Midwinter comes to Saltwood Castle

The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State 1922-1997 by Alan Clark Weidenfeld pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
This is not a pretty book. Alan Clark's TV series on the same subject last year was a treat; especially delicious was his presence outside Central Office on the morning of Tory defeat, as drunken hordes taunted the vanquished wretches with chants of "You're OUT! You're OUT!" Sadly, the written version lacks equivalent panache.

Clark's previous output has been compelling. The Tories is miserly, sulky, like an album forced by domineering record executives out of an ex-rock star drained of inspiration. The recalcitrant artist avoids telephone calls, cancels meetings, goes missing on the King's Road and ultimately produces a compendium of B-sides. In Clark's case the effect is made one hundred times worse by the quality of the work that went before.

His Diaries were so outstanding (they read as well in Blair's Britain as they did in Major's miserable early Nineties) that he became a variant of an Enid Blyton character, a sort of Naughtiest Boy in the School, given special licence to launch stink bombs and go apple-scrumping wherever he wished.

All of that is absent now. The Tories is an unwanted book, about an unwanted political party, from an MP who, apparently, dislikes belonging to it, let alone writing about it. While the Diaries were a product of Mrs Thatcher's high summer, this is deep midwinter: an unlovable book, a brooding, unpleasant younger sibling joining a brilliant family. In fairness, it is also an unlucky child: this must be the most unpropitious year to publish on Conservatism in over half a century.

All vestiges of joy have gone: there is no more racing home at high speed to Saltwood castle, no more champagne in the Pugin Room, no more scorn for constituency associations. The enfant terrible has grown up. He fears being late for work, he has both mortgage and pension, and he hates every second of it.

While falling between the two stools of historical text (too incomplete, too subjective) and lively narrative (too dry), the book serves one critical function: to remind us of the vicious tradition the party's leaders have followed. Various fine dishes stand out: Lord Curzon waiting fruitlessly for the monarch's call, Baldwin's ruthless regicide. Also prominent are the decision to restore the Gold Standard in 1925 and the equally muddled and craven process that led to its removal, along with MacDonald's Labour Government, in 1931. But at best this is an Orlando-like series of discrete jumps through the century, alighting at various historical events. There is very little analysis in this strangely desolate book.

There are some factual errors, and worse, some glaring omissions. There is very little indeed on the late Sixties, when Heath broke with Powell on race, surely a decisive development for post-war Tories. Most damagingly, the radio goes stone dead after May 4 1997, leaving last year's leadership contest with its runners frozen in time at the starting gate. There is no account of the Clarke-Redwood pact. William Hague is entirely absent from the index.

Yet Clark does build, gradually, a depiction of how appalling he finds his party. It is an unpalatable truth, and possibly this is why he makes it so tentatively. If so, the evasion fails. His frustrations are all too evident. This may be because, for Alan Clark at least, life as a Tory MP today must be like attending the worst kind of boarding school, where a young wild-eyed headmaster has torn down the beloved oak panelling, discontinued the cream teas and, for good measure, demolished the old cricket pavilion. What remains fools no one: it succeeds only in eliminating any lingering bedrock loyalty the institution may have had.

Clark probably recognises this better than almost anyone, as he watches the spread of evangelising management consultancy into every corner of party life. There is scant time now for lunches at Brooks, nor for drinking in the Ritz. Front benchers parade in contrived casual gear, looking eerily like the unemployed they used to tell to move house to where the jobs were. He must feel he is on the moon.

Moreover, suddenly you feel he is frightened. The rather petty digs at Heath and Heseltine lack his former deft poison; they seem more like catechisms recited to save himself from a fireside roasting by the Tories' new school- house bullies. Why is this man a Conservative MP at all? Why is he there alongside the estate agents and others he has said he loathes so much? Possibly because he thinks he has duties to perform. And he has: the Tories' current lunacies do no one any service, and Clark, as one of the most experienced, bright and articulate opposition MPs, should definitely urge sanity. It is possible that this book is a coded attempt to do exactly that; if so, amid the rolling narrative, the message is largely obscured. For now, until his mood improves, he should go back to his castle and enjoy some good burgundy. That's the way his fans like him, and surely, deep down, he would agree.