On a Wasted Life    
    Ian Buckley on Alan Clark's Diaries and mainstream politics    

Harold Macmillan once commented that Tory Governments, formerly full of Etonians, were now full of Estonians. Alan Clark, however, was one of the last of the old Etonians, and his Diaries form one of the best glimpses of the real workings of politics and the transformation of the Tory Party indicated by the Macmillan quote.

Perhaps not all of the contents of the two volumes of Diaries are wholly truthful. To journalist Frank Johnson, Alan Clark is supposed to have said that:-

Yes, I told him, I was a Nazi; I really believed it to be the ideal system, and that it was a disaster for the Anglo-Saxon races and for the world that it was extinguished. Oh yes, I told him, I was completely committed to the whole philosophy. The blood and violence was an essential ingredient of its strength, the heroic tradition of cruelty every bit as powerful and a thousand times more ancient than the Judaeo-Christian ethic.'

The Guardian luvvies who get worked up about this sort of statement must presumably have never heard of the colloquialism 'wind-up'. Still, surely all will give their assent to one part of the statement at least: a disaster has indeed befallen the Anglo-Saxon races since 1945. In Britain a large part of that disaster, ironically enough, was created, or at best tolerated, by Clark's own party. "Throne, Altar and Cottage" have long since given way in that quarter to big money and spivy car or currency dealers.

Saw Tories as ridiculous

Clark was at least enough honest to admit that all the Tory claims to have halted the decline of Britain were frankly ridiculous, stating in one passage that, after several years in office, most things were worse than before the Tories started off.

When Jaguar was going under in 1986, he plaintively commented in his diary: "But what can we do? We just don't have the industrial or financial firepower any longer."

But contrary to Clark's contention, the real problem was, and remains, lack of will. Britain has been quite capable of mobilising itself for war, even if those wars were in general against its real national interests.

Though Clark had good friends among the trade union types of the Labour Party (ante phoney Tony) who appreciated his advocacy of protection, he was observant enough to realise that for all the lip-service to idealism, the same rules apply with Labour as the Tories:-

'They just want to do as little as possible, and be paid as much as possible for doing it. And who can blame them? Very little different from the standard chinless riff-raff who hang around Smith's Lawn.' (A reference to the area adjacent to the old Conservative Central Office in London's Smith Square.)

Any wonder then, given the limited mental horizons of these half-baked careerists, that the country sinks lower and lower? After coming back from Macmillan's memorial service, Clark jotted down the following memorable remark: "When Macmillan enlisted, Britain was at the height of her dominion and power... Now look at us - and them!"

Theme of decadence

From Clark's biting satire and 'factory' language, directed (mostly) against his own colleagues on the Tory benches, we gain the impression of a gang of inadequates being let loose on a wrecking spree. The Diaries' underlying theme seems to be of decadence and decay. Clark was obsessed by his own health, and compared a government post to purgatory or a prison sentence. He was at least sensible enough to prefer ogling pretty secretaries to concentrating on endless seminars or Japanese 'Inward Investment' and such like. But this adds to the feeling that Clark always kept the mentality of an over-indulged upper-class student.

That said, he deserved credit for being one of the first 'orthodox' politicians to question the raison d'être of NATO after the disappearance of the Soviet threat - always assuming that such a threat existed in the first place.

Clark learned early on the odd ways of the inhabitants of the dusty 'corridors of power'. The head of the Civil Service, Sir Robert Armstrong, asked to see him for an interview. Armstrong portentously warned Clark that, if the National Front should try to make contact: "You must inform my office immediately."

It is, of course, beyond the comprehension of civil servants like Armstrong to realise that while he and his ilk have been playing the inquisitor or witch-finder with people who hold alternative political views, their own labours have brought forth a crime-ridden, drug-addicted, poverty-stricken failure of a country, racked by ethnic and other conflicts. Truly, it would seem that these senior civil servants inhabit the cosy, smug, self-satisfied world of the Officer's Club on the Titanic!

This is well illustrated by one of Clark's own anecdotes:-

'There was a demo by the unemployed. Uglyish mood,... "I must speak to them." No, no, Minister, please don't try. Minister, you must not get out of the car. Please, Minister.

'Wretched people, they were angry, but taken aback by my actually dismounting to listen. Some SWP yobs tried to get a chant going, but the others really wanted to air their grievances. One man, quite articulate, looked dreadfully thin and ill. He had a nice brindle greyhound on a leash, but it looked miserable too. Gravely, I listened. At intervals I asked them questions. I told them that if there was no 'demand' no one could afford to pay them to make things. They quietened down. But that's a glib point really. It's foul, such a waste.

'Uncomfortable. I thought what Soames and I can spend between us on a single meal at Wiltons.'

PR idiocies

Alan Clark, too, was good at cutting through the pretence and public relations idiocies that present-day governments love to indulge in:-

'The subject matter is turgid: "schemes" whose purpose, plainly, is not so much to bring relief to those out of work as to devise excuses for removing them from the Register. Among my other responsibilities are "statistics", so it will be me who has to tell the House each month what is the "jobless" total. The Enterprise Allowance Scheme, the Job Release Scheme, the Community Scheme. Convoluted and obscure even at their inception, they have since been so picked over and "modified" by civil servants as to be incomprehensible.'

Overall, the Clark Diaries are a rewarding but ultimately sombre read, since the work is permeated by a sense of the failure of will of even the healthier elements in the 'establishment'. In addition, Clark stressed the unwieldy and antiquated nature of the government machinery itself.

As Clark himself finally came to realise, a career in the so-called mainstream parties is nothing more than a waste of time - and of life:-

'In a desk I had come across some of my father's old engagement diaries of the Forties and Fifties. Endless "meetings" fill the day. Civil servants drift in and out. Lunches. Virtually indistinguishable from my own. What's the point? Nothing to show for it at all. He will be remembered only for his writings and his contribution to scholarship. His public life was a complete waste of time.'

Diaries, by Alan Clark. Hardback £20.00 (Weidenfeld & Nicholson); paperback obtainable online at £7.19 from www.amazon.co.uk.

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