Clark confesses but Thatcher is speechless

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THE FIRST week into the new year and the virgin pages of a new diary. Will 1994 bring us anything to match the dashing diary with which Alan Clark enlivened 1993's obituaries to Thatcherism?

Almost all the authors of the counter-revolution that defined the Eighties have now published their memoirs, and they invite comparison with the diaries of the white-hot socialism from which these revolutionaries decided to save us.

The great diaries of Dick Crossman and Barbara Castle, covering the Sixties and Seventies, inaugurated a new kind of political literature. By comparison, the tone and span of the latest memoirs reveal the diminution of politics itself.

Crossman and Castle, deliciously candid in their day, presented politicians who were absorbed in an argument with their society and its institutions across a long frontier. The Tory texts, however, reveal a political caste which talks to itself, which inhabits a stage that is no longer society but only a small, central and secretive space.

What do these texts mean for their readers, for a nation now so becalmed, so estranged from the parliamentary caucus that now passes for politics? The answer is that the excitement has been about the personal rather than the political.

Amazingly, the most triumphalist government of post-war Britain is memorialised not in elegies and panegyrics but in testimonials that reprise the internecine skirmishes of the undead.

Newspaper serialisation reinvented these texts - the investment was in invective, in writing as revenge. The books themselves are less toxic and more turgid than the excerpts, although readers will mine Nigel Lawson's prodigious but sober chronicle of his chancellorship for the deep division and distrust it reveals among the trustees of Thatcherism.

Theirs was an ugly, autocratic church of promiscuous ministers bonded less by creed and the pleasure of a shared mission than by paranoia and a passion for power.

The exception to the turgid and toxic template is Alan Clark's Diaries, the only book that can be read as a popular text. Like Samuel Pepys, his triumph is precisely that he infuses the political with the personal.

Clark does this not just by personalising the political process, rendering ideological warfare into melodrama and institutional practices into cabals and coups. He does it by placing himself in his narrative as more than an agent of political change, as a subject.

Like Pepys, he is there, palpable in his class, his peccadilloes and passions, his penis, his castle and clothes, the weather, his masculinity, ambition and anxiety. In other words, he is there as himself. He is self-centred and self-indulgent, but he also positions himself as a man, and as a participant in something larger than himself.

He is impossible, a man who lacks the courage of his convictions, capricious and contemptuous, with a deficit of compassion, except for furry creatures.

His class contempt locates him in another era, when toffs could talk about the lower orders as the help, as hands, as a class with bodies but no culture or consciousness, a class that did not have to be reckoned with. He is, therefore, out of his time, clever but uncurious and thus a lesser man and a lesser minister than Pepys.

Of course, his contempt did not extend to the grocer's daughter. He remained loyal to her potency as a politician, as a focus for diverse fantasies about the nation and as a force that promised men the greatest aphrodisiac: power.

Before Margaret Thatcher, few men of her generation had to deal with a woman who had more power than a man. He loved her for the gift she gave him: proximity to power. He warrants only one mention, on page 853 of her memoirs, as one of her most loyal supporters in the days of her demise.

Where her text is grandiose, his is a fragment, a cameo. Where hers is closed, his is revelatory. Where hers is detached, his is partial and passionate.

Her memoirs are purged of her gender; in his diaries, his gender is central and celebrated. He does what women are accused of doing. She does what men do. But because she cannot speak of her gender, she cannot speak about herself.

Mrs Thatcher located femininity in defeat. As a daughter she honoured her father and repudiated her mother. As a politician, femininity was only what she wore, and masculinity was what she admired.

It was as a victim, not a victor, that she finally identified with other women and called upon the feminism she had scorned. In a poignant interview after she was ousted, she said: 'When a woman is strong, she is strident. If a man is strong, gosh, he's a good guy . . . Some of the things that have been said about me . . . but never mind.'

Even then she was lost for words. The most powerful woman of her time again animates her memoirs with her personal story only when she is in pain, defeated.

She reports in her memoirs that after Geoffrey Howe's deadly critique in the Commons in November 1990, she composed her absurdly inappropriate cricketing analogy: 'I'm still at the crease . . .' But she found that 'words now began to fail me'. She had no mother tongue. She could not speak as a woman, so she could hardly speak at all.

(Photograph omitted)