Sir Alan Greengross, the Conservative ‘insider critic’ who almost saw off Thatcher
Warm and compassionate former leader of Camden Tories fought to save GLC
30 August, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman
HE almost defeated Labour in Camden, albeit 40 years ago, an event never achieved since the birth of the borough in 1960.
And he almost defeated Margaret Thatcher’s decision to abolish the Greater London Council in its 1986 heyday led by Ken Livingstone, the former Labour Mayor of London. They may be forgotten politically historical events for the majority of today’s voters, but they are two flags now worth fluttering following the death of Sir Alan Greengross, from lung cancer at the age of 89.
For his belief was that politics is strictly local, no doubt inevitably so since he was inspired by his father, diamond tool manufacturer Morris Philip Greengross, once Mayor of the Borough of Holborn. Educated at University College School, Hampstead, and Trinity College, Cambridge, winning a double first in law, which he never practised, his passion was for improving life for people, not grand policies to change society.
Sir Alan, Camden’s Tory opposition leader before being elected to represent Hampstead on the GLC in 1977, virtually turned his back on major party policy to become a political philosopher instead. He went on to make huge contributions to London life in health provision and town and transport planning, described as being on “the wetter wing” of the Tories and once in The Times as “that rarest of animals, an insider critic”.
As a local journalist, I knew Sir Alan from the birth of Camden in 1960 – the merger of Hampstead, St Pancras and Holborn – then one of the richest boroughs in the country that created a workforce of more than 20,000 and setting out to show that socialism is the only key to prosperity.
His warm compassion for the electorate was matched by his wit and good humour, Jewish jokes included, that brought him admiration in the tough test of debate against formidable Labour members. Sir Alan was a match for all opponents, almost snatching victory in the local 1978 elections, Camden Tories polling 63,670 votes compared with Labour’s 65,328, a margin of just 1,658.
“One thing is certain – having scraped into power in a borough of 180,000 people, the Socialists no longer have a mandate for the lunacies of the past,” he declared. In the summer of 1979 he resigned as Tory leader as he had become the chair of planning on the GLC, an extension of the old London County Council.
This inescapably led to his head-on clash with Mrs Thatcher’s decision to rid the capital of any central political control, mainly due again to the controversies created by Livingstone. Sir Alan had become the outspoken leader of the GLC’s opposition when, having been given just three days warning, he discovered that the Conservative 1983 general election manifesto proposed the abolition of the GLC.
He insisted, as did Livingstone, that London needed its own democratically elected voice, and, in 1985, even produced and published defiant credible plans for a streamline London authority he believed would honour Thatcher’s abolition demand.
“If London and Londoners are to have a voice, to which the citizens of every capital city are entitled, the establishment of a directly elected London-wide body is essential,” he cried.
Thatcher was triumphant, the GLC abolished in March, 1986, and London was left without any elected control until the creation of the Greater London Authority – and a London Mayor – in 2000.
Another former leader of Camden’s Tories, Martin Morton, said: “He gave the impression of being very light-hearted but this was coupled with a seriousness. He was very objective, professional – and he made a very good case for a central London authority and very nearly beat Margaret Thatcher.” He added: “He had a pragmatic approach, not a dogmatic one – and he was a lovely person to work with.”
Sir Alan declared he would never return to County Hall on the banks of the Thames after it was abandoned and sold to a Japanese property developer.
But he did accept the concession of a knighthood as he turned his attention to working with the Bartlett School of Built Environment, and became involved with numerous quangos including planing the redevelopment of Covent Garden, creating the Thames flood barrier and Crossrail’s construction.
He was also appointed chairman of Bloomsbury and Islington Health Authority, chaired the London Regional Passengers’ Committee, was a director of South West Trains and actively supported the Roundhouse. As well as that workload he became chairman and managing director of the family business, Indusmond (Diamond Tools) Ltd, and in any spare time relaxed by becoming a talented landscape artist.
Having married linguist Sally Rosengarten in 1959, now Baroness Greengross, whom he met by chance, he backed her own independent career as director general of Age Concern and of EuroUK Age. She survives him together with their four children.
Sir Alan, who requested a humanist funeral, never lost his sense of humour, particularly enjoying the Marx brothers and Morecambe and Wise. A nurse checking his details raised his age on his last admission to hospital. And he immediately replied: “Is that going to compromise our relationship?”