Alan Clark: the biography, By Ion Trewin

Reviewed,Andy McSmith
Friday 18 September 2009 00:00 BST

What a bare-faced hypocrite Alan Clark was. Here is the now-celebrated Tory MP, diarist, historian and philanderer, speaking in the House of Commons in 1975 in support of a bill to restrict women's rights to abortion: "Conception is the gift of God, and that what God gives only God can take away," he said. It was not just religion that motivated him; he also found pleasure winding up feminists who feared for those women forced to deliver unwanted children.

Now we learn from this biography by Clark's former publisher, Ion Trewin, that he had form. When Clark was 27, he "did not appear to see contraception as his responsibility", and made his teenage girlfriend pregnant. This was 12 years before the 1967 Abortion Act. Abortion was illegal for all but the very rich, who could afford to pay two psychiatrists to certify that childbirth might threaten the mother's health. Alan Clark was lucky. He was a millionaire's son. His rich parents came to the rescue quietly disposed of that little "gift of God".

Clark's reputation excites controversy even now, ten years after his death. Alastair Campbell remembered him as a loyal friend who "always cheers me up." Dominic Lawson powerfully ripped apart him apart in this newspaper earlier this week, calling him "sleazy" and "cruel". Ion Trewin is firmly in the "Clark was wonderful" camp, though in this exhaustive account of his old friend's life, which took five years to write, there is a wealth of evidence for the prosecution.

Trewin's generous faith in his subject extends even to taking Clark's word for it that he was not drunk on a famous evening, amusingly recounted in his diaries, when he struggled to read a ministerial statement from the Commons despatch box after he had been wine-tasting. Two Labour MPs there for the statement accused him to his face of being drunk, and millions who heard Clark's words broadcast on Radio 4 the next day were left with the same impression. But Clark, a man who by his own admission was "economical with l'actualité" when his career was on the line, denied it, and Trewin dismisses the story as a "legend".

He has good reason to remember Clark with affection, because he was the publisher who won the contract for Clark's Diaries, a bestseller which is arguably the 20th century's most readable insider's account of life in British politics.

The Diaries cemented Trewin's immense reputation in publishing, but that may have worked against him in the preparation of this biography. It reads as if nobody at Weidenfeld & Nicolson dared tell him that the book is too long, and its early chapters contain a blizzard of inconsequential information. There are 153 pages before Clark even begins writing military history, which is the first worthwhile thing he did in his life.

It takes until page 245 before he has found paid employment for the first time, as a Tory MP. This is a strange failing, because Clark's one indisputable virtue is that he wrote beautifully and succinctly, as Trewin was one of the first to recognise.

But his closeness to his subject has served a purpose, because it gave him access to family papers from which he dug stories not previously told. It may be for the sake of the author's continuing good relations with the Clark family that there is a curious absence of judgement in the way they are presented. Trewin has assiduously collected the judgements that others have passed on Clark, such as Professor Donald Cameron Watt of the LSE, who thought him an "arrogant, self-centred man who talks bollocks", without any hint that there might be something in what they say.

He reports without comment that Clark believed that he would have promoted to Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, as Defence Secretary, if only the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and her downfall had not got in the way. But he must know that Thatcher, like so many others, did not take Alan Clark half as seriously as he took himself. Trewin refers in parentheses to the fact that there is only one brief mention of Clark in Thatcher's comprehensive autobiography.

What he might have added is that she likened Clark to the porter in Macbeth, a comic, lecherous drunkard who brings light relief to an intense drama. She indulged him because of his almost erotic loyalty to her. It is suggested in this biography that Thatcher reminded Clark of his mother.

One previously untold story Trewin unearthed was Clark's infatuation with a woman, Alison Young, who worked for him late in his career, when he was almost three times her age. This can be read as a tale of late and unrequited passion, or as a particularly gross case of sexual harassment at work, depending on your point of view. We get an idea of what the woman thought from one of her letters, which Trewin reproduces without comment.

She told her pursuer: "I don't want to see you because basically I am sick of those pathetic scenes – schoolboy gloating, crude manhandling, the simpering and begging which is all an act... the two things that you value most – your ego and your money – mean nothing to me."

A more serious matter on which the author evades judgement is Clark's attitude to the Nazis and other extreme nationalists. Though most of Clark's life, it was suspected that unpleasant prejudices lurked behind the good looks, intelligence and pseudo-aristocratic charm. His admiration for Hitler's "brilliant" strategic vision is on record. The National Front hoped to recruit him. His last political campaign was in defence of Slobodan Milosevic.

If the suspicion ever crossed Trewin's mind that his subject was a covert Nazi, he does not let on, but he usefully records others' views on the matter, including that of Marcus Kimball, who knew Clark both as a contemporary at school and a fellow Tory MP: "He was very unpopular at Eton because he was a Nazi; no question about it. He supported the Nazi party."

There is also the verdict reached of John le Carré, whose friendship Clark courted, but who eventually could not put up with his boorish behaviour. "It was from my socially worm's-eye view a kind of repetition of what I had observed at Eton of the upper classes at play... the further you go, the further to the right you go. All of a sudden you are among the right-wing chosen and you are very, very close to fascism. That's where Alan was."

A very fine writer he may have been, but he was not a nice man.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in