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Tuesday, September 7, 1999 Published at 21:03 GMT 22:03 UK

UK Politics

Alan Clark - a unique politician

Alan Clark was politically devoted to Margaret Thatcher

Michael Cockerell, the reporter for the BBC TV documentary Love Tory on Alan Clark, remembers one of the Thatcher era's most colourful politicians.

Alan Clark was the only senior politician I have ever interviewed who would regularly cause my mouth to drop open with astonishment at the candour of his replies.

Michael Cockerell: "He was the opposite of a machine politician"
He was prepared to think the unthinkable and say the unspeakable about how Whitehall and Westminster really operate.

The last interview I did with him, just before his illness, has a particular poignancy today.

[ image: Clark's diaries proved irresistible reading]
Clark's diaries proved irresistible reading
He was talking about the effect of the death of John Smith on Labour politics: "It's a terrible thing to say about someone's heart attack, but that was the biggest stroke of quote unquote luck for twenty years in politics.

"It enabled Blair to come forward. And he was a phenomenon in the same way that Margaret Thatcher was a phenomenon - he brought something completely new to the political scene."

This was the highest praise, for Alan Clark remained a devoted admirer of Lady Thatcher.

Taking liberties with Margaret

Although he never achieved his overriding ambition of making it to the Cabinet, for most of the Thatcher government he was, as he put it, ''in the loop''. As minister for trade and then as minister for defence, Clark used to attend Cabinet committees and he had access and influence at the top.

''Margaret would always let me see her and she always listened,'' says Clark. ''And if I rang her at Chequers or at Number 10 she would always take the call - and take it immediately.

"And she let me take liberties. Other people at meetings would gasp and say ooh er, conceited little shit he's gone too far - but she liked it."

Living dangerously

Clark was prepared to live dangerously as a minister - and would go public with his dissent from the official line. "Quite often I disagreed with government policy, while I was in office" he told me.

''I think it is really too bogus if you don't let that show, because it's unfair on the public. It's a travesty of democracy to pretend that 80-odd people in the government are absolutely unanimous about some particularly wasteful or idiotic measure - you must be allowed a little leeway.''

Clark spent a lifetime seeking a little leeway. He was a throwback to the political style of past centuries, when MPs were wealthy enough to be their own men and not creatures of the party whip.

An independent politician

Although Clark cheerfully admitted his meanness about money, he was fabulously rich, able to live, as he put it, on the income from his income.

Had he found this an advantage in politics, I asked: ''Oh yes, yes. You are independent. I was able to take far more risks because in the last resort I wasn't going to starve if I was sacked.

"And most ministers are so dreary that once they've been sacked they can't get any other job. It was an advantage to know that you could come back to Saltwood [the Kent castle where he lived] to do what you want and say 'stuff the lot of them'.''

He also had the advantage of a wife who put up with what he called his "misdeeds and self-indulgences of very kind".

Love Tory

They began on their honeymoon, as I discovered when making the TV documentary Love Tory.

[ image: Clark remained married to Jane for nearly 40 years]
Clark remained married to Jane for nearly 40 years
Jane Clark admitted that one of Clark's girlfriend's, called Christina had joined them on honeymoon: "Yes she did, amazingly. But she was nice, the others have been pretty good rubbish since then.

"We could have had a Bunuel situation on the honeymoon and done away with him. I have often been tempted since.

"I did once actually throw an axe at him", Jane Clark continued: "And as it left my hand I hoped it would hit him.

"But it missed and I was glad my aim was so bad. I know he is an S-H- One-T. But I still think he's super."

I asked Clark how he thought his wife had put up with him over forty years: "It is easier if you know the person loves you," he replied. Jane put succinctly: "As he often says himself: ABL: Al's bloody lucky."

The Donkeys

Three years after he married Jane came one of the great formative influences on Clark's political views. In 1961 his book about the First World War, The Donkeys, was published.

With its scathing indictment of the callous and snobbish incompetence of the British generals, it inspired the film Oh! What a Lovely War. ''I was horrified by what I found out when researching that book,'' said Clark.

''I realised what hideous crimes had been committed by us on our own people - we just completely betrayed them. The betrayals of 1914-1918 and the slump that followed it caused the masses to lose faith in the elite who were giving them such bad leadership.''

Clark went into politics feeling he had to make amends for the failures of his own ruling class. In social policy he shared the Tory paternalist impulses of Harold Macmillan.

A passion for politics

Although a product of the Establishment, Clark was not in thrall to its conventions. In some ways he resembled Tony Benn, the politician he most admired as a speaker in the House, who paid tribute on Monday to Clark's maverick qualities.

For Alan Clark loved the Russians, yet hated the Americans. And he was passionate about wild animals: a proselytising member of the League against Cruel Sports, he banned hunting from his estates in Kent and Scotland.

As a minister he would often escape to Eribol, his 27,000-acre Highlands estate to climb the mountains and talk to the animals: 'Everything in politics is so instant," he told me at Eribol. "But here you can realise that we are all just grains of sand."

Putting the extreme case

Clark's sense of perspective enabled him to make what he saw as his most important contribution as defence minister - to the 1990 defence review.

He wrote his version secretly and sent it to Mrs Thatcher, by-passing his political chief, Tom King.

Arguing that the Soviet threat was obsolete, Clark called for the most swingeing defence cuts this century - it caused apoplexy among the defence establishment.

''It was quite deliberately done,'' says Clark. ''You have to state the extreme case. People shrink from that. But you have to set the poles and I did that - no one else would have done so.''

His greatest political gift was to make ministers and officials consider ideas rejected as outrageous by conventional wisdom.

Upper-class Englishmen with cruel good looks and a social conscience are virtually extinct in the Commons. And the political world is a sadder duller place without Alan Clark.

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