Profile: The making of a national sophisticate: Sir John Cuckney, his life at the centres of power

Click to follow
ON THE telephone at the start of the Scott Inquiry Sir John Cuckney was tinglingly alert. 'I will talk to you in the interests of accuracy,' he said. 'First, though, let us be clear. We are speaking off the record.'

'No,' the reporter said, 'on the record.'

'On the record?' Sir John replied. 'Well, then, let us talk for a while and see what happens.'

What happened was not much. The reporter jousted with the former MI5 officer, City banker and company director. Sir John played his cards with grace, charm and intelligence, and gave little away. A week or so after the interview he had his PR man buy the reporter lunch. Now, as the Scott Inquiry draws to a close, it is possible to glimpse his damage-limitation strategy.

Lord Justice Scott has laid bare the injustice and squalor of a government that put British businessmen who spied for the Crown in the dock. Scott has exposed the rococo pantomime that parodies human communication in Whitehall. But he has left unexplored that corner of British life in which Whitehall, the City, and the intelligence world intersect: the corner in which Sir John serves as headmaster.

As a City man and public servant with a background in espionage, Sir John is merely the latest in a long line of cosmopolitan, debonair types who make crucial decisions bearing on British life beyond the reach of Parliament. Unlike his predecessors, however, Sir John has become something of a public figure, and this has happened at a time when the hidden element of Britain's governance has become an issue.

Tall with bushy eyebrows, soldierly in bearing, expensively dressed, Sir John remains physically impressive at 68, although an inevitable frailty is creeping in. Known since the 1950s to the cognoscenti, he became a celebrity in the Eighties when Peter Wright 'outed' him in his book Spycatcher.

Describing his own induction into MI5, Wright wrote: 'The training programme was the responsibility of a tough, no-nonsense officer named John Cuckney. We got on well. Cuckney could be downright rude, but I soon realised that he was just tired of knocking into shape young MI5 recruits of generally poor calibre. He was altogether different from the average MI5 officer. He refused to submit to the monotony of the dark pinstripe, preferring bolder styles. Cuckney was his own man and had broad horizons beyond the office.'

The question about Sir John is whether in the pursuit of the broader horizons Wright remarked upon he has helped his country, or harmed it.

Those who share Sir John's view of the world see him working with like- minded mandarins in the Fifties to preserve Britain's security and prosperity in the face of Communism. They see him working in the City in the Sixties to liberate himself from the grubby exigencies of making a living. They see him in the Seventies labouring as a public servant to shore up Britain's crumbling mixed economy. And they see him in the Eighties frustrated and dismayed as Margaret Thatcher's analysis of Britain's shortcomings failed to produce policies addressing them.

''Sir John,' says an acquaintance, 'had high hopes for the Iron Lady's revolution. Those hopes have given way to a certain sense of disappointment.'

Sir John was born in India in 1925. Who's Who states that his father was a Vice Air-Marshal, although no details are given of his mother or his first wife. His second wife, whom he married when he was 35, is Lady Muriel, whose landscapes, painted at the family home in Folkestone, Kent, have been exhibited at the Chelsea Arts Club.

Sir John went to Shrewsbury School and graduated from St Andrew's University. In 1940-41 he studied to become a doctor but, while fighting with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, he changed his mind. From 1949 to 1957 he was a spycatcher or, as Who's Who puts it: 'Attached War Office (Civil Assistant, General Staff)'.

In 1958 Sir John gave up spying for banking. He went to work for the Standard Industrial Group, a stockbroking offshoot of the Cowdray empire, the great Victorian conglomerate that evolved into S Pearson. In 1961 he became a director of Lazard Brothers, another Cowdray offshoot. A banker who was interviewed for a job at Lazard by Sir John recalled: 'He didn't seem that enthusiastic about the place.'

Seven years later Sir John became the first director to resign from Lazard in 100 years. He and a City colleague, Sir David Alliance (who is now chairman of the Midlands textile company Coats Viyella), established Anglo-Eastern Bank, specialising in trade finance between Britain and the Middle East.

In 1970 Sir John took the first of a string of public sector posts in the Heath and Callaghan governments dismantling, consolidating and modernising the relics of Empire. In 1971-72 he rescued the deeply indebted Mersey Docks and Harbour Company, scaling back its operations and workforce.

In 1974-75 he acted as chairman of the Crown Agents when this legacy of colonialism faced insolvency. Sir John turned the part of Crown Agents selling British guns, tanks and jet fighters abroad into a separate company called International Military Services, and was appointed its chairman.

There he oversaw IMS's spectacular success in selling Chieftain tanks and Rapier missiles to Iran under the Shah, and then arranged to keep an Iranian- staffed office open in Tehran after Ayatollah Khomenei's Islamic revolution in 1979.

Cuckney has also served as chairman of Royal Insurance, Brooke Bond Tea, and the construction company John Brown. While at John Brown he visited Washington to try to persuade President Reagan's adminstration that the West should not stand in the way of the Trans-Siberian Pipeline.

Currently Sir John is deputy chairman of the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo, maker of the world's top anti-ulcer medicine. He is also head of the charitable trust seeking a settlement for the pensioners of the late Robert Maxwell's companies.

In the early Eighties Sir John was a director of Midland Bank when it ran a secretive unit financing defence sales abroad. The unit employed a shadowy former intelligence operative named Stephan Kock as a consultant. Kock has been mentioned as a go-between in the Pergau Dam affair. Sir John maintains that while at Midland Bank he had nothing to do with its defence finance unit, and that he has never met Kock.

Mrs Thatcher appointed Sir John as chairman of Westland Helicopters in 1985, when the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. Michael Heseltine resigned from Thatcher's Cabinet when a crucial 7 per cent stake in Westland was sold to an American company, United Technologies, rather than to a consortium of European companies.

Mrs Thatcher and Sir John have always maintained that the deal with United Technologies was done because it served Westland's financial interests. But documents lodged in a court in Washington tend to put these financial interests in an unattractive light.

These documents allege that United Technologies intended to sell its own helicopters to Saudi Arabia via Westland as part of the pounds 20bn Al Yamamah arms deal that the British struck with the Saudis to get around US law. The documents suggest that Westland was part of a complex conspiracy to bribe Saudi princes to buy United Technologies helicopters.

In 1987 Sir John was deputy chairman of TI Group when TI sold Matrix Churchill to TDG, a British-registered, Iraqi-owned company. Sir John's position is that this sale was perfectly above board: Iraq was already a customer of Matrix Churchill, and the Department of Trade had approved Matrix Churchill exports there.

Sir John was also chairman of the government-owned venture capital group 3i, the largest shareholder in the British munitions group Astra when, in 1989, Astra bought a Belgian company called PRB, later identified as supplying the propellant for Gerald Bull's Iraqi Supergun. Cuckney's friends note that none of these links suggest wrong- doing. They merely show him where the action is on the Whitehall, City and defence-related front.

His supporters praise his puckish sense of humour and wary skill in dealing with the media in the face of pesky journalistic curiosity. Sir John has told reporters his hobbies include yak-stalking and dipping his worry beads into cool water.

According to a City banker: 'John Cuckney is one of the old school. He is discreet, modest and competent.' While Unilever's chairman declared after negotiating with him: 'He is a man with a tremendous sense of duty. He knows the game from A to Z. He is one of the best, if not the best, non-executive chairman in the country.'

He thinks big, too. At the height of the Eighties takeover boom he fronted a multi-billion hostile bid for GEC, the giant defence company. A friend notes of this piece of ultimately unsuccessful audacity: 'Perhaps Sir John was bored at the time . . . The poor chap has to have some fun in life, doesn't he?'

Some of those following Sir John's career had hoped it might get an airing before the Scott Inquiry. But it has not. Sir John Cuckney has not been called as a witness.

When it appears in the autumn the Scott Inquiry report will, doubtless, shake the national rafters. Ministers may resign. Changes may be made to the way in which government functions. But the underlying culture out of which Matrix Churchill and the Scott Inquiry grew looks likely to remain unexamined.

Reporters who talk to Sir John - unattributably and off the record, of course - say that a certain note of George Smiley-type disenchantment has crept into his voice of late.

He is not, however, the fictional creation of John Le Carre. He is real, and so is his power. Whatever note of disenchantment may now be discernible in his voice, there is no evidence that Sir John thinks there should be any fundamental cultural change in the secretive, clubby way in which Great Britain is governed.