Alan Clark: Bounder beyond the grave

By rights his fleeting fame should have been buried alongside him. But in death his reputation as a lovable rogue has taken on a life-force of its own. So what is it about the former member for Kensington and Chelsea?
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Nobody is more "ex" than an ex-MP. Therefore a middle-ranking minister in a failing Tory government, who gave up his seat in the Commons more than a decade ago, ought by any normal reckoning to be a long-lost particle down in the dustbin of history. Yet Alan Clark - diarist, philanderer, historian, politician, racist and rake - is with us still, more alive than any of the contemporaries who outclassed and outlasted him in the slippery game of politics.

True, he wears a different face now - that of the actor John Hurt, who has brought him back to life in the television series that opened on BBC4 last week. The real Clark might not have liked the way he has been made to look, since he was obsessively vain about his physique; but he could not complain about how Hurt has captured his character - the arrogance, the spoilt-little-rich-boy cynicism, the insecurity, the self-debunking humour and saloon-bar charm are all Alan Clark as remembered by those of us who knew him.

In reality, the Rt Hon Alan Kenneth McKenzie Clark died from a brain tumour in September 1999, aged 71. His political career should have ended at 64, when he gave up his seat in Plymouth Sutton, not only walking away from the voters who had kept him in office for 18 years, but also gratuitously insulting their "introspective, minuscule horizons" as he left.

Add to this the revelations of sexual peccadilloes and of being drunk in charge of a ministerial announcement at the Despatch Box - revealed in the first volume of his diaries, published in 1993 - and all doors back into politics ought, logically, to have been closed for ever. In fact, he was able to charm his way into Parliament for a final two and a half years as MP for Kensington and Chelsea. He died a marginal figure in a marginal political party, yet his death was treated almost as an occasion for national mourning, and his celebrity has endured since, raising the question - Why?

Clark was quite good at several things. He established himself as a historian in 1961 with The Donkeys, which lionised the soldiers and debunked the officers of the First World War. The book inspired the stage production Oh! What a Lovely War. Clark hated it. He did not want any part in the Sixties anti-war movement. Nor did he have the intellectual seriousness to be an establishment figure like his art historian father, Kenneth Clark. It is his notoriety that keeps his history books in print.

Alan Clark was also quite good at being a politician - better than he pretended to be. In his time, the Conservative Party was torn by a feud in which old Etonians and sons of peers were on one side while on the other were the upwardly mobile daughters and sons of tradesmen. Despite his rich, ennobled father and his Eton education, Clark was shrewd enough to pick the winning side. His ambition to be a Cabinet minister was unfulfilled, though Margaret Thatcher liked him. The trouble was he was too easily bored by the tedious detail of political administration, and too much of an attention-seeker.

As a diarist, his reputation rests on one volume, In Power 1983-1992, which owes its success to being beautifully written and expertly edited, and to what it reveals of Clark's own scandalous life. As an insight into the political process, it is far inferior to the diaries of "Chips'' Channon, Richard Crossman and many others. The two volumes of Clark diaries might not have made it into print on their own merits.

There was also an unpleasant side to Clark's character. How his wife, Jane, put up with all his philandering is a mystery whose explanation resides in far-off days when women stayed at home and kept their mouths shut. She has claimed in a recent newspaper interview that some of her husband's boasted sexual conquests, like the celebrated quickie on the train home with a Folkestone shop girl, never happened. Even if she is right about that, she certainly endured 41 years of marriage to a selfish, serial philanderer who somehow escaped being classified under the heading "sleazy Tory" to join the nation's list of "lovable rogues". Other Tory ministers paid a heavy political penalty and incurred enduring public contempt for cheating on their wives on a far less grandiose scale.

Somehow, he pulled off the same trick with his extraordinary appearance in the witness stand at the trial of three executives from the Matrix Churchill engineering firm, when he insouciantly admitted that he had been "economical with the actualité". The nation forgave him because it is assumed that politicians lie and therefore it was refreshing to hear one of them say so. It was also the case that his evidence had the satisfying effect of destroying the case against the businessmen. But the offence to which Clark so cheerfully owned up was that, as a Defence Minister, he allowed British firms to supply weaponry to Saddam Hussein's ghastly regime in Iraq - and lied about it. The consequences are still with us.

Worst of all, there was Clark's racism, which slipped out most memorably when he described Africa as "bongo bongo land". Yet even that has somehow survived under the heading of "incorrigible" or "politically incorrect". In last week's episode of the televised diaries, the audience was invited to laugh along with good old Alan when a stuffy civil servant drew his attention to the praise he had received from the British National Party.

How did he pull off this trick?

The answer is that Clark, or the image he has left behind, is not a man of his time. He was in politics in an era when the sands were shifting under society. With his castle in Kent, his Bentleys, his unearned wealth, and his snobbery, he resembles someone from the Thirties. His clashes with civil servants arise from the social awkwardness that existed between a relaxed aristocrat and disciplined, work-driven professionals. His racism is the condescending racism of Evelyn Waugh, which is so much less threatening than the council-estate assertiveness of the BNP.

If Clark seems less dated than his contemporaries, it is for the same reason that people prefer Waugh or Anthony Powell to post-war novelists. We like, it seems, being taken back to the days when Britain was great and everyone had their place in the social order.

Except that Clark was a phoney aristocrat. Compare his life story with that of the legendary Daily Telegraph journalist Bill Deedes, who really can claim to have stepped out of an Evelyn Waugh novel. The Deedes family had old money, but it ran out. They sold their castle in Kent, and Bill had to go to work as a journalist and be the inspiration for the novel Scoop.

Into that same castle moved the Clark family, with its 19th-century money, of which there was enough to let Alan ape the behaviour of the old aristocracy. His snobbery is that of an arriviste. One of the most famous comments in his diaries and often attributed to him, comes when Michael Heseltine, the self-made millionaire, is contemptuously described as a man "who bought his own furniture". This insight into the mindset of old established families wasn't Clark's. It was something he overheard and wrote down. But then someone striving to be a toff can be more entertaining than the genuine article. Like a lot of celebrities, Clark was very good at one thing: he was good at pretending to be Alan Clark.