Dominic Lawson: As Lord Rogers has learnt to his cost, never mix business with political idealism

His decision to host the Planners for Justice meeting threatened to cost his practice a great deal of money
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The Independent Online

To Lord Rogers of Riverside, it must have seemed such a little favour for an old friend. On 2 February, New Labour's favourite architect, creator of the Millennium Dome, hosted at his offices the inaugural meeting of a group calling itself Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine.

The newly-formed lobby group was the brainchild of the architect Abe Hayeem, a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause, and a friend of Richard Rogers for many years. By all accounts, Rogers made some introductory remarks, and then left after about a quarter of an hour.

According to Mr Hayeem, the group went on to discuss the Israeli security barrier on the West Bank and the possibility "of targeting the use of Israeli products, materials and equipment... People involved in major building projects could make sure that anything manufactured in Israel can be excluded in their contracts". But of course, Lord Rogers would know nothing about that.

Or that is what he now wants everyone to believe; for Rogers' decision to host that meeting has threatened to cost his architectural practice a very large sum of money. The Richard Rogers Partnership, you see, had recently been selected to design the $1.7bn [£0.98bn] expansion of the Jacob Javits convention centre in New York. And the late senator was the doughtiest defender of the Israeli state ever to hold public office in America - which is saying something.

It did not take long for enraged local New York politicians and Jewish benefactors of the Javits centre to glean the full details of the obscure meeting in Rogers' London office, not least because the British publisher Lord Weidenfeld wrote a deeply pained letter to Rogers saying that "the main thrust of your argument seems to be your negation of Israel's right to build a wall for self-protection" - and this letter seems to have travelled very quickly across the Atlantic.

About as quickly, indeed, as Lord Rogers, who, although in the early stages of recovery from a heart operation, leapt on a plane to New York and immediately hired Howard J Rubenstein, the city's most celebrated PR man, who is especially in demand from people who need to get out of a deep hole with maximum velocity.

Howard J Rubenstein immediately issued a press release entitled: "Statement from Architect Richard Rogers". Note the absence of the title. New York Jews might well have thought that this meant that Rogers was a member of the British aristocracy and therefore genetically anti-Semitic.

Anyway, "Architect Richard Rogers" said that "The security fence between Israel and the Palestinians has proven to prevent many suicide bomber attempts and deaths. And I am in favour of it to thwart terror attacks on Israel. I call upon Hamas to renounce terrorism and recognise Israel's right to exist. Just making a statement is not enough. I unequivocally renounce Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine and withdraw my relationship with them."

As a letter to the Jerusalem Post observed, "By tomorrow Rogers will be ready to make Aliyah and join Likud." Rogers' wife is the dazzlingly successful cook and restaurateur Ruthie Rogers, but even the brilliant Ruthie will not have been able to make that monumental portion of humble pie taste anything other than foul to their old friend Abe Hayeem.

Naturally Lord Rogers is now being denounced as a hypocrite, willing to abandon his principles for the sake of a lucrative contract. This may be very unfair. My own suspicion, rather, is that his political principles have never been deeply thought out; he is one of those awfully nice people who want to be liked by everyone, and will do anything to be thought well of.

Not entirely unlike Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who last month voted with the majority of the Church of England Synod to call on the Church's investment committee to divest all shares in Caterpillar Inc, in protest at the firm's involvement in the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes.

Dr Williams seems to have been genuinely shocked and surprised at the fury this evoked in his friend the Chief Rabbi, and must now be greatly relieved that the investment committee have rejected his recommendation. They seemed to have realised, among other things, that the Caterpillar bulldozers' main work in the region in recent months has been the demolition of Jewish settler homes - which is of course absolutely fine by the Church of England.

My advice, for what it's worth, is that Caterpillar shares have had a fantastic run on the New York Stock Exchange in the past few months, growing 50 per cent in value since last October, and the Church should now sell and take the profits. And if they seriously want to benefit the Palestinian people, they should plough the proceeds into investment in businesses in the Palestinian territories.

But naturally they will not dream of doing such a thing. Such investment would be highly risky and certainly would not pay a regular dividend to fund the running of the Bishops' Palaces, or the pensions of the clergy. Of course, the investment committee would argue that they have a fiduciary duty to maximise investment returns.

So, instead, perhaps those among the substantial majority of the Church of England Synod who called for the divestment of Caterpillar shares might agree to invest part of their salaries in hard-pressed Palestinian businesses - in other words actually do something to help the objects of their very public compassion, rather than indulge in cost-free moral posturing. Will that happen? The second Coming would be more likely to happen first.

What this demonstrates, I suppose, is that those in public life should be very careful before embarking on moral campaigns, lest people think they actually mean it. Politicians now know this very well, of course, but businessmen are less wary.

A couple of years back, the pub chain Wetherspoon proclaimed that it would make all its premises no-smoking by May 2006. Its website has a big no-smoking sign in the middle of the home page. Articles on the site boast of such prizes as the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation Gold National Clean Air Award. The noted beer writer - there is such a thing - Roger Protz wrote: "It's good to see Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin putting his money where his mouth is by announcing that all his pubs will be smoke-free by 2006."

Unfortunately, last week Mr Martin announced that this plan had been dropped, explaining to his shareholders: "We had hoped that people who didn't like smoking would come flocking to our pubs, but they've flocked elsewhere, it seems."

Or in other words, Mr Martin has now put his mouth where his money is. Just like Lord Rogers of Riverside.