Alan Clark, who died in 1999 at the age of 71, was one of the Conservative Party’s most iconoclastic, amusing, and controversial—yet thoughtful—figures. In a party top-heavy with temporizers and economic reductionists, in an age full of angst, his cheerful disregard for delicate sensibilities was a joy to behold, even when you did not agree with what he was saying or doing. Everything he did was fundamentally interesting, however ideologically indefensible or morally reprehensible.
His penchant for fast cars and adventure got him into the gossip columns, while his adultery was legendary—at one time, he was carrying on simultaneous affairs with a judge’s wife and her two daughters. In the bars at Tory conferences, you can still hear delegates reminiscing fondly of Clark’s gallant defense of English football hooligans and his arrest for demonstrating against live animal-exports, while his euphemism for lying—”being economical with the actualité“—has passed into common parlance.
Despite—or because of—his fame, Clark never attained particularly high political office, rising only as far as minister of state at the Department of Defence. His 1978 “certainty that I would be called upon to lead” must have rung hollow to him as he grappled with his fatal disease. We can only hope that the comment of Dennis Skinner (the leftwing MP who said to him, “You’ll end up in despair like me”) was misplaced.
There are several other reasons for Alan Clark’s lack of political success. First of all, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “his honesty, sense of humour and contempt for stupidity disqualified him from high office.” Second, his upper-class background worked against him: His father was Lord (Kenneth) Clark, a distinguished art historian and the youngest director of the National Gallery. For decades, the Tories have been moving resolutely down-market, as the serried ranks of Heath, Thatcher, Major, and Hague testify, in an attempt to “broaden their appeal”—although to this day, Tory politicians are still often thought of as “posh,” whatever their origins (ergo “out of touch”), while the privately educated, upper-middle-class Tony Blair (descended from the Plantagenets on one side of his family, and from Simon de Montfort on the other) is an honorary “man of the people.”
Alan Clark had a greater interest in personal enjoyment than in serious politics: He often thought more about the intricacies of political plotting than its actual ends. He relished Westminster intrigues, saying in 1980:
The Machiavellian undercurrents, the need to be permanently on one’s guard, to know how to read the codes and smoke signals; how to assess people’s real motives, and discount their superficial courtesies and protestations—is what makes the game here so fascinating.
Finally, Clark’s unruffled surface masked a personality full of distracting doubts—about money, mortality, health, and sexual potency. As he asked of himself in August 1974: “Am I a Renaissance prince, a philosopher, or a big ageing dud?” Yet he attained greater influence and fame as an historian and, above all as a diarist than he would ever have done as a career poltician.
The first volume of his diaries, covering 1983 to 1991 and published in 1993, was promptly described by the Times as “one of the great works in the genre” for its “Pooterish self-assessment, for Mr Toad’s enthusiasm for new things, for Byron’s caddishness, for its deadly candour.” It was not just the Times reviewer who delighted in this candid, bitchy, gossipy, snobbish, hypochondriacal, politically incorrect tour de force, or who compared Clark with Boswell and Pepys. Even those who detested his politics had to admit that there was something engaging and fascinating about the right-wing roué. Writing in the Independent, the left-of-center Robert Harris described the Diaries as “the most compelling account of modern politics I have ever read,” while in the Evening Standard, left-wing journalist Matthew Norman confessed that “[Clark] proved beyond dispute that the Devil really does have all the best tunes.” And so the subsequent volume, which covers the years 1972-1982, had been eagerly awaited.
Into Politics, therefore, should have been more of a hit than it has so far proved to be. All the essential ingredients are here—the illicit liaisons, the petty concerns about money and health (in April 1979, after a day of gloomy pondering on the forthcoming election, Clark finished, ludicrously, “Key factor, though, is elimination of dandruff), the perceptive insights, the sly humor, the choice anecdotes, and minute, insulting descriptions of famous or soon-to-be-famous people: “Geoffrey Howe affects a curiously opaque, café-au-lait complexion. A combination, presumably, of sun lamp and TV studio foundation cream.” (His June 1982 description of Princess Margaret was even more cruel: “fat, ugly, dwarflike, lecherous and revoltingly tastelessly behaved.”)
It seems at least possible that the reason for the book’s cool reception lies in some of the political content, since Into Politics is much more about politics than the first installment (which was really concerned with personalities). Also, some of Clark’s political views indubitably fall well outside “respectable”—or even sensible—ideological parameters.
Writing in the journal of the Tory Reform Group, the ostensibly Tory Nick Kent fumed, “Alan Clark was a most unattractive man. Apart from being a gutter racist and serial abuser of women, he was the most mendacious of politicians.” The Diaries, he added, would be “invaluable” for the “unashamed political s – – t who just wants to get on.” Coming as it does from one of Kenneth Clarke’s pro-Euro faction, this is probably recommendation enough for many of his party. But because such visceral Tories do not generally write book reviews in the London press, the book has been treated with greater indifference than it merits.
The “gutter racism” decried by Kent may be the reason why some commentators appear to find Clark suddenly rather discomfiting. Here is a man of high intelligence, wit, humor, and sophistication saying the unsayable in such a way that it cannot be brushed off as a joke. More than once, fed up with the Tory Party, he thought of defecting to the National Front, at that time a serious third party challenger (the party imploded after Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 election victory). Such thoughts certainly are “gutter racism” by modern, far-left (i.e., mainstream) standards, but Clark compounded his thoughtcrime (and, sadly, nullified much of what else he had to say) by referring kindly to the Nazis.
Impelled by a mixture of boyish sincerity, vanity (he wanted to be talked about, and what was said about him was a secondary consideration), and humor, Alan Clark returned again and again to the theme. He was certainly being serious when he told the Times‘ Frank Johnson over a 1981 lunch, “I am a Nazi. I really [believe] it to be the ideal system, and . . . it was a disaster for the Anglo-Saxon races and for the world that it was extinguished.” Rewatching Cabaret, Clark refused to swallow the prescribed moralistic dose about “tolerance” and why it is “OK to be gay” and liked best the “wonderful, uplifting scene in the beer garden, when the young SA boy leads the singing of Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” But he admitted that he was acting “partly to provoke” when, at a Downing Street dinner in 1981, he teased a German guest, talking about Hitler being “ahead of his time” and of “the genetic need for racial purity.” (The disputatious diatribe reduced the woman to tears.)
One of his parliamentary colleagues was at least partly right when he remarked that “Al should realise there’s more to politics than being amusing.” The fact that Clark got away with his outrageous opinions and statements is vivid proof that, in politics, it is less what you believe but whom you know that counts. It also says something for Margaret Thatcher that she would permit such a loose cannon in her government.
Despite his repeated lapses into such Jacobinism and his mocking humor, Alan Clark had a generous, traditionalist, ultraconservative view of the world. He was one of the few Tories who voted against entering the Common Market, surprising Dennis Skinner by saying that “I’d rather live in a socialist Britain than one ruled by a lot of f—ing foreigners” (April 1975). Seven years later, as a necessary corrective to national decadence—and as a magnificent coup de théâtre—he favored vigorous and early intervention in the Falklands: “If we are going to go, I feel, let us go out in a blaze—then we can all sit back and comfortably become a nation of pimps and ponces, a sort of Macao to the European continent.” On a postwar visit to the Falklands, he wrote:
Seeing all those dear little fair-haired children in their anoraks—exactly like any village in one’s constituency—brought home more effectively than anything else could have done exactly what we were fighting for, and how impossible it would have been to have abandoned them to a foreign power.
He was also frequently pessimistic about his family’s future, using terminology reminiscent of Jean Raspail:
I get a dark foreboding, sometimes. I feel it at Saltwood [his family home, a medieval castle in Kent] as people encroach more and more, with higher sense of justification, on the boundaries and fences—”it’s not right that something so important/beautiful/interesting/historic should belong to one man . . . ” There are the boys [his sons] with their patriotic instincts quite natural, also the sense of privilege and assurance—but will they be able to hold it . . . ?
And, “Are we [his family] an etiolated rearguard? The French nobility in 1788?” (March 1974).
The death of one of his beloved beagles prompted Clark to think of his own dissolution:
He was shrouded in his red blanket with his steel dish and dinner buried beside him. One must have faith, but haunting me is the endless journey, faster than the speed of light, of the soul into infinity.
(There is still much speculation about whether Alan Clark converted to Catholicism just before he died; he was an unexpectedly religious man, who often mentions God in the Diaries.)
His book ends on a high note, with Clark writing of his October 1982 visit to the Falklands, which he describes as “the most memorable and invigorating experience of my entire Parliamentary career.” Such moments of unadulterated delight were all too rare in a career full of cares (usually self-inflicted), conspiracies (usually unsuccessful), and compromise (usual). Yet, when he was out of Parliament between 1995 and 1997, all he could think about was how to get back in. By then, he had long since given up any idea of doing anything; he just wanted one more go at playing the “game.”
[Diaries: Into Politics, by Alan Clark (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 389 pp., £20]