BOOK REVIEW / Noblesse with a latitude problem: 'Diaries' - Alan Clark: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 20 pounds

BEING SENT Alan Clark's Diaries to review is a little like being second in line to Little Jack Horner in the plum pie stakes. These diaries have been so widely serialised that, at first sight, little seems left but stodge and piecrust; though, mind you, Alan Clark's stodge and pastry is of the lightest and most digestible kind.

Indeed, one is tempted to tell people to add this book to their stock of books to be read in the bathroom, books that can be picked up and opened at random in the certainty that the reader will light on something readable, stimulating if not titivating, immediately gripping, with the flavour of the lost years between Mrs Thatcher's reelection and her fall from grace, and the first three months of her successor's government.

This is, however, to adopt a minimalist approach to Mr Clark's work. For despite the air of artless simplicity with which these diaries are presented, and despite the obvious immediacy of the individual entries, no-one can doubt that Mr Clark has given us a created book, a composed artefact, a work with a purpose. Its immediacy, the image that it conveys of Mr Clark as a presenter of objets trouves, found in the wild and presented, apart from a little gift wrapping, just as they are, is part of Mr Clark's artistry.

He is far too accomplished and considerable an author / historian to masquerade convincingly as a political equivalent of Daisy Ashford. Mr Clark wants to give solidity, historical perpetuity, to his inside view of the Thatcher years; the more so as he clearly feels that his view, his side (though Mr Clark is far too adult to put in such schoolboy terms) has lost and is on its way to the scrapheap.

So what is Mr Clark's view? It is, to begin with, not one for which he feels any need to apologise. True, Mr Clark is not a 'conviction' politician in the awful jargon of American-aping political journalism. It is not that he does not have convictions; far from it. But they are inextricably linked and interwoven with his sense of style, his Goddammit attitude to the outside world, his education, his upbringing, his sense of masculinity, his personal version of noblesse oblige, his certainty of birth, breeding, clubbability (in the right kind of club, of course), nationality, English patriotism, intelligence and sense of superiority over all other breeds.

He comes across, sometimes, as an arrogant conceited snob; but this merely illustrates the poverty of the English imagination. He admired Mrs Thatcher, the grocer's daughter, through and through. A Scot would say not that he was conceited but that he has a good, and - by implication, justifiable - conceit of himself. He might also add that the cornucopia of blessings showered on Mr Clark by his fairy godmother failed to include empathy with views other than his own, patience and tolerance, or a noticeable sense of political realities.

He has an air, from time to time, of the Highland clan chieftains who rode with Charles Edward from the first raising of the Stewart flag, in the certain knowledge that Culloden and exile were the best they could hope for from their enterprise; but he also has the ruthlessness of Cromwell's Ironsides - for all his cavalier Jacobite manner. His term at the Ministry of Defence showed him to be as much a root and branch man as ever threatened Cromwell. He lives in the remote north of Scotland, in northern Sutherland, a land grown bare and hard from centuries of Atlantic weather, Vikings, clearances and the long nights of Scottish winters - his house shares its latitude with Oslo, Stockholm and Leningrad. It is this hardness, as well as the greenery of September in Scotland, which calls to him.

Mr Clark saw in the Thatcher years a chance of saving England from a benevolent spendthrift mediocrity, from bien pensant indolent unwitting decadence, from consensual, supercilious, insensitive but inevitable decline. He thought it both right and his right to be part of the counter-attack. But he found Mrs Thatcher's army to be composed very largely of people whom he makes no bones about considering second-rate.

He has a good word for John Major, it is true, but his views on the rest of the party and particularly of Kenneth Clarke are balm to the ears of academics as they wait for the Chancellor to perform the ritual demonstration of macho determination on their staked out and defenceless institutions, the 'hard sacrifices' that Fleet Street hacks and Government spokesmen are so vociferously calling for.

It is a stupid and typically English waste of talent and ability that has condemned Mr Clark to political impotence. John Major put Chris Patten's electoral defeat to the country's advantage, magnificently so, in sending him to Hong Kong. Can he not do the same for Alan Clark, with his ruthless determination and his unimpeachable and expressive French, by sending him as our permanent representative to Brussels? No-one apart from Lady Thatcher could deal so drastically with the Eurocrats and the Federalist conspirators as Mr Clark. He could well, if given his head, be the salvation of Mr Major's European ambitions.