I miss his impatience with dullards, the loud laugh at the wrong time

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK, there was a party in London to celebrate the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Baltic states. Great figures and grave envoys jostled with the most peculiar and shadowy individuals. It was fun.

The ambassadors of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (he was the one with the blond beard) welcomed the guests. The Russian ambassador turned up, which was correct but rather courageous. Not many people knew what to say to him, until an elderly lady took him under her wing and launched into affable conversation: startled glances established that this was Baroness Thatcher. With perfect tact, he left before the speeches and toasts, during which the Iron Lady - who swung many a handbag for Baltic independence - received compliments and posed for the photographer.

It was fun, but I missed Mark. A few days before, Lord Bonham- Carter died of a sudden heart attack in Italy. It was strange not to see him at a do like this, a lean figure with a glass of whisky, his grey eyes narrow with enjoyment or hooded with boredom. Mark experienced boredom not as discomfort but as an instant, excruciating pain which he could only endure for a few seconds. Elegantly, rudely and with loud laughter, he would say anything which came into his head in order to escape.

The obituaries described him almost as a lost leader. He was certainly born into the purple, but in the wrong empire: descended from Asquith, related to the Grimonds, friend of the Royal Family, he belonged to the dynasty of Liberal grandees which had lost its throne. He would have made a memorable impact in a Liberal cabinet, but probably a brief one. Impatience with dullards, and that loud, barking laugh at the wrong moment, would have made too many enemies. Instead he did lesser jobs with much flair: the first chairman of the Race Relations Board, a BBC governor, the chairman of the Anglo-Polish Round Table for 20 years, a publisher, eventually a peer who could always wake up the House of Lords.

I knew him only in his Anglo- Polish function. In Mark's time this was a Cold War job, an attempt to maintain contact with the 'real' Poland through meetings with Poles nominated by the Communist regime. For some people, in both countries, this was a pointless, even slightly shabby exercise in appeasement. In reality, it was not at all pointless.

The game, at which Mark excelled, was to persuade the Polish side to include in their delegation at least a few people of independent mind as well as the usual suspects. If this came off, the formal meetings could become lively, treating the British side to firework displays of all the ill-concealed feuds and dissensions which always tormented Communist Poland. The closing communiques were unspeakably dull. But that was a price worth paying.

In the evenings, Mark would gather the bolder Poles and their friends round a bottle of whisky and a carton of cigarettes, and reckless discussions would break out. They had much to tell us and we had a lot to learn. The dreary official economists, the stuffed 'experts on foreign affairs', the suave police informers, stayed away. There remained people who wanted Poland to be again free and democratic, but who differed violently about how this could be brought about: with the party or against it, by Western concessions or by Western sanctions.

In these meetings I began to grasp the many-layered, patrician nature of Mark's approach to politics. He was a Whig, a friend of Liberty, to whom all governments based upon repression and lying were disgusting. At the same time, he saw politics in terms of individuals rather than of ideas. If he liked somebody, he liked them warts and all, and gave not a damn about other people's doubts and warnings.

In the same way, there were dedicated Western crusaders against Communism whom he dismissed - sometimes with monstrous unfairness - as sanctimonious creeps. He could not stand Margaret Thatcher. On the other hand, he was devoted to his Polish co-chairman, Professor Jan Szczepanski, whose melancholy charm and candour compensated for many painful compromises. Mark, who once wrote admiringly about 'the role of the trimmers' in the Cold War, saw in him a man trying to preserve sanity with little hope of success and no hope that he would be thanked for it.

In a way, this Whiggish self-confidence, this personalising of politics and disdain for ideology, was in the spirit of what passed for British Ostpolitik in the last Cold War decade. To maintain contact, to find people with whom 'one could do business', was the object. Only when the regime did something insufferable (like the suppression of Solidarity in 1981) or denied all access to its dissenters did contact become pointless. But the policy had its limits. When 'dissent' became 'opposition', when a choice between a repressive regime and an actively rebellious nation could no longer be avoided, the Round Table formula was futile.

We hit those limits in May 1988. Mark was our chairman when the Round Table gathered at a chateau outside Warsaw. Solidarity was reviving; strikes were breaking out again. The regime, less than two years from final collapse, had its back to the wall. At the Round Table's first evening, some Poles attacked us with paranoid anger. Next morning I attended a short, nasty trial at which Janusz Onyszkiewicz, who had debated with us a few years before, was jailed on false evidence. When I reported this to the Round Table, later that day, the British side mutinied and after anguished discussions resolved to break off the meeting and go home.

At that moment, I respected Mark more than ever. Privately, I think he was appalled. We were breaking all the rules. We were acting politically, not diplomatically. Worst of all, we were insulting our hosts in a way that might take many years to repair. Although he liked Janusz and all that he stood for, he suspected that some Cold Warriors in his team had come to Poland solely to break the Round Table up. But in spite of that, Mark rose to the moment.

He left it to us. When the British side withdrew to 'consider its position', some of the arguments made for staying on were shameful. Mark did not support them, but listened and waited. Afterwards he grew cheerful again. He was scathing about a few people, but exhilarated by the drama as a whole. Poles he liked were delighted by what had happened. There was a frightful mess to clear up, but what the hell] He shook his head, and laughed.

I will miss Mark, but especially his style. For him, the difference between good and bad was too obvious to wrangle over. What mattered most was loving friends and hating enemies. A candid crook was dearer to him than a shifty saint. Perhaps that is a lordly attitude, rather than a Liberal one. But few now can afford it, and shifty saints inherit the earth.