Alfred Sherman and Margaret Thatcher

Alfred Sherman: the original Downing Street maverick

The rise and fall of Dominic Cummings recalls the role of another eccentric who changed British politics

Artillery Row

One Conservative MP, delighted to learn of the political fall of Dominic Cummings, suggested that British politics had never seen anyone like him and thankfully would not do so again. Except possibly in a limited sartorial sense, he was mistaken.

Cummings’s independence of mind and clear strategic grasp, combined with his abrasiveness and his readiness to insult enemies in high places, recall the remarkable career of Alfred Sherman, another Westminster maverick who could claim – as he frequently did – to have changed the direction of British politics. When Sherman died in 2006, The Daily Telegraph obituary described him as “the most eccentric, and certainly the most contradictory figure ever to have been a leading adviser to a senior politician”.

Without Cummings there would probably would have been no Brexit, no Tory victory at the polls in 2019, no Boris premiership and no serious attempt to reform the civil service. Without Sherman, there would have been no Centre for Policy Studies, which played a key role in the Thatcher revolution, and probably no Thatcher, at least not the Thatcher who had the confidence to reverse British decline, rather than seeking to manage it like her predecessors.

Sherman was very willing to extend his contempt to anyone he deemed mediocre or second rate

His role, though indirect, had played a crucial role in the outcome of the contest for the Tory leadership in 1975. For Mrs Thatcher had no need to spell out her political creed; she simply let it be known that on such matters she entirely agreed with Sir Keith Joseph. The latter’s cogent and powerfully argued speeches delivered during the previous 18 months were almost entirely written by Sherman (some of them going through more than a dozen drafts before Joseph had the confidence and courage to deliver them). These rejected neo-Keynesian economics and the political “middle way” in favour of the market economy, monetary discipline and a more limited role for the state. “If it wasn’t for me, Mr Heath would still be the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition”, Sherman was apt to repeat in the wake of Thatcher’s victory.

It was Sherman, an ex-communist born to poor Russian émigrés in Hackney, who persuaded Joseph to create the Centre for Policy Studies of which Mrs Thatcher became co-chairman. Before doing so Joseph had sought permission from Heath, explaining that the Centre’s purpose would be to find out why Britain’s economic performance lagged. This was probably one of the few occasions in his life on which Joseph told less than the truth.

Contrary to the impression they like to create, think-tankers, like those who were to run CPS, do not sit around waiting for great thoughts to occur. They already know what they think about the issues that concern them and seek to encourage others to think the same way. Grasping little of this – the political think tank was then a relatively new phenomenon – Heath gave his approval, believing that the Centre would turn out to be a harmless intellectual toy and even nominated his own man, Adam (later Sir Adam) Ridley as his representative on the CPS board. When Sherman gave me a job as his researcher shortly after CPS opened for business in 1974, his first instruction was that I should ignore Ridley. As Heath was to learn, instead of turning out to be a harmless distraction that would keep Joseph out of the headlines, CPS turned out to be the intellectual base camp for a determined assault on the policies followed by his government.

Not surprisingly, not all Joseph’s former cabinet colleagues shared his views about the harm caused by their actions in office. Joseph invariably treated them with respect, though spending nearly all of his time at the Centre’s then office in Wilfred Street, rather than at Tory central office or the Commons may have irritated them. But the tensions between the Tory “wets” who favoured prices and incomes policy, state intervention to save lame duck industries, and a softly-softly approach to trade union reform and the “dries” who, like Joseph opposed all of these things, grew throughout the period of opposition and continued into government in 1979. In their intensity these very much resembled the fraught relations between Leavers and Remainers thirty years later.

Sherman’s most frequent targets were Heath, Jim Prior and Chris (later Lord) Patten, then director of the Conservative Research Department, but he was very willing to extend his contempt to anyone he deemed mediocre or second rate, which in Sherman’s views included most of the Tory front bench.

Unlike Cummings, Sherman was not a campaigner and had not much aptitude for political intrigue

Joseph liked to test views against those he thought would disagree over lunch at CPS, but if Sherman was present, they were unlikely to get an easy ride; unsurprisingly several declined to come back for a second mauling. When Richard (Lord) Kahn, Keynes’s venerable collaborator, visited CPS he seemed reluctant to say anything remotely controversial. But when he finally did so Alfred responded: “That remark would not be worthy of a five-year-old child.” Joseph was quick to admonish Sherman, but the latter followed up his insult with another: “In Turkey they have a saying: the old fish rots from the head down.” Sherman was multi-lingual, speaking five languages fluently, but it became clear that many of the foreign sayings which he used to adorn his remarks were his own invention.

The briefing meetings which I attended ahead of Joseph’s public speaking engagements came as revelation. I had assumed that Joseph would indicate what line he would follow and what underlying research would be required to support his arguments. What actually happened was that Alfred would tell Joseph what he ought to say, often illustrating his advice with reference to mistakes by Joseph when a minister. Joseph seldom disagreed.

I often left the meetings feeling guilty that I had enjoyed Alfred’s showing off. It was a mark of Joseph’s humility and decency that he put up with it. I remember thinking that in some ways the two resembled Don Quixote and Pancho Sanzo, only their roles had become strangely muddled. It was the small squat Pancho Sanzo-like figure of Alfred who tilted at the windmills of political or economic error, while the knight of the woeful countenance trailed behind.

When leader of the opposition Mrs Thatcher, who was initially wary of Sherman, perhaps suspecting that he could land Joseph into a great deal of trouble, would later cook lunch for him at her house on Flood Street as he wrote drafts of speeches from which she exacted “golden nuggets.” Richard (now Lord) Ryder, then Mrs Thatcher’s political secretary, told me that she had a special office drawer in which she kept what she called “Alfred’s bon mots.”

Sherman was widely believed to have prompted Thatcher in a television interview in January 1978 to say that she would never allow Britain to be “swamped by immigrants.” Her words were said to have brought William Whitelaw to the brink of resigning as shadow home secretary. But they also ensured that ordinary voters would trust Thatcher on immigration and that widespread concerns on the matter would not boost the prospects of the BNP.

Thatcher took what she wanted from Sherman without incurring the risks that would have resulted from giving him a job

Unlike Cummings, Sherman was not a campaigner and had not much aptitude for political intrigue; his interest was in ideas and policy and the relationship between the two. The crucial difference in their respective positions following the success of their political champions was that Mrs Thatcher, being somewhat more astute than the present prime minister, declined to give Sherman a position in government. She took what she wanted from him without incurring the risks that would have undoubtedly resulted from giving him a job. Joseph, who served as Secretary for Industry during the first Thatcher administration, likewise, declined to put him on the state payroll.

This did not mean that Sherman’s usefulness ceased. For a while he continued to contribute to Mrs Thatcher’s speeches and the new Prime Minister continued to take his telephone calls. John (later Sir John) Hoskyns, the first head of the No. 10 policy unit who greatly admired Sherman was often a willing conduit for Sherman’s ideas, agreeing with Ian Gow, then Mrs Thatcher PPS, that “no conversation with Alfred is ever a waste of time.” The numerous CPS policy groups set up by Sherman also fed in ideas to the policy unit or directly ministers, several of which became policy.

Later, Sherman was instrumental in bringing back Alan Walters from the US to act as Mrs Thatcher’s economic adviser. She was also indebted to him for one other important favour: Sherman was among the first to realise that sterling’s high exchange rate in 1980 was the result of unnecessarily tight monetary policy. This had succeeded in bringing down inflation but at a high cost. With the help of and others he commissioned Jurg Niehans, a leading international Hoskyns authority on monetary policy based at Berne University to look at the figures. Niehans confirmed Sherman’s suspicion. The result was that policy was gradually relaxed, but without the admission of error. Needless harm had been caused, but thanks to Alfred, further harm was avoided.

Despite his continuing influence Sherman (later to be rewarded with a knighthood) strongly resented the fact that he had been denied a senior government post and the perks that went with it. Relations with No. 10 deteriorated. Fame had come relatively late in life and Alfred found that he enjoyed it, feeling free to write articles critical of the government while presenting himself as a semi-official adviser to Thatcher.

Cummings thought Sherman “absolutely charming”, I had never heard him so described

In these circumstances relations with Downing Street were bound to deteriorate. When Sherman lost a power battle with Hugh (later Lord) Thomas, who at Alfred’s urging had become chairman of CPS in succession to Joseph, Thomas pushed him out. Mrs Thatcher declined to intervene. The outcome was not entirely surprising. During his regular conversations with Thatcher, Thomas praised her as a great leader and said he wished to place the services of CPS at her disposal. When he was able to get through to her on the telephone, Sherman pointed out her government’s failings and the inadequacy of her ministers while stressing that the value of CPS lay in his independence. I had left the Centre by that stage, but my sympathies lay with Alfred.

Sadly, Sherman also broke with Joseph. When I met Joseph shortly after he moved from Industry to Education in 1981, I asked him whether he now saw anything of his old friend and ally. “Alas! I am not worthy of him,” he replied. In 1987 when asked whether the prime minister still saw him, Norman Tebbit, then party chairman, replied: “Not if she sees him coming first.”

In 2003, some years after Alfred’s influence had faded, Cummings telephoned me to say that he would like to meet Sherman, then in his early eighties and in retirement. I arranged for the three of us to meet at Alfred’s London flat where he greeted us warmly as Lady Sherman poured drinks. I feared the two might clash, but they got on extremely well as Cummings sought out Sherman’s views which, it transpired, were rather like his own.

Both expressed a contempt for the metropolitan elite which they blamed for Britain’s ills, articulated a dislike of the BBC and the EU, and felt that the civil service pursued its own interests and was very bad at delivery. Cummings seemed much taken with Sherman’s idea of creating a new think tank which would examine the roots of nationhood and the various threats thereto. As we walked back to West Ken tube station, I asked Cummings what he thought of Sherman. “Absolutely charming,” he said. I had never heard him so described.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover