Dodging national service: a dishonourable tradition

Alan Clark has been exposed for failing to don khaki when it was required of him. But he was far from alone, reports Andy McSmith

Having already been exposed as a lecher, liar, snob and Nazi sympathiser, it was difficult to imagine that the former Conservative defence minister Alan Clark could have had any secrets left in his scandalous life that would lower his reputation any further. But now his official biographer Ion Trewin has turned up documentary proof that, as a young man, Clark dodged the draft.

Previously, his deeply flawed character was reckoned to have had two redeeming features – he wrote beautifully, and he had a real empathy with the ordinary serviceman. As a military historian, he popularised the phrase "lions led by donkeys" to describe the men who fought in the trenches in the First World War.

But when it came to experiencing the discomfort and monotony of military life for himself, the young Alan Clark, whose family was extremely rich and well connected, found a way out. As a schoolboy at Eton, he joined a training regiment a short walk away in Windsor, which he left before he went up to Oxford University. Three years later, he used this short, painless encounter with military life as a pretext to get himself exempted from National Service.

"It's dreadful," the former defence secretary Denis Healey, who served in the army throughout the war, told The Independent yesterday. "It shows that he was even more of a twister than he appeared. He always tried to present himself as some sort of military hero."

His widow, Jane Clark, who came from a military family, told the Sunday Times: "If I had known, I would probably have lined him up against the wall and shot him for deserting."

Though Margaret Thatcher never took Clark seriously, she did reward his loyalty to her by giving him a succession of junior or middle-ranking government jobs. The one he enjoyed most was his post as defence minister.

Before he became a minister, Clark made a name for himself as an outspoken champion of the armed forces. During the Falklands war, in 1982, he gave so many interviews, and was so gung-ho, that the journalist Alan Watkins named him as "the leader of the war party".

One of the few obscenities in the celebrated political diary that he kept in the 1980s is a passage about the defence secretary, John Nott, who was trying to pare down the defence budget. "That fucking idiot Nott and his spastic Command Paper," Clark wrote. Unlike Clark, John Nott did his national service, which included a long period in the Malaysian jungle with the Gurkha Rifles.

One comfort for Alan Clark's admirers is that he is not the only draft dodger to have got on in politics. Michael Heseltine, who rose to be defence secretary under Margaret Thatcher, did his utmost to avoid being called up, but was eventually ordered to report for duty.

He found it so dull that after nine months, he obtained leave to stand as a Tory candidate in the 1959 election, in a hopeless seat. When the campaign was over, he got his solicitor to persuade the War Office that he didn't need to return to barracks.

He could at least claim to have been in the army longer than the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, whose stint lasted two weeks. Richard Ingrams, who duly completed his two years of national service, claims Thorpe found an unusual way to escape the army. He said: "I was told by a very good friend that he wet his bed."

The film director Michael Winner, now aged 74, claimed in his memoirs that he wriggled out of national service altogether by pretending to be gay. He claimed that when the Colonel asked how long he had experienced homosexual urges, he replied: "About three months."

Harold Pinter, the future playwright, chose the more direct route of registering himself as a conscientious objector when he reached the age of 18. Bernard Crick, another intellectual of the same generation, made himself unavailable by going to study in North America.

Famous, or rather infamous, draft avoiders from abroad include Joseph Stalin, the future Soviet Generalissimo, who was declared unfit to fight in 1914 because one of his arms was shorter than the other.

The future US President Ronald Reagan was excused war service overseas because of his poor eyesight. Bill Clinton refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War, and George W Bush enlisted in the National Guard, a device often used by young men from influential families who wanted to avoid fighting in Vietnam.

National service

*National Service was introduced at the end of the Second World War to help look after Britain's interests abroad.



*Between 1945 and 1963, 2.5 million young men were called up to do their time. One of the main jobs was to help with the occupation of Germany and Austria, but Britain had a military presence in Palestine, Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong and other countries.



*Initially the public supported the idea, but by the end of its 18-year run, it was regarded as an annoying interruption of education, work and marriage plans.

Clark: man and myth

*Alan Clark spent his early life in the shadow of his famous father, Kenneth Clark, a multimillionaire lecturer and art expert. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he became Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1974, just before his 46th birthday, when he was already well-known as a military historian.



*He was on the right of the Conservative Party and adored Margaret Thatcher. He was a minister, but never a cabinet minister. His diary of the years 1983-90 were a bestseller. He left the Commons in 1992, returned in 1997, but died two years later from a brain tumour.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'