Sir Alfred Sherman

Political adviser to Thatcher
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Alfred Sherman, journalist and political adviser: born London 10 November 1919; co-founder, Centre for Policy Studies 1974, Director of Studies 1974-84; Kt 1983; married 1958 Zahava Levin (died 1993; one son), 2001 Angela Martin; died London 26 August 2006.

Alfred Sherman was a co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) in 1974 and remained its driving force until 1984. He played a key role in bringing economic liberalism back to the heart of political debate, propelling Sir Keith Joseph into becoming its standard bearer and a serious challenger for the leadership of the Conservative Party. When Joseph blew his chances with an ill-advised addition to a speech that Sherman had prepared for him to deliver at Edgbaston on 19 October 1974, he found an apt pupil in Margaret Thatcher, and he continued to draft speeches for both of them until the party returned to government in 1979.

Sherman's absolutist temperament made him less well-fitted to advise in government, but the single reference to him in Thatcher's 1993 memoir The Downing Street Years underrates his influence. It was at his instance that the economist Alan Walters was brought back from the United States in January 1981 to provide her with a source of independent economic advice.

More crucial still was Sherman's suggestion in November 1981 that the CPS commission an independent study of the reasons why sterling was riding high, to the detriment of British industry. The Swiss monetarist Jürg Niehans was invited to Britain and his conclusion, that monetary policy had been too tight, came as a nasty blow. The report played a major part in determining the nature of the 1981 budget, which in turn laid the economic and political foundations for the successes of the Thatcher years.

Alfred Sherman was the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia and his upbringing in the East End of London was a key factor in making him a Communist. From the Worshipful Company of Grocers Hackney Downs Boys' School, he went to study Chemistry at the Chelsea Polytechnic, but abandoned it in 1937 to fight in the Republican cause in Spain. Captured by Franco's Italian allies, he was repatriated in 1938. During the Second World War he fought in the Middle East, served in Field Security, and put his command of languages to use in the administration of enemy-occupied territories. He helped organise the police in Libya, where he mastered Arabic.

Studying at the LSE after the war, he was expelled from the Communist Party in 1948 for deviationism - he refused to change his mind about Tito's Yugoslavia. A brief period teaching after graduating in 1950 prefaced a journalistic career that took him via The Observer to Israel where he worked for the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz. It was in Israel that he developed a taste for advising on free market economics, becoming an adviser to the General Zionists Party.

Returning to Britain to write leaders for the Jewish Chronicle in the early Sixties, he was recruited by The Daily Telegraph as its first local government correspondent in 1965. He wrote leaders for the paper from 1977 until 1986 and trenchant pamphlets about local government also flowed from his pen. He also served as a councillor in Kensington and Chelsea, 1971-78.

His writings brought him into contact with Sir Keith Joseph, who became an admirer, and Sherman was drawn into his early campaigning for economic liberalism, first as a critic, then as a supplier of draft speeches in the late Sixties.

Although Joseph was to excoriate himself for apostasy during the Heath government, in fact he remained a closet economic liberal, and Sherman's role in conversations that took place in February-March 1974 was to spur Joseph into campaigning for his views. Sherman persuaded him to create the CPS and was the main author of a series of speeches that followed its inauguration and which put economic liberalism back on to the political map. As Joseph observed, Sherman's "fecund mind supplied the 'prism' through which he saw political reality" and his ability to think in headlines was invaluable.

On 5 September, at Preston, Joseph delivered a key speech, "Inflation is Caused by Governments", that was in every sense Sherman's work. It attracted massive press attention, ranging from two pages in The Sun to a full reproduction of the speech in The Times. The Times's editorial, " The Sharp Shock of Truth", concluding that the main line of argument was "unquestionably right", recognised the seminal nature of the speech.

Joseph's ability to fight for the leadership was fatally compromised by his gaffe at Edgbaston, but Thatcher, who had been drawn into Sherman's February conversations, took up the cudgels. To the fury of his increasing number of enemies, amongst them most members of the Shadow Cabinet, once she had become leader in 1975 Thatcher turned again to Sherman for advice and many an argument ended in her irritating rejoinder, "But Alfred says . . ."

After 1979 it was altogether different. Sherman's memoranda seemed all too dismissive of genuine political difficulties and his habit of publicly venting the same criticisms that he privately urged upon Thatcher alienated her staff. His "Stop-Go Monetarism" in The Observer, which cogently argued that without public sector reform the Government's policy might amount to no more than an old-fashioned squeeze, particularly angered them. But it was the decision of Hugh Thomas (appointed CPS chairman in 1979) in October 1983 to subordinate the CPS to the Government that precipitated Sherman's downfall.

Sherman had conceived of the CPS as a political organisation designed to give the ideas formulated by the Institute of Economic Affairs political force and through trail-blazing expand the scope for Thatcher in particular to put forward the policies she knew to be right. Thomas's decision would in effect end that role. Sherman protested and received what he described as a "virulent" letter effectively dismissing him.

Perhaps because Thatcher retained an exasperated affection for him and was reluctant to see him go, he took a sabbatical, becoming a Visiting Fellow at the LSE, 1983-85. But he was forced to stand down as Director of Studies at the CPS a year later and in 1986 he lost his platform at the Telegraph, dismissed by Max Hastings on his first day as Editor. A knighthood was scant consolation.

The remainder of Sherman's life seemed a long diminuendo, punctuated by efforts to find a new political patron. He found himself increasingly ignored by former colleagues. Asked in 1987 whether Sherman still had the Prime Minister's ear, Norman Tebbit replied, "Not if she sees him coming, he doesn't." In part, this was because he had caused immense embarrassment to the Conservative Party by an ill-judged attempt to bring the French Fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen to speak to a fringe meeting at the party conference. The Conservative press turned on him and he was damned in The Sunday Telegraph as "ego-maniacal, spiteful, obsessive, prone to temper tantrums which would disgrace a three-year-old".

There was some truth in the gibes. Generally urbane and formidable in argument, he could lose it, and his outspokenness where immigration was concerned went well beyond mere tactlessness. His deep contempt for the English political establishment was vented in pungent, almost brutal phrases, and he found it hard to maintain friendships. A brilliant conversationalist with a sharp wit, he could be charming, but he could also be insufferable. Most of his relationships were destroyed in venomous quarrels for which he was largely to blame. These were the product of an inability to compromise that made him at times seem surprisingly naïve and his suspicion of arguments, other than his own, was carried over into suspicion of those who put them forward. His anger was born of deep frustration, and shrewd friends allowed for that.

Sherman did himself no favours by his support of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 1993-94 and legend has it that he was dismissed as an adviser for his extremism. His interest in the Balkans continued and he accepted the chairmanship of the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies in Arizona in 1995. He continued to write, his more substantial publications including a reappraisal of Arab nationalism and, more predictably, Capitalism and Liberty (1989).

In 2005, after three years' hard work with Mark Garnett, he produced a memoir, Paradoxes of Power: reflections on the Thatcher interlude, a title that reflected his bitter conclusion that the ground she had won from corporatism and collectivism had all been lost. Baroness Thatcher attended the launch and observed generously but justly, "We could never have defeated socialism if it hadn't been for Sir Alfred."

The only problem with that statement, as far as Sherman was concerned, was that he did not think they had won.

John Barnes

John Barnes's scrupulous obituary of Alfred Sherman lacks one or two horrors to which as a Daily Telegraph colleague, over seven years, I was witness, writes Edward Pearce.

Like many former Communists, Alfred moved a ferocious way to the right without ever becoming any sort of liberal. The word "racist" is over-used, often directed against mild, grumbling prejudice. Alfred Sherman was the real thing. I recall two particular remarks from editorial conference: "the American Negro army" (said in furious contempt) and "Where I was brought up, there was Irish all round and we knew they was inferior".

His dishonesty over money was a standing joke, every Friday being marked by a huge and improved expenses claim, which the Editor, Bill Deedes, let through out of tolerance and for amusement. A claim of £2 for the cloakroom at the Reform Club which does not now, and did not then, charge for its cloakroom, merely illustrates a comic and brazen rapacity.

On one occasion he turned on someone who had rebuked some awfulness of his, with the snarl, "You are an anti-Semite." He got the reply, " Alfred, you confuse the particular with the general." There was indeed, as John Barnes suggests, something sad and pitiful about him, but he was still a monster.