1990s >> 1999 >> no-1142-october-1999

Greasy Pole: Alan Clarke – gladly missed

It was never easy to upset Alan Clark but somebody once managed to do this when they called him a fascist. To be clear about this, Clark did not object to being known as a racist bigot. It was just that he regarded fascists as shopkeepers who were concerned about their profits and he was above such vulgarity. He was, he said, a Nazi.

A comment like that tells us all we need to know about the late MP for Kensington and Chelsea and about his contempt for the person on the receiving end, who was no less than the editor of the Daily Telegraph. He was a vain and self-absorbed man who constantly fretted about himself—about his workload, his fellow MPs, the shortage of his favourite vitamins. He operated on the principle that an assumed superiority to the majority of people gave him the right to be rude, cynical and bigoted towards them—and that they would not only accept this but admire him for it.

Well perhaps he was right; after all he was wealthy enough to get away with such behaviour. How else to explain the fact that during his life so many people fawned on him and that when he died they queued up to give vent to their shock and grief? “A national treasure,” wailed the Scotsman: “An exceptional man,” grovelled Labour’s champion spin doctor Alistair Campbell: “A doughty parliamentarian, an accomplished historian,” burbled Margaret Thatcher (one of the very few Clark genuinely liked). But—as we might have expected—leading the field for gut-wrenching sycophancy was Tony Blair: “. . . kind and thoughtful . . . a complete one-off and above all his own man. We will all miss him,” raved the Labour leader.

Moral Standards
Perhaps Blair had forgotten that only a few days before this he had spearheaded his government’s latest stunt—a drive to raise “moral standards” in this country, which promises to be aimed against impoverished workers who try to get by through crime or young girls who get pregnant before they have so much as stepped onto the treadmill of working exploitation. The drive will not be directed against rich philanderers like Clark, who took open pride in his reputation as a compulsive ogler, groper and seducer of women, a man who, when asked about his notorious affairs with a married woman and her two daughters, was unflinchingly contemptuous: “I should be horsewhipped” he sneered.

Blair’s expressed admiration for Clark being “his own man” should not be taken as heralding a change in policy, to encourage any independent thought among the Labour benches. What possible reason can there have been for all those extravagant tributes to the dead Tory? Was he really worth such a fuss being made over his memory? As a politician Clark was pretty small beer. Although he rated himself as clever enough, in the way politicians have to be, for one of the top ministries (he assumed he would fill the vacancy caused when the equally obnoxious Nicholas Ridley had to resign over some leaked injudicious comments about the Germans in Europe) he never rose higher than a junior minister. Perhaps, for his own peace of mind, that was just as well because even at that he resented the work which went with the job. His diaries are littered with sour complaints about the red boxes which had to be cleared and about the civil servants who arranged his timetable for him (although they were, after all, only doing their job; if they hadn’t done it they would have been condemned along with all the other “wankers”).

Selling Arms
As Minister for Procurement at Defence Clark saw nothing wrong with the sale to Iraq of British-made arms which were later used against British soldiers in the Gulf War. Nothing wrong, either, with selling weaponry to the Indonesian government to be used in East Timor. All of this, said Clark, was a good advertisement for the deadly efficiency of “our kit”. Well after all this is capitalism; what do a few thousand lives matter when there is a healthy profit to be made? In the infamous Churchill Matrix scandal he at first encouraged the company (who of course wanted some of that healthy profit) to break the embargo on selling arms to Iraq then watched while they were prosecuted for doing what he had urged on them. Being Alan Clark he then wrecked the whole thing by giving crucial evidence which ensured their acquittal. There was a grisly kind of consistency in all of this: as Norman Tebbit observed he “. . . really did not care what people thought of him or what he said or what he did”.

Clark’s high reputation as an historian is, to put it mildly, charitable since it rests almost entirely on one book—The Donkeys—which is interesting but little more than a shallow exploitation of the then fashionable tendency to expose the cruel incompetence and complacency of British generals in the First World War. His account of the German invasion of Russia—Barbarossa—is tedious and unsatisfactory in its failure to give the war there any real historical perspective. Appropriately, it has been almost forgotten; there are better works, by more competent writers, on that excessively gruesome episode in capitalism’s history.

And what—as if it matters—about Clark’s aristocratic assumptions? What about his moated castle in Kent? His homes in Scotland and Switzerland? His collection of powerful, expensive cars which he drove at speeds careless of the safety of anyone else who happened to be on the road at the same time? He relished the sneer about Michael Heseltine, that he was a man so unaristocratic that he had “bought his own furniture”—as if proper blue bloods like Clark had had their stuff in the family for centuries. The truth is that the Clark fortunes originated in the money made by his grandfather in the thread trade in Scotland. From that the family acquired it all—the castle, houses, cars, furniture, paintings, aristocratic pretensions . . . From the exploitation of the workers in Paisley Clark could be sent to the poshest school in the land; he once said he quite understood football hooligans because he had played the Eton Wall Game.

So this exceptionally obnoxious man was just another fraud. Parliament, among other places, is full of them, peddling their particular deception to sustain a social system which by any human standards should be abolished without delay. All that can be said for Clark is that perhaps he was an unusual fraud, who had the knack of stimulating admiration for behaviour which does not often expect to be tolerated. Capitalism endures through a massive defrauding of its people, as evidenced by the fact that so many of them accepted the self-assessment of Alan Clark as a bit of a rogue, the kind of person they would all like to be if they were rich enough. Which says a lot about this social system and how it operates and what it does to people.


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