‘In office, but not in power’. It seemed unlikely that anything ever said by Norman Lamont would make history, but this phrase from his resignation speech struck a chord. A common charge against Labour governments throughout the century has been that they have been at the mercy of other people’s power; that the combined influence of hostile bankers, businessmen, judges and media moguls ‘blew them off course’, as Harold Wilson put it. When the Tories are in office, all those bankers and businessmen and judges are their friends. There’s no need or inclination to blow them off course. Then suddenly comes Norman Lamont’s shock claim, greeted by prolonged and fervent ‘hear, hear’ from the Tory benches.
Disgruntled Tory MPs like to look back to the ‘good old days’ when their government was in charge, when ministers, under the firm and purposeful leadership of the Great Boadicea, decided what they were going to do and did it. In those days, so the story goes, ministers had no truck with pettifogging officials. The old restrictive bureaucracies and quangos were thrust aside while the Thatcherite Imperative dominated Whitehall. Labour government of drift and decay had been supplanted by Tory government of determination and vibrancy. Why, they ask, can’t we go back to those happy bygone days when so much was accomplished?
No junior minister more aptly represented that mood than the patrician Thatcherite Alan Clark. A big landowner, a poor QC and a minor historian, the jolly Clark decided to write a diary while in office. From 1983 to 1991, during which time he occupied three offices – Under Secretary at the Department of Employment, and Minister of State at Trade and then Defence – he jotted down his thoughts, frustrations and ambitions.
The diaries owe their success to Clark’s fantastic conceit. He is, he informs us, and he is being quite serious, ‘great and gifted’. His mighty ego can easily accommodate self-criticism, which is engaging, sometimes even charming. But its chief merit is its utter contempt for civil servants, businessmen, military officers and almost all Clark’s colleagues, especially those who from time to time get in his way. Discretion is not Clark’ s strong point, so his diaries are a wonderful feeding ground for scavengers of political gossip.
How did this swashbuckling, damn-the-bureaucrats, independent-minded minister manage to get on in the Grand Years of the Thatcher Revolution? On his own admission, hardly at all. He was, in his own phrase, ‘tortured by impotence’. At the Department of Employment, for instance, there is no measure of any significance which he can call his own. Much of the time he was fiddling around with the unemployment figures, with the single aim, as he disarmingly admits, of bringing down the figures without bringing down unemployment. His attitude to schemes to help disabled people get jobs could probably be best summed up by Enoch Powell’s famous youthful poem:
I hate the ugly, hate the old
I hate the lame and weak.
‘The buzz theme was “the disabled”,’ Clark writes.
But why? It’s the able I want to get back into work. If civil servants think their career prospects are centred round what they can do for the disabled, that is what they will focus on. But it all causes long-term dilution. Society will become an inverted pyramid with the whole load of pensions, benefits and hand-outs for minorities being carried out by a few tough and house-proud workers. That is the kind of thing I went into politics to stop. And here I am going round saying yes, yes: well done keep up the good work. Gloom, frustration.
There were three years of this. Clark’s ambition to get the ‘able’ back to work was nowhere near being achieved, and is never again discussed in his diaries. There is one troubling moment when he brushed aside his Civil Service advisers and got out of his car to talk to a group of unemployed demonstrators.
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, considering what Soames and I can spend between us on a single meal at Wiltons.
There was nothing he could do for that man, or anyone like him, so what was the point of being a minister? Clark’s scintillating reply was usually ‘saying brush’ (according to the Clark family, if you walk where the public can see you saying ‘brush’ under your breath your features compose themselves into an attitude of benign concern). Clark himself, who never stops boasting of his vast wealth and his four houses – disclosing at one stage that he has £700,000 in a savings-bank account, and complaining at another that at a top people’s dinner party, his wife ‘ranked no more than equal third on the carat count, though she was wearing both the leaf diamonds and Aunt Di’s necklace’ – must have benefited enormously from his government’s consistent cuts in personal and progressive taxation. But the additional riches did not help him to achieve anything in his Department.
He hated the Department, partly because he was not interested in other people’s employment but mainly because of his political impotence. When he became Minister of Trade in 1986, he found a cause he thought he could champion. A group of animal-lovers in an organisation called Lynx lobbied him about the fur trade. Some animals whose furs were used for people’s clothes, they explained, had been trapped by the leg and died in pain and misery.
The minister was even more distressed than he had been by the sight of that sick and unemployed demonstrator. When his civil servants advised him to have nothing to do with the fur lobby, he reacted furiously and immediately ordered them to draft an Order which would ensure that all furs which had come from animals caught in leg traps should be labelled accordingly. The Order became a special hobbyhorse, a touchstone of his independence and will. He resolved to drive it through the House of Commons against all odds. If ever there was a Minister determined to demonstrate that he was in power, not in office, this was Alan Clark promoting his Fur Order.
On 8 January 1988, after nearly two years as Minister of Trade during which he had achieved just about nothing, he whined in his diaries: ‘I never want to see Plymouth’ – his constituency – ‘again. Sometimes I think that all I want is to stay in office here long enough to get my fur legislation onto the statute book ... Makes me feel I’m doing something really worth while. Fuck them.’ Fuck them indeed, but only up to a point. Six months later on 14 June 1988, he trumpeted:
We are now poised to put in place my personal chef d’oeuvre, the Fur Labelling Order. It has to lie on the table for a month, and then a brief debate in the House after ten, and if necessary a perfunctory whipped vote on a two liner. I have devoted enormous energy and time to this measure, and it is a purely personal triumph over lawyers, ambassadors, civil servants in several departments, including my own, Eskimos, furriers, ‘small shopkeepers’ – they have all been in and alternately (sometimes simultaneously) threatened and cajoled.
That very day all this great mountain of effort, independence and defiance was blown away in a single puff. Clark was summoned to the Great Presence in Downing Street, where his heroine told him he was being soppy and sentimental about animals and uncharacteristically silly about the huge commercial profits from trapping animals by the leg. After a spirited resistance of about forty minutes, Clark collapsed. ‘Well if that’s what you want, I will obey you,’ he said, adding, as he flung himself out of The Presence like a schoolboy taking his bat home: ‘I wouldn’t do it for anyone else.’
The fate of the Fur Labelling Order reminded me of Tony Benn’s dedicated efforts, while Postmaster General, to cut the Queen’s head off postage stamps. At the time it seemed to him an important gesture, not to republicanism (he was not yet a republican) but to the common sense of the common people – and the furtherance of postage stamp design. He fought for his measure every bit as relentlessly as Alan Clark fought for animals in leg traps. He took on civil servants, Post Office mandarins, and was even prepared to defy the Queen herself. Then one day Harold Wilson summoned him and put a stop to the whole business. The Queen’s head remains to this day. In Tony Benn’s memoirs it is difficult to find a single other achievement dating from his time at the Post Office to compensate for the stamp fiasco.
If Parliamentary government is so transparently impotent, even on small matters, what entices great patricians like Alan Clark to take part in it? The answer, which, as ever engagingly, he gives without a trace of embarrassment, is ‘swagger and ponce’. He loved the trappings of power, even if he never came anywhere near power itself. So his diaries tell us nothing about real politics in the Eighties. Instead they are taken up with the petty feuds of office – which can be as contradictory as they are amusing. When Tom King came in as Secretary of State for Employment over Clark, the junior Minister bridled. He regarded his new master with contempt. This contempt continued until July 1989 when Clark read in the papers that King was to be Secretary of State for Defence. As usual, his concern was for himself: ‘For God’s sake, any idea that I will do Defence Procurement under that man is OUT,’ he wrote. ‘And I will give the lady my reasons. I’d really rather be back on the estate.’
An upper-class Englishman was giving his view of having to work in a junior capacity for a career politician whom any decent castle-owner could spot at once was a ‘wanker’. As always, he was true to his word, especially where ‘The Lady’ was concerned. A few days later he got a phone call from her:
‘Alan, I want you to go to Defence.’
I said nothing. Her voice flattened in tone. ‘As Minister of State’.
‘Who is going to be Secretary of State?’
‘Well, don’t tell anyone because it hasn’t been released yet, but Tom is coming back form Northern Ireland to do it.’
‘I’m sorry Prime Minister but I can’t work with Tom. I went through all that when I was at the DE, I can’t do it again. He’s too ghastly.’
‘I know what you mean, but he’s much better now.’
‘I just can’t do it, I’m afraid.’
‘Alan, you always wanted to go to Defence. I’ve stood out to get you this job. You can’t let me down by refusing.’
‘Oh, all right then. Prime Minister, thank you very much.’
Yet again Clark’s defiance was on a short lead. During his time under King, his diaries complained ceaselessly and bitterly about King’s indecisiveness. Almost all Clark’s energy was absorbed in finding petty ways to outsmart his Secretary of State. Yet when Thatcher was in peril and the Right was looking for a compromise candidate, Clark came up with a grand idea: Tom King.
The impotence of office is full of such ridiculous shifts in personal loyalties. When Clark first mentions Bruce Anderson, the corpulent former editorial executive on the Telegraph, he describes him as a ‘fat creep’. This assessment was not unrelated to something unflattering Anderson had written about Clark’s prospects. When he wrote something ‘more perspicacious’ (i.e. leaked by Clark himself), Anderson rose in stature and became a guest at Clark’s Saltwood Castle and at the Beefsteak Club.
Being impotent in office is ridiculous enough; reporting it is entirely trivial. Even papers like the Financial Times were used by Clark and ‘my old friend and stand-by for many a dirty trick, Jonathan Aitken’ (currently Minister for Defence Procurement) as fodder for their own inspired gossip and intrigue. When Lord Young first threatened to become Secretary of State for Employment, Clark and Aitken leaked the story to the FT, thus hoping, to do the new Secretary down. When Young got the job nevertheless, Clark, needless to say, took to him at once When there was even, more important business to be done – such as rubbishing the Heseltine campaign for leader in 1990 – Clark, the tycoon James Goldsmith and the zoo-keeper John Aspinall arranged a dinner with Conrad Black, owner of the Telegraph, to try to persuade him to order his (entirely independent) editor to stop backing Heseltine. Black refused, but we are left in no doubt that it is at dinner parties such as these that important editorials are conceived.
Did Alan Clark do a single thing in nine years’ office of which even he would be proud? Probably not. His real claim to fame was saying in the Matrix Churchill trial that he had been ‘economical with the actualité’ when persuading machine-tool manufacturers to sell arms to Iraq under false descriptions. His own attitude to these matters is well summed up in a conversation about the Supergun with the very right-wing junior minister Michael Fallon. Fallon’s view was that Britain ‘should be making them – the Superguns – and selling them to everyone’.
‘For nearly two years,’ Clark reveals, ‘the FCO section of Cabinet minutes was a long moan about how the Iraqi army was on its last legs, and the Iranians are going to get through. Now it turns out that there are more Soviet tanks there than in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia combined.’ It was no doubt those Cabinet minutes and the attitude they conveyed which led to so many arms going to Saddam by order of the government which made the laws and embargos they were breaking. Once again, the dashing wealthy patrician independent Minister was powerless to do anything about what was going on – except expose it.
Will he tell the full truth to the Scott Inquiry into Iraqgate? He tells friends that he only confessed at the Matrix Churchill trial because he was on oath and because Other people’s liberties were at stake. That sounds like a bit of self-justification after a rather uncomfortable cross-examination in which he was forced to spill the beans by the sheer logic of his answers and by the disclosed government documents. His instinct in these matters should, I suspect, be assessed in the light of one of the flashes of insight he sometimes has into his own personality – when, for example, he speaks of himself as experiencing a bit of Führerkontact (his own delightful phrase) or harks back to the exhilarating days of honour under the Third Reich: ‘Personally I don’t give a blow. Lie if necessary.’