Sunday, 20 September 2009

So how did a fascist become a national treasure?

I enjoyed reading the Alan Clark diaries back in the 1990s. They merit their classic status, in capturing a political age, while the dramatic descriptions of the plotting in the final days of the Thatcher premiership mean they are a historical document which will endure.

As Robert Harris writes in his Sunday Times review, "the universal acclaim for the high literary quality of his diaries, transformed Clark’s reputation. From sinister, adulterous crypto-fascist he morphed into lovable, roguish national treasure".

And yet Ion Trewin's authorised biography may be becoming the occasion for a reversal in reputations, with several reviewers focusing less on the personal infidelities for which Clark became renowned as on the extent of his fascist sympathies.

Dominic Lawson led the way, putting Clark bang to rights in a devastating Independent column last week. But this is also a theme followed up by Edwina Currie in The Times, and in Robert Harris' Sunday Times review too.

This is the Alan Clark conundrum: how were literary talent, and a reputation as an entertaining and incorrigible rogue, enough to make a national treasure of a man who made little effort to hide his pro-fascist views? After all, Clark gained Ministerial Office, and was even able to return triumphantly to the House of Commons in 1997 before his death.

The reviews do not seem to particularly depend on new material in the biography: Edwina Currie writes of Clark's attitude to Hitler and the Nazis that "Trewin barely touches on this aspect and dismisses it too lightly" and Andy McSmith suggests that the biographer evades judgement on this issue.

But Clark set out a good deal of the case in his own diaries - though the pro-Nazi and National Front sympathies were much more candid and explicit in the volumes which were published posthumously. While politically active, his racism was more often of the casual "Bongo Bongo land" type, though he did state quite explicitly in 1971 that the Ugandan Asians should simply be told "You cannot come here because you are not white".

I remember how the early years 'into politics' diaries were often candid about his sympathy for the argument and cause of the National Front - such as his telling his local Tory officials in Plymouth that the NF would never stand a candidate against him "because they know I'm the nearest thing they're likely to get to an MP'. (Chatting with two local NF activists, he muses "How good they were, and how brave is the minority, in a once great country who keep alive the tribal essence").

A quick Google search to get that quote right throws up Andrew Marr's Observer review from 2000, which offers chapter and verse on Clark's frustration at the idea that he was not serious in his pro-NF and pro-Nazi sympathies, as people "take refuge in the convention that Alan-doesn't-really-mean-it. He-only-says-it-to-shock, etc"

Edwina Currie writes

His attitude to Hitler and the Nazis, however, put him beyond the pale, and to many of us it was a mystery how he ever came to be made a minister. It was more than being anti-Europe and pro the white races. This is a politician who, early on, considered standing for the National Front, who loved the musical Cabaret for the wrong reasons, who quoted Mein Kampf with approval, and whose wife’s rottweilers were named after Hitler’s mistress, Hitler’s pilot and Leni Riefenstahl ... At a 1981 dinner Clark informed the German woman beside him that Hitler was ahead of his time as a vegetarian, “as in so many other things”; the poor lady protested in tears. On July 20, 1989, on a ministerial visit to Poland, he skived off to the “Wolf’s Lair” at Rastenburg to celebrate the Führer’s escape from the July Plot. He believed that Churchill should have made peace with Germany in 1940; he kept a signed photograph of Hitler in the Saltwood safe and would consult it in moments of stress.

Harris quotes from the new biography:

John le Carré, who knew him well for a couple of years in the 1960s, told Trewin that Clark was “very, very close to fascism. That’s where Alan was… He fascinated people because he actually had a potential for evil which was very unusual… He wasn’t just a rake. I think he had a capacity for violence”.

And Maurice Kimball, a contemporary of Clark's at Eton who went on to be a Tory MP, tells Trewin that.

"He was very unpopular at Eton because he was a Nazi; no question about it. He supported the Nazi party."

Forty years on, Clark is insisting to Frank Johnson:

'Yes, I told him, I was a Nazi; I really believed it to be the ideal system, and that it was a disaster for the Anglo-Saxon races and for the world that it was extinguished ... Oh yes, I told him, I was completely committed to the whole philosophy. The blood and violence was an essential ingredient of its strength, the heroic tradition of cruelty every bit as powerful and a thousand times more ancient than the Judaeo-Christian ethic.

So that schoolboy enthusiasm for Nazism does not ever seem to have been repudiated - and its relevance is surely heightened since Clark was eleven years old when war broke our in 1939 and seventeen when it ended in 1945.

While Winston Churchill was deservedly voted greatest Briton, it does seem that we have, in Alan Clark, the very curious case of Britain's most feted Nazi.


alunephraim said...

I suppose it's the "har, har, har - what a card" thing that allows people to conveniently overlook the fact that someone is a complete shit. There may also be an element of assuming that his disgusting views were just jokes - after all, they were so cartoonish that it must be pretty easy to presume that, if you want to.
What I dislike, though, is the class element. Were it to emerge that a Labour politician from a working class background (Roy Mason, say) had the same sort of views and wrote about them at length in a diary... the reaction would be quite different.

The History Man said...

Darkness has a way of entering the light and becoming seductive. We accept things that we wouldn't normally if they are well camouflaged. Who is behind this? Whoever it is wants mankind to forsake their values and do it in a way that is natural and unobtrusive. Very intelligent, or seems to be. Alan Clark came into the light and people were fooled by the rhetoric. Was he intelligent. Yes! The power behind him assisted him in his timing, and we bought it.

The History Man