He just didn't give a damn: Alan Clark's unattractive self-portrait masks a complex nature, writes Michael Cockerell

Click to follow
IN HIS scandalous diaries, published this week, Alan Clark reveals himself as a man covered with warts. But, as I discovered when making a television documentary about him, his self-portrait is misleadingly incomplete. The case against him is formidable. He is a social elitist, a white supremacist, who cheats on his wife and betrays the confidences of his friends. If there were nothing more to him than that, he should be pronounced guilty and consigned to oblivion. But he is a more complex and interesting figure.

For, both as a minister and today, Clark routinely deploys a devastating weapon that forms no part of the armoury of the two front benches. While they deal in evasions, lies and PR-inspired glossaries, Alan Clark usually tells the truth. Not all the time because he can be, in his own phrase, devastatingly economic with the actual ite. But he has always been prepared to talk openly, and in an engagingly self- deprecatory style, about how Whitehall and Westminster really operate.

Alan Clark never achieved his overriding ambition of making it to the Cabinet. But for most of the Thatcher government he was, as he puts it, 'in the loop'. As Minister for Trade and then as Minister for Defence, Clark used to attend Cabinet Committees and he had access and influence at the top. 'Margaret would always let me see her and she always listened,' says Clark. 'And if I rang her at Chequers or at Number 10 she would always take the call - and take it immediately.'

Yet, as a minister, Clark frequently expressed public dissent from government policy. During one Commons speech, he made clear that he was reading out a Civil Service draft which he opposed. 'Quite often I disagreed with government policy,' admits Clark. 'I think it is really too bogus if you don't let that show because it's unfair on the public. It's a travesty of democracy to pretend that 80-odd people in the government are absolutely unanimous about some particularly wasteful or idiotic measure - you must be allowed a little leeway.'

Clark has spent a lifetime seeking a little leeway. He is a throwback to the political style of past centuries, when MPs were wealthy enough to be their own men and not creatures of the party whip. Although Clark cheerfully admits his meanness about money, he is fabulously rich. Had he found this an advantage in politics, I asked? 'Oh yes, yes. You are independent. I was able to take far more risks because in the last resort I wasn't going to starve if I was sacked. And most ministers are so dreary that once they've been sacked they can't get any other job. It was an advantage to know that you could come back to Saltwood (the Kent castle where he lives) to do what you want and say 'stuff the lot of them'.'

Clark has a sense of history. The formative influence on his political views came 30 years ago when he wrote his book about the First World War, The Donkeys. With its scathing indictment of the callous and snobbish incompetence of the British generals, it inspired the film Oh] What a Lovely War 'I was horrified by what I found out when researching that book,' says Clark. 'I realised what hideous crimes had been committed by us on our own people - we just completely betrayed them. The betrayals of 1914-18 and the slump that followed it caused the masses to lose faith in the elite who were giving them such bad leadership.'

Clark went into politics feeling he had to make amends for the failures of his own ruling class. In social policy he shared the Tory paternalist impulses of Harold Macmillan. Clark was that rare phenomenon - a product of the Establishment who was not in thrall to its conventions. In many ways he resembles Tony Benn, the politician he most admires as a speaker in the House.

He loves the Russians yet hates the Americans. And Clark is passionate about wild animals: a proselytising member of the League against Cruel Sports, he has banned hunting from his estates in Kent and Scotland. As a minister he would often escape to his 27,000-acre Highlands estate to climb the mountains and talk to the animals.

Clark's sense of perspective enabled him to make what he sees as his greatest political contribution, the 1990 defence review. He wrote his version secretly and sent it to Mrs Thatcher, by-passing his MoD chief. Arguing that the Soviet threat was obsolete, Clark called for the most swingeing defence cuts this century: it caused apoplexy among the defence establishment. 'It was quite deliberately done,' says Clark. 'You have to state the extreme case. People shrink from that. But you have to set the poles and I did that - no one else would have done so.'

But Clark's capacity for thinking and saying the unthinkable worked against him. Although Mrs Thatcher would publicly describe him as 'my marvellous minister', and imply that she planned to promote him to the Cabinet, somehow she never managed it, much to Clark's chagrin. Perhaps it was his womanising, his maverick style and his capacity for landing himself in controversy that decided her against bringing a time-bomb into the Cabinet.

When she went, he went soon afterwards. His greatest achievement in government had been to make ministers and officials consider ideas rejected as outrageous by conventional wisdom. Upper-class Englishmen with cruel good looks and a social conscience are virtually extinct in John Major's classless Tory party. His government of grey under-achievers is my opically duller without an Alan Clark.

The author's film portrait, 'Love Tory', is on BBC 2 at 9.10pm tonight.

Robert Harris on Alan Clark's

diaries, Review page 31

(Photograph omitted)