The memoirs of former Conservative party treasurer, Alistair McAlpine, reveal a politically shallow egotist. Bruce Anderson says he contributed far less to Thatcherism than he imaginesby Bruce Anderson / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Schizophrenia was crucial to Margaret Thatcher’s political genius. At moments she could seem suffocatingly conventional, as if she were the perpetual president of a Tory suburban ladies’ committee. Yet she was also in the grip of an endless dissatisfaction. As Lord McAlpine says, her lament was that “Every day (as PM) you are faced with a number of options, none of which is truly acceptable to you.” In order to widen these options, she would behave like Christ in search of disciples, summoning the most unlikely candidates in the hope that they could help her to transform British politics. None was unlikelier than the author of these memoirs.
Alistair McAlpine has some qualities. He is a generous host and an amusing companion. He has a magpie’s interest in the arts. His love of eccentricity and colour occasionally led him to connoisseurship, as in his patronage of Sydney Nolan. But he had no interest in building a serious collection; his current obsessions are “ties, marble beads and political badges.” Nor does he evince any interest in great art. He does, however, describe a distressing number of occasions on which objets d’art in his care were damaged, smashed or burnt. This is his abiding contribution to the art world in which he has spent much of his life.
Much of this book is a meander through galleries and wine tastings; it reads like an ill-edited review section in a weekend newspaper. But despite the flat prose and the illiteracies it must have undergone considerable sub-editing, as anyone who has read McAlpine’s journalistic copy in its original form will testify. Without the politics, this book would have been unpublishable. That said, it is the politics that make it truly worthless.
Until 1975, McAlpine had shown little interest in politics. He was a friend of Marcia Falkender; when she heard that he was going to work for the Tories, she told him that if she and Harold Wilson had known that he was looking for a job, they would have offered him one. Thatcher seems to have taken little notice of his views; she merely told him to get rid of his Mercedes and to take his hands out of his pockets. His job was, of course, to put his hands in other people’s pockets. She sent him to central office to raise money.
It is hard to judge how successful he was…