Lord McAlpine, The Englishman Who Transformed Broome, Has Died, Aged 71

Lord McAlpine with wife Athena in 2004. Photo: Dave Bennett / Getty

Alistair McAlpine, the developer, art collector, raconteur, author and British Conservative Party fundraiser who turned the remote West Australian town of Broome into a famed tourism destination, has died, aged 71.

Robert Alistair McAlpine was a true polymath, his cherubic features disguising an incisive mind that at times made him appear politically quixotic.

The peripatetic Baron McAlpine of West Green could also add zookeeper (he founded the Pearl Coast Zoo in Broome), publisher, gardener, arts patron, gallery owner, house restorer, fundraiser, Life Peer and most recently, hotelier to his numerous job descriptions.

Born in London in 1942 – in a hotel room at The Dorchester (which his family built in 1931) – he left school at 16 to work in the construction empire his great-grandfather started. He had dyslexia, yet went on to write several books on business, art and memoirs on his experiences with his political idol, Margaret Thatcher.

In The New Machiavelli he took the lessons of the Italian Renaissance-era politician and applied them to the art of business with cheeky panache. He was also a dab hand at political satire. Bagman to Swagman, his second memoir, is a love letter to Australia and Broome, the pearling town he transformed in the 1980s. The first, Once a Jolly Bagman, recalls how his ventures in Australia made him a very wealthy man.

He first came to Australia in 1959, by boat on the SS Oriana, returning in 1964 to Perth – “a big farming town” – as a developer, building office blocks and the city’s first five-star hotel, the Parmelia.

It was the start of a lifelong love affair with Australia. He headed to “ramshackle” Broome in 1979 with plans to collect seashells. “I wouldn’t say it was the most inviting place,” he told ABC Radio when he returned there in March 2012 to accept the town’s highest accolade, Freeman of the Municipality.

He bought a house with a sign saying “4 sale” from a man after he came back from the pub, and went on to sign the deal for the Cable Beach site on the back of a beer coaster.

The 1910 property bearing his name, McAlpine House, which he bought from the family of the original pearling master owner and restored, is a prime example of the local vernacular architecture – latticework verandahs, weatherboard and corrugated iron – he helped preserve. He lived there for a decade in the 1980s as he transformed the town by building its signature $55 million Cable Beach Resort.

A quintessential Broome experience, Sun Pictures, the world’s oldest open air cinema, built in 1916, was owned by McAlpine.

His passion for gardening, especially frangipanis, saw him plant out the city, giving Broome the tropical feel it enjoys today. He also had shares in a pearl farm and in part laid the groundwork for the reputation Broome pearls now have.

A bronze bust of McAlpine, with bush hat on, and a cockatoo on his shoulder, now stands outside the resort in tribute.

At the height of his powers, Alistair McAlpine had an Australian property portfolio worth an estimated $500 million, but the 1989 airline pilots’ strike destroyed his tourism business and he was forced to sell a number of assets to cover his losses.

His friend Sarah Stein recalls how, despite his English establishment background, he had a knockabout demeanour that made him equally at home with locals in the pub as his Tory peers.

“He loved Australia. One of his best friends was Snowy, a pearl fisherman who he met when he first arrived there. He enjoyed the company of hard-working locals as much as artists, actors, collectors and prime ministers,” she said.

His time here also fanned his passion for Aboriginal art. McAlpine was an avid collector and was equally concerned about the plight of indigenous people.

Art was a lifelong pursuit – he collected American artist Mark Rothko long before the price of his works matched their critical acclaim. He was whimsical too, building a collection, then selling it, in order to fund his next pursuit, as well as donating a substantial number of works to leading art galleries, including the National Gallery of Victoria and Art Gallery of NSW.

At one point, his passion for collecting included rare breed hens and police truncheons. London’s The Telegraph recounts an apocryphal tale from the 1980s of a McAlpine secretary telephoning customs to get an acquisition released, saying: “No, it’s not Lord McAlpine’s penis. It’s a dinosaur penis.”

His political dalliance began after meeting Margaret Thatcher in 1975. He was the Conservative Party’s deputy chairman for four years and as treasurer for 15 years, he wined and dined Tory benefactors with a vigour and success that remains unsurpassed. Prime Minister Thatcher rewarded him with a peerage in 1984, but when she was felled in 1990, Lord McAlpine turned against the party and John Major (and later, William Hague), joining billionaire James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in the mid-1990s. He was expelled from the Conservatives.

He remained in the House of Lords and eventually rejoined the Tories, but resigned from the Lords in 2010 following tax law changes that would have seen Italy-based McAlpine paying resident taxes.

For such an avid Thatcherite, his political views were intriguing. His 1995 book Letters to a Young Politician was a darkly comic and cynical jab at his past two decades. He once told The Guardian that he’d legalise marijuana (he tried it, but “never found it satisfactory”) and wanted a sliding VAT (the English GST) that taxed caviar at 100 per cent and made potatoes VAT-free.

His attitude to life and his passions was revealed in the quote “I feel about politics the way I feel about everything in my life. You’re either in it or you’re out of it, I’ve never dabbled.”

He was believed to be an IRA target and twice escaped bombings – in 1984 at the Brighton Hotel where the Conservative Party conference was being held (he famously convinced Marks and Spencer to open early so those evacuated in pyjamas could get clothes to attend the conference) and in 1990, at West Green House, a National Trust property he vacated a few weeks earlier.

Lord McAlpine first married at age 21 and had two daughters with Sarah Baron. He married again in 1980 and had another daughter with Romilly Hobbs. His third wife, Athena Malpas, was 32 when they married in 2002. Together they’d found a run-down 14th Century former convent in Puglia, at the bottom of Italy’s heel, and set about turning it into a “humble B&B”. Il Convento di Santa Maria di Costantinopoli opened in 2003 and was filled with Lord McAlpine’s art and library.

Australian visitors would be struck by the Aboriginal and Sidney Nolan (another passion) paintings. In the bathroom there were newspaper cartoons from his time in Australia, as well as the occasional ribald cartoon about Baroness Thatcher. Artists such as Anselm Kiefer would holiday there.

It was a quiet life until a BBC2 Newsnight report in November 2012 said a “leading Conservative politician” was involved in child abuse. It led to a flurry of speculation on Twitter and Lord McAlpine was falsely implicated, most notably by the Parliament House Speaker’s wife, Sally Bercow, comedian Alan Davies and newspaper columnist George Monbiot.

McAlpine sued for defamation, winning £310,000 in damages from the BBC and ITV, which he donated to charity, before taking aim at Twitter. He dropped claims against Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers, asking for donation to BBC Children In Need. While Monbiot and Davies apologised and agreed to do charitable work, and others also settled out of court, Bercow apologised belatedly and offered to settle, but refused to concede that her tweet was defamatory.

So he sued and the High Court found in McAlpine’s favour.

His years as a bon viveur first caught up with Lord McAlpine in 1987 when he had his first round of heart bypass surgery, followed by another round in 1999, during which complications led to a tracheotomy.

He died peacefully at his Southern Italian home on Friday.

You can listen to him talk about his experiences in Australia in an ABC interview here.

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