BOOK REVIEW : Rich coves in tweed suits


Andrew Marr
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:39

At the corner of any worthwhile gathering of the Conservative Party in the Eighties, you would always be likely to find a small, rotund, faintly scruffy figure, often in a mustard-coloured tweed suit, with his head cocked to one side and an enigmatic smile. Lord (Alistair) McAlpine was Treasurer of the party from 1975 to 1990, Deputy Chairman for four years, and a devoted Margaret Thatcher man throughout.

McAlpine always seemed consumed with boyish glee at the tricks and insidery games of high politics, a man whose contacts were excellent and whose demeanour was faultlessly irreverent (except about Her). He was one of the faintly mysterious rich coves who was always buzzing back from Venice or turning up at soires with other rich coves in the glitzier London hotels. From time to time he would try a bit of journalism, and now writes a column about salerooms for the Spectator.

And that was about that. Then, rather unexpectedly, he wrote one of the great accounts of the Thatcher years. The Servant was written in the chirrupy form of a Machiavellian guidebook to politics, as from an advisor to "the Prince" (who was, transparently, Lady Thatcher). It was - well, thoroughly unsentimental is perhaps the most tactful description.

Now McAlpine is back with another sideways-swipe at the Tory years. This time his Lordship has gone for the epistolary novel, a sequence of letters from a veteran office-holder at Tory Central Office to his rather nasty, thrusting nephew. The letters are rich in advice, some high-minded, some cynical, about how to get on in politics, and have a whiff of Lord Chesterfield about them. This is a book of political manners for our time.

But they also tell a story, as the nephew rises from the Oxford Union to the Commons and eventually to the highest office, while his sister marries and his adoptive sister falls into a life of vice and unpleasantness. There is a twist in the tail, which it is not the job of a reviewer to reveal.

How well does the conceit work? The device of seeing only the uncle's letters, and never the nephew's replies, allows the latter to develop as a shadowy and faintly menacing presence, about whom we are as knowing but also as ignorant as the uncle. There is a game going on with the reader, who is bound to be confused as to how much of the uncle / narrator is Lord McAlpine himself, and how many of the anecdotes, lunches and bon mots are the genuine article, mined from his years at Smith Square. There are savage attacks on a figure who is clearly John Major and there are unmistakeable references to real events, such as the resignation of Cecil Parkinson after the Sara Keays affair.

It is all pretty good fun. I liked the sententiousness of the uncle, and the mood of self-conscious grandness that reeks from the book, as it does from Central Office. There is a feeling of a curtain being briefly whisked to one side, behind which shadowy figures are engaged in a great and mysterious business, talking sternly to one another of Destiny and Leadership. It is hooey, but spicy and unusual hooey.

The problem is that the uncle is, in the end, rather long-winded and sentimental. The conceit might have worked better had the novel remained resolutely at the level of cynical revelation. Instead, there is a curious whisky-and-soda idealism suffused through the story, a yearning for some kind of perfect right-wing "Leader" who saves the Armed Forces, obliges everyone to drive electric cars and makes the law fair.

The Leader allows no trimming, doesn't make the mistakes Thatcher did, and is eventually brought down by smaller-minded Tories. The Leader seems to me to be a sort of fantasy-figure whom McAlpine would love to have served. And at the same time, the uncle's story is tinged with more than a little self-pity, which undermines his stern injunctions and way-of- the-world knowingness. We could have done with rather less of this stuff, and with a bit of cold-hearted subbing from some faintly clinical female editor at Faber & Faber.

This, though, is to carp. There are so many books about politics which are all the same - all those earnest biographies and memoirs and so on. Well, here is something utterly different, both quirky and serious, both light and yet curiously unsettling. I couldn't "place'' it, any more than I could ever quite place McAlpine himself; but I'm very glad I read it.

Andrew Marr

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