Derek Coombs was a shrewd businessman who made a fortune on the back of a well-timed move into high street finance in the late 1970s. He was also a man of liberal sensibilities and broad political and cultural interests.
The two sides to him came together often in his career, but most importantly in one of the final acts of his eventful and fruitful life—in his decision to become the main financial backer of the fledgling Prospect magazine in the late 1990s. Without that decision it is very unlikely that the magazine you are now reading—heading for its 20th anniversary—would exist at all.
After his political career as a one-term Tory MP for Birmingham Yardley (1970 to 1974), Derek continued to take an interest in public affairs, as a kind of Whiggish centrist, and one increasingly without a party political home. He was disillusioned with the harshness of the Margaret Thatcher turn in the Conservative Party and with its increasingly anti-European Union instincts, yet he never felt completely comfortable with Labour. Along with many such people he saw in Tony Blair’s New Labour the possibility of a new dawn, combining the best traditions of the two main parties.
But in the run up to the political watershed of 1997, Derek had another concern: the declining quality of the British media under the influence of Rupert Murdoch. In his typically hands-on quest to do something about this he decided to become a small press baron himself.
Initially his aim was to buy his way into an existing magazine. In characteristically cross-party manner he knocked at the door of both the Spectator and the New Statesman. He ended up buying neither, though he got quite close with the New Statesman, where his past Conservative commitments counted against him. There were also discussions with Roy Hattersley about reviving Punch magazine and with Martin Jacques, the former Editor of Marxism Today, about launching a new centre-left weekly to challenge the New Statesman, which had become a shadow of its former self.
Fortunately, from the point of view of this magazine, these talks came to nothing. But news of them had leaked into the gossip columns, and as I and Charles Seaford, Prospect’s first publisher, were knocking on doors trying to raise £350,000—the minimum we thought we needed to launch Prospect—Derek’s name was added to our list…