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The Audacity of the Man : MRS. THATCHER'S MINISTER: The Private Diaries of Alan Clark, By Alan Clark (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $30; 421 pp.)

October 02, 1994|Nigel Nicolson | Nigel Nicolson was a member of Parliament in the years after World War II

Alan Clark, having achieved only junior ministerial rank under Margaret Thatcher, is now as famous in Britain as any of the leading members of her Cabinet. How so? First because he has publicly told unpleasant truths about the sale of weapon-making machinery to Iraq shortly before the Gulf War, and this will soon result in a crisis for John Major's government. Secondly because he was cited a few months ago as the lover of a judge's wife and her two daughters, simultaneously. And above all, for the publication of these diaries for the years 1983-91, when he was at the center, if not at the top, of British government. They form the most indiscreet, the most readable, the wittiest record of how modern politicians actually behave.

He is not a maverick nor a libertine. He is a man of sharp intelligence, unusual literary gifts, abounding energy, great wit and a capacity for scorn that rivals Pontius Pilate's. He is that rare person who never shirks the truth. Almost any other man would have been flattened by the judge's revelations. Clark simply admitted them, and it was the judge who was made to look foolish, while Clark turned to more important things, like climbing mountains on his Scottish estate, racing his old roadsters and writing up his latest escapades for eventual publication (one hopes) in another installment of his diary.

He has now left politics. He entered the House of Commons with Mrs. Thatcher, and left it with her, but without the peerage she achieved. He adored her, and she to some extent returned his admiration, relishing his audacity, his delight in political maneuvering, his ambition and his courage, all qualities she shared; but not his amateurishness, his dilettante style, his longing to escape the political treadmill for the Alps or the moors, for she was a workaholic with no outside interests, while Clark had many, not least the company of attractive girls.

His father was Kenneth Clark of "Civilization," to whom Alan was never close, and who died, according to his son, "poisoned" by his second wife. Alan inherited a great art collection, a castle in Kent and a fortune that enabled him to take risks with his career that poorer men would avoid, like publishing these diaries. He doesn't care that at the next dinner party he attends (for he is still very sociable) he might meet an ex-colleague whom he describes in the diary as "a sanctimonious little creep," or John Major's present chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, "a pudgy puff-ball," or the Prince of Wales, "pretty useless," or King Hussein of Jordan, "that oily little runt."

"I like to shock," he writes, but he was also capable of great affection, particularly for his admirable wife Jane to whom these confessions (they can scarcely be described otherwise) are dedicated.

If it were all vituperation and self-aggrandizement, the book might become tedious. It is not. It describes from the inside, but not the innermost, the drama of British politics during those nine years of Thatcher's premiership, when Clark was successively the middle-ranking minister for employment, trade and defense. It was the period of the Falklands War, the Gulf War and of Thatcher's brutal removal from Downing Street. At first Clark, new to office, was alternately bored and scared, as in war, but as his confidence mounted, he threw caution to the winds, achieved some successes, suffered some devastating setbacks and rode politics like a roller coaster, hungry for publicity and fame:

"How I do enjoy my job! And how full of vitality I feel. . . . So where do I go from here? The objective must be now--and I mean now, very shortly, July at the latest--to displace the Secretary of State" (June 22, 1990).

Of course he never did. Most men, if bold enough to publish their diaries so soon after the event, would omit or amend such passages. Not so Alan Clark. His honesty in publishing equals his honesty in writing. He wishes us to share his ambition, his gusto, his defiance of convention, his amusement at the caprice of life.

You do not need to read this book straight through nor be familiar with the grammar of English politics. All you need is an understanding of human nature and a wish to share with Alan Clark the belief that nothing is shocking except cruelty. Otherwise anything goes: Brazen is best. A politician must be as unlike a bureaucrat as possible. He must ski and drive and climb at speed, outsmart a rival, succor a lame duck, act contrary to all advice, break precedents, never fear to insult, never stoop to flattery and, if a conference drones on and on, always look forward to the possibility that there might be a pretty girl at the reception.

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