Magazine article The Spectator

Drink: Bruce Anderson

Magazine article The Spectator

Drink: Bruce Anderson

Article excerpt

Great matters were trembling in the balance. The prime minister needed cash to achieve his objective and as Parliament was not sitting to vote for supply, there would have to be a loan.

The PM summoned his cabinet colleagues to seek their agreement. His private secretary waited outside the cabinet room. Suddenly the door half-opened. Instead of the agreed signal, the prime minister himself said 'Yes'. The official raced off to New Court, to see the Baron Rothschild.

'The prime minister wants to borrow £4 million.' 'When?' 'Tomorrow.' Rothschild picked up a muscatel grape and, after ejecting the skin, ate it. 'What is the security?' 'The British government.' 'You can have it.'

It sounds like an episode from a Disraeli novel, and as the PM was Disraeli, the private secretary his devoted Monty Corry, we can be sure that the drama was not overstated. But it was a successful transaction. The £4 million purchased effective control of the Suez Canal company and, though the Rothschilds did not act pro bono, that turned out to be a very good investment, until the arrival of Nasser.

The Rothschilds are a remarkable house. After two or three generations, most mercantile families lose their edge and become more interested in displaying their fortunes than enhancing them. Not the Rothschilds: they do both. To adapt Sellars and Yeatman, they have proved that it is possible to be right and romantic.

They are also good at dealing in grapes. In the mid-19th century, two branches of the French Roths-childs both bought Bordeaux châteaux: Mouton and Lafite and settled down to an unabating rivalry. This was exacerbated by the 1855 classification, which awarded Lafite first-growth status, Mouton a mere second. In 1973, those in charge of such arrangements proposed that Mouton should be elevated. There was a problem. Lafite objected (Mouton eventually did gain promotion). …

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