Dame Shirley

Jay Rayner

Dame Shirley Porter would not agree to talk in her flat in Israel, overlooking the sea. ‘People write about gold taps and that sort of thing,’ she said, accurately. Instead we would take a trip by boat down the Yarkon River which flows through Tel Aviv on its way from the hills of the West Bank to the Mediterranean and which is indisputably filthy. In 1997 three athletes at the Maccabi Games—the Jewish Olympics—fell into the water when a bridge they were crossing collapsed. They later died, not from injuries incurred when the structure gave way, but from poisoning. The river mud, it was discovered, was polluted with lethal toxins poured in by factories further upstream.

We set off in the boat piloted by Dame Shirley’s ‘environmental adviser’. It was fiercely hot and sunny. Dame Shirley pulled a floppy straw hat from her shoulder bag, put a shielding hand above her eyes, and scanned the bank like an explorer. Soon she had identified the enemy.

‘What’s all that stuff?’ she said, waving towards the water’s edge.

We looked. Plastic wrappers and old bottles, a couple of cans and some dirty paper clung to the damp earth. Dame Shirley had found litter.

‘It’s from a private picnic,’ her adviser said.

‘I don’t care what it’s from,’ Dame Shirley said. ‘It shouldn’t be there. It should be cleaned up.’

Dame Shirley has always hated litter. Crisp packets, fag ends, Coke cans, redundant packaging and human detritus of all sorts—in London, these were the things that turned her into a politician. In Israel, however, litter is only one of her many causes. Further upstream on the Yarkon lie the beginnings of a nautical centre, where schoolchildren will learn to canoe and sail, and possibly swim when—if—the water tests clean enough. It is being built in memory of Dame Shirley’s grandson, Daniel, who was killed in a car crash in Israel in 1993 while he was on military service, from funds supplied by the Porter Foundation. Two miles away to the north is the campus of Tel Aviv University, where Sir Leslie Porter, her husband, is Chancellor. It is rich with buildings and projects endowed by the Porters. There is the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics and the Shirley and Leslie Porter School of Cultural Studies. There is the Cohen-Porter Family Swimming Pool at the Elite Sport Centre, the only Olympic-standard pool in the country, where Sir Leslie Porter swims occasionally. The Porters have endowed academic posts and set up scholarship funds and made annual donations for books and equipment. They have given large amounts of money to Israel for the past thirty years, even when they didn’t live there, and they continue to give money now that they do.

Until 1994, Britain was their home, the source of their wealth and their titles. Shirley Porter is a Dame of the British Empire, just as the actress Judi Dench is a Dame of the British Empire, as is the novelist Iris Murdoch. From the perspective of Israel (and most other republics) such chivalric orders may look rather quaint; the days have long gone when their various divisions—baronets, marquesses, Knights of the Garter—gave their owners some idea of where they stood in the ranks between commoners and the monarch. Now they are handed out by governments, via the Queen, as honours for services to the nation—in politics, in acting, in literature; stamps of approval from the Establishment. Within the Cohen-Porter family it could almost be called tradition. Dame Shirley’s father, Jack Cohen, was made a Knight of the Realm, the male equivalent of damehood, in 1969, because he dipped into the fortune he made from his supermarket business, Tesco, and gave generously to charities. Dame Shirley’s husband, Leslie, who became chairman of Tesco in 1973, was made a Knight of the Realm in 1983 because he, too, gave a lot of his money to charity. This turned plain Mrs Shirley Porter into Lady Porter. But that dignity only reflected her husband’s glory: she could be forgiven for saying, when she collected her honour in 1991, that it was ‘nice to have a title of one’s own’.

Why should Dame Shirley and her husband leave this climate of esteem and come to Israel? There are several answers to this question, but one of them is the wish—for a change—not to give money away too easily. According to a ruling reached in December 1997 by the High Court of England—this Realm, this Empire—Dame Shirley Porter owes £26.5 million to a small part of it: the London Borough of Westminster, also known as the City of Westminster (since 1900, when its first mayor was elected). She is in no mood to pay and has appealed against the judgment to a higher court. In any case, she has no assets left in England to pay with. In 1994 she sold her flat overlooking Hyde Park and her weekend cottage in Oxfordshire. Up to that year there had been 5.5 million shares in Tesco registered under her name, worth more than £10 million. In 1994 any reference to Dame Shirley Porter disappeared from the company records, either because she had sold the shares or because they had been transferred to another name. Other of her investments were moved into trusts in Panama and Guernsey.

At the time this money was on the move, a report in the Sunday Times estimated the combined wealth of Dame Shirley and her husband at £70 million. However accurate the figure—the Porters did not challenge it—none of that money remained within British jurisdiction, and neither did she. The year the money departed the Porters took up residence in a penthouse apartment at the wealthy seaside resort of Herzilya Pituach, half an hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv. They also have a house in Palm Springs, California, to which they retreat from the wind and rain of a Middle Eastern winter. Their links with Britain have not quite been severed. The Porters still attend official functions staged by representatives of her Majesty’s Government in Israel. Last June they were at the Queen’s Birthday Party, which is held every year at the official residence of the British Ambassador in the hills of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv. But other than on legal business, their visits to Britain are rare.

Dame Shirley does not see herself as a fugitive. She sees herself as a victim of history. She wrote in a letter to me: ‘As the years have passed the political nature [of the case against her] has become ever clearer. I am being hounded for who I am, for my unrepentant Thatcherism, for the sins of the Eighties, real or imagined.’

In the 1980s, the three most important women—indeed people—who lived in the London Borough of Westminster—perhaps in the United Kingdom—were: Her Majesty the Queen; Mrs Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher; Lady (now Dame) Shirley Porter. The Queen and Baroness Thatcher still live there, though there are rumours that the Royal Family might soon leave Buckingham Palace and move full time to their weekend retreat, Windsor Castle, while Mrs Thatcher lost her official residence in Downing Street when she lost the support of her party in 1990 and now has a flat in Belgravia. These two women didn’t get on: there were rumours of differences over the Commonwealth (very important to the Queen, rather less so to the prime minister), and perhaps some regal dislike of Mrs Thatcher’s regal style. Mrs Thatcher and Lady Porter, on the other hand, were allies in the same revolution. They had the same rhetoric: both believed in enterprise, initiative and ‘personal responsibility’; both believed that the state should do less and the private sector more. They hated bureaucracy. They hated, especially, the Greater London Council which until Mrs Thatcher abolished it in 1986 stood out as an awkward, anti-Thatcherite leftist rump in a city being bent to the will of the free market. (According to Lady Porter, the GLC had been using ‘the poor, the sick and the frightened people of this city as pawns in their political game’.)

Perhaps it helped that Lady Porter was Jewish. Unlike the Conservative Party at large, which was infected by a genteel anti-Semitism, Mrs Thatcher was thought, in a popular phrase, ‘to care more for Jews than Dukes’.

In his biography of Margaret Thatcher, One of Us, Hugo Young wrote: ‘It was the Jewish belief in self-help which she found most telling. As a moral code for upward mobility of the kind [she] never ceased to preach, Judaism embodied many useful precepts and could produce many shining exemplars, some of whom found their way into the prime-ministerial circle and thence into public positions including the Cabinet itself.’

Lady Porter never got as far as the Cabinet (she was never to become a Member of Parliament), but she saw herself as much more than a local politician. As the leader of Westminster City Council, she believed she was the custodian of the essence of London. Her domain included almost every institution and landmark that defines it: the royal palaces and parks, Big Ben, the Abbey where English monarchs have been crowned since 1066, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Bond Street, the Ritz, the Strand, Madame Tussaud’s, the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue, the restaurants of Soho, the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall.

All this to Dame Shirley was ‘what foreigners think of as London…the real London’, and it was all, for a time and up to a point, hers. Mrs Thatcher occupied Downing Street, and there, a mile away in her offices in Victoria Street, was her lieutenant, Shirley Porter, using Westminster as a testing ground for Thatcherite policies. Two women with sharp features and domes of lacquered hair, each of them dogmatic, each enjoying the hostility that their dogma engendered. ‘I think I must epitomize everything that rabid left-wing socialists dislike,’ Lady Porter once said. ‘They don’t like my strength and they don’t like my background.’

She reduced local taxation until it was the second-lowest of any borough in the country; she privatized the rubbish collection; she introduced ‘one-stop shops’ where Westminster residents could settle all their council business—parking permits, litter permits, rates—in one go; she talked about ‘customers’ rather than residents; she was a pioneer in the war against dog shit (Keep Westminster free of dog dirt. Clean it up). Some of her ideas came from the family supermarket business and some would become standard features of local councils throughout Britain. Her personal style, however, was more difficult to emulate.

She would walk the streets, Dictaphone in hand, recording memos to herself about broken street lights and fractured paving stones; about rubbish bins left unemptied and litter left uncollected. Council officers would be forced to accompany her on her daily stroll around Hyde Park to discuss business, or to meet her in her flat nearby, which housed a large collection of teddy bears, each carefully positioned to be tidy.

Publicity stunts came naturally to her. Once, to publicize an anti-litter initiative, she posed for photographers dressed as an Indian squaw, on the grounds that Native Americans have a deep love and respect for the land. In 1988 she gathered together Westminster’s executives and the heads of the public utilities in London—the people who ran the gas, electricity, telephone and water services—and loaded them on to a hired bus and drove them around the capital. When they reached dormant roadworks or uncollected rubbish, she stood up at the front of the bus and, using a microphone like a tour guide, ordered those responsible to come forward and confess. ‘And whose is that tatty piece of zigzag trench-filling on the left?’ she asked as the bus drove alongside the gardens of Buckingham Palace. ‘Come on. Own up. Whose is it?’ The man from British Telecom came forward and apologized publicly for a poorly filled-in hole. In Lady Porter’s Westminster there was penitence, at least.

Where did it come from, this un-English flamboyance and open ambition? Chutzpah can be only part of the answer. Shirley Porter is Jewish, but she is also a woman, born rich, and when she was growing up rich Jewish women like her were not expected to have careers, whatever their ambitions. Her father, Jack Cohen, and her mother, Cissie Fox, were the children of Polish immigrants who came to London’s East End in the late nineteenth century. Like so many other Jews arriving in Britain at that time they set themselves up in business as tailors and cutters and anglicized their names from Kohen to Cohen and from Fuchs to Fox. (A small but necessary disclosure: my family is related by marriage to the Fox family, and so Dame Shirley Porter and I are also distantly related, though before our river trip we had never met.) Tailoring had no appeal for Jack Cohen. Soon after the First World War, in which he served, he began selling cheap food to market-traders: battered cans of fruit, dried eggs of unspecified origin, Snowdrop condensed milk from New Zealand, so thick it could coat your finger like emulsion paint. Shirley was born in 1930, four years after her sister Irene, and in 1932, Jack Cohen launched a chain of shops called Tesco, putting together the initials of one of his wholesaler’s names—T. E. Stockwell—with the first two letters of his own. Today Tesco is worth over £12 billion. It has 595 stores, 420 of which are in Britain, and in 1998 declared annual profits of £900 million on sales of just under £16 billion.

In his later years—he died in 1979—he liked to dwell on this journey from barrow boy to supermarket mogul. He would say things like ‘You can’t do business sitting on your arse,’ or ‘If you lie down with dogs you’ll get up with flies,’ to demonstrate his wisdom of the streets. And as the leader of Westminster council, his daughter would often quote these earthy sayings in the cut and thrust of political argument—’My father had a motto…’—though she had grown up in an entirely different way.

In 1934, the Cohens moved from the East End to a large house in the north-west suburbs of London. Shirley was sent to The Warren, a girls’ boarding school on the Sussex coast. It was not a happy experience. She was withdrawn by her parents at the age of fifteen because, she said, the school did not want a Jew to be head girl. (‘They did not want to see the Cohen name on the roll call,’ she told an interviewer in 1993.) When we met in Israel she told me: ‘I was a sensitive child and I didn’t want to go to boarding school. When I did go, it was the first time I came up against anti-Semitism. I can remember retaliating and saying, “Never mind, I’m better than all of you. I’m a Cohen and Cohens [in Hebrew] are priests.”‘ After this she was sent to a finishing school for Jewish girls in Switzerland. That was not a happy experience, either. ‘It was just after the war,’ she told me. ‘And to me the Swiss had no sense of what war was really like. I only stayed seven months and couldn’t wait to get out.’ Aged eighteen, she was married to Leslie Porter, who was ten years older and a partner in his family’s textile business. Aged twenty-two, she was the mother of two children, Linda and John. She was sitting on the committees of Jewish charities, she was playing golf. She played no part in her father’s business.

She had fulfilled the expectations of her parents and of her community. Many wealthy Jewish women of her generation could have ended their biography here, their roles as mother and wifely support fixed to the end of their lives, but Mrs Porter had wider, less homely ambitions. Aged twenty-seven, she became one of the youngest women ever appointed to the board of the Women’s International Zionist Organization. She took courses in literature and philosophy at the Workers’ Institute in London. Golf became more than an occasional pastime: she joined predominantly Jewish golf clubs, both to the north and south of London, playing in championships and winning trophies. It was golf that led to her first appearance as a news story when, in December 1964, she disclosed to the Jewish Chronicle that she had been refused membership of a golf club in north London which the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, had recently joined. ‘She was told it would be a waste of time to put her name forward for membership,’ the paper reported, ‘and she was left in no doubt that she was not wanted because she was a Jewess.’ At a time when the Jewish community in Britain was still paralysed by the belief that to make a fuss was to draw attention to Jews and therefore to incite anti-Semitism, her disclosure was a brave piece of behaviour.


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