Paul Foot

‘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.

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