John Barnes, Historian


There is a sad irony in the fact that Malcolm Rutherford, who died in hospital last Tuesday after a short illness, was at the time of his death the obituaries editor of the Financial Times and that his last article, which appeared in Saturday's issue was on the subject of the newspaper obituary. He had firmly held views on this as on other matters, but he is not likely to be remembered for them. Instead he will be recalled as an astonishingly influential foreign correspondent in Bonn and as the paper's political editor and Friday columnist in a highly charged decade.

Kenneth Clarke who saw him regularly even after he had ceased to be the paper's chief political correspondent thought him one of the best half dozen journalists of his time, "a serious premier division journalist, always very engaging and interesting to talk to". He had succeeded his former Spectator colleague, David Watt, as political editor and he was a hard act to follow. It is a tribute to Malcolm Rutherford's work that his own columns were read with the same degree of attention by politicians and serious students of politics. His insight into the Conservative party in the late seventies was probably greater than Watt's would have been and the memorable columns that he wrote about the "Gang of Four" at the time of their breakaway from the Labour party were some of the finest ever penned by a political journalist. As David Owen recalls, it was a conversation with Rutherford about a left wing call that Labour should commit itself to leave the EEC that led to the coming together of the "Gang of Three".

Rutherford was quick to realise the significance of what Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and Geoffrey Howe were arguing in the 1970s and towards the end of 1977 suggested that the Tory party had become the party of ideas while the Labour Government had relapsed into a rather bland safety-first mode. Perceptively, and rather sooner than most contemporaries, he detected the unmistakable shift in the intellectual mood that prefaced the Conservative victory in 1979. While never a Thatcherite - he was rather too detached an observer of British politics to indulge in any political fashion - he nevertheless had considerable sympathy with what she was trying to achieve. That sympathy did not extend to her stance on Europe. He remained throughout his career a convinced and powerful exponent of the view that Britain's future could only lie in Europe. Once that came to be generally accepted, he argued and believed that the British would then find themselves truly at home.

Another remarkable example of his prescience was his insistence after a brief trip to the United States that Governor Ronal Reagan was potentially a very important figure. His American colleagues were infuriated by this judgement, but Rutherford was right.

Gordon Malcolm Rutherford was born on 21 August 1939 and educated at the Newcastle Royal Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford where he read English. The high seriousness of his thinking is often found in Balliol men, coupled in his case with an intellectual self-confidence that never spilt over into arrogance. On coming down from Oxford in 1962, he found employment as the arts editor on Ian Gilmour's Spectator. The magazine had a policy of recruiting bright graduates even if they had little or no journalistic experience. However he was soon writing for the front half of the magazine as well. His main interests lay in foreign affairs and the theatre and when Iain Macleod took over the editorship in 1963 he became, despite his youth, foreign editor at a doubled salary. Rutherford asked whether he must confine his activities to the Spectator and was told in no uncertain terms that his new chief did not regard a weekly magazine as a full-time job. Even at this early stage, the political scientist Peter Pulzer recalls that he would turn to the magazine, which was not his normal reading, because he was struck by Rutherford's perceptiveness about the way in which Germans viewed the world and the way in which an intelligent outsider should look at German politics. It was during his time at the Spectator that Rutherford first began to contribute comments on the domestic political scene in the form of contributions to Macleod's widely-read "Quoodle" column.

Taking Macleod at his word, Rutherford together with Richard Gott, Hugh O'Shaugnessy and John Kettle, founded Latin America in 1965, a successful journal designed to provide in-depth reporting on an area with which Britain had once had close connection. When further titles followed in its wake, it became the Latin American Newsletter.

In 1967 Gordon Newton, the Editor of the Financial Times, picked him out to be the paper's diplomatic correspondent. He was working with another journalist still in his 20s, J.D.F.Jones, the paper's foreign editor, who was determined to expand the specialist coverage of different regions and to provide much greater depth in the paper's analysis of what lay behind the news. In 1969 Rutherford succeeded the paper's long-standing German correspondent in Bonn and quickly became an expert not only on German politics but also on the industrial and financial scene. He took a clear-eyed view of the German scene, believing that it was essential if we were going to join the EEC and be happy within it, that we should understand where the Germans were coming from and take them as they really were. German industrialists thought him a penetrating analyst of their concerns, while his obvious affection for Germany, backed by a wealth of knowledge, made him a highly influential commentator on German politics. He was an excellent ambassador not only for the paper but also for his country and it was said, only half in jest, that his influence was as great, if not greater than that of the British Ambassador!

Bonn was a formative experience in many ways. It not only brought him many friendships, but an appreciation of co-operative arrangements in politics and an ability to view British politics through European eyes.

In 1974, he was brought back to London as defence correspondent, bringing an appreciation of the strategic dimension to the papers diplomatic coverage and a new sophistication to its coverage of world affairs. Both at Bonn and in this new post, he contributed much to Jones's drive to improve the quality of the paper's foreign coverage, but above all the clarity and depth of analysis on offer. Like Jones, Rutherford knew that there were other sources from which straightforward news could be obtained and that what the Financial Times must offer was a profoundly influential coverage of what lay behind the news.

In 1977, when David Watt went to Chatham House, Rutherford was offered the job of political editor and Friday columnist. He brought an intellectual cutting edge to the task, which was certainly not inferior to that of Watt, and was more than ready to offer considered judgements on the men and issues of the day. If his was not entirely a new style n writing about politics, the judgements offered were always interesting and sometimes memorable. In 1981 he published a strongly argued book favouring the European cause, Can we save the Common Market? It was his belief that if membership remained a major issue in politics, that would mark the failure of the whole enterprise so far as Britain was concerned, but even in the face of later events, he remained a totally convinced European. As such he was an important influence on the continuing editorial line. From 1977 he was also an assistant editor, a notable contributor to the team which made policy and which was then strenuously expanding the newspaper's international coverage.

After more than a decade in the job, he agreed that it was time for a change and he took over the Men and Matters column, changing its name to Observer to allow it wider scope. The column let him display an idiosyncratic sense of humour and reasserted his continuing interest in cultural matters. Subsequently he became the paper's chief theatre critic, where he displayed considerable independence of mind and an approach to drama, which was said on occasion not to please those who were subject to his critical wit and acumen. His private recommendations and public judgements struck his friends as deserving of a high credit rating.

His last move in 1995 was to take over responsibility for the paper's obituaries. He took the view that only those who had made a genuine difference to the world which the Financial Times covered should have their role summed up for posterity and if there were days or even weeks without anyone worth assessing that was better than "filling a set page with nonentities and worthies". The job was one therefore which gave him the time to write a series of heavyweight reviews of political memoirs and other accounts of politics. It was a task that he greatly enjoyed and the elegance of his rather spare writing style lent lightness of touch to a whole series of relatively brief pieces which contributed to political history in their own right. Another task that he greatly enjoyed was editing the memoirs of the greatest editor of the Financial Times, Sir Gordon Newton, which were published in 1997 as A Peer without Equal.

Although he never lost contact with mainstream journalism and continued to take a knowledgeable interest in the rage of issues covered by the paper, he was increasingly preoccupied with his role on the Council of Chatham House and had recently been appointed to its executive committee. His summer parties were notable. They were attended by a great many diplomats and a catholic range of politicians that ran from Michael Foot to Norman Lamont. He was an active participant in the diplomatic whirl.

A man of keen and somewhat heterodox intellect, with an extremely powerful memory, he read widely and invariably had interesting things to say about a whole range of issues. Courteous in manner, he was tenacious in his opinions and always ready to argue his corner with skill and wit. Professionally he was helpful to colleagues and always ready to take on fresh responsibilities. He relaxed at the bridge table, where his retentive memory made him a formidable player, and in the summer played a good deal of tennis. If he had a fault as a journalist, a colleague thought, it was that he could be too charitable, but the insight and perception that went into his regular writing on British politics should not be left to languish in the dead files of yesterday's papers. The finest tribute that could be paid to any journalist from a natural opponent, however, is Kenneth Clarke's: "one of the few people I knew for whom there was no need for the tag de mortuis since he was genuinely one of the very few of whom there was nothing ill to say."

He married twice, first to Susan Tyler, and after that marriage broke down in 1969, he married Elizabeth Pelen, who together with four daughters, one from the first marriage, survives him.