Lord Of the Commons. (Books).
ALAN CLARK. Diaries: Into Politics. WEIDENFELD & NICHOLSON. 389 PAGES. [pounds sterling]20
As REGULAR readers of the British tabloids already know, British politicians are a naughty lot. Especially the conservatives. As the proud products of Britain's finest private schools and universities, they invariably seem to entangle themselves with working-class girls named Mandy. Some even harbor a penchant for dressing up in strange costumes: To get his kicks, so to speak, one former minister of the arts would wear the uniform of his favorite soccer team during his amorous dalliances. In a more recent example, the former vice chairman of the Conservative Party and famous novelist Jeffrey Archer now resides in Her Majesty's Prison for having lied about his affairs with prostitutes.
The naughtiest of them all, however, was the conservative parliamentarian Alan Clark. Before his death in 1998, Clark gave new meaning to the word "cad." Compared to him, Flashman is mere fiction.
Clark was the son of the noted art historian Kenneth Clark, who served as director of the National Gallery but is more widely known for the "Civilisation" television series on the B BC. He served as a junior minister in the Thatcher government -- first in the Ministry of Employment, then as minister of trade, and finally as the No. 2 man at the Ministry of Defense. Clark aspired to the top job at defense but never got it, despite having written a number of perspicacious and well-received books on military subjects. The problem was that Clark, while gifted, was in the habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time - a habit that earned him the sobriquet "Mrs. Thatcher's little loose cannon."
Clark was also a notorious womanizer. At one time he seduced the wife and two daughters of a South African judge. In London he maintained a harem of "three girls related by blood" who serviced him. Add to that his fondness for drinking, his excessive gambling, and his prodigal plays in the stock market, and Clark is definitely not role model material.
Clark was a diligent diarist, however, and remained so throughout his 40 years in public life. The first volume of his diaries, chronicling the years 19831991, was published in 1993. The book records the high triumphs of the Thatcher era as well as the low skullduggery of the little men who finally slew Britain's Iron Lady. Now the second volume of Clark's diaries has appeared in print. Into Politics is a prequel to the first book, covering Clark's early years in Parliament, 1972-1983.
But why, some may ask, should one bother to remember -- let alone read about -- some politician who never quite made it to the big leagues, a man who belongs in a Restoration comedy or a sordid Victorian novel rather than public life? The answer to that question, and what sets these diaries apart from most other autobiographical material, is Clark's honesty. Clark crafted his memoirs with an almost total disregard for his appearance to posterity. His diaries are refreshingly free of the self-conscious drive to project an "historical legacy" -- or even a respectable public persona -- that is typical of today's politicians. As Clark notes in the introduction to the first volume, "Sometimes lacking in charity; often trivial; occasionally lewd; cloyingly sentimental, repetitious, whinging and imperfectly formed. For some readers the entries may seem to be all these things. But they are real diaries."
Thus Clark has been compared to the great names in the genre, Pepys and Boswell, for his ability to bring an era to life. Clark combines keen observation with a delightful sense of comedy and happy turns of phrase, and charmingly mixes the private with the public. He also demonstrates an unerring instinct for what George Orwell, writing about Dickens, called the unnecessary detail, which turns out to be very necessary indeed. Together, the two volumes form the best running commentary available on the Thatcher years.
EDUCATED AT Eton and Oxford, where he read modern history under Hugh Trevor-Roper, Clark prized luxury and privilege and could little tolerate boredom. As is often the case with sons of famous fathers, Clark drifted a bit, qualifying as a barrister and writing four military histories and two novels. He entered politics in 1972, when the hapless Edward Heath was prime minister, as the Tory MP for Plymouth Sutton.
Throughout his career, Clark spurned the drearier sides of political life, such as tiresome meetings with constituents. And he never made the customary effort to appear as a humble servant of the people. As Clark puts it, "Honestly, I could not be bothered to conceal either my Etonian drawl or my intention to offend or insult. . . so you can just take or leave it." Unsurprisingly, Clark stood firmly on the right side of the political spectrum. There was never even the pretense that he was on a mission to save the world. This is, after all, a man who named his rottweiler Eva Braun.
Indeed, Clark spent most of his time trying to save himself. His father had given him Saltwood Castle, the family estate, but he remained chronically unable to finance his profligate lifestyle. The gambling debts were always mounting, the moat continually needed repair, and the bank was perpetually threatening Clark with bankruptcy. These exigencies repeatedly forced him to sell works of art or -- in more dire circumstances -- to offer items from his beloved collection of vintage cars. Accordingly, Clark eagerly waits for his father to do the decent thing and die, so he can inherit the rest of the family fortune. On one occasion he describes his father as looking "shifty and unpleasant, but in perfect heath." Damn.
Politics became vastly more exciting when the Tories, with Margaret Thatcher at the helm, returned to government in 1979. Clark was ambitious, but it remained unclear which faction within the party would prevail. Though it is scarcely remembered today, Thatcher was initially unpopular within her own party. Her cabinet was full of political rivals -- the so-called "wets" who favored more "caring" policies - who threatened her leadership of the party. Her aggressive monetarist policies prompted the fear that Thatcher would "turn out to be a Herbert Hoover who would lead us to such a defeat we would be out for 30 years." Given the uncertain political future, Clark, as a true cad should, maintained confidential relations with both camps of the parliamentary party, while acting as a part-time informer for the leadership. (On one occasion he surreptitiously casts two extra ballots for himself in a committee vote.) Of course, the Falklands War ended all doubt, putting Thatcher firmly in charge.
It was time for the master groveler to get to work. After the Falklands victory and the surrender of the Argentine forces, Clark breathlessly rushes up to Thatcher and declares, "Prime Minister, only you could have done this; you did it alone, and your place in history is assured." To which he endearingly adds, "She looked a little startled." From that point forward, Clark vigorously supported Thatcher.
At one point in the diary, Clark notes that Thatcher has "very pretty ankles," which he carefully studies. Later, he looks deep into her eyes. This is outrageous, of course; most people can't bear thinking of Thatcher and sex at the same time. (Except, perhaps, for Thatcher, who tended to surround herself with dashing males.)
Clark worries endlessly if he has fallen out of favor, especially when "the Lady has gone cold, freezing cold on me," as a typical entry reads. Fear of reshuffles hangs tangibly over Clark's entries. He sighs with relief when the prime-ministerial wrath hits a different target and some other poor blighter is reduced to tears and mutterings about the ingratitude of it all. Clark also engages in a high-risk game of brinks-manship, poking fun at senior cabinet members in the Lady's presence in order to elicit that rarest of commodities, a prime-ministerial smile. With perfect intuition, he chooses as his targets people he knows are slightly out of favor. In one entry, Thatcher "looked at me with that lovely, distant smile she puts on when I 'go too far"' after Clark taunts Home Secretary Douglas Hurd.
For all his aristocratic indifference and devil-may-care attitude, Clark proves that it is possible to appear both brutally frank and servile at the same time -- an unusual and rather interesting combination, with shades of "Honest Iago."
THE BOOKS EVOKE the feel The fan all-boys school, with Thatcher as the stern headmistress. In a sense, Clark and his friends never left Eton; they just transposed it onto the House of Commons. All the old habits persist. At Eton -- and consequently at private schools all over the world -- one does not use Christian names. Thus one member inquires about one of his colleagues, "What's little Moncreiffe's Christian name?" Comes the terse answer:
"Little." Clark also skillfully captures the "Yes, Minister" aspects of the British bureaucracy -- the absurd comedy of dealing with snooty civil servants. Where Pepys had a small hole drilled in the wall so he could see what went on in his front office, Clark always left his door open so he could monitor the goings-on outside, occasionally barking out orders to keep people on their toes.
It didn't always work. Once, when forced to read a particularly turgid speech written for him by one of his civil service minions, Clark became so disgusted that he had to fortify himself with drink -- a good deal of drink. By the time he rose to speak in the House of Commons he was so plastered he was unintelligible, sneering contemptuously at the text as he read. Claire Short, a Labour Party MP, noted with prim indignation that the honored member was not sober. Not bloody likely, after a bottle of 1961 Palmer, followed by a 1975, then another 1961, and rounded off with a "delicious" Pichon Longueville. The diary overflows with pledges and self-admonitions to cut down on drinking and to avoid backgammon, but these promises are never kept.
And then there are the women. Like both Pepys and Boswell, Clark cannot get enough of them. He pursues them in trains and in planes, on the beaches and at the ministerials. Here is his memorable run-in with Edith Cresson, later the French prime minister and here an "oh-so-fashionably dressed" lady he meets at a Council of Ministers meeting in Luxembourg: "I was standing in a little huddle with the UK officials just behind my chair, when along came Madame, swinging her hips most outrageously, and all 'get me.' She quite flagrantly (and with great style, I must admit) swept between us, then paused and posed. ... The whole thing was so outrageous that I had to grin. She immediately froze up, went all don't think-I'm-that-easy. High horse. ... I'm not in the slightest degree aroused by the older women. They are fun to sit next to at dinner, but I don't want to get any closer. For me girls have to be succulent and that really means under twenty-five." One occasionally wonders why his wife put up with all this.
Finally, there are the villains of the book; Clark has many. Prime amongst them is the "odious Heseltine" -- that is, Michael Heseltine, the principal conspirator against Thatcher. It was Heseltine's resignation over the Westland affair, involving the sale of helicopters, that began Thatcher's downfall. In Clark's view, Heseltine was an arriviste, a "dyslexic of vast ambition" of whom it has been said "he had to buy his own furniture." Ouch. But in the Conservative Party, he who wields the dagger will never wear the crown; Heseltine never became prime minister.
John Major, the eventual winner of the political contest and Thatcher's successor, was "infinitely preferable to that dreadful charlatan, Heseltine," Clark writes. "But John is vulnerable to the charge of 'not yet ready for it.' And he is not classy, which does not worry me, but, worse, he does not (like Mrs. Thatcher) aspire to be classy."
THE FINAL DAYS of Thatcher appear menacing. One senses a bunker mentality at 10 Downing Street. The prime minister herself is out of the country and out of touch. Meanwhile, cabals of power-hungry politicos scheme in various back offices. The story makes depressing, but also fascinating reading: The most successful prime minister since Churchill was toppled not by a popular election, but by the scared men of her own party. The party continues to pay the price of that deed to this very day.
One can understand why Clark -- with his alarming candor, continual drunkenness, and general instability -- never reached the innermost circle of the cabinet. It's hard, after all, to imagine as minister of defense a man who loudly dismisses Jordan's King Hussein as "an oily little runt" and calls the nations of Africa "Bongo-Bongo Land." Such remarks might be interpreted as disrespectful. Clark's tactlessness may have cost him a cabinet appointment, but people will be reading Clark long after the "serious" players are forgotten.
As in Pepys, a certain elegiac note pervades Clark's memoirs, a sense of the impermanence of everything -- of his beloved Saltwood, with its peacocks and moldy library. It is the feeling of stubbornly guarding a way of life that ended a long time ago. Any minute, the peasants may arrive with their pitchforks and take it all away. And as for Clark himself, well, a man who worries endlessly about the fate of his escaped pet jackdaw cannot be a total jerk.
Henrik Bering is the author of Helmut Kohl (Regnery).
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|Title Annotation:||Diaries, Diaries: Into Politics|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
|Previous Article:||Enviro-Skepticism. (Books).|