Obituary: Alan Clark

Alan Watkins
Tuesday 07 September 1999 23:02

ALAN CLARK was one of the most entertaining and original politicians since the Second World War.

Until the publication of his Diaries in 1995, he was chiefly known as a military historian. From 1983 to 1992 he was a junior minister in successive Conservative governments. He kept saying embarrassing things and yet managed to survive the various reshuffles in which his demise had been predicted by most political correspondents.

Clark was originally a minority sport - a gregarious and usually temperate figure who, despite his essay to the contrary effect in Secrets of the Press (to be published next month), positively enjoyed the company of journalists. He also liked shocking his fellow members of Brooks's and Pratt's clubs with his opinions. The Diaries transformed him, not perhaps into a national figure, but certainly into the best-known, most easily recognised Conservative of the 1990s apart from Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

This was so even though for five years, from 1992 to 1997, he was out of the House by his own choice. If the old music halls had still been in existence, there would have been derisive though admiring songs about him. As things were, he had to make do with the gossip columns. At 65, his age when the Diaries were published, he found he could command as much space as any pop star or supermodel, and more than any politician except Baroness Thatcher. All of a sudden, Alan Clark was News.

The book was certainly the work most revealing of the author and his party to have been published by a Conservative since the war. The great Labour diarists - Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Richard Crossman - tell us more about the confused workings of government. Clark suffered from a lack of access to the top. Though he adds to our knowledge of the fall of Lady Thatcher, he depends for most of his political information on politicians such as Tristan (later Lord) Garel-Jones and journalists such as Bruce Anderson, then of The Sunday Telegraph.

In most other respects it is a clear win for Clark. As in his clubland conversations, he said the unsayable. Thus Kenneth Clarke was a "podgy life-insurance-risk". The members of his local association in Plymouth were "boring, petty, malign, clumsily conspiratorial, and parochial to a degree that cannot be surpassed in any part of the United Kingdom". But contrary to the myth that has grown up, he did not accuse Michael Heseltine of having had to buy his own furniture. He merely recounted, with some glee, the gibe made by Michael Jopling, the former Chief Whip.

But it was not the politics, however indiscreetly dealt with, which made the Diaries sell. It was the sex. Clark confessed proudly to have been - as he more or less remained throughout his life - in a permanent state of what Calvinists call concupiscence. He admires the bra-less breasts of a pretty girl in the carriage of a train from Charing Cross. He invariably finds something to like about the young women who are his secretaries or members of his private office in Whitehall. After a hard day, he often takes them out to an Indian restaurant in SW1, though he neglects to tell us what happens afterwards.

Then there is "the coven", a mother and her two daughters. They make only a peripheral appearance in the book. But after publication the public relations impresario Max Clifford brought them over from South Africa, where they now lived, together with the father, who turned out to be a somewhat dingy former minor judge of pronounced right-wing opinions. The farcical episode only added to Clark's fame.

Like most dedicated womanisers, he suffered more rebuffs than he enjoyed successes. His opening gambit differed hardly at all from that employed by those well-known seducers of stage and screen, Leslie Phillips and the late Terry-Thomas. He would sidle up to someone he liked the look of at a party:

"Why, hello. Are you, by any chance, on your own this evening?"

"I'm with so-and-so over there, actually."

"What a pity. You see, I was going to ask you out to supper."

"It's very kind of you, but I'm having supper with so-and-so. I'm very sorry."

"You could always ditch him, I suppose . . . ah well, can't be helped."

And Clark would retire hurt - hurt but not humiliated.

At the same time he was a serious person with serious views. He appeared as eccentric as he did partly because of his exaggerated drawl - he continued to speak as Tory politicians had in the 1950s. It was partly also because of his desire to shock whenever possible. But it was mainly because those views had remained officially unrepresented by all three parties and by respectable opinion since the war.

And yet they were held by a substantial number of the population. They had been held too by several public figures of some intelligence: Lord Beaverbook, Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman, Enoch Powell, A.J.P. Taylor.

If he had been born 50 years earlier, he would probably have been a man of the Empire. In this age he was a little Englander, a not ignoble thing to be. He despised successive governments and in particular the Foreign Office for deluding themselves, seeking to exercise a power which no longer existed through the Anglo-American Alliance, Europe or both. He disliked the pretensions of the European Community or Union. He distrusted the United States. If he had been in the House at the time, he would have voted with the minority against the American Loan after the war.

He once discouraged a journalist friend from accepting a posting to Washington because the United States, he said, was a civilisation based on Chesterfield cigarettes and Coca-Cola. He would learn nothing of value there. He would be better off, Clark went on, working in Paris, Rome or Bonn. His friend went to Bonn.

He thought, as Taylor did, that the British were a superb people who had been led appallingly for most of this century. His last book, The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State 1922-97 (1998), had been intended to develop this theme. Unhappily it proved something of a disappointment, bearing the signs of having been rapidly written to fulfil a publisher's contract.

With Beaverbook and Taylor, he admired the Russians for their national character and their heroism in the war. His book Barbarossa (1965) remains a standard work on the Russo-German conflict. He regarded the First World War as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Here again he wrote a fine book about it, The Donkeys (1961), a history of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915. It so annoyed the military establishment, even 50 years after publication, that, when Clark was at Defence, trouble was taken to keep him away from direct personal contact with the generals.

In one respect Clark's views differed from those of the post-war political dissenters, with the exception of Powell: he also admired the Germans. While christening his rottweiler "Eva Braun" was an illustration of his doing something to annoy because he knew it teased, he possessed a genuine admiration for the Wehrmacht.

Indeed, in an article in The Daily Telegraph on the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings, he lauded the German troops at the expense of their British counterparts: undersized; unfit and - or so he alleged - cowardly. This article appeared shortly after he had been made a junior minister at Employment. It was predicted, as it was to be in succeeding years for different reasons, that he would lose his job. Nothing happened.

Clark was of a masochistic disposition. In late middle age he would, in his phrase "torture the body", virtually running up small mountains near his homes in Scotland and Switzerland to prove to himself he was still young.

Yet he hated cruelty to other people and was quick to spot it. This was why he disliked Eton so much, both when he was there and in retrospect. He also disliked the school because it was constructed around dishonesty, dissembling and sucking up to persons in authority.

He held much the same view about the Household Brigade, in which he had briefly served. His favourite service was the RAF. He had been a member of its auxiliary branch from 1952 to 1954. He used to say that when he visited the surviving bomber stations in the flatlands of Lincolnshire he had the same feeling as he had on the grassed battlefields of the Somme.

He hated cruelty to animals as well. It was for this reason - because he could visualise the horrors of the slaughterhouse - that he was a vegetarian. He was once being entertained to lunch by a journalist and ordered treacle tart for his first course, treacle tart for his second and treacle tart for his third. His host was both embarrassed and annoyed. He thought Clark was being affected; putting on a performance. Not so. He would have exactly the same supper, treacle tart three times over, with his fellow members at Pratt's on a Sunday evening.

His evident delight in shocking people was equalled by only one other post-war politician, Crossman. Immediately after the Brighton bomb he was entertaining Garel-Jones and another guest to supper in Brooks's.

"Of course, they'll get her in the end," Clark said. "They always do. She's a goner, I'm afraid."

"I'm sorry, Al, but I can't listen to any more of this. I'm off."

"Oh for Christ's sake don't be so fucking silly," Clark replied. "Sit down, please."

This Garel-Jones did. The ensuing conversation proceeded along the lines of who should succeed Margaret. Clark favoured Tom King, as he was to do at the famous Catherine Place meeting at Garel-Jones's house immediately before Thatcher's fall in November 1990. This was distinctly odd on Clark's part, for he had suffered at King's hands at Defence and held no high opinion of his abilities.

Later he switched his support to John Major, having flirted previously not only with King but also with David Young (even though he was a life peer) and David Owen who, he thought, would be the best Tory leader of all.

The last two years of Clark's spell at Defence were darkened or, depending on one's point of view, illuminated by the Matrix Churchill affair. Three senior executives of the company were charged with the illegal export of machine tools to Iraq. In their defence they claimed that the government, through Clark (then at Trade), had encouraged them to be less than frank when applying for export licences. They also claimed that Clark and his colleagues knew all the time that the tools would be used to manufacture arms.

In his evidence Clark virtually confirmed the defence case, adapting Sir Robert Armstrong's phrase in the Spycatcher affair by admitting that he had been "economical with the actualite". The judge assisted the defence further by refusing the prosecution's request to keep various documents secret. What complicated the case further still was that the principal defendant was an admitted agent of British Intelligence.

The case collapsed ignominiously. The result was that the Major government set up the inquiry into the export of arms to Iraq under Lord Justice Scott. He reported at length in 1996. He was by no means complimentary either to successive Conservative administrations or to Clark himself.

Clark lived principally at Saltwood Castle in Kent. His father, Lord, formerly Sir Kenneth, Clark, art historian and chronicler of the Gothic revival, arts administrator, most famously presenter of the television series Civilisation had purchased it from Lord Deedes's family after the Great Crash. The family millions came originally from Coats cotton in Paisley. One of the regrets of Clark's latter years was that he and his father had not so much disliked as been remote from each other.

He was sustained by his beautiful and saintly wife, Jane, whom he had married when she was 16 and just out of school. It was one of the better decisions of his remarkably full life.

Last spring Alan Clark at last decided he would unravel a second volume of his celebrated Diaries, writes Ion Trewin. The original, covering his years as a junior minister, had been published in 1993 to enormous critical acclaim and phenomenal commercial success.

Although he had been a writer before turning to politics, producing two novels in the early 1960s, it was as a historian that he first made his mark. The Donkeys caused a furore in military circles and became one of the major sources of the Joan Littlewood musical success Oh What a Lovely War!

He followed it with two Second World War histories, The Fall of Crete (1963) and a highly praised history of the Russo-German conflict of 1941- 45, Barbarossa, which was the first to draw on original Russian and German sources. More than 30 years on it is still in print, selling 5,000 copies a year. His illustrated book Aces High (1973), about the war in the air over the Western Front in the First World War, was another success and is being reissued this month in a new, re-illustrated edition.

But it was the Diaries for which he will be remembered as a writer. Here was the "Chips" Channon of his generation. A parliamentarian who wrote what he heard, saw and experienced. What made his Diaries such a success was the high quality of his writing - never better than in the "set pieces", as he called them, notably the moment early on in his ministerial career when he arrived at the Commons to present some arcane piece of business, but somewhat the worse for having enjoyed some exceptionally fine wines at a tasting earlier in the evening.

The accuracy of his account of the downfall of Margaret Thatcher was proved when in 1998 he came to write a new history of the Conservative Party and hardly had to alter a word.

At the time of his death he was at work on a second volume of diaries, covering the previous 10 years when he was first selected as the Tory candidate for the Sutton Division of Plymouth. The originals of his diaries were kept in his own hand, and well-nigh impossible for anyone else to transcribe. It remains to be seen whether they can be published.

Alan Kenneth McKenzie Clark, historian and politician: born London 13 April 1928; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1955; MP (Conservative) for Plymouth, Sutton 1974-92, for Kensington and Chelsea 1997-99; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment, 1983-86; Minister for Trade 1986-89; Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 1989-92; PC 1991; married 1958 Jane Beuttler (two sons); died Saltwood, Kent 5 September 1999.

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