A shining wit? The reverse reverse

<i>Diaries: into politics</i> by Alan Clark, edited by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld &amp; Nicolson, &pound;20, 389pp)
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The Independent Culture

The first volume of Alan Clark's diaries were a huge con trick. They sold 300,000 copies on the widespread belief that they were full of (a) sex and (b) Mrs Thatcher, though in fact there is very little in them about either. Clark ogles the "bouncing globes" of the occasional secretary, but that is all. References to the now notorious "coven" are so discreet that no reader picked them up until the press blew the story.

The first volume of Alan Clark's diaries were a huge con trick. They sold 300,000 copies on the widespread belief that they were full of (a) sex and (b) Mrs Thatcher, though in fact there is very little in them about either. Clark ogles the "bouncing globes" of the occasional secretary, but that is all. References to the now notorious "coven" are so discreet that no reader picked them up until the press blew the story.

Likewise, the idea that Clark was an intimate of Mrs Thatcher is a delusion. He was a junior minister who worshipped her from afar (once admiring her "shapely ankle") and swooned like a schoolgirl every time she spoke to him. His whole subject was the frustration of being outside the magic circle.

Clark has been touted as a diarist in the same league as "Chips" Channon, Harold Nicolson or even Pepys. But there is no comparison, for a simple reason. The great diarists endure because they are interested in people. They have their vanities and insecurities, with which we can identify, but they are also shrewd observers of the contemporary scene.

Clark is interested in no one but himself. His diaries fail the test not just because he is a vain, arrogant and supercilious snob, but because he tells us little of historical value. Open Nicolson or Channon at random, and you are immersed in a period and milieu vividly brought to life. Open Clark, and you get the stench of malice, vanity and self-obsession.

It will be interesting to see how many of those 300,000 buyers come back for a second helping. The first third of this volume - covering Clark's adoption for the Plymouth constituency which he rapidly came to loathe, and his first five years as an MP - is even more trivial and repellent than the previous one. Whole entries are concerned with nothing but his hypochondria and fear of ageing, money worries and backgammon. He manages not even to notice Mrs Thatcher's election as Tory leader.

Fortunately, these seven years take only 125 pages, and once Mrs Thatcher gets into Downing Street the quality improves. We get nearly 200 pages on 1981-82, and a real sense of the poisonous bickering and back-scratching in the Tory party as the Thatcher government staggers through economic crisis and record unpopularity before miraculous salvation in the Falklands. A backbencher is better placed to convey the rancid atmosphere of these events than a junior minister for paperclips.

But Clark's view of politics is still so bilious that it is difficult to treat his tattle seriously. In his lordly way, he is contemptuous of practically everyone. Though he claims to "adore" the House of Commons, most of his colleagues are "nonentities" or "nameless slugs".

He has an ineffable view of his own manifest superiority. Yet at the same time he is a shameless creep, crawling to anyone he thinks might give him advancement. Seeing the Prime Minister approaching, "I quickly composed my features and framed a deferential smile. To my great alarm she looked straight through me... I am worried about this. What have I done wrong?"

He is always worried about being in her "bad books". Yet at other times, though supposedly an ardent Thatcherite, he is hedging his bets, backing the arch-wet Francis Pym to succeed her; or writing humble little notes to Ted Heath or even "the odious Heseltine". He is so desperate to be elected chairman of the backbench Defence Committee that he even votes twice for himself (and is terrified of being caught).

At least, his admirers say, he is honest: he takes the lid off the cant and hypocrisy of politics, shows the Commons for the seething pit of jealousy it is. Yet his candour is a pose. He was in reality more serious than he pretends, and must have worked harder at the chores of politics than he lets on. "The House consumes me and pumps me with adrenaline," he writes, "like playing game after game in a difficult tournament." What does he mean?

He had some real expertise in the defence field (though typically, when Mrs Thatcher did give him a job it was in Employment, where he had none). But none of this features in the diary, where he prefers to play the role of the pantomime cad. He portrays the life of politics - except at rare moments like the Falklands - as tedious to a superior intellect like himself only by leaving out all that makes it interesting.

If the diary is a pose, however, it is a thoroughly unpleasant one. The snobbery, arselicking, posturing and cheating is the least of it. In his lifetime, Clark used to get a kick from flaunting a provocative admiration for Hitler. There is a good deal more of that here, including a conversation with Frank Johnson of The Times:

"Yes, I told him, I was a Nazi, I really believed it to be the ideal system, and that it was a disaster for the Anglo-Saxon races and for the world that it was extinguished... I was completely committed to the whole philosophy. The blood and violence was an essential ingredient of its strength, the heroic tradition of cruelty every bit as powerful and a thousand times more ancient than the Judaeo-Christian ethic."

Only a "toff", Clark happily concludes, could get away with these views. "If they were being expressed by someone like Tony Marlow or Nicholas Winterton he would be ostracised."

Alan Clark was my MP until a year ago. Can we hope that this volume will put a stop to the cult of this revolting man? If another 300,000 people buy it and still go around saying how marvellous he was, we are really in trouble.

John Campbell's biography of Margaret Thatcher, 'The Grocer's Daughter', is published by Jonathan Cape

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