 1.16m, with a net profit of pounds 112,500.
In June 1972, pressed for unpaid tax by the Inland Revenue, Poulson made his first appearance at Wakefield County Court, in Yorkshire, to be examined as a bankrupt. At first his debts were estimated at pounds 250,000, but four years later the figure had risen to some pounds 1m. Reginald Maudling, the Conservative MP, who had formerly been chairman of two of Poulson's companies, resigned as Home Secretary.
Poulson was prosecuted for conspiracy the following year. It was the largest case of public corruption brought in Britain this century, but it was played down politically because both major parties were involved and the public had only seen the tip of the iceberg: a fraction of the 27,000 files on the case has been made public and, as the Salmon Committee on Standards in Public Life put it: 'We doubt if Mr Poulson would ever have been prosecuted but for his bankruptcy and his habit of meticulously preserving copies of everything he wrote or that was written to him.'
Poulson's first conviction, for which he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in February 1974, related to the development of a winter sports centre at Aviemore; during the case he gave evidence for 10 days. A senior civil servant, George Pottinger, seconded to work on the Aviemore project when Under-Secretary at the Scottish Home Department, was convicted of corruption with the same sentence in the same trial, after receiving gifts of money and a car from Poulson.
The following month Poulson received a further sentence of seven years, to run concurrently, on further charges of conspiracy, and a close associate of Poulson's, T. Dan Smith, the former Labour leader of Newcastle upon Tyne City Council and a public-relations consultant to the Labour Party, was imprisoned for six years on charges of corruption.
When Edward Milne, a totally honest politician, became Independent Labour MP for Blyth, in Northumberland, he found himself courted by the Poulson organisation and frozen out when he refused to collaborate. His one-man campaign against the corruption he unearthed led to his expulsion from the party.
In the House of Commons, three former business associates of Poulson's were strongly criticised in a report by an all-party Select Committee on Members' Conduct in July 1977. Maudling and Albert Roberts, Labour MP for Normanton, were deemed to have acted inconsistently with the standards of the House. John Cordle, Conservative MP for Bournemouth, was deemed to have abused his membership of Parliament. He later resigned.
A book on the subject, Nothing to Declare, by Martin Tompkinson and Michael Gillard, suggests that the bankruptcy proceedings instituted in 1972 were much hindered by unusual pressure put on Muir Hunter QC and the rest of the legal team representing the trustee in bankruptcy, and all involved in the case found themselves both lamed and discriminated against in their careers.
The Poulson case was the bankruptcy of the century until the death of Robert Maxwell, but it was more far-reaching. Not only did many towns lose their old civic centres with all their historic period charm for needless and often ugly facelifts purely for the benefit of Poulson and to better the lifestyles of MPs, councillors and civil servants, but the Labour Party, associated until then with idealism and welfare, largely became seen on the grass-roots level as the party of free-spending, public waste and corruption.
Poulson was released from prison in 1977, and lived quietly and in seclusion thereafter. A bluff Yorkshireman on the surface, his talent was salesmanship. He was persuasive, a good judge of character, who believed every man has his price and he could usually assess what it was, but his boundless ambition was certain to go aground on the too obvious greed of others. John Cobb, the QC who prosecuted him, summed it up: 'John Poulson was an ambitious, ruthless and friendless man whose object in life was to get as much money and work as he could by bribery and corruption.'
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