Of Kings and Kingmakers

BLOIS, France, May 12 (UPI) — I met Lord Holme of Cheltenham five years ago in Prague. He was the chairman of the English College Foundation and was the former chairman of the British Liberal Democratic Party — a free-market, centrist party for those who do not understand the classic term liberal. We became friends. He lost his fight to brain cancer last week.

Richard was a remarkably agile 71. He became a member of Global Panel America’s Advisory Board two years ago. Among his fellow board members were former Canadian Foreign Minister Barbara McDougall (chair), former U.K. Defense and Foreign Minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind (vice chair) and, from the United States, former Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim (vice chair), former Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat and former Undersecretary of State Tom Pickering.

Like many of his generation, the Right Honorable Lord Holme of Cheltenham was as strident as he was unapologetic in his loyalty to the United States. Born in 1936, he was 4 years old when his father died in the war. He studied law at St. John’s, Oxford and took a business degree from Harvard. His toughness and sense of purpose were gained in military service with the 10th Gurkhas in Malaya where he was a young officer.

In 1971 he left for southern California to become vice president of the magazine publisher Communications Research Machine. He spent five years in California and built a formidable network. In his life, Richard was a senior manager at Unilever, vice chairman of Rio Tinto, a partner at Lever Brothers and director at Penguin and Pergamon Press. He was able to translate his business acumen into political success, something taken for granted in the United States but indeed very rare in Britain.

In 1983 he helped the Liberals achieve a huge popular vote that did not transform into seats because of Britain’s winner-take-all system. In 1997, as Liberal-Democrat campaign chair, having learned his lesson, he helped the Lib-Dems muster 46 seats — a huge success in a year when Tony Blair cleaned the clock of the Conservatives.

He was a superb strategist and confidante of Lord David Steele, the chairman of the Liberal Party, and later Paddy Ashdown, the chairman of the Liberal Democrats — the result of the merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties. He knew all the good and famous in and out of U.K. politics. To his enemies, he spent 30 years as the phantom behind the scenes — the kingmaker.

“Lord Holme was immensely committed to everything he undertook — he was not someone who accepted titles and positions simply for the sake of ego,” said Barbara Day, the anticommunist fighter and senior fellow of the Prague Society who served with Holme on the English College Board. “The idea to establish an English gymnasium (high school) in post-communist Prague was derided by many. But there was a history from pre-war Czechoslovakia with the English Grammar School. Lord Holme was not about to let this project be blocked.”

Richard had a special place for young people. It was the reason he showed passion and dedication to the English College Foundation in Prague. During the 1980s he became an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford; visiting professor of business administration at Middlesex Polytechnic; and a director of the Political Quarterly. He was on the Board of Advisers of Babson College in Massachusetts and chancellor of Greenwich University in Britain. He especially enjoyed time with his grandchildren.

In Prague, Richard always stayed in the Marriott Hotel. “It is one of the few hotels with a pool,” he would say, his eyes glowing. We would meet and have many single-malts. “I will only have one today, Marc,” he would say somewhat warningly. And every time, we would have many more together. U.S. politics was our favorite topic, though public policy in general was always on the agenda.

Our meetings were never long. Either he or I was flying off somewhere. They were always very intense. About 2-1/2 years ago we had a long talk about life in general. “I must tell you, Marc, I am very sick.” It was then he told me he had cancer. I was stunned. He swore me to secrecy.

We met at the beginning of the year at the Royal Automobile Club in London; Richard was extremely concerned about the general decline of America’s reputation worldwide. We intended to meet in London a month ago; I had to cancel because of the U.S. primary campaign. I regret that so much.

Richard was known for saying the things nobody else wanted to say and for making the decisions nobody else wanted to make. His detractors begrudged him this.

Lord Holme was easily underestimated, seemingly absentminded and distant. It all belied a steely self-determination and superb mind. He was nobody’s fool.

He was indeed the kingmakers’ kingmaker.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist who straddles the continents, he is an alumnus of the Maxwell School, Syracuse. He was a visiting fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford.)