Sir Alfred Sherman
NOVEMBER 10, 1919 - AUGUST 26, 2006Political thinker who swung away from communism to become a leading adviser to Margaret Thatcher
ENFANT terrible and éminence grise of the Conservative Party in the mid and late 1970s, Alfred Sherman, a journalist, policy thinker and undeniable iconoclast, was a leading influence on Margaret Thatcher after she became party leader in 1975.
A former communist who had fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, Sherman had, between his late twenties and late forties, undergone a spectacular ideological conversion from the far Left to the extreme Right. Thus transformed, his zeal and determination proved decisive in moving the Tories towards policies that would have seemed impossibly right wing in the immediate post-war period.
Once Thatcher had beaten Edward Heath to become Tory leader, Sherman had been able to take advantage of the shock — and in some cases, temporary tactical paralysis — suffered by more orthodox political figures to become, briefly, an ever-present, all-purpose adviser and leading influence in her court.
Small of stature, a man who suffered few fools, he antagonised established Tories and the liberal establishment in equal measure. With a razor-sharp intellect and ardour for ideas that few could match, he was well equipped for colourful verbal indiscretion. Fundamentally, he wished to move the Tories from Heath’s corporatism to fresher, more daring policy territory. This he achieved by supplying Margaret Thatcher with a stream of provocative ideas countering the post-war Keynesian consensus. Accepted wisdom was anathema to Sherman: for instance the myth, as he saw it, that Britain’s welfare state was the envy of the world.
Alfred Sherman was born in 1919, a son to Russian émigrés. He grew up in an East End Jewish environment where, as he said, “you were born a socialist, you didn’t have to become one”.
He was educated at the boys’ school set up in 1876 by the Worshipful Guild of Grocers, later Hackney Downs. “In my schooldays, Hackney was considered a place of opportunity, full of immigrants who worked hard to make a success of themselves,” Sherman recalled. He praised the school’s discipline and the respect it required to be paid to its teachers — although “it was assumed that if you became successful you would move on. I left soon after my 17th birthday”.
He briefly studied chemistry at Chelsea Polytechnic but, “appalled by fascism”, he soon boarded a train from London with others determined to fight for the Spanish republicans. The move was emotional rather than ideological: Sherman had yet to read Marx. He recalled: “I wanted to do my bit.” He hadn’t told his parents where he was going.
After three weeks’ basic training he was sent into action; his capacity for Spanish and French came in handy. Asked for his view on shooting to kill, he once simply replied: “What’s a soldier for?”
He was back in the UK in 1938. The Republicans had been betrayed: “We were pawns in many ways. It took me nearly another decade before I realised what a cheat and liar Stalin was.”
Partly on the strength of his language skills, he served in the war in field security and the administration of enemy-occupied territories. Once back in civilian life he briefly became a school teacher — he later argued that the school-leaving age should never have been raised from 14 to 16; it increased delinquency rates — and studied at the London School of Economics. He also lived for a while in Israel, where he learnt Hebrew and met his future wife.
Returning to the UK he entered journalism, working on the Jewish Chronicle and, later, The Daily Telegraph in various roles, advancing to be a leader-writer. He developed an expertise in local government affairs, becoming in 1971 a Kensington and Chelsea councillor.
His left-wing days were now long past. Given Stalin’s atrocities, he explained, “people who would like to make the world a bit better switched”. As a writer he developed the tricks of what might be termed a right-wing version of a Marxist dialectic. His targets were the idiocies of municipal socialism, but also the ineffectiveness of Butskellite Toryism advanced by Heath and Harold Macmillan.
Having passed through journalism to the outskirts of politics, he had written speeches for Sir Keith Joseph before the latter returned to government in 1970. In 1974 Edward Heath’s defeat at the polls gave Sherman his great opportunity. Unfailingly theatrical, he made his way to Joseph’s home, where he announced: “Keynes is dead! Dead!”
Joseph agreed with Sherman that Tory policy had to be recast from its foundations — and that the existing Conservative Research Department was unlikely to achieve this. The two established a new think-tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. This, wrote Sherman, with his lyrical gifts now coming to the fore, would “question the unquestioned, think the unthinkable, blaze a trail”.
It was a heady time. Sherman described early 1974 as a “London spring” when even his foes admitted that the forces of moderate Toryism — shaken by their defeat at the hands of the National Union of Mineworkers — were made to retreat. The CPS generated a mass of speeches — many by Joseph — pamphlets and articles aiming to change the tramlines of debate in politics, business and academic circles.
Many hands were involved in producing these, but Sherman played the main part in provoking their authorship. One mishap for which he was probably not responsible, but for which he often stood accused, was writing a notorious passage in a Joseph speech citing potential damage arising from reproduction among the underclass. Joseph insisted that he had himself inserted the offending words.
Thus Thatcher, not Joseph, became Tory leader. At first sight Joseph might have offered better prospects, but even under Thatcher, who had a weakness for former socialist converts, Sherman’s influence was maintained.
She appreciated his rigour, depth of reading and inexorable clarity of view. For a while, to the fury of his many enemies, most of all her shadow ministers, he was her most trusted mentor. The two would have numerous and lengthy discourses while others waited to gain her attention. Even when they did they remained menaced by the rejoinder: “But Alfred says . . .”
Once installed as Prime Minister, however, she decided there was no place for him in Downing Street. He later wrote, miserably, that even by 1979 her reforming zeal had been ‘diluted’ by the Tory grandees. The election victory, he continued, “placed her in the hands of the Civil Service and the Establishment”.
With no formal Whitehall role, he lost influence, although he did help to bring Sir Alan Walters, her closest economic adviser, into government service. In 1983 Sherman was knighted — a recognition of a unique contribution, but a signal, too, of his limited acceptability in a more staid ruling environment.
Eased out of the CPS, he argued that thinking the unthinkable receded within Tory fashion because it posed a challenge that “a complacent government was starting to find irksome”.
But he always knew that once frontbenchers had regained their poise after the shock of defeat in 1974, his role as generator of ideas would ebb. Trying to sell a minister a policy was “like trying to sell condoms to an impotent man”.
Indefatigably, he entered two decades of opposing much of government policy — either Tory or new Labour — on issues including education, race relations, and what he described as a wrongful hue and cry for rail subsidies. Water privatisation, heavily opposed by the Left, was, he said, “never properly thought through”. It contained “the seeds of a new corporatism”.
He became a professional lobbyist, unashamed if his views seemed eccentric or if his clients were unfashionable. He was not wholly excluded from Thatcher’s governing circle: he was sent to Central America as her personal emissary to monitor Nicaragua’s Government, and was received at Ronald Reagan’s White House. Thatcher also made a significant effort to attempt to help with his pension arrangements.
He embarrassed her when in 1986 he championed a controversial visit to the Tory conference by Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, which was called off only when Le Pen declined to attend. In the 1990s Sherman advised Radovan Karadzic and, yet more controversially, Ratko Mladic. During the 1999 Nato Kosovo campaign, he flew to Belgrade to attack Western policy.
Sherman claimed “a crucial role” in Thatcherism’s most formative period yet complained he was “air-brushed ” out of The Downing Street Years, the autobiography of Thatcher’s premiership. However, when in July last year he launched his memoirs, Paradoxes of Power: Reflections on the Thatcher Interlude, Lady Thatcher attended. She told fellow guests: “We could have never defeated socialism if it hadn’t been for Sir Alfred.”
His first wife, Zahava Levin, died in 1993. They had one son. In 2001 he married Angela Valentina Martin.
Sir Alfred Sherman, co-founder of the Centre for Policy Studies and leading thinker of the early Thatcher years, was born on November 10, 1919. He died on August 26, 2006, aged 86.